First Glance: “Peninsula”

Peninsula

Or more accurately titled “Train to Busan presents: Peninsula”. This is the sequel to the stellar South Korean zombie movie “Train to Busan”. That 2016 survival-horror romp was a tension-soaked, edge-of-your-seat experience full of good characters and laced with some pretty thoughtful social commentary. And it’s action sequences still stand out to me.

Now director Yeon Sang-ho returns with “Peninsula”. The idea is that four years after the zombie apocalypse Korea is essentially a wasteland. At least that’s what a group of soldiers on a retrieval mission think until they discover a groups of survivors. With zombie swarms all around, will we see the best or worst of humanity in the face of desperation and survival? The new trailer shows a much bigger scope and even crazier action. Sign me up.

“Peninsula” is set to release later this year although a US date hasn’t been nailed down just yet. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” (2020)

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When a movie opens with a fish dangling on a hook it’s a safe bet that the audience is meant to be the fish. Such is the case in the Canadian feature “Disappearance at Clifton Hill”, part crime drama, part detective story, part psychological thriller. We even get a splash of neo-noir. It’s fittingly set in the enigma that is Niagara Falls, a city as antithetical as the movie itself.

The film stars Tuppence Middleton who’s terrific playing Abby, a troubled young woman returning home after the death of her mother. In a gripping prologue we learn that a 7-year-old Abby witnessed the violent kidnapping of a boy while on a fishing trip with her family. In the years since Abby has had a turbulent life which has driven a wedge between her and her sister Laure (Hannah Gross). The two come together to settle their mother’s affairs, most notably what to do with the family owned Rainbow Inn.

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PHOTO: Elevation Pictures

While in town Abby is reminded of what she witnessed years earlier. She goes to the cops but they aren’t interested in her story. Her sister thinks it’s another one of her wild made-up tales to get attention. But Abby meets Walter Bell (David Cronenberg in a rare acting appearance). He’s an eccentric local podcaster who dabbles equally in city history and conspiracy. Walter encourages her to dig deeper into the mystery, all but assuring her there is more to it than meets the eye.

Director Albert Shin and his co-screenwriter James Schultz do a great job of building suspense without tipping their hand. In a way Abby is our representative, full of questions and uncertainty just like us. But at the same time Shin and Schultz are baiting us, and just like the fish in the opening shot, once we’re on the hook they reel us in. I’ll leave it there because the less you know the better.

Shin makes great use of his setting, showing a shade of Niagara Falls that many people may not be aware of. Casinos, cheap tourist traps, seedy motels, all bathed in a neon glow – it’s the perfect vibe for a city that could be harboring a dark and dirty secret. Tip of the hat to cinematographer Catherine Lutes who captures the moody ambiance and helps convey a tone rich with unease. Other cool visual touches include the use of Polaroids, old VHS tapes, and even Microfilm.

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PHOTO: Elevation Pictures

Through Abby’s obsessive search for answers we meet several interesting players. Marie-Josée Croze plays the female half of a local husband/wife magic act. She’s fantastic and almost steals the show in a particularly great diner scene. Eric Johnson embodies all of the slime and smugness you would want from a pampered rich kid from the city’s most powerful family. And I mentioned Cronenberg who always pops up at just the right time. He brings a certain gravitas to a wacky but fun role.

Despite a couple of lulls in the middle, “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” keeps you in its grip in large part thanks to Middleton’s strong lead. Her performance is raw and organic, always working at the right temperature. And while the clever story may not neatly tie up all of its loose ends, the ending left me satisfied and with a smile across my face. In other words, it was well worth the ride.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

First Glance: “Tigertail”

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As an unashamed cinephile it’s good to know that even during a global pandemic interesting movies are still coming out. Of course, movie postponements pale in comparison to the true suffering going on due to the COVID-19 virus. But new movies offer a nice diversion and can even spread a little joy. Who couldn’t use that right now?

“Tigertail” is the feature film directorial debut for Alan Yang and the new trailer is worth a look. It shows a young Taiwanese man who seems to leave the love of his life behind to go to America and start a new life. That decision leaves him with a life full of regret and second-guessing. It took me a couple of watches to understand where the story may be going and now I’m really excited to check it out.

“Tigertail” launches on Netflix April 10th. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it r taking a pass.

https://youtu.be/i8lp_eI78ZM

RETRO REVIEW: “Panic Room” (2002)

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By the time David Fincher made “Panic Room” he had already earned a name for himself as an audacious filmmaker. He had “Se7en” and “Fight Club” under his belt, both bucking the mainstream in their own grimly unique ways. “Panic Room” saw him working in more conventional thriller territory. But as you would expect from any Fincher project, he gives you more to chew on than you would first expect.

The film opens with a snooty real estate agent (a hilariously snide Ian Buchanan) showing off an swanky upper west side property to recently divorced Meg (Jodie Foster) and her eleven-year-old daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart). The four-story brownstone is fresh on the market following the death of its previous owner – an elderly millionaire hermit who happened to install an impenetrable bunker upstairs. The panic room is made of reinforced concrete and steel, features a state-of-the-art security system with closed-circuit television, and comes with its own private phone line.

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PHOTO: Columbia Pictures

Despite being a little creeped out by the panic room, Meg takes the house. But wouldn’t you know it, their first night at their new place turns into a nightmare. Three men begin skulking around eventually finding their way into the house. A corn-rowed Jared Leto, a blue collar thief with a conscience Forest Whitaker, and a mysterious masked Dwight Yoakam form the inept trio who are surprised to find the new owners at home.

Meg hears the intruders prompting her to grab Sarah and escape into the panic room just in the nick of time. Turns out the burglars are there for $3 million the previous owner has stashed away in his house. And guess where the cash is hidden…yep, the panic room. What follows is an entertaining game of cat-and-mouse between a mother protecting her child and a pack of dysfunctional hooligans.

David Koepp’s screenplay is pretty basic on the surface but thematically he does some intriguing things. Most of them have to do with the Meg character. Nicole Kidman was initially cast but forced to leave due to a knee injury she suffered while filming “Moulin Rouge”. Kidman’s portrayal was set to be more powerless and vulnerable. After casting Foster the character was rewritten to be stronger, quick-thinking, and more resourceful. The new combination of feminine grit and maternal instincts allowed for a fresh female representation and Foster was fully committed.

Hayden Panettiere was originally set to play Sarah but dropped out and was replaced by a 12 year-old Kristen Stewart. It was only Stewart’s second film role and she leaves quite a mark. Not only does she have a great mother/daughter chemistry with Foster, but she brings spirit and personality to what could have been another stock kid character. It’s a deeply grounded performance and she’s a real attention-getter especially in some of her later scenes.

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PHOTO: Columbia Pictures

But it’s also true that Fincher isn’t trying to do anything too profound. He’s still very much making a genre film and you can see him enjoying the familiar structures that come with it. He seems to have the most fun with his camera. Playing within the confines of a single setting, Fincher’s camera (with the help of the occasional digital effect) seemingly utilizes every inch of the mammoth sized house. We know the layout pretty well thanks to the sly early scene with the real estate guy. Next is watching the director use the place in a variety of cool and crazy ways.

“Panic Room” ends up being a genuinely thrilling nailbiter, skillfully laid out both visually and plot-wise. Led by strong performances top to bottom and a clear-eyed understanding of what it aims to be, “Panic Room” is a straight genre movie but with enough Fincher flourishes to give it an extra kick. It will never be considered among the filmmaker’s most beloved pictures, but it’s great seeing it on his resume. And personally speaking, I actually like it better than “Fight Club”, but that’s a fight for another day.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars 

REVIEW: “The Way Back” (2020)

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So to be clear, this isn’t 2010’s “The Way Back”, Peter Weir’s terrific survival adventure starring Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell, and Ed Harris. And this isn’t “The Way Way Back”, the 2013 coming-of-age indie and Sam Rockwell showcase. This is in fact 2020’s “The Way Back”, a deeply personal and emotionally intense character study disguised as an uplifting sports drama.

Most sports movies follow a pretty familiar blueprint and in some ways this film is no different. But the best sports movies work because they capture the human element. In “The Way Back”, the sports stuff follows the usual formula and it’s the human element that indeed stands out. In fact you could say that basketball is simply a meaningful plot mechanism helping to tell the story of a broken man on the precipice of self-destruction.

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Ben Affleck gives one of the best performances of his career playing Jack Cunningham, a construction worker who recently separated from his wife Angela (a terrific Janina Gavankar). Early in the movie we learn Jack is a raging alcoholic and the film puts a lot of effort into effectively emphasizing how far he has spiraled. Disconnected and out of sorts, Jack’s dependency on alcohol as a means to quell his suffering only intensifies as we learn more about him.

But a ray of light comes in the form of a phone call from his Catholic high school alma mater. Jack was a star player back in the day. Now they want him to come back and take over the team after their head coach suffers a heart attack. He reluctantly agrees and soon finds himself once again enjoying the game he had left behind.

But director Gavin O’Connor (who worked with Affleck on “The Accountant”) and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby keep their film from succumbing to formula. Yes, much of the sports angle rings familiar. But one of the best things about the story is how it blows by the expected ending, skipping the easy out and staying true to its character-driven convictions. Basketball doesn’t miraculously heal Jack. It points him in the right direction, but his demons don’t magically disappear. The filmmakers wisely avoid the sentimental cop out.

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

You can’t help but sense an almost autobiographical vibe with Affleck’s performance. Considering his own real-life battles you could see this role as being therapeutic. Affleck fully commits himself and the honesty he brings lets you know he’s pulling from an intensely personal place. Gavankar is a great counterbalance. In their few scenes together her restrained, emotionally delicate approach adds a special layer to their relationship. It’s clear Angela is hurting too and Gavankar does a great job of conveying it.

As O’Conner showed with 2011’s “Warrior”, he’s no stranger to subverting the traditional sports drama. He does it again here on the back of a powerful, unflinching Ben Affleck performance. The sports stuff bops along in predictable fashion and some of the lightheartedness that comes with it doesn’t always land. But when focused on Affleck (which it mostly is) the movie shines and it smartly leans into the actor’s own experiences. It doesn’t offer clean and simple answers, but it does believe in second chances. Regardless of whether you’re a down-and-out construction worker/basketball coach or an immensely talented middle-aged actor.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

 

REVIEW: “Resistance” (2020)

ResistposterIn a gut-churning prologue set in 1938 Nazi Germany a young Jewish girl named Elsbeth asks her loving parents a simple but weighty question, “Why do they hate us?” Her comforting father (Édgar Ramírez) tells her to not worry and that things will soon get better. Within seconds writer- director Jonathan Jakubowicz shatters that optimism and a child’s innocence is stripped away in a flash. It’s a short yet visceral opening to “Resistance”, the true story of an uncommon hero.

In Nuremberg, Germany, 1945, General George S. Patton (Ed Harris) taken the stage at the Kongresshalle, a former Nazi rallying grounds to address a large gathering of American troops. Through what is essentially a framing device, he shares with them the story of Marcel Marceau, an aspiring stage performer and mime. Later generations would best know Marceau for his silent character Bip the Clown (among other things). But as Patton begins his story we quickly learn that Marcel’s inspirational life’s journey began well before he became famous.

The film hops back to 1938, this time to a cabaret in Strasbourg, France. On a tiny corner stage and mostly unnoticed by the crowd, Marcel (played by Jesse Eisenberg) performs his mime routine inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character. It’s what he dreams of doing, but he doesn’t get much support from his well-meaning father (Karl Markovics), a third generation kosher butcher who prefers his son to follow in the family’s footsteps.

But Marcel sees himself as “a serious actor“, spending his time working on his act rather than cutting meat or trying to win over Emma (Clémence Poésy), a young woman he wants to marry someday. She’s a part of a local activist group organized by Marcel’s cousin Georges (Géza Röhrig) to help smuggle Jewish orphans to safety. Marcel shows no interest in joining the efforts, selfishly declining Georges’ plea for help. “I’m no good with children” he weakly contends. Yet he reluctantly agrees and his entire perspective forever changes after seeing three truckloads of frightened children, among them young Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey) from the prologue.

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PHOTO: IFC Films

It’s here than Jakubowicz makes one of several smart choices. Marcel begins using mime to comfort the children, but never in a silly or mawkish way. In fact, it’s an essential yet pretty small part of the story. Jakubowicz wisely sticks to his timeline, making this more about wartime heroism than artistic expression. “Resistance” chronicles Marcel’s brave and often harrowing early life which unquestionable helped shape the renowned peacetime performer he would later become.

After Germany invades Poland, French border towns are ordered to evacuate. The entire population of Strasbourg (including Marcel’s family) head for southern France, leaving everything behind expecting to return soon. Of course their lives were never the same. In six short weeks Hitler’s Germany conquered Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and then much of France including Paris. Not long after, the rest of the country fell to Nazi rule.

The group lead the children to Limoges, hiding them with local families and churches. It’s the only instance in the movie where the time gap seems curious as the nearly 400-mile trek is passed over. Nonetheless the danger remains which inspires Marcel, his brother Alain (Félix Moati), Emma and her sister Mila (Vica Kerekes) to join the French Resistance. The four travel to Lyon which suffers under the brutal fist of SS officer Klaus Barbie known as “The Butcher of Lyon” (he’s played with disquieting menace by Matthias Schweighöfer). Barbie is instantly made into the movie’s chief villain. And while there is no evidence that Barbie and Marceau ever crossed paths, the Gestapo head’s barbaric presence in Lyon is well documented and several of his actions we see are pulled from true accounts.

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PHOTO: IFC Films

After facing Barbie’s brutality Marcel finds himself at a crossroads. Do you fight and die just to kill a few Nazis or is living and saving the lives of others the greatest form of resistance? For Marcel the answer is an easy one, setting up a tension-soaked final act which teaches us that that not every form of resistance came at the end of a gun.

All of Eisenberg’s normal acting ticks are put to good use. His Marcel is timid, slightly neurotic, even a little bratty when we first meet him. All things the actor can do in his sleep. But even when his character becomes a hero, he’s still fraught with uncertainty and insecurity. While his accent may not always be convincing, Eisenberg brings plenty of sincerity and emotion making this one of strongest performances. Poésy is even better, serving as much more than your standard love interest. In fact any hint of a romance is passed through fleeting looks or gentle smiles. We know it’s there but it’s never intended to be a major story point. This allows Poésy to extend her character and performance into several satisfying directions.

Keenly shot, deeply affecting, and historically valuable, “Resistance” brings to surface another largely unknown true story of courage and sacrifice set during the Holocaust. I say this often, but I’m glad filmmakers are still plowing this ground and unearthing these powerful stories which need to be told. Marcel Marceau would go on to become the world’s most famous mime artist. In 2001 he wrote “Destiny permitted me to live. This is why I have to bring hope to people who struggle in the world.” With “Resistance” Jonathan Jakubowicz opens ours eyes to the weight of that statement while shining a much deserved light on a truly remarkable life.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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