Slumberland

Release: Friday, November 11, 2022 (limited) 

👀 Netflix

Written by: David Guion; Michael Handelman 

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Starring: Jason Momoa; Marlow Barkley; Chris O’Dowd; Weruche Opia; Kyle Chandler; India de Beaufort 

Distributor: Netflix

 

**/*****

Slumberland is another one of those adaptations where ignorance really is bliss. You could watch this entire spectacle of Look How Much Money Netflix Has and have no idea it is actually inspired by an early twentieth century comic strip created by famed American cartoonist Winsor McCay. That’s because this expensive-looking but cheaply told fantasy adventure merely uses the iconic weekly sketch as a springboard for Jason Momoa-related shenanigans and a whole boatload of pretty but vapid CGI.

Comparisons are almost rendered pointless given how little the Netflix original, directed by The Hunger Games helmer Francis Lawrence, actually resembles the comic. The latest attempt to adapt the property is a visual adventure that flits between wild dreamscapes and waking-world tediums. The premise is loosely based on the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland and its protagonist’s penchant for drifting off into crazy adventures only to awaken in his own bed in the final panel of each strip. Here the vignettes are discarded in favor of a simple tale of a girl trying to reunite with her father in her dreams.

In a gender-swapped role newcomer Marlow Barkley inhabits the lead character of Nemo with natural confidence. She starts off the movie living an idyllic life just off the mainland in a lighthouse with her father Peter (Kyle Chandler), who regales her nightly with tales of his adventures at sea chasing after elusive magical pearls. This all comes crashing down when Peter one day does not return and Nemo is forced to move to the city with her socially awkward uncle Philip (Chris O’Dowd), a doorknob salesman. We come to learn Peter and Philip were once thick as thieves, having epic adventures as kids. But after a fall-out Philip retreated into himself and has since lived a dreary and robotic existence.

As a story about learning to deal with grief and accepting change Slumberland has the potential to be a real winner, especially when you have a good lead performance from Barkley that helps foster sympathy. There are a couple of poignant moments along the way but whatever sense of growth and maturity there is supposed to be takes such a backseat to the eye-popping landscape across which Nemo traverses — at first accompanied only by her plush toy pig, creatively named ‘Pig’ (parents should not be surprised to see this one pop up on Christmas lists this year) and, eventually, the colorful and buffoonish outlaw Flip (Momoa), who has been in Slumberland for so long he can’t remember who he is in reality.

Not that he seems to mind. In the dream world there are rules and Flip seems to have violated several of them simply by hanging around and crashing other people’s dreams. Agent Green (Weruche Opia), representing the Bureau of Subconscious Activities, is determined to lock him up once and for all, giving rise to a cat-and-mouse action caper inside a dream-state (something that sounds way more interesting written down). Momoa is clearly having a field day going full-blown Johnny Depp, his garish wardrobe a combination of Captain Jack Sparrow and something out of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. He brings an energy that may wear a little thin after two hours for the older-than-pre-teen crowd, but also makes such a routine plot feel somehow more exciting.

The world-building is undoubtedly picturesque, despite some awkward moments where you can actually see the actors standing on their marks on a big slab of concrete in a sound stage. Away from these, Slumberland unfolds into a vast network of surreal imagery and outlandish ideas in which nuns fantasize about being salsa dancers in rooms made entirely out of butterflies and Canadians are reduced to dreaming of geese the size of small airplanes. At its center, the Sea of Nightmares — a dark and forbidding region concealing the very pearls Nemo’s father had been describing. Pearls that give the possessor whatever they desire. And as we learn along the way, the alluring gems aren’t the only thing that actually exist in the real world.

Despite some genuinely nice moments, you can’t help but feel like Lawrence misses the opportunity to extract a more interesting plot out of such an idea-rich concept. To his credit he isn’t attempting to remain faithful to the comic. It just would have been nice if what he chose to do instead was something more inspired. As a visual director, it sort of makes sense what he does with Slumberland but his flashy approach doesn’t necessarily make for the strongest movie. 

Next-level waterbed

Moral of the Story: I would describe it as Inception for kids, but that might oversell the amount of thinking this movie requires. Elements of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland combine with the modern slickness of Stranger Things. The selling point is not the comic strip (Winsor McCay doesn’t even get credited) but instead Jason Momoa, who gets along great with kid actors apparently. If nothing else it’s nice to see him playing to a younger audience. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Did you ever figure it out? What the lighthouse is for?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

All Quiet on the Western Front

Release: Friday, October 28, 2022

👀 Netflix

Written by: Ian Stokell; Lesley Paterson; Edward Berger

Directed by: Edward Berger

Starring: Felix Kammerer; Albrecht Schuch; Daniel Brühl; Devid Striesow; Thibault de Montalembert 

Distributor: Netflix

 

****/*****

All Quiet on the Western Front is an intense experience, mostly by virtue of its realistic depictions of wartime violence. Based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, Edward Berger’s adaptation loses some of the detail found on the pages but nevertheless adopts the powerful anti-war stance of its source, a descent into hell experienced through the eyes of a young man during World War I. It’s not subtle with its messaging, nor should it be.

The material has of course been adapted before (in 1930 by Lewis Milestone, widely considered the definitive version, and for TV in 1979) but Berger has the distinction of directing the first German adaptation of the property. The result is a breathtaking and completely devastating account that follows 17-year-old foot soldier Paul Baümer (Felix Kammerer in an impressive big screen début) as his romantic notions of becoming a war hero are quickly broken once he’s exposed to the realities of the front line.

The grim opening is a masterclass, establishing tone and theme with machine-like efficiency. A teen-aged soldier named Heinrich is killed in action and the scene cuts to show his uniform being stripped from his corpse and sent to a cleaning facility where it will be sent back out for a new recruit to call his own. When Paul, who’s forged his parents’ signature so he can join his mates in the good fight, receives his uniform and notices Heinrich’s name tag still attached, he’s simply told the uniform was too small and that “this happens all the time.” The moment passes as an afterthought — the adrenaline in Paul, galvanized by the patriotic speech delivered by his school teacher, overriding whatever concerns he has.

That excitement passes just as quickly when Paul and his friends Albert (Aaron Hilmer), Franz (Moritz Klaus) and Ludwig (Adrian Grünewald) arrive at the water-logged, disease-riddled trenches near the northern French town of La Malmaison and their first night gives them a taste of what they were never told in the pamphlet. It’s not long before shell-shock takes hold, transforming exuberant boys into statues. With the emphasis on Paul, Kammerer’s gaunt and wide-eyed countenance makes for a powerful canvas upon which the loss of innocence plays out.

Meanwhile, in a radical but still impactful diversion from the book, a second plot thread follows the efforts of German official Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) as he scrambles to put a stop to the mounting casualties in what he and other top brass already know is a lost cause. News of the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II turns up the pressure to capitulate, yet Erzberger remains optimistic for productive discussions with the Allied forces. Brühl is very good portraying a pivotal historical figure, peaking with his high wire act of initiating peace talks with Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch (Thibault de Montalembert), who isn’t in a particularly merciful mood. The German Imperial Army has 72 hours to surrender, no negotiations.

From a standpoint of narrative flow the compromise here is apparent. The cuts back and forth sometimes feel disruptive, taking us away from what seems most urgent. However these pauses in the action are suffused with such tension and fatefulness they feel like essential inclusions, hinting toward the circumstances that fueled resentment and ultimately gave rise to a much darker period in German history. One of the most overt indications of where things are going is General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow), an overzealous power-monger who’s willing to sacrifice any number of faceless patriots in order to secure his own personal victory.

While the movie is extremely violent — there are a few sequences here that rival the opening stanza of Saving Private Ryan in terms of the disorienting, overwhelming pace and perversion of the situation — there is a bluntness about the presentation that disturbs even more. Throughout the camera remains a cold and objective observer while Ian Stokell and Lesley Paterson’s screenplay shares none of the idealism of its gung-ho protagonists who, on the cusp of manhood, are swayed by the idea of fighting for honor and courage for The Fatherland. In drawing attention to the endless cycle of death the narrative structure feels more like a machine itself.

All Quiet isn’t just intense; it’s exhausting and depressing. And that’s how it should be as well. A war film shouldn’t be easy to watch. Despite a final act that betrays logic (and history) somewhat, Berger’s approach is laudable for its brutal honesty and adherence to the spirit of the landmark source material.

Moral of the Story: Parts Dunkirk and 1917 with its immersive you-are-there POV, but more memorable for its Saving Private Ryan/We Were Soldiers-level of realistic violence, All Quiet on the Western Front is a war film that, as hard as it is to endure, might just be essential viewing. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 147 mins.

Quoted: “What is a soldier without war?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Tender Bar

Release: Friday, December 17, 2021 (limited)

👀 Amazon Prime

Written by: William Monahan

Directed by: George Clooney

Starring: Ben Affleck; Tye Sheridan; Daniel Ranieri; Lily Rabe; Max Martini; Christopher Lloyd; Briana Middleton

Distributor: Amazon Studios

 

 

**/*****

Movies about aspiring writers too often come across mawkish and cheesy. It’s almost a condition, something that just comes with the territory and which the likable but cliché The Tender Bar doesn’t do enough to defend against.

Orange County set on the East Coast, more specifically Long Island, The Tender Bar is a coming-of-age drama based on the memoir written by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist and journalist J.R. Moehringer. Filtered through thick accents and an unabashedly sentimental lens, it charts his path from humble upbringings to Yale University and a bit beyond, exploring the influence that his family had on shaping his dream. Yet for all its good intentions and stretches of excellent acting, it’s a strange feeling to sit through something as banal as what we get here, considering the talent both in front of and behind the camera and the Oscar-winning pedigree of screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed).

While it’s certainly not the latter’s best effort — the dialogue is often corny, most of it unfortunately spouted by Ron Livingston in his Wonder Years-like voice-over — this is more about George Clooney phoning it in as director, failing to girder Moehringer’s memoir with a compelling cinematic treatment. If this were your introduction to the subject (as it was for me) you might come away shrugging the whole thing off as inconsequential. Moehringer is an accomplished writer but the hackneyed presentation doesn’t make him seem very interesting.

About the only distinction The Tender Bar has is a terrific performance from Ben Affleck, who becomes the role model J.R.’s biological father never was interested in playing, particularly in his childhood. He plays Uncle Charlie, a stabilizing force in the chaotic house into which young J.R. (introducing Daniel Ranieri) and his mother (Lily Rabe) are flung at the movie’s open. He’s also the bartender at The Dickens, a little hole-in-the-wall where dozens of books line the shelves alongside the booze. It’s here where J.R. spends much of his time, sipping Coca-Cola and inhaling life advice from his sleeper-genius uncle, whose own murky career goals belie the clarity of his wisdom.

The movie’s other asset is Max Martini who provides the antithesis to Affleck’s charm and warmth. As J.R.’s father, a radio deejay only referred to as “The Voice,” he doesn’t appear for long but enough to leave a bruise. The inevitable confrontation between him and his upward-trending son (now Tye Sheridan — amiable if unremarkable), although patently predictable given Clooney’s strict adherence to formula, lends tension to a story where most obstacles are cleared without effort. And if not effortlessly cleared, needlessly repeated — Briana Middleton’s appearance as a love interest does nothing to advance the story, only to remind of the elitism that swirls at the Ivy League level.

The condescension J.R. experiences here is what we feel throughout much of the story. The Tender Bar is pleasant enough but also basic. Like its subject and his needing to know what his initials stand for, it’s constantly searching for an identity of its own.

You’re the greatest inspiration in my life, bar none

Moral of the Story: Though sometimes too schmaltzy, The Tender Bar has occasional moments of affecting character work, especially between Affleck and the young Ranieri. But he gets along famously with both actors, and it’s that dynamic I’d recommend more than anything else here. Without trying to sound snobby, it’s just not a particularly deep movie. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “I want to be a writer, but I suck.”

“Well, when you suck at writing, that’s when you become a journalist.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Gray Man

Release: Friday, July 15, 2022 (limited) 

👀 Netflix

Written by: Joe Russo; Christopher Markus; Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony Russo; Joe Russo

Starring: Ryan Gosling; Chris Evans; Ana de Armas; Regé-Jean Page; Julia Butters; Billy Bob Thornton; Alfre Woodard; Jessica Henwick

 

 

***/*****

Thinking is a hazard to your health in the modern action movie. The good news is when something moves as stylishly and as quickly as The Gray Man you don’t have a lot of time to do that. Distractions are in abundance in the Russo brothers’ star-studded and action-packed extravaganza based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Mark Greaney.

Featuring the ensemble cast of an Ocean’s Eleven and the globetrotting scale of a James Bond installment, The Gray Man is one of Netflix’s most expensive and ambitious undertakings to date, costing the streamer a whopping $200 million — and that’s just for this first episode, with plans for a sequel and a spin-off announced immediately. Sadly the foundation (the first movie, that is) isn’t very strong to begin with, so it’s anyone’s guess as to what quality franchise we’ll get out of translating more of the thriller novelist’s work.

In the meantime, what will likely be most remembered from this near-breathless first installment is Chris Evans hamming it up big-time as the main antagonist, the sadistic Lloyd Hansen. I’m prioritizing the villain because the pleasure he takes in making others uncomfortable is something that makes him stand out in a movie that doesn’t have much to offer personality-wise. It’s a showy if overcompensating depiction of sociopathy that suggests Evans wants to be as far removed from Cap’s shield as Daniel Radcliffe wants to be from Hogwarts. If there’s something The Gray Man does well, it’s providing a bad guy you can’t wait to see brought to his knees.

Ironically the “good” guy is less compelling, even if he is played by the enigmatic Ryan Gosling. In 2003 Court Gentry, a convicted killer, is visited in prison by a CIA official named Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) who tells him his sentence will be commuted in exchange for his cooperation with the agency in bringing down a national security threat. Court is to join the CIA’s clandestine Sierra program, where he will assume the code name ‘Six,’ because “007 was taken.” Years later, after a botched mission in Bangkok, Six comes into possession of a thumb drive which contains some secrets the CIA, namely the ambitious Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), would rather not let loose. So he goes rogue, sending the file to Prague where a trusted source (Alfre Woodard) will be able to decrypt it, while coming into the crosshairs of a rampaging Lloyd Hansen who will do anything to get a job done.

This includes kidnapping Fitzroy’s teenage daughter Claire (Julia Butters) for leverage in forcing her father to give the go-ahead to eliminate Six, leading to one of The Gray Man‘s stand-out action scenes aboard a cargo plane. Though fully aware of his disposability, he discovers that maybe not everyone is out to get him when he crosses paths with Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), a CIA agent who, along with Carmichael’s underling Suzanna Brewer (Jessica Henwick), is scrambling to salvage her career thanks to the trail of destruction that has followed Hansen and his willfully unethical methods.

Piling up casualties as quickly as Thanos can snap his fingers, The Gray Man is hardly ever dull. The plot is simple and the direction propulsive but because we don’t really get to know the characters beyond their skill sets and job titles it is also a fairly impersonal affair, feeling more like a series of things that happen rather than things you care about. Attempts to humanize Gosling’s emotionally frigid Court come in the form of perfunctory flashbacks to a bad childhood and an underdeveloped dynamic with Claire, to whom he is entrusted to protect. On that note, Butters is even less fortunate, her character bearing few attributes beyond the heart condition that makes her vulnerable and serves as a plot device.

If the action genre is defined now by cold indifference, The Gray Man should be viewed as a success. The Russos have put together an adrenaline-pumping ride that doesn’t demand anything from the viewer other than a Netflix subscription and a family-sized bucket of popcorn. It may not feature any extraterrestrial threat or super-powered beings, but this is a spectacle involving some balloons, a lot of bullets, and colored smoke for some reason. The Gray Man looks every bit the money that was spent on it, but huge sums of cash don’t directly translate into strong characters and intriguing moral situations. I’m probably thinking too much about it, but this cat-and-mouse game could have — should have — been better.

For the second review in a row, we have strong Mustache representation.

Moral of the Story: I’m giving this otherwise pretty bland action thriller a 3 instead of a 2 out of 5 stars simply because Chris Evans chews the scenery so much he enlivens the entire thing. Gosling is okay; he’s not doing anything radically different, and even though there is a lot of action — the Russos definitely deliver quantity — I’m not sure if any of the big set pieces have staying power. Honestly, it’s just another Saturday night action escape. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Normally at this point in the night, I wouldn’t be sticking around. With the house lights about to come on, I’d find a desperate, ugly chick to lick my wounds and split. But you have been a pebble in my shoe since the very beginning, and now I just don’t think I can walk away. Guess what I’m thinking right now . . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The World to Come

Release: Tuesday, March 2, 2021 (VOD) 

👀 Sundance 2021 Premiere 

Written by: Jim Shepard; Ron Hansen 

Directed by: Mona Fastvold 

Starring: Katherine Waterston; Vanessa Kirby; Christopher Abbot; Casey Affleck

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come, a beguiling romance set on the American frontier, is often literally perched on the edge of light and dark. Though its many contrasts are obvious they’re not always literal. This is a love story set in austere times yet delivered in a rather lyrical way, both through the language of its characters and the lens of André Chemetoff, whose rugged landscape photography is well-matched to the material.

The World to Come is an adaptation of a short story by Jim Shepard which tells of a clandestine relationship between two neglected wives and how their mutual attraction comes to threaten the patriarchal order in two households. In bringing it to the screen Fastvold prioritizes the characters and a gritty realism over groundbreaking storytelling. The resulting film, which uses a female perspective to explore its themes, certainly plots familiar footsteps. Yet with Fastvold’s detail-oriented approach and exceptional performances all around it remains throughout an engrossing and often tense affair.

A slow vertical pan down through the trees lands us on a farmstead somewhere in upstate New York circa the mid-1850s. Life here in this seclusion, where mail is delivered on horseback, on the outside looks quaint and peaceful. Fastvold wastes little time in ripping down that idyllic veil and apprising us to the immense challenges of settler life. What strikes you right away — beyond the silence — is the tedium (and amount!) of manual labor. However the setting is crucial in more ways than a convincing mise-en-scène, the central conflict far more complex than the physical.

Dyer (Casey Affleck) and Abigail (Katherine Waterston) are a humble farming couple who have suffered a tragedy on top of an apocalyptic winter that has wiped out nearly all their food. It does not take long to notice the lack of joie de vivre here. Little else seems to be shared beyond the toiling, the couple communicating with all the intimacy of complete strangers — brought together not as a match made in heaven but as a partnership of utility. Affleck’s Dyer may as well be on the moon emotionally as a devoutly pragmatic man who has known nothing but hard work and strife. It’s a very good performance that will catch you by surprise with its pitifulness and yet still have you questioning whether feeling pity is appropriate.

Abigail, on the other hand, is an intellectual who has become jaded with her rather plain existence. She’s realized through an arguably career-best Waterston whose soft-spoken mannerisms are most often heard in voice-over. In a rare example of narration actually contributing to the story rather than feeling like an unnecessary layer, Waterston reads entries from Abigail’s diary, largely a colorless record of the slow decline of a marriage that never seemed happy to begin with, as well as her own mounting frustration with her station as a housewife. Aside from establishing a crucial point of view these brief moments of introspection intimately connect us with the character in a way that makes us not observers but rather acquaintances.

Following a change of seasons — and a cacophonous storm sequence that remains the movie’s most vivid — those diary entries become ever more a testimony to what has been missing, or how much has been lying dormant under a façade of submissiveness. The arrival of spring brings with it a pair of fresh new faces in Finney (Christopher Abbott) and his wife Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), a well-to-do couple who move into a nearby (well, near-distant) farmstead. The free-spirited, enviably outspoken Tallie has an immediate affect on passive Abigail.

What begins as a neighborly gesture — donated fruit for a cobbler, for instance — soon turns into long afternoons spent under shady trees and entangled in philosophical conversation. It’s not long before the menial and the mundane are being forgotten, replaced by meaningful moments. A trend, of course, that does not go unnoticed by the men. The strength of the script, provided by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, is in subtlety and nuance even if the developments are mostly foreseeable. Affleck’s enigmatic to the bitter end, his masterful body language telling a story both of irrevocable change and permanent resignation. Abbott, on the other hand, isn’t as fortunate, playing an obvious cad who is easy to boo from the get-go.

Quite obviously though it is the women to whom The World to Come truly belongs. Kirby’s presence charges the scene with exciting energy, and with her waterfall of ginger hair she makes for a wonderful muse for Chemetoff’s camera. Waterston captures demureness in a way that’s equal parts charming and crushing. Together, and despite their different backgrounds, these leading frontier ladies have the kind of chemistry that keeps you utterly invested despite the misery that encroaches on all sides.

Beautiful and bleak in equal measure, Fastvold’s period romance feels much more like a snippet of reality than a Movie Production. Prior to the Sundance screening she described the shoot being challenging. That’s something that comes across in the texture of the film. The world feels entirely lived in, authentic and with no traditional script-y exit doors in sight. The mood is undeniably heavy and somber, perhaps trending more towards the dark than the light. But that makes the oases of comfort and warmth, however fleeting, such a delightful contrast.

You’re my sun.

Moral of the Story: The film’s moral resolution may not be to every audience member’s satisfaction, and the themes of physical/emotional isolation and patriarchal oppression may be familiar but its the lack of force and politicization in conveying those ideas that make The World to Come an even more attractive period piece.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Meeting you has made my day.” 

“Oh, how pleasant and uncommon it is to make someone’s day.” 

Check out the quietly explosive trailer here 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: imdb.com; Sundance Institute/photo by Vlad Cioplea 

In the Tall Grass

Release: Friday, October 4, 2019 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Vincenzo Natali

Directed by: Vincenzo Natali

Starring: Harrison Gilbertson; Laysla De Oliviera; Patrick Wilson; Rachel Wilson; Avery Whitted; Will Buie Jr. 

Distributor: Netflix

 

 

**/*****

Last year Netflix inadvertently triggered the Bird Box Challenge, which set a new standard for stupidity when it comes to audience interaction/reaction. This year it’s given us another curio ripe for parody in the form of Vincenzo Natali’s In the Tall Grass. A horror film based on a novella cowritten by father-and-son duo Stephen King and Joe Hill, it’s about people wandering into an endless field of grass and, uh, getting something a little worse than lost, their only hope for survival lying in a big chunk of stone planted smack dab in the middle. In the Tall Grass doesn’t quite have the meme potential as Bird Box but it certainly invites mockery in the same way.

There’s a caveat to all this cynicism of course. I have not read the short story upon which the movie is based. Judging by the reviews from those who have, I’m not sure if that’s actually good or bad news. I do know my lack of background changes this review substantially; I can’t decry it as “yet another botched Stephen King adaptation.” Instead I can only review In the Tall Grass for what it is — a slightly above-average Netflix offering whose completely confusing, “let’s make this stuff up as we go along” narrative may or may not be worth your headache.

It’s a Friday, so I’m leaning more towards “is headache worthy.” The premise is nuts, but mostly works if you just go with the flow — and if you bring some of your own grass to the show, too. That can’t possibly hurt. It could make things more confusing, but then this is a maze so whack you can easily get lost in it stone cold sober. The ridiculousness starts with a brother and sister, Becky (Laysla De Oliviera) and Cal (Avery Whitted), pulling off the road in the middle of corn belt USA. They’re en route to the west coast so Becky can find a family to adopt her yet-to-be-born baby. They then hear a cry for help coming from the nearby field, where grass grows high enough to conceal Shaquille O’Neal. A boy named Tobin (Will Buie Jr.) claims he has been stuck in there for some time. Another voice begs them not to come in.

Throwing caution to the wind the pair enter anyway and quickly find that some funny business is going on. Getting separated is not just easy, it seems inevitable and disorientation is taken to a whole other level. I suppose here’s as good a place as any to praise the film for its technical prowess. In the Tall Grass is surprisingly stylish, cinematographer Craig Wrobleski providing a number of effective and dizzying camera angles that make the fields look both beautiful and menacing. Sound designer David Rose is indispensable in providing ambience, the rustling of the blades in the breeze at once soothing and ominous — combined with an eerie score by Mark Korven it really creates an unsettling atmosphere out of very simple elements.

The field is apparently playing for keeps with other lost souls, including a man named Ross (Patrick Wilson) who is the boy’s father. Some time ago he and his wife Natalie (Rachel Wilson) became separated while chasing down their son. He now stumbles across an increasingly panicking Becky, whose pregnancy is causing a great deal of discomfort on its own. Ross attempts to calm her, extolling the virtues of parenthood and then telling her he believes he’s found a way out of this seemingly never-ending maze. Meanwhile an equally disconcerted Cal encounters Tobin, who imparts wisdom in a creepily omniscient manner while burying a dead crow: “The grass doesn’t move dead things.”

In what appears to be the next day, none other than the dude who ran out on Becky arrives at the same field. Guilt has landed Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) here — either that or stalker tendencies, I’m still not sure which. This is where the story gets really gooey, plummeting us into a labyrinth of strange time paradoxes, an ever more hostile environment in which the grass takes on a decidedly more villainous role, where the significance of the rock takes on supernatural overtones. Where people who were literally moments ago discovered as rotting corpses are now alive and well. Where Patrick Wilson transforms from a real estate agent with a fondness for CCR to a David Koresh type with an infatuation with a stone monolith.

It isn’t an exceptionally large cast and the whole game is really just about survival. Yet Natali’s approach does not go as the crow flies. There are so many detours within the brush it can be challenging to keep up with everyone and who’s looking after whom, where loyalties truly lie. It doesn’t help that when things take a turn for the truly nightmarish the literal darkness conceals and consumes identities, obscuring friend from foe and human from, uh, grass people. In the Tall Grass is ultimately that film where the less you think the more you gain. Questions arise at every ill-advised zig and zag, and if you feel so inclined to take notes on the film’s internal logic as events unfold perhaps all of those will be answered by the film’s abrupt conclusion. Sometimes it’s best to not fight against yourself or the fait accompli the movie presents. For the most part the descent into madness is rendered with enough creativity and provocative imagery to make you think twice about entering a corn maze this Halloween.

We’re all losing our heads out here!

Moral of the Story: I’ve got to think this movie goes down as a bitter pill for those coming in with expectations set by the short story. For me, I’m a big Patrick Wilson fan so that definitely elevated the experience. The acting around him isn’t quite as convincing, but it’s enough to hook you in. The premise in itself is a good hook. But then there are elements like “grass people” that kind of make this movie just as easy (and fun) to mock as it is to embrace as a chilling tale of survivalism. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “Here in the garden of forking paths, you didn’t make any one choice. You made every choice. And they all led back to me.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Release: Friday, May 3, 2019 (limited) 

→Netflix

Written by: Michael Werwie

Directed by: Joe Berlinger

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile may appear on the surface as a redundant exercise. Do we really need another take on the American nightmare that was Ted Bundy? Like it or not we have come to know the man behind at least 30 murders of women down to his jaw structure, down to the most grisly details of his most heinous actions. We’ve even taken note of his days working as a call taker at a suicide prevention center in Seattle.

Extremely Wicked justifies its own existence through the harrowing perspective it shares, that of Bundy’s longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer. The dramatic feature from highly influential documentarian Joe Berlinger is based upon the memoir written by the real Kloepfer (Kendall her pen name), and paints a picture of domestic bliss slowly rotting, one in which its stars, a chillingly effective Zac Efron and an equally impressive Lily Collins, dance delicately along a clearly defined yet precarious line dividing dramatization and reenactment. These are challenging roles to portray without sensationalizing, and with the guidance of Berlinger’s sensitive direction they rarely, if ever, hit a false note.

The one exception being the way the former High School Musical star interprets his character’s reaction to the final sentencing, Efron putting on a waterworks display that feels out of sync with his character’s alien-like indifference to the lives he took. The tears are a little too theatrical even considering the antics that went down in those trials. Indeed those trials were a circus in which you might recall Bundy throwing out his own defense team and acting as his own legal counsel, even having the audacity to take advantage of an obscure Florida law that allowed him to propose during his second murder trial (in 1980) to witness Carol Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario in the movie) — a former coworker at that Seattle crisis center, a stalwart of Team “Of Course I’m Innocent, Look at Me!” all the way up to the point of their divorce in 1986, three years before Bundy’s execution.

Scodelario does well to garner our sympathy — she’s nothing more than another victim, albeit a lucky one, of Bundy’s brutally manipulative mind-game. But if Boone was just played for a fool, Kloepfer was essentially a concubine of Bundy’s deceitful charade, her heart held hostage by a smooth talking, intelligent predator. In one of the movie’s heaviest moments we see all of that come down on her, the reality that she had blindly allowed a serial rapist and murderer to help raise her own child, Molly. He, in return, secured the unconditional love of an innocent child. It’s upsetting stuff. As time marches on Collins’ performance becomes more gesticulative and broad, Liz disappearing in a haze of cigarette smoke and alcohol-fueled depression as her own concern turns to fear and tensions between the two continue to mount as the lie continues, evolves. Yet her work is never less than sickeningly effective in communicating how trapped this woman must have felt, pinned between a romantic idyll of the man she’s with and the ugly reality of his face routinely showing up in the papers.

It’s the intense focus on this relationship, on a perception of normalcy that also justifies Extremely Wicked‘s stylistic choices, namely the omission of graphic violence and even the abductions themselves. We more often than not see Bundy fleeing the scene in his beige VW beetle and in a calm, cool and collected state even in the face of suspicious lawmen. (Side note: if you thought the casting of Efron, a known sex symbol, was an interesting choice, A) you’ve missed the point completely and B) it’s not as weird as seeing Metallica’s physically imposing frontman James Hetfield as Officer Bob Hayward, a Utah patrolman and the first officer to arrest Bundy. It’s a double-take moment, yet the casting isn’t completely out of left field, as Berlinger co-directed the Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, back in 2004. And for what it’s worth, he acquits himself well in his first ever scripted performance.)

Berlinger is no stranger to potentially upsetting and controversial material. His Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries exposed a terrible real-world witch hunt that had condemned three young men either to execution or life in prison for a crime in which they ultimately were found innocent. Yet his work has also had a profound, real-world impact. The release of those films actually expedited the release of at least one of those men in the West Memphis Three case. I’m not so sure this film has had the same sobering effect. More of film Twitter seemed to get hung up on the hunky casting (again, by design) and whether or not Efron even had it in him to convince you of Bundy’s extreme wickedness (he does).

Rather than trampling on the victims’ memory by dramatizing their last moments alive, Berlinger instead focuses on the emotional and psychological disintegration of Kloepfer who for so long denies the deranged duplicitousness that allowed her boyfriend to freely move in between their shared sanctuary and the streets of an unsuspecting America as he engaged in a spree of murders that, at its height, saw women disappearing at a rate of one every 30 days. Extremely Wicked is a film about juxtaposition, the seemingly impossible contrast between sweet naivete and outright monster. It leaves you feeling dirty. Violated. It’s a disturbing account of factual events that needs little graphic imagery to convey the evil and the vile.

Recommendation: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (which takes its long-winded title from the official opinion handed down by the judge presiding over the trial, the Honorable Edward Cowart, played by John Malkovich) I’d imagine works pretty well as a companion piece to the documentary. Me, though, I’ve had my fill with this drama. Biggest takeway: the performances are uniformly good and some truly unsettling. I never thought I’d say I would be scared of Zac Efron. (Some offense intended.) Film also features strong input from Haley Joel Osment as one of Liz’s concerned coworkers, and Jim Parsons as a Florida attorney tasked with presenting some of the most disgusting details you’ll probably ever hear from this particular horror show.

Rated: R

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “People don’t realize that murderers do not come out in the dark with long teeth and saliva dripping off their chin. People don’t realize that there are killers among them. People they liked, loved, lived with, work with and admired could the next day turn out to be the most demonic people imaginable.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

October Blindspot: Cujo (1983)

Release: Friday, August 12, 1983

→YouTube

Written by: Don Carlos Dunaway; Lauren Currier

Directed by: Lewis Teague

Bad dog! Very BAD dog!

When man’s best friend becomes your worst enemy, you get Cujo‘ed — trapped in your 1983 Ford Gimp-mobile, fighting for your life against a rabid St. Bernard who can smell your fear and taste the salt of your sweat through the hot car windows and won’t stop attacking until he gets his treats.

Being the avid non-reader of Stephen King that I am, I’ll venture a guess that the modest thrills Cujo offers are not among the horror author’s most repeatedly sought out. The film’s gained a cult following over the years, and it’s not hard to see why even with the clunky narrative right-angles and the abundance of dull characters, not to mention an ending so abrupt it’s as if the filmmakers could NOT WAIT to get to the part where the audience applauds. Though if you ask me, what really makes Lewis Teague’s adaptation worth watching is how he presents the horror. As Michael Scott’s Fun Run Race for the Cure was so good at reminding us, rabies ain’t no joke.

As everyone but me has known for some time now, the story traces a cuddly pooch’s descent into madness after being bitten by a bat and the subsequent killing spree he goes on in a small American town. Famously the drama climaxes with a mother (Dee Wallace in an appropriately histrionic performance) and her young son (Danny Pintauro)’s terrifying encounter with the aggressive canine that imprisons them in the very car they’ve driven miles into the boonies to get repaired. With no easy escape in sight, a blood-soaked battle of wits ensues over the course of a couple of days.

Simplicity often works in the film’s favor, particularly as it concerns itself with that which is purely visually horrific: the transformation of Cujo from Ole Yeller to homicidal monster is surprisingly distressing. There’s not much more sickening than seeing dog fur matted with blood that’s not his own, eyes jaundiced from some level of psychosis only serial killers know. The horror in that way stems not from any supernatural force or alien-spawned violence but rather an animal succumbing to a real (nasty) disease.

When it comes to the human perspective, that’s where this monster movie struggles with its simplistic approach. The film’s pacing is so inconsistent it essentially becomes a tale of two halves, one that spends the first 45 minutes or so lounging about, exploring the dynamics of a rather boring family, and the other on the grisly, animal-related violence. In that first half, the Trentons are portrayed as a seemingly idyllic, loving household who inherit most of their character traits through their “fashionable” ’80s hairstyles and clothing. On the other side, we get a glimpse of the environment that breeds Cujo. (Spoiler alert: it’s not such a pretty picture.)

Only the broadest of brushstrokes are applied to the characters, with Daniel Hugh Kelly playing along as a likable and supportive father, while Wallace gets to have some fun with a more dynamic role as a distant housewife. The ones in closest proximity to Cujo, at least initially, are so obviously disposable. I will admit though it’s fun to watch them get turned into Cujo’s Kibbles and Bits. And as usual, the point of view of a child becomes a crucial lens through which a great many (if not all) King adaptations must be viewed. Cue a little more rolling around in cliché.

In Cujo, young Tad is convinced monsters are real. Of course, dear old dad — who is nearly subversive in his trustworthiness as a Horror Movie Dad — can’t possibly be expected to factor big-ass, ferociously rabid dogs into his anti-monster bedtime rhetoric. The film strains to connect it, but there’s an interesting enough parallel drawn between Tad’s imagination and the horror of reality he’s soon to experience.

Still, the loss of innocence is nowhere near as compelling as simply watching a wild animal confirm that sometimes one’s bite really is worse than his bark. Two thumbs up for the dog, woof. What a performance.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Chopper, sic balls . . .

Recommendation: Though it starts sluggish and takes its time to evolve from humdrum human drama into full-fledged, in-your-face bloody action, the back nine of this film is absolutely worth the wait. One well-trained animal makes it also well worth MY wait. But I wonder what organizations like PETA think of a movie like Cujo. I mean, yikes. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 93 mins. 

Quoted: “F**k you, dog.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.denofgeek.com 

High-Rise

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Release: Friday, May 13, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Amy Jump

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Chaos reigns supreme in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, an adaptation of the 1975 novel penned by British author J.G. Ballard who envisioned a microcosm of society confined within a 40-story-tall luxury apartment building. After nearly four decades and several failed attempts at adapting material many considered ‘un-filmable,’ Ballard’s anarchical dreams have finally found a home on the big screen in 2016.

Despite several familiar trends, the 1970s-London-set High-Rise manages to differentiate itself by presenting an atypical dystopian society. Rather than prisoners of a faceless, nameless system, people are more often than not victims of their own circumstances, organized within the building according to their financial standing: the wealthy live on the top floors while the poor occupy lower levels. This isn’t a prison, for tenants haven’t been forced to abandon the conveniences of modern living nor have they been brainwashed into disassociating with the outside world. Rather, disaffection has occurred naturally, the conveniences of the building allowing those inside to gradually lose interest in anything it doesn’t provide. Additionally, and although it certainly feels like it at times, this isn’t a post-apocalyptic environment; the people who fill the frame represent only a fraction of society, those who we can safely assume actually wanted to come live here.

High-Rise is a movie of striking visual design, at times to a fault. Indeed, the building is a character unto itself, a looming entity with its upper five or ten floors precariously off-set from the rest. One look at this feat of civil engineering and you’re smitten. Even though it’s precisely the kind of physics-defying curiosity that has become old hat in these sorts of movies, the tower looks and feels right at home in our world. The cold, metal-gray interior features all the amenities you could imagine: shopping markets, gyms, pool-and-spa areas; there’s even a primary school. Parties are regularly thrown, often spilling over between floors, necessarily suggesting different economic classes still have the freedom to associate with whomever they so choose.

Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is our way into the building. A 25th-floor resident, Robert is a lecturer on physiology and commutes daily to and from the city. He allows himself some distance from other people until his upstairs neighbor, single mom Charlotte (Sienna Miller), makes her presence known. The two quickly fall into a romance that eventually allows Robert to get to know her young but strange son Toby (Louis Suc). The first third of the film establishes the world inside this place and sees him getting acquainted with a few other eccentrics, including the Wilders, a family whose station in life seems to be being stuck on the bottom floor. Richard (Luke Evans) is a documentarian with a screw loose and more than a few probing questions. His wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) is heavily pregnant and wishes Richard weren’t always out getting himself into trouble.

Robert soon finds himself summoned to the penthouse, where high rise architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his socialite wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) live. Well, flourish really. He’s brought up for an opportunity to get to know some of the building’s more prestigious fellows, a networking opportunity if you want to call it that. In some ways Hiddleston’s place within the narrative, especially with regards to his association with such characters, feels reminiscent of Jonathan Pine and his fraternization with dangerous types in the brilliant TV mini-series The Night Manager, a John le Carré adaptation in which a former British soldier is recruited by MI6 to infiltrate the ranks of a notorious international arms dealer in order to bring him down.

While a sense of impending doom is distinctly lacking with regards to Robert’s situation, part of the crux of this story does concern an evolving perception of who the doctor really is, particularly as he begins currying favor with some of the elites. (He even gets to play a game of squash with Mr. Royal!) It’s no coincidence his apartment is almost smack-dab in the middle of the building. The metaphor is almost too overt: Robert’s not like the rest, he plays as though the rules don’t apply and thus finds himself in the precarious position of not caring whether or not he improves his current life. His physical location within this building, like it does everyone else, says a lot about the opportunities he has been afforded.

This puzzling drama is an exercise in random visual stimulation, so it’s fitting that the central conflict arises haphazardly as well. It takes three months from the day Robert moves in for the social infrastructure to fail. Specifically what triggers the collapse isn’t made clear, but basic necessities are the first to go: electricity, clean water, food supplies, proper garbage disposal. A man throwing himself from the 39th floor onto the hood of a car is the most apparent indicator of things starting to go awry. And later: complete pandemonium as the irascible Richard Wilder stages a revolution to take down Royal, who he believes is the one responsible for things falling apart. More perceptive viewers will notice that, while all of this is going on, police are nowhere to be seen.

Lang isn’t exactly immune to the insanity, and it’s in his slow slide into a state of acceptance that maybe . . . just maybe, Royal’s plans aren’t completely sinister, that in some weird way society itself is what has failed him and failed the building. Wheatley ensures our perspective on the matter aligns with Robert’s, a tactic that allows us to remain as close to impartial as possible. And it’s not like Robert isn’t flawed himself. As the level of chaos increases we see his behavior change as well. A scene in the grocery store is particularly memorable, exhibiting a side of the doctor we haven’t yet seen: angry, desperate, and violent. He’s become overwhelmed by the survival instinct, protecting what matters most to him — in this case, a bucket of paint. At this point we are well beyond rules. Society is now left to fend for itself as Royal and his cronies continue to look for a way to improve the facilities.

High-Rise is an intensely visual piece that doesn’t quite resonate as the profound sociopolitical allegory it was clearly set on becoming and that the book has been heralded as. Nonetheless, it approaches a familiar subject with a gusto that allows us to overlook the fraying edges, offering up a hallucinatory experience that is as unpredictable as it is entertaining and thought-provoking.

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Recommendation: Fans of the weird and the dystopian need apply. High-Rise gets carried away with itself every now and then, with some sequences beginning and ending so sporadically you want to believe many of the transitions were done this way to add to the disorientation (and maybe this really was the thinking). Well-performed and even better shot. Cinematography is a high point, while Tom Hiddleston’s performance reminds us why this is an actor who should have more work. He’s too good. So is Jeremy Irons, but this is really Hiddleston’s movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “There’s no food left. Only the dogs. And Mrs. Hillman is refusing to clean unless I pay her what I apparently owe her. Like all poor people, she’s obsessed with money.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Fundamentals of Caring

'The Fundamentals of Caring' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Rob Burnett

Directed by: Rob Burnett

A long time ago I made some comment to the effect of being frustrated by how easily I’m tricked into watching movies starring Paul Rudd. This knee-jerk reaction was inspired by a viewing of the terrible 2012 comedy Wanderlust which paired him with Jennifer Aniston. That movie did nothing for the world of comedy or fans of either performer, but it was wrong of me to question my loyalty to Rudd.

Because here’s the thing about him: Paul Rudd is still Paul Rudd in poor films. In great movies he’s . . . holy crap, Paul Rudd. The Oxford grad-turned-professional-penis-joke-teller has weathered a few flops in his time and yet he emerges on the other side grin still intact. Every. Time. He’s never what’s wrong with a film and more often than not he’s the major box office draw. That couldn’t be more true when it comes to Netflix’s road trip comedy The Fundamentals of Caring, a movie that will have no box office intake to speak of, but will still leave audiences satisfied and smiling.

He plays Ben, a retired writer now looking for a way to move on after the loss of his young son. The restraint in his performance marks something of a diversion for Rudd, taking on a more dramatic persona here (though he’s not completely sullen — just think more stoic, as in Perks of Being a Wallflower and dial the infectious inanity of Anchorman down to 1). Ben turns to caregiving and starts looking after Trevor (Craig Roberts), a teen with muscular dystrophy and a dark sense of humor. His mother Elsa (Jennifer Ehle) isn’t exactly enamored when she finds out Ben has little experience in care-taking, especially since her son is more needy than the typical teen.

Ben thinks it would be good for Trevor to get out of the living room and see some of the world before his cynicism suffocates him. So he’s going to take him on a road trip to see “the world’s deepest pit.” Because the rest of the movie needs to happen, Elsa gets over her (completely understandable) fears in a heartbeat and soon we’re on the road, packed into an old van bound for a few tourist traps and maybe even some personal revelations along the way. Of course there’ll be a girl, too. The fundamentals of at least a decent road trip comedy. Check, check and check.

Rob Burnett’s adaptation of Jonathan Evison’s novel rarely breaks out of Checklist Mode, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments worth savoring. One manifests as a trip detour when Trevor decides he wants to see his estranged father who he hasn’t seen since he was three. He’ll have the chance to get some answers at the luxury auto dealer he now runs. We all know how this is going to go, but let’s just say there’s even less reconciliation in this scene than what’s expected. Bob (Frederick Weller)’s a cold-hearted bastard who’d rather shell out $160 than offer even a hint of an apology to his son.

The encounter is pretty heartbreaking. It has immediate repercussions that are hard to watch unfold as well, such as when Trevor, in a moment of bitter dejectedness, interprets the entire cross-country endeavor as a favor to Ben to make himself feel better, rather than the mutually-beneficial adventure Ben intended it to be. The fall-out is one of those many boxes the film must ultimately tick but because it, like much of the story’s moodiness, is handled with a particularly appealing brand of brashness (if that’s actually a thing), it doesn’t become another throw-away moment.

In stark contrast to what’s familiar and/or predictable, Selena Gomez ends up doing something absurd. She actually helps endear us to Fundamentals‘ bent-but-not-broken spirit. Though her character, a strong-and-silent type named Dot (terrible name), doesn’t have much to do or say, Gomez finds a way to inject sensitivity into a story that heretofore has largely lacked it. Truly, it’s Roberts’ cynical, self-deprecating outlook that funds the nonchalance. There’s an unshakable sense that Burnett never really wanted his project to be different. Just darker. Gomez doesn’t expose a truly complex character but she helps steer Trevor out of his deep funk. Her presence is perpetually welcomed.

Shot in just 26 days, Fundamentals is only ever a trio of lesser performances away from being forgettable road trip fluff. Because of the obvious comfort and chemistry between said performers, the adventure soon becomes one that’s surprisingly difficult to disembark from.

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Recommendation: Performances make The Fundamentals of Caring worth sitting through for there’s not much else separating it from the dearth of other road tripping adventures. Paul Rudd restrains himself once again to effect yet another example of how he is much more than just a penis-joke-teller. Best of all, he never overshadows his co-star Craig Roberts, who is also a lot of fun, and hey, even Selena Gomez is good here. Everyone’s all in on this one, and it shows.  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Yes, and I’m not an a**hole. And since you want an a**hole, my not being an a**hole makes me more of an a**hole than the a**holes that you normally date, because they’re giving you exactly what you want; whereas I, by not being an a**hole, am not. Which makes me an a**hole.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com