TULLY (2018) – Odd Telling of Motherhood Tale A Showcase for Charlize Theron

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Mackenzie Davis and Charlize Theron in TULLY (2018).

TULLY (2018) is an odd movie.

Sometimes I like the odd ones. Other times I don’t.  This one teetered right on the fulcrum for the most part, leaning ever so slightly towards the side of it-didn’t-really-work-for-me.

TULLY is a tale of motherhood, but that’s not what makes this one peculiar. The stress and toils of what it’s like to raise a newborn with two very active older children already in the house, and with an inattentive husband, that part the film gets right.  It’s the extension of that part, which leads to the arrival of the titular character, where the film struggles.

Marlo (Charlize Theron) is about to have a baby, and as one of the characters points out, she looks like she’s going to pop. She and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) already have two children, an eight year-old girl Sarah (Lia Frankland) and a five year-old son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica). Jonah has emotional issues, and while Marlo has taken him to see doctors, they haven’t received a proper diagnosis of his condition. Jonah is prone to fits of panic, crying, and he fixates on routine, which all certainly sounds like a branch of autism, but the disorder is never mentioned in the movie. Instead, Jonah is referred to as “quirky.”

Marlo is already under tremendous stress, mostly because all the parent duties fall on her. Drew works long hours, and when he comes home, they have dinner, and then he retreats to the bedroom where he plays video games. She has no idea how she is going to handle the additional burden of caring for a newborn.

Marlo’s brother Craig (Mark Duplass) suggests she hire a night nanny, someone who comes in at night and takes care of the baby so the mother can enjoy a full night’s sleep, or at least a better night’s sleep. The night nanny still wakes the mother up to breast feed, but that’s it. The mother is free to go right back to sleep afterwards. Craig even goes so far as to offer to pay for the night nanny as a birthday gift for Marlo, but she hesitates, not feeling comfortable inviting a stranger into her home to care for her baby while she’s sleeping.

But after a few rough weeks, Marlo changes her mind. Soon after, showing up at the front door one night like a magical Mary Poppins, is Tully (Mackenzie Davis), their new night nanny.  Tully explains that she’s also there to take care of Marlo as well as the baby. In fact, she says she can help out with everything around the house.

If this sounds like the set-up for a bad horror movie, you’re right. It does, but TULLY is not a horror movie. It’s a comedy-drama, with the emphasis on drama. At one point, Marlo and Drew even joke that the situation does sound like a horror movie, but they laugh it off.

Tully is a quirky character herself, always positive, almost seeming like an angel to Marlo. She is certainly there to help, and the way she helps and her relationship with Marlo is pretty much the story TULLY has to tell.

First off, the most amazing thing about TULLY is that Charlize Theron gained 50 pounds for this role! Talk about dedication! Marlo’s body is supposed to be in rough shape after the pregnancy, as she struggles to lose the additional weight, and Theron with the extra pounds she put on looks the part.

The extra weight also represents the heavy emotional burden Marlo faces each day, as you can just see her struggling to stay afloat in her life. It’s a very good performance by Theron, certainly more satisfying than her traditional turn as the killer agent in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017). That being said, I enjoyed her performance in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) better than her work here.

So, if you’re a fan of Charlize Theron, you definitely want to see this movie. It’s a chance to see her really act.

But the story I had some issues with.  TULLY is by the same team that made JUNO (2007), with Jason Reitman directing and Diablo Cody writing the screenplay. Tully is definitely an odd character, one who at times seems too good to be true, a la Mary Poppins, and since this isn’t a fantasy tale, obviously something has to give, and what that something is to be honest I saw coming very early on.

For starters, the film offers some clues. For example, Marlo has a recurring dream about a mermaid swimming in the water, and since mermaids are not real, the imagery is there for the audience to see clearly a character— the mermaid— who is not real.

Also, if you’ve seen a certain famous movie by M. Night Shyamalan, you won’t be fooled here. It’s obvious early on by the way certain scenes are set up that something isn’t quite right.

The other issue I had with the screenplay by Diablo Cody is the way it handles the young Jonah character.  The boy is certainly on the spectrum for autism or asperger syndrome, and yet no one in the movie acknowledges this. Even the administration and teachers at the school seem to be oblivious, only referring to Jonah as “quirky.” In this day and age, that didn’t seem realistic to me, nor was it credible that Marlo and Drew would have taken their son to multiple doctors without receiving a proper diagnosis.

It also didn’t help that Tully was supposed to be this savior character, but yet I found her persona grating and annoying.

Mackenzie Davis is fine as Tully, although admittedly I never warmed to the character. We recently saw Davis in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and I liked her better in that science fiction movie.

This isn’t the first time Ron Livingston has played an ineffective dad.  He got to perform the same honors in the scary horror flick THE CONJURING (2013) a few years back.  Here, as Drew, the video game playing father, Livingston is very good.  What he does best is make Drew more clueless than careless.  He does love his family and his wife, but it simply takes him an entire movie to realize he needs to get off his butt more to help out.

Which also brings me to another issue I had with this one, the ending.  It ends on a happy note, which one would expect from a movie marketed as a comedy/drama, but I’m not sure I bought all of it.  For instance, Drew supposedly sees the light at the end of the movie and realizes, “You know, I should be helping out more, shouldn’t I?” Duh! Through Livingston’s performance, I understood that Drew was a decent guy, but the script never sold me on the moment when he awakes from his self-absorbed stupor.

And as I said, the big twist in this one, I didn’t think was much of a twist because I saw it coming very early in the proceedings.

The movie wasn’t hyped all that much, and it showed, as I saw it with a small audience. There were only about ten of us in the theater.

TULLY is an odd one. It works best when it shows the incredible stress Marlo feels raising three children, including a developmentally challenged five year-old boy, and a newborn baby. It stumbles when it enters its metaphorical realm, with the entrance of the titular character Tully, the night nanny with all the answers.

There is certainly more to Tully than meets the eye, but sharp observers can figure out what that something is before it’s revealed. And once it is revealed, it begs the question, what’s the point? Is it all just one big wake-up call for Marlo and Drew? That seems to be the case.

I wish they had experienced this enlightenment earlier in the movie. The two of them working together trying to handle their challenging family situation sounds like a story I might like to see.

—END—

 

 

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BEIRUT (2018) – Complex Thriller Driven by Strong Performances

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BEIRUT (2018) is a complex thriller about a hostage negotiation in 1982 Beirut. Driven by strong performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, the film does a lot of things well and more than makes up for its lack of supporting character development and peripheral plot.

The movie opens in 1972 Beirut with American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) hosting a dinner party with his wife for a group of dignitaries, including a United States Congressman, where Mason explains the current intricate political situation inside Lebanon. When Mason’s best friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with the shocking news that the thirteen year-old boy Mason and his wife have taken into their home and consider a part of their family is the younger brother of the world’s most wanted terrorist, and the U.S. authorities want to extract the boy that very night. Mason refuses, and in the middle of his argument with Cal, gunmen open fire on the party and whisk the boy away before the U.S. agents can take him.  In the process, Mason’s wife is shot and killed.

The story picks up ten years later and finds Mason back in the U.S. working as a mediator and negotiator for local labor disputes. He has left his former life behind him, having walked away from both Beirut and his friend Cal immediately after the shooting, and he hasn’t spoken to his former friend since he left.

But all that changes when he is approached by a group of federal agents who want his help.  It seems that an American was taken hostage in Beirut, and the kidnappers demanded that Mason handle the negotiation.  Mason balks at the idea and says that the kidnappers simply pulled his name out of a hat. The agents then inform Mason that the hostage is his friend Cal.

Against his better judgement but not wanting to abandon Cal a second time, Mason returns to Beirut to negotiate the release of his best friend.

BEIRUT tells a compelling enough story and for the most part keeps its intricate tale from becoming too confusing. It’s a decent screenplay by Tony Gilroy, as one would expect as Gilroy also penned screenplays for the BOURNE movies and more recently he was one of the writers involved with ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

BEIRUT reminded me a little bit of ARGO (2012), the Ben Affleck movie which won Best Picture in 2012. Both films share suspenseful hostage stories and international intrigue, although ARGO told the better story by far.

The story BEIRUT tells is not as memorable, nor is it as riveting since one of the weaknesses of the screenplay is the supporting characters aren’t really developed. In ARGO, the audience gets to know the hostages. In BEIRUT, very little is known about hostage Cal, and so even though the proceedings are very interesting, they don’t always resonate as well as they should on an emotional level.

The best part of BEIRUT are the performances by the two leads, Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. Hamm is terrific as Mason Skiles, although this smooth talking alcoholic character is clearly reminiscent of Don Draper, the character Hamm played so well on the TV series MAD MEN (2007-2015). Fans of the show might have fun imagining that this is what happened next to Mr. Draper. And while Hamm isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone here, he still delivers an enjoyable performance.

Rosamund Pike is also excellent as Sandy Crowder, one of the government operatives who helps Mason when he’s on the ground in Beirut. It’s a solid understated performance by Pike, whose character has her own reasons for wanting to extract Cal. The other dynamic I enjoyed between Mason and Sandy is that unlike most movies where the male and female leads are involved romantically, this time they are not, which I found refreshing.

I like Pike a lot and have enjoyed her recent roles in such films as HOSTILES (2017), GONE GIRL (2014), and JACK REACHER (2012) to name a few.

BEIRUT also has a strong supporting cast.  Mark Pellegrino is very good as Cal, Mason’s shadowy friend, even if the character isn’t developed all that well. For most of the film we don’t really know if Cal is a good guy or not, which hurts the story somewhat.

Dean Norris, Hank on TV’s BREAKING BAD (20080-2013) is nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair and glasses as Donald Gaines, one of the government agents who recruits Mason. And Shea Whigham is memorable as another of these agents, Gary Ruzak.

BEIRUT was directed by Brad Anderson, who’s directed a lot of movies and TV shows, including the horror movie SESSION 9 (2001).  Anderson certainly does a good job of capturing war-ravaged Lebanon circa 1982, and the film’s location alone is enough to make this one a nail biter.

The story is certainly engrossing as we follow Mason’s efforts to find his friend Cal and navigate the negotiations needed to release him. There are some decent scenes, like when Mason first meets the group claiming to have Cal, as there is a rather unexpected execution right in the middle of it.  And the film heats up every time Mason slips away from his handlers, driving them crazy while he’s off the grid.

That being said, there really isn’t any centerpiece scene in this movie, either in artistic design or in its plot, no part of the film where it kicks into high gear and really becomes something special.

And I would imagine this one is not making a whole lot of money. I saw it with a very small audience. There were fewer than ten people in the theater.

Nonetheless, it’s a solid movie driven by two potent performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, and it’s certainly worth a trip to the theater.

BEIRUT is also a nice reminder of the value of diplomacy and negotiation over violence, even though when all is said and done, there is certainly lots of bloodshed, which is what you would expect in 1982 Beirut.

—END—

 

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) – Recounts Tragic Ted Kennedy Car Crash and Subsequent Cover-up

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Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018).

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) tells the tragic tale of a young woman who lost her life when the car she was riding in crashed off a rickety wooden bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick and plunged into the water below where, trapped inside the car, she drowned, while the drunk man at the wheel swam to safety.

The man, of course, was Senator Ted Kennedy.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells this true story through the prism of what the Kennedy name meant to the United States in 1969. It had been just over one year since Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated just six years before, and all eyes were on young Ted Kennedy as the heir apparent.  JFK’s work was left unfinished, and when Robert Kennedy attempted to take up the mantle, he too was cut down.  The feeling in 1969 wasn’t so much that the Kennedys were entitled, but that their vision for the United States— one of optimism and promise— was desperately needed.  People wanted Ted Kennedy to run for president.

The problem was Ted himself wasn’t all that interested. He had lived in the shadows of his older brothers his whole life and felt the sting of a strict father who seemed to view him as much less of a man than his older brothers.  And then there was his safety to consider.  We see Ted wearing a bullet proof vest at one point.  The Ted Kennedy we see in CHAPPAQUIDDICK is a sad, somber soul, a lost soul, trying to make his way in the world, feeling unbelievable pressure to do something he didn’t really want to do, and pretty much behaving in a way that suggested he wanted to get away from it all.

And on this particular weekend in 1969 his brother John’s legacy was on full display as Neil Armstrong was about to set foot on the moon, and all the newscasts were hearkening back to JFK’s inspiring words which had propelled the space program forward in the early 1960s.

So, when the accident happened, there was a prevalent feeling to protect Ted Kennedy, not because he was wealthy and privileged, but because he was needed to continue the work of his brothers and keep the nation on a positive path.  This view was shared by both those in power on Kennedy’s side and a large portion of the general public who even after the story broke still said they would vote for him, and of course in reality they actually did.

But still, a young woman lay dead in a car submerged underwater.

Early in CHAPPAQUIDDICK, young Senator Kennedy (Jason Clarke) and his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) set up a party on the island of Chappaquiddick, located near Martha’s Vineyard, for the “Boiler Room Girls,” a group of women who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign.  It was meant to be a reunion and celebration of the work these women had done on Robert Kennedy’s behalf.

Kennedy chats with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) and asks her to join his staff in Washington, D.C., but she declines, saying she doesn’t think she can handle another presidential campaign, to which Kennedy replies that she won’t have to, the implication being that he’s not going to run for president. Later in the evening, the two leave the party and take a drive into the night where they continue to chat, and as they attempt to travel to a secluded beach, the drunken Kennedy drives off the infamous bridge into the water.

He somehow manages to escape the car, and he makes his way back to the party where he tells his cousin Joe what happened.  They return to the scene of the accident, along with Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and they attempt unsuccessfully to extract Mary Jo from the submerged vehicle. Joe tells Ted that he must report the accident, the sooner the better, and Ted agrees. However, Ted does not report it.  Instead, he returns to his hotel room in Edgartown, and he calls his ailing father Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) who can barely speak, but the Kennedy patriarch does say one word to his son: alibi.

It takes ten hours before the conflicted Ted Kennedy finally decides to report the incident, and after going back and forth with what to say, admits that he was indeed the driver of the vehicle.  What follows is the tale of the cover up, the powerful advisors on one side, who are doing everything in their power to create a false narrative to save Ted’s political career, and Ted’s cousin Joe on the other side, imploring him to remember that a young woman is dead and for him to tell the truth. In the middle is a confused young Senator who seems lost throughout these events, pulled in multiple directions, conflicted between doing the right thing for himself, for his family, for his country, and for Mary Jo Kopechne. In short, he doesn’t have a clue.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells a somber story that portrays Ted Kennedy as a conflicted, confused figure. At times he comes off as sympathetic because he seems to want to do the right thing, but more often than not he’s seen as a massively frustrating figure who completely and continually botches the situation, and if not for his famous name could and most likely should have easily gone to jail for manslaughter.

But the best part of CHAPPAQUIDDICK is it tells its tale with Mary Jo Kopechne at its forefront.  Never does the movie allow its audience to forget that Mary Jo Kopechne, a promising young woman with a bright future ahead of her, lost her life that night. Worse yet, it’s quite possible she died not only because of Ted Kennedy’s drunk driving, but because he didn’t call for help immediately.  The film intimates that she survived for a while inside the vehicle before ultimately passing away.

Jason Clarke delivers a grave performance as Ted Kennedy. He portrays Kennedy with a “deer in the headlights” expression throughout.  He makes Kennedy a man who seemed completely lost and overwhelmed by the events around him. Should he listen to his father and lie? Or to his cousin Joe and tell the truth? He portrays Kennedy as a man who knows what’s expected of him because of his family name, yet seems to want to carve out his own path in life, and when this tragedy occurs, at his own hands, he goes back and forth between owning up and saving his political hide for the sake of a nation. One thing that Kennedy is not portrayed as is a cold-hearted manipulator.

Jason Clarke has delivered some fine performances in the past, in films like DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014), THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), but this might be his finest work yet. He captures the essense of the conflicted Kennedy so perfectly you almost can feel a migraine coming on while watching him.

I’m a huge fan of Kate Mara, and I’m still waiting for her breakout role. With very limited screen time here, this isn’t it, but she’s still excellent as Mary Jo Kopechne. In her brief time on-screen, Mara makes Mary Jo a three-dimensional character, one whose presence is felt throughout the film, even after she has drowned.

Ed Helms gives the most memorable performance in the film as Kennedy cousin and “fixer” Joe Gargan. Normally a comedic actor, Helms more than holds his own in this dramatic role. He’s the voice of reason in this story and its conscience, the voice audiences hope Ted Kennedy listens to, but ultimately that’s not what happened.

Bruce Dern also makes an impact as the gravely ill and very harsh Kennedy patriarch Joe Kennedy, who would die a few months after the Chappaquiddick incident. At this time, Joe Kennedy could barely speak, and as such Dern’s performance is pretty much sans dialogue.  He does manage to utter that one cold calculating word to his son over the phone, “alibi,” and later when Ted opens his heart to his father and says he’s unsure of who he is and where he’s going, but he does know he wants to be a great man, his father responds, “you’ll never be great.” Ted hugs him anyway.

Clancy Brown is memorable as Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense called in to “fix” the Chappaquiddick incident.  As is Olivia Thirlby as fellow “Boiler Girl” and Mary Jo’s friend Rachel Schiff who utters the prophetic line to Ted that even Mary Jo’s parents didn’t blame him for her death, so why should America?

The screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan pretty much tells two stories. On the one hand, there’s the ugly tale of Kennedy’s cowardly negligence which led to the tragic death of a young woman and the subsequent cover up by the rich and powerful powers that be to save the political career of a young senator with a famous name. But there’s also the story of a nation still mourning the loss of its beloved Kennedy brothers, and how the voting public was willing to turn a blind eye on the actions of the man who they hoped would be the successor to these leaders, the younger brother, Ted Kennedy.

And in the middle of both stories, a conflicted, sad, confused, and for one fateful evening completely irresponsible Senator Ted Kennedy, who if not for his name, should have gone to jail for both his actions and inactions. Instead, he served as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts for over 40 years.

Director John Curran captures the salty feel of a Massachusetts island to the point where you can smell the unpleasant odor of the ocean, and it smells like death, ugly incompetence, and the vulgar actions of a political cover-up.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

LEADING LADIES: BARBARA SHELLEY

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Barbara Shelley in DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, that column where we look at lead actresses in horror movies.

Up today it’s Barbara Shelley, a woman whose talent and beauty adorned some of Hammer Films’ best shockers.  Of course, Shelley starred in more than just Hammer horror movies, appearing in all sorts of movies and TV shows as well.  Here’s a partial look at her long and successful career, focusing mostly on her horror films:

MAN IN HIDING (1953) – Barbara Shelley’s first screen credit, under her real name, as Barbara Kowin, in this British whodunit murder mystery starring Paul Henreid and Lois Maxwell.

BALLATA TRAGICA (1954) – Betty Mason- Shelley’s first credit as Barbara Shelley in this Italian crime drama.

CAT GIRL (1957) – Leonora Johnson- Shelley’s first horror movie, a variation of the more famous CAT PEOPLE (1942), where she plays a young woman affected by a family curse that warns she will turn into a murderous leopard when angered.  Some girls have all the fun.

BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE (1958) – Madeleine –  One of my favorite Barbara Shelley movies, this atmospheric horror movie about a mad scientist named Dr. Callistratus (Donald Wolfit) conducting strange blood experiments in a creepy prison is a subtle exercise in “thinking man’s horror.”  It looks and plays like a Hammer Film, but it’s not, but it was written by Jimmy Sangster, who wrote some of Hammer’s best shockers.

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) – Anthea Zellaby – Probably my favorite Barbara Shelley movie, this science fiction classic about the strange children with the glowing eyes is one of the best science fiction horror movies ever made.  Also stars George Sanders, Michael Gwynn, and Laurence Naismith.

THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (1961) – Beth Venable – Shelley’s first Hammer Film, another cat tale involving murder and the supernatural. Also starring Andre Morrell and Freda Jackson.

THE SAINT (1962) – Valerie North – appeared in the episode “The Covetous Headsman” of this classic TV show starring Roger Moore.

THE GORGON (1964) – Carla Hoffman- co-stars with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in this Hammer shocker that is topnotch throughout except for an ending that exposes some very weak special effects when the titlular monster is finally shown on screen. Major role for Shelley, as her character is integral to the plot. Directed by Hammer’s best director, Terence Fisher.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (1965) – Bryn Watson – starred in the episode “The Odd Man Affair” of this classic secret agent TV show starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.

DRACULA- PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) – Helen Kent – Becomes Dracula’s victim in this excellent Hammer Dracula movie, the first direct sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) with Christopher Lee reprising his role as Dracula once again. Also starring Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Thorley Walters, and Philip Latham. Directed by Terence Fisher.

RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK (1966) – Sonia – Reunited with DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS co-stars Christopher Lee, Francis Matthews, and Suzan Farmer in this Hammer Film which also used the same sets from that DRACULA sequel.

THE AVENGERS (1961-1967) – Venus/Susan Summers – “From Venus With Love” (1967)/ “Dragonsfield” (1961)- Two appearances on the spy TV series starring Patrick Macnee.

FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1967)- Barbara Judd – Classic Hammer science fiction movie, part of their Quatermass series, originally titled QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. Stars Andrew Keir as Professor Quatermass.  This one’s got an impressive mystery and tells a neat story.  Also starring James Donald and Julian Glover.

GHOST STORY (1974) – Matron – Haunted house tale not to be confused with Peter Straub’s novel or the 1981 film based on Straub’s novel. Shelley’s final performance in a theatrical release.

DOCTOR WHO (1984) – Sorasta – appeared in the four part episode “Planet of Fire” of this classic science fiction TV show.  Peter Davison played the Doctor.

UNCLE SILAS (1989) – Cousin Monica – Barbara Shelley’s final screen credit to date in this horror TV mini-series starring Peter O’Toole as the mysterioius Uncle Silas.

Barbara Shelley was born on February 13, 1932.  She is currently retired from acting.

 

I hope you enjoyed this partial look at the career of actress Barbara Shelley, one of the more influential actresses from 1950s-1960s British horror cinema.

Join me again next time when we look at the career of another actress in horror cinema in the next edition of LEADING LADIES.

Thanks for reading!

—-Michael

 

 

UNSANE (2018) – Unimaginative, Unscary Thriller

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Claire Foy in UNSANE (2018)

UNSANE (2018), the latest movie by acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh, is un—.

Yeah, I know.  A movie with the title UNSANE is just begging for some word play with “un” words. Unwatchable. unlikable.  Unbelievable. Unusual.  Yadda, yadda, yadda.  Truth is, UNSANE is none of these things.

It is rather unsophisticated, though, for a psychological thriller.

And yes it is rather unbelievable at times.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is trying to make the best of her life, but she’s not having an easy time of it.  She’s doing well at her job, receiving glowing praise from her male boss, but when he suggests she join him for a weekend trip to a major business event, she doesn’t like the vibes she’s receiving and declines the offer.  On a date, she encourages intimacy early on, but later, when she brings the guy back to her apartment, she pushes him away and becomes physically ill.

Yup, Sawyer has some problems, and we learn that she has moved far away from home to get away from a man who was stalking her.  It was such a frightening experience, it has left her scarred emotionally and psychologically.  She decides to seek out help.  She visits a psychologist and during the interview admits she has had suicidal thoughts in the past.  She signs some papers agreeing to treatment but doesn’t realize she has just involuntarily signed herself into a mental institution.  The next thing she knows, Sawyer finds herself inside a setting right out of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1976).

Then, to make matters worse, she sees the man who had been stalking her now working at the institution as an orderly going by the new name of David Strine (Joshua Leonard). Of course, she flips out, believing that this man has followed her here to the institution. Or, is this all in her head?

That’s the question, or at least one of the questions, that is supposed to be driving the plot to UNSANE along, but the problem is, the film answers this question way too early, and once it’s answered, the film is far less fun.

I have to say, for the most part, I was really enjoying watching UNSANE, and the biggest reason was the performance by Claire Foy in the lead role as Sawyer Valentini.  Foy is in nearly every scene in this one, and she is more than up to the task of carrying this movie on her shoulders.  She does a fantastic job.  At times, she shows us a Sawyer who is in control and not in need of medical intervention, but most of the time we see her angry and unhinged, doing nothing to support her argument that she doesn’t need help.

And Foy is not helped by the script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, which is by far the weakest part of this thriller. Take the main premise, for example. Please.  (Drum Beat.)

It’s so painfully obvious early on when Sawyer is signing those papers that she’s about to be involuntarily committed.  She misses one obvious sign after another, to the point where for me it was completely unbelievable that she wouldn’t realize immediately  that something is wrong. She’s there for just an interview, a conversation, and she finds herself being led into a facility where the bedrooms are in full view, and she doesn’t stop to question why she’s being taken back there? Plus, signing the paper in the first place seems like such a careless thing to do.  Then there’s the staff which are so evasive it’s clear they are trying to trick Sawyer into being committed. Is this how hospitals work? I hope not.

So, the next logical thought is this is going to be a sinister hospital, and because of Foy’s performance I was more than happy to go along for the ride and see where this story and sinister hospital would take me.  The problem is it took me in completely predictable directions that grew more unbelievable as they became known.  The situations also aren’t very clever or innovative.  The basic plot point, once revealed, and it’s revealed early on, is rather mundane.  Foy’s performance deserves a better story than this.

The rest of the cast is very good, so Foy is certainly not going this one alone.  I was particularly impressed by SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE alum Jay Pharoah as fellow patient Nate Hoffman. Nate is the voice of reason inside the institution, and his friendship with Sawyer is one of the only things she can rely on, which she does more and more as she becomes more desperate.  But there’s a plot twist involving his character which doesn’t really do much for the film nor is it all that believable.  But Pharoah is very good in the role, and when he and Foy are on-screen, the film is most watchable.

Joshua Leonard as the “is he really there or not?”  stalker David Strine is okay, but he’s really limited by a script that pretty much makes him the most ridiculous and unbelievable character in the movie.

Juno Temple is memorable as Violet, a rather volatile patient who gets under Sawyer’s skin immediately, and the two fight constantly.

And Amy Irving, who I haven’t seen in a movie in a very long time, appears as Sawyer’s mother Angela. Her screen time is brief, but she manages to get in a couple of noteworthy scenes in what ends up being a very thankless role.

Steven Soderbergh is a talented director whose films are often hit or miss.  His previous film, the quirky comedy LOGAN LUCKY (2017) starring Daniel Craig and Channing Tatum, I liked a lot, but his two prior thrillers, SIDE EFFECTS (2013) and CONTAGION (2011), I was lukewarm to. And I’ve never been a big fan of his OCEAN’S movies. But going all the way back to SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989), and moving on through his career, more often than not his films are hits.  That being said, I’d place UNSANE more in the “miss” category.

The potential was there.  A troubled young woman gets involuntarily admitted to an institution seems like the perfect premise for a hard-hitting thriller, but it’s not.  The institution takes a back seat to the stalker storyline which is simply incredulous. Likewise, the other patients are hardly developed, and what could have been a thought-provoking thriller is reduced to a by-the-numbers melodrama not any better than a standard soap opera plot of yesteryear.

One plot point that does work is the storyline that the hospital admits Sawyer and will keep her for seven days because that’s the length of time her medical insurance will pay for her stay.  After that, she’ll be released, the point being that the only reason the hospital admitted her in the first place was because of the business transaction with the insurance company, that it knew it would be paid. That’s one plot point, whether true or not, I certainly could believe.

And Soderbergh tries his darndest to lift this thriller above typical standard fare. There’s some innovative camera work, especially late in the game during a chase through the woods, but it’s certainly not enough to make up for the weak storyline. And then there’s the fact that he shot this film on an iphone. Interesting, but it didn’t help story all that much.

UNSANE also isn’t much of a thriller.  It’s rated R but isn’t all that violent, bloody, or suspenseful.  It’s mostly rated R for language, as Sawyer lets the expletives fly on numerous occasions.

Claire Foy’s performance as wronged patient Saywer Valentini is the best part of this movie, followed closely by a strong supporting performance by Jay Pharoah as fellow patient Nate Hoffman, who becomes Sawyer’s friend.

But the story is so weak and blatantly predictable that the bottom line is for a suspense thriller, UNSANE is unfun and unscary.

In short, UNSANE is unoriginal, unmoving and understandably underwhelming.

It’s unimaginably unimaginative.

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GRINGO (2018)- Unfunny Comedy Can’t Generate Laughs

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Gringo poster

GRINGO (2018) is one of the more unfunny comedies I’ve seen in a while.

Interesting, amiable, even amusing, but funny?  Nope.  And that’s just not a good sign for a comedy.

Harold (David Oyelowo) is an honest and rather naive businessman who finds himself in hot water in Mexico when his dishonest bosses Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron) put him in harm’s way when they double cross a Mexican drug lord known as The Black Panther (Carlos Corona).  On top of this, Harold learns that his wife is having an affair with Richard, and she’s planning to leave him. Talk about having a bad day!

Sick of playing by the rules, Harold stages his own kidnapping, hoping to extort ransom money from Richard and Elaine. But Richard sends in his militarily trained brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley) to extract Harold from Mexico so he doesn’t have to pay the ransom money. Of course, the The Black Panther’s henchmen really are trying to kidnap Harold. And when Harold crosses paths with an American couple, Sunny (Amanda Seyfried) and her boyfriend Miles (Harry Treadaway), who is involved with a drug deal of his own, things get even more complicated.

Complicated, but not funny.

I’m still in disbelief at how little laughter this movie generated.  I didn’t laugh once, and the audience I saw it with was as silent as if they were taking a nap. Perhaps they were.

First of all, this movie has a fantastic cast, and yet they are pretty much all wasted in a script that for a number of reasons can’t get a laugh to save its life.  GRINGO is marketed as a dark comedy, and that label is somewhat true.  The story is dark, but the tone is light. Screenwriters Anthony Tabakis and Matthew Stone tell a story that has the makings of a riotous comedy, but the jokes and situations fall short time and time again.

David Oyelowo’s Harold is a likable enough protagonist.  He’s definitely a sympathetic character who the audience will relate to and root for, but the situations he finds himself in never rise to the level of uproarious laughter.  His attempts at staging his own kidnapping, for instance, involve hiring a couple of locals to talk tough in the background while he’s on the phone with Richard. Not that comical. Sadly, nearly all of Oyelowo’s comedic scenes fall short. On the contrary, his best scenes are his serious ones, like when he laments to Sunny that the world is upside down as it rewards bad people and punishes the good, a conversation that actually rings true.

Oyelowo just starred in the less than stellar THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018), and he’s probably most known for his powerful performance as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in SELMA (2014). His role here as Harold is largely forgettable.

Both Joel Edgerton and Charlize Theron play two of the more unlikable characters I’ve seen in a movie in a while. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not.  They’re just callous and mean. Plus they’re excluded from the main action in the story. Rather than being part of the storyline in Mexico with Harold, they spend most of their screen time in their offices speaking on the phone and to other characters.

Likewise, Sharlto Copley’s Mitch is yet another unfunny character.  He’s a former military assassin who’s now found religion, but even this twist adds nothing to the humor.

The Black Panther loves The Beatles, and he often kills his enemies based on their opinions of the Fab Four, but this running gag falls short, mostly because it’s not that funny to begin with. And hearing the name Black Panther did nothing but distract me throughout, as every time I heard it I found myself wishing I were in the next theater watching Marvel’s THE BLACK PANTHER (2018) again instead of this movie.

Amanda Seyfried plays it straight as Sunny, and she’s likable enough in this role, but sadly it’s a small role and not terribly important.  She’s a very talented actress and deserves better roles than this.

And Harry Treadaway, who played Victor Frankenstein on the TV show PENNY DREADFUL (2014-2016) looks completely out-of-place here as Sunny’s drug dealing boyfriend Miles.

GRINGO was directed by Nash Edgerton, Joel’s older brother, and he does an okay job. The biggest problem with the film is the script, but still there are some odd choices from the director’s chair.  There are a couple of scenes that end in odd places, like one between Elaine and fellow businessman Jerry (Alan Ruck) in a bar, where Jerry is hitting on her but she turns the tables on him in what looks like a potential hilarious moment but before it reaches this climax it just ends without the expected payoff.  Likewise, there are several scenes between Harold and Sunny where you expect more to happen but it doesn’t.

I certainly didn’t hate GRINGO.  I liked the character of Harold, and his plight in Mexico was fairly amusing, but it’s a story that ultimately plays like a light drama rather than a dark comedy.  The laughs just aren’t there.

As such, GRINGO is probably my least favorite film of 2018 so far.

—END—

 

 

 

 

RED SPARROW (2018) – Cold Spy Thriller Doesn’t Heat Up

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red sparrow

RED SPARROW (2018) is as cold as a Russian winter.

And for a spy thriller that is about forced prostitution, murder, and espionage, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Russian ballet dancer who suffers a grisly injury while performing on stage which breaks her leg and ends her career.  Dominika’s uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a higher-up in the Russian Intelligence Agency, and he recruits his niece into the organization, promising her he will take care of her sick mother’s medical bills if she serves Russia as a spy. Ah, supporting the sick mother storyline!  Where have I heard that one before?  In fairness, the plot does take a more believable darker turn when good old Uncle Vanya basically threatens to kill Dominika if she doesn’t work for him.

So Dominika is enrolled in a spy training school which, as she puts it, is really a school for prostitutes, since the candidates are trained to use their bodies to get the information they need. The training includes constant humiliation and degradation. The spies who graduate from this school are referred to as “sparrows.”

Dominika is then sent into the field to make contact with an American C.I.A. agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who knows the identity of a Russian mole who is selling secrets to the Americans.  Dominika’s mission is to extract this information from Nash. Of course Nash being a veteran agent, is on to Dominika from the start, and he believes he can turn her to the American side.

Let the intrigue begin!  And that’s pretty much the plot of RED SPARROW.

In terms of story, RED SPARROW is as bare as an empty bird’s nest.  The main plot is pretty simplistic and not all that believable.  And the early segment involving Dominika’s humiliating training at the sparrow school is so emotionless I hardly cared. And that’s the biggest weakness of the screenplay by Justin Haythe, based on the book by Jason Matthews.  I didn’t really care about any of the characters.  Dominika is a cold fish–obviously to survive her training she has to be— but the result is a robot-like character who I never warmed up to.

Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash is the more likeable character of the two, but he’s not the main focus here, nor do we ever learn all that much about him.

The dialogue is standard and doesn’t do the characters any favors as most of the folks in this story talk like robots.  Haythe also wrote the screenplay to the horror movie  A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016), a movie I liked much better than RED SPARROW.

The theme that nothing happens by accident is true here, but not because of a sense of fate, but rather because the characters in this tale don’t allow anything to happen by accident.  They force, coerce, and manipulate everything.

Director Francis Lawrence fares slightly better than his script.  The film looks sufficiently dark and distressing, and the several scenes of torture in this one make their mark— literally— but again, like the movie as a whole, emotions just aren’t all that prevalent. There are some decent fight scenes, but nothing like the ones in last year’s ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) starring Charlize Theron.

Lawrence directed the last three HUNGER GAMES movies, also starring Jennifer Lawrence, and that’s pretty much where this film falls in terms of quality and feel, on par with a HUNGER GAMES sequel, and that’s not a good thing. Plus, as a spy film, it does nothing to set itself apart from other films of its type.

Jennifer Lawrence, in spite of her considerable acting talent, delivers a one-note performance here as Dominika.  She’s cold and she’s tough, and that’s about it. Obviously, Dominika had to be this way to survive the training and her ensuing mission, and so on paper Lawrence is doing what she should be doing to capture her character’s persona. But there’s nothing beneath the surface here.  We know little about Dominika before her conversion into a red sparrow spy, nor does Lawrence give us any insight into what kind of person Dominika is, other than she’s relentlessly strong-willed and resilient. But you can say the same thing about both Wonder Woman and Frances McDormand’s character Mildred in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), two very different characters who we learn a lot about in their respective movies and so we understand where they are coming from and where they are going.  Such is not the case with Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika.

Joel Edgerton does a fine job as Nate Nash, although his character is also under-written, and so  not a lot is known about him either.

The film is peppered with a strong supporting cast which helps keep this film afloat.

Matthias Schoenaerts gives one of the best performances in the film as Dominika’s uncle Vanya. He makes Vanya cold, calculating, and heartless, which pretty much sums up the feel of the entire movie.

Veteran actress Charlotte Rampling plays the Matron, the no-nonsense woman in charge of training the candidates at the Sparrow school. Mary Louise Parker is memorable in a small role as Stephanie Boucher, the chief of staff of a prominent U.S. Senator who has secrets to sell.

Sakina Jaffrey and Bill Camp are memorable as Nash’s C.I.A. handlers, while Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons play top Russian intelligence officials.

And Sebastian Hulk makes for a frightening Russian torture artist who likes to peel the flesh off his victims. Slowly.

RED SPARROW has strong acting, tepid writing, and by the numbers direction. Combined with an overall emotionless feel, and a focused but uninspiring performance by Jennifer Lawrence, the result is a formulaic and often lackluster spy thriller.

Its frigid tale simply never heats up.

—END—