ALL DAY AND A NIGHT (2020) – Chilling, Disturbing Portrait of Black Life in America

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Ashton Sanders and Jeffrey Wright in ALL DAY AND A NIGHT (2020).

If you want to know what it’s like to be a black man in the United States in 2020, then you need to watch ALL DAY AND A NIGHT (2020), a Netflix original movie that tells the story of a young man stuck in a hopeless fate that rings all too true.

When ALL DAY AND A NIGHT opens, we witness Jah (Ashton Sanders), a young black man from Oakland, California, shoot and kill another black man and his girlfriend in front of their teenage daughter. Jah is sentenced to life imprisonment, and it’s there through a series of flashbacks that we learn his story.

Jah grew up in a household where he was mostly raised by his mother Delanda (Kelly Jenrette) and grandmother Tommetta (Regina Taylor) because his father JD (Jeffrey Wright) is in and out of prison and rarely home. In fact, as Jah explains, that’s how it is for nearly every family in the neighborhood. The dads just disappear.

Later, when Jah is in prison, he’s not only reunited with his father, but he sees all those folks who disappeared during his childhood. They’re all living in prison.

Even as a young boy, Jah knows he wants to do something more with his life which is why he gravitates towards music, but inside he knows he’s not going anywhere. His mom and dad constantly argue over his fate, as his mother swears that her son is not going to end up like her husband, but JD argues that he has to teach his son street smarts or else he’ll never survive, which is why he beats Jah when a local bully steals his toy. Jah learns at a young age to hit hard and go on the offensive, making sure that other kids will not mess with him.

As a young adult, Jah and his best friend TQ (Isaiah John) navigate through a world of music, drugs, and gangs, with all of these things intertwined in a dangerous soup of murder and violence. Jah keeps away from the drugs, but his reputation for being a tough fighter catches the eye of local gang leader Big Stunna (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who keeps Jah close with the intention of grooming him to be his muscle.

Jah’s other friend Lamark (Christopher Meyer) vows to do things the right way and escape the confines of their neighborhood and their fates. He joins the army but returns an invalid.

Even as Jah enjoys a relationship with his girlfriend Shantaye (Shakira Ja’nai Paye), who’s pregnant with their baby, he can’t resist the allure of his neighborhood’s code of ethics, that matters can be solved by violence, and that one takes care of one’s own problems, which is what he does, a decision that lands him in jail for life.

But he does it because he honestly doesn’t see anything else to live for. As Jah says in the movie, the judge when sentencing him told him he was seeing his last days of freedom, to which Jah responds that he never ever felt he was free in the first place.

And that’s the somber, depressing tone throughout ALL DAY AND A NIGHT. These men live in a world where there is no hope. They see their fathers, brothers, and friends go to prison. They struggle to find jobs, especially with a prison record, and as JD laments, not only won’t people hire him, but his prison record prevents him from getting food stamps, which only makes his ability to provide for his family even more difficult.

On top of all this, Jah and his friends are hounded by the white police, and when Jah takes a retail job in a shoe store, he’s often not recognized as an employee by the white customers who look at him with a suspicious eye, or worse, who actually ask him what he’s doing carrying shoe boxes, the implication being that they think he’s robbing the place.

ALL DAY AND A NIGHT paints a bleak picture of black life in Oakland which speaks to black life throughout out the nation. Writer/director Joe Robert Cole has made a no frills slice of life movie that offers a hopelessly depressing view of its subject. The dialogue is gritty and raw, the violence shocking but not glorified.

The acting is excellent. Ashton Sanders is perfect as Jah, a young man with hopes and dreams who is also a realist, and as such, falls back on what he believes is real, his fists and acts of violence, things he learned from his father. Sanders of course starred in MOONLIGHT (2016).

Jeffrey Wright plays Jah’s father JD, in a role that for most of the film doesn’t evoke a lot of sympathy, even though his life his hard, because of the harsh way he raises his son Jah. But in a juxtaposition of scenes, we witness Jah being born and JD predicting all the wonderful things he believes his son will do, that he wants to give him a better life than he had, and then we switch to the two men sitting in prison together, where Jah offers to teach his dad gardening, in an effort to form a bond finally and give something back to his father.

Wright has been in a bunch of movies, including playing Beetee in THE HUNGER GAMES films, and he played Felix Leiter opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond in CASINO ROYALE (2006) and QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008). He’s slated to play Commissioner Gordon in the upcoming THE BATMAN, which is set for a 2021 release.

Kelly Jenrette has some fine moments as Jah’s mother Delanda, as does Shakira Ja’nai Paye as Jah’s girlfriend Shantaye. I also enjoyed Isaiah John as TQ.

ALL DAY AND A NIGHT paints a disturbing picture of life in the U.S. for black males, but it’s one that goes a long way towards achieving an understanding of why things are the way they are.

As such, it’s required viewing if you really want to know and understand more about the racial divide which currently exists in the United States.

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SWALLOW (2020) – Disturbing Drama About More Than Just An Eating Disorder

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SWALLOW (2020) is one intriguing movie.

Its story about a pregnant woman who suddenly starts swallowing dangerous household objects is certainly one you don’t hear about every day.

SWALLOW could also be aptly titled SUFFOCATION, because that’s exactly what the main character Hunter Conrad (Haley Bennett) seems to be suffering from. She’s trapped in a family that pays her no attention. She’s married to the wealthy and very successful Richie Conrad (Austin Stowell) who’s succesfully climbing the corporate ladder of his father Michael Conrad’s (David Rasche) business.

In a telling scene at a restaurant with Richie and his parents, Richie encourages Hunter to recount an uncomfortable story from her past which she clearly does not want to do, but Richie persists anyway, and midway through the awkward experience, Michael rudely interrupts her, and the conversation abruptly turns to business.

In scene after scene, Richie condescends to Hunter all the while professing his love to her yet never actually hearing anything she has to say about what is important to her. Before marrying into Richie’s money, Hunter had only worked in retail, and Richie’s family makes sure she doesn ‘t forget how lucky she is that Richie decided to marry her.

The film goes out of its way to show traditional food preparation of specialty items that are considered delicious, like lamb, for instance, as rather disgusting, and so when Hunter eyes a smooth beautiful marble, the juxtaposition is clear. It’s a much more attractive object to consume. And in terms of Hunter’s current life, where no one around her notices or cares what she’s up to, it’s her chance to do something special for herself.

Suddenly, the practice becomes an obsession, and she begins to consume some very dangerous objects, a practice that lands her in the hospital. Richie reacts by shouting at her and demanding that she should have told him before that she was weird like this. His family pays for counseling for her, and when that doesn’t work they hire a live-in male nurse to watch her round the clock. It’s all extremely humiliating for Hunter, especially when she discovers her therapist is sharing their private conversations with Richie.

SWALLOW is a disturbing movie on multiple levels.

It’s difficult to watch Hunter swallow things like push pins and batteries, and even more excruciating to watch the effect these items have on her once they’re inside her body. This condition, the eating of objects that possess no nutritional value, is known as Pica. But SWALLOW is about more than just an eating disorder.

It’s about a young woman and the deplorable way she is treated by her husband and her husband’s wealthy family. On the surface, it looks like she’s living the dream. She has everything she wants, money is no object, and she’s free to do whatever she wants. The problem is she has a husband who day after day doesn’t see or hear her for who she really is, which becomes maddening. It’s a portrait of what can happen in life when people don’t listen to each other, when people who are supposed to love each other don’t practice what they say.

One of the plot points involves a rape, and it’s one of the issues that through therapy Hunter learns she’s dealing with. It’s telling that in the entire movie, the scene where Hunter confronts this rapist, there’s a conversation in which this man connects with her in a way that her husband and his family simply never do. Which symbolizes that life is messy and complicated, that people make horrible mistakes, that people can be redeemed, and that one doesn’t have to carry guilt around with them for their entire life. It also speaks to the value of real listening, and the film makes the point that women in particular need to be listened to.

SWALLOW is a rather powerful movie, a drama that shouldn’t be masked by its plot point of an eating disorder. The disorder is only a reaction to the bigger problem which is effectively laid out in this movie, that Hunter and others like her are stuck in one-sided relationships, and she has no choice in the matter, no choice but to hush up and swallow whatever her family hurls at her. The swallow in the title definitely has a double meaning.

SWALLOW was written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis. He does an excellent job with both. The camera helps tell the story, from the aforementioned scenes of food prep, to shots of the interior of Hunter’s body during some of the medical procedures performed to remove the objects, to scenes of Hunter retrieving objects from the toilet bowl after she has expelled them from her body. SWALLOW isn’t really for the squeamish.

And the screenplay is just as strong. It doesn’t take long for the audience to understand what’s really bothering Hunter, and although the movie does take us on a journey in order to fully comprehend Hunter’s back story, we empathize with her from the beginning. The sense of isolation which Hunter endures is suffocating. You completely understand her need to make a connection to anyone or anything, and when she starts consuming these objects, you get why.

Haley Bennett is excellent as Hunter. Bennett has been in a bunch of movies, including roles in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016) and HARDCORE HENRY (2015). And way back when she played the teen lead Molly Hartley in the not-so-good horror movie THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY (2008). Here, Bennett makes Hunter someone who knows she is supposed to be happy, who’s told by those around her that they love her, but she doesn’t feel it. In fact, she feels the opposite, that they don’t truly love her at all. She completely captures the feeling that Hunter is a woman who is trapped, trapped in a situation that to all who see it, would imagine it to be the perfect life, when in reality it is anything but.

Austin Stowell is sufficiently annoying as the supposedly loving husband Richie, as are David Rasche and Elizabeth Marvel as his parents, Hunter’s in-laws, Michael and Katherine.

And Denis O’Hare is only in one sequence, right near the end, but it’s one of the most emtionally moving and satisfying scenes of the entire movie.

SWALLOW isn’t for everyone, but if you can get past the swallowing sharp objects scenes and their ramifications, you’ll discover things that are far more difficult to swallow than push pins and nails.

Much more.

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THE DECLINE (2020) – Solid Thriller Speaks to Current Uncertain Times

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In order to live you have to survive.

That’s the mantra of Alain (Real Bosse), a survivalist and the main character in THE DECLINE (2020), a new thriller about a group of folks training at an expansive compound deep in the Canadian wilderness in order to prepare for the end of the world. All goes well until a mishap sends them reeling, and suddenly all their training falls by the wayside when the disaster they’d been preparing for unexpectedly happens within their ranks.

THE DECLINE opens with Antoine (Guillaume Laurin) training with his wife and daughter as they run drills and prepare food to last for years as they expect society as we know it to end in the not so distant future. They heed the advice of a survivalist guru named Alain as they watch his videos online. When Alain invites Antoine to join him at his compound, Antoine is happy to oblige.

Once there, Antoine meets a small group of other survivalists, all there to receive extensive training from Alain. For a while, life is good, as they are all satisfied with Alain’s training, but when an accident occurs claiming the life of one of their own, panic ensues over just how to deal with a death at the compound, a panic that immediately tests everything they had been preparing for.

THE DECLINE is a Netflix original movie, and the first Netflix Quebec collaboration. As such, it’s a French language production. Strangely, Netflix chose to dub the film in English, which detracts from the authenticity of the film. I would have preferred the original French language with English subtitles. But this is about the only thing about this one that I didn’t like.

THE DECLINE is a lean and mean movie, clocking in at a brief 83 minutes. The first half is compelling, while the second is increasingly violent and suspenseful.

Director Patrice Laliberte captures the sense of place with all encompassing shots of Alain’s massive compound deep in the frigid Canadian wilderness, surrounded by snowy hills and icy rivers. And during the second half of the movie, as the group splinters into two sides, the violence intensifies, and the climactic scuffle between two key characters is downright brutal.

Laliberte co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Dionne and Nicholas Krief, and it’s a smart one. The characters in this movie are not preparing for a zombie apocalypse or an otherwise cliche scenario. They are worried about the collapse of society, from either a pandemic, a worldwide economic collapse, or from global warming. Their fears, especially here in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, seem alarmingly real.

Their training really is about keeping it together when the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, and being prepared so they can survive afterwards, which makes what happens in this movie all the more prescient. When an accident claims the life of one of their own, they panic, and they are unable to keep it together. While Alain begs them to do just that, keep it together and rely on their training, most of the folks there refuse, as human nature takes over. Sometimes human decency trumps survivalist training.

It’s an all Canadian cast, and they acquit themselves well. Real Bosse plays survivalist master Alain with a mix of traits. On the one hand, he’s all in with the deep survivalist mantra, sounding paranoid at times, but he mixes in enough softspoken common sense and caring that he frequently sounds like a pretty normal guy. But there’s also an undercurrent of unhingedness that keeps the audience unsettled. At the end of the day, though, Alain is simply a man who believes that one must be prepared for the inevitable collapse that is coming sooner than later.

Guillaume Laurin plays Antoine, the man who also intends to bring his family to the compound when the time is right. Antoine is the character who the audience will most indentify with, the family man, who cares for his wife and daughter, which is why he’s doing all this. Laurin is very good in the role.

Probably my favorite performance in the film belongs to Marie-Evelyne Lessard, who plays Rachel, a former soldier who left the military for reasons she doesn’t like to talk about. She’s the most bad-ass character in the movie, and as the story goes along, her role grows, and she’s involved in some of the best scenes in the film. Lessard is excellent here.

I really liked THE DECLINE. Its survivalist end-of-life-as-we-know-it theme has more relevance today than ever. I also enjoyed that it did not play like a Hollywood production. The script isn’t campy, it’s not full of one-liners, and it doesn’t attempt to be anything that it’s not. It’s simply a story about a group of survivalists who believe they are training for the inevitable, and when things go awry, the reactions of everyone involved are natural and real.

The violence, while not overly gratuitous, is brutal and realistic. The final fight scene in particular is a nail-biter.

THE DECLINE is a well-made thriller that has a down-to-earth no frills script and features solid acting throughout. It’s a film that speaks to the uncertain times in which we live, and provides an answer as to how people will react to adversity and tragedy whether they’re part of society or not.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU (2018)

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MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU (2018) is a horror movie that hails from Indonesia. It was directed by Timo Tjahjanto, a filmmaker who is a huge fan of the EVIL DEAD movies, and this movie, MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU, is sort of a love letter to that series.

Or at least it tries to be.

MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU is the story of Alfie (Chelsea Islan) a young woman who learns that her father Lesmana (Ray Sahetapy) is in the hospital in a coma, and nobody seems to know why. But the audience knows because the film opens with a creepy sequence in which we see Lesmana making a pact with a demon that somehow involves the souls of his children. Hmm. No daddy of the year award for this guy!

Anyway, in the hospital Alfie is reunited with her step family, including her stepmother,stepbrother, and two stepsisters. Her oldest stepsister, Maya (Pevita Pearce), does not like Alfie at all. Actually none of them like each other all that much because it seems pop Lesmana wasn’t always faithful and was only successful in business for a time, and now as he lies in a coma he’s lost everything.

While at the hospital, Alfie has a strange experience where she sees a frightening female figure in the hospital room with them, and then her father wakes up long enough to vomit deep dark blood all over the place.

Later, this same group attempts to clean out Lesmana’s home, and while they are there bickering and arguing, mysterious things begin to happen, like a freakish demonic woman crawling out of the basement. Yikes! After this, all hell breaks loose. Well, not all hell, but enough of it to make these folks miserable as they are chased down by a horrific demon, hell-bent on possessing their souls.

This actually sounds better than it is.

And that’s because while there were parts of MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU that I liked, there were just as many things that I didn’t like.

For starters, director Timo Tjahjanto does set up some pretty scary scenes. There are some really cool spooky images here, like when the woman demon shows up, from the way he films her face to the way he captures her long bony hands. There’s some really freaky stuff happening in this movie. That’s all great.

However, for a guy who’s a fan of the EVIL DEAD movies, I thought Tjahjanto’s use of gore here was pretty lame. It might have been a budget issue, but the gory scenes simply didn’t look all that good, nor were there all that many of them.

I also didn’t think the story was as tight as it could have been. Tjahjanto wrote the screenplay, and it wasn’t always clear what exactly was going on. For example, the pact between Lesmana and the demon is never clearly explained, and as a result neither are the demon’s motives.

And in many instances the characters were slow to react to things. There’d be some horrifying violent event, and then afterwards the characters would still be sitting in the next room having a conversation. I would have high-tailed it out of there within minutes of that woman emerging from the basement. But no. These folks stay. And stay. And stay.

Will you flippin run away from that house already!

Chelsea Islan is excellent in the lead role as Alfie. She plays the role with a good mix of being scared and being tough when it’s needed. Likewise, Pevita Pearce is notable as Maya, who ends up spending a good chunk of the film possessed.

Overall, MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU is a mixed bag. I liked its creepy scenes and enjoyed Chelsea Islan’s lead performance, but its story isn’t always clear and its gore effects aren’t anything to write home about.

While it held my interest for the most part, there were times when I wished the devil had simply taken me someplace else.

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THE HALF OF IT (2020) – Tender Teen Love Story Emphasizes Romance Over Comedy

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Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer in THE HALF OF IT (2020).

There have been some very good coming-of-age teen comedy/dramas in recent years, and you can go ahead and add THE HALF OF IT (2020) to the list, a new film by writer/director Alice Wu.

In THE HALF OF IT, nerdy high school senior Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) lives with her father Edwin (Collin Chou) who’s still traumatized over the death of his wife, Ellie’s mother.  He barely works and spends most of his time watching old movies on television. To help makes ends meet, Ellie runs a business writing essays for her classmates, with her motto being that if they don’t get an A, they don’t have to pay.

When she’s approached by a quiet yet sweet jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) to write a love letter to the girl he has a crush on, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), Ellie at first refuses, but she changes her mind when Paul offers to pay her more money which she needs to prevent the electricity in her home from being shut off.

Ellie writes the letter, and it works, as Aster responds with a letter of her own, and suddenly Paul is asking Ellie for more help, but further complicating matters is that Ellie also has a crush— on Aster.

What’s a girl to do? In Ellie’s case it’s to keep writing the letters which are really expressions of her own feelings towards Aster, which makes the whole process more and more difficult for her, especially when Paul sees just how hard Ellie is working to help him, a realization that changes the way he feels about her.

THE HALF OF IT is a comedy/romance, but as the movie goes along, the emphasis falls more on the side of romance. The theme of the movie is that love is messy and complicated, and the relationships in this story certainly back up this notion.

Now I liked THE HALF OF IT but I didn’t find the script by Alice Wu quite as sharp as I expected it to be. The comedy aspects, while funny, become less prevalent as the story moves forward, and the film loses some of its edge as it sheds its comedic voice. Much of the comedy early on involves Ellie’s and Paul’s antics to woo Aster, including scenes where they are spying on her, and a dinner date where Paul is fumbling to speak to Aster, so Ellie who’s watching from outside attempts to bail him out by texting her, but the trouble is, Paul can’t see what she’s texting. And while these moments are good for a chuckle, the humor never goes over the top to really make you laugh out loud.

The writing is stronger when focused on romance. There are some tender moments, like when Ellie attempts to teach Paul the art of conversation over a game of ping pong. And there are lots of little moments throughout, but one thing lacking in THE HALF OF IT is a big moment, that scene where the film tugs at your heart strings. There’s a dramatic climax inside a church which comes close to doing this but ultimately falls short.

But the small moments are enjoyable, like one at the film’s conclusion involving running after a train.

The three principal actors are all very good, Leah Lewis as Ellie, Daniel Diemer as Paul, and Alexxis Lemire as Aster, but one thing that works against this movie is that strangely, none of these folks generate much chemistry together. While I appreciated the odd love triangle, I never completely bought how they felt about each other. The love triangle just never came to life.

Director Alice Wu scores highest when covering the tender moments of teens contemplating love. More than just a teen comedy or love story, it’s really about understanding what love is, why people love, and how people love. Wu also uses the art of texting to the film’s advantage. The characters text each other constantly, and we see these texts in real time, and they really add to the effectiveness of the storytelling.

But I still wish the movie had been funnier. I enjoyed BANANA SPLIT (2018) more, a film I reviewed several weeks back, as that teen romance scored much higher on the comedic meter. Likewise, I also enjoyed THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016) and LADY BIRD (2017) more as well.

The movie also doesn’t have a strong sense of place. It takes place in small town America, the typical “nothing happens here” town where the teens are just aching to leave, but the film doesn’t really capture the feel of this small town or where it is located. It’s in Washington, but it could take place just about anywhere there’s a small rural town.

I liked THE HALF OF IT but didn’t love it.

The theme of THE HALF OF IT is based on a Greek story by Aristophanes in which the gods split whole humans in half, and so humans now spend their lives looking for their other half in order to complete themselves. A sweet notion, one that the film returns to throughout its plot.

And THE HALF OF IT is composed of two halves as well, comedy and romance, and like the characters in the story, it too struggles to become something that is whole.

 

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THE QUARRY (2020) – Quiet Yet Intriguing Drama Remains One-Note Throughout

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Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon in THE QUARRY (2020).

THE QUARRY (2020) has an intriguing story to tell.

A drifter (Shea Whigham) murders a preacher and then assumes his identity, moving to his new parish in a small Texas town. The drifter knows little of religion, and when he speaks to his small congregation made up mostly of Mexican immigrants, they are taken with his words because unlike previous preachers he is not judgmental, and he’s not judgmental because he knows so little of religion, so  he simply reads from the Bible and often chooses passages about redemption.

The local sheriff Chief Moore (Michael Shannon) while investigating a robbery uncovers clues which make him suspicious of their new preacher. As the congregation grows, and the drifter finds himself leading this desperate group of immigrants, Chief Moore follows the clues which lead him to the local quarry, the site where the drifter murdered and buried the body of the real preacher.

The story told in THE QUARRY is nothing new or innovative, but it held my interest for most of the movie. Things slow down towards the film’s final act, and its ending is not very satisfying.

I most wanted to see THE QUARRY because of its two main actors. Shea Whigham, who plays the unnamed drifter, is a character actor who has been in a ton of movies in various small parts, and he makes a mark in nearly all of them. If you see movies on a regular basis, chances are you’ve seen Whigham. He’s been in JOKER (2019), VICE (2018), BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018), FIRST MAN (2018), and BEIRUT (2018) to name just a few. He also played the brother of Bradley Cooper’s character Pat in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

He’s an excellent actor and I was glad to see him playing a lead role. He’s good here as the drifter, although the role has its limitations. For starters, he’s a man of few words, and so a lot of what happens in the movie features this drifter taking things in silently. As such, the film itself suffers from bouts of slow pacing where things deaden to standstill. Of course, the style of the film is mirroring the drifter’s character, and so the pacing is on purpose, but still it makes for slow viewing. We also don’t really get to know this character all that well, and for most of the movie, he remains a mystery.

As happy as I was to see Shea Whigham in a lead role, he’s made more of an impact in movies in his signature smaller roles.

I also wanted to see THE QUARRY because of the presence of Michael Shannon, another actor whose work I really enjoy. Shannon has starred in KNIVES OUT (2019), THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), and NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016), and he was outstanding as George Westingthouse in THE CURRENT WAR (2017), starring alongside Benedict Cumberbatch who played Thomas Edison. He also played General Zod in MAN OF STEEL (2013).

Here as Chief Moore, Shannon is fine, but ultimately it’s not an amazingly written role, and there’s not a whole lot for Shannon to do other than seemed bored as the sheriff of a small town and occasionally be suspicious.

One of the weaknesses in the movie is there is not a lot of tension between Chief Moore and the drifter. As a result, there sadly aren’t many decent scenes with Whigham and Shannon.

The screenplay by director Scott Teems and Andrew Brotzman, based on a novel by Damon Galgut, is best at writing realistic dialogue, which is strong throughout the movie. It doesn’t fare so well as a dramatic piece, as the film doesn’t really build to a suspenseful climax. As Chief Moore begins to investigate and close in on the drifter, this stranger doesn’t really react. He’s the same one-note character throughout the movie. The drifter’s story arc really is about his own personal journey. Early in the film, when the preacher offers to hear his confession, the drifter refuses, rejecting religion, but by film’s end, he’s ready to confess, although none of this involves the other key character in the movie, Chief Moore.

The film looks good, and director Teems does capture the mood of the drifter throughout, as the film is steadily paced and set in an almost dreamlike state, as if we are all sharing in the drifter’s internal search for peace and redemption. The problem is this doesn’t always translate into compelling viewing.

There are brief hints that the story is going to widen its lense and cover points on immigration— the boys who rob the drifter are young immigrants, as are most of the congregation, as is the woman Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who operates the house in which the preacher lives—-but it barely scratches the surface on this subject. Moreno, by the way, is excellent here as Celia, and I wish she had been in this movie more.

For the most part, THE QUARRY is an intriguing drama, although it’s not much of a mystery or a thriller. And while it doesn’t really generate that much emotion, I don’t think it was trying to. It succeeds most when it captures the persona of its main character, the elusive drifter turned preacher, a quiet man whose past we know nothing about.

As such, it’s a subdued piece that like its main character plays things close to the vest without any big reveals or revelations.

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SERGIO (2020) – Moving Bio-Pic of U.N. Diplomat Sergio de Mello Speaks to the Value of Diplomacy

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Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas in SERGIO (2020).

SERGIO (2020), a Netflix original movie, tells the story of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian born United Nations diplomat who at the height of his career went to Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 to monitor elections, an effort that unfortunately met with tragic results.

SERGIO stars Wagner Moura in the lead role as Sergio de Mello. Moura, who starred in the Netflix series NARCOS (2015-2017) as Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, is a charismatic actor who was outstanding as Escobar. He’s similarly effective here as Sergio de Mello. He carries this movie, and his performance is one of the main reasons to see it. He plays De Mello as a career diplomat who was very good at what he did, brokering peace deals between hostile parties, and who puts his career above all else, even at the expense of missing valuable time with his two sons.

Directed by Greg Barker, a filmmaker known for his documentaries, SERGIO doesn’t tell its story in linear fashion. It jumps back and forth through time, showing different key points of de Mello’s life and career. It’s a style that ultimately works, even as the pacing sometimes lags.

When de Mello brings his team into Iraq, he is met with resistance by the United States, especially from U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford) who warns Sergio not to stray from U.S wishes, that he’s there to support the positions of the United States. Of course, de Mello disagrees, arguing that the United Nations is an independent organization and as such is not beholden to any one country.

When a massive bomb strikes the United Nations headquarters in Iraq, de Mello finds himself trapped underneath all the rubble, and it’s here where most of the story unfolds, as he thinks back to events which brought him to this moment in time. A big part of his story is his romance with Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas). The film chronicles how they met and shows how they eventually end up working together for the U.N., and she is there that day at the U.N. headquarters when the bomb goes off.

Ana de Armas and Wagner Moura share a wonderful chemistry together. Even though SERGIO is intended as an historical drama, really, its love story is one of the best parts of the movie. De Armas and Moura electrify the screen when they’re together, and their love story only adds to the sadness of the tragedy in Iraq.

Ana de Armas is a really good actress who has appeared in such movies as KNIVES OUT (2019), BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and HANDS OF STONE (2016). She’s also slated to star in the next James Bond movie, NO TIME TO DIE (2020). For me, up until now, de Armas’ most prominent role was as the holographic Joi in BLADE RUNNER 2049, but I think she’s even better here in SERGIO.

Brian F. O’Byrne adds fine support as Sergio’s friend and right hand man Gil Loescher, who also is trapped with Sergio under the rubble of the bombed building. And Bradley Whitford in a small role is sufficiently annoying as U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer who comes off as the bully on the block, in effect saying do what the U.S. wants or else. His most telling line is when he tells Sergio “welcome to the big leagues” implying that Sergio is out of his league in Iraq and only the U.S. knows how to handle such a difficult situation.

Craig Borten wrote the screenplay, based on the book Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save The World by Samantha Power, and for the most part it does a really good job of fleshing out Sergio’s story.  After you have watched this movie, you will have an understanding and an appreciation of who Sergio de Mello was and what he meant to the world. The film also touches upon what the absence of de Mello has meant to the world since that time. Borten also co-wrote the screenplay to DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013), a script which earned him an Oscar nomination.

The major drawback of SERGIO is at times with its talky scenes it plays much more like a television show than a movie. It doesn’t really have a cinematic feel to it, and while it is a Netflix original, it was intended to play at the theaters as well, plans which were changed because of COVID-19.  Last week I reviewed the Netflix original movie EXTRACTION (2020), and that film definitely had a cinematic feel which would have been right at home on the big screen. I can’t say the same for SERGIO.

And at times the pacing slows down somewhat.  But these are minor issues. Overall, SERGIO is one of the better films I’ve seen this year.

It enjoys some really powerful emotional moments. One of the best is when Sergio talks to a woman in Timor in a private meeting. It’s such an authentic yet quiet moment. It is one of the most moving sequencs in the film. The scenes in Iraq also work, recalling that chaotic volatile time. And all the scenes between Moura and Ana de Armas are lively and romantic, and really lift the story to a type of love story that I wasn’t expecting. Their scenes together are all exceptional.

SERGIO is a moving drama that tells the important story of Sergio de Mello, a story that is even more relevant today as the world continues to shift away from the value of diplomacy. Sergio’s life and sacrifice is a testament to the power of what one can achieve through diplomacy, and sadly to what happens when those efforts are stamped out by acts of violence.

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