REVIEW: “The Devil All the Time” (2020)

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A star-studded cast drives director Antonio Campos’ period crime thriller “The Devil All the Time”. His film is an adaptation of Donald Ray Pollack’s 2011 novel about a contrasting yet inextricably linked group of people in rural Ohio and West Virginia. The movie’s scope is broad (probably too broad) and you may need a notepad to keep up with the myriad of damaged characters. Yet there is a fascinating element to the film that keeps you engaged even as you realize Campos bit off a little more than he could chew.

Pollock serves as the movie’s narrator, bouncing us along the film’s grim and unpleasant timeline, making stops in places like Coal Creek, West Virginia and Knockemstiff, Ohio. The story starts with glimpses of the final days of World War II, moves to the mid-1950’s, and then wraps up in the Vietnam War era. It not only follows two generations of the small town Russell family, but also the many people they’re either linked to or encounter along the way. So as you can see there is a ton of ground to cover even with a 138 minutes of running time.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

The film’s central character is Arvin Russell, played as a nine-year-old by Michael Banks Repeta and then later by Spider-Man himself Tom Holland. Campos (who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Paulo) begins by reflecting on Arvin’s tumultuous childhood. His father Willard (an intense Bill Skarsgård) was a South Pacific war veteran who suffered from PTSD. Willard was a hardened man who taught Arvin that sometimes you must fight violence with violence, a lesson that would stick with his son.

Willard also had a gnarled perspective on faith, one influenced more by the atrocities he witnessed on the battlefield than the words of a well-versed preacher. He becomes obsessed with prayer especially after his wife and Arvin’s mother Charlotte (Haley Bennett) is diagnosed with cancer. It’s not hard to see the road signs to tragedy. Arvin soon finds himself living with his grandmother Emma (Kristin Griffith), bringing with him a childhood of psychological trauma.

You would think that alone would be enough story for a two-hour movie. But that only cracks the shell of what “Devil” seeks to cover. We meet Arvin’s new step-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), a child with her own brutal parental tragedy who is adopted by Emma. Lenora is the film’s closest portrait of innocence. Much like her mother Helen (played in earlier scenes by Mia Wasikowska), Lenora is kind, gentile, and devout. Arvin makes it his purpose to protect her from the world and all of its ugliness.

And there are so many more players. Jason Clarke and Riley Keough play Carl and Sandy, a pervy serial-killing couple targeting hitchhikers. Sebastian Stan plays a shady sheriff who’s more interested in his re-election than law and order. Harry Melling has a brief yet creepy role as Lenora’s father and a psycho preacher wannabe. And a scene-chomping, scene-stealing Robert Pattinson arrives around the midway mark playing Reverend Preston Teagardin. Out of all of the English and Australians working their best American drawls, Pattinson’s is the most entertaining. He brings an accentuated southern flavor along with a bit of camp. There’s no real depth to his character, but Pattinson makes him interesting.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

It should be said that it’s not just Pattinson who impresses. The film’s biggest strength is its cast and the performances are outstanding top to bottom. Those who only know Holland from his web-slinging MCU gig will be surprised at the range he shows here. Meanwhile talents like Pattinson, Keough, and Clarke have to work a little harder with the thinly sketched characters they are given.

“The Devil all the Time” is a cold and relentless tale of human depravity with hardly a glimmer of light. And the few instances of hope (and I do mean FEW) are usually planted just so they can be squashed. It tells a story driven by characters ranging from deeply flawed to all-out evil and each are forced to drink Campos’ bitter cocktail of violence and religious distortion. It’s hard to find much meaning in at all other than violence begets violence and false religion is bad. But the casting is spot-on and Campos serves up just enough to keep us nibbling all the way through. If only I didn’t leave still hungry. “The Devil all the Time” is streaming now on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

YOUR VOICES: On Movie Theaters Reopening

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Your Voices is a simple concept created to encourage conversation and opinions between movie lovers. It works like this: I throw out a certain topic. After that I’ll make my case or share my opinions. Then it’s time for Your Voices. Head to the comments section and let me and your fellow moviegoers know your thoughts on the topic for that day!

Everyone reading this knows that 2020 has been a year like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world on its head and affected our lives in numerous ways. Obviously there have been things related to the virus that are a lot more important than movies, but for today we’re talking about one of the bigger questions on every moviegoers mind: Is it safe for theaters to reopen?

This has been a hot topic for several weeks, ever since many theaters across the country have reopened their doors. But while many movie houses are welcoming back audiences, the country’s biggest markets (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco) remain closed. Adding another layer to the conversation, the movies that have braved releasing have been met with pretty tepid results. The biggest of course being “Tenet”. Christopher Nolan’s terrific mind-bending blockbuster hasn’t ushered in the big return theaters were hoping for. There is only one explanation – many people don’t feel safe returning to theaters.

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I have been back to my favorite theater a total of five times since it reopened. To put it simply, each time I have felt very safe. Contrary to what some have said, going back to the theaters isn’t automatically a case of carelessness or “putting your life in danger“. Personally speaking I weighed a number of factors before making my decision to return. My theater’s safety protocols were at the top of the list. They have went above and beyond my state’s regulations for reopening. Mandatory masks, no-touch exchanges throughout the theater, blocked off seating, staggered show times to reduce hallway traffic, roaming cleaning and disinfecting teams, an assigned staff member for each showing to oversee viewers and after-show cleanup. This only touches on their extensive protocols. So I’m very comfortable returning to the theater and I’m ready for the big releases to arrive.

But that doesn’t mean everyone should be. Is every theater doing what my theater is doing? I doubt it. So that means you need to look closely at what ANY theater is doing to ensure customer safety before entering their doors. Also, these are unprecedented times and people’s levels of concern vary. If you truly feel in danger by going to the theater, don’t go. You wouldn’t enjoy yourself anyway and it isn’t worth the stress and anxiety. So make the decision that’s best for your state of mind and body. I think attending a movie theater can absolutely be done safely. But it takes theaters going the extra mile to earn the trust of moviegoers. Now what say you?

YOUR VOICES: How do you feel about movie theaters reopening?

REVIEW: “The Nest” (2020)

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Back in 2011 writer-director Sean Durkin made a splash with his feature film debut “Martha Marcy May Marlene”. The small budget psychological drama not only introduced a fresh new filmmaker, but it was the eye-opening first film for Elizabeth Olsen. “Martha” wow’d most critics with its handling of mental trauma and cult life. Yet to this day I still grit my teeth at its abrupt unsatisfying ending – a frustrating exercise in ambiguity that’s simply too clever for its own good.

It’s been almost ten years since “Martha” and we finally get Durkin’s follow-up. “The Nest” is a slow-burning family drama that dangles genre teases in front of us like a carrot. Sometimes it hints at being a thriller, other times a horror film. In reality its thrills are muted and the horror is of a deeply human nature. The tension it builds is relational rather than supernatural; personal instead of maniacal. It’s channeled through the story’s centerpiece – a corroding relationship between a husband and wife. Durkin digs deep into the minutiae of married life, showing the slow steady decay of a once loving union and the unsettling effects it has on their entire family.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

Jude Law has always possessed a disarming charm and Durkin uses it to the fullest. He’s in top form here playing Rory O’Hara, a commodities broker in a state of disillusionment. Everything looks ideal. He has an attractive and seemingly happy family living well above the poverty line. The money’s great and they have a nice house. His wife Allison enjoys being close to her family and training horses while their two kids Ben (Charlie Shotwell) and stepdaughter Sam (Oona Roche) love where they are.

Then Rory drops the line “Things aren’t working for me here.” He’s had a taste of the American Dream and it wasn’t filling, so when a “business opportunity” opens up in London he decides to uproot his family from their comfortable suburban life and move overseas. Allison is rightfully frustrated. It’ll be their fourth move in ten years. Yet she goes along with it, doing what a good wife is expected to do in the mid-1980s. Her mother even tells her “It’s not your job to worry. You leave that to your husband.”

I should mention the movie doesn’t explicitly tell us when it’s set. But it’s clear by mentions of President Reagan on newscasts, Heart and The Thompson Twins playing on the radio, and by someone using an actual rotary phone (you older readers remember those, right?). Durkin gives us a good example of how to use a time period without exploiting it or overusing nostalgic callbacks.

The first thing Rory does in England is rent out a massive country estate in Surrey. Can they afford it? He certainly lives like it, but Allison knows better. She has long played the role of the dutiful wife, supporting her husband while setting aside her own ambitions. But under the surface she’s an intelligent, strong-willed woman who’s starting to see through her husband’s facade. She knows something is out of whack. When she begins noticing inconsistencies with his stories and behavior she questions him. His responses are telling. “I deserve this!” he screams, like a petulant entitled child.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

Coons is fantastic and we see much of the film through her eyes. But we also get some interesting changes in perspective. At first it seems like the story is being told from Rory’s point-of-view, but it quickly shifts to Allison who carries us through most of the movie. But then when you least expect it the film makes yet another transition in the final act. But it’s still Coons who anchors our sympathies and gives us the most clear-eyed insight.

While “The Nest” may throw off those expecting a more traditional psychological thriller, I was hooked thanks its two penetrating lead performances and Sean Durkin’s meticulous handling of their characters. Unfortunately like “Martha”, Durkin’s latest doesn’t end on the strongest note, leaving us to do more speculating than deep thinking. The story slowly and methodically builds the tension before coming to a screeching stop. Of course there is artistic intent behind the abrupt finish, but as a viewer it left me feeling a little unsatisfied. “The Nest” opens September 18th in select theaters and November 17th on VOD.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

First Glance: “The Father”

Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman head the upcoming family drama “The Father” from director and co-writer Florian Zeller. It had its world premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival and the initial reviews have been strong. One quote that stood out to me came from The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy who called it “The best film about the wages of aging since AMOUR eight years ago.” As someone who adores that Haneke film, that is high praise.

Hopkins plays an elderly man struggling with early-stage dementia. He moves in with his daughter (played by Coleman) and son-in-law (Rufus Sewell) who attempt to care for him while coping with the sad reality of his condition. Imogen Poots also appears playing a young caregiver. While this subject matter has been dealt with before and will certainly hit too close to home for some, the first trailer shows astonishing humanity. And with Hopkins and Coleman leading the way you have to be optimistic.

“The Father” premieres December 18th. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “The Personal History of David Copperfield” (2020)

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A Charles Dickens timeless classic gets a shiny modern update with Armando Iannucci’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield”. The 1850 novel is no stranger to the big and small screen, having been adapted at least thirteen times prior to this latest vision. Iannucci directs, co-writes, and produces a spirited update that unquestionably reveres Dickens’ Victorian-era tale. But his film feels like its only scratching the surface of the story and his chatty high-energy approach can be exhausting.

In Iannucci’s defense David Copperfield isn’t an easy book to adapt especially in a mere two hours of running time. So the Scottish filmmaker is content with just hitting the high points, focusing more on building a diverse cast and imbuing nearly every scene with positivity and a feel-good spirit. Obviously those are good things in their own right, but Iannucci’s script (co-written by Simon Blackwell) needs more. In its effort to be chipper it rarely conveys the pain behind the struggles we see. And that’s an issue since struggle is such a big part of the story.

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Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

One thing the film gets right from the very start is the casting of Dev Patel. As David Copperfield he brings admirable sincerity, a wide-eyed enthusiasm, and one great head of hair. Beginning with the same first-person perspective as the book, David begins telling his life story, the joys and the trials, while highlighting the key players who he meets along the way. And they are an eccentric lot, chewing up tons of screen time and often pushing Patel (unfortunately) into the background.

Our first stop on his journey to become a gentleman and a writer is during his childhood (younger David is played by Jairaj Varsani). He lives with his widowed mother Clara (Morfydd Clark) but he’s closest to their maid, the warm and caring Mrs. Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper). When Clara remarries we’re introduced to two of the film’s early villains, the abusive and domineering Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd) along with his sister and enabler Jane (Gwendoline Christie). The sibling devils take over the household and ship off the non-compliant David to work in their bottle warehouse in London. While there David stays with the quirky but ever optimistic Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) who is in debt with every creditor in town yet always remains positive.

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Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Having grown up in child labor and poverty, an older David (now played by Patel) runs away seeking the help of his kooky but well-to-do aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton). Her maternal instincts kick in high gear once a tired and famished David shows up at her spacious donkey-free cottage. David immediately hits it off with Betsey’s lodger, the even kookier Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) whose obsession with the beheaded King Charles I keeps him rattled and unable to finish his writing.

Even more people are introduced including Benedict Wong as a boozy Mr. Wickfield, Rosalind Eleazar as his daughter Agnes, Ben Whishaw as the wormy, vulturous Uriah Heep, Aneurin Barnard as the hard-to-read Steerforth, and Morfydd Clark popping up again playing David’s love interest Dora. So as you can see, it’s a character-rich story, so much so that their stories sometimes overpower David’s.

Back to Patel, few actors embody kindness and likability the way he does. He’s also a good David Copperfield for a movie wanting to infuse a modern vibe into a classic story. From the start you believe he’s a young man anxious to take on a cold, cynical world with a smile on his face, embracing its wonder and merrily working through its hardships. It culminates in an inspired journey of self-discovery and Patel gives us someone we’re eager to root for.

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Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

On paper that sounds great and I appreciate a movie with such strong feel-good aspirations, especially in 2020. But its unbridled buoyancy strips the story of much needed tension. I mean we are talking about subjects like child labor, child abuse, and crippling poverty. But the movie breezes by these issues, certainly acknowledging them, but with barely a whim of commentary. I’m not saying every movie has to make deep thoughtful examinations of their subject matter. But gleefully glossing over it leaves the film feeling frustratingly lightweight.

In fairness to Iannucci’s film, maybe that’s the point. Maybe this is meant to be a breezy, glass-half-full romp. A big-hearted period comedy overflowing with rip-roaring non-stop banter much of which David (like us) can only sit back and observe. Personally I prefer the quieter moments and tender touches. Such as David documenting human behavior on scraps of paper and keeping them in a cigar box like his most valued treasures. Or older David watching his own birth in awe-struck wonder. These are the kinds of scenes that stood out the most. If only we got more of them. “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

First Glance: “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

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One of the most anticipated movies of the Fall got its first trailer over the weekend. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” was originally slated to be released in theaters by Paramount but was sold to Netflix following the COVID-19 theater closings. The star-studded Aaron Sorkin legal drama features names like Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eddie Redmayne, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Michael Keaton, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong, William Hurt, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. among others. Talk about an attention-getting cast.

The film follows the Chicago 7, a group of anti-Vietnam War and countercultural protesters who were arrested and charged with inciting riots (among other things) at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The group’s diverse makeup of political activists, flower children, anarchists, and revolutionary socialists made them easy targets. Sorkin’s film doesn’t seem afraid to get its hands dirty which is the only way to really dig into this story. Hopefully this is a fact-based retelling. If so it could be something special.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” premieres October 16th on Netflix. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.