First Glance: “The Mauritanian”

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An eye-catching cast leads the upcoming legal drama “The Mauritanian”. Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, and Zachary Levi tell the troubling story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi who languished in the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for 14 years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He was held without charge and without a trial. The film is directed by Kevin Macdonald and will finally get its release following several COVID-19 related delays.

The first trailer dropped this morning and it leaves a pretty mixed impression. On one hand it’s filled with lines of stilted made-for-the-screen dialogue. On the other hand there is an undoubtedly rich story to be told and (with the exception of Cumberbatch’s hilariously exaggerated accent) the cast looks up to it. It all comes down to the script and if it can avoid the temptation to preach and let its story do the talking.

“The Mauritanian” currently has a February 19, 2021 release date. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “Last Call” (2020)

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Those familiar with Dylan Thomas would probably agree that the man was an enigma. Both in life and in his untimely demise, Thomas was a hard book to read. Look no further than the numerous biographies, many of which give very different accounts of the Welsh writer and especially of his death on November 9, 1953 in New York City. He was a brilliant but self-destructive wordsmith who fully embraced the ‘doomed poet‘ persona. The new film “Last Call” looks at him through that lens but with some added layers of complexity.

Steven Bernstein writes, directs, and co-produces this intriguing bio-drama that is all about digging into Thomas’ troubled psyche during his last day prior to his death at age 39. It’s said that late that evening Thomas returned to the Chelsea Hotel in New York and declared “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record!” Despite eyewitness claims to the contrary, Bernstein’s film spends a lot of time imagining those hours in the White Horse Tavern leading up to his 18th and final drink as the poet slips further down the rabbit hole of depression and intoxication.

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Image Courtesy of K Street Pictures

Bernstein doesn’t get caught up sharing the full timeline of Thomas’ life. Instead he breaks up the bar scenes with a batch of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and several alcohol induced fantasies. The leaps back in time provide glimpses of his stormy marriage to Caitlin Thomas (Romola Garai) who he left in England to care for their three kids while he does readings across America. She writes letters that seemingly go unanswered, pleading for him to send back money to help clothe and feed their children. Meanwhile Thomas (played by a mesmerizing Rhys Ifans) wrestles with guilt and his true feelings for his wife.

Bernstein brings several other characters in who offer outside perspective on Thomas’ hard living. John Malkovich plays Dr. Felton who tries to warn Thomas about his out-of-control boozing. Tony Hale plays John Brinnan, a fellow writer and Thomas’ frustrated handler while he’s in New York. Zosia Mamet plays Penny who represents the gaze of adoring coeds Thomas would encounter during nearly every university stop. And Rodrigo Santoro plays Carlos the bartender, an enabler at first but perhaps the only person who truly understands Thomas.

The story arcs for all of the supporting characters revolve around Thomas, highlighting his dominating personality. Yet despite his success and unquenched bravado, there is an abject sadness that even a haze of alcohol can’t conceal. Ifans brilliantly captures both sides of the man through countless self-gratifying monologues that get more dour as the story moves forward.

" DOMINION "Photo by Philippe Bosse

Image Courtesy of K Street Pictures

Several of Bernstein’s style choices are oddly implemented but work fairly well – the fractured timeline, the strategic cuts between black-and-white and color, the drunken hallucinations that almost feel plucked from another film. It amounts to a strangely unconventional yet satisfying account that disregards the tendencies of most current day big screen biographies.

It will be interesting to watch the reactions to “Last Call”. The movie forces you to get in tune with Thomas’ special brand of verbose communication which mainly consists of eloquent declamations full of self-centered grandeur. Admittedly it can be exhausting watching Thomas suck the air out of every scene. Yet I also found it fascinating in a grim, tragic sense and Ifans owns every scene much like his character owns every room he enters. It’s cemented by rock-solid supporting performances and a director willing to take risks even if they don’t always work the way he hoped. “Last Call” is now showing in select theaters.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Nomadland” (2020)

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With only three feature films under her belt, Chloé Zhao has already proven herself to be an essential filmmaker of our time. Her first two films “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider” were both honest and heartfelt blends of real life and fiction that focused on people living on the fringes of modern society. Her latest “Nomadland” is cut from the same deeply human cloth and the three films together play like a slice-of-life trilogy set in the American West.

“Nomadland” has been a hit on the festival circuit since premiering in September, taking home top honors in both Venice and Toronto. The film is based on the nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder which explores the lives of Americans travelling from place to place doing seasonal work while living out of their vans and RVs. Zhao (who serves as writer, director, and editor) doesn’t set out to adapt the book as much as capture the spirit of these free-wandering van-dwellers.

In true immersive nomadic fashion Zhao, her star Frances McDormand, and many from the crew lived out of vans for much of the four month shoot. And as with her previous works Zhao populates her film with real people playing versions of themselves. It’s a Bressonian touch that strips away any artifice or bravura for the sake of raw, unvarnished authenticity. And what better professional actress to meld into that deep-rooted setting than McDormand. This is easily the Oscar winner’s most subtle and unmannered performance, brilliantly coating her character in these unique real-world sensibilities.

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Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

McDormand plays Fern, a widow in her early 60’s originally from Empire, Nevada who lost what what seemed like a happy life. Following her husband’s death Empire’s lifeblood, a gypsum plant, closed and the town itself soon followed. People were forced to move away in search of work and within six months the town’s zip code had been eliminated. It’s a vivid reality that may be lost on some but will be painfully real for many in small-town rural America.

Now Fern lives an itinerant life, looking for work and living out of her customized van which she has affectionately named Vanguard. At first you get the sense that Fern isn’t looking to be a nomad. It’s a matter of necessity. She doesn’t consider herself homeless. “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless,” she explains to a former pupil. “Not the same thing, right?” Over time, especially after befriending new people along her journey, the alone and quietly mourning Fern begins to embrace the life of a wanderer, seeing it as the one place someone like her can carve out an existence.

Through Zhao’s neo-realist lens, Fern’s journey is realized with aching detail, moving along with a near lyrical style that makes the mundane and routine flow with narrative and emotional meaning. Whether she’s working at an Amazon fulfillment center during their Christmas rush, cleaning bathrooms at an RV park, or watching a Nevada sunset from a lawn chair. Seemingly simple things matter and when threaded together by Zhao’s mesmerizing storytelling, it’s hard not to be moved.

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Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

And the people Fern meets along the way are just as important. The story features several real-life nomads – nonprofessional actors who are as essential to the film’s setting as any location. Salt-of-the-Earth people who bring their unconventional lifestyles into focus. Linda May and Swankie are two friends and mentors who take Fern under their wings while Bob runs Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a traveling training and support group for van-dwellers. The lone seasoned actor she meets is the always reliable David Strathairn. He plays a fellow nomad who takes a liking to Fern. But while her wandering journey is just beginning, his appears to be approaching its end.

Zhao’s careful casting means so much to the story, but the visual language is equally vital. It’s easy to get lost in cinematographer Joshua James Richards stunning gaze. Whether he’s capturing a picturesque ocean sunset or a vast arid valley lined with snow-capped mountains. It’s the same for the deeply humanizing ways he frames the characters. When brought together through Zhao’s Oscar-worthy editing, it’s like postcards of America’s natural beauty built around a story of grief, introspection, and self-discovery. Then add in the soul-stirring score by Ludovico Einaudi whose mix of piano chords and strings are as evocative as they are lovely. It’s easily one of my favorite scores of the year.

From a Nevada desert through the South Dakota Badlands to the Pacific coast, “Nomadland” is a work of visual poetry, but it’s the human element at its core that gives it such an emotional pull. In one sense observing the freedom felt by van-dwellers is inspiring and heartwarming. But the steady undercurrent of loneliness and uncertainty is a solemn reminder of the day-to-day reality for those who have fallen through America’s economic cracks. “Nomadland” is set for a one-week virtual screening December 4th before opening in theaters February 19, 2021.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Decline” (2020)

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Netflix continues the trend of adding international flavor to its movie portfolio with the French-Canadian action-thriller “The Decline”, the feature film debut for director Patrice Laliberté. He crafts a smart and competently made picture that may not have a big blow-you-away element that sets it apart, but it does manage to keep you locked in from start to finish.

The film opens with Antoine (Guillaume Laurin) leading his wife and daughter in a late-night emergency evacuation drill. This first scene hints at a pre-dystopian setting but it’s actually set in modern day Quebec. Antoine is convinced an environmental catastrophe is imminent so he leads his family in survival preparation. That includes watching YouTube videos of a middle-aged survival expert named Alain (Réal Bossé) who teaches things like storing food rations and other basic end-of-the-world stuff.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Thanks to a last-minute cancellation Antoine gets a coveted spot at Alain’s survivalist training camp. Over several days Alain will teach Antoine and five other survivalists the need-to-know essentials of self-sustainability once society inevitably crumbles. His exercises include planting crops, hunting, firearm training and (gulp) pipe bomb making. It all takes place around Alain’s isolated compound deep within his 500 acres of snowy wooded property.

Antoine and his fellow trainees get along great and all bring with them their own paranoia of choice – an economic collapse, environmental disaster, foreign invasion, (yikes) a global pandemic. They’re all pretty inconsequential because the movie doesn’t have much to say about any of it. Instead it’s much more interested in human nature and the qualities inside of us that we can’t isolate from. This comes vividly (and violently) into focus when a training drill goes terribly wrong leaving one person dead and two camps of thought on how to deal with it.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

The second half of the lean 83-minute runtime is pure survival thriller territory with two sides squaring off across the threatening snowscape. Outside of Alain and Antoine, few of characters have much to offer. An ex-soldier named Rachel (Marie-Evelyne Lessard) is interesting and the unhinged militant David (Marc Beaupré) offers some wild-eyed menace. The others get a bit lost in the second-half chaos. But director Laliberté keeps us glued to the screen by ratcheting up the tension and making great use of his snowy setting.

An ambiguous title like “The Decline” may leave you wondering what to expect. The story (written by the trio of Laliberté, Charles Dionne, and Nicholas Krief) doesn’t offer much clarity. Instead the film uses its small sample-size of humanity to show that we can’t isolate ourselves from what’s inside of us. And what’s buried inside is often pretty ugly. All of that is wrapped inside of a compelling idea which turns into a fairly stock thriller. “The Decline” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

Happy Thanksgiving…

I love Thanksgiving! It’s a wonderful time to be with those we love, to eat great food, and be thankful for the many blessings we have. Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving or not, whether you’re here in the States or abroad, I just want to say thank YOU. Thank you for reading my stuff and following my site. Thank you for the many likes, comments, and discussions over the past year. You may not realize it, but every one of you who has spent time here have been encouragements and have helped make this thing truly fulfilling.

So once again thank you and all the best to you and your families.

First Glance: “Our Friend”

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Jason Segel, Dakota Johnson, and Casey Affleck star in the upcoming dramedy (I really hate that word) “Our Friend”. The film is from director Gabriela Cowperthwaite best known for her critically-acclaimed documentary “Blackfish” and is written by Brad Ingelsby who earlier this wrote the terrific “The Way Back’.

In “Our Friend” Dane (Segel) puts his life on hold in order to help his two best friends Matt and Nicole (Affleck and Johnson) after she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Dane’s experience with his friends and their two young daughters turns into a heartbreaking yet life-changing experience. The film is based on a true story and originally premiered at the 2019 Toronto Independent Film Festival. The first trailer makes good use of its high-profile cast and its emotionally meaty material has loads of potential.

“Our Friend” is set to release January 22, 2021. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.