THE RHYTHM SECTION (2020) – Blake Lively Actioner As Dull As Advertised

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the rhythm section

Sometimes I need to listen to the critics.

THE RHYTHM SECTION (2020), an action thriller starring Blake Lively, opened in theaters back in January to some pretty tepid reviews, but I like Blake Lively, and I enjoyed the film’s trailers, so while I missed it on its first run, I finally decided to catch up with it this weekend.

As I said, I should have listened to those critics. THE RHYTHM SECTION was actually worse than I expected it to be.

Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) is so distraught after her parents and brother are killed in a plane crash that she turns to a life of prostitution and drugs. But when a reporter approaches her with the news that the plane was blown up by a terrorist bomb, and that the news was covered up, and that he knows who was responsible, well, she cleans up her act and decides to train as an assassin to personally bring those responsible for the death of her family to justice. Of course. That’s what anyone would do. Right?

Hardly.

Anyway, Stephanie trains with former MI6 agent Iain Boyd (Jude Law) who tells her she doesn’t have what it takes—cue ROCKY music here— but she sets out to prove him wrong. And she does, and soon she’s travelling all over Europe to assassinite those nasty terrorists.

Okay, there are a lot of things wrong with this movie but the biggest one is the story.  The screenplay by Mark Burnell, based on his novel, just never becomes believable. Why Iain Boyd would ever give Stephanie the time of day is beyond me and never made any sense. Why not just train anyone to be an assassin? The story gives us no reason why Stephanie is particularly suited to become a hired killer, other than her drive to avenge the death of her family. Furthermore, the film puts zero effort into convincing us that Stephanie can become a cold-blooded murderer at the drop of a hat, and that she can morph into a super skilled fighter who would give Jason Bourne a run for his money.

Also, before this, it’s not clearly explained why the reporter seeks out Stephanie in the first place. Why does he reveal the story about the bomb to her? Does he plan to interview her? It’s never made clear what his purpose is, other than to serve as a plot device to have Stephanie learn that her family was murdered.

And since no one knows the true identity of the mastermind behind the bombing, it’s part of Stephanie’s “mission” to learn his identity, and so the film also suffers from not having a villain. There’s no one to root against. Stephanie keeps moving up the food chain with one hit after another, but the main terrorist is unknown until the end of the movie, and even that reveal is disappointing and anticlimactic.

Director Reed Morano doesn’t help matters. Right off the bat the film gets off to a muddled start. It opens in a confusing manner as we see Stephanie closing in on a kill, and then it jumps back in time to show Stephanie enjoying time with her family, but then this turns out to be a flashback within a flashback as suddenly we jump ahead to Stephanie as a prostitute. It all adds up to an opening that did not draw me in. Period.

The characters are also pretty blah. The biggest snooze, unbelievably, is the main character, Stephanie Patrick. I never warmed up to her or really liked her, nor did I ever believe later that she could do the things we saw her doing.

The action scenes are also unimpressive.  I expected this one to play out in similar fashion to ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), but the action scenes in that movie were much more stylized and better executed.  The fight scenes here often seemed slow, the choreography not that exciting.

The soundtrack also didn’t work for me, as the songs chosen to cover key scenes seemed out of place, and the film’s score by Steve Mazzaro was hardly noticeable at all. The one song that does work, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” performed by Sleigh Bells, which was featured heavily in the film’s trailers, doesn’t appear in the movie until just before the end credits. So much for that.

I usually like Blake Lively, but her performance here didn’t really work for me. I never believed that Stephanie became that assassin. Likewise, Jude Law was rather wooden as former MI6 agent and current assassin trainer Iain Boyd. And Sterling K. Brown, usually a very reliable actor, is also subdued here as a former CIA agent also involved in the mix, Mark Cerra. Brown knocked it out of the park as attorney Christopher Darden in the TV series AMERICAN CRIME STORY (2016), and he’s been similarly striking in other movies as well, but not so much here.

Also, there was simply no chemistry between Lively and Law, or between Lively and Brown. Their relationships with each other simply fell flat.

The film did take advantage of its many European locations, so much so at times it resembled a James Bond movie, which is no surprise, since it was produced by Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson

Incidentally, the rhythm section refers to Boyd’s advice to Stephanie to slow the rhythm of her body, to let her heartbeat be a drum, all in an effort to cool her nerves to make her a successful killer.

I think the filmmakers heeded this advice too literally. The film is slow and cold and really could have used an infusion of energy and oomph!

THE RHYTHM SECTION is an inferior action movie, with few compelling scenes, characters who never come to life, and a story that not only didn’t grab me but never came off as believable.

The only rhythm here was the tap, tap, tap, of my fingers on the arm rest of my chair as I waited for the end credits to roll.

—END—

 

 

 

THE NIGHT CLERK (2020) – Drama About Murder Suspect With Asperger’s Only Mildly Entertaining

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Ana de Armas and Tye Sheridan in THE NIGHT CLERK (2020).

While THE NIGHT CLERK (2020), a tale about a young man with Asperger’s syndrome who becomes the suspect in a murder case, is being billed as a crime/drama/mystery, the emphasis here really is on drama.

The crime, a murder which occurs right at the beginning of the movie, surprisingly never becomes a driving force here, and it’s not much of a mystery.

What it is though is a vehicle to showcase the talents of actor Tye Sheridan, who does a really nice job in the lead role as Bart, the young man with Asperger’s. Sheridan is an up an coming actor who has starred in READY PLAYER ONE (2018) and played Cyclops in the two most recent X-MEN movies, but his work here in THE NIGHT CLERK is better than what he was allowed to do in those movies.

Bart (Tye Sheridan) works the night shift at the front desk of his local hotel. In an effort to learn more about people and how to interact with them, since that is something Bart struggles with because of Asperger’s, he secretly records the activities and conversations of the hotel guests in their rooms. He does this by setting up cameras in the rooms and watching from his laptop. While this is voyeuristic and creepy to the rest of us, Bart doesn’t mean any harm by this, and he innocently watches people to practice conversing with them.

But one night, he witnesses a murder in one of the rooms, and rather than call the police, he runs into the room where later one of his co-workers finds him sitting by the dead body of the murdered woman.  Police Detective Espada (John Leguizamo) questions Bart, and because there are holes in his story about his whereabouts, Espada considers Bart a person of interest in the case.

Bart lives at home with his mother Ethel (Helen Hunt) who does her best to support her son although it is difficult since her husband and Bart’s father has passed away. As Detective Espada continues to poke and prod Bart in search of answers, things become more complicated when Bart befriends another hotel guest, Andrea (Ana de Armas) a beautiful young woman with problems of her own. Bart finds himself immediately attracted to Andrea, and as he tries to get to know her better, the murder plot thickens.

Well, it doesn’t thicken that much, which is the biggest problem with THE NIGHT CLERK. If it were a stew, it’d be darned watery, that’s for sure! And that’s because the murder takes a back seat to Bart’s story and his crush on Andrea, and the mystery itself is pretty obvious. You’ll know from the get-go exactly where this one is going, in terms of who is out to get who.

The screenplay by Michael Cristofer, who also directed, works much better as a character study than as a crime drama. Bart’s character is well-written, and his observations on life as seen through his eyes are intriguing. For example, when he talks to Andrea about love, and speaks of how being in love is not really an emotion but an addiction, he’s spot-on. As is the script. When Bart struggles to be sociable, it’s refreshingly honest.

Tye Sheridan delivers a topnotch performance as Bart. He effortlessly captures what it’s like to live with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s the best I’ve seen Sheridan on screen yet.

Ana de Armas is really good as Andrea, even though her character is stuck in the lame murder mystery plot that never really gets off the ground because it’s so obvious. Her best scenes are when Andrea interacts with Bart, and they share some tender moments together.

I like Ana de Armas a lot, and she’s making movies left and right these days, which is fine by me, because she’s fascinating to watch. She was just in SERGIO (2020) which I reviewed a few weeks back. She was amazing in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) and her performance was one of my favorite parts of that movie. She was also in KNIVES OUT (2019) and she is slated to star alongside Daniel Craig in the next James Bond movie, NO TIME TO DIE (2020).

Helen Hunt is solid as Bart’s mom Ethel, although it’s a small role and she ultimately doesn’t really do a whole lot. The same sadly can be said for John Leguizamo as Detective Espada. He actually has some of the best scenes in the movie, but he disappears for long stretches when the film becomes more about Bart and Andrea and less about the murder investigation. And towards the end, when you expect that things will be heating up, they simply don’t. So while Leguizamo is good, he’s not in this one enough to really make much of a difference, in the way, for example, he did with his fine supporting work in THE INFILTRATOR (2016) in which he starred with Bryan Cranston.

There are some plot holes as well. For example, Bart is suspected early on of the murder, and it comes to light that he’s been recording guests in their rooms, yet he doesn’t lose his job! He’s not even given a warning of any kind. I thought this was weird. Also, he’s a suspect at first because Espada wrongly believes Bart never left the hotel, which he did, and he had a very memorable verbal exchange with a clerk at a store. This clerk would no doubt remember Bart. Yet, we never see Espada following up this part of the story, which had me scratching my head why we saw the exchange in the first place if not to establish an alibi for Bart.

The ending is also edited strangely. It’s set up to make the audience think one thing, while something else is really happening. The problem is in terms of Bart’s character, it doesn’t make much sense for him to do what he did the way he did. He could have simply dealt with Espada directly. In other words, it comes off as a forced contrivance.

THE NIGHT CLERK works best as a character study of Bart Bromley, a young man with Asperger’s, who as a suspect in a murder case, falls for a mysterious young woman Andrea, who’s also a guest at the hotel where he works. It’s not much of a crime drama or a murder mystery, as the criminal elements are downplayed, and the mystery is way too obvious to matter all that much.

At the end of the day, THE NIGHT CLERK is a mild drama with some solid acting performances by the principal players. It’s watchable, but it certainly would have benefitted from a tighter script with more emphasis on the murder melodrama.

An Alfred Hitchcock thriller this one ain’t!

—END—

 

Movie Lists: SPIKE LEE MOVIES

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spike lee

Welcome back to MOVIE LISTS, the column where we look at— lists pertaining to movies. Duh!

Up today, it’s a look at the career of director Spike Lee, which of course is still going strong, so while this is an incomplete list, it’s still an important one because Spike Lee is an important filmmaker.

Now, I haven’t really seen enough Spike Lee movies to consider myself a true fan, but I’ve generally enjoyed his work, and his most recent movies have spoken to current racial tensions in ways that have really resonated, so Lee has been on my mind lately more than ever. And rightly so. Lee makes movies that make you pay attention.

Okay, here’s a partial list of Spike Lee’s 93 directorial credits:

JOE’S BED-STUY BARBERSHOP: WE CUT HEADS (1983)- Lee’s first directorial credit.

SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986) – Spike Lee’s first legitimate hit, a comedy about a young woman and her three lovers. Well-received by critics upon its initial release. I was fortunate enough to see it when it first came out, as I was in my senior year at Boston University and saw it when it premiered as part of one of my film classes.

In addition to directing and writing the screenplay, Lee also appears in the movie as one of the boyfriends.

SCHOOL DAZE (1988) – Lee’s next film, a comedy/drama/musical about a fraternity pledge at a black college. Starring Laurence Fishburne and a young Giancarlo Esposito who would go on to star in a lot of Lee’s movies.

DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) – Powerful tale of race relations in Brooklyn. Starring Danny Aiello, John Turturro, and again, Giancarlo Esposito.

MO’ BETTER BLUES (1990) – again directed, written by, and starring Spike Lee, this one is the story of two jazz musicians played by Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes.

JUNGLE FEVER (1991) – Lee’s take on interracial relationships, starring Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra.

MALCOLM X (1992) – probably my favorite Spike Lee movie. This riveting bio pic of African American leader Malcolm X also features one of my favorite performances by Denzel Washington of all time, in the lead role as Malcolm X.

CROOKLYN (1994) – a look at a black family in Brooklyn in 1973.

CLOCKERS (1995)- crime thriller about drug pushers and cops in Brooklyn, starring Harvey Keitel and Lee regular John Turturro.

GIRL 6 (1996) -comedy/drama about a struggling actress who turns to sex to make money.

GET ON THE BUS (1996) – chronicles a bus ride to Washington D.C. for the Million Man March.

HE GOT GAME (1998)- basketball player drama starring Denzel Washington.

SUMMER OF SAM (1999) -Lee’s take on the Son of Sam murders.

BAMBOOZLED (2000)- comedy drama about a frustrated African American writer who in a fit of frustration comes up with a blackface minstrel show only to see it become a hit.

25TH HOUR (2002) – drama about the last 24 hours of a convicted drug dealer, starring Edward Norton.

INSIDE MAN (2006) – Tense crime drama about negotiations over a hostage situation following a bank robbery, starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster.

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA (2008) – World War II drama about a group of black soldiers who get trapped in a village.

RED HOOK SUMMER (2012) – drama about a boy who spends a summer with his deeply religious grandfather.

OLDBOY (2013) – weird action drama, a remake, about a man, played by Josh Brolin, held captive for twenty years who is then suddenly released, and he sets out to find answers to why this happened to him. This one just didn’t work for me.

DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (2014) – thriller about a mysterious curse which results in a thirst for blood.

CHI-RAQ (2015) – modern day adaptation of a play by Aristophanes.

BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) – the first Spike Lee film since MALCOLM X that I really, really enjoyed. Intriguing from start to finish, it tells the story of a black cop played by John David Washington who infiltrates the KKK but then needs the help of a fellow white cop played by Adam Driver to pull off the ruse. Thought-provokig throughout, it’s actually based on real events.

DA 5 BLOODS (2020)- Lee’s most recent film to date, and his first for Netflix. I actually enjoyed this one even more than BLACKKKLANSMAN, as its story of four black veterans of the Vietnam war who return to Vietnam in 2020 to reclaim the remains of their fallen platoon leader speaks to today’s modern day Black Lives Matter movement with a clarity that is seldom found in the movies. An outstanding movie that really speaks to the plight of the black male in the United States.

And there you have it, a brief, partial list of the movies of Spike Lee, one of the most influential film directors working today.

I hope you enjoyed this MOVIE LISTS column and will join me again next time when we look at another list pertaining to the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

DA 5 BLOODS (2020) – Spike Lee’s Latest A Moving Discourse on Black Lives Matter Told Through A Story About Vietnam

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DA 5 BLOODS (2020), Spike Lee’s latest movie, and his first for Netflix, is must-see viewing, especially in light of current events.

It offers a history and an understanding of Black Lives Matter that argues that the plight of the African American male in the United States has been an issue since the country was first formed, and in spite of various movements to make changes, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, things here in 2020 remain largely the same. And it does it with a story about Vietnam that is straightforward without being preachy. It makes its points without hitting you over the head with them.

DA 5 BLOODS is the story of four Vietnam vets, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clark Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), who return to Vietnam in 2020 to both locate the remains of their fallen Squad Leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and to recover a stash of gold which they had found and buried in the jungle there.

The bulk of the movie is this present-day story, but the film also incorporates flashbacks to show us these five friends—da 5 Bloods— in action in Vietnam. Spike Lee does a couple of creative things with these flashbacks. He didn’t use younger actors or CGI affects to make the four main characters look younger. They appear in these scenes looking as old as they do now. Only Norman, played by Chadwick Boseman, appears young, which serves to accentuate that Norman’s life was cut short and he never got to grow old. I thought this was a bold decision on Lee’s part, as this is hardly ever done, especially with the available CGI technology. It’s a decision that really worked.

The other creative decision Lee made with the flashback sequences is he changes the screen format for them. The movie is in widescreen format, but when the flashbacks occur, the ratio changes and the picture is reduced in size. It’s another neat effect that works.

The screenplay by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee is full of intricacies and works on multiple levels. It hammers its point home that the plight of African Americans in the U.S. has been going on since day one— with references to George Washington owning slaves— and that it continues to this day.

And the main story of the four men returning to Vietnam is a good one, and would have worked well as a straightforward war drama. It’s a really good screenplay. It was originally written by Danny Wilson and Paul De Meo as a story about four white Vietnam veterans, and for a while Oliver Stone was attached to the project. It eventually made its way to Spike Lee, and he and writer Kevin Willmott rewrote the script and changed the story to be about black soldiers instead.

The other subplot is that these four friends have changed over the years, and throughout their journey back into Vietnam they struggle to get along because they have changed so much. Paul, played by Delroy Lindo, is the most interesting character of the four. He suffers from PTSD and is haunted by dreams of Norman, who he idolized. To make matters more complicated, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) also joins the group, against his father’s wishes, but David is worried about his dad and wants to be there to keep an eye on him. Paul also feels guilty because he has never been able to love his son the way he wanted.

To the shock of his friends, Paul is also a Trump supporter, and even wears a MAGA hat! As he explains it, he is sick and tired of the system constantly walking over him and taking from him, and so he wants to blow it all up and vote for someone who hates the system like he does. Delroy Lindo is excellent in the role, and he delivers the best performance in the movie.

Clark Peters as Otis, Norm Lewis as Eddie, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Melvin are also very good, and each of their characters also have their own back stories. And Chadwick Boseman, who of course plays Black Panther in the Marvel movies, and also played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013) is really good here in a limited role as Norman. He’s only in the flashback scenes, but he makes his presence known, and it’s clear why his friends admired him so much. The scene when they finally find his remains is one of the most emotional scenes in the movie.

Jean Reno also shows up as a shadowy French businessman Desroche who is also interested in the gold the men are searching for. Van Veronica Ngo enjoys some chilling scenes as Hanoi Hannah. And Melanie Thierry is very good as Hedy, a French expert on land mine diffusion who David meets in a bar and who later becomes an integral part of the storyline.

DA 5 BLOODS doesn’t skimp on the war violence either. There are some gruesome scenes, especially toward the end.

There are also plenty of emotional scenes and poignant ones, including the sequence where Otis visits an old girlfriend, and Paul and David’s father/son interactions.

There are all kinds of memorable exchanges, like when Paul calls his friends the N-word, and they take offense. There’s conversatons about drug abuse, alcohol, guns, and other hot button topics. The script even throws in an Easter Egg to one of Lee’s favorite movies, THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (1948), as one of the characters utters the film’s most famous line.

All in all, DA 5 BLOODS is one of Spike Lee’s best movies. I actually enjoyed it a bit more than his previous film, BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018), which was also an excellent movie and was a Best Picture Nominee. I thought DA 5 BLOODS was a more ambitious movie and a bit grander in scope. That being said, it’s a bit long, clocking in at two hours and thirty four minutes, and I thought it dragged somewhat during its second half.

But it’s still one of Lee’s best.

It convincingly defends Black Lives Matter and explains why this movement is so important, because nothing has changed for over two hundred years. And while the film offers a conclusion of hope borne from tragedy and violent bloodshed, it does so with one eye on the future that perhaps at long last this is indeed the moment of change people have been waiting for, but also with another eye firmly set on the past as a reminder that we’ve had these moments before and they haven’t changed a thing.

DA 5 BLOODS is a movie about friendship, bloodshed, and sacrifice. It travels between the 1960s and 2020 effortlessly, offering looks at two key volatile periods in the history of race relations, offering a vision that perhaps this time the change is permanent and real.

—END—

 

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.

—END—

 

 

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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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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