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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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EXTRACTION (2020) – Netflix Original Best Action Movie In Years

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EXTRACTION (2020), a Netflix original action flick starring Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, premiered last week on the ubiquitous streaming service with a ton of hype and promotion. In fact, the film’s ads definitely had the feel of a theatrical release.

Does this actioner by a first time director known for his stunt work on the Marvel superhero movies live up to the advertising?

The answer is a resounding yes! Not only is EXTRACTION one of the best Netflix-made action movies yet— I enjoyed it much more than last year’s TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019), for example, but it’s also one of the best action movies I’ve seen in a while. Period.

It’s the best non-superhero action movie I’ve seen in years.

EXTRACTION takes place in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where the most powerful drug lord of the land kidnaps the young son of a rival drug lord, who happens to be in prison. This rival drug lord tells his right hand man, Saju (Randeep Hooda) that if he doesn’t rescue his son, his own son will die. Saju knows he can’t do the job on his own, so hires a group of mercenaries to do the job for him, all the while knowing he can’t afford their price, and so from the  get-go he’s planning to double cross them.

The mercenaries are led on the ground by Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth), a fearless soldier haunted by some personal demons from his past. Nevertheless, Tyler is very good at what he does. He’d give Rambo a run for his money. And he does successfully find the boy, Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) but extracting him from Dhaka proves difficult, because the all-powerful drug lord Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli) shuts down the city, and since Saju has double-crossed the team, Tyler is surrounded on all sides with little hope of getting the boy out of Dhaka.

But Tyler has no intention of letting the boy die on his watch.

The best part about EXTRACTION are its action scenes. The action sequences here are second to none. These are hard-hitting violent R-rated fight scenes, and they are shot exceedingly well, including one very long sequence done in a single take, reminiscent of a similar sequence in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017).

The fact that these sequences are so expertly handled comes as no surprise since director Sam Hargrave worked as a stunt coordinator and second unit director on many of the Marvel superhero movies. His expertise is on full display here. It’s an exceptional directorial debut. The camera gets in close to the action, and things happen with such speed you really feel like you are right there in the middle of the combat with the actors.

Hargrave worked as Chris Evans’ stunt double in the CAPTAIN AMERICA and AVENGERS movies. He was the stunt coordinator on CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) and AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), as well as the aforementioned ATOMIC BLONDE. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He has 80 stunt credits going back to 2005. He was also the second unit director on ATOMIC BLONDE and AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

And these action sequences had better be good because the film is almost nonstop action. The first hour is an incredible fight-filled thrill ride. It’s relentless. Things slow down midway so the audience can catch its breath, before picking up again for an intense conclusion. Action fans will not be disappointed.

Nor will fans of good storytelling. The screenplay Joe Russo, based on the graphic novel “Ciudad”by Ande Parks, tells a riveting story that never lets up. Chris Hemsworth’s Tyler Rake is a likeable character, in spite of the bloody path he carves out, and his mission here, to rescue a young boy, even when his superiors tell him to cut his losses and leave the boy behind, is an admirable one. The dialogue is also first-rate.

It’s an excellent screenplay by Russo, who of course is known as a director, as he directed CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

So, yes there’s a big Marvel connection here, solidified even more with the presence of Chris Hemsworth in the lead role. It’s an outstanding performance by Hemsworth. I liked him here every bit as much as I’ve enjoyed watching him play Thor in the Marvel movies.

Randeep Hooda is also excellent as Saju, an ex-special forces soldier who finds himself having to double cross a team of deadly mercenaries pitting him against Rake and rival drug lords in order to protect his own son. The fight scenes between Hooda and Hemsworth are some of the best in the movie.  Had this movie been made back in the 1980s, you could easily imagine Schwarzenegger and Stallone in these roles.

Priyanshu Painyuli makes for a surprisingly suave drug lord Amir Asif, and Golshifteh Farahani stands out as the sexy yet ice-cold coordinator of Tyler’s team, Nik Khan.

And David Harbour who plays Police Chief Jim Hopper on STRANGER THINGS (2016-present) shows up midway through as an old friend who steps up to give Tyler and the boy safe— eh hem—harbor.

I really liked EXTRACTION. It’s one of the best action movies I’ve seen in years, with some of the most exhilarating action sequences ever put on film. It’s that good.

The only drawback is I wished I had seen this one on the big screen. In IMAX. It’s worthy of that kind of viewing.

With EXTRACTION, Sam Hargrave has put himself on the map as a premier action movie director, while Chris Hemsworth has solidified his standing as a truly bona fide action star.

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HORSE GIRL (2020) – Intriguing Drama Asks: Mental Illness or Alien Abduction?

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There’s a fine line between mental illness and alien abduction.

That’s the dance played out in HORSE GIRL (2020), an intriguing drama about a sweet yet socially awkward young woman who suffers from nightmares and blackouts which she interprets as alien abductions while those around her believe more matter-of-factly that she suffers from mental illness.

Just where the truth lies is something the movie doesn’t make crystal clear.

HORSE GIRL tells the story of Sarah (Alison Brie) a shy young woman who works in a fabric store during the day and comes home to her apartment at night where she spends her evenings alone watching reruns of her favorite science fiction TV show, while her roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan) occupies herself with her boyfriend Brian (Jake Picking). Sarah also has an affinity for a horse Willow which she visits every day at the stable, much to the annoyance of Willow’s owners. We learn later that Willow used to be Sarah’s horse but isn’t any more.

On her birthday, Sarah receives a birthday card from her co-worker Joan (Molly Shannon) who asks her if she has any special plans to celebrate, to which Sarah lies and says she’s going to go out to dinner with some friends from her dance class. Later, we witness the awkward scene where Sarah tries to make plans with these friends but fails miserably, so she returns to her apartment, content to spend her birthday alone, but her roommate Nikki feels bad for her and coaxes Brian to invite his friend Darren (John Reynolds) over who had recently broke up with his girlfriend. Surprisingly, Darren and Sarah hit it off well, and they agree to see each other again for a date.

Up until this point, HORSE GIRL has the makings of a tender romantic love story, but it’s at this time when Sarah realizes she’s been having some pretty bizarre dreams, dreams in which sleep walks and finds herself in other places, not knowing how she got there, and when she returns home, she finds that while she believes she’s been gone for hours, only minutes have passed in real-time.

She does some research on the internet and reads about alien abductions, and the descriptions of these abductions match things she has seen and felt in her dreams. It’s also at this time when she begins to think more about her grandmother and mother, both of whom dealt with mental health issues and spoke of experiences similar to hers. In her mom’s case, she recently committed suicide. But Sarah fixates on her grandmother, who in old photographs is the splitting image of Sarah, which gets Sarah thinking about clones.

Once Sarah starts speaking about this to her friends and family, it’s easy for them— and for the audience— to believe she has inherited the same mental health issues as her mother and grandmother. But Sarah is convinced otherwise, and she sets out to prove it.

HORSE GIRL is a thought-provoking movie that is well-written by director Jeff Baena and lead actress Alison Brie. And while its story is never fleshed out as well as one would hope, it still delivers in that it takes its audience for a ride that is compelling throughout, the only drawback being a conclusion that is a bit too open-ended.

I really enjoyed Alison Brie in the lead role as Sarah. She makes Sarah likeable and vulnerable. She nails the introvert persona suffering from social anxiety to a tee, and the scenes where she tries to be social are painfully realistic. And she does it without being cliché or superficial. In all other aspects of her life, in her job, for instance, she’s comfortable and quite good at it. So, Brie creates a three-dimensional character who we like even before all the weird things begin to happen to her, and once they do, we empathize with her and want her to be okay, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that she’s not okay.

Brie is a wonderful actress who I first noticed on the TV show MAD MEN (2007-2015) where she played Trudy Campbell. She also stars on the TV show GLOW (2017-2020). She’s in nearly every scene in HORSE GIRL, and she easily carries this film on her back.

And as I said, she also wrote the screenplay, along with director Jeff Baena. One of the best parts of the screenplay is how well-written the supporting characters are. They come off as real people, which in this story, is important, because Sarah increasingly becomes unstable, and if she were surrounded by a bunch of cardboard clichés, it would certainly make her story less believable. But that’s not the case here as these supporting characters have real reactions and really care for her.

In one of the film’s best sequences, when Sarah is on her date with Darren, it’s all going so well, and when Sarah opens up to him and starts talking about what she suspects is happening to her, at first since he’s happy and genuinely likes Sarah, he’s supportive and all ears. But as Sarah grows more intense and unpredictable and unrealistic, she becomes scary, and Darren’s reaction changes.  Had he been a cliché, the boyfriend only out for sex, for example, this scene would not have worked as well. Instead, it works wonderfully, because Darren tries so hard to  understand Sarah and to accept what she’s saying, but as she reacts more violently, he, like the audience, becomes unnerved and he has no choice but to react to that. It’s one of the more honest— and frightening— sequences in the film.

As I said, the one weakness in the movie is the ending. Based on the final sequence, you get a pretty good idea on which side the moviemakers favor here, mental illness or alien abduction, but still there’s something missing, and that something is an independent view on the matter. The film is told through Sarah’s eyes, and so even that final scene is from Sarah’s perspective, and hence you really don’t know its true meaning, which often is not a bad thing in a movie, and it’s not a terribly bad thing in this movie, as I still liked it a lot in spite of the ending, but a more emphatic ending would have helped, as it would have given this curious tale an exclamation point on which to end, rather than the way it ends now, with an ellipse.

HORSE GIRL also has an admirable supporting cast. Debby Ryan does a fine job as Sarah’s roommate Nikki, who although she gets frustrated with her does care about her. Likewise, Jake Picking is solid as Nikki’s boyfriend Brian, who’s much less supportive of Sarah and thinks she’s flat-out weird. Molly Shannon also does a nice job as Sarah’s co-worker Joan who also seems to care about her.

I really enjoyed John Reynolds as Darren, the guy who sincerely wants to start a relationship with Sarah, but he unfortunately picked the wrong week to ask her out. Reynolds does an awesome job making this guy a three-dimensional character, and he does it in very little screen time. Reynolds plays quirky Officer Callahan on TV’s STRANGER THINGS (2016-2020). He makes much more of an impact here in HORSE GIRL.

HORSE GIRL also benefits from a couple of screen veterans in the cast. Paul Reiser shows up in one sequence as Sarah’s step-father. It’s just one sequence, but it’s a good one. And John Ortiz plays a man Sarah sees in her recurring dreams, and then later she sees him in real life.

I liked the way director Jeff Baena handled this one. Sure, it’s a bit of a slow burn, as the pace is measured, and the first third is a straight drama. In fact, when Sarah experiences her first weird nightmare, it comes out of nowhere and is quite jarring. If HORSE GIRL were a horror movie, it would fall into the category of quiet horror. So, call this one a quiet mystery/thriller.

But it works.

HORSE GIRL is a captivating drama with sprinkles of mystery and science fiction thrown in that takes its time telling its weirdly provocative story, and while its ending isn’t completely satisfying, it remains a movie that creates a sympathetic main character who’s searching for answers about her past and her future. You’ll want her to find them.

It’s now available on Netflix.

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LOST GIRLS (2020) – Story of Serial Killer Victims Not As Powerful As Book On Which It Is Based

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Amy Ryan and Thomasin McKenzie in LOST GIRLS (2020).

LOST GIRLS (2020) is a Netflix-original movie based on the nonfiction book Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker, which chronicled the still unsolved murders committed by the Long Island Serial Killer. I read this book when it first came out, and it remains one of the best books I’ve read this past decade.

Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery is a meticulously researched and compelling read that tells the story of the victims and their families, a fascinating narrative made more so by the fact that the killer remains at large.

Now comes the movie LOST GIRLS, and since I had been so impressed with the book, I was eager to see this one.

In LOST GIRLS (2020) it’s 2010, and Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) is a single mom who works two jobs to support her two daughters, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie) a senior in high school who is hoping to be able to afford community college, and Sarra (Oona Lawrence) who’s in middle school and struggling with mental health issues. When Mari’s oldest daughter Shannan, who doesn’t live with them but does send money to them regularly, fails to show up for a promised dinner date with the family, Mari shrugs it off, but when Shannan’s boyfriend calls Sherre, something he has never done before, looking for her, and when she doesn’t respond to her messages on her phone, Mari begins to worry.

Getting no help from the police, Mari investigates on her own and learns the shocking truth that Shannan worked as a prostitute and was last seen in Oak Beach, New York, a private community on Long Island. She also learns some very disturbing facts, like her daughter made a 911 call screaming for help, and the police didn’t arrive on the scene until nearly an hour later. Shannan reportedly ran screaming down the streets of Oak Beach, and no one claimed to have seen or heard anything. Also, the security camera footage on those very streets from that night was erased, a camera controlled by the man who would later become a person of interest.

Mari makes her presence known to the local police and eventually is able to engage in face to face dialogue with Police Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) who pleads with her to remain patient, but she has no intention of doing so. Eventually, the remains of several bodies are found in the woods around Oak Beach, and it’s determined that a serial killer has been at work.

The victims’ families get together and form a support group and eventually hold a vigil on the streets of Oak Beach, all in an effort to memorialize their daughters’ lives. Mari makes the point that she wants them remembered as daughters, sisters, and women, not as prostitutes.

While the police do step up their investigation, Mari is there every step of the way, prodding them, and pointing out their shortcomings, like calling them out for refusing to search the densely wooded swamp area behind the main suspect’s house.

I wish I could say LOST GIRLS the movie was as hard-hitting and as moving as the book, but it’s not. It makes its points, but it does so briefly and without much depth. The film is short, clocking in at 95 minutes, and as such never really gives the subject its due.

I was able to fill in the blanks because I had read the book, but I wonder if folks who haven’t read the book would be able to do the same. The book was exhaustively researched. The reader really felt the scope and magnitude of what these families were going through, what it must have felt like to have daughters murdered and the police doing little about it. The book also chronicled in detail the police investigation and the problems it faced, mostly due to ineptitude. The movie focuses more on Mari and her one on one meetings with Commissioner Dormer. The scope just isn’t the same.

The book was haunting. For the longest time afterwards, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The movie is much more superficial. It has its moments, but there are far too few of them.

Amy Ryan is excellent as Mari Gilbert. She gives a powerful performance, and as we learn that Mari is driven by the guilt of her past, how she couldn’t handle Shannan as a child and gave her up to a foster family, Ryan shows us the scars of the character and how she uses them to find the strength to be the mother she wanted to be when her daughter was still alive. When Dormer says that Shannan’s fate is not on her, she replies tellingly “I’m her mother. It’s all on me.” It’s one of the film’s more powerful moments. I wish there had been more of these.

This is one of Ryan’s strongest performances to date, adding to the quality work she has already done in such films as THE INFILTRATOR (2016) and BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015).

Thomasin McKenzie is one of my favorite young actresses working today, as she has delivered some powerhouse performances in films like JOJO RABBIT (2019) and LEAVE NO TRACE (2018). Her role here as middle daughter Sherre is much more limited than her roles in the aforementioned movies, and as such she doesn’t have a whole lot to do in this movie, which is too bad, because she’s a great talent.

Gabriel Byrne is perfect as the tired and weary Police Commissioner Richard Dormer. While he wishes Mari would just go away, he never really tells her to do so, and in the movie anyway, seems sympathetic to her requests. We also learn immediately what kind of predicament he’s in, because at the outset, we are privy to a phone conversation in which he’s told point-blank that if he doesn’t downplay the serial killer angle he will lose his job.

I enjoyed Lola Kirke’s performance as Kim, a sister to one of the victims and a fellow prostitute. Her conversations with Mari are some of the better ones in the movie, and you almost get the sense that Mari feels like she’s talking to Shannan when she’s giving advice to Kim.

Dean Winters plays a smug and uncaring police detective and sort of stands in as the face of police incompetence here. And Reed Birney does a wonderfully creepy job as the outwardly “oh so helpful” Dr. Peter Hackett who for a long time was a major person of interest and suspect in the case. The scene where he puts his hands on Mari’s shoulders will give you chills. We just saw Birney in THE HUNT (2020), and he’s been in a ton of movies and TV shows.

The screenplay by Michael Werwie based on Robert Kolker’s book is not really a strength of this movie. It tells the story it has to tell, in that it gets in and gets out without any fluff, but it also doesn’t dig deep. It’s all very superficial, and without having read the book, it would be easy to dismiss it as just another serial killer story, albeit one based on true events. But it’s so much more than that. It’s the story of the victims and their families, and while the movie goes through the motions to say as much, there are few moments where it really tugs at your heart and makes you feel their plight and pain.

In the book these families go through hell. In the movie, scenes cut away and finish long before they should. Sharper dialogue would have gone a long way towards bringing these families’ stories to life.

Liz Garbus directed LOST GIRLS, and the result is an efficient production, and it’s all competently handled. I didn’t, however, get a strong sense of place. Oak Beach should have been a setting so disturbing I could smell the death there, but the camera never gets anywhere that close to make me feel that way.

And there simply are not a lot of heightened emotional moments here, which is surprising considering the subject matter.

Still, I recommend LOST GIRLS. It tells a disturbing story, one that needs to be told, but it does it in a way that may leave you with more questions than answers. As such, if you see this movie and feel you want to learn more, I highly recommend the book  Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker

Unlike the movie, the book is thoroughly comprehensive and as such is an incredibly moving and tragic read.

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MUDBOUND (2017) – Story of Two Farm Families & Racism in 1940s Mississippi Builds To Compelling Final Act

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mudbound

MUDBOUND (2017) is a Netflix original movie from 2017 that tells the story of two families, one white and one black, who live and work on the same farm in the days following World War II. It was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress for Mary J. Blige, and Best Adapted Screenplay, but it didn’t win any.

In MUDBOUND, stoic and often cold Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) moves his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their young children to Mississippi to fulfill his dream of owning and operating a farm. Included in the move is his racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) who makes no secret of his hatred of blacks. When Henry realizes his deal to rent a farmhouse off the property of the farm was phony, and that he was swindled, he’s forced to move his family onto a much less attractive home on the actual farm, within walking distance of the black family who live there and work on the property.

This family belongs to Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige), who along with their children, all work on the farm. The stories and interactions of these two families are told through a variety of perspectives, as each character spends time in the movie as a first person narrator.

Two of the characters, Henry’s playboy brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) both serve in World War II and see combat, bloody scarring combat, and when they return after the war they form a friendship which crosses the racial divides of the time.

I liked MUDBOUND well enough, but for most of the movie’s two-hour and fourteen minute running time I found it watchable but seldom compelling, until the film’s final act, when the story focuses on the friendship between Jamie and Ronsel, and leads to the film’s brutal climax, the one moment in the movie that lifts it to a higher level. It’s a moment that is exceedingly disturbing yet equally powerful and captures the racial hatred of the time in a way that the rest of the movie only hints at.

One of the reasons I didn’t love MUDBOUND is the screenplay by Virgil Williams and director Dee Rees, based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, utilized the method of having multiple characters narrate the movie from their individual perspectives. While this seems very creative, it prevented the film from having a main narrative voice, that one character who as a viewer you could latch onto, buy into their story, and go along with them for the ride. This doesn’t really happen until the film’s final act, with the story of Jamie’s and Ronsel’s friendship, and the tragedy which ensues because of it.

Neither family, the McAllans or the Jacksons, really come to life. They each have their moments, and the film chronicles the often uncomfortable ways they have to deal with each other, because of the McAllan’s racist attitudes, but there are few moments that really stand out.

The film looks good, and with a title like MUDBOUND is sufficiently muddy. Director Dee Rees successfully captures the climate of rural Mississippi, with hard long rains, and thick soggy farmland. And while the story of the two families works, it never gets as emotional as I expected it to, except towards the end. The biggest reason for this lack of emotion was the lack of a main character to latch onto.

The acting in MUDBOUND is all very good. The two best performances were by Garret Hedlund as Jamie and Jason Mitchell as Rondell, and the story of their friendship is the best part of the movie. I especially thought Jason Mitchell knocked it out of the park.

As I said, Mary J. Blige was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the Jackson matriarch Florence, and Blige does give a noteworthy performance. She especially enjoys some key moments where she reflects on her role as a mother, like when she is called to care for the McAllan children who have developed whooping-cough, and she realizes what it would mean for her entire family if she were to fail and these children were to get worse or die.

I also really enjoyed Carey Mulligan as Henry’s long-suffering wife Laura. She too has some notable scenes, and she’s often the character who can see past her family’s racist views but knows she’s in no position to do anything about it. I hadn’t seen Mulligan in a while. She has delivered some very memorable performances in such films as THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) where she played Daisy Buchanan, and DRIVE (2011). Here, Mulligan is plain and down to earth, a farmer’s wife, which is a far cry from some of the more glamorous roles she’s played in the past.

Interestingly enough, her co-star here Jason Clarke, who plays her husband Henry, also starred in THE GREAT GATSBY as George Wilson. Clarke is fine here as hubby Henry, a man most in the audience will ultimately not like.

Rob Morgan does a commendable job as Hap Jackson, and Jonathan Banks is at his vile best as the extremely racist Pappy. If there’s one character who draws out an emotional reaction throughout, it’s Pappy, and Banks is excellent in the role. He’ll turn your stomach.

MUDBOUND was the first of the non-documentary Netflix movies to be nominated for an Academy Award, and all four of its nominations were for female nominees.

MUDBOUND tells a noteworthy and often disturbing story of racism in Mississippi in the days following World War II, and it tells this story through the lens of two families living on the same farm, one white and one black.

And while it’s not always as evocative and emotional as one would expect, it does build to a very disturbing conclusion that sears into its audience’s memory some rather horrific images, in a climax that lifts this film from historical narrative to tear-inducing drama.

It takes a while for this to happen, but overall, it’s worth the wait, as before the end credits role, the ugliness of racism rears its putrid head and reminds us why ultimately stories like this need to be told.

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