REVIEW: “The Dry” (2021)

It’s great seeing Eric Bana not just getting a leading role, but getting a really meaty one in a movie that lets him show why he’s such an underrated actor. “The Dry”, an Australian thriller from director Robert Connolly, marks Bana’s first feature film appearance since 2017. Written by Connolly and Harry Cripps, it’s an adaptation of Jane Harper’s 2016 crime novel of the same name about a man unexpectedly thrust into the middle of a brutal crime case and forced to reckon with a buried mystery from his past.

Connolly begins by locking us into his setting – the once thriving farm town of Kiewarra now decimated by a crippling drought (we learn it hasn’t rained in 324 days). What’s left of the economically depressed community now lives among dried-up riverbeds, sun-scorched fields, and the ever-present threat of bushfires. DP Stefan Duscio opens the film by panning over the dry barren landscape, his camera slowly moving across the cracked earth and endless acres of dusty parched wheat before honing in on a remote farmhouse. As the haunting cries of a baby echoes in the background, Duscio takes us inside where we make a gruesome discovery.

Image Courtesy of IFC FIlms

Bana plays Aaron Falk, a federal agent living in Melbourne who returns to his hometown of Kiewarra for the first time in over twenty years. He’s there to attend the funeral of a childhood friend named Luke (played in flashbacks by Martin Dingle-Wall). The story goes Luke murdered his wife and young son but left his infant child alive. He then went out near a dried-up pond and shot himself. No one in town questions it save for Luke’s grieving parents (Bruce Spence and Julia Blake). After the funeral they plead with Aaron to look into the case and see what he can find. He reluctantly agrees.

Aaron begins working with jittery and inexperienced local police sergeant Greg Raco (Keir O’Donnell) who is happy to have some help with the case. Aaron also reconnects with an old friend Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly). But not everyone in Kiewarra is happy to have him back. Not only do they resent him digging around in what they believe is a cut-and-dry double murder-suicide, but Aaron’s presence rekindles old suspicions that he was responsible for the death of a classmate named Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt) twenty years earlier.

This two-pronged story actually flows together nicely thanks to Connolly’s moody slow-burn approach which gives plenty of time to the characters and to sorting out the dual mysteries. On one hand the struggling townsfolk are still reeling from the present day tragedy. On the other you have the hard feelings and animosity rooted in the town’s troubled past and exacerbated by twenty years of lies, deception, and buried secrets. For some locals Aaron’s return causes those old wounds to fester. Meanwhile Aaron has to finally deal with the circumstances that led to him to leave Kiewarra in the first place.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Equally vital to the story are the flashbacks we get to Aaron’s teen years which flesh out his friendships with the bullish Luke, the tender Gretchen, and the troubled Ellie. Connolly expertly grafts these scenes into his main story, using them to feed us information and methodically fill in pieces to his puzzle. And the performances from the young cast call back to a happier much different Kiewarra. In fact even the cinematography stresses how things have changed. The flashbacks have an almost idyllic glow and highlight a time when the grass was green and muddy water reached the riverbanks. It’s a sharp contrast both physically and figuratively to the present day’s dry arid terrain.

“The Dry” isn’t a particularly original idea but it features enough fresh touches to give it its own unique identity. The whole thing is anchored by a terrific Eric Bana, weathered and stoic yet sensitive and empathetic. He plays his character at the just the right temperature, sinking into the stark backdrops and mixing well with the exceptional supporting players. He’s never been better. The story doesn’t shoot for the big showy climax and it ends a little abruptly. But for a movie that puts mood, atmosphere, and characters ahead of big twists and turns, it kinda makes sense. “The Dry” opens May 21st in theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Dawn of the Dead” (2004)

DAWNposter

Well before they became major players in the superhero genre, Zack Snyder and James Gunn teamed up to remake George A. Romero’s zombie cult classic “Dawn of the Dead”. Their stylish 2004 action-horror flick set out to pay homage to the 1978 original while also appealing to a new generation of moviegoers. For the most part Snyder and Gunn succeed. Their spin on “Dawn of the Dead” lacks the sly humor and satirical bite that was a pivotal part of Romero’s movie. But it’s far from humorless and the big action, creepy setting, and snappy pacing keeps things engaging.

Director Snyder and screenwriter Gunn basically take the general idea of the ’78 movie and build their own world around it. They fill it in with their own unique cast of characters, all caught in a sudden viral outbreak that reanimates the dead, turning them into rabid flesh-eating ghouls. It drives a host of survivors from different walks of life to a Milwaukee shopping mall where they hole up inside and wait to be rescued. As with most of the better zombie movies, the story revolves around the people – their virtues and their vices; the clashing personalities and the interpersonal conflicts.

DEAD1

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

But make no mistake, this is more of an ‘ode to the genre’ than some deeper social study and the film has a ton of fun playing around in some familiar zombie territory. Over the years Snyder has shown himself to be a visionary director and a visual storyteller. “Dawn of the Dead” was Snyder’s directorial debut and though not nearly as stylized as his sophomore effort “300”, you can clearly see the markings of the visual style that would become an integral part of his storytelling. In “Dawn” he delivers several memorable shots and some exciting high-energy action sequences. And while it’s certainly a horror film, I wouldn’t call his movie scary. Yet it can get under your skin on occasions and Snyder isn’t afraid to splash on a few coats of blood.

Gunn’s script introduces an interesting array of characters who fill out his story. Without question several are closer to archetypes who turn out to be little more than zombie fodder. But most bring their own something to the story, namely Sarah Polley as a nurse named Ana, Ving Rhames as a cop named Kenneth, Jake Weber’s Michael, an electronics salesman, and Michael Kelly’s abrasive mall security guard C.J. There’s also a particularly creepy storyline with a petty criminal named Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his pregnant wife Luda (Inna Korobkina). Characters who don’t fair as well, Ty Burrell’s Steve who is your prototypical, by-the-books scumbag and Kim Poirier’s Monica, exploited for her sex appeal rather than given anything meaningful to do.

DAWN2

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

It only takes a few minutes for the story’s survival elements to kick in and it quickly becomes a movie of who’s going to make it and who isn’t (which I admit, I’m a sucker for). But the ferocity Snyder brings visually and conceptually comes with a level of immersion I didn’t remember from when I first saw “Dawn” in 2004. It’s hard not to be caught up in the tension of the circumstances and the setting. Speaking of the setting, much of the film was shot in a completely renovated 45,000 square foot vacant shopping mall in Ontario, Canada. Production designer Andrew Neskoromny and his crew individually designed numerous stores and boutiques, developed underground parking areas, and even built a fountain at one of the entrances. It’s completely convincing down to the smallest details becoming the perfect horror movie playground.

While not as innovative or provocative as Romero’s highly revered original, this “Dawn of the Dead” remake is fueled by an admiration for the genre and a gritty visceral style that would become a Zack Snyder signature in the years that followed. It’s hardly subtle with its ambitions but in a kinetic and entertaining way that’s a real strength. Snyder and Gunn, notorious these days for their own individual and distinctly unique reasons, clearly have a ball making a zombie movie that honors its predecessors yet still plays by its own rules. It didn’t forever change the zombie horror landscape, but it did introduce us to an intriguing new filmmaker with some big projects on the horizon.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Devil Below” (2021)

DEVILpost

In the upcoming horror thriller “The Devil Below” from director Brad Parker an abandoned Appalachian mining town holds a dark and deadly secret. Back in the 1970s the tight community of Shookum Hills was decimated by what was ruled an “environmental disaster”. As a result the town burned to the ground and as many as 1,000 miners and their family members vanished. Now it’s as if the town and the events that occurred there has been wiped off the map and from everyone’s memory.

Parker has spent most of his film career working as a digital artist and special effects supervisor. His only other directorial effort was 2012’s “Chernobyl Diaries”, a not-so-good horror film built around an intriguing premise and an eerie setting. Similarly “The Devil Below” has a setting that grabs you and Parker soaks his film in atmosphere. And while it does stumble with a couple of head-scratching character choices and some all-to-familiar genre moments, there’s more than enough mystery and fleet-footed tension to keep things fun and entertaining.

DEVIL1

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Will Patton has turned into one of my favorite character actors – always reliable and well-tuned to whatever movie he’s in. Just last year he brought a great presence to two of my favorite 2020 films, “Minari” and “Blood on Her Name”. Here he appears in the prologue as Paul, a foreman for the Shookum Hills Mining Company. In a brief but well shot opening, we see him lose his son to something (emphasis on THING) from deep inside the mine. Wounded and incapacitated by the creature, all Paul can do is helplessly listen to the screams of his son from the depths below.

Jump ahead to current day and we’re introduced to Ariana (Alicia Sanz), a strictly business expedition guide who scouts out hard-to-find locations and leads her paying clients to their destinations. She’s hired by Darren (Adan Canto), an Oxford-funded leader of a research team anxious to uncover what really happened at Shookum Hills. Darren is a man of science who scoffs at anything that can’t be logically explained. This causes him to butt heads with team member Shawn (Chinaza Uche), a geologist and the one member of the group who embraces the possibility of the supernatural. Other team members are Terry (Jonathan Sadowski), an annoying but skilled tech guy and Jamie (Zach Avery) who handles the vaguely defined “security services”.

Parker takes his time setting things up, spending much of the first thirty minutes or so building up atmosphere and setting the film’s tone. That’s helped immensely by DP Morgan Susser’s camera and the foreboding score of Nima Fakhrara. These early scenes follow the team as they venture deep into the Appalachian hills led by Ariana who believes she’s narrowed down the location of the now uncharted ghost town. They get no help from the cryptic locals, the kind who clearly know more than they want to share. Among them is Patton’s Paul. “I want them gone“, he grumbles about the nosy out-of-towners. “No matter what it takes.”

DEVIL2

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Of course the researchers don’t heed the advice of the locals, eventually finding their way to the hull of Shookum Hills. They hilariously miss evidence that the town may not be so vacant (burning kerosene lanterns, mowed green grass, etc.) and they press on until they find the mine and disturb the ghastly secret that lies deep within it. What follows is a pretty familiar survival horror formula – a group running for their lives and being picked off one-by-one. But the story is kept interesting through its brisk pacing and Parker’s ability to not only build tension but sustain it. It’s also helped by some of his visual choices. The grainy night vision and occasional handheld camera sometimes make things hard to decipher, but he nicely utilizes the setting and captures a steady sense of claustrophobia in the second half that’s pretty harrowing.

“The Devil Below” is very much a genre film which both helps and hurts. But overall Parker along with screenwriters Stefan Jaworski and Eric Scherbarth have their own vision and they hit their target, delivering a moody and absorbing horror-thriller that keeps you locked in from start to finish. Good performances fill out the under 90-minute runtime, keeping our focus forward and leaving little time to question the logic of what we’re seeing. It does leave some of the characters too thinly sketched, but the story has just enough grit and suspense to keep things entertaining. “The Devil Below” premieres March 5th is select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT- 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Dara of Jasenovac” (2021)

DARAposterr

When I previewed the upcoming film “Dara of Jasenovac” I noted that no faithful movie about the Holocaust is going to be an easy watch. But throughout the years these films have proven to be powerful reminders of humanity’s capacity for incomprehensible evil while also testifying to the indomitable resilience and courage of so many who suffered through the atrocities. And amazingly there are still powerful and moving true stories from the Holocaust yet to be told.

“Dara of Jasenovac” is a Serbian historical drama that tells a unique story from the Holocaust that’s not specifically about the Holocaust. Instead it’s concentrated on the genocide of Serbs in the Independent State of Croatia during the 1940s. Its main focus is on Jasenovac, a chain of the most notorious Croatian concentration camps which have been called by some historians “The Auschwitz of the Balkans”. They were the only concentration/extermination camps in all of Europe ran by non-Germans. Shockingly, their reputation for unspeakable brutally was such that even the Nazis were put off by their savagery.

DARA2

Image Courtesy of 101 Studios

Not to get too lost in the history, the Croatian death camps including Jasenovac were ran by emissaries of the ultra-fascist Ustase regime, allies to Nazi Germany in ideology but completely autonomous in how they ran their camps. They were not an offshoot of the Nazis doing the bidding of Adolf Hitler. They were conducting their own savage genocide and using the German death camps as their model. And while extinguishing ethnic Serbs was their main objective, the Ustase regime also contributed to the Nazi “Final Solution” by murdering an estimated 40,000 Jews in Jasenovac alone.

Until now there’s never been a feature film about this horrible blight on human history. “Dara of Jasenovac” comes from director Predrag Antonijević and screenwriter Nataša Drakulić and is the Serbian entry for Best International Film at the upcoming Oscars. The movie tells its harrowing story through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl named Dara played by the intensely expressive Biljana Čekić. The film opens with a group of Serbs including Dara, her mother Nada (Anja Stanić Ilić), older brother Jovo and baby brother Budo, being marched to a Ustase-controlled train station. Once they arrive they are quickly herded into boxcars and within minutes the train and its human cargo are on its way to Jasenovac.

LET_5656.jpg

Image Courtesy of 101 Studios

Antonijević and Drakulić waste no time unveiling the horrors of Jasenovac and they don’t let the young girl’s perspective soften its edge. In fact there are times when by necessity the story pulls away from Dara to immerse us deeper in the camp’s inhumanity, to reveal the scope of its operation, and to emphasize the sadistic mindsets of those running it. On the surface the violence may seem overly brutish, but its actually rooted in true accounts. For example in the absence of more efficient means of extermination such as gas chambers, the soldiers of Jasenovac often used knives, mallets, and hammers. Antonijević doesn’t shy away from these harsh and uncomfortable realities.

At the same time this isn’t a movie solely absorbed in the darker side of human nature. The story always comes back to Dara and the different people she encounters, mostly women and children. While they all find themselves under the same dark cloud of hatred, bigotry and barbarism, we see glimmers of the human spirit as captives fight to survive while sacrificing everything for the ones they love. Dara is no different, determined to protect young Budo while holding out hope that her father Mile (Zlatan Vidović) may still be alive.

DARA3

Image Courtesy of 101 Studios

In addition to the story’s emotional resonance, “Dara of Jasenovac” immerses the audience through a richly detailed period setting highlighted by terrific costumes (Ivanka Krstovic) and production design (Goran Joksimovic). Cinematographer Milos Kodemo takes breaks from intimate close-ups and cramped spaces to acquaint us not only with the camp but the surrounding area. A long-time cameraman turned DP, Kodemo shoots with a mostly classical style but tosses in some stylish modern flourishes as well.

I fear it will be tempting for some to let politics sway their perception of “Dara of Jasenovac” considering the decades of tension and violence in the Balkans. But siding-up and treating the film as either justification or propaganda misses out on the stark warnings and profoundly human themes at its core. The movie doesn’t stick a forever label of Croatians nor does it excuse Serbian atrocities that would follow. It tells a potent story of love and hate while opening eyes to an ugly slice of history that (hopefully) we all can come together and condemn. “Dara of Jasenovac” opens February 5th.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Dig” (2021)

DIGposter

English journalist, television critic, and author John Preston’s 2007 historical novel “The Dig” was a reimagining of the 1939 excavation at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England. It’s the site of two early medieval burial grounds, one of which contained a mostly undisturbed Anglo-Saxon ship along with numerous artifacts and treasures fit for a king’s burial. Preston built his own drama around the discovery but for the most part kept his focus on the amazing find.

Netflix’s upcoming film adaptation of Preston’s book comes from Australian director Simon Stone, written by screenwriter and playwright Moira Buffini. The movie adds even more dramatic layers (some more effective than others) while still trying to do justice to the Sutton Hoo excavation. It also brings together an intriguing cast of stellar English talent including Carrie Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, and Lily James. I was instantly onboard.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

The film’s first half is magical, both narratively and cinematically with Stone capturing the awe, wonder, and mystery of such a magnificent discovery. Through his story and his camera, Stone introduces us to his characters and builds our anticipation for what waits to be unearthed. There’s an almost Malickian beauty to how cinematographer Mike Eley shoots these early scenes. The fluidity of his camera movements, the striking angles, the way nature is admired through his lens – its absolutely gorgeous filmmaking.

The story gets off on a similarly impressive foot. Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, a widow who owns the estate where the burial grounds lay. Mulligan breathes elegance into her character, but there is also an unmistakable sadness that Edith works to hide from her precocious young son Robert (Archie Barnes). It’s this sadness and grief that drives her interest in what lies underneath the ancient mounds on her property. So she hires a local excavator Basil Brown (Fiennes) to handle the dig. He’s an odd but capable sort – a kind man who has buried sorrows of his own.

Unfortunately the story loses some of its zest in the second half when the head of the British Museum (Ken Stott) arrives with his entourage. This leads to wrangling between museums, each trying to convince Edith that they are better suited to house something of such cultural and historical value. This also introduces Peggy (Lily James), a young archaeologist whose cold and indifferent husband clearly has eyes for another. It’s yet another good performance from James who sadly ends up with a character trapped in the more unimaginative machinations of the plot. This ultimately leads to an undercooked and completely telegraphed romance that feels more convenient than natural.

DIG2

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Strangely even the camerawork is more subdued in the second half, losing much of its artful style and creativity. It still looks good but hardly as eye-popping as in the earlier scenes. While the shift in focus isn’t nearly as absorbing, Stone keeps his audience attached through the performances and with some thoughtful subtext about the coming war. Airplanes overhead, a passing truck full of soldiers, brief audio from a radio broadcast – it all points to what’s boiling on the world stage. And those subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) reminders bring an alluring stillness to the film as the characters (and the audience) grasp the significance of their archeological discovery while slowly facing the reality that their nation is about to be thrust into war.

It’s hard to put into words both the love and frustration I have for “The Dig”. I was enraptured by the first 45 minutes or so – caught up in it’s mystery, its beauty, the period detail, and sweeping visuals. I loved Stefan Gregory’s graceful score which oscillates between vibrant piano chords and more soulful aching strings. And I loved Mulligan and Fiennes, both their characters and their performances. But the movie loses its footing once the fiction begins overshadowing the facts and it dives into a much less interesting and lesser developed side-story. As it is, I quite like “The Dig” even as I find myself longing for what it could have been. “The Dig” premieres January 29th on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Decline” (2020)

DECLINEposter

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.

DECLINE1

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.

Jusqu'au Declin

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