THE GUILTY (2021)

September 30, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Let’s start with this disclosure: the original Danish film from Gustav Moller was one of my top 5 favorite films of 2018. Even then, I fully expected an Americanized version to happen at some point. The surprise is having director Antoine Fuqua (TRAINING DAY, 2001) handle the remake. He’s known more for bombast and action, than the nuanced suspense delivered by the original. To offset this, Mr. Fuqua wisely chose the dependable Jake Gyllenhaal as his lead, and the talented Nic Pizzolatto (creator and lead writer of HBO’s “True Detective”) to adapt the screenplay.

Gyllenhaal never cheats the audience, and he dives into the role with his typical full force commitment. Except for a few blurry visuals of cars on the highway and the dramatic opening shots of the raging California fires, Gyllenhaal’s Joe Baylor is on screen for the entire run. He’s a detective on desk duty at the 911 call center pending his court case on charges that only become clear towards the end. Joe is also separated from his wife and daughter; a crucial element in how his shift plays out in front of us.

As we listen in on his first few calls, it becomes obvious how Joe’s time on the streets have fine-tuned his quick-to-judge persona. He’s not shy about telling callers their own choices are responsible for their current predicament. Just as he’s about to dismiss his latest caller Emily, his instincts kick in, and he discerns that she’s been abducted by her husband in a white van, and fears for her safety. This initial call between Joe and Emily is a work of art, and kicks off the nearly unbearable tension for the rest of the movie and Joe’s shift.

Fuqua and Pizzolatto infuse commentary unique to modern day America. The fires are always in the background impacting emergency resources, as well as the air being breathed. Police collusion and abuse of power are also an underlying aspect of what unfolds in front of us. Yet somehow, the film (perhaps accidentally) speaks to the immense pressure faced by law enforcement and how instincts and quick judgments are crucial to assistance and survival. Joe bounces from calm demeanor to explosive overreaction in the blink of an eye – or the beep of an incoming call. We witness how preconceived notions can lead one astray, even if they’ve worked in the past.

In addition to Gyllenhaal’s commendable performance, the film includes terrific voice work (via phone) from such actors as Riley Keough (as Emily), Peter Sarsgaard, Ethan Hawke, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Christiana Montoya, and Paul Dano. Adrian Martinez and Christina Vidal appear alongside Gyllenhaal in the call center, although the single setting contributes to this being mostly a one-man show.

We understand that Joe Baylor is seeking personal redemption in his all-out pursuit to save Emily, and one line in the film speaks directly to this: “Broken people save broken people.” If you haven’t seen the original, you are likely to get caught up in the tension, and ask yourself many of the same questions Joe is asking himself at the end. Gyllenhaal previously teamed with director Fuqua in SOUTHPAW (2015), but this crime thriller is something different for both. If you are up to the challenge, watch this version and the original, so that you can compare the contrasting approaches.

Streaming on Netflix beginning October 1, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


@ZOLA

July 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. As far as I can tell, this is the first feature film based on an actual Twitter thread. Writer-director Janicza Bravo (LEMON, 2017) works with co-writers Jeremy O Harris and the real life Zola, A’Ziah King to mold the viral 148 Tweets (#TheStory) from 2015 into a somewhat coherent film that may just provide a bit more insight into the social media world than we’d prefer in one sitting. A24 movie studio proves yet again their original, creative, and unique films are unapologetically outside the industry norm … and they are generating quite a loyal following because of it.

Taylour Paige (Dussy Mae in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, 2020) stars as Zola, a waitress with perfect certain “features” according to one of her customers. Zola and Stefani (played by Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter who continues to build a strong and diverse resume, including a standout performance in AMERICAN HONEY, 2016), have an instant connection, and the next day they are off on a road trip to Florida to make big bucks dancing at exotic clubs. Accompanying them are X (Colman Domingo, Cutler in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, 2020), and Derrek (Nicolas Braun, “Succession”), Stefani’s doofus boyfriend.

Be forewarned: this is not the zany female buddy comedy the trailer teases. It’s a dark, twisted comedy laced with dangerous situations and violence. While Zola was led to believe this was a dancing trip for real cash, it turns out X is really Stefani’s pimp, and though Zola stands firm in not taking the sex for cash route, she’s prevented from leaving by a forceful X, no longer the charmer she first encountered. Zola’s wise-to-the-world ways allows her to assist Stefani in upping her cash flow, but things go wrong when Derrek socializes outside the group.

After the infamous Twitter thread, “Rolling Stone” writer David Kushner published an article entitled, “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga ever Tweeted”. This is an alternate universe to many of us, though it’s pulled from the “pages” of today’s online culture. Much of the dialogue is in Twitter-speak, and the new Tweet ding is used to emphasize certain spoken lines (think rim shots). Director Bravo instills the “B-word” at the same pace that Tarantino uses the F-word, and it should be noted that both actresses are terrific. Ms. Keough will likely make you laugh, while simultaneously making you uncomfortable. It’s a case study in cultural appropriation – especially her dialect, which is purposefully offensive. We aren’t accustomed to seeing this type of humor these days, but Keough is to be commended for going all in. Ms. Paige’s performance is much different, but no less impactful as her Zola tries to make the best of a horrible situation.

This is a wild story with characters I can only hope you don’t recognize from your own life. It begs the question, what kind of relationships arise from social media? We go a bit deeper on Zola, but really we don’t know much about these people. They are as deep as social media allows, while also serving up a warning to those who might somehow believe internet interactions are anonymous and harmless.

Now showing in theaters nationwide.

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE LODGE (2020)

February 13, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Should you ever get cast as the stepmother in a horror movie, just know things aren’t likely to go well for your character. That even holds true for the stepmom-to-be in this latest from the writer-director team of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz who delivered GOODNIGHT MOMMY (2014). Their script comes from an idea by writer Sergio Casci, and it starts with a bang!

Richard (Richard Armitage) has planned a Christmas holiday trip to an isolated cabin in the woods so his two kids can get to know his fiancé Grace. Of course, his kids blame Grace for the break-up of their family, and the subsequent tragedy that befalls their mother. Aidan (Jaeden Martell, IT) and Mia (Lia McHugh) take advantage of Google to discover that Grace is the sole survivor of a cult’s mass suicide (similar to Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate). As if that’s not enough, Richard gets called back to the city for work (what??) and then a massive snow storm hits the cabin just after the power and water are cut-off. Finally, Grace’s meds for sanity disappear, along with most of the clothes.

So we have a snow-covered cabin deep in the woods with two kids stranded with a quasi-stepmom that they don’t like. And yes, there’s a cute pet dog. We also have more religious images and ornamentation than anyone who is not the Pope should have in their home. On top of everything, there is a large dollhouse that often factors in to what we see on screen and to what the kids and Grace are going through. And it’s Christmas! In other words, there is no shortage of elements necessary for a quality horror film.

I much prefer creepy over slasher for horror films, and this one easily meets that standard. Rather than a slow burn, it’s a slow freeze. Unfortunately, the actions of the characters and the script just didn’t work for me. The tormenting that goes on was not believable, and I just never could get over the fact that dad left these people who didn’t even know each other, together in the middle of nowhere while he went back to work. As a rule of thumb (or red flag), when a character expresses their theory about unexplained occurrences in a horror movie, you can be fairly certain that the theory is incorrect, or at least misleading, even if it’s what you were already thinking.

On the bright side, Riley Keough (daughter of Elvis Presley’s daughter) gives a terrific performance as Grace. She is very effective in keeping us guessing as to her true colors – is she a creepy monster or is she being victimized? Also, the film has a very stylish look. The cinematographer is Thimios Bakatakis (THE LOBSTER), and the cabin and nature setting give him plenty to work with. Other bright spots include a very brief appearance from Alicia Silverstone, and the opening credits logo of the resurrected Hammer Films (a favorite of monster movie fans). I caught this at the inaugural North Texas Film Festival in 2019, and it will surely strike a chord with some horror movie lovers … even though it left me out in the cold.

watch the trailer:


LOGAN LUCKY (2017)

August 17, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When we think of public figures retiring, we typically accept that athletes, politicians and entertainers will no longer be honing their craft or grinding in their profession. Perhaps they will write their memoirs, or even dodge TMZ completely by spending their days fishing or playing golf. When Oscar winning film director Steven Soderbergh announced he was “retiring” from making movies after his 2013 SIDE EFFECTS, he simply transitioned to television (excellence in “The Knick”). Most of us assumed it was only a matter of time until he returned to the medium that made him famous. This “retirement” lasted less than 4 years.

When a line in the film describes it as “Ocean’s 7-11”, we can assume this is Mr. Soderbergh admitting that his “Ocean’s” trilogy was the inspiration for this comedy-satire heist film focusing on a well-planned crime by a team of siblings, rednecks and convicts. Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Riley Keough star as the Logan clan – Jimmy, Clyde, and Mellie, respectively. With NASCAR as the target, the Logans are joined by the Bangs: Sam (Brian Gleeson), Fish (Jack Quaid), and Joe (a scene-stealing bleached blonde Daniel Craig).

Joining in the unconventional Hicksville fun are Katie Holmes and David Denman as Jimmy’s ex-wife and her new husband, a recently shorn Sebastian Stan as a race car driver, Seth MacFarlane as an obnoxiously rich blow-hard, Katherine Waterston in a too-brief role as a traveling medic, Hilary Swank as a determined FBI Agent, and Dwight Yoakum as a prison warden who rarely admits a problem. Also playing a key role is the music of John Denver … a move that teeters between tribute and punchline.

The set up and characters lend themselves to more laughter than we actually experience. There are more awkward moments than hilarious ones. As examples, brother Clyde’s (Driver) artificial hand is the center of focus on a few occasions, as are Joe Bang’s (Craig) expertise in science, and the small town West Virginia addiction to child beauty pageants. Their racetrack robbery plan is both ingenious and preposterous, which is also a fitting description of the film.

A writing credit goes to “Rebecca Blunt”, which in keeping with Soderbergh’s tradition, is a pseudonym (or nom de plume) for an unnamed writer (likely Soderbergh himself). The film mostly succeeds in delivering the opposite of the traditional Ocean’s slickness, and it’s entertaining to watch Channing Tatum and Daniel Craig (the credits list him as “introducing Daniel Craig) having such a good time on screen. While it doesn’t deliver the laughs of FREE FIRE or TALLADEGA NIGHTS, it is nice to have Soderbergh back where he belongs. Rather than an instant classic, it’s more likely to be remembered for Soderbergh’s attempt to change the movie distribution channels … Google can provide the details if you are interested.

watch the trailer:

 

 


AMERICAN HONEY (2016)

October 13, 2016

american-honey  Greetings again from the darkness. Movies are often classified according to genre: comedy, thriller, romance, drama, etc. Writer/director Andrea Arnold (Wuthering Heights, 2011) pays little attention to such labels, and seems to take immense pleasure in spotlighting a segment of society that rarely gets the silver screen treatment. Rather than bring us yet another lawyer, cop, teacher or writer, Ms. Arnold demands we pay attention to a group of misfits.

Our introduction to Star (Sasha Lane) comes from inside a dumpster as she and her young siblings are diving for food behind a grocery store, and afterwards hitchhiking for a ride back home. A chance parking lot meeting with an energetic young man named Jake (Shia LeBeouf) leads Star to take some drastic actions … including joining Jake and his traveling troupe of free-spirited cohorts as they drive around the country selling magazine subscriptions and staying in cheap hotels. In between fabricated sales pitches, there is much alcohol, drugs, hip hop, and sex.

Jake is the top salesperson, but it’s Krystal (Riley Keough) who supervises the group with threats, punishment and insults. She understands this is a captive audience with few options … even asking Star “Will anyone miss you?” That question is at the core of what keeps this group together. The van gang is the only community to which they belong – the closest thing to family they have. The handbook’s stated purpose may be to “make money”, but fundamentally, these folks just want to fit in somewhere.

Director Arnold takes a quasi-documentary approach (similar to last year’s Tangerine) that delivers a realistic feel to a world most of us have little knowledge of. Seeing these scam artists bounce through suburbs and rural areas, willing to take advantage of most anyone along the way, generates both empathy and disgust. By design, it’s Star with whom we most relate. She clearly has a conscience, but is as naïve to the world as she is sensitive to her own desires. A simple question (used twice) is a kick in the gut to viewers, and the dreams and hopes of these misfits are most puzzling of all.

The use of music is exceptionally well done, leaning heavily on hip-hop and Rihanna (twice). The titular Lady Antebellum song has its moment, as does Darth Vader philosophy and a few flying creatures. Though the run time is entirely too long for an indie that really doesn’t follow a traditional narrative, we don’t mind too much since we are watching the birth of a new star. Sasha Lane makes an incredible debut, and though the director “discovered” her on spring break in Florida, the natural talent here runs deep. I’m not sure of the market for this film, but it seems obvious Ms. Lane has a much brighter future than her character – or any of the others riding along in the van.

watch the trailer:

 


MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

May 17, 2015

 

mad max Greetings again from the darkness. Thirty years have passed since we last saw Mel Gibson donning the leather in 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which was of course, the third in the franchise after Mad Max (1979), and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). Over the years, rumors have persisted that writer/director George Miller was going to add to the franchise and take full advantage of today’s high-tech movie making techniques by securing the budget necessary for a true blockbuster. It may have taken 3 decades, but Mr. Miller’s dream is realized with his $100 million version (compared to $300,000 budget on the first one) that will undoubtedly satisfy the Mad Max fans, while also reminding the industry what an action movie can be (Michael Bay’s corneas may burst into flames watching this).

Tom Hardy plays Max Rockatansky, a loner haunted by a tragic past seen only through millisecond flashbacks that occur at both inopportune and opportune moments. Hardy has the physicality to pull off the role, but despite the title and the history, this film belongs at least as much to Charlize Theron who literally drives the story as Imperator Furiosa. Tired of living under tyrannical rule, Furiosa frees a group of “breeders” played by Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter), Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton. Their plan is to escape across the desert (well, everything is desert these days) and return to Furiosa’s childhood home known as “the green place”.

This is pretty much a two hour chase sequence featuring monster vehicles, soaring motorcycles, massive gunfire, screen-filling explosions, and enough stunt work to amaze even the casual movie-goer. All of this is accompanied by ear-bursting high-octane music courtesy JunkieXL (the first Max films were scored by Brian May of Queen). Some of this “music” is raw heavy-metal shredding occurring live on one of the chase vehicles – quite a sight and sound gag. It should be noted that stunt work is the surprise here. These days, most movies rely on CGI effects, while Mr. Miller mixes an extraordinary number of old school stunts with the compliment of CGI for such things as an overwhelming sandstorm and Ms. Theron’s mechanical arm. It’s a fascinating blend of old and new.

John Seale certainly deserves mention. He is an Academy Award winning cinematographer for The English Patient, and has also been DP on films such as Rain Man, Witness, Dead Poet’s Society and The Firm. He has four Oscar nominations and is not the first cinematographer one would think of when putting together a huge action film; however, the choice pays off in what is a beautifully shot film – both in space and close up scenes. It brings an element of propriety to what on the surface appears to be out-of-control, non-stop chaos.

The post-apocalyptic look and feel is accented by periodic splashes of color that prevent the usual bleakness from others in this genre. Many will be surprised at the minimal dialogue, but the straightforward plot removes any need for extended conversations from folks simply trying to survive.

Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies) may be the most interesting of all characters, and probably has the most lines of dialogue (while still not saying much). He is a slave caught up in the dream of serving his master, while then re-discovering a modicum of humanity buried somewhere deep inside. Fans of the series will also cheer the presence of Hugh Keays-Byrne who plays the very striking Immortan Joe, and also played Toe Cutter in the original film 37 years ago.

Filled with nostalgia and respect for the original series, this fourth entry also provides a new palette for a new generation of fans. The biggest change comes from the focus on strong women who are out to change, or at least escape, a world rotted by the male lust for power. It’s difficult to say insanity rules this world, because so little sanity exists that rational beings are non-existent.

George Miller will always be known as the creator of the Mad Max series, but we shouldn’t forget that he also directed the Happy Feet movies, as well as Babe: Pig in the City. Perhaps those two personalities allow him to create a world as crazed and chaotic as we see in his latest Max film. Mostly we can feel happy for him that he was afforded the opportunity realize his filmmaker dream … a nice reward for 30 years of patience.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE RUNAWAYS (2010)

March 20, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Getting dragged back to the mid-70’s can be quite fun, especially when the topic is rock ‘n roll. Based on lead singer Cherie Currie’s autobiography, this film provides an overview of the formation, sudden fame, and equally sudden dismantling of the first all-girl’s rock band, The Runaways.

Joan Jett was the heart of the band, but it took oddball music producer Kim Fowley to put the band together and get the recording deal. Fowley may be the most interesting character in this story. Here he is played with force by the very talented Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road).

Instead, the story focuses on Cherie Currie and Joan Jett, mostly Currie, since it is her book! Dakota Fanning plays Cherie Currie as a confused 15 year old with a messed up family life. The family includes a mom, played by Tatum O’Neal, who announces she is getting married and moving to Indonesia. Currie’s dad is a very sick alcoholic, so she is an easy recruit for Fowley and Jett. Jett is played balls-out by Kristen Stewart. Yes, Kristen Stewart from Twilight. Here she shows much more of the talent we saw prior to the Twilight series. She captures the fire and spirit of Joan Jett and leaves little doubt she will pursue her dreams despite all obstacles.  For a touch of trivia, note that Cherie’s sister Marie is played by Riley Keough … granddaughter of Elvis Presley.  It’s her big screen debut.

Overall, the script comes up short and provides us little more than headlines and a quick glimpse. Would have expected much more on talented guitarist Lita Ford, who continues to work today. For a quick intro to the story of The Runaways, this one is fine. Just don’t expect much depth.