REVIEW: “The Head Hunter” (2019)

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I’ve written this before, but I’ve always loved watching a filmmaker work with a shoestring budget yet still tell their story and capture their vision. “The Head Hunter” from director, co-producer, co-writer, and editor Jordan Downey stands as a shining example. Said to be made for $30,000 with the tiniest of cast and crew, his film is a brilliant accomplishment.

Set in medieval times, “The Head Hunter” stars Christopher Rygh who quite literally carries the load on his shoulders. He plays a character known only as Father, a warrior tormented by the death of his daughter by an unseen monster. “I always thought I could protect her” he painfully mutters in a brief memory flashback. It’s literally one of the few lines of dialogue in the entire picture. We never see his tragic loss, only the painful aftereffects.

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He spends his days as a creature of habit, piddling around his remote cabin awaiting the sound of a distant horn that summons him to kill a beast. Afterwards he mounts the heads of the slain on his wall, not as a trophy but as a reminder that the monster who killed his daughter is still out there. It fills the emptiness inside of him with the only thing that can – a deep-seeded hunger for revenge. And neither he or his daughter can rest in peace until the beast is put down.

During the film’s first half we watch this grief-stricken father grimly go about his day. But within his routine are nuggets of information. We learn he gets paid for his work but has no interest in the money, only vengeance. We watch him concoct grotesque healing potions. We see him make poignant visits to his daughter’s grave. It all leads to the second half where his blood-thirst flirts with madness.

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“The Head Hunter” can be best described as pure visual storytelling. Downey and cinematographer Kevin Stewart (who also serves as co-writer and co-producer) put a heavy emphasis on atmosphere. Their fantastic use of lighting, shadows, and camera perspectives feed into the film’s dark and sometimes macabre vibe. Portugal provides most of the location shots, some of which are nothing short of stunning.

Without question “The Head Hunter” is a bleak and at times gruesome movie. Yet within this rich slice of fantasy horror is a subtle meditation on grief. The story is a tragedy of sorts placed within a relentlessly harsh and despairing world. And the filmmakers stick with this vision. Clocking in at a lean 72 minutes, they avoid the temptation to pad the run time with pointless and frivolous filler. This keeps the film tight, focused, and utterly enthralling.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Hurricane Heist”

 

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Let’s be honest, with some movies you kind of know what you’re going to get just by the title alone. Okay, some more than others, but you get my point, right? Take the action-disaster mash-up “The Hurricane Heist”. Its hysterically literal title assures us of what we are in for – 100 minutes of category five absurdity. The question is how far can you go with it?

Toby Kebbell and his hilariously over-stressed Southern drawl plays Will Rutledge, a government meteorologist in Alabama keeping tabs on the mother of all hurricanes approaching the Gulf Coast. His relationship with his brother Breeze (Ryan Kwanten) has been strained since 1992 when they lost their father to Hurricane Andrew (see the prologue).

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Breeze is a mechanic who has stayed in their hometown of Gulfport to run the family’s towing business. He has a repair contract with a U.S. Treasury facility – the same facility a group of hoodlums are planning to knock off. And boy is their scheme an elaborate one full of carefully planned double-crosses, infiltration, computer hacking, and of course one made-to-order hurricane. What they didn’t factor in was dedicated Treasury agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace) who quickly becomes a thorn in the bad guys’ side.

As the hurricane bears down, Breeze ends up in the treasury facility while Will and Casey are on the outside working together to thwart the heist. But to be honest none of that really matters. By this point the story is so silly and inconsequential, functioning mostly to move from one weather-action scene to the next. Admittedly I did get a kick out of some of the set piece antics. Whether I took them the way intended by the filmmakers, I don’t know. But they are just goofy enough to keep things mildly entertaining.

The film is directed by “Fast and Furious” creator Rob Cohen but don’t expect “The Hurricane Heist” to follow in that franchise’s footsteps. It bombed at the box office, unable to make back its semi-meager $35 million budget. Despite that there is some ridiculous fun to be found if your head is in the right place. This isn’t an offensively bad movie (it’s no “Geostorm”). Then again, that’s not much of a bar.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Highwaymen”

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For me the allure of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson playing Texas Rangers sent to hunt down the notorious Bonnie and Clyde is undeniable. I’m a long-time fan of Costner who vanished from the screen for a while but seems to have nicely settled into a new stage of his career. And then you have Harrelson – always interesting, always entertaining.

The two pair up in “The Highwaymen”, a period crime thriller that was first pitched as early as 2005. Screenwriter John Fusco’s original vision was to have Paul Newman and Robert Redford play the veteran lawmen. After sitting in development for years with Universal Studios, Netflix acquired the rights in 2017 with two new leads and John Lee Hancock set to direct.

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“The Highwaymen” quickly sets itself up as slow-burning crime investigation thriller. The story starts in 1934, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow having been on the run for over two years. The notorious couple carry out a violent jailbreak at Eastham Prison Farm in Texas. Lee Simmons (the always good John Carroll Lynch), head of the Texas Department of Corrections, urges an image-conscious Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to take drastic measures to finally end the murderous crime spree.

Simmons convinces a reluctant Ferguson to hire former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Costner) to track down Bonnie and Clyde and “put ’em on the spot” (you can probably guess what that means). An interesting bit of history – Hamer and forty other Rangers resigned after “Ma” Ferguson won a second term. She had been proven corrupt and quickly fired all remaining Rangers replacing them with her own more ‘modern’ law enforcement. Simmons and Fusco use that internal tension several times during the film.

Costner shows us an abrasive, hard-edged Frank Hamer (love the performance). He’s a principled man clearly bitter over the dismissal of the Rangers but driven by the death of other lawmen to put an end to the Barrow gang. Hamer hesitantly brings along his old partner Maney Gault (Harrelson) and the pair begin studying the gangs patterns and following their blood trail through the lower Midwest. Harrelson is a nice complement to Costner, working at a different temperature and offering a needed balance to their mission.

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It’s not a stretch to call this an inadvertent companion piece to Arthur Penn’s beloved 1967 picture “Bonnie and Clyde”. Penn painted a somewhat romanticized portrait of the Barrow gang while “The Highwaymen” distinctly looks from the lawmen’s perspective. It allows for a critical view of the rogue couple’s cult-like following and of how cultural fame is often rooted in absurdity. Glamorizing news stories, skewed comparisons to Robin Hood, young women dressing like Bonnie Parker. “They’re more adored than movie stars” one character mutters.

Admittedly there is an old-fashioned flavor to “The Highwaymen” that is sure to push some people away. You see it in how it tells its story and even in how it’s made. I get the inevitable complaints of “too slow” and “not enough action”. Yet I found myself loving it – the slow burn, the prickly Costner, the subtle moral questions it tosses out there. It all works, like a cool flashback to a classic film style I’ve never grown tired of. But how will that play today? It will be interesting to see.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Hotel Mumbai”

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In November of 2008 ten Pakistani terrorists unleashed a series of attacks across Mumbai, the most populous city in India. Among their targets was a historical train station, a popular cafe, a Jewish community center, and two of the city’s signature hotels. 166 people were killed in the attacks and over 300 were injured.

“Hotel Mumbai” is the feature film debut for its director Anthony Maras. It’s a fictionalized account based on a 2009 documentary short “Surviving Mumbai” and specifically the attack on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The timing of the film’s release is unfortunate considering the still raw and painful emotions following the recent mosque mass shootings in New Zealand. This is certain to effect some perspectives.

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Dev Patel serves as our entry point into a story filled with a wide assortment of characters. He plays Arjun, a waiter at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel with a wife at home expecting their second child. So instantly we have our first of several rooting interests.

Arjun arrives to work late for his shift which annoys his hard-nosed but respectable boss, the hotel’s head chef Hermant Oberoi (Anupam Kher). Meanwhile newlyweds David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) check in with their newborn baby and young nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). We also meet Jason Isaacs playing a jerky Russian businessman and a hard nut to crack.

Most surprising is the depth Maras gives to the young Pakistani terrorists. We first see them as they arrive by small boat and quickly disperse across the city to their assigned targets. The movie hints at things such as socioeconomic conditions that could have pushed them to such violence but it never goes as far as to make them overtly sympathetic. Just the opposite. They kill without the slightest tinge of conscience. Their demeanors are cold and calloused, their faces blank and emotionless. No theatrics, just a businesslike approach to slaughter. It’s unsettling and chilling to watch.

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Maras does challenge the audience to look into the face of radicalization. He shows us twenty-somethings from impoverished backgrounds driven by extremism to hate non-Muslim cultures and any semblance of wealth. They are instructed by the disturbing voice in their earbuds coming from a puppet-master known only as “The Bull”. He fuels their hate and wants “the screams of the victims to be heard by the world”. These young men are fanatics who have been weaponized by their handlers to coldly carry out their well-planned atrocities. And they follow with little to no resistance.

Of course most of this is brought to light within the enormous Taj Hotel where terrified staff and guests scramble for safety among the chaos and carnage. Hope is hard to come by especially when we learn how ill-equipped the city was to respond (Mumbai had no tactical units to counter such an attack). But Maras shows amazing acts of kindness and bravery born from the human spirit in the face of such disturbing inhumanity. There is no single hero and thankfully no puffy-chested machismo. Just true-to-life characters with personal stakes trying to survive. We occasionally lose track of some of them, but ultimately Maras does a good job putting us in their shoes.

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There are many instances where “Hotel Mumbai” subverts your expectations whether it’s the disciplined use of the score or its ability to stay true to the horrific violence without always showing the bloodiest results. But there are a couple of times where you can almost see the Hollywood influence creep its way in. The worst is a cringe-inducing scene meant to speak to racial profiling but that comes across as ridiculously scripted and completely false. It literally yanked me out of the otherwise relentless white-knuckle tension.

Predictably some have been quick to dismiss “Hotel Mumbai” as ill-advised and exploitative. I didn’t see it that way. Unflinching and uncomfortably relevant, perhaps. Ill-advised and exploitative, no. Maras and co-writer John Collee did hours of interviews with survivors and witnesses. Much of that is what shaped their story and characters. This is no sanitized account. It’s gritty and admittedly tough to watch. But it could also be one of the more authentic portrayals of its kind. It certainly left me rattled.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Hole in the Ground”

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There is a new installment in horror’s intensely popular ‘creepy kid’ sub-genre. It’s “The Hole in the Ground” from Irish writer-director Lee Cronin. His film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to some nice reactions but it was moody and genuinely chilling trailer that caught my attention.

Seána Kerslake plays Sarah who has moved with her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey) to a remote countryside fixer-upper. We are given the impression she has left an abusive relationship and is looking for a new start for both her and her son. Sarah has found a pocket of friends in the nearby town but it hasn’t been as easy for Chris who struggles to make friends at his new elementary school.

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Late one night Chris wanders out of the house and Sarah tracks him into a dense and eerie patch of woods. There she discovers a mammoth (and obviously metaphorical) sinkhole (think Sarlacc pit but about 20x bigger). She fears the worst but then Chris suddenly appears behind her. She takes her son and hurries him back home.

But then things get a little weird. Sarah begins noticing inconsistencies with Chris. As his behavior becomes more peculiar and out of the norm she can’t help but recall an earlier encounter where a demented elderly neighbor (Kati Outinen) who hissed “He’s not your son.” Was the crazy old woman warning her? Is the sinkhole somehow responsible? Is it Sarah who is losing her mind?

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“The Hole in the Ground” digs deep into the anxieties of parenthood much in the same vein as 2014’s “The Babadook”. In many ways that Jennifer Kent film trained me to be suspicious when watching horror movies featuring a distraught mother with a spooky child. Cronin wants his audience to wrestle with the uncertainty of what we are seeing which is pretty effective for most of the 90 minute running time. It’s only in the last 15 minutes that things are made clear, perhaps even too clear.

One thing is for sure, Cronin has a knack for creating mood and atmosphere. It’s often done through some very clever visual choices (the opening scene of Sarah driving through the countryside is a great example). He is also smart in how he utilizes Stephen McKeon’s haunting score. It’s tense, a bit unsettling, and never overused. It all makes for a satisfying bit of psychological horror that loses a little air with its ending but never loses its ability to manage and maintain a really effective tone.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “High Flying Bird”

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I have to admit I’ve always been a sucker for a good sports movie. Or course the key word is ‘good’. To be honest it’s a film genre that has had more than its share of hard-to-watch stinkers. But when one of these movies hits its mark, regardless of the sport it’s centered around, I’m usually quick to sing its praises.

Steven Soderbergh is the latest to walk the line between a good sports movie and a crappy one. His latest film “High Flying Bird” works from a screenplay by Tarell Alvin McCraney and is loosely based on the 2011 NBA lockout. As a filmmaker who likes to tackle a variety of subjects in a variety of different ways, this is a movie right up Soderbergh’s alley.

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André Holland plays Ray Burke, an industry-wise sports agent working hard to calm his antsy rookie client Erick (Melvin Gregg) during the NBA’s lockout. Ray knows the ins and outs of the business and the longer the work stoppage the deeper it digs into his own pockets. In some ways he resembles Tom Cruise’s Jerry McGuire – headstrong, ambitious, and confident. But Ray is far more cerebral and grounded in the real world.

 

Ray knows the stakes and he feels the pressure from both his client and his agency. With neither side of the labor dispute budging and negotiations at a standstill, Ray knows he has to do something. He begins by stealthily recruiting a former assistant (Zazie Beetz). He then starts tapping into his connections with the player’s union rep (Sonja Sohn) and the slick-as-silk spokesman for the owners (Kyle MacLachlan). With all the moxie he can muster, Ray puts together a plan that could either end the lockout or his career.

“High Flying Bird” is a very different kind of basketball movie. Soderbergh is much more interested in the business side of the sport than what happens on the court. You also get the sense Soderbergh is intrigued by the racial dynamic between white ownership and the star-studded predominantly black player base. And does he want us to see a real-world reflection in the NBA’s revenue sharing structure? He plays with these ideas without beating us over the head with them – just enough to prod us to think.

This is also the second straight film Soderbergh has shot on an iPhone (the first being last year’s “Unsane” with Claire Foy). It’s a fascinating technique that offers him some obvious freedoms which we see through camera angles, how some shots are framed, and even in how he uses lighting. Just as obvious are the limitations. By necessity most of Soderbergh’s camera craftiness is restricted to closed spaces and in how he shoots characters and conversations. Still it doesn’t undercut the movie’s value as a remarkable piece of minimalist filmmaking.

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“High Flying Bird” has so many things going for it. I can’t say enough about McCraney’s dense Sorkin-esque dialogue. And let me be clear, there is a ton of dialogue. But it works because McCraney and his characters all have something of value to say. And while it may be a tad too wordy, we get a keen insight into who these people are and what makes them tick. You also have a fantastic cast. Holland shows genuine leading man chops while every supporting role feels true to their world (I haven’t even mentioned Bill Duke who is great playing a wise father-figure to Ray).

And then you have Soderbergh, an eclectic filmmaker ever willing to dabble in any genre and toy around with any and all cinematic forms. Here he directs, edits, and shoots his movie while wisely leaning heavily on a robust script and some good performances. It may end up being a little too talky for some people. But for others who appreciate an audacious filmmaker who is impossible to pigeonhole, Netflix has a good one for you.

VERDICT –  4 STARS

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