The Night Clerk

Release: Friday, February 21, 2020 

→Netflix

Written by: Michael Cristofer

Directed by: Michael Cristofer

The problem with The Night Clerk is not its depiction of a developmental disorder or that it tries to be two movies in one. It’s that those two elements — character study cum genre film — don’t properly coalesce. It works actually quite well as the former but the crime mystery aspect leaves a lot to be desired. Yes indeed, there will be no mistaking this for a Hitchcock thriller.

In fact it works so much better when considered as a character piece that any other label feels like an irresponsible misnomer. If I were compelled to review this movie accordingly (that is, as a crime drama/mystery), then writer/director Michael Cristofer has just redefined the slow-burn with The Night Clerk‘s super-cautious, almost tedious tip-toeing toward exculpation. Viewed through this lens this Netflix film becomes quite possibly the most uneventful crime drama you’re going to see for some time.

Bart Bromley is our conflicted main character, a hotel clerk with Asperger’s played by Tye Sheridan, a young actor seemingly born for stardom having graduated from high-quality dramas such as The Tree of Life and Mud into full-blown Spielbergian spectacles. The Night Clerk offers him a chance to strut his stuff as a legitimate leading man and Sheridan does not waste the opportunity, providing a complicated protagonist whose humanity extends beyond a neurodevelopmental condition many movies have been guilty of identifying as their character’s most significant trait. He pours into the performance a sincere commitment to the details: struggle with eye contact; lots of long-winded, one-sided conversations; a level of self-awareness that nods toward him falling on the high-functioning end of the spectrum.

After what is basically another routine shift change — save for the fact his co-worker, Jack (Austin Archer), arrives 15 minutes early to relieve him, something Bart’s endearing meticulousness does not allow to go unnoticed — he witnesses the woman he recently checked in getting assaulted by an unidentified man who comes to her room. He’s privy to the drama due to his rigging up of small cameras around the room, which he has linked to half a dozen monitors back at home in his basement-level bedroom and through which he studies other people’s behavior so as to improve his own social interactions. Bart’s reaction to what he sees sets the action, as it were, into motion and a criminal investigation follows.

The Night Clerk is driven more by mood and feeling than mysterious twists and shocking reveals (the movie does present some of those, though shocking might be putting it too strong). Cristofer’s screenplay really drills into the loneliness, creating an environment in which Bart’s relationships with everything are fleeting and mostly experienced at a distance. It’s a tough circumstance because if Bart’s voyeuristic approach seems creepy, it definitely is, and yet the more direct route to getting to know people, learning how to “blend in,” is often barricaded by the insensitive, ignorant attitudes of others.

The humanity it seeks justifies both The Night Clerk‘s glacial pacing and its flirting with the basic structure of a crime mystery. While it has some activity going on in the background the story spends most of its time inside Bart’s head and heart as he wrestles with his increasingly strange predicament. To Detective Espada (John Leguizamo) the body language and passionate over-explaining are big red flags. To Ana de Armas‘ beautiful and mysterious Andrea Rivera, the movie’s great anomaly who accesses Bart in a way not even his mother (Helen Hunt) has been able, his social awkwardness is more charming than off-putting.

The Night Clerk manages to strike some poignant notes in its observation of a life lacking the nutrients of social connection. It plays with morality and culpability in some interesting ways, not quite absolving anyone from some kind of guilt. Everyone in this movie does something wrong. As far as unraveling the sordid crime, it’s nothing a gumshoe couldn’t solve. The worst thing about The Night Clerk, as is often true in social situations, is the inaccurate labeling.

What is this pain in my heart?

Recommendation: If complicated resolutions are what you seek, you should probably avoid checking in with The Night Clerk. For a great performance from Tye Sheridan and a rare sighting of Helen Hunt (!) you might want to pay attention to the details here. It’s a good movie, and even better if you just don’t think of it as a crime drama. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “That’s a very complicated question.”

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Photo credits: IMDb

Earthquake Bird

Release: Friday, November 15, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Wash Westmoreland 

Directed by: Wash Westmoreland 

I spun the Netflix wheel on a Saturday night and landed on this thing called Earthquake Bird. Turns out, it was the caliber movie that rewards in kind the minimal effort I put in to finding it. This slow-burn of a psychosexual thriller has reliable commodities on both sides of the camera, with Wash Westmoreland, one half of the duo behind such well-received dramas as Quinceañera (2006), Still Alice (2015) and Colette (2018) directing and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander in the lead. Unfortunately the end result is nowhere near the sum of its talented parts.

Earthquake Bird is an adaptation of a 2001 novel of the same name by Susanna Jones. I haven’t read the book but it’s not hard to imagine it’s better, even just by browsing through a couple of critical blurbs. This desultory drama revolves around Vikander’s Lucy Fly, a Swedish expat living in Japan circa the late 1980s who gets swept up into a dangerous love triangle and is named a suspect in the disappearance of the other woman, a young American named Lily Bridges (Riley Keough). Written and directed by Westmoreland, the movie incorporates thriller, crime and “romance” elements but fails to make a good, frothy stew out of any of them.

It begins with Lucy being hauled away from her cubicle where she works as a translator — currently on subtitles for Ridley Scott’s 1989 thriller Black Rain (a cute little nod to him serving as producer here) — and to the police station where she vexes the authorities with her evasive answers and soon thereafter the audience with her complete lack of personality. You get these movies all the time where the narrator is an unreliable messenger, but Earthquake Bird steps it up a notch by providing an unreliable narrator in an unreliable framing device. What begins as a focused (if not harsh) police interrogation soon gives way to an ocean of flashback. Any sense of narrative structure or cohesion gets abandoned in favor of pure mood and atmosphere, qualities emphasized by Atticus Ross’ foreboding score.

Lucy traces her steps back to the day she met the mysterious and oh-so-handsome Teiji (Japanese dancer Naoki Kobayashi in his first English-language role), a noodle shop employee who hobbies, somewhat obsessively, as a photographer. His fascination with puddles is soon replaced by a fixation on her pretty visage in black-and-white. She becomes his muse, they enter into a relationship wherein honesty and openness are valued above all else. Physical intimacy is much lower on the list. Their dynamic carries the emotional conviction of a stapler. Yet there’s a symmetry between their worlds of quietude and isolation that makes them kindred spirits. There’s logic to them being together but no feeling in the togetherness.

Enter Lily, who wastes no time ingratiating herself in the lives of these two lovely-looking and lonely people. Thank goodness for Keough, who kicks the movie into a higher gear with her energetic presence. Her character is also more interesting. She’s introduced at first as a nice but needy new acquaintance, then a romantic foe and possibly even destroyer of worlds. Lucy is in a very delicate place, her life a constant shuffle as she seems always to be outrunning something. She has this weird relationship with death, the grim reaper always trailing her. Initially the tension between the two women isn’t purely adversarial; there’s something free and uninhibited about Lily that Lucy wants and also envies. When the trio embark on a weekend getaway to the scenic Sado Island, the sexual tension builds. A strange development further destabilizes an already awkward situation.

Ever since the Swedish dancer-turned-actor blew up on the scene in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina in 2015 I don’t think I’ve seen a performance of hers I haven’t liked. Lucy Fly isn’t exactly vintage Vikander but I blame more of my apathy towards her on the writing rather than the acting. This is a very restrained performance that’s more technically impressive than emotionally resonant — her Japanese, at least to my untrained ears, sounds perfect. Her thousand-mile stare is unsettling. Still I find it pretty terrible that her most interesting, defining trait is the black eye she carries around. And her backstory, when it’s finally barfed out in a much-delayed expositional sequence toward the very end, isn’t nearly as interesting as one hopes it would be for such a protracted build-up.

As if to remind us the title means something, periodic earthquakes rumble through the story in a kind of motif. In the immediate aftermath, a shrill birdsong alerts the town the coast is clear. It very well could be my brain shorting out but I didn’t find any relevance between this and the story at hand. Undoubtedly there’s some deeper metaphorical meaning behind it but the movie doesn’t do near enough to warrant the amount of effort it takes to decode that. Never mind its human Rubik’s cube of a leading lady.

“Tell me all your secrets, like, yesterday.”

Recommendation: What starts out as a kind of Lost in Translation meditation on loneliness and isolation (d)evolves into a run-of-the-mill, Girl on the Train-type murder plot that really doesn’t go anywhere. The characters, save for Riley Keough’s, are totally uninteresting and not worth the effort it takes to understand what drives them. That’s really disappointing when you’re talking about Alicia Vikander and the very interesting-looking Naoki Kobayashi. Le sigh. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: ““If every time I took a photo it took a piece of your soul, would you still let me?”

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Photo credits: IMP Awards; Polygon 

The Lighthouse

Release: Friday, October 18, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Max Eggers; Robert Eggers

Directed by: Robert Eggers

In 2016 Robert Eggers transitioned from production designer to director. Even then it was clear he was a filmmaker with uncommon confidence and intelligence, concocting a truly unsettling period piece in the supernatural horror The Witch. His experiences designing the look and feel of a variety of short films served him well in a feature-length format and he combined his obsessive attention to historical detail with a command over story and performance to produce one of the year’s most discussed and divisive films and one of my favorites.

Very loosely based on a real-life tragedy Eggers’ second feature film The Lighthouse is uncompromisingly strange but also a beautiful synthesis of technical elements, committed performance and mind-bending mystery. It is time we start having conversations about him being among the most distinct directors working today. Harkening to early sound pictures of the late ’20s and early ’30s the movie is shot in stark black-and-white and framed in a near-perfect square (1.19:1) aspect ratio and relies as much on its unique presentation style as it does some wicked narrative sleight of hand.

The story is written by the director and his brother Max. It’s a fairly simple conceit — a tale of possession and/or chronic cabin fever; of lonely men succumbing to their baser instincts before falling apart completely as much darker forces take hold. In playing with increasingly unreliable perspectives the screenplay spins out a web of unexpected complexity, a descent into psychosis that’s evoked by arguably career-best turns from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. They play adversarial lightkeepers running on dwindling supplies of alcohol and sanity when their four-week station on a remote island gets prolonged indefinitely after a bad storm hits.

Set in 1890 The Lighthouse is a period piece that slowly evolves into a fever dream that draws upon Herman Melville with pinches of H.P. Lovecraft. As such, the production is even more reliant upon visual technique and precision-tooled editing than Eggers’ previous throwback to primitive living. The camerawork becomes freakishly kaleidoscopic as time goes on. The visual language is arguably more important than the actual dialogue, which often comes across as prosaic babble delivered in foreign tongues — especially when the characters get epically liquored up.

The deeper we go the more Eggers seduces with his technical prowess, introducing more flash-cuts, more jarring juxtaposition and emphasizing the ornate, brass and wind-instrument-heavy sound design — both ominous and period-accurate — to encourage the vicarious feeling of losing your mind. That damn foghorn! Haunting hallucinations (or are they?) obscure what’s real from what’s imagined: Anatomically correct mermaids (Valeriia Karaman) and tentacled monsters derived from some depraved fantasy serve just as well as the basis of my own personal, ongoing nightmares.

While you could certainly write essays on the specific design of the movie, The Lighthouse owes no small thanks to the thunderous performances. Pattinson’s stock just keeps rising, here playing a young man with lots of buried secrets. Ephraim Winslow is a former lumberjack now learning the “wickie” trade who claims he’s attempting to make a fresh start. He’s sentenced to the most unpleasant, physically taxing duties in the daytime all while contending with some pesky seagulls who just won’t leave him be. Dafoe essays another iconic role in Thomas Wake, a cranky sailor with a penchant for cryptic messaging; an old fart who gets his jollies criticizing the young lad, barking orders and engaging in some weird behavior during his night shifts. He has, for example, an affinity for stripping naked at the top of the lighthouse, enrapt by something the light provides beyond warmth.

Though it is a rather bewildering journey, one that ends in an insanely dark place, the tension — at least, for the moments when Eggers and company might still have been sane — rides on some amusingly relatable dynamics. There’s a passage around the midway point that plays out like Animal House stuck in the 19th Century — aye, pre-plumbing, pre-electricity, pre-a-lot-of-damn-comfort. We all grit teeth at our roommates for their worst habits but because this is a Robert Eggers movie, everything is elevated to extremes.

As the weeks pass, initial tensions give way to a mutual respect for one another’s specific code of conduct. A night of drunken revelry suggests the two may have more in common than they previously thought. When an inevitable act of rage triggers a second storm, a tempest of fear, distrust and contempt to rival the whipping winds and salt-lathered waves threatening to sweep the men to the briny deep, it seems everything is conspiring against their best efforts to coexist. The actors play off each other with such ferocity, Dafoe and Pattinson seemingly intoxicated by one another’s manic energy and feeding off of unique and reportedly exhausting work conditions.

Crucial to Eggers’ brand of storytelling is setting and how he manipulates the natural to turn something entirely unnatural and yet chillingly authentic — not to mention uncomfortable, and not just for us in cushy recliner seats taking in some seriously disturbing imagery and deranged behavior. As The Lighthouse was filmed on location budgetary constraints weren’t really the issue but rather being able to endure what Mother Nature threw at the cast and crew. They not only endured, but used foul weather to further enhance the exhibition of suffering in the space of the movie. Over a month-long shoot a series of nor’easters blasted the small fishing community of Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia. For a particular scene Pattinson had to wade into the freezing sea more than 20 times as cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (who also shot The Witch) battled with lenses overcome with fog. Reminiscent of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant the actual misery bleeds into the fabric of the movie itself.

With The Lighthouse Eggers proves that his Puritanical nightmare was no flash in the pan. It also proves the then-33-year-old had room to improve. His sophomore feature is simply spectacular. How early is too early to label someone an auteur? Perhaps two films in to a directorial career is premature. It might be a good idea to hold off on that before seeing what he does with The Northman, a tale of revenge set in the 10th Century, involving Icelandic Vikings. I have to be completely honest though, I’m predisposed to loving what he does next and it’s barely in its pre-production stages. What makes me so excited is how this man clings to his vision like few filmmakers currently working. He creates experiences that are the epitome of what cinema is: getting lost while sitting in one place, stolen to somewhere else that’s both right in front of you and deep in your head.

Welp, honeymoon’s officially over

Recommendation: The movie to beat this year for me, The Lighthouse is an even greater achievement from rising talent Robert Eggers. The cumulative weirdness slowly frays the mind, morphing into something it wants to forget but won’t be able to. It was met with near-universal critical acclaim during the film festival circuit earlier this year, and deserves those plaudits. It’s an experience unlike anything you’ll have this or any other year. However I won’t hesitate to throw in the caveat that this old, creaky seafarer’s yarn is not for the mainstream crowd. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here seeking rational explanation.

Rated: R

Running Time: 109 mins.

Quoted: “Damn ye! Let Neptune strike ye dead Winslow! HAAARK!”

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 

Wounds

Release: Friday, October 18, 2019 (Hulu — U.S./Netflix internationally)

→Hulu

Written by: Babak Anvari

Directed by: Babak Anvari

The word ‘wounds’ really makes me feel icky. It’s a trigger for me like ‘moist’ is for others. (Sorry if I just made you wince.) I hate. The word. Wounds.

Masochist that I am, I chose to watch a movie with that as the title. Appropriately it grossed me out, but not always in a good way. It’s a weird, nasty, inexplicable (also not-in-a-good-way) psychological/possession thriller set in The Big Easy, featuring a likable cast including Armie Hammer, Dakota Johnson, Karl Glusman (yes, that Karl Glusman) and the rising Zazie Beetz and costarring cockroaches — thousands of ’em. All of a sudden my college days at 2305 Highland Avenue seem not so bad.

W****s is the second feature length film from British-Iranian director Babak Anvari. I wasn’t entirely bowled over by his previous effort, the 2016 Tehran-set thriller Under the Shadow but unfortunately his follow-up only serves to make that one look superior. The story follows Will, a perpetually boozing N’awlins bartender played by Armie Hammer, as his week goes from bad to worse to just plain disgusting after he takes home a phone left behind at the bar he keeps. It belongs to one of the underage college kids who fled the scene when a brawl broke out between a few of the regulars (Brad William Henke as Eric; Luke Hawx as Marvin — good ole boys with the builds of a former NFL player and pro wrestler respectively).

What at first appears to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of being careless with one’s phone — a creepy scene suggests just how easy it is for the wrong person to unlock all the wonders hidden within our personal devices, no matter how sophisticated the lock screen pattern — evolves into a lackadaisically paced, occasionally head (and armpit)-scratching descent into madness and obsession that finds Will and his girlfriend Carrie (Dakota Johnson) battling forces no one, including the audience, can hope to understand.

A hammered Hammer does well with a script that characterizes men as confrontational bulls incapable of showing affection and maybe even unworthy of it and women as the bane of their existence . . . or at the very least, the source of their emotional w****s. (Aha! I see what you’re doing, Mr. Anvari — your movie title is a double entendre.*) Johnson does what she can as Carrie, but her arc is so rushed in development it’s stunning how anyone could have thought this was sufficient. She’s too good for Will, who prefers living in the moment to moving up to the next level in life. While Carrie’s actively trying to better herself — she’s writing a term paper that bizarrely gets sidelined when she becomes consumed by the mystery of what’s on that stupid phone — Will spends almost the entire movie lusting after his bar friend Alicia (Zazie Beetz), whose boyfriend Jeffrey (Glusman) struggles to assert himself as a tough guy.

Writer/director Babak Anvari, as he proved with his début effort, is good at establishing and sustaining an ominous atmosphere. Events take their sweet time to live up to the vibes telegraphed perhaps too early by the soundtrack but eventually they do, particularly in a memorable, if vomit-inducing climax that leaves as big a mark visually as it does aurally. Anvari also takes advantage of setting, turning the host city of Mardi Gras into a ghost town where oversized bugs seem in greater abundance than people.

However, his inability to elucidate why any of this supernatural/sacrificial gobbledygook matters proves catastrophic. The transformations of our (quite honestly unlikable) protagonists makes less than no sense. Tertiary characters surface in weird ways only to be unceremoniously kicked to the cockroach-infested curb, though the product placement for the Dodge Charger is not to be understated. Frustratingly that shocking, gruesome final scene is far better than anything that has come before it in terms of delivering the horror. In a better movie though it might have been the rule, not the terribly obvious exception.

* Okay, so technically his movie is based on a novella called The Visible Filth. Why, oh why couldn’t they have just stuck with that name?! That’s so much better than . . . ugh, I can’t even type it. 

Recommendation: Cockroaches, cockroaches and, oh, what’s this? More cockroaches. Wounds‘ shock value is more like shlock value. Your time is too valuable to waste on a movie that fails to justify itself. The most shocking thing about this movie is how it attracted a cast this good. Though I wonder how much worse this might have been without it. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

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; http://www.variety.com 

In the Tall Grass

Release: Friday, October 4, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Vincenzo Natali

Directed by: Vincenzo Natali

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!

Recommendation: 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: TV-MA

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.”

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 

In the Shadow of the Moon

Release: Friday, September 27, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Gregory Weidman; Geoffrey Tock 

Directed by: Jim Mickle

I’ll admit that what drew me to the recently released Netflix original In the Shadow of the Moon was not Boyd Holbrook, even though he’s, uh . . . he’s the main dude in it. In this era of super-important and super-niche brand appeal it seems a little silly to volunteer two hours away to a movie heavily featuring an actor you’re not much of a fan of. But I am somewhat drawn to time-traveling narratives and on the surface In the Shadow of the Moon seemed to have me covered. In an ironic twist it was Holbrook I came away thinking more about than anything else.

Director Jim Mickle (Cold in July; We Are What We Are) mixes and mashes genres and ideas in a way that results in a viewing experience that’s very much a tale of two halves.  Set in the city of brotherly love In the Shadow of the Moon begins its life as a grittily compelling — and pretty icky — police procedural, then gives itself over to a time-traveling farce that gets bogged down in increasingly convoluted internal logic and noisy social commentary, the latter updating Minority Report‘s stratagem to target politically-motivated terrorists rather than plain, old murderers.

Taking place over the span of roughly 30 years — 36 but who’s counting? (you should be, that’s who) — the thrust of the narrative concerns the relationship between a devoted cop who eventually finds himself a detective, but loses a lot of other things, and a blue-hooded terrorist bent on righteous retribution, one with the ability to travel backwards in time and who resurfaces on one particular moonlit night every nine years to exact justice on future perpetrators of even worse, broader acts of violence. Key developments are parsed out every nine years across an episodic story broken up into “chapters” — ’88, ’97, ’06, ’15 and finally looping back to the dreaded 2024, where the film begins — drip-feeding clues that appear to draw the detective and the terrorist closer together, even though they’re traveling through time in opposite directions.

For emotional investment, the movie relies on that old gambit of obsession being the hero’s ultimate undoing. Officer Lockhart (or is that Locke? not even IMDb seems to know) devotes years — decades — to a seemingly impossible criminal case, which creates a rift between him and his family (his daughter played at various stages by different actors) and casts him as a hopeless defendant in the court of common sense and reason. His peers, including laidback partner Maddox (Bokeem Woodbine as a Roger Murtaugh type) and Detective Holt (Dexter‘s very own Michael C. Hall), who happens to be Lockhart’s brother-in-law, invariably jump ship well before the hair and old-age makeup transition Holbrook from handsome to “haggard.”

Fortunately the performances and a few adrenaline-spiking chase scenes provide enough of a human heartbeat and broad entertainment to make the journey relatable and not a completely polarizing exercise in political extremism and inflammatory left-wing rhetoric. Holbrook is clearly committed, a proud southerner who found his way into acting by way of Michael Shannon dropping in to his home town (his high school didn’t even have a drama department), and who has used his fashion model looks to get him considerable attention in bit parts and more substantial roles (Narcos; Logan). He remains a sympathetic presence throughout. Opposite him, the striking-looking Cleopatra Coleman as that enigmatic time-traveler doesn’t need to do much to be effective. With a shaved head and the lips to incur the envy of Angelina Jolie, her canvas is easily one of the most unique assets this movie has tucked in its holster.

Blue Hoodies Matter

Recommendation: I left with a better impression of actor Boyd Holbrook, though if you’re here for Dexter you might not leave quite as satisfied a customer. While the rules governing the agency of each of the two leads becomes increasingly convoluted, you have to praise In the Shadow of the Moon for its ambition. It’s certainly one of the better Netflix offerings currently available. I just wish it could sustain the quality of the much better, seedier first half. 

Rated: TV-MA

Running Time: 115 mins.

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 

Month in Review: September ’19

I don’t really know what happened, but in September I found a bit more rhythm and motivation to put up content. Maybe I was starting to feel guilty calling myself a “blogger” by putting up nothing but empty wrap-around posts and the occasional streamed review (see August — that was dire!). I have been one drag-and-drop away from inserting a John Wick gif declaring my triumphant return but the truth is I can’t provide any assurance October will be the same, so I’ll hold off on making anything Official.

It also helped I think that September supplied some really cool new movies, including a pair of potential end-of-year favorites in The Peanut Butter Falcon and Ad Astra — two distinctly different movies that each earned really high scores (4.5/5) for different reasons. The former for its pure entertainment value and winsomeness and the latter for its bold vision, impeccable visuals and an awards-worthy performance from Brad Pitt.

Without further gas-bagging, here’s what happened on Thomas J during September:


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Ad Astra; The Peanut Butter Falcon; Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

Streaming: I Am Mother; Mission of Honor (Hurricane)

Alternative Content: The Marvelous Brie Larson #5


Bite Sized Reviews: Hulu vs Netflix — Fight! 

Body at Brighton Rock · April 26, 2019 · Directed by Roxanne Benjamin · Clocking in at just under the hour-and-a-half mark this disappointingly uneventful “survival” thriller with a millennial lean is one of those rare examples of a movie needing to be just a hair longer for some of the elements to come together in a more satisfying way. Roxanne Benjamin writes and directs her first stand-alone feature film and if there’s one thing distinct about it it’s her style, her unapologetic fandom for “Hitchcock Hour” — the film presented as what could pass for a weekly installment into an anthology of close calls and misadventures. Body at Brighton Rock is defined by atmosphere rather than performance, one that’s both complimented and contrived by a screeching soundtrack provided by The Gifted. Bookended by 60s-style title cards, her story follows a rookie park ranger named Wendy (Karina Fontes), an “indoor type” who wants to prove her worth by doing some actual Park Ranger-ing. Of course the map-misplacing Wendy gets more than she bargains for when she stumbles across a lifeless body away from the trail she’s supposed to be on and when, through a combination of “circumstance” and “incompetence,” her communications devices all crap out on her — the dreaded dead phone icon, no!! — she’s left to fend for herself against “the elements.” I’m using a lot of quotation marks here because a lot of the movie feels superficial, not least of which being these so-called dire circumstances. Nearly 24 hours spent lost in the woods would suck in real life, an ordeal certainly worthy of Facebook status. But 127 Hours this is not. Body at Brighton Rock is, yes, impressively atmospheric and Fontes makes beans and rice out of what little she’s given but cinematic this also is not. It’s too staid in the action department, too plodding in detail — at least to support the ridiculous proposal that is the twist ending, something that’s clearly meant to evoke the Master of Horror and Suspense but ends up evoking more laughs than anything else. (2/5) 

Between Two Ferns: The Movie · September 20, 2019 · Directed by Scott Aukerman · Even as a fan regularly overwhelmed by fits of the giggles by Zach Galifianakis’ tawdry and tacky roast-the-guest web series Between Two Ferns, I’m not sure we really needed it to be stretched into a feature-length movie. Predictably, the movie’s best bits are the bits themselves, with the King of Awkward hosting/”humiliating” the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Keanu Reeves, Tessa Thompson, David Letterman, Brie Larson, Awkwafina, John Legend, Adam Scott, Tiffany Haddish, Chance the Rapper, Paul Rudd, Peter Dinklage, Jon Hamm, Hailee Steinfeld and Matthew McConaughey, as he feeds on both personal and professional insecurities. The plot, as it were, finds Galifianakis and his trusted production crew road tripping across the country in an attempt to secure 10 more episodes so the show host can placate his boss (Will Ferrell) and thereby fulfill his dream of becoming a late night talk show host. In between the ruthless onslaught of just . . . absurdly personal and uncomfortable questioning the movie half-heartedly fumbles around with a search for “true friendship” and “artistic integrity.” It may have been all the beer I was imbibing during, but it’s impressive how these actors manage to keep a straight face during these interrogations. That, I feel, is the entire point of the exercise — watching actors act awkward, and the results are surprisingly homogenous: The downward glances, the lip bites, the eye-rolls. David “Santa Clause on Crack” Letterman’s words of wisdom for Zach are also fairly revealing. Beyond that, Between Two Ferns: The Movie gets a flubbed high-five just for featuring Matt Berninger (frontman of The National) in a brief scene at a bar, singing alongside Phoebe Bridgers on an original duet (“Walking on a String”). (3/5)


What’s your most anticipated movie in October? 

Hold the Dark

Release: Friday, September 28, 2018 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Macon Blair

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier

Apparently with his latest film Hold the Dark indie sensation Jeremy Saulnier has lost the audience somewhat. I can see why. In terms both physical and emotional his Alaska-set mystery may be his coldest movie yet. He plunges us into an ice bath, a world where most of us do not belong — a world defined by hostility and populated by unfriendly and grizzled folk who add little comfort to proceedings. Add to that the fact the story doesn’t offer much in the way of “action” or good, clean payoff and you’ve got the recipe for an uncompromisingly strange and bleak experience.

I loved it though. I think. No, I definitely did. In my mind this is the epitome of everything the native Virginian is about when it comes to style and substance. His fourth feature film is also an adaptation of a 2014 novel by William Giraldi, so is it perhaps possible criticisms over narrative convolution and vexing moral turpitude could be applied to the source material too? I haven’t read the book of course, so I couldn’t say. However there is a new reality I need to address: this is the first time Saulnier has gone the way of an adaptation; it’s entirely possible he’s lost something in translation or perhaps the novel itself is one of those “Well, you can’t really adapt it because (such and such excuse).”

Hold the Dark plays host to dueling narratives, one focused upon a writer and veteran wolf tracker named Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) who’s summoned by a grieving mother, Medora Slone (Riley Keough in a very strange turn), to the remote Alaskan village of Keelut to investigate the disappearance of her child — merely one of several thought to be the victims of hungry wolves. At this point she’ll settle with just having the body returned for to give it a proper burial. When he arrives in town however, things are not entirely what they seem and soon he finds himself in a fight for survival in a place where chaos reigns.

The second through-line adopts the perspective of Medora’s soldier hubby Vernon (a shit-your-britches scary Alexander Skarsgård), who, after being wounded in battle somewhere in the Middle East, returns to his frozen home town and to the grim news concerning his six-year-old son. After being picked up at the airport by his longtime friend and fellow father-in-mourning Cheeon (First Nations actor Julian Black Antelope) he goes to meet with local law enforcement, lead by the stoic and upstanding Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), and the coroner (Brian Martell), and . . . let’s just say the guy’s pretty hard to placate, even at this early stage. But then another development further twists the knife and carnage soon erupts in Keelut, threatening to tear apart the town and its inhabitants, some of whom hold an uncanny relationship with their icy environs, like the enigmatic Illanaq (played by Tantoo Cardinal, indigenous Canadian actress and Member of the Order of Canada).

Hold the Dark is as much a journey through grief and loss as it is a physical flirtation with the supernatural. The later movements in particular butt up against stuff that’s maybe not meant to be understood (what a cop-out line Tom). It’s a deliberately paced drama that becomes increasingly menacing — don’t let that midway-point daylight massacre fool you — and in which motives appear to be driven more by madness than rationale. That’s what really drew me in to the movie, the extremity of both environment and characters who, consistent with the Saulnier aesthetic, are desperate to do what it takes to survive. That element of desperation is elevated to an all-time high here, admittedly. The suffering is real, palpable. It’s certainly a film of extremes.

It’s also a total team effort. Saulnier gets plenty of help from the likes of Danish cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, who captures the spirit of the wild in stunning and often savage detail, the editing provided by Julia Bloch will make you feel every bone crunch and every bullet piercing through leathery skin. And I’m not sure where we would be without this smartly chosen, chillingly effective cast (kudos to Avy Kaufman). Jeffrey Wright acquits himself wonderfully in a quiet, almost meditative lead performance — I’ve never viewed the guy as leading man material but clearly I’m mistaken. And I really enjoyed James Badge Dale as a beacon of decency trying to shine in this inhospitable spit of land.

With Hold the Dark Saulnier has created a truly singular experience, a snow-swept, blood-soaked Neo-western that pits the unpredictability of human behavior against the indiscriminate brutality of Mother Nature. Who is the real villain? Is there such a thing out here? Days later and I’m still having that debate with myself and I love that about this movie.

Not quite the Drunk Tank

Recommendation: Hold the Dark is absolutely not a film that will gel with everyone — as I noted at the top of this review. It’s a heavy, maybe even depressing viewing experience that becomes almost about spiritual suffering. It customarily boasts excellent performances from a great cast. Screenwriter and frequent Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair has an ear for natural albeit harsh dialogue, while Saulnier has yet again proven himself an auteur in the making. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “When we’re killed, the past is killed. When kids are killed, that’s different. When kids are killed, the future dies. There’s no life without a future.”

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

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu

Release: Friday, May 10, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Dan Hernandez; Benji Samit; Derek Connolly; Rob Letterman

Directed by: Rob Letterman

Sure, there’s Pokémon GO! now, but to me the colorful collection of “pocket monsters” will always be a trading card craze, and, weirdly, one of the only defining memories I have of the 18 months I spent in suburban New York. The summer of ’99 disappeared in a frenzied quest to “catch ’em all.” But apparently the 150 original creations courtesy of Satoshi Tajiri weren’t enough for the kids of Wellington Drive. So we began making our own. We got so into it we manufactured an entire world and economy out of paper and crayon, assigning value to scraps of — let’s be honest — glorified confetti. Getting feelings hurt over whose cards were in demand and whose weren’t.

Yes, those were things that really happened. Pokémon brought an entire cul-de-sac together before our own knock-off brand(s) and the over-saturated marketplace that resulted threatened to tear it apart. Memories of the competitiveness of those middle school years came flooding back with Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, the first big-screen adventure for The Pokémon Company, the popular multimedia consortium that began its life in the mid-90s as a pair of Game Boy games — Red & Green in Japan, Red & Blue elsewhere. It’s a nostalgic trip that ensconces the viewer in the imaginative biodiversity of the Pokémon universe. I may have evolved out of the trading card phase long ago but it still somewhat pains me to report that that’s about the only thing this decidedly novice detective movie does expertly.

The movie takes place in a world where Pokémon are by and large captured by humans to be trained for battle in gladiatorial arenas. However some are perfectly content to seek these creatures out for companionship. Detective Pikachu of course isn’t devoid of the former — watch out for an angry Charizard! — but it takes much more interest in the latter, in the relationships between the species, depicting the bond very much like the one formed centuries ago between man and dog. Our main character Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) was one such teenager but his world was shattered when his mother passed away and his father buried himself in detective work in the faraway Ryme City, a utopia where humans and Pokémon peacefully coexist and where battles have been outlawed. Setting aside childish notions of keeping a Pokémon of his very own, Tim turned to the insurance racket and has hardened himself into an Adult. At the ripe age of 21. (This really is a children’s movie, isn’t it?)

But then news of his father allegedly being killed while investigating a case reaches Tim. He travels to the City to collect his father’s belongings, to reminisce, and where he will encounter the amnesiac, caffeine-addicted Pikachu (voiced by Ryan “Deadpool” Reynolds). Tim also briefly crosses paths with his father’s friend and colleague, a Detective Hideo Yoshida (an underused Ken Watanabe) and his gruff-looking but apparently lovable sidekick Snubbull, and around what feels like literally the next corner stumbles into a feisty young reporter looking to make a big break, one Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton). Lucy, accompanied by her own Pokémon — a weird-looking, web-footed fella called Psyduck whose whole thing is developing nasty headaches — is suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the detective’s demise, and plans to investigate. Everyone’s got skin in this game, so she’ll get an assist from a perky Pikachu and Tim the Jaded Insurance Sales Rep. Along the way they’ll encounter Pokémon both wild and tamed, some good folk and a few bad eggs (Bill Nighy and Chris Geere team up as a billionaire father-son duo who are as slimy as they are thinly written), and a heinous purple gas that invokes rage and unpredictable behavior in anything and everything it touches. (Hint-hint for the big finale.)

In spirit Detective Pikachu plays out a lot like the Cantina Scene from Star Wars — an observant camera in constant surveillance of the fantastical landscape, encouraging the viewer to interrogate every nook and cranny of the screen for their favorite character(s), popular or obscure. Rob Letterman (Monsters Vs. Aliens; Goosebumps) directs with fan service at the top of the priority list (evidenced by the inclusion of Ikue Ōtani, who does Pikachu’s “pika pika” call) and while it is hard to fault him for taking that approach, the final product proves there is a vast chasm between parading out All Major Characters and giving the audience actual characterization to latch on to. Detective Pikachu is a fun escape but unfortunately the storytelling lacks the same level of imagination and dedication that has gone into bringing these colorful critters to life on the silver screen. In fairness, that’s one big ask. CGI has come such a long way in recent years, and the Pokémon movie, of all things, just may have set the standard going forward.

I spy a silly plot hole.

Recommendation: Since I can’t really frame this review as a condemnation of another failed videogame adaptation since I never played the games, what I can say for sure is that Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a geektastic trip down memory lane, a movie made by fans, for the fans. Delight in the colorful world-building and the amusing personification of otherwise inanimate objects — see how many obscure characters you can spot. It’s a veritable treasure hunt for followers of Pokémon in whatever form that may be. It’s sadly not the second coming of Sherlock Holmes, though.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “Oh, that’s a twist. That is very twisty.”

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

Serenity

Release: Friday, January 25, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Steven Knight

Directed by: Steven Knight

This won’t be an exact science, but I don’t plan to see a movie worse than Serenity the rest of this year. Someone deliver me from the temptation to go on an excessive rant here.

From the writer/director of the brilliantly ergonomic thriller Locke (2014) comes Serenity, a vehicle built for the swaggering, whisky-drankin’ Matthew McConaughey but one that ends up taking almost all the wind out of his sails. This is a really bad movie, a tale of two disparate yet equally dissatisfying halves — the first lulling the audience into a false sense of SERENITY before the second damn well confounds with some seriously clumsy and surprisingly amateurish attempts at high concept fantasy (think The Truman Show relocated to a sun-kissed island). If you’ve never heard of this movie before, it isn’t your fault. Aviron, the film’s distributor, had such little faith in it they decided to go ahead and cancel pretty much all publicity for the picture, a move that angered stars McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, who felt they had been misled in the marketing tactics. Good for them for standing behind their work, but bad for them . . . because of the work they’re standing behind.

The movie takes place on a tropical isle called Plymouth, where Baker Dill (a haggard-looking McConaughey) ekes out an existence as a commercial tuna fisherman who takes his wealthy but obnoxious clientele out to sea for a little hookin’. Onshore he tends to his daily routine with all the enthusiasm of a dead fish, hitting the bars for whisky and the bed with Diane Lane for extra cash, because gas is expensive. And we need gas to take tourists out. (Oh, and she has a lost cat running around that she implores Baker to find — spot the icky symbolism boys and girls!) What keeps Baker goin’ — other than the sweaty sex — is his endless obsession with catching the massive tuna he’s been, I guess, haunted by for years. The crusade to catch has become so epic he’s branded the thing Justice. (And again with the symbolism!)

The first half is a character-building slog through Moby Dick-ian cliché, with Baker’s single-minded pursuit getting in the way of good customer relations — he threatens with a knife during a dispute over who gets to reel Justice in, only for it to escape again. Word gets out around Plymouth very easily and some of the other locals believe Baker’s lost his nerve, as well as his mind. There are threats of calling in a doctor to evaluate him. Baker just believes it is bad luck, which he attributes to his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou), who has struggled to get over the death of his wife.

Things become a bit more lively when, out of the black of the night, comes Anne Hathaway’s sultry Karen. She’s Baker’s ex-wife, though she keeps referring to him as John. She has a proposal for “John” that will benefit both of them. Having remarried when he went off to war, she now wants desperately to be rid of the violently abusive jagoff Frank (a pretty cringe-y Jason Clarke) has turned out to be and tells Baker-John she will pay him $10 million in cash if he takes him out on his boat and throws him overboard for the sharks.

That sets up a fairly compelling moral dilemma in practice but one that seems dopey in writing — does he pursue the big fish or help his wife? The biggest impetus for choosing Option 2 is Baker’s obligation to save his child from enduring an embittered life, irrevocably altered by a broken home. It won’t be the multitude of scars Karen has endured through those years that compels him but rather an opportunity to do right by his son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh). Through what appear to be flashbacks we see Patrick confined to his bedroom and locked into a video game that he recodes, trying to escape the misery of his home life. We come to appreciate how close the father and son bond once was, but it turns out they have an even deeper connection, more along the lines of telepathy.

Act Two. Oh goodness, here we go, into the Bermuda Triangle. I am all for ambitious, high-concept, twisty-turvy plots. When they convincingly pull the rug out from under us we get things like The Matrix and Shutter Island. But when the twist isn’t executed well or the entire concept is fundamentally screwy we wind up with the confusing mess that is Serenity, an increasingly heavy-handed allegory involving fate versus free will, decency versus immorality — elements that are initially introduced via obvious Biblical references (the Serenity Prayer is all but spelled out in dialogue) before a thoroughly strange meeting with a suited gentleman (Jeremy Strong) one evening further shakes things up. As it turns out Baker may not be as in control of his life — if it is even a life he leads — as it initially appears, and there are “rules” of a vaguely defined “game” he may have to break if he is to succeed in his endeavor.

I could go into further detail regarding what that game is but what is the point? Those details make even less sense in writing than they do in the film. Let’s leave it at this: the McConaissance is officially over. A few more movies like this and I feel like it’s back to square one again. Serenity is so undercooked and haphazardly constructed it is as if a child wrote it, maybe that kid from Florida is behind it all. Count your blessings if you do not understand that reference.

All aboard the S.S. WTF!

Recommendation: Serenity uses a sexy cast as bait to lure unsuspecting audiences into a plot that becomes infuriatingly nebulous to the point of being unintentionally funny. But this isn’t the kind of so-bad-it’s-good film that can be tossed back with some beers. This is the kind of nonsensical, pretentious claptrap that kills careers. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

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