REVIEW: “Greta”

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Over the years Isabelle Huppert has proven herself to be an incredibly versatile actress. With over one hundred movies to her credit the 65-year-old Huppert has done a little bit of everything. She is certainly no stranger to playing unhinged and unsettling characters. Look no further than her role in Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” – still one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever watched.

Huppert taps back into that outright derangement with her new film “Greta”. It’s not as nuanced as the role she played in “The Piano Teacher”. This is a much more straightforward psychological thriller and her madness comes into focus pretty early on.

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Chloë Grace Moretz plays Frances, a young woman who has recently moved to New York from Boston following the death of her mother. She shares an apartment with her best friend Erica (Maika Monroe) and waits tables at an upscale Manhattan restaurant. Her father (Colm Feore) has moved on with his life which has caused tension between the two. Frances hopes her new start will help her cope with the loss of her mom.

But then she finds a purse left behind on the subway. Turns out it belongs to a lonely piano teacher (ironic) named Greta (Huppert). A kind-hearted Frances finds an address and takes the purse to a surprised and relieved Greta. The two end up hitting it off, each seemingly filling a void in both of their lives. But when Frances makes an alarming discovery she cuts ties which pushes the obsessive Greta over the edge.

Moretz does a good enough job but a large chunk of the script keeps her handcuffed. Several of Frances’ scenes with Erica and all of them with her father come across as shallow and they leave out some potentially good character development. It’s as if director and co-writer Neil Jordan wasn’t interested in letting Moretz dig further into her character’s background. The overwhelming focus is on Frances and Greta which admittedly is the strength of the movie.

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It is Huppert who makes it all work mainly because she is so convincing. Her turn from uncomfortably obsessive to full-blown maniacal is utterly seamless. She delivers such a genuinely unsettling character who melds right into the New York City canvass due to her unassuming appearance and mild-mannered demeanor. Even when Greta comes unglued Huppert maintains an element of that creepy gentle facade. It’s a really good performance.

Almost inevitably things get pretty crazy in the film’s final act which I feel works pretty well. The problem is there are some gaping holes in logic that are simply too hard to overlook. Still “Greta” manages to deliver what most fans of the psychological thriller genre are looking for. I was still left thinking it could have better. At the same time I admit to being entertained by its madness.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

 

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REVIEW: “Glass” (2019)

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Has any filmmaker had a more up-and-down career than M. Night Shyamalan? When he hits his target the results are often magical. But when he misses he tends to miss badly and some of those pictures have turned out to be unbearable disasters. Yet he still pushes out his brand of movies and many of us still watch his films hoping we’ll get one of the good ones.

His 2016 picture “Split” was one of the good ones. It was a crafty thriller featuring a fabulous James McAvoy performance. But Shyamalan’s biggest twist came in the film’s final moments – a super cool surprise connecting “Split” to his 2000 movie “Unbreakable”. That brings us to his latest project “Glass”, his first dive into this wild and unexpected shared universe.

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As someone who really went for his big twist, I was excited for “Glass”. It had huge potential both as an individual film and as a franchise launching point. Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and James McAvoy are all onboard as well as the return of some key characters from the two earlier films (Anya Taylor-Joy from “Split” and Spencer Treat Clark from “Unbreakable”). Yet despite having all the pieces in place for something really special, “Glass” turns out to be a hard nut to crack.

Sarah Paulson is a new piece in Shyamalan’s 130 minute puzzle. She plays Dr. Ellie Staple, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating patients with delusions of being superheroes. Turns out Philadelphia has just the test cases she’s looking for. With Elijah Price (aka Mr. Glass) already in custody, that leaves Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy), a man with 24 distinct personalities known as The Horde, and David Dunn (Willis), a home security salesman who moonlights as a mysterious vigilante.

As the trailer so clearly reveals, Dr. Staple gets her wish. Kevin Crumb and David Dunn are apprehended and sent to Ravenhill Psychiatric Hospital where Elijah has been kept since his arrest 19 years earlier. Dr. Staple is given three days to ‘cure’ them by deconstructing their delusions and disproving their so-called superpowers.

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Of course this all plays into Elijah’s hands who (if you recall from “Unbreakable”) believes comic books are a reflection of the real world. His goal has always been to prove to the mankind the existence of super-powered people. And now he finally has his three essential pieces in one place – a hero, a super-villain, and the mastermind.

All of this allows Shyamalan to dig into what interests him most – psychological face-offs over physical ones. I can see this disappointing those with more action-packed expectations. This is not that kind of film nor is it remotely similar to what currently passes for superhero movies. The modest $20 million budget all but spell it out. “Glass” is very much the anti-blockbuster that sets its own rules and proudly sticks to them.

Yet with all of its promise and ambition, “Glass” sometimes has a hard time getting all of its pieces to fit. For example there are some noticeable holes in the story’s logic. There are also some glaringly obvious questions you would expect to be asked or answered by different characters along the way. Shyamalan attempts to offer some explanations to these things but I’m not sure he quite covers it all.

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The performances are strong across the board. James McAvoy is given the most to do which is nice considering how good he was in “Split”. My only beef is that he bounces between personalities too frequently. There’s a perfectly satisfying reason for why he does so, but it leaves little time for him to dig deeper into any of them. Jackson and Willis are a lot of fun, Clark adds some extra heart, and Taylor-Joy is good even though some of her character’s motivations are a bit suspect.

Defining how I feel about “Glass” has proven to be a lot tougher than I thought it would be. I left the theater conflicted, but 24 hours later I felt I had a better grasp of what Shyamalan is going for. “Glass” is far from being the dumpster fire some proclaim it to be, but it’s no perfect film either. Still I think there is something to Shyamalan’s slow-boiling psychological approach and there is some real craft behind his visual technique. As it turns out “Glass” actually worked for me and I’m anxious to see it again. But it took some time to get there and I still find myself mulling over the final act..

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Green Book”

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The unlikely true-life friendship between an African-American concert pianist and an Italian nightclub bouncer is the inspiration (and that’s a key distinction) for Peter Farrelly’s comedy-drama “Green Book”. The film’s name comes from The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual travel guide for African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. It listed restaurants and lodging that allowed black visitors in segregated America.

The story takes place in the 1960s and opens in New York City. Bouncer and general tough guy Tony Lip Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) has to find work while his boss’ nightclub is shut down for renovations. He is hired to be both driver and bodyguard for Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an immensely talented African-American concert pianist who is about to embark on an eight-week concert tour starting in the Midwest before heading through the Deep South.

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“Green Book” is all about the central relationship between these two polar opposites. Don is an educated man of art and culture. Tony is streetwise and rough around the edges. It sets the table for some really good and often funny interactions. Especially when Tony’s meat-headed simple speak clashes with Don’s snobbish penchant for proper speech and etiquette.

As the road trip takes them further south both men run face-first into some harsh realities that adds a new layer to their relationship. The slightly discreet prejudices of the North gives way to the more pronounced racism of southern segregation. Some of the encounters lean a little too heavily on backwoods stereotypes but others are more effective. Take Don’s hosts who see him as offering up a good slice of culture yet he’s not good enough to use the white folks bathroom. But it’s in the more subtle moments where the racial injustice is the most profound. For Don this is real life. For Tony its eye-opening.

The biggest strength lies in the chemistry between Mortensen and Ali. Without it the entire movie would fall apart. There are moments where you can sense the story wearing a little thin and other times where it ventures into some peculiar waters only never to return to them. But even then the two stars carry the load, Mortensen with cagey finesse and Ali with a captivating elegance. Toss in some fantastic supporting work from Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife Dolores. It’s a small role but full of warmth in scenes otherwise full of routine Italian caricatures.

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There have been several criticisms hurled at “Green Book”, many of which I can’t quite get behind. Accusations that the film has a rose-colored view of racism either miss or interpret differently the quieter portrayals of discrimination I found most effective. Other gripes that the story sometimes forces Don Shirley to take a backseat to Tony (pun absolutely intended) seem to overlook that it’s told from the perspective of Tony’s son who co-wrote the script.

Ultimately “Green Book” may not dig as deep into racial injustice as some would like and it may not offer a cure for the modern day remnants of hate. It may be too charming and too humorous for those looking for an edge. But it does push a powerful message and does so through some infectiously strong performances. Turns out they’re enough to drive us through even when the story sputters.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Guilty” (2018)

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By now it’s pretty obvious that a hefty budget or a grand scale doesn’t automatically equal a good thriller. In fact several movies have shown the opposite to be true. The Danish film “The Guilty” is the latest glowing example of how great writing and a good actor’s steely intensity is more than enough for a genuinely gripping thriller.

Director and co-writer Gustav Möller’s feature debut doesn’t suffer a bit from the film’s obvious small budget. Instead he utilizes it by restricting his entire story within one space while at the same time allowing our imaginations to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. And the entire framework of his story is built around a taut, economical narrative that is confined by demand.

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Jakob Cedergren is the movie’s engine. He drives the entire film appearing in every frame of every scene. He plays Asger, an operator for Copenhagen emergency services (akin to our 911 here in the States) who receives a mysterious call from a distraught woman named Iben (voiced by Jessica Dinnage). She relays to Asger that she has been kidnapped but is disconnected before giving much more information.

“The Guilty” spends its brisk 85 minutes following Asger as he parses the various voices he encounters through his headset. We only hear these people through phone conversations, but when combined with Cedergren’s spot-on intensity, we are given more than enough to compose our own mental images and develop our own conclusions.

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The genius of “The Guilty” is that it never feels gimmicky or contrived. Möller’s screenplay (co-written by Emil Nygaard Albertsen) creates tension and then ratchets it up through smart and crafty story twists that come about in the most organic of ways.  It also maintains an undeniable Hitchcockian flavor which Möller leans into.

“The Guilty” is the Danish entry for the Best Foreign Language category at the upcoming Oscars and hopefully it will find a spot at the table. It’s a riveting thriller deserving of the attention and of broader exposure. And as I mentioned, it is another example of how a minimalist approach from an inspired filmmaker can be incredibly effective when the writing is sharp and you have a lead performer as convincing as Cedergren. Give this film a look.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Gun City” (2018)

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The social and political dynamics of 1921 Barcelona were volatile to say the least. As labor strikes and protests gave way to civil unrest, a number of groups pounced at the opportunity to exploit the boiling tensions between anarchists and authorities. Corrupt police, gangs, the bourgeoisie, and even Primo de Rivera’s military found ways to use the turmoil for their benefits.

“Gun City” (previously titled “The Shadow of the Law”) recreates the powder keg that was Barcelona while telling a story that pulls from a variety of movie genres. Director Dani de la Torre pays a lot of attention to the social issues (some of which feel quite relevant for today) yet also makes a movie that is highly cinematic in both structure and presentation.

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The film opens with a violent train robbery. We learn the mysterious robbers swiped a stockpile of war-bound rifles which if put in the wrong hands could turn Barcelona into a war zone. Officer Aníbal Uriarte (Luis Tosar) arrives into town to help with the police’s investigation. He is assigned to the Information Brigade – a four-man squad ran by the crooked Inspector Rediú (Vicente Romero) who has his hand in several nefarious side dealings.

Screenwriter Patxi Amezcua’s main story thread follows Uriarte through the investigation but from a unique perspective. He’s much of an observer who (like us) is soaking in Rediú’s process (both legal and shady). This opens the door for a handful of side-stories all of which eventually intersect. One follows a sleazy gangster/ nightclub owner (Manolo Solo) and his captive dancer and main attraction (Adriana Torrebejano). Another centers on the growing tensions within the revolutionaries ranks. Their labor leader Ortiz (Paco Taos) pushes for peaceful protests while young firebrand Leon (Jaime Lorente) believes it is time to take up arms. Caught in the middle is Ortiz’s dedicated but principled daughter Sara (Michelle Jenner).

Not only does “Gun City” juggle a handful of story angles but it also dips into several different movie genres – crime, action, romance, and even sociopolitical thriller. It’s quite the undertaking and de la Torre mostly gets it right in driving his characters and their narratives. The story remarkably stays on point, never feeling unfocused while always remaining entertaining.

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Cinematographer Josu Inchaustegui gives “Gun City” a fantastic look loaded with style and snappy visual flourishes. He often uses panning cameras as well as some interesting points of view. I particularly loved one specific close-quarter fight sequence inside the cab of a car. It’s shot in one continuous take with the camera slowly moving around the vehicle. It’s one of the many crafty uses of the camera peppered all through this movie.

Amid its plethora of thick mustaches and stony gazes lies an absorbing piece of Spanish cinema that comes across as a genre stew with a social conscience. But don’t let that description fool you. “Gun City” hits its target. It delves into several strong themes, is never boring, and features fine performances throughout. Will the genre bouncing appeal to all audiences? That’s hard to tell, but it definitely worked for me.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Guardians” (2018)

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As Frenchmen fought on the blood-soaked battlefields of World War I women were often left to maintain their family’s farm and ultimately their livelihood. To do so required backbreaking work tending to cattle, plowing fields and harvesting crops. “The Guardians” is a female-driven French drama offering a fresh wartime story of one such family.

Writer/director Xavier Beauvois highlights the strength and fortitude of a group of women toiling over their family’s farmland from 1915 to 1920. Renowned French actress Nathalie Baye plays Hortense. She’s the matriarch, fearing for her two sons and son-in-law on the battlefront but suppressing her concerns through arduous farm work. By her side is her daughter Solange played by Baye’s real-life daughter Laura Smet.

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With the harvest season approaching Hortense and Solange search their local village for a farmhand. The only person they manage to find is 20-year-old Francine (earnestly played by newcomer Iris Bry). She’s quiet and unassuming but a capable and hard-working young woman looking for a semblance of ‘home’. Francine settles in and quickly earns the trust of her employers.

Beauvois puts an emphasis on the labor and the quiet determination with which these women work. This is one of several places where the period detail shines. Every chore, every tool, every technique looks and feels of its time. The same could be said with the way Beauvois visualizes the rural French countryside. Resembling Impressionistic brushstrokes he captures one stunning image after another. Yet despite the portrait-like beauty, there is still no doubt that it is a rugged land.

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At first their strenuous day-to-day routine is only interrupted when one of the boys return on furlough. While the brief reunions are joyous, the scars of war are evident and each man has been changed by it. The effects begin to linger even after the men head back to the front making things tougher for Hortense, Solange, and even Francine, with everyone embracing the idea that “everything will be better after the war” but slowing losing their faith in those words.

The slow observant rhythms of “The Guardians” may catch some viewers off guard but hats off to Beauvois for not cutting corners throughout his 140 minutes. Based on Ernest Pérochon’s 1924 novel, the film is a canvas rich with painterly beauty thanks to cinematographer Caroline Champetier. It’s also a stirring World War I era story bathed in humanity and told through great performances, emotive faces and quite communication. And then there is the subtly tragic story of Francine – the beating heart of the film and proof of an emotional narrative punch that may not be noticeable at first glance.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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