REVIEW: “In the Earth” (2021)

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Filmed over the course of fifteen days during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ben Wheatley’s new film “In the Earth” is a micro-budget chiller with the anxieties of our current locked-down society sewn within its fabric. Coming off last year’s fun yet imperfect “Rebecca”, Wheatley returns to the dark and gnarly storytelling he cut his filmmaking teeth on. And at a time when so many are burned out from quarantining and itching to get out of the house, “In the Earth” may leave you second guessing that impulse.

Despite the obvious constraints of filming during a pandemic, “In the Earth” doesn’t deserve to be simply tagged as a ‘COVID movie’ the way some others do. None of the limitations show up on-screen which is quite an accomplishment. Even better, nothing about it feels like genre rehash. Wheatley takes several rather familiar horror ingredients (a creepy forest setting, ominous fog, etc.) and then twists them to fit into his unsettling and occasionally macabre mold.

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Image Courtesy of NEON

The film opens with science specialist Martin Lowery (Joel Frey) arriving at the Gantalow Lodge which has been turned into a research site. He’s there to check on a friend and former colleague Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires). She came to the nature reserve to study the brain-like mycorrhizal network of roots believed to control the entire forest, but he hasn’t heard from her in months. As most of us are familiar with, Martin is immediately ushered through a series of safety and decontamination protocols. Blood tests and urine samples frame this is a much more severe pandemic than ours. But other touches (masks, gloves, hand sanitizer) seem plucked right out of our current climate.

Everyone at the lodge comes across as exhausted and drained, worn down by the isolation and ready for some semblance of normalcy (sound familiar?). Martin is no different. In fact we learn this is his first time outside in four months. So they all go through their testing routines with a detached sense of obligation. They passionlessly discuss the pandemic, Martin’s work, and even a local folktale about about a creepy forest entity called Parnag Fegg. During these early scenes Martin is introduced to Alma (Ellora Torchia), a park ranger who will guide him on the two-day walk to Olivia’s remote camp.

Early the next morning Martin and Alma begin their long and soon-to-be terrifying trek. Wheatley sets his audience up as an observant tag-along, listening in on their small-talk and shadowing the two as they make their way through the woods. Sometimes DP Nick Gillespie’s camera lurks several yards away, taking in more of their surroundings and slyly creating a sense of dread for what’s to come. Wheatley’s crafty visuals bring a subtly sinister quality to the forest especially when they set up camp after the first day’s walk. Tall trees creaking in the wind like old bones, indiscernible howls in the night – it’s all really effective. And the suspense ramps up even more once Martin and Alma meet a mysterious park squatter named Zach (Reece Shearsmith).

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Image Courtesy of NEON

It would be a major disservice to go much further and not because there is a lot of plot to spoil. It’s more about experiencing what the characters experience and the murky revelations we get once Wheatley’s loose-fitting puzzle pieces start coming together. It all plays out like a wicked blend of horror sub-genres, from the sadistic splashes of gruesome body horror to the wild psychedelic mind-screw of the final 15 minutes. That’s where Wheatley starts mixing mysticism, technology, and science into one bizarre and somewhat macabre stew. And through it all Clint Mansell’s twisted synthesized score keeps things slightly off-kilter and us constantly on edge.

People get a bit funny in the woods sometimes.” That early line from a doctor back at the lodge turns out to be some pretty meaty foreshadowing. With “In the Earth” Ben Wheatley and his small but able cast and crew take that idea and run with it. The result is a movie full of unease; with moments that will make you squirm, and enough confidence to rely on its material rather than cheap scares. It doesn’t all come together in the clearest or cleanest way which manages to be both frustrating and strangely fascinating. Still the movie represents a fresh slice of horror which is something the well-traveled genre is always in need of. “In the Earth” premieres in theaters April 16th.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “I’m Your Woman” (2020)

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2020 was quite a year for Amazon Studios. Take a quick gander at their catalog and you’ll find star-driven features, sharp-minded indies, ambitious anthologies, and some insightful documentaries. They have showcased a diverse selection of films and filmmakers while opening doors for some exciting new voices. And while all of those things are true, for some people it’s as simple as this – they’ve made some really entertaining movies. Now you can add “I’m Your Woman” to that list.

The movie is directed by Julia Hart who also co-wrote the script with her husband and co-producer Jordon Horowitz. The two are the minds behind 2018’s “Fast Color”, a wonderfully moving superhero drama that never quite got the audience it deserved. “I’m Your Woman” is a much different movie. It’s a neo-noir crime thriller that happens to have a lot to say about motherhood and carving out your own identity.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Rachel Brosnahan of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” fame stars as Jean, a young wife living a comfortable life in the late 1970’s thanks to her husband Eddie (Bill Heck). He’s a small-time hood who keeps his activities to himself and Jean is content to ask no questions. In fact Eddie keeps his business so secretive that Jean is stunned when he suddenly brings home an infant baby. The couple has wanted children, but Jean hasn’t been able to get pregnant and they can’t adopt due to Eddie’s record. Yet a few minutes into the movie Jean finds herself a new mom.

But things take a dramatic turn when Jean is awoken in the middle of the night and informed that Eddie’s latest job went south and some really bad people are not only looking for him but for her. Eddie has went into hiding but one of his associates named Cal (Arinzé Kene) is tasked with getting Jean and her baby to safety. From there the story makes several stops and introduces several new people. None of them really want to tell Jean (or us) anything so she spends a lot of time in the dark wondering who to trust. Eventually she learns Eddie wasn’t so small-time and it’s ultimately up to her to save herself and most importantly her child. And she’ll have to parse friend from foe in the process.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The film moves along at an interesting but unusual pace. There are scenes of high tension and suspense especially in the moments when Eddie’s rivals close in on Jean. But then you’ll get quieter scenes showing Jean struggling with the responsibilities of motherhood but learning from different people she encounters. One of the most intriguing of the supporting characters is Carl’s wife Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), a tough-minded woman who is well versed in the life of a criminal’s wife. Like everyone else she has her secrets, but she also inspires Jean to toughen up and be ready for what’s to come.

Of course what’s coming is a violent final act where all of the consequences of Eddie’s actions come back to bite Jean. As someone who hasn’t seen “Mrs. Maisel” the performance from Brosnahan is an eye-opener. In addition we get strong supporting work, a good 70’s throwback vibe, and a surprisingly gritty finish. It can be a bit maddening waiting for the supporting characters to finally reveal to Jean what we already know, but it all adds up to a fun and satisfying female-led noir. “I’m Your Woman” is now streaming on Prime Video.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “I Care A Lot” (2021)

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Rosamund Pike once again taps into her dark side for her latest film “I Care A Lot”, a snidely titled drama written and directed by J Blakeson. The film had its world premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival with its US distribution rights grabbed by Netflix. The film sees Pike stepping into the skin of a delightfully caustic character so unashamedly ruthless and vile that it makes her Amy character from “Gone Girl” look like a Girl Scout.

I’ve been poor. It doesn’t agree with me.” That’s a telling introduction to Pike’s character Marla Grayson, but even it doesn’t come close to fully representing the depths of her depravity. Marla is a social racketeer who makes her living scamming elderly people out of their money. It works like this: She appears in court convincing naive judges to appoint her the ‘legal’ guardian of seniors who can no longer take care of themselves. She then shuts out potentially troublesome family members, takes control of the person’s finances, puts them in a nursing home, and then drains their bank accounts dry. To add another sickening layer, her court-sanctioned elder abuse comes with the help of unscrupulous doctors who point her towards vulnerable marks and crooked nursing home administrators who house her wards for profit.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

How’s that for detestable? And just think, she’s the movie’s protagonist! An impossible one to root for, but the protagonist nonetheless. She’s essentially a horrible person in a movie about horrible people. Still Marla is the toxic centerpiece, a ravenous predator with a devilish radiance who wields her blonde bob and illusive smile like a weapon. And what’s so unnerving is how unmoved she is by her actions; how she can sell her pack of lies to the court and never blink an eye. Pike’s Marla is cruel, perversely callous and with the help of her partner-in-crime and fellow leech Fran (Eiza Gonzalez), she manipulates her way through the system without a second of moral pause.

There are things about her hustle that doesn’t make sense, namely how she’s able to manage and pocket her victim’s assets once they’re put in a facility when in reality assets count against the patient and go towards their nursing home expenses until they run out. In real-life residents have to account for all of their assets from property to insurance policies with cash value before the state will pick up the cost. Then again maybe the movie is saying that in a system full of flaws who’s to say there aren’t holes big enough for snakes to crawl through?

Marla’s perfect scam is complicated when she hones in on a wealthy new target named Jennifer (played by a superb Dianne Wiest). She seems like the perfect score – nice house, never married, no family. What follows is one of the film’s best sequences as Blakeson shows Marla in action. She and Fran coldly and methodically execute their well-oiled racket, from scouting out their potential victim to broadsiding Jennifer with a court order. In a snap Jennifer goes from having tea and reading the newspaper in her dining room to being shown her new ‘home’ at a nearby senior facility as a “ward of the state”. Meanwhile Marla strips the house bare, sells off Jennifer’s possessions, and begins funneling the money into her own account.

But this time Marla missed a key detail in her pre-scheme investigation. It turns out Jennifer has a very unique connection to an underworld figure named Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage) and he doesn’t take kindly to Marla’s actions. First he tries to handle it the ‘clean’ way by sending his lawyer Dean Erickson (Chris Messina) to meet with Marla. In my favorite scene of the film the two cunningly spar over Jennifer’s release in a meeting full of insincere smiles and poorly veiled threats. Marla refuses to cave while demanding to know who Dean works for. Dean not-so-subtly warns her that not complying could have…”uncomfortable” consequences. It’s such a good scene.

I Care A Lot: Rosamund Pike as “Martha”. Photo Cr. Seacia Pavao / Netflix

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Blakeson introduces some good tension in the middle act as Marla tries to figure out who she’s up against while Roman begins utilizing his unsavory resources to free Jennifer. Unfortunately it all comes unglued in the final third where the story relies on a series of absurdities to get us to the finale. Wiest who is so good vanishes from the screen and Marla goes from a sinister manipulator of the system to a half-baked 00 Agent of sorts. In a flash I went from repulsed (in a good way) and utterly fascinated to laughing out loud at how unintentionally preposterous things had become. The very end has a satisfying kick, but the lead-up to it feels like it belongs in an entirely different movie.

“I Care A Lot” starts as a wickedly potent dive into elder abuse, unethical healthcare practices, and unfathomable greed all channeled through a character so morally bankrupt that you can’t help but be mesmerized by her every word and action. Pike’s brilliantly hellish lack of compassion is burned into every scene, at least in the film’s first half. But then it takes its turn into something far less interesting and much harder to buy. It unravels in a way that’s both baffling and frustrating, so much so that its solid ending can’t fully get the movie back on track. “I Care A Lot” premieres this Friday on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

SUNDANCE REVIEW: “I Was a Simple Man” (2021)

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Dying isn’t simple, is it?” It’s a question that echoes throughout the upcoming drama “I Was a Simple Man”. The film comes from writer-director Christopher Makoto Yogi and had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Through his film Yogi turns something personal into a uniquely ethereal look at mortality, repression, and reckoning with the sins of your past. But it’s the perspective that’s distinct. Yogi tells the bulk of his story through the mind of a dying man.

“I Was a Simple Man” was inspired by Yogi’s personal experiences of being in the room as his grandfather was dying. The filmmaker recalled his grandfather calling out to people from his past and seeing faces in the room who weren’t there. The film is Yogi’s attempt to not only process what he saw, but to visualize what his grandfather might have been going through.

Set in Hawaii and shot with undeniable heart and pride, the movie makes it a goal to authentically portray Hawaiian culture, blemishes and all. Rather than deal in rose-colored idealism, Yogi simply tells a universally human story that’s still very specific to the islander tradition and way of life. Cinematographer Eunsoo Cho’s camera ensures the island’s natural beauty is never lost on us. But it’s his still observational style, especially in the early scenes, that plants our feet in the culture. The film is a visual feast but also very grounded.

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The story revolves around an elderly man named Masao (a wonderfully reserved Steve Iwamoto). He lives alone, quietly going about his daily routine. Yet there is a sadness in his eyes, an emptiness linked to a rocky past scarred by loss and regret. He has a family, three kids to be exact, but he’s not close to them. Since the death of his wife Grace decades earlier, Masao has given in to his sorrow and has been content to just let his life play out. “I’m going to drink until I’m very old and eventually I’ll die.”

But now he has reached a different stage of his life. He’s found out he is sick and dying. “I’m not ready,” he tells a concerned neighbor as he begins looking back on the years behind him. But the illness quickly takes its toll and Masao begins seeing a ghost from his past, Grace (Constance Wu) in the same beautiful blue flowery dress from the last time he saw her. Bed-ridden and with little time left, Masao’s mind begins parsing through key moments from his life. We get snippets to when he was young (Kyle Kosaki plays teenage Masao) and first met Grace. The more potent flashbacks feature Tim Chiou as adult Masao in 1959. On the same day many in Hawaii celebrated statehood, Masao was burying his wife leading to his eventual disconnection.

At the same time the film is very much a family drama dealing with heavy themes of resentment, forgiveness, and the thorny ground of familial connections. Yogi uses Masao’s daughter Katie (Chanel Akiko Hirai) and his grandson Gavin (Kanoa Goo) to convey similar yet different family points-of-view. “How am I supposed to care for him when he didn’t care for us?”, an embittered Katie asks. Meanwhile Gavin is not only looking death in the face for the first time, but he’s wrestling with how he’s supposed to feel about a grandfather who has never wanted to be a part of his life.

The fact that “I Was a Simple Man” manages to successfully juggle all of these feelings and ideas is pretty impressive. It speaks to Yogi’s vision and his willingness to take risks in bringing that vision to the screen. The results are both haunting and elegant; beautiful to the eyes and soul. And while Yogi’s restraint can sometimes leave you longing for more emotion, his heartfelt attachment to the material and his culture is evident in every frame.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Informer” (2020)

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Predominantly filmed and funded in the UK, based on a Swedish crime novel, led by an Italian director and set in New York City. You could say “The Informer” is a movie full of international flavor. Even the cast it brings together fits the description. You have Joel Kinnaman (Swedish), Rosamund Pike and Clive Owen (both British), Common (American), and Ana de Armas (Cuban).

Despite its impressive assemblage of global talent, “The Informant” feels very much like a homemade Big Apple crime thriller. It plays in the same park as Scorsese’s “The Departed” and Affleck’s “The Town”, both of which were set in Boston but have the same gritty street-smart point-of-view. Director Andrea Di Stefano has his hands full managing the thick plot lines and numerous characters. But for the most part he pulls it off, only slipping a bit during the film’s entertaining yet hard-to-swallow finish.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

A steely, tattooed Joel Kinnaman plays Pete Kosolow, a Gulf War veteran with PTSD who was sentenced 20 years for killing a thug in a bar fight. Now he’s an FBI informant posing as a drug runner for a powerful underground Polish kingpin known as The Captain (Eugene Lipinski). It’s not Pete’s preferred line of work especially with a loving wife Sofia (Ana de Armas) and a beautiful young daughter Anna (Karma Meyer) at home. But working with the feds is the only thing keeping him out of prison.

Pete is told by his FBI handler Agent Wilcox (Rosamund Pike) that an upcoming fentanyl shipment could be his ticket out. But when the job goes bad and an undercover NYPD cop named Gomez (Arturo Castro) is killed, Pete finds himself as the scapegoat for the mob. They force him back behind bars where he is to oversee their prison drug distribution. Special Agent Montgomery (Clive Owen), Wilcox’s boss and head of the FBI’s New York City field office, refuses to pull Pete out and instead forces him to keep tabs on the Captain’s prison dealings. But once Pete’s usefulness runs out, both Montgomery and the mob cut his protection.

With Pete deemed expendable that means his family is too. And with the FBI wiping their hands clean, their only hope may be Common’s NYPD Detective Grens (Common) who’s plagued by guilt and determined to find out who killed Gomez. It’s the perfect role for Common who often has a hard time emoting anything other than super serious. His character becomes a meaningful yet underdeveloped piece of this densely layered narrative.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

The entire story is driven by Kinnaman whose stone-faced toughness is often given away by the anguish in his eyes. There are also these slight cracks of rage that hint at the more unstable side of his character. Kinnaman fits the part well. Most of the other performances are equally solid especially a well cast Clive Owen who once again reminds us that he’s really, really good regardless of the role.

“The Informer” nimbly plays within its gritty crime genre, maintaining a propulsive pace that keeps its audience on their toes. It all tangibly plays out within the moral malaise of underworld violence and crooked law enforcement. It’s not particularly original or groundbreaking and its ending essentially undermines all the effort put into selling the FBI’s deviously smart control. At the same time it packs its share of surprises and its attractive cast alone is enough to keep you engaged. “The Informer” opens November 6th on VOD.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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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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