REVIEW: “Insomnia” (2002)

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“Insomnia” holds a unique place in Christopher Nolan’s stellar filmography. It stands as Nolan’s third film and the only movie on his resume that he didn’t write or co-write. Instead Hillary Seitz penned the script which was based on a 1997 Norwegian crime thriller by Erik Skjoldbjærg. But this doesn’t feel like a run-of-the-mill remake. Nolan takes Skjoldbjærg’s film and offers a fresh new interpretation. The results are pretty great.

Nolan opens the film with a stunning title sequence showing a seaplane flying over the jagged Alaskan ice-scape. It’s beautiful yet foreboding terrain. Then the plane curls around a lush green mountain into a bay where smokestacks reveal the first sign of man’s handprint. The plane lands on the water’s surface and eases up to the dock of Nightmute, a remote timber town and the self-anointed Halibut Fishing Capitol of the World. The entire sequence is an early indicator of the incredible cinematic eye Nolan would quickly become known for.

Out of the plane steps two Los Angeles homicide detectives, Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan). They’ve been sent to Nightmute to assist the town’s police chief (who happens to be an old colleague) with a murder case involving a teenage girl who was found beaten to death. They are greeted by Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank), an enthusiastic young detective and a bonafide fangirl when it comes to Dormer’s work.

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Turns out Dormer and Eckhart bring a little baggage with them. Back home internal affairs is building a corruption case against them and much to Dormer’s chagrin Eckhart is ready to cut a deal to save himself from jail. This instantly drives a wedge between partners, but they still must work together to track down Nightmute killer. So Dormer quickly puts together a profile and is soon setting a trap at a remote lake house. But the mysterious suspect notices the cops and escapes into a dense fog bank. Dormer pursues only to get disoriented in the fog. He fires at a silhouette thinking it’s the killer, but it turns out to be Hap who dies in Dormer’s arms.

It’s here that the film makes an unexpected shift. Fearing the truth will strengthen the I.A.’s case against him, Dormer fudges the facts, blaming the suspect for killing his partner and working hard to sell his story. It leads to a series of shrewdly dishonest choices and actions that further compromise his integrity. Meanwhile his guilty conscience combined with the slyly haunting 24-hour Alaskan daylight leads to one sleepless night after another. Dormer careens towards exhaustion, trying to cover his tracks while still hunting a killer on the loose.

Under Nolan, “Insomnia” turns out to be much more than a ‘find the killer’ thriller. It fact, we learn the murderer’s identity about halfway through leading to a battle of wits between a compromised detective and a meticulous psychopath. There are only a handful of action sequences, but one of the film’s best scenes is a thrilling foot chase that ends up crossing a floating timber yard. It’s impeccably shot and finishes with a terrifying….splash.

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

A grizzled Pacino is the film’s ace in the hole. His face is an emotionally blank canvas revealing a perpetual world-weariness that only worsens with his lack of sleep. Portraying a seasoned police detective is nothing new for him. But here he gives us a man crumbling under the weight of his sins. It’s vintage Pacino. And Robin Williams is a scene-stealer playing a crime novelist with a special connection to the case. It’s a performance that reminds us of how great Williams could be outside of his comedy comfort zone.

“Insomnia” doesn’t have the time-bending storylines or extravagant set pieces that Christopher Nolan films would become known for. It doesn’t need them. It’s pretty much a straightforward crime thriller but with some intelligent character twists that push things in unexpected directions. And with such strong performances and a budding top-tier director behind the camera, this was guaranteed to be more than some one-note remake.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (2020)

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Charlie Kaufman’s enigmatic new film “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” has been one of the most intriguing titles on Netflix’s 2020 movie calendar. It’s impossible to stamp a label on Kaufman’s collective work, but you can identify some of the filmmaker’s reoccurring interests. He’s known for exploring identity, mortality and the human condition often through a surrealist’s lens. There is a self-indulgence to his work (something Kaufman himself would never deny) that allows his to create from his soul. His movies don’t always land for me, but I never doubt I’m seeing something truthful.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a thematic puzzle box. It’s a psychodrama plump with symbolism and carefully placed breadcrumbs that can’t possibly be fully digested in one viewing. You could call it a dark soliloquy of sorts; an out-of-focus meditation that becomes clearer the further it gets from reality. It wastes no time challenging our sense of perspective while steadily plowing deep into subjects that have fascinated Kaufman for much of his eight-film career.

All of that tells you the type of story Kaufman constructs, but what is it about? The meat and potatoes answer – it’s about a young woman going to meet her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. That’s the surface-level synopsis. But who goes into a Charlie Kaufman film expecting him to stick to the surface?

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

A terrific Jessie Buckley plays Lucy, or is it Louisa, or is it Ames? She’s a physicist, or is she a painter, or maybe a waitress? Get where I’m going? Probably not and that’s part of the draw. Anyway, mere minutes into the film Kaufman puts us inside the young woman’s head as she’s thinking of ending things with her boyfriend Jake (an opaquely low-key Jesse Plemons). They haven’t been together long, only six weeks. Or is it six months? Regardless, she begins to feel their relationship has ran its course yet she still agrees to take a road-trip with Jake to meet his parents.

For the first 20-plus minutes Kaufman puts us in the car with the young couple as they travel along a snowy Oklahoma highway. We listen in on their philosophical jousting, their discussions on William Wordsworth, movie musicals, and Mussolini’s train. And we’re ushered into Lucy’s wandering headspace where her melancholic interior monologues are constantly interrupted by Jake’s penchant for monotoned small talk. Not only is this extended opening a good introduction to Kaufman’s two chief characters, but it’s full of carefully planted clues (some obvious, some not) telling us that something’s off, not just with their relationship but in the world we’ve been ushered into.

The young couple arrive at Jake’s family’s farmhouse where they’re (eventually) met by his spacey mother (Toni Collette) and his listless father (David Thewlis). It’s here that the film really begins to peel back its sense of reality and Kaufman’s already slippery story shifts into a trippier and arguably meatier gear. What starts as a slightly psychotic meet-the-parents black comedy turns into a fever dream version of Jake’s life where time shifts, ages fluctuate, and the characters take on different shades of themselves. Sounds vague, right? Better that than doing the disservice of giving too much away.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

From the very start the young couple’s story is frequently intercut with shots of an elderly janitor (Guy Boyd). He’s a portly and solitary man who works nights cleaning a high school; alone with his thoughts as he mops the long empty halls, scrapes gum off of desks, and takes out the trash. We sense a sadness and a longing to the man yet he’s a bit of a romantic. There’s a great ‘movie-inside-a-movie’ scene where he watches a fake Robert Zemeckis rom-com in a classroom during his dinner break. The man is more than a Kaufman indulgence. He’s a story piece who has his own part in bringing everything into focus.

So many odd yet material details still stand out to me. Kaufman’s use of narrow aspect ration signifying that we’re only seeing part of the picture. Jake constantly reminding Lucy (and us) that he has chains (for his tires), just one not-so-subtle but meaningful metaphor among many. Lucy channeling Pauline Kael in a blistering two-minute takedown of the Cassavetes film “Woman Under the Influence”. A final act interpretive dance that starts out wantonly bizarre but ends up rich with significance. “Ending Things” is loaded with these types of Kaufman signatures, baffling on the surface but pertinent to what his film is saying.

Following my first viewing I didn’t know how to feel aboutI’m Thinking of Ending Things”. I was fascinated by it. I was struck by the performances, especially from Jessie Buckley who should automatically be in Oscar contention. I loved Kaufman‘s faith in his audience to find the many pieces and fit them together themselves. But it wasn’t until the second viewing that things really clicked. I began to get in sync with the film’s off-kilter rhythms. I got a better grasp of its existential anxieties. I found myself chewing on every line of dialogue. And while not all of Kaufman’s past work has connected with me, his latest resonated in ways I never expected. I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is now showing on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “I Used to Go Here” (2020)

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In the new easy-going comedy “I Used to Go Here” Gillian Jacobs plays Kate, a down-on-her-luck author of a new not-so-great novel. She gets news from her publishers that low early sales numbers has forced them to cancel her scheduled publicity book tour. To make matters worse her fiancé recently broke up with her mere weeks before their wedding. And I thought I was having a rotten week.

That sets up this engaging but uneven new film from writer-director Kris Rey. The movie explores the rut thirtysomething’s often find themselves in after their big life aspirations don’t quite turn out as planned. Your career choice hasn’t been what you hoped. Most of your friends are married and having kids while you’re still single and calling off weddings. This is Kate in a nutshell. She graduated from college full of drive and ambition. She set off to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. But fifteen years later with an ex-fiancé and her first published book floundering, she’s left questioning her past decisions and uncertain about her future.

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Photo Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

“I Used to Go There” gets off to a really good start, spending its time focused on Kate as she manages her disappointment while clinging to any optimism she can find. She gets a call from her old literature professor David Kilpatrick (a perfectly smarmy Jemaine Clement) who invites her to come to her alma mater to do a reading from her new book. Once back in the cozy college town of Carbondale, Illinois she begins gushing nostalgia and remembering when her life was full of energy and ambition.

These scenes work well because Rey portrays Kate’s struggles with a thoughtful and witty authenticity. Meanwhile Jacobs does a terrific job earning our empathy mostly through the film’s first half. Her performance is rooted in honesty and brings out a frazzled and charmingly awkward quality to Kate that makes her character easy to root for. That is until the last act where things unfortunately unravel.

While in Carbondale Kate befriends a group of college students living in her old house: Hugo (Josh Wiggins), Animal (Forrest Goodluck), Emma (Khloe Janel), and Tall Brandon (Brandon Daley). The movie uses Kate’s friendship with the coeds to playfully highlight her regression as she drowns her adult woes by hanging out and getting stoned with her new (and considerably younger) friends. There’s a great chemistry between the four young people and through them Kate reconnects with the care-free days of her youth. A welcomed release? Probably. Ill-advised? Most definitely.

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Photo Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

But this is also where the movie eventually loses its focus, specifically in the final 30 minutes. The story gets sidetracked with an overlong and out-of-tune spy mission where Kate and the coeds try to uncover if Hugo’s girlfriend April (Hannah Marks) is cheating on him. The whole thing feels yanked out of another movie, even throwing in a weird sanitized “American Pie” angle with the Tall Brandon character. From there things get a little icky as Kate makes some bad choices that the movie kinda condemns but with very little conviction.

“I Used to Go Here” has all the right ingredients and it utilizes them for the majority of its 85 minute running time. It has some fine performances especially from Jacobs and Clement. And I haven’t even mentioned Rammel Chan who is hysterical as Kate’s student liaison Elliot. It’s a shame the film can’t stick its landing. The final act leaves you wondering about the story’s overall ambition and the late-movie tonal shifts are distracting. Still, there are things to like and Rey dodges a lot of college movie clichés and cheap comedy tropes in telling her story. At least most of the time. “I Used to Go Here” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Inheritance” (2020)

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Does any daughter really know her father?” It’s a strange question at the heart of the new feature “Inheritance”, a movie that starts out as a murky family drama of the rich and famous before quickly turning into a twisted sins-of-the-father thriller. It instantly sucks you in and it’s a fun enough ride all the way to the end. But making sense of it all turns out to be more of a chore than it should be.

Lily Collins plays Lauren, a strong-minded New York district attorney and proverbial thorn in the side of Wall Street. She’s the daughter of uber-wealthy bank executive Archer Monroe (Patrick Warburton) and the sister of Will Monroe (Chace Crawford), a hotshot congressman fighting for reelection amid some hefty corruption allegations. Catherine (an underutilized Connie Nielsen), the family matriarch, tries to keep everyone happy which isn’t as easy as it sounds.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Archer’s sudden death in the opening few minutes shakes the Monroe power family to its core. We learn that Lauren’s progressive crusading as DA is partly out of conviction but also an act of rebellion against her family. This had driven a wedge between her and her father who was frustrated with Lauren for not protecting the family interests and for going after his millionaire friends. Everyone tells her “He was so proud of you“, but when the will is read her brother is left $20 million compared to her measly $1 million (oh the rich folk problems).

Lauren is privately approached by her father’s loyal-to-the-death attorney (Michael Beach) who gives her a packet containing a flash-drive and a key. Turns out Arthur has left her something else that no one but her must know about. A cryptic message on the drive leads her to an underground bunker hidden on the far side of the family estate. Inside the dark, musty chamber she finds a shaggy, unkept Simon Pegg, chained on a leash and itching for a slice of key lime pie. Personally, I would have rather had $20 million.

The stranger says his name is Morgan and he holds dark secrets that could bring down the Monroe family dynasty. It sets up a series of Starling/Lecter back-and-forths where Lauren must indulge Morgan’s curiosity for every new bite of information. She then goes out to check the veracity of his claims, learning some rather unsavory truths about her father along the way. Director Vaughn Stein rinses and repeats until things finally begin to come into focus.

Unfortunately for “Inheritance” the payoff isn’t as fun as the anticipation. I was onboard for most of it despite knowing how far-fetched the whole thing is. Actually that’s a big part of the fun. But once the pieces start coming together, you realize many of them don’t fit. And there were several instances where I just quit trying to figure out some of the strange character logic.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Despite looking more like a college freshman than a NYC district attorney, Collins gives it her all and her performance works for the most part. She nails the rollercoaster of emotions and sells her cunning yet empathetic part in her tangos with Pegg. He’s having a blast doing what he can with the shaky dialogue he’s given. I mean you can’t help but giggle when he chews up lines like ”A lawyer, a banker, and a politician – the unholy trinity“.

To be honest, you really can’t help but giggle at the whole thing. As entertaining as it can be, “Inheritance” never rises above its rather silly premise. It leaves too many questions unanswered, has too many head-scratching moments, and doesn’t quite muster the mystery or excitement it needs. It’s still worth checking out if you’re looking for a fun, daffy escape. Just know that while it’ll keep your attention, sticking the landing proves to be trickier.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “It Follows”

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Over the years horror movies have come in all shapes, sizes, and forms. They have featured terrors from an almost endless spring of sources. But I don’t think I have ever seen one where the killer was an STD (sexually transmitted demon) or whatever the heck the entity is terrorizing yet another batch of teens in “It Follows”.

To be honest I still haven’t fully grasped how “It Follows” became such a critical darling. Reviewers have universally fell for it with some even hailing it as ‘the best horror movie in years‘. To its credit it is built around a unique premise (regardless of how silly it sounds on the surface). Also there are some truly arresting visuals including some particularly striking uses of perspective. But it’s the story between the images that unfortunately doesn’t hold up.

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Photo: Radius-TWC

The film opens with a cleverly shot intro set in suburban Detroit. A teen girl runs out of the front door of her house and into the neighborhood street. She’s clearly terrified and running from something we can’t see. She makes a circle, runs back inside to grab her car keys, then back out before driving off. For the most part the camera sits still, panning around following her motions in one long take. It gives us our first glimpse of director David Robert Mitchell’s keen sense for tone-setting.

The movie then shifts to Jay (Maika Monroe), an unassuming 19-year-old with a new boyfriend named Hugh (Jake Weary). While on a date the two have a sexual encounter which ends with Hugh chloroforming her. He ties her up and then shares some pretty twisted news – he has passed to her an entity that can only be transmitted through intercourse. He had it, now she does. The shape-shifting entity will stalk her in the form of anyone and only she can see it. He continues to tack on several other weird ‘rules’ we probably didn’t need.

Hugh dumps Jay off at her house and zips out of her life. Thankfully she has her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and two close friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) who instantly believe her even after she starts noticing strange figures they can’t see. A neighbor friend Greg (Daniel Vovatto) also lends a hand. Parents are notable absent in Mitchell’s story which is surely intended to mean something, but to be honest I haven’t had the urge to give it much thought.

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Photo: Radius-TWC

The story (written by Mitchell) moves at a very casual pace. It does allow us to get into the heads of the characters as we wait for the next tense, creepy encounter. But not all of the time is well spent and Mitchell’s strength shines brighter as a director rather than writer (at least in this case). His story is overly invested in ambiguity to the point of never having any believable convictions. Sure, there are multiple ways you could read the film, but finding validity within the movie for any reading is a real challenge. And for a story anchored in sexual anxiety, some of the the character’s actions left me scratching my head.

But again, Mitchell’s sense of atmosphere and tone is a real highlight. He has a captivating command of his camera and the fantastic synthesizer-heavy score is reminiscent of classic John Carpenter. The only time he loses it is in the film’s climax – a hokey indoor swimming pool sequence that doesn’t work on any level. It’s an unfortunate way to finish but kinda fitting for a movie so full of ups and downs.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “The Invisible Man” (2020)

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My how plans can change. Need an example? Look no further than “The Invisible Man”. The film was originally set to star Johnny Depp and be part of Universal’s Dark Universe. The idea was to have an interconnected cinematic universe (ala the MCU) reviving many of the classic Universal monsters. The first film of the series was “The Mummy” which opened to bad reviews and less than stellar box office numbers. As a result The Dark Universe was canned and replaced with a stand-alone movie model.

The new vision for “The Invisible Man” saw Depp out, a new writer in, and horror producer Jason Blum putting it all together. It follows Blum’s successful formula of taking a micro-budget and putting out a movie that is guaranteed to make money. Not all of his films land and rarely do they turn out to be great. But the vast majority turn profit and always seem to find an audience.

Well surprise, “The Invisible Man” is pretty great, not because of Blum’s formula or even H.G. Wells’ fantastic source material. Instead it’s writer-director Leigh Whannell’s slow methodical pacing. It’s the stellar lead performance from Elisabeth Moss. It’s the film’s strikingly effective metaphor for domestic abuse, women not being believed, and having the courage to fight back. It all makes for a surprisingly potent concoction.

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Photo: Universal Pictures

Whannell takes elements of the horror genre and mixes it with a dash of science-fiction, all while maintaining a cutting modern-day resonance. The movie starts with quite the kick and instantly lays the groundwork for its central conceit. Cecilia (Moss) flees from her controlling, abusive husband/boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). He’s an uber-wealthy tech entrepreneur known as a genius in the field of “optics” (whatever that is). Remember that last bit, it’ll come back into play later.

Cecilia hides out at the home of her police officer friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his college-bound daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). But she still lives in terror, fearing that the narcissistic sociopath Adrian will find her. That is until her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) informs her that Adrian has committed suicide. Cecilia also learns that Adrian left her $5 million which his estate will pay in hefty monthly installments. She’s finally free…right?

Well, remember the movie’s title? Cecilia begins noticing strange happenings, small things at first that soon turn more terrifying and violent. She’s convinced Adrian has found a way to make himself invisible and has come back to torture her physically and emotionally. But even those closest to her aren’t buying it and they begin questioning Cecilia’s state of mind. It’s a sinister twist on gaslighting and stalking, but this time the victim fights back.

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Photo: Universal Pictures

The pacing is vital to the overall effect. Whannell doesn’t stuff his film with “boo” moments. Instead he clearly enjoys creating atmosphere and building tension. Much of it comes through his camera, whether its settled into a static shot or oscillating around a room. Whannell’s clever use of negative space has us eyeing every corner of the frame looking for any visual evidence that someone is there. It adds to the simmering but steadily growing sense of dread which runs side-by-side with Cecilia’s unraveling psyche until the lid finally blows off in the final act. That’s not to say there aren’t a handful of bigger scares along the way. They’re mostly shocking jolts that legitimately catch you off-guard but are actually meaningful and revealing.

It’s well shot, well paced and features an ominous, dread-soaked score by Benjamin Wallfisch. But it all sinks without Elisabeth Moss who is an absolute force. She is intensely committed both physically and psychologically, nimbly bouncing back-and-forth between defeated and determined, vulnerable and vehement depending on what the scene needs. Interestingly, the movie never details the abuse Cecilia has endured in the past. It’s not necessary. Moss deftly conveys all the information we need to believe and understand her character. She’s terrific.

Whether it’s being an edge-of-your-seat horror thriller or a stinging allegory of domestic violence and the quest of women to be heard, “The Invisible Man” hits all of its targets. It’s a remake that actually brings something new to the table and has something rather timely to say. And much like Lupita N’yongo in last year’s “Us”, Moss shouldn’t be overlooked simply because of genre. She gives a top-notch performance full of conviction and (along with Whannell) propels what could have been an easy to overlook film. Instead “The Invisible Man” is the best of the young movie year so far.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars