REVIEW: “Blood & Gold” (2023)

With his new film “Blood & Gold” director Peter Thorwath walks the same path as features like Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and even “Sisu” from earlier this year. He’s made a gritty, gory, no-holds-bar war movie that fully embraces its genre influences. Yet Thorwath (who also directed 2021’s “Blood Red Sky”) also shows he has a knack for characters. And there are many that help spin this twisted, violent, and at times darkly funny war-torn tale.

Greed is one of most lethal killers in “Blood & Gold” which is set in Germany during the waning days of World War II. Following some brief opening script that would have made Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone proud, we get a tone-setting first scene. In it we see a Germany SS unit led by the ruthless and disfigured Lieutenant Colonel Von Starnfeld (Alexander Scheer) chasing after a deserter named Heinrich (Robert Maaser). They eventually catch him and hang him from a nearby tree.

But as soon as the Nazi’s are out of sight a young woman named Elsa (a really good Marie Hacke) appears and frees the seriously injured Heinrich. She takes him to her small country farm where she and her Down syndrome brother Paule (Simon Rupp) nurse the soldier back to health.

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We learn Elsa has no love for the Nazis who killed her father and who would happily kill her brother simply because of his condition. A disillusioned Heinrich is fed up with the war. His pregnant wife and son were killed in a bombing raid, but his young daughter Lottchen survived and was taken in by some neighbors. Getting home to her is all he cares about.

Meanwhile Von Starnfeld and his unit roll into the village of Sonnenberg where they believe a stash of gold bars has been hidden in the rubble of a house once belonging to a Jewish resident named Johannes Löwenstein. The town’s sniveling mayor and Nazi panderer (Stephan Grossmann) welcomes the soldiers into his village. But he quickly learns his uninvited guests aren’t concerned with his hospitality.

Von Starnfeld claims the local inn as his headquarters and forces the townspeople to start sifting through what remains of the Löwenstein house. He then orders his brutal second-in-command, Sergeant Dörfler (Florian Schmidtke) to take some soldiers and steal provisions from neighboring farms. That brings them to Elsa’s doorstep where a violent encounter sets the main story in motion.

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Screenwriter Stefan Barth tosses several more characters into the mix. Most are townsfolk, many with their owns secrets, loyalties, and interests. They all fit nicely into what turns out to be a crazy web of war-scarred anger and unfettered greed. Barth’s script is sharp, shrewdly witty, and hard to predict. He pulls the rug out from under us more than once while delivering a rousing payoff that is a stealthy mix of comically violent and emotionally satisfying.

We also get some fantastic action scenes that range from intense shootouts to ferociously choreographed fight sequences. Thorwath has a good grasp of shooting and framing action. But what’s most fun is watching the different ways he uses it. Some scenes simply emphasize the sheer ferocity of war. Other scenes are straightforward genre movie joy.

With “Blood & Gold” you have a good story, good characters, and good action rolled up into something genre fans should have a blast with. All three can be thrilling, emotional, or sometimes all-out bonkers which is one of the movie‘a biggest strengths. “Blood & Gold” happily wears its influences on its sleeve yet it has its own distinct energy and flavor. And it comes in a tightly structured fast-moving 100-minute package. Yet another good international grab for Netflix.


REVIEW: “BlackBerry” (2023)

Here’s one of those cases where a film’s title really does say it all. The straightforwardly named “BlackBerry” from Canadian director Matt Johnson is a biographical dramedy based on the fascinating true story of the BlackBerry brand of smartphones. If you remember, the BlackBerry grew enormously popular during the 2000s and was often seen in the hands of such celebrities as Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, and President Barack Obama.

The highly innovative BlackBerry line was perhaps best known for its unique physical keypad and the super satisfying clicks that accompanied each press (many found it so addictive they dubbed the device “Crackberry”). I never had one but I freely admit to being a little jealous of those I knew who did. But like much in the tech industry, BlackBerry eventually fell to the next big thing. In their case it was the introductions of Apple’s IPhone and Google’s Android.

“BlackBerry” pulls quite a bit from the true story of the company’s rise and fall. It’s loosely adapted from Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry”. But what Johnson gives us is more of a mockumentary-styled satire of a tech industry on the eve of one of the biggest tech booms in history. It’s a funny yet insightful cautionary tale that hones in on the people at its center more than the product that would make them billionaires.

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Co-written by Johnson and Matthew Miller, the story kicks off in 1996. In a role tailor-made for his awkward charm, Jay Baruchel plays Mike Lazaridis who back in 1984 co-founded Research In Motion with his longtime best friend Douglas Fregin (played by Johnson himself). In the movie their small Waterloo, Ontario based company consists of an easygoing pack of 14 fellow computer engineering nerds who spend as much time throwing LAN parties and watching movies as they do soldering circuit boards and writing code.

Elsewhere the temperamental and overly ambitious market strategist Jim Balsillie (a blustery Glenn Howerton) gets axed from his company for aggressively disobeying his boss (briefly played by the always good Martin Donovan). Smelling a potential fortune (and out of desperation), Jim bulls his way into a partnership with Mike. He puts down $20,000 and agrees to use his industry connections to market their exciting new product, the PocketLink (“a pager, a cell phone, and an e-mail machine all in one,” Doug proudly states). All Jim wants in return is fifty percent of their company and to be named CEO. Ouch.

They come to an agreement with Mike and Jim serving as co-CEOs. Mike will oversee product development while Jim hits the road to lure in potential investors. Of course as history informs us the PocketLink evolves into the BlackBerry and soon Research in Motion emerges as a market leader in wireless mobile devices.

As the popularity of their product grows so does the financial pressure. Mike, Doug, and their team scramble to innovate and keep up with the demand. But in true “The Social Network” style, success inevitably puts a strain on their relationship. It’s a friction you sense coming a mile away yet we still root for the pair as they struggle to maintain their friendship.

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Meanwhile the shrewd and unscrupulous Jim is out in the field doing whatever it takes to grow and protect his investment. We see him illegally backdating stock options in order to lure away engineers from rivals Microsoft and Google. He’s also staving off a potential hostile takeover by PalmPilot head Carl Yankowski (a joyously despicable Cary Elwes). And all while he’s secretly trying to purchase his own NHL hockey franchise – a move driven by his own underhanded motivations.

It’s easy for us to see the writing on the wall and it doesn’t take long to tell that things aren’t going to end well. But Johnson keeps us invested. He moves things along at a crisp pace and the crackling dialogue has a Sorkin-esque edge as it chronicles the whirlwind corporate successes and missteps. Yet Johnson keeps things distinctly character-focused and never loses sight of the humanity at his story’s core. And all while being effortlessly funny in a subdued sharply witty way.

It’s also easy to fall in with Johnson’s verité filmmaking. From the frequently moving handheld cams to the strategic zooms which add as much to the humor as they do the drama. It’s a tricky directorial style that can often backfire. But here it actually works really well. And that’s true of “BlackBerry” as a whole – it works really well. It may lack the polish of similar 2023 corporate underdog movies like “Tetris” and “Air”, but Matt Johnson along with his game cast nail it where it counts.


REVIEW: “Boston Strangler” (2023)

A taut journalism procedural meets a dark crime drama in the Ridley Scott produced “Boston Strangler”, a new film inspired by a true account of the two woman who broke the story of the eponymous murders of 13 women in the Boston area between 1962 and 1964. Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, the movie chronicles the search for truth through the eyes of investigative reporters Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole. The results are pretty riveting.

Aside from its rather on-the-nose title, “Boston Strangler” surprises in a number of ways. Its narrative is very straightforward, bypassing needless setup and avoiding the urge to pad the story with distracting drama. And while Ruskin decides against showing the horrific acts of violence in brutal detail, the movie still possesses a dark and gritty Fincher-like feel thanks to Ben Kutchins’ moody cinematography and Paul Leonard-Morgan’s simple yet ominous score.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Keira Knightley plays Loretta McLaughlin, a wife and mother of three who works for Boston’s Record-American newspaper. Like most of the other women, she’s shackled to the Lifestyle section, churning out puff-pieces and kitchen product reviews. She aspires to work at the male-dominated crime desk, but she has a hard time convincing her editor, Jack Maclaine (Chris Cooper). That is until she begins connecting a series of unsolved murders that have understandably rattled the city.

Jack pairs Loretta with Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), a seasoned undercover reporter and one of the only women at the Record-American to break through the newsroom sexism. The two ratchet up their investigation, finding links between the murders and first dubbing the killer “The Boston Strangler”. But their news stories are met with skepticism. Some dismiss the assigning of two women to a high-profile crime case as nothing more than a circulation stunt. Meanwhile their articles spark the ire of the Boston PD by revealing the police’s mishandling of the cases.

As the number of murders increases, Loretta and Jean start questioning some of their original theories. Loretta begins squeezing information from a close-to-the-vest police detective (Alessandro Nivola). Jean uses her clout to dig deeper into what the police department may be hiding. Soon a prime suspect emerges – Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian) who eventually confesses. But is the case really so cut and dried? Loretta and Jean aren’t so sure.

Ruskin’s script takes a methodical step-by-step approach to its story, intensely centering on Loretta and Jean’s search for the truth. But its linear focus means we barely get to know the two reporters outside of their jobs. We do get a few scenes with Loretta and her family, and we see the toll her work is taking on her relationship with her husband James (Morgan Spector). But aside from that and a couple of brief bar scenes, not much time is spent fleshing out the two leads.

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But that’s ok considering how well the true crime and journalism elements fall into place. Ruskin pieces together a compelling and finely paced story that unfolds in several unexpected ways. And the ways he authentically weaves the sexism of 1960s America into his movie is both clever and revealing. He makes a clear-eyed point without sidetracking the central narrative.

The movie is helped even more by some strong performances, particularly from Knightley and Coon. Both are perfectly calibrated for the film’s tone. Knightley shrewdly conveys Loretta’s dogged determination while Coon portrays Jean as a woman with toughness and grit. Together they’re an intriguing duo with a beguiling workplace chemistry and a willingness to go heads-up with the pseudo-macho norms of their day. They’re key ingredients that both energize and humanize this already gripping thriller. “Boston Strangler” premieres March 17, 2023 on Hulu.


REVIEW: “Blood” (2023)

The new horror thriller “Blood” from director Brad Anderson and screenwriter Will Honley puts a wicked new spin on the “a mother will do anything to save her child“ idea. It’s a patient movie that puts a lot of effort into exploring the fractured family dynamic at the center of its story. But it also delivers the frights, mostly in the final act when “Blood” really begins to burrow under our skin.

A very good Michelle Monaghan plays Jess, a recently divorced mother of two who’s in the middle of a nasty child custody battle with her ex-husband Patrick (Skeet Ulrich) who had an affair (and a baby) with their nanny. But we learn Jess had her own problems, namely a serious drug addiction that put a strain on her relationship with Patrick, their daughter Tyler (Skylar Morgan Jones), and their younger son Owen (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong).

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But Jess has been clean for 15 months and is looking to rebuild her relationship with Tyler and Owen. She and the kids move into an old farmhouse that belonged to her family much to the chagrin of a frustrated Patrick. The movie spends a lot of time building up the family tension. It shows both Jess and Patrick as flawed, imperfect people, but they’re not monsters. Both love their children very much and want what’s best for them. But divorce can bring out a nasty side in people, especially when emotions are RAW and children are at the center.

One afternoon Tyler, Owen, and the family dog Pippen set out to go fishing. They follow an old trail through the woods only to discover the lake has dried up. In the blackened muddy bed stands a withered cragged old tree that weirdly grabs Pippen’s attention. Later that evening Pippen runs out of the house and back down the trail. When he finally returns days later he has clearly changed (the glowing eyes are a dead giveaway). Pippen viciously attacks Owen, biting him on the neck and forcing Jess to kill the dog.

At the hospital, Owen’s condition deteriorates. But then Jess walks in on her son slurping from a blood pack as his vitals almost immediately improve. Clearly something unusual is going on. When his blood pressure plummets again, Jess (who’s a nurse at the hospital) swipes a bag of plasma from storage and slips it to Owen. He instantly gets better. Jess knows she can’t keep Owen in the hospital so she takes him home to the farm. But when her blood supply runs low, she gets desperate and starts crossing moral lines in an effort to keep her son alive.

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Things get more complicated as Jess tries to hide it all from Patrick, and a bit more twisted as Owen’s craving for blood intensifies. It eventually sends the story down some darkly interesting paths. And there’s a hard to miss yet thoughtful metaphorical punch that can really be felt the further the story goes. Not all the character choices make sense, and certain mysteries are just left mysteries. These issues leave you wondering about what could have been if the filmmakers had dug a little deeper in certain places.

Still, the story holds together just fine, with a good chunk of its focus going towards its characters rather than any genre obligations. It’s much more thriller than horror (you won’t find a single jump scare) so adjust your expectations accordingly. But that doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t provide some scares. It just goes about them a little differently. Its pieces may not always fit snugly together, but its human drama and eerie chills proves to be an enjoyable mix. “Blood” is now showing in select theaters and hits VOD on January 31st.


REVIEW: “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” (2022)

It seems we’re in an interesting phase where seasoned directors are using their platforms to reflect back on their pasts. Alfonso Cuarón did it with “Roma”. Last year, Kenneth Branagh did it with “Belfast”. Already this year, James Gray has done it with “Armageddon Time” and Spielberg with “The Fabelmans”. With “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths”, two-time Oscar winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu takes his shot, but not in any conventional sense.

Iñárritu has made a movie that demands we get into his headspace. If you can’t, odds are you’ll probably struggle with his latest film. For that reason I can see general audiences bowing out before the halfway mark. But for those who can get in sync with it, “Bardo” has a lot to offer. Of the above mentioned movies, it’s most like “Roma”, with its deeply intimate self-reflection and its cutting observations of the Mexican homeland. But what sets it apart are Iñárritu’s Fellini-like flourishes which can come across as pretentious and indulgent. But that actually plays directly into what the filmmaker is after.

With “Bardo”, Iñárritu gives us what can best be described as a narcissistic exercise in self-deconstruction. The film is undeniably self-regarding as Iñárritu makes himself a centerpiece. But there’s more going on here than some vainglorious self-promotion. Iñárritu takes a scalpel to his image and his success; his hubris and his insecurities, dissecting them the best way he knows how – cinematically. Yes, it’s a narcissistic work. But what better way for an auteur to probe and scrutinize the path they’ve traveled and the person they’ve become?

Image Courtesy of Netflix

As with “Roma”, Mexico itself is an ever-present interest as Iñárritu seeks to reconnect with his homeland through his lead character and alter ego, Silverio (a magnetic Daniel Giménez Cacho). With the help of cinematographer Darius Khondji and Oscar-winning production designer Eugenio Caballero, Iñárritu envisions Mexico in a number of ways both real and surreal. It could be a scene of people collapsing at a crowded Mexico City intersection as Silverio helplessly looks on. Or an unsettling shot of him climbing a mountain of dead bodies in order to speak to Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés who awaits at the top. There’s no shortage of alluring imagery.

Iñárritu’s story (which he co-wrote with Nicolás Giacobone) is just as immersive and incisive as the visuals. Its fractured free-flowing structure can be disorientating, and some segments make little sense on their own. But they’re individually compelling (a testament to Iñárritu’s vision) and hold our attention until everything is braided together in an emotionally satisfying final 15 minutes. In a way it does resemble a memory play, except here the people and places we see are dug out of Silverio’s unreliable memory and displayed through dreamlike recreations in his mind. Some feel painfully real while others have a Dali-like surreality. Some are deadly serious while others are utterly preposterous.

Silverio Gama is an acclaimed Mexican-born journalist and documentarian who left his home country for Los Angeles 15 years ago. Now he’s been named the recipient of a major award from the American Society of Journalists. Needing to prepare an acceptance speech, Silverio and his family travel to Mexico where he hopes to reconnect with his birth nation. But rather than find inspiration, he finds himself caught in an existential web. Soon he’s wrestling with everything from his own identity and mortality to his perception of Mexico itself, past and present. And as we’re thrust deeper inside of Silverio’s head, we’re quickly reminded that memories can’t be trusted. They tend to change as we change and are often shaped by emotion rather than truth.

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Regardless of how bonkers some scenes get, there’s always a deeper emotional tenor. For example, one of the earliest scenes takes place in a hospital operating room where Silverio’s wife Lucía (Griselda Sicilian) gives birth to their first child. I won’t spoil it, but something so utterly absurd happens that you can’t help but laugh. Yet the sheer weight of the moment has an effect that resurfaces many times throughout the story. It’s one of several instances of black comedy being fused with consequential drama.

“Bardo” can also be glaringly pretentious and self-indulgent, and Iñárritu is 100% aware of it. He’s constantly poking fun at himself and his movie. In one moment of glorious meta subversion, a character sharply critiques the very film we’re watching, relaying every real-life criticism that has been and will be hurled its way. Iñárritu’s self-awareness also shows in more biting scenes. Such as Silverio being chided for his haughtiness and hypocrisy by his wife, his son Lorenzo (Íker Sánchez Solano), and his daughter Camila (Ximena Lamadrid).

I don’t throw out the tag ‘labor of love’ often, but with “Bardo” it fits. In addition to directing, editing, co-writing, and co-producing, Iñárritu clearly sees some of himself in his lead character. In fact, with Cacho’s unruly hair, dark sunglasses and similar build, there are times you’ll swear you’re seeing Iñárritu on the screen. And you can sense the filmmaker’s touch in the searing self-critiques and the playful jabs; in the expressions of heartfelt joy and heart-crushing loss. It’s all conveyed through this near undefinable sensory experience and technical marvel. It’ll challenge you, but the ultimate payoff is worth the effort. “Bardo” is now streaming on Netflix.


REVIEW: “Babylon” (2022)

Like three hours of fingernails scraping across a chalkboard but amped up 150 decibels, Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” is a grating exercise that beats you down with its relentless self-indulgence. It’s a movie smitten with its own sense of grandeur and apparently pledged to the belief that the best way to depict unbridled decadence is to drown its audience in unbridled decadence. It’s a choice that wastes so much time relishing the excess, and not nearly enough on its characters and their stories.

After three straight bangers, “Babylon” is such a disappointing next movie from writer-director Chazelle. Here he’s sold himself on a coked-up ‘more-is-more’ vision that often plays like a smug and shameless vanity project. Other times it feels as if it just needs someone to step in, pull the reins, and tell Chazelle “No”. But as it is, “Babylon” seems beholden to its brash, gleefully vulgar, full-throttled approach, and the movie suffers for it.

I want to believe there’s a good Old Hollywood story buried somewhere among Chazelle’s numbing self-satisfying chaos. But even at an exhausting three hours (plus some), there aren’t enough pieces in “Babylon” to be certain. It certainly has the cast, the costumes, and the production design to recreate the era. But so much of the film’s attention is given to its own rowdy irreverent style that it fumbles its chance to tell a clear-eyed behind-the-scenes Hollywood story.

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“Babylon” sets out to chronicle the rise to stardom and eventual fall of a handful of characters in the late 1920s as Hollywood began its transition from silent films to talkies. It’s a good premise with plenty of potential. But rather than really digging into his characters, Chazelle revels in their self-destruction. So much so, that most of his later attempts at empathy ring hollow. And that’s emblematic of the larger tonal issues that plague the film, especially in the second half. Chazelle’s sudden turns towards the more serious can come across as half-hearted and clash with nearly everything else he gives us.

A cranked up Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy, a self-christened star from New Jersey who just needs to get her foot in Hollywood’s door. Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad, an established but aging silent movie star at a critical point in his career. Diego Calva plays Manny Torres, a studio film assistant who has always dreamed of working in the movies. Chazelle uses these three characters (and a few undercooked others) in his attempt to tell a story of a shifting industry and society. But while the three performances are up to par, the movie is far more interested in using them for its showier self-interests rather than giving any of their characters enough depth for us to care.

Nellie is a careening ball of self-destructive energy who hardly ever tones it down enough for us to get to know her. She’s little more than a hedonistic showpiece for Chazelle’s camera, constantly dialed up past 10, and often more of a caricature than a real person. Jack is the closest we get to a fully fleshed out character. But even with him, most of the details are either confined to two or three brief scenes or left out altogether. And then there’s Manny who should be our connection to the story but who is mostly relegated to standing off to the side. Oh, and he’s in love with Nellie for reasons I still haven’t quite figured out.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

As it turns out, the most interesting people we meet are two supporting characters. Jean Smart gets a bit part playing a tabloid Hollywood columnist named Elinor St. John who always seems to know more than she lets on. And Jovan Adepo plays Sidney Palmer, a Black jazz trumpeter who has the most grounded point-of-view of anyone in the film. But again, these are small roles and we only get tidbits of their stories. They’re great pieces that hint at what “Babylon” could have went for.

As “Babylon” hurtles forward, we’re treated to some great music and a number of elaborately staged set pieces. We’re even teased with some late scenes that hint at a slightly deeper interest in the characters. But whenever you think the movie has reeled itself in, we get more amped up nonsense. Take a long and draining final act sequence with Tobey Maguire (looking like death warmed-over). It’s one of many examples of Chazelle’s overconfidence in his instincts.

Fittingly I suppose, the film’s ending is as phony as anything I’ve seen in years. It’s meant to suddenly evoke some feelings in those who truly love movies. But it takes more than the flickering light of a theater projector and leeching off of a classic like “Singin’ in the Rain”, especially after everything Chazelle has thrown at us by that point. I didn’t feel any new love for cinema. I hadn’t learned anything about the history of Hollywood. I didn’t better appreciate the magic of moviemaking. Frankly, I was just thankful it was over. “Babylon” hits theaters December 23rd.