GRETA (2019)

February 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Don’t touch anything on the subway.” That should be a warning posted in all New York City tourist brochures. Recent NYC transplant Frances didn’t get the memo. She not only picks up a “lost” handbag, but also wants to personally return it to the rightful owner – despite the counseling of her streetwise roommate.  Oscar winning director Neil Jordan (THE CRYING GAME) co-wrote the screenplay with Ray Wright, and they blend in many elements … not the least of which is making friends with someone you shouldn’t.

Chloe Grace Moretz plays Frances as the good-hearted Boston-raised girl who is almost too innocent to believe, given the day and age we are in. When Frances returns the purse, she is greeted warmly and appreciatively by a kindly Greta (Isabelle Huppert). The two bond over their individual loneliness: Greta says her daughter lives abroad, and Frances’ mother passed away about a year ago. It’s easy to see how a friendship forms through a substitute mother-daughter gap-filling.

An accidental discovery by Frances sends her out the door, intent on cutting ties with Greta. What Frances soon learns is that Greta is a crafty psychopath of the highest order. It’s at this point where filmmaker Jordan kicks in the twisted, dark humor and serves us a cheap-thrills ride via a full blown stalker movie. Greta is truly deranged and once Ms. Huppert cuts loose, we see how much fun she’s having. She even plays a piano teacher, which is kind of funny since she was also the piano teacher in THE PIANO TEACHER (2001). She becomes my first and favorite Liszt loving psychopath, who likely isn’t as technologically challenged as she makes out.

There are stylistic and story elements reminiscent of movies like FATAL ATTRACTION and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, and Jordan’s camera angles and lighting combine with Javier Navarrete’s score to dish up some B-movie type comically dark moments. Maika Monroe (IT FOLLOWS) is terrific as Frances’ roommate. She’s the direct type who tells Frances that “this city will eat you alive”, but is also extremely supportive and protective (and good at yoga).

Stephen Rea and Colm Feore appear in limited roles, but the fun you have here is directly related to how you buy into the Greta vs Frances web. It’s rare to see an onscreen female predator, but neither Mr. Jordan nor Ms. Huppert round off any edges. We are reminded that being nice doesn’t always pay off, but having friends certainly does. There is some creepy evil fun to be had, as well as a key life lesson: never trust a woman with too many purses.

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BLACK 47 (2018)

September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While filmmakers don’t tend to shy away from sad or even depressing characters or events, Ireland’s Great Famine has rarely been depicted on the big screen, for whatever reason. The film’s title refers to the worst year of the famine (1847). These were bleak times and folks were desperate – nearly without hope. More than one million people died, and between one million and two million emigrated from Ireland (depending on what time frame you exam). It all began with potato blight.

Director Lance Daly co-wrote the script with PJ Dillon, Eugene O’Brien, and Pierce Ryan, and have chosen to explain history through a personal story rather than an epic big picture one. Feeney (James Frecheville, ANIMAL KINGDOM, 2010) goes AWOL from the British Army in order to check on his family. The home he finds hardly resembles the one he left. His mother is dead from starvation and his brother was hanged. The rest of his family has been evicted and is soon dead as well. Apparently what he witnessed in war prepared Feeney for the horrors he discovers in his homeland. To complicate matters, he is not only viewed as a deserter by the British, but also a traitor within his own community (for fighting for the British).

Feeney becomes a renegade on a mission to avenge the deaths in his family. The film plays like one of those Charles Bronson movies, where a man of principle believes in doling out his own form of justice. A posse of 4 is assembled to track down Feeney. Captain Pope (Freddie Fox, THE THREE MUSKATEERS, 2011) is a despicable soul and by-the-book soldier who blindly follows orders and ignores the suffering of citizens he views as barely human. Young Hobson (Barry Keoghan, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, 2017) is the Captain’s personal valet, while Conneely (Stephen Rea) is local added as a translator – and some much needed comic relief. The most interesting of the group is Hannah, a disgraced Inspector and Feeney’s former commanding officer.

Hugo Weaving (THE MATRIX) plays Hannah as a man driven to the edge by his war experience. One a hero, now slightly unstable in his actions, Hannah agrees to join the posse instead of spending his life in prison. His commitment to the cause is always in question, as we are led to believe there is much to the connection of Hannah and Feeney … a connection that plays out dramatically when they finally cross paths again. Mr. Weaving’s great face is contrasted nicely by Mr. Frecheville’s dead eyes (‘like a doll’s eyes’).

The revenge mission plays out with some violence, but director Daly never stoops to gratuitous gore. Instead, we typically see the aftermath … one of which brings a twist to the phrase “pig-headed”. Feeney’s time as a soldier has well prepared him for this mission. Even Crocodile Dundee would be proud of Feeney’s knife, and he does tend to make a statement with each of his killings.

Supporting work is provided by Jim Broadbent, Moe Dunford (“Vikings”), and Sarah Greene (“Penny Dreadful”). There are a couple of themes on display here: the politics (and power grab) of the time, and one man’s drive to knock down corruption and clean up his beloved country … while showing no mercy to those who have harmed his family. The contempt for the British is quite clear. Religion doesn’t escape commentary and judgment, with a sequence involving a Protestant minister, a Roman Catholic priest and a soup line with a catch.

Director of Photographer Declan Quinn (MONSOON WEDDING, IN AMERICA, LEAVING LAS VEGAS) does work capturing the contrast between beautiful vistas and incredible hardships. The stunning Connemara (western Australia) landscape is offset by immense suffering and cruelty … only the art design is a bit shaky, which is understandable given budgetary challenges. Though we’ve rarely, if ever, seen such a cinematic treatment of this era, it’s clear the guns misfired more often than this production.

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BLACKTHORN

November 3, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. George Roy Hill‘s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of my all-time favorites. Action, adventure, gun play, wise-cracking, romance, charming lead actors, and a touch of western legend, all combine for a very entertaining film. Spanish screenwriter and director Mateo Gil (s/p, The Sea Inside) takes up the story 20 years from the infamous freeze frame that ended Hill’s 1969 film.

Sure, you might need suspension of disbelief since we all remember the hundreds of Bolivian soldiers firing at once when Butch and Sundance attempted their escape, but this film is really more about aging and trying to put things right in a life that took a wrong turn. The Butch we are first introduced to is writing a letter to the son of Etta Place, after her death. He writes that it’s time to come home – meaning he is to leave the quiet life in rural Bolivia and make the long journey back to the U.S.

 This aging “Uncle Butch” is played by the great Sam Shepard. Mr. Shepard is not just a Pulitzer winning writer, but he has always had an incredibly strong screen presence … a wonderful face and trustworthy voice. Here is in full grizzled cowboy mode and sports the bright eyes we remember from Paul Newman, while displaying a newfound peace raising horses in the Bolivian countryside. He lives this life as James Blackthorn, not Butch Cassidy. He even has a relationship with one of the local ladies, who seems filled with the spirit that Butch had as a younger man.

 Blackthorn collects his savings from the bank … a bit ironic, eh? He sets off on the journey, but is quickly knocked off course thanks to the recklessness of a Spainish thief played by Eduardo Noriega. Noriega says he can makes things right and the two form an unlikely team. Unfortunately, Butch has become more trusting in his old age, and Noriega turns out not to be the partner than Sundance once was.

This whole story is a bit outlandish, but it’s at its best when Blackthorn runs smack dab into Makinley, one of the old Pinkerton men who was chasing him twenty years ago. Turns out, Makinley (Stephen Rea) is a social outcast because he was the only one who thought the boys survived that attack so many years ago. Seems both Makinley and Blackthorn have been cast aside and trapped for two decades in Bolivia.

 While Shepard is outstanding, he shares star billing with the terrain of Bolivia. It definitely holds its own versus the Monument Valley we have seen in so many westerns over the years. The salt flats are particularly beautiful and treacherous, and filmed with skill by the director. We are also treated to periodic flashbacks and a few of the key moments for the younger Butch (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Sundance (Padraic Delaney) and Etta (Dominique McElligott). We learn that the partnership was truly that … one for all.

This film will probably have little box office success, but it’s certainly worth a look for those of you intrigued by the Butch and Sundance legend, and are able to wonder just WHAT IF ….

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the original Butch & Sundance OR you never miss a chance to see Sam Shepard onscreen OR you would like to see the rarely seen natural beauty of Bolivia

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a slow moving western hold little appeal for you OR you just aren’t willing to buy into the idea that maybe Butch and Sundance survived the Bolivian Army massacre

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