Monday, August 31, 2020

Movie Review: Tenet

Tenet **** / *****
Directed by: Christopher Nolan.
Written by: Christopher Nolan.
Starring: John David Washington (The Protagonist), Robert Pattinson (Neil), Elizabeth Debicki (Kat), Kenneth Branagh (Andrei Sator), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ives), Clémence Poésy (Laura), Fiona Dourif (Wheeler), Michael Caine (Michael Crosby), Andrew Howard (Stephen), Wes Chatham (Sammy), Himesh Patel (Mahir), Martin Donovan (Victor), Dimple Kapadia (Priya), Anthony Molinari (Rohan), Yuri Kolokolnikov (Quinton), Jonathan Camp (Archibald), Rich Ceraulo Ko (Timmy), Mark Krenik (Toby), Laurie Shepherd (Max), Denzil Smith (Liam).

Time really is the driving obsession behind most of Christopher Nolan’s work. It’s a main point in all of his non-Batman films, and now that I think of it, even there – but in the more traditional sense, in that Bruce Wayne wonders how long he can do this for. I’m not going to traffic in spoilers for Nolan’s latest film – I am acutely aware that I have seen this film before many others (specifically in America) have even had a chance to, and well before many – worldwide – will comfortable going. I often think spoiler-phobes are insane with the degree in which they demand people write about films, giving away absolutely nothing – so if you’re one those, probably stop reading, but if you’re sane, you’ll be fine. But with Nolan, I think perhaps warranted – not because his films are so complex and mysterious, but actually kind of the opposite. Since Memento, Nolan has specialized in making this kind of intricate puzzle box films – Tenet is certainly one of those – but while the first time through any of them you may be confused in the moment, you can also rest assured that (spinning top aside), Nolan is going to wrap everything up in a nice, neat package for you in the end. That’s just the way his mind works. Personally, I like a little more mystery in my films – even at the end. But you cannot deny just the massive amount of technical craft that goes into a film like Tenant, the skill of the performers, or just how well thought out the film is by Nolan. I’m sure someone will come up with plot holes – they always do – but I didn’t see them.

Without giving too much away in terms of plot, let me just say that the film revolves around The Protagonist (John David Washington), who is sucked into a world he doesn’t understand, and tasked with saving the world. He will eventually team up with Neil (a very charming Robert Pattinson), and get involved with the beautiful Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and her Russian oligarch husband Andrei (Kenneth Branagh) – no points for guessing whether a Russian oligarch is a good guy or a bad guy. I have a feeling that even saying this much will anger people, so I’ll just leave it at that.

On the performance side, you probably cannot expect much more out of the four principle cast members of Tenet. Hell, Washington is literally stuck playing a character called The Protagonist, and he somehow makes it an interesting performance. It may not be a deep performance – none of them are – but the way he struts through a scene, and seemingly effortlessly takes it over on the strength of his charm alone will certainly remind you of his father – and a higher compliment, I find it hard to imagine. Washington surely is a movie star, and if he were British, he may even make the case for being the next James Bond here. Pattinson, who has gone from one indie director to another, delivering fascinating performances, is here back in the blockbuster realm – and he’s equally adept here. He has a roguish charm here – he fits into the world of the film effortlessly in a way that Washington stands out (because of his race). Pattinson, who I didn’t think much of in the Twilight films, has turned into one hell of an actor – and he is terrific here. Much like her male co-stars, Debicki is wonderful here – it’s the film’s most sympathetic role, and she certainly shows that she is a movie star like they do. Branagh has fun with his Russian accent, because of course he does, and he’s quite good as well.

From a technical standpoint, it’s hard to find fault in Tenet – which not only does all the things you expect a Christopher Nolan movie to do well on a massive scale, but even does some things I don’t think I’ve quite seen before. Please note, I seem to be in the minority of people who never found dialogue in any Nolan film hard to hear (seriously people, I understood every word Tom Hardy said in both The Dark Knight Rises and Dunkirk) – but the sound work here is still perhaps the best of Nolan’s career. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is excellent, composer Ludwig Goranasson steps in for Hans Zimmer and doesn’t miss a beat. The editing is a definite feat – and the special effects is excellent.

I do think, in the end, Tenet is a film that hit me much like Inception did – perhaps a little less. Both films are certainly complex in terms of their plot and implications – but they are both perhaps so complex that it feels like roughly 50% of the dialogue is explaining what they hell just happened, or what is going to happen. It’s all explanatory – and while the actors make it work, and it’s needed so you don’t get lost – it’s also not the most fascinating thing in the world to listen to (especially, one thinks, a second time through). For all of its faults, there is nothing in Tenet that hit me as emotionally hard as Interstellar did. Much more so than Nolan’s other films, Tenet really does feel like a mathematical equation – a left brain exercise in precision. I admire the hell out of most of what the film does - I just wish it did a bit more. 

Movie Review: The King of Staten Island

The King of Staten Island *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Judd Apatow.
Written by: Judd Apatow & Pete Davidson & Dave Sirus.
Starring: Pete Davidson (Scott Carlin), Marisa Tomei (Margie Carlin), Bill Burr (Ray Bishop), Ricky Velez (Oscar), Bel Powley (Kelsey), Maude Apatow (Claire Carlin), Steve Buscemi (Papa), Pamela Adlon (Gina), Jimmy Tatro (Firefighter Savage), Kevin Corrigan (Joe), Domenick Lombardozzi (Firefighter Lockwood), Mike Vecchione (Firefighter Thompson), Moises Arias (Igor), Carly Aquilino (Tara), Lou Wilson (Richie), Derek Gaines (Zoots), Pauline Chalamet (Joanne).

Judd Apatow has essentially made a directing career out of movies telling famous comedians it’s time to grow the hell up. Whether it’s Steve Carrell in The 40 Year Old Virgin or Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, Adam Sandler in Funny People or Amy Schumer in Trainwreck – or hell, even Paul Rudd as a Apatow stand-in in This is 40 – Apatow’s filmography is full of funny people, who are basically overgrown children, who just need to mature – usually, it’s through a relationship with someone, but not always (Funny People being the obvious exception here). His latest, The King of Staten Island, attempts to do the same thing for SNL’s Pete Davidson, essentially taking Davidson’s persona, and details from his life, and making a movie about how Davidson’s Scott Carlin needs to grow up. I do think the film softens some of the real Davidson’s issues – mental illness is brought up, but not really explored, and even in a filmography such as Apatow’s – where there has never been a subplot that hasn’t been explored, this time it seems excessive. Still, the film is winning and funny, and essentially warm hearted – basically, what you expect from Apatow.

In the film, David stars as Scott Carlin – a 24-year-old still living at home on Staten Island with his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei) and younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow) – although Claire is about to go away to college, and is understandably worried about her big brother. Their firefighter father died in a fire when they were little (not on 9/11 as Davidson’s real father did – perhaps Apatow and company figured bringing that into it would make it far too dark) – and Scott has never really gotten over it. He basically does the same thing he did in high school – sit around with his friends getting stoned, giving himself – and them – bad tattoos, and arguing with Kelsey (Bel Powley) his childhood friend turned friends with benefits/girlfriend that he doesn’t know why she wants to put a label on their relationship. He doesn’t have a job – he’ll get one as a busboy – he dropped out of art school (he is talented) – and doesn’t really know what he’s going to do. He goes into a little bit of a tailspin when his mother starts dating Ray (Bill Burr) – another fireman, which brings out the worst in him, and in turn, in Ray as well.

The film has approximately a million subplots – so we get scenes with his friends, scenes with Ray’s ex-wife – Pamela Adlon, who Scott bonds with when he starts walking their kids to school, scenes with Kelsey, scenes at the restaurant where he works, scenes of him trying to become a tattoo artist, etc. before the film settles down in its second half and focuses on Scott, living with the firemen at the firehouse, who kind of take him under their wing, tell him stories about his dad, and make him grow up a little. You could argue there is a better, tighter 90-minute version of this film – rather than 135-minute version we got – one that focusing primarily on the firemen, his mother and Kelsey (Bel Powley is a delight) – but over the last 15 years, I’ve come to think that perhaps Apatow is like Tarantino in that he needs the subplots, side roads and diversions to get to where he ultimately wants to be.

I still don’t know if Davidson is a good actor or not. He’s incredibly hit and miss on SNL and is in his standup, but playing a version of himself here, he is quite good. It doesnI’t hurt him that he is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast – I really liked the previously mentioned Tomei and especially Powley, along with Steve Buscemi as the elder statesman of the fire department, Pamela Aldon, who makes the most out of little screen time, and The Nightly Show’s Ricky Velez as one of Scott’s loser friends. In a more serious role, Burr is also quite good – although I wouldn’t be shocked to find the role was written especially for him and his comedic skills.

I do wish that the film had delved a little deeper into mental illness though – even if this is a comedy. Davidson has been open with his struggles – and Scott mentions them early in the film as well, but they are kind of forgotten about as the film moves along. Unlike other Apatow protagonists, I don’t think it’s quite so easy as saying Scott needs to grow up, and commit to the perfect girl right in front of him. Like changing his father’s death from being on 9/11 to just being in a random fire, you wonder if perhaps Apatow just didn’t want to deal with what it would bring up in a comedy – but doing so may have taken The King of Staten Island from what it is – a good little comedy, into something greater.

Still, for what it is, The King of Staten Island definitely works. It is funny and heartwarming, and gives Davidson a chance to show what he can do – and surrounds him with a first rate ensemble cast. If I wanted a little more, it’s a testament to what was already there, that I felt the film could have gone there if it chose to. 

Movie Review: The Burnt Orange Heresy

The Burnt Orange Heresy ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Giuseppe Capotondi.
Written by: Scott B. Smith based on the novel by Charles Willeford.
Starring: Elizabeth Debicki (Berenice Hollis), Claes Bang (James Figueras), Donald Sutherland (Jerome Debney), Mick Jagger (Joseph Cassidy).

Elizabeth Debicki has certainly become one of the best working actresses around. She should have least been nominated for her excellent performances in Steve McQueen’s Widows, she’s excellent in pure movie star mode in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet – and has delivered any number of interesting performances in other movies as well. She is even good in this film, The Burnt Orange Heresy, which overall isn’t a particularly good film – but she, along with Donald Sutherland, elevate a rather silly art world thriller. Perhaps a director like Hitchcock could have made this film work – but even then, it would be full of pseudo-intellectual posturing about art and its meaning, so maybe not.

The film stars Claes Bang as James – an art critic, who was once a rising star in the field, who everyone assumed would be running his own prestigious gallery by this point – but he’s screwed up, and so now he writes books, and delivers lectures to old people on the meaning of art that he doesn’t much believe in. He meets Debicki’s Berenice at one of those lectures – the pair fall into bed almost immediately, and soon are a couple. James is approached by Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) – a big time art dealer, with an offer. The legendary artist Jerome Debney (Sutherland) is willing to sit down for an interview with James. All of Debney’s work was apparently burned in a gallery fire decades ago, and he hasn’t released anything since – although according to Cassidy, he has never stopped working. What Cassidy wants is for James to steal one of Debney’s newer works. It will make a fortune for Cassidy – who in turn will do a solid for James – and get him that gallery he always wanted. Things, of course, don’t go as planned – and James starts to distrust everyone around him – not without reason.

There is certainly enough crackling chemistry between Bang and Debicki in the opening act that make you wish the pair were starring in a film like Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, or either version of The Thomas Crown Affair – films that I’m sure the Netflix algorithm will suggest if you watch this one. All of those films are light and fluffy – they don’t have much serious on their mind, and had The Burnt Orange Heresy continued in that vein throughout, it undoubtedly would have a been a fun little film. This is especially true once the third major character – that legendary artist played with a twinkle of mischief in his eye by Sutherland shows up.

But somewhere along the way, the film turns rather dark and self-serious – with a lot of questions about art, including questions about an artist who supposedly worked during their time in a Concentration Camp, and a lot of heavy symbolism about dead flies. The film takes some dark twists and turns – as I suppose it must – in the final act involving murder and guilt.

The film, it must be said, is beautiful to look at. Not only does the camera get to take in the beauty of Bang and Debicki, but it’s shot in Lake Como in Italy, so director Giuseppe Capotondi doesn’t have to do much to make it all look pretty. Unfortunately, he really doesn’t do all that much else. The movie is all about its surface pleasures – with Bang, Debicki and Sutherland having fun throughout – even trying to keep things light as the film turns dark. Perhaps Bang got cast here because of his international breakthrough The Square – as once again, he’s playing an art world figure in over his head, although otherwise, the films have nothing in common. Still, he’s in fine form – as is everyone else save for Mick Jagger, who seems to have forgotten how to act over the years.

In the end, The Burnt Orange Heresy is never boring, and further proof – not that any was needed – of the tremendous charm of Bang and Debicki – and still further proof that Sutherland is just as talented as always (it’s still shocking to me that the now 85-year-old Sutherland has never even been nominated for an Oscar – or received a Lifetime Achievement award). It does kind of feel though that the filmmakers didn’t know what was working about the film when they made it. 

Movie Review: Host

Host *** / *****
Directed by: Rob Savage.
Written by: Gemma Hurley and Rob Savage and Jed Shepherd.
Starring: Haley Bishop (Haley), Jemma Moore (Jemma), Emma Louise Webb (Emma), Radina Drandova (Radina), Caroline Ward (Caroline), Alan Emrys (Alan), Edward Linard (Teddy), Jinny Lofthouse (Jinny), Seylan Baxter (Seylan).

You can tell that Host, a Shudder exclusive horror film, was written and made in haste – to try and capitalize on our current state of quarantine and the fears it brings up. The film runs a little less than an hour, and is basically a haunted Zoom call – where six friends, and a flaky medium, get together to try and connect with the “astral plane”. It’s clear that everyone involved wanted to get the film out in a hurry – not just before the Covid-19 lockdowns end, but also before the inevitable wave of films like this crash over us. It isn’t a particularly good film – but it is effective for its limited budget and ambition. You kind of wish that perhaps there would be a way to connect the evil lurking in this Zoom call to our current situation – but that would have required some fancier writing than we have here. As far as horror films that take place on computer screens over chats, the film doesn’t come close to even Unfriend: The Dark Net – let alone the far superior original, Unfriended, which is the gold standard for this sort of thing. Then again, the people who made that film weren’t under the gun like Savage and company were.

The premise is simple – Haley (Haley Bishop) has set up a Zoom call with her friends, and a psychic, so they can all have a socially distanced séance. No one in the group really believes that it will be possible – they likely wouldn’t believe it even if they were together in person – but hey, it’s something to do, rather than talk about how scared they of the pandemic, how lonely they are in isolation, or the troubles in their romantic relationships, etc. Of course, in the grand tradition of horror movie characters who don’t believe in ghosts, spirits or séances, they actually do make contact – and it’s not with a friendly spirit.

You know where this is going when the film begins, and it gets there all right. Unlike say, Unfriended – or a lot of horror movies – the victims here don’t really do anything to deserve their ultimate fates. Yes, they kind of mock the psychic at the beginning – but not that harshly. Perhaps that is deliberate – the nod to the pandemic, that doesn’t discriminate, but comes after you no matter what. But it’s hard to feel too much for these characters either – they are basically cookie cutters – and for the most part, I barely remembered who was who from one moment to the next. It doesn’t really matter – they are all lambs to the slaughter.

Host mainly works though on its own very limited terms. Yes, you get the sense that everything about it was rushed – but it certainly looks and feels like a real zoom call, the practical effects work about as good as can be expected, and even if there are a lot of cheap, jump scares – well, they work anyway. We are probably going to get countless films about this pandemic – horror films that try and tap into the fear we all felt, dramas about “the way we live now” and the “new normal” – etc. Most will almost definitely be insufferable. Host, for all its limitations, isn’t that. It’s lean, mean and effective.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Criss Cross (1949) 
Directed by: Robert Siodmak.
Written by: Daniel Fuchs based on the novel by Don Tracy.
Starring: Burt Lancaster (Steve Thompson), Yvonne De Carlo (Anna), Dan Duryea (Slim Dundee), Stephen McNally (Pete Ramirez), Esy Morales (Orchestra Leader), Tom Pedi (Vincent), Percy Helton (Frank), Alan Napier (Finchley), Griff Barnett (Pop), Meg Randall (Helen), Richard Long (Slade Thompson), Joan Miller (The Lush), Edna Holland (Mrs. Thompson), John Doucette (Walt), Marc Krah (Mort), James O'Rear (Waxie), John 'Skins' Miller (Midget).
The Underneath (1995) 
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh.
Written by: Steven Soderbergh and Daniel Fuchs based on the novel by Don Tracy.
Starring: Peter Gallagher (Michael Chambers), Alison Elliott (Rachel), William Fichtner (Tommy Dundee), Adam Trese (David Chambers), Joe Don Baker (Clay Hinkle), Paul Dooley Ed Dutton), Shelley Duvall (Nurse), Elisabeth Shue (Susan Crenshaw), Anjanette Comer (Mrs. Chambers), Joe Chrest (Mr. Rodman).

Richard Siodmak’s Criss Cross (1949) is a reunion of sorts – reuniting the director with the star of his 1946 hit, The Killers, Burt Lancaster. The structure of the film is similar as well – told in flashback, although this time from the point-of-view of Lancaster’s character – Steven Thompson, rather than being told from the point of view of those who knew him as in The Killers – which is the structure that gave that film the nickname of the Citizen Kane of Film Noir. It isn’t that the masterwork that The Killers is – it doesn’t have that amazing opening scene, the structure is more typical, and Yvonne De Carlo is a poor substitute for Ava Gardner. Still, Criss Cross is a fine noir – with an absolute killer of an ending. Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Criss Cross The Underneath (1995) was mainly greeted with shrugs in 1995, and a re-evaluation has never really happened – in part because Soderbergh himself is so dismissive of the film. He jumped into the film quickly, after losing the Quiz Show directing gig, at an interesting point of his career – sex, lies and videotape (1989) had made him an indie darling – a Palme D’or win, lots of praise – but he had been struggling to follow it up. Kafka (1991) was seen as a commercial and critical failure, and while King of the Hill (1993) had gotten mainly good reviews – it was also mainly ignored. Soderbergh recalls now that he knew for the time he stepped onto the set that it was a mistake – he was miserable, he was going through the motions, and the result is a sleepy film. He’d recharge after – doing the experimental Schizopolis (1996) – that led into the best period of his career – Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s 11, Solaris, etc. He says he needed to make The Underneath to understand how miserable he was. But watching the film now – honestly, for the first time (it was the only Soderbergh I hadn’t seen) – I think Soderbergh is too hard on the film. It’s not a masterwork by any means – but you can certainly see the roots of those films I just mentioned – in terms of structure, in terms of visuals, etc. – that you didn’t see before this. If this is Soderbergh going through the motions, it certainly shows how much talent he has. And while it’s far from the prolific director’s best film, it’s also pretty far from his worst.

In Criss Cross, Lancaster’s Thompson is a classic hero stooge. He has just returned to L.A. after a year of drifting around the country, licking his wounds, and trying to get his ex-wife, Anna (De Carlo) out of his system. They had a hot and heavy relationship, but one marked with a lot of fights – they are that couple that love each other, have terrific chemistry, but still shouldn’t be together. He says he wants his old life back – his old job working for an armored truck company, a return to his family – his beloved mother, a younger brother who is getting married, etc. He says he has no plans of seeing Anna – and yet, he cannot help himself. He’s barely back when he starts going to their old hangout, so it isn’t long before he “runs into” Anna. Their relationship starts up again – slowly – complicated more than a little by the fact that she is seeing someone else – criminal Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea, playing the Dan Duryea role). Things get even more complicated when Anna runs off with Slim – and marries him. Yet, she just cannot seem to get over Thompson, and Thompson cannot get over her.

The film is classic noir – the nice guy brought low by the femme fatale he should know well enough to leave alone, but cannot help himself. A relatively short film – 90 minutes – with a three act structure, the opening and closing of which are stellar. Siodmak does a terrific job of setting everything up in the opening, Lancaster is in fine form, playing the stooge (this was in the period where critics still were unsure if this handsome lunk could act), and Duryea at his slimy best. The final act of the film is even better – the armored car heist is absolutely terrific, the hospital scene is incredibly intense, as Lancaster worries that they are out to get him, and Siodmak slowly ratchets up the tension – all leading to the classic final moments of the film, which is one of the best end. The problem is that the second acts drags more than a little – and it’s mainly due to the fact that Yvonne De Carlo just isn’t overly convincing as the femme fatale. Compare her to Ava Gardner in The Killers – where you have no trouble believing that Lancaster would sacrifice everything for her, and you see the issue.  We buy that Thompson does all this for her because the screenplay, and Lancaster, tell us he does – not because she is particularly great. This is supposed to be a relationship where the characters cannot help their lust for each other – and it never quite comes off. This makes Criss Cross certainly a flawed film – but still a very good one – what works more than makes up for what doesn’t work, yet at the same time you see perhaps why someone would want to remake the film – and fix what was missing.

Soderbergh’s The Underneath though doesn’t really do that – it doesn’t have the interest. The setup is similar – this

time Peter Gallagher plays Michael Chambers, returning to Austin for his mother’s marriage, falls back in with his old girlfriend Rachel (Allison Elliott) who is now criminal Tommy Dundee (William Fichtner). Again, he starts working for an armored car company, and again is drawn into a heist with Dundee and company, where here are double and triple crosses. Again, there is an insanely intense hospital sequence (this one is probably even better), leading to a different, though still tragic, ending.

But Soderbergh and company change the details up considerably in the first two acts. Gallagher’s Michael isn’t some innocent trying to reclaim what he lost. He was a gambling addict, who owed money all over town, and left Austin at the risk of getting killed by some of the people he has screwed over – leaving Rachel to pick up the pieces. The flashback structure gives us more of those details. Chambers here is a screw-up – and while his family acts as if they are glad he’s back, they also cannot help but wonder when he’s going to screw-up again. Rachel is far less happy to see him back than Anna is to see Thompson in Criss Cross – yes, they start seeing each other, but she’s smart enough to know they shouldn’t. The last act of the film is really when the noir aspect really takes over – you see the roots there more clearly. Up until then, it feels like Soderbergh and company are more interested in the characters, than putting them through the noir paces.

Perhaps this is why Soderbergh refers to the film as “sleepy”. The pacing is certainly slower here, but it’s because its taking its time to establish Michael and Rachel – and the larger cast of characters, and showing them in their prior life before Michael fled, to make sense of what happens later. The two leads are certainly more complicated here than they were in the 1949 original – Michael is slimier, less innocent (watch how he uses Elisabeth Shue’s character for example) – and Rachel more guarded and controlled. In the original, it felt like Lancaster was the one who felt burned and betrayed – here it has been flipped.

You also certainly see a lot of Soderbergh touches throughout The Underneath. Watch the cinematography by Elliot Davis (not “Peter Andrews”, who of course is Soderbergh himself – a process he wouldn’t start until Traffic) for its saturated colors, and overarching color scheme for how it predates Traffic. Watch the structure that predates things like Out of Sight or The Limey. Or the heist, which predates Ocean’s 11 – and several other Soderbergh films. Perhaps this makes The Underneath more interesting in retrospect than it was at the time – knowing what was coming, we can see roots of some of it here - and Soderbergh himself has said that he “wouldn’t recommend the film to anyone” except to as part of the arch of his career. In that interview, on the Criterion disk for King of the Hill, where The Underneath is a “bonus” – he seems to be referring to how it made him realize how he didn’t want to make films – but it could also refer to some of the things it prefigures.

It's odd to me that Soderbergh and company decided to change the ending of Criss Cross – both because it’s perhaps the best thing about the original, and the most famous – which is perhaps reason enough to change it to catch the audience who had seen the original off-guard. I do think that perhaps without the last shot of the movie it would work – that shot, of a character who if I’m being honest I don’t really know why they would be there or care, and who frankly you forget about because he had been missing for a while, implies that the ultimate end of the story – what will happen off-screen – will be the same as Criss Cross. And yet, without it, perhaps the ending would work better – as it would not right the wrongs of the film, but would certainly be the type of ending you couldn’t get away with in 1949 – but you’d want to in 1995.

Overall, I think Criss Cross and The Underneath make a fascinating double bill. It’s not just how watching the films back to back highlight the similarities and differences in approaches. It’s also fascinating in terms of the director’s careers – for Siodmak, he was returning to his greatest success, and trying to recapture the magic of The Killers – and getting close. For Soderbergh, it was his personal nadir – a miserable experience, that nonetheless produced what I think is an underrated film. Perhaps that’s just because Soderbergh himself lowers expectations so much for the film – but I think The Underneath is a key film in his filmography – not just because he was so miserable making it, he changed his entire approach – although that is true. But because you can see the filmmaker Soderbergh was going to become in just a few short years.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Classic Double Movie Review: The Killers (1946 and 1964)

The Killers (1946)

Directed by: Robert Siodmak.
Written by: Anthony Veiller based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway.
Starring: Burt Lancaster (Ole “Swede” Anderson), Ava Gardner (Kitty Collins), Edmond O’Brien (Jim Reardon),
Albert Dekker (Big Jim Colfax), Sam Levene (Police Lt. Sam Lubinsky), Vince Barnett (Charleston), Virginia Christine (Lilly Harmon Lubinsky), Jack Lambert (Dum-Dum Clarke), Charles D. Brown (Packy Robinson – Ole’s Manager), Don MacBride (R.S. Kenyon), Charles McGraw (Al), William Conrad (Max).
The Killers (1964)
Directed by: Don Siegel.
Written by: Gene L. Coon based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway.
Starring: Lee Marvin (Charlie Strom), Angie Dickinson (Sheila Farr), John Cassavetes (Johnny North), Clu Gulager (Lee), Ronald Reagan (Jack Browning), Claude Akins (Earl Sylvester), Norman Fell (Mickey Farmer), Virginia Christine (Miss Watson).

There’s no real point in denying that the opening of Richard Siodmak’s classic noir The Killers (1946) is better than the rest of the movie – and it’s also easy to figure out why. The opening scene, in which two hired killers enter a small town lunch counter, try to order off the dinner menu, even though it’s not quite 6 o’clock yet, then proceed to tell the counterman that they are here to kill the Swede – and they hear he comes in every night at 6 for dinner. They intimidate the counterman, tie up the cook and the only other customer in the place, before leaving – correctly figuring the Swede isn’t coming that day. The other customer, Nick Adams, then goes to the Swede to tell him that there are men there to kill him – and the Swede doesn’t react, doesn’t try to run away, he simply accepts his fate. We don’t actually see the killing itself – but we know it has happened, and Adams determines he is going to leave this small town behind – no one much cares about what happened. That opening – which maybe runs 15 minutes or so is pretty much the exact Ernest Hemingway short story that the film is adapting. It then spends roughly 90 minutes answering the question of why – what n happened to bring the Swede to that point – that Hemingway never answered. The film is terrific all the way through – those last 90 minutes borrows Citizen Kane’s structure – as an insurance investigator, Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) pieces together what happened by interviewing people who knew the Swede (Burt Lancaster, in his first screen role) – and we see it play out in flashback – a classic noir structure complete with a femme fatale (Ava Gardner), a heist and double crosses. But as great as those 90 minutes are, the opening 15 represent one of the greatest scene in film history.

When Don Siegel remade The Killers in 1964, he pretty much chucks the whole thing out – gone is Hemingway’s great opening sequence, but also gone is practically everything else. This time, there is no insurance investigator – it’s the hitmen themselves – Charlie Storm (Lee Marvin) and his younger partner Lee (Clu Gulager) who do the investigating. They surmise, much like O’Brien did in the original, that it is odd that they were hired to kill someone who apparently was involved in a robbery and made off with all the cash, and not try and get the cash back. In the words of Lee Marvin here – “the only people who don’t miss a million dollars are people who have a million dollars”. Siodmak’s film is a classic – one of the best noirs of its kind. Siegel’s film has become legendary in its own way – it prefigures the type of roles that would make Lee Marvin an icon, it inspired, and anticipates, Quentin Tarantino and is the last film ever made by future President Ronald Reagan – his first playing the villain, and shows that perhaps that he missed his calling as an actor (he is very convincing as the heavy”. Both are films that are products of their time and place – and in that they are fascinating.

The 1946 The Killers was made at the height of classic film noir. Once that opening is over, it pretty much falls into the familiar arch of noir – albeit with the Citizen Kane structure which makes it slightly more ambitious. Lancaster, a hunk of man, leading with his chin, is perfect here as the foil – a boxer whose career ends, and then gets sucked into a criminal life by a femme fatale – beautifully played by Ava Gardner. He tries to get out of that life – to live a small town life as a gas station attendant, but is recognized and knows he’s doomed (prefiguring Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past the following year – an even better noir). You cannot escape the sins of the past.

Siegel’s 1964 The Killers is a different sort of film – it started out as supposedly being made as TV movie – although the murderers row of talent – Marvin, Reagan, John Cassavetes, Angie Dickinson – make that odd, that turned into a theatrical movie mainly because it ended up too violent. The opening scene here is Marvin and Gulager walking into a school for the blind (the extras actually being blind) where Johnny North (Cassavetes) is a teacher, and gunning him down – which may have been enough right there. The infamous slap Reagan gives Dickinson – so casual, so sudden, so shocking – also didn’t help much.This time though the lyrics may be the same, but the music is different. Johnny North isn’t a boxer, but a race car driver. Once again though, he falls head over heels for a woman – Dickinson’s Sheila Farr – and ends up ruining his career, and being drawn into a robbery – where apparently he betrayed his cohorts, but it may not be that simple. The 1946 The Killers already didn’t have much use for the police – it is telling that it is an insurance investigator (perhaps a nod to Double Indemnity) not the cops who investigate in 1946 – the cops even say they don’t much care – they didn’t know the Swede well, he only arrived a year ago, the killers came and went, and there’s no danger to anyone else in town – so let the State Police handle it. Even that is thrown out though in the 1964 version – the killers themselves become the investigators. You can see why Tarantino loved the killers played by Marvin and Gulager so much that he copied their outfits for Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. They have a strange banter between them – not the chilling cold bloodedness of the killers from 1946 – but a casualness that is also disturbing. Siegel highlights the differences between them in their banter. Marvin would play this type of role to perfection later on – and it’s close to it here as well. Dickinson’s role here is underwritten – she is a femme fatale in some respects, but not really – she’s more a pawn than Gardner was – powerless, instead of in control. Cassavetes, who was a great actor, although perhaps not here, sneers his way through this role – he isn’t the innocent stooge Lancaster played, but far more cynical. Reagan really is quite good here as the villain – not because he twirls a mustache, but more in the casual, corporate boringness his performance – this is true evil, a nice suit in a nice office, who seems like a man who would sell you insurance.

It’s undeniable that the 1964 film was made on the cheap – Siegel was still establishing himself, and after all, it was supposed to go to TV. And yet, the sets, which looks makeshift and disposable, somehow add to the film. The film is bright and in color – leaving behind the masterful use of shadows and grey of the black and white original. It’s a cynical movie – it ends with pretty much everyone dead – and perhaps shows the way towards the future of American filmmaking in the later 1960s and 1970s – of cynicism, and violence without purpose.

All of that perhaps make Siegel’s film sound like a masterpiece – but it really isn’t. There are lumps and bumps throughout the film – far more than the original – and as an overall film, it’s nowhere near as good. Yet, it’s impossible to deny its historical importance – it’s place in cinema history. I’ve seen both films before – and liked both of them more this time. The make a fascinating double bill – not just because both films are good to great – but for what it meant about the very different circumstances, and eras, in which they were made.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Movie Review: Sea Fever

Sea Fever *** / *****
Directed by: Neasa Hardiman.
Written by: Neasa Hardiman.
Starring: Hermione Corfield (Siobhan), Dougray Scott (Gerard), Connie Nielsen (Freya), Ardalan Esmaili (Omid), Jack Hickey (Johnny), Olwen Fouere (Clara), Elie Bouakaze (Sudi).

The Irish, sea-farring horror film, Sea Fever, kind of plays like a feature version of a cold open of an X-Files episode – those small vignettes that let us see part of what Mulder and Scully will be investigating that week. It isn’t the most original horror film – you can certainly see its influences like Ridley Scott’s Alien in the first half, and John Carpenter’s The Thing in the second, but debut filmmaker Neasa Hardiman does give the film a nice, lived in quality to it – the characters are not cookie cutters, and you can feel what life aboard this small, fishing vessel would be like – how difficult and claustrophobic it would be, even without the horror elements.

The star of the film is Siobhan (Hermione Corfield), a young scientist, who is even more of an introvert in a field full of them. We see her pouring over data in a lab, while the rest of her co-workers celebrate with birthday cake – her professor urging her to interact with others. Things don’t get easier for her when she boards the small fishing boat that will be her home for a few weeks. She is there to study the anomalies in the daily catch made by the crew – led by captain Gerard (Dougray Scott) and his wife Freya (Connie Nielsen). It’s and a small crew other than that – engineer Omid (Ardalan Esmaili), along with a cook Clara (Olwen Fouere) and two more men for good measure – Johnny (Jack Hickey) and Sudi (Elie Bouakaze). Siobhan would be an outsider regardless – and it’s played up just how much, since she has scientific explanations that the rest of the crew chalk up to myths and superstitions. Those superstitions include Siobhan’s red hair being a bad omen. The crew though is friendly to Siobhan – it’s clear Gerard and Freya wouldn’t have allowed her on her board if they weren’t being paid – and their own financial situation contributes to why they do it even then.

Things get ominous when the boat enters a zone that they have been told by the coast guard is off limits. This is a blow to them, because that is where their catch is, so when they drift into it, Gerard doesn’t do anything to stop them – and soon they are hauling in a lot of fish. But they hit something, and it’s clear something isn’t quite right. Siobhan has to dive into the water – she can scuba dive, the rest can’t – and is shocked to find that the boat is covered in tentacles – that stretch farther than she can see. Are they being held by some sort of massive creature? Perhaps, but the more pressing concerns is the strange, unknown larva in their drinking water – which they see has no good effects on human pretty quickly.

The film was made, and played the festival circuit last year, but certainly the current situation helps to give the film added resonance. Siobhan is smart enough to know that they have no idea what this larva is – and that it is deadly. There is a lot of talk about quarantine when (if) they are able to make it back to shore – which will certainly get under the skin of people living in 2020, as it mirrors the conversations we are currently having.

The film wasn’t made on a large budget – but Hardiman and company make the most of it. The special effects are limited, but effective. What they do better is to slowly turn the screws on the crew – ratcheting up the tension, as the inevitable starts happening (remember the two films referenced above – they were for a reason). What makes the film interesting however is that you actually do care for the characters – Siobhan the most, but also everyone else. Hardiman doesn’t cheat here – she doesn’t just line the sheep up for the slaughter, but makes you care about the sheep first. She also has a terrific sense of atmosphere on board that boat. One hopes that in her next film, she perhaps tries to be more ambitious – Sea Fever works quite well, but you always know where it’s going, and it somehow feels a little smaller than it is. Still, it’s a fine debut from a very promising filmmaker.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Movie Review: Unhinged

Unhinged ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Derrick Borte.
Written by: Carl Ellsworth.
Starring: Russell Crowe (The Man), Caren Pistorius (Rachel), Jimmi Simpson (Andy), Gabriel Bateman (Kyle), Anne Leighton (Deborah Haskell), Lucy Faust (Rosie), Austin P. McKenzie (Fred), Michael Papajohn (Cop), Sylvia Grace Crim (Teacher), Stephen Louis Grush (Leo), Juliene Joyner (Mary).

Yes, I went to the movie theatre for the first time since March when I saw First Cow less than week before theatres closed due to Covid-19 pandemic. I didn’t go because I felt some unrelenting need to see Russell Crowe play a road-raging psycho – I went because I know I will be going to see Tenet when it opens next week, and I wanted to go on a dry run to see what it’s like. I should point out that I live in Canada – where the virus, while certainly still around, isn’t as bad as it is in America – and in an area where we currently only have four active cases, and only about 150 during the entire pandemic. I purposefully chose the last show of the day – a 10:30 PM show, which was just 15 minutes after the second last show of Unhinged of the day (which according to the seating chart online had a few more people in it than mine did) – I showed up at 10:28, hands freshly sanitized, wearing a mask, and was relieved to find that I was the only person in that screening. I didn’t buy concessions, I sanitized my hands again when I got to my reserved seat, and never once took my mask off. Movie going during a pandemic will never be completely safe – nothing except staying home will be – but I also know that if no one goes to the movies, staying as safe as humanly possible during the pandemic, no one will be able to go after the pandemic is over. I won’t fault anyone who doesn’t feel safe going, and passes – but if the experience is much like what I had tonight, I will continue to do so.

The movie both is and isn’t the ideal one to resume my movie going life with – it isn’t, because unlike when it looked like my last theatrical experience would be First Cow, I cannot say that at least I went out watching a great film. But it is, because I was nervous enough about going that I didn’t actually make my final decision until I was on my way out the door – so at least the film was completely unchallenging, and didn’t require my full attention. Unhinged is the type of film you may expect to go straight to streaming – a kind of paycheque movie for a great actor like Crowe (seriously, why is an actor who at one point looked to be one of the greats of generation with performances like L.A. Confidential, The Insider, etc. doing this movie?). It’s a cheapie thriller, where Crowe plays a psychopath – and you know he’s a psychopath from the first scene, where we see him break into his former house, kill his wife and new boyfriend/husband (not sure, it’s seen in long shot so you don’t get details), set the house on fire and then speed away in his pickup truck. His innocent target is Rachel (Caren Pistorius) a woman going through a divorce of her own, with a pre-teen son, a slacker brother and his girlfriend living at her house, and money problems. She gets frustrated driving her son to school – they are late, again – and honks at the wrong pickup when he doesn’t go through when the light turns green. That, of course, is Crowe – who pulls alongside her at the next light, and chastises her. Yes, he zoned out at that light, but she could have at least given her a courtesy tap right. He apologizes, and says if she does the same, they can just go on their own separate ways. She refuses – thus setting up the rest of the movie, where he is determined to make sure she knows what a bad day really is.

Crowe is clearly over-qualified for the role – but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t give it his all. He is an imposing physical presence – a huge, bulking man whose days of being the lean and muscular man we saw in Gladiator is decades in the past. He effects a drawl on his speech, which is all the scarier because of how calmly he uses it. That goes for most his actions as well – no matter how violent, he does it all with a cruel, casualness of someone who knows that he’ll prevail. He knows his days are numbered – they’re already looking for him because of the double murder – and suicide by cop sounds okay to him. Until then though, he’s going to continue to commit as much violence as humanly possible.

I kept hoping that the movie may try to go a little deeper than it does. There are certainly hints of the roots of Crowe’s rage here – he spews vitriol that sounds like it could come out of the mouth of a Men’s Rights Activist, and a news report gives a few background tidbits that make him sound like one Trump’s forgotten Americans that he exploits while not given a shit about them. But the film doesn’t seem overly interested in any of it rather than as background noise. It wants to be a straight ahead thriller – a cat and mouse game. I will say that the film doesn’t really pull any punches in terms of the violence – it’s pretty hard edged, but doesn’t dwell on it – it’s shock and awe tactics are pretty effective. The plotting of the movie is obvious – we see has things are introduced casually in the first act – a pair of scissors, a strategy for Fortnite, etc. that will become key in the last act.

In short, Unhinged a cheapie thriller – made to make a quick buck for Crowe, and all involved. It’s from an upstart distributor, who really wanted to be the first wide release movie to come out after the pandemic – a way to perhaps get more attention, eyeballs and money than it otherwise would get. I will likely never forget Tenet, as it was my first movie back in theatres after my longest layoff in 25 years – and with any luck, the longest layoff I will ever have. It will have little to do with the movie itself however.

Movie Review: She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Amy Seimetz.
Written by: Amy Seimetz.
Starring: Kate Lyn Sheil (Amy), Jane Adams (Jane), Kentucker Audley (Craig), Katie Aselton (Susan), Chris Messina (Jason), Tunde Adebimpe (Brian), Jennifer Kim (Tilly), Olivia Taylor Dudley (Erin), Josh Lucas (Doc), Michelle Rodriguez (Sky), Adam Wingard (Dune Buggy Man), Madison Calderon (Madison).

Too few people saw Amy Seimetz’s wonderful directorial debut – Sun Don’t Shine (2012), which featured a wonderful performance by indie mainstay Kate Lyn Sheil, which was released in the aftermath of Shane Carruth’s remarkable Upstream Color (2013) – a mistake I hope people are rectifying in the wake of all the deserved praise She Dies Tomorrow is receiving (the history of abuse Seimetz has suffered at the hands of Carruth casts an unfortunate, but undeniable, dark cloud over Upstream Color – which is a truly great movie, and not just Carruth’s achievement – as Seimetz’s amazing performance in that film should have won her an Oscar – and really makes the entire film work – but we may never be able to watch the film the same way again). As a director, Seimetz doesn’t like exposition – she dives right into her stories midstream, and makes you catch up with them. She Dies Tomorrow is a remarkable film – mainly plotless, mainly about death, and Seimetz has perhaps inadvertently made the film that best sums up 2020.

The film opens on the wonderfully expressive face of Kate Lyn Shiel – who plays a character named Amy (perhaps marking the film as at least somewhat autobiographical for Seimetz). It’s clear that Amy is in some sort of extreme breakdown – but it only becomes clear what it is slowly. She is convinced, absolutely convinced, that she is going to die tomorrow – how or why, she doesn’t know, or doesn’t reveal – but she just knows. This remarkable first scene continues – and shows you what the style of the movie is going to be – eventually Amy will stare into the lights coming from a room in her house – we see her face as she stares, not what she is looking at.

At some point during this scene, Amy talks on the phone to Jane (Jane Adams, another indie mainstay who can always be counted on to deliver great work). She is tired of Amy’s breakdowns – and doesn’t know what to do with this one. But once off the phone with her, she too, is filled with the overwhelming sense that she will die tomorrow. She crashes a birthday party thrown by her brother Jason (Chris Messina) for his wife Susan (Katie Aselton) – with another couple. Susan, like Jane with Amy, is tired of these breakdowns of Jane’s – thinks it’s always about putting the attention on herself. Soon though, each person at the party has the same sense – they will die tomorrow. And they will all look into the lights at some point, at something we don’t know. The lights are different colors for each of them though – implying, of course, that whatever lies ahead, it’s different for each of them.

This is how Seimetz makes her remarkable film. The film will flash back and forth in time, again, not explaining the how or why of it all, trusting the audience to figure it all out, and between all these characters. Her years in the indie world have certainly meant that she has made a lot of contacts – a lot of friends – and her film is full of talented actor for Shiel and Adams and Messina and Aselton to Tunde Adebimpe, Jennifer Kim, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Adam Wingard (who directed Seimetz in the really good horror film You’re Next) – and even some more “mainstream” talent like Josh Lucas (whose best work was in the indie The Mend) and Michelle Rodriguez. These actors all undeniably help Seimetz, as they deliver wonderful, and often small, performances. No one is better than Shiel – an actress always worth watching in anything (seriously, her performances, both large and small in films as varied as The Color Wheel, You’re Next, Sun Don’t Shine, The Sacrament, Listen Up Philip – where she hilariously has one scene, and runs away from the main character, making her the sanest one in it - , The Heart Machine, Queen of Earth, Brigsby Bear and the “documentary” Kate Plays Christine – and many, many more is as impressive as any actress working today). She and Seimetz are clearly on the same wavelength here – and she delves as deep as she ever has before.

The film itself is remarkable. It reminded me a little of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia – a film I have been meaning to revisit, as I loved much of it, but also felt Trier’s mocking on some characters was so overly harsh that it keeps me from loving it as much as some of his other work. That film is about the coming apocalypse – and how each of the characters handle it. She Dies Tomorrow is the same thing, on a smaller, more intimate scale – our own, personal apocalypse as it were that comes for all of us. The characters in the film don’t band together to face the threat together – they are isolated, alone in it. We all face death by ourselves, staring into our own personal light.

This may sound like a downer of a film, but it isn’t. At times it doesn’t play like a horror film – the fear experienced is surely visceral at moments to be sure. At times, it is an insanely dark comedy – like everything to do with the leather jacket. It is a film about death – so it’s not a pick-me-up – but it’s not a depressing dirge either. It shows what a talented filmmaker Seimetz is – and hopefully, we don’t have to wait another 8 years for her follow-up.

Movie Review: Boys State

Boys State **** / *****
Directed by: Jesse Moss & Amanda McBaine.

Boys State is a documentary that, as the cliché goes, will make you both hopeful and depressed about future generations, and their attitude about politics. It takes place at the annual event put on the American Legion, where they select 1,000 young men from a state, and allow them to, over the course of a week, form their own government (there is a separate event for women – and I really want to see someone make Girl’s State). This one is set in 2018 in Texas – and perhaps was the place selected by directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (who together made the excellent doc The Overnighters back in 2014) because the year before, the boys voted to secede from America – the type of headlining grabbing event that make people roll their eyes. The young men are split into two parties at random – the Federalist and the Nationalists – and have to elect a State Chair, local representatives, etc. – run primaries for major offices, the key one being Governor – and then running a campaign to see how wins. They don’t do a lot of actual governing – it’s more about the process.

 Whether the filmmakers meant it to or not, this year’s Texas Boys State gave them the perfect opportunity to show both the positive, and negative, side of American politics. It breaks down nicely too – with the Nationalists ending up more on the positive, idealistic side – and Federalists giving into the type of dirty politics than Americans claim to be sick of, being seemingly wins anyway. Rene Otero runs for, and wins the State Party chair for the Nationalists – and is a smart, charming, young man, who leans to the progressive side of the political spectrum, even as he knows he is entering a world where everyone is more conservative than he is (for example, both parties seem to end up pro-gun and pro-life). He knows how to play the game though – and even manipulate it for his own purposes, while not leaving aside his ideals. The soft spoken Steven Garza, barely gets enough signatures to get on the ballot for the Governor for the Nationalists, but ends up winning the nomination – on the strength of his speeches, his idealism, and his honesty. When it comes to light that he led a March for Life event in Houston – which is pro-gun control, in a state where almost no one is, he doesn’t back down from it, doesn’t back away – he explains it in a way that turns even more people to his side. You leave the movie, despite all that happens, hoping that both of these young men continue in politics.

The Federalist side, not so much. The State Party Chair there is won by Ben Feinstein – a double amputee due to meningitis. He had set his sights on Governor, but when it becomes clear that won’t happen, he contents himself on being the power behind the throne – the dirty trickster. The Federalist Governor candidate ends up being Eddy – who everyone compares to Ben Shapiro – here proving that to some people that is something to aspire to. If Otero and Garza aspire to politics to try and do something good – to change society for the better – it seems like Eddy, and particularly Feinstein, are in it to win it.

It isn’t that simple of course. Other people are in the documentary – the most memorable may well be Robert, a real live Richard Linklater character, a tall athletic, charming kid who is used to getting what he wants, runs  - for Governor of the Nationalists – openly admits to the camera that he is lying about some of his positions (he is pro-choice for example although he campaign as the exact opposite– as a side note, it’s bizarre and kind of disturbing how passionate all these boys are on the subject of abortion), and he loses to Garza – because people respond to his authenticity – instead of Robert’s cynicism. Hopefully, it’s a lesson Robert learns.

But ultimately, it may not be the one that the kids take away from Boys State – which is depressing in some ways, because normally we can at least count on the young people in the country to be idealistic that’s why the Parkland kids inspired so many. The lesson at the heart of Boys State – at least the one the kids involved seem to take away – is how to win. It doesn’t matter what you stand for, so long as you win. If they’re this cynical at 17, that doesn’t bode well for the future. Everyone learned something during their time at Boys State – some learned the right lessons, and some decidedly did not.

Movie Review: Spree

Spree ** / *****
Directed by: Eugene Kotlyarenko.
Written by: Eugene Kotlyarenko and Gene McHugh.
Starring: Joe Keery (Kurt Kunkle), Sasheer Zamata (Jessie Adams), David Arquette (Kris Kunkle), Kyle Mooney (Miles Manderville), Misha Barton (London), Frankie Grande (Richard), Lala Kent (Kendra), Joshua Ovalle (Bobby), Reatha Grey (Grandma Adams), Caroline Hebert (Daisy), Sunny Kim (uNo), Linas Phillips (Frederick), John DeLuca (Mario), Jessalyn Gilsig (Andrea), Sean Avery (Officer Hall), Victor Winters-Junco (Officer Hernandez), Amir M. Korangy (Davit the GoGo Driver).


So far it seems like filmmakers are not up to the task of depicting the kind of everyday violence, committed by angry, very online young white men that grows out a mixture of loneliness and misogyny and inflicted on the world as “payback”. Perhaps it’s because the filmmakers who are mainly making movies about them are themselves, white men – but they seem incapable of fully depicting the anger and misogyny, and instead too often depict their central characters as they seem themselves – as victims of the online society that has left them behind, rather than the angry, violent men that they are. Like Todd Phillips completely misreading Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy in last year’s Joker – making the Bickle/Pupkin character in a victim rather than a violent man looking for an outlet for that violence, or the recent The Hater, which didn’t seem to have handle on its character at all, the recent film Spree – about a young man named Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery) – who has attempted to build a social media following, and completely failed, leading to the wild night depicted in the film – where he works as a Spree driver (think Uber) – where he kills many of his passengers, and livestreams it all (still failing to gather a following) seems to think that Kurt is a victim of this society, rather than a lonely, angry, misogynistic psychopath. I’ve seen the film compared to American Psycho – if only that were true. The film version of American Psycho, is superior to the book version, specifically because director Mary Harron and her co-writer Guinevere Turner, come at Patrick Bateman from a completely different point-of-view making him far more pathetic than the alpha-male posturing of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel. If only we had their version of Spree.

Spree is another film than takes place entirely online – mostly the livestream that Kunkle runs throughout the night in his car – equipped with multiple cameras for different angles, but also some different perspectives as well (different people’s videos and livestreams, etc.). We are informed early that Kunkle has been trying to gain a following for 10 years – but his videos rarely hit double digits in views (the way we are informed of this, via onscreen text implies that we are watching some sort of documentary – but it’s confusing because it’s pretty much abandoned from then on). What we see from there, is how Kunkle’s night unfolds – from his first passenger, an angry, older white man spewing racism that drinks the poisoned water bottle Kunkle has put out for his passengers, to more and more extreme violence Kunkle commits throughout the night. Keery, very good on Stranger Things, is good here as well – a smiling psycho, who never drops his cheerful, online brand – the man with the plan, who wants to impart on his fans “The Lesson”.

The film muddies the water too much though with the introduction of Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), an up-and-coming black standup comedian, with a huge online presence – she has everything that Kurt wants, and cannot get. She gets into his Spree – alongside another passenger (it’s Spree social) – but when she gets out, unscathed, the film and Kurt don’t abandon her either. We keep coming back to her – and know her path will cross with Kurt’s again before the night is out.

I know what co-writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko is doing here – after introducing us to Kurt, then the angry older Fox News viewer, and the bro-y frat boy Mario – all of whom have a version of the angry white man shtick going, he wants to introduce a new perspective – one decidedly not white, and not male. In theory, this is the smart move – by showing the perspective of the type of person who is too often the victim of this online hate, you cannot be accused of being locked into the perspective of the perpetrator of it and feeling sympathy for it In practice though, it doesn’t work at all – as both Adams stand-up set that goes viral, and the end of the film, heavily implies that Adams is a huge part of the problem in the first place – and although, like Bickle in Taxi Driver, she is treated like a hero by the media, the movie makes you think she shouldn’t be.

In short, Spree is another film that tries to address the issue of online hate, of violence spreading from the digital world, to the real world – but it’s another one that doesn’t quite understand what the issue is at all. Or maybe, it does – and the execution is just way off. And it’s all wrapped in a package so extreme – the violence is almost comically over-the-top that whatever message the filmmakers are trying to send, doesn’t come through at all.

Movie Review: Amulet

Amulet *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Romola Garai.
Written by: Romola Garai.
Starring: Carla Juri (Magda), Alec Secareanu (Tomas), Imelda Staunton (Sister Claire), Anah Ruddin (Mother), Angeliki Papoulia (Miriam), Elowen Harris (Dina), William E. Lester (Mother - voice).

Actress Romola Garai makes a promising directorial debut with the feminist horror parable Amulet. You don’t quite realize just how feminist it is until the final act, as Garai only slowly reveals the truth about the all the people involved – but the finale really does hit hard. The film is gorgeous to look at – clearly inspired by giallo horror movies, Garai has made a visual stunner. Her storytelling is perhaps not quite up to that level – there is perhaps too many twists and turns, handled a little awkwardly – and the confusion the audience feels at certain points is perhaps not entirely on purpose. Yet, overall, Amulet marks the announcement of a major new talent behind the camera for horror movies – and I cannot wait to see what happens next in her career.

Tomas (Alec Secareanu) is a day laborer living in extreme poverty on the outskirts of London. A former soldier, racked with guilt over his actions in “the war” (what war, is not really made clear – and what he feels so guilty about only becomes somewhat clear as the film moves along). With nowhere to go, when he receives an offer from a kindly nun – Sister Claire (played by Imelda Staunton, giving you the first sign that you shouldn’t trust her) – he gladly takes it. Tomas will work as a handyman of sorts for Magda (Carla Juri) – who lives in a large, dilapidated, remote house as she cares for her dying mother (Anah Ruddin). It quickly becomes clear though that Mother isn’t just some sick old woman – she is possessed by some ancient evil – or may well be the ancient evil made flesh. Magda is trapped with her until Mother dies anyway, and Tomas is there to help. You sense immediately though that Tomas is uncomfortable – the way he looks at Magda brings up mixed feelings in both him and the audience.

Garai reveals the truth behind all of these characters – but does so slowly – perhaps too slowly for genre fans who just want to get to the bloody climax of the movie (rest assured genre fans, when Garai finally does go for broke in those final minutes, it is worth the wait). The film mixes different horror genres in its one film – it is a tale of possession of course, but it eventually makes it clear that it is also a feminist take on the rape/revenge film – that stands aside something like Coralie Fargeat’s underrated/underseen Revenge as an attempt by female filmmakers to take the genre back from its pure exploitation roots. Tomas is a complicated figure – he wants to “free” Magda from whatever curse is on her that forces her to stay alongside mother – as if doing so will free him of his sins. But, as the film makes clear, it may not be enough – you cannot simply make up for a bad deed with a good one. Tomas though is a more complicated figure than we normally see in this type of movie – and Secareanu’s performance is quite good at navigating the different aspects of him. The same is true for Juri’s Magda – and her performance, which really is something in the final act. Up until then, the structure and storytelling do somewhat limit her – as Garai doesn’t want to give the game away. An old pro like Staunton is also quite good as Sister Claire – making the film’s simplest main character into something interesting.

It really is the visuals though that make Amulet something to behold. Garai takes great care with the cinematography and sound design to create atmosphere – and the production design on the house is also quite special – without it, the film would likely fall apart. Garai is clearly a talented – and ambitious – filmmaker. Perhaps, too ambitious with this first film – the flashback structure and storytelling is a little confusing at times – but she more than makes up for it with the visuals, the performances and ideas. I cannot wait to see what she does next.