Great Images from Great Movies #18: “The Untouchables”

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Truly great movies can leave indelible marks. It may be through an emotional connection to the story. It may be through a remarkable performance or a signature scene. But it can also be through the brilliant imagery a film can carve into your mind. That’s what this feature is all about – highlighting great images from great movies. Today we look at Brian De Palma’s 1987 gem “The Untouchables”.

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(All photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

So what are your thoughts on “The Untouchables”? Which of these great images stick with you the most? Please share your favorites in the comments section below.

First Glance: “Cadaver”

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Cadaver: (noun) a corpse. Not exactly the warmest or most inviting title for a movie but if the new trailer is any indication it’s crudely fitting. Netflix’s new film “Cadaver” is set to premiere on their streaming platform just in time for Halloween. Yesterday gave us our first look at this Norwegian psychological thriller and it makes for an enticing seasonal fit.

Written and directed by Jarand Herdal, “Cadaver” is set in the wake of a nuclear disaster. A couple and their young daughter are among survivors invited to a hotel to attend a charitable dinner theater. Once there the attendees are fed a meal and given a mask to distinguish them from the actors. Needless to say things take a rather wicked turn. “What makes us human in times like these. What separates us from the animals.” That’s a question Herdal seems ready to explore.

“Cadaver” premieres October 22nd on Netflix. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “Rent-A-Pal” (2020)

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At first glance you might be tempted to consider David a punchline. He’s a forty-ish introvert who literally lives in his elderly mother’s basement. But not long into the new thriller “Rent-A-Pal” we see there is another side to David, a compassionate and dutiful side. He’s actually still at home because his mother has dementia and needs constant care. His father died 10 years prior leaving David as his mother’s primary caregiver. He fulfills the role diligently and honorably, shelving any ambitions for his own life to take care of his mother.

“Rent-A-Pal”, written, directed, and edited by Jon Stevenson, opens as a character study of a lonely single man entering middle-age with no meaningful connections to society. Brian Landis Folkins plays David with a sincerity and earnestness that instantly grabs our sympathies. David is more than a hapless sad sack. He has a big heart and he’s driven by a well-meaning compulsion to be there for his mother (Kathleen Brady). Of course we know the dangers of such self oppression so it’s no surprise once that pent-up bitterness begins to crack David’s otherwise benevolent surface.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

Stevenson wastes no time shifting from character study to slow-drip psychological thriller. I didn’t catch an actual setting, but his story feels plucked right out of the late 1980s, before there was an internet and when VHS was the hottest thing in home entertainment. As they were in the 80s, video tapes are everywhere in Stevenson’s film. From sweet moments with his mother watching their fuzzy copy of “His Girl Friday” to getting tapes of potential matches from a dodgy dating service called Video Rendezvous. It’s David’s connection to the latter that pulls on the loose thread of his psyche which slowly begins to unravel.

After months with no matches David visits the Video Rendezvous headquarters to update his profile. While there he comes across a bargain bin video tape called “Rent-A-Pal” which he promptly purchases. Through it he’s introduced to Andy (Whil Wheaton), a sweater vest-wearing interactive buddy in the gentle, unassuming Mister Rogers mold. In the video Andy simulates human conversation by asking scripted questions, pausing so the viewer can answer, and then feigning interest in the responses. At first David sees through Andy’s canned act even finding it “weird“. But as disappointments mount in the real world and his mental state erodes, David starts to play along with Andy and his skepticism turns to obsession. He forms an unsettling bond with his TV buddy believing he’s finally found a friend who listens and cares.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

The tipping point comes when David gets a surprise call from Video Rendezvous who have finally found him a match. They set him up on a date with the genuinely sweet and caring Lisa (Amy Rutledge). The two hit it off and immediately plan their next date. But back home Andy (now more of an on-screen projection from David’s mind) lashes out like a jilted lover. So on one side he has Lisa who has given him a taste of the happiness he’s longed for (and you could say is his door back to reality). On the other is Andy, an outlet for his loneliness and desperation which adds fuel to his darker, uncontrollable impulses.

Despite its wacky premise, ”Rent-A-Pal” works because it doesn’t see its subject matter as a joke. There are certainly dark comedy elements (some of which are quite funny), but the film takes David and his issues seriously. It doesn’t always strike that tricky balance perfectly and there were moments when I couldn’t tell if the movie was laughing at him or not. Still I give Stevenson and Folkins credit. Together they give David depth, making him more than a one-dimensional caricature. Meanwhile Whil Wheaton gives one of the more chilling portrayals of the year. He alone makes this well worth watching. “Rent-A-Pal” is now streaming on VOD.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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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

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