REVIEW: “1917”

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One of my biggest frustrations of the 2019 movie year was the very “limited” release of the World War I war epic “1917”. It was the only movie I wasn’t able to see before end of the year deadlines. It wouldn’t be a big deal except for the rave reviews from the handfuls who have seen it and more recently it’s surprising Best Picture win at this year’s Golden Globes.

“1917” finally gets its full release and I can begrudgingly say it was worth the wait. As happens too often these days, a small yet unfortunate group of detractors and dismissers have suddenly popped up mainly as a reaction to the film’s win at the Globes. But tossing out the “my favorite movie or nothing” approach, “1917” is a truly riveting experience and an exhilarating reminder of the value of the big screen experience.

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© 2019 Universal Pictures All Rights Reserved

The story opens with Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) in a field napping under a shade tree. Enjoy the moment because it’s the last time director Sam Mendes allows us the chance to relax. The two young men are ordered to get up and report to General Erinmore (Colin Firth) for a dangerous mission of vital importance. And just like that, this tense white-knuckled war thriller is off and running.

Their mission itself is the film’s story. After heavy fighting on the French countryside the Germans suddenly retreat prompting the British military brass to send the 2nd Battalion to prepare for a final offensive. But it’s actually a trap set by the Germans who are waiting to ambush the 2nd. With communication lines down Schofield and Blake are ordered to cross enemy lines and get a message to the 2nd calling off the attack. If they fail their mission 1,600 soldiers will be massacred, Blake’s older brother among them.

Visually the film is built upon the illusion of one long continuous shot. In actuality the entire movie is made up of a series of long takes broken up by several cleverly hidden cuts. Arguably the best cinematographer in the business, Roger Deakins shoots each extended sequence with the graceful fluidity of a ballet. His camera is always in motion, dancing with the evocative Thomas Newman score, capturing the main characters and their movements from a variety of angles and perspectives. It’s filmmaking so exquisite that there were times when I found myself admiring it more than the story.

Mendes’ script (co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns and inspired by a story told to him by his grandfather) takes the two protagonists across a variety of hellish, war-torn landscapes: muddy battlefields full of decaying corpses, rat infested trenches, a bombed-out hull of a town where a handful of frightened German soldiers have been left behind. Booby traps, stretches of tangled barbed wire, sniper fire, a crashing biplane – it’s all experienced in real-time (sort of) and each new danger brings out yet another layer of humanity.

 

With astonishing clarity “1917” captures the ugliness of war in all of its savage, blood-soaked horror. There is no flash, no glorification, no romanticizing. Yes, it features staggering set pieces and truly amazing visual craftsmanship, but you could say this film is much like Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” in its anti-war sentiment. It not only documents the devastation and tragedy but it expresses the futility and vanity of war with a strategic subtlety.

 

With “1917” Sam Mendes takes his audience on a perilous journey driven by a simple but tightly-wound story soaked in an unending tension. It’s a harrowing tale of heroism, friendship, and sacrifice. At the same time, the film’s remarkable technical achievement can’t be overstated and it’s essential in making “1917” a truly breathless cinematic experience.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Night Hunter” (2019)

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From the very start of writer-director David Raymond’s psychological crime thriller “Night Hunter” you feel like you’re in familiar territory. From the opening scene until the end of its cookie-cutter mystery, there’s nothing about the movie that comes across as original. Yet still this by-the-book thriller manages to be moderately entertaining and disappointing at the same time.

Henry Cavill leads a cast plump with recognizable names. He plays the growling, scowling Walter Marshall, a detective with the Minneapolis police force. After the body of a young women is discovered Marshall deduces she was in fact fleeing a captor. The case goes cold until the police cross paths with a vigilante former judge named Michael Cooper (Ben Kingsley) and his potty-mouthed teenage partner Lara (Eliana Jones). These two lure in sexual predators and then quite literally…fix them. I’m not making this up.

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The lone slice of uniqueness comes when the girl’s killer is apprehended early into the movie. He turns out to be a schizophrenic serial rapist who goes by the name of Simon (played by scene-munching Brendan Fletcher). There’s an internal tension about how they should approach Simon. A rookie psychological profiler (Alexandra Daddario) believes they need to be patient and get into his head. Walter believes Simon is faking and stringing them along as part of his game. There’s enough there for an interesting internal storyline but unfortunately it doesn’t go very far.

Needless to say we do get a big twist/reveal which is as ridiculous as it is predictable. It steers the movie in a weird direction where we watch it borrow from even more serial killer thrillers that came before it. Still, there would have been enough within the story’s concept to be entertaining if the characters were the slightest bit interesting.

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Cavill leads the way and all he is asked to do is brood and be as dour as possible. Daddario is given one lone scene to show some independent thought (and it’s really bizarre). Otherwise she’s stuck as a tag-along character void of any real agency. Oh, we also get Stanley Tucci and Nathan Fillion but neither are given anything to do.

The film’s icy setting and intriguing cast work in its favor but that’s about it. It has an interesting idea which it toys with but never explores. Instead “Night Hunter” embraces things other movies have done better making it come across as unoriginal and predictable. It’s such a shame and an unfortunate waste of some pretty good potential.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Nancy” (2018)

 

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The 2019 Independent Spirit Awards are just around the corner and when perusing their list of nominees I came across “Nancy”. The film received two nominations, J. Smith-Cameron for Supporting Actress and Christina Choe for Best First Screenplay. After a little digging I found myself really intrigued by the movie’s premise.

Choe also directs this tightly paced drama that first premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. The story is a bit slippery and requires a steady hand and precise tone management. It could have easily careened into overcooked melodrama or downright absurdity. But Choe does a truly impressive balancing act, keeping everything together and under control. It all amounts to one knock-out debut.

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Andrea Riseborough stars as the title character Nancy. She’s a young woman in her thirties who splits time working as a temp at a dentist office and caring for her overbearing mother (Ann Dowd) who has Parkinsons. In between she writes short stories and invents online personas as a way of connecting with other people. It’s the latter that she sometimes takes to far. Like ‘catfishing’ a desperate and grieving father (played by a very good John Leguizamo).

This is perfect material for Riseborough, a crafty shapeshifter of an actress who has shown a knack for transformative performances. Her Nancy is pale and disheveled, looking at the world through an ever-present vacant stare. It’s a melancholic portrayal which makes her character a tough one to read. This proves to be a big asset for the narrative especially in the film’s second half.

Mere days after her mother dies, Nancy sees a news report recounting the disappearance of a young girl named Brooke some 35 years prior. The report reveals an image of what Brooke would look like now and the resemblance to Nancy is uncanny. Seeing this, Nancy believes she may be the long-lost Brooke. Or does she? We’re given several reasons to question Nancy’s motivations, yet at the same time she always has our sympathy.

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Nancy contacts Brooke’s parents, a tender-hearted intellectual couple who immediately arrange to meet. The mother Ellen (a terrific J. Smith-Cameron) desperately wants to believe she has been reunited with her daughter. Leo, the kind but reasonably cautious father (played by Steve Buscemi), wants to be sure and hires a private investigator to conduct a DNA test.

The dueling tensions of the film are quite fascinating. First, does Nancy truly believe she is Brooke? Second, what will the DNA test results reveal? Those questions stick in the backs of our minds as we try to sort out who gets our empathy. Is it Nancy, Brooke’s parents, maybe both? Choe does a masterful job of keeping us guessing.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Night of the Living Dead”

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In a 2017 discussion of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” film critic Josh Larsen offered some food for thought: can a modern film fan watch this horror classic for the first time and have the same reaction as moviegoers did during its original 1968 release? This has been such an intriguing question to me.

As contemporary viewers we have had the zombie sub-genre clearly defined for us. We know what they are, how to kill them, and we certainly know not to get bitten. The very concept of a zombie no longer carries any shock value. But imagine in 1968. Sure, the idea of the reanimated dead had been around, but the concept of a zombie as explored by horror legend George Romero in “The Night of the Living Dead” was both shocking and terrifying.

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I’m certainly not old enough to have seen it during its original release but my first experience with “The Night of the Living Dead” was similar. It was in the early 80’s during the first wave of VCR rentals. I’m guessing I was around 13 years-old. At that time there was no zombie sub-genre. Zombies had not become the staple of pop culture that they are now. For me they were a new experience – an utterly frightening one that I still remember to this day. Perhaps that is why this is still my favorite horror movie ever made.

Romero’s chilling vision is made even more spectacular when considering his miniscule budget of around $114,000. The budget restraints not only shaped the production but also the story itself. Romero and company knew they couldn’t spread their shoot to multiple locations. Instead his story brought the horror to one place – a remote Pennsylvania farmhouse. This serves as the central hub for the conflicts to come from both inside and outside the walls.

The group of people barricaded inside the farmhouse have no idea what is happening. Much like his characters, Romero leaves the audience in the dark, only feeding us tiny morsels of information as the story progresses. Imagine it through the eyes of a 1968 moviegoer who has no preconceived notions of zombies or their mythology. They can only guess along with the characters who testify to what they have seen with their own eyes and take guesses as to the cause.

One of the most effective means of information (for both us and the characters) comes from a television found upstairs. The group of six watch attentively as emergency newscasts sift through reports and interview ‘experts’ in an attempt at relaying information to the audience. There is also an eerie effectiveness to it as the television plays in the background.

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While the zombie threat gathers outside of the house the dynamic inside grows equally tense. Romero’s assortment of compelling characters add an extra layer of drama to the story. It starts with the star Duane Jones who plays Ben. He serves as the backbone, the brains, and in many ways the moral compass of the film. But what is most significant is Romero’s casting of Jones, an African-American, for such a heroic and assertive role.

Film historians and critics have found all sorts of ways to interpret “Night of the Living Dead”. They’ve seen it as representing the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, even a critique of capitalism. For me it works best as ground-breaking horror movie that laid a foundation for a sub-genre that is still being built upon today. And each glorious 35mm black-and-white frame represented a bold new step for independent filmmaking and for horror movies in general. It is an undeniable classic.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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5star

REVIEW: “The Nun”

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“The Nun” marks the fifth film in the Conjuring ‘universe’ and the third backstory spin-off. “The Conjuring” and its direct sequel remain two of my favorite horror films of the last several years. The first spin-off was the dull mess-of-a-movie “Annabelle”. The prequel to “Annabelle” was a good step in the right direction.

That brings us back to “The Nun”, an installment with clear connections to the franchise that are actually cooler and more clever than the movie itself. What do I mean by that? The film’s links to “The Conjuring 2” are surprising and clever. But as a movie, “The Nun” fails to make the most of those connections. And despite putting some interesting pieces into place, it ends up suffering due to unremarkable storytelling that consistently milks the same handful of horror tricks.

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Things start out promising. In 1952 at a remote mountain abbey in Romania a nun hangs herself. The Vatican gets word of the tragedy and sends a tortured priest (Demián Bichir) who specializes in ‘miracle hunting’ to investigate. He is accompanied by a young novitiate (Taissa Farmiga in a nifty bit of casting). The two are guided to the abbey by the French farmer (Jonas Bloquet) who discovered the nun’s body. As you can probably guess they discover a devilish presence in the black heart of the abbey. It’s Valak, the demon nun introduced in “The Conjuring 2”.

The film is directed by relative newcomer Corin Hardy and written by Gary Dauberman, writer of the previous two “Annabelle” pictures. They have no problem developing their haunting setting and creating a ton of atmosphere. The gothic abbey with its long stone hallways, deep shadowy corners, and overactive fog machine offers up a spooky old-fashioned horror environment.

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But then you get to the storytelling which slowly sucks out the film’s potential. There is an unnerving story here but it is never allowed to play out. Instead we get most of it through clumsy dumps of exposition. Also, the film doesn’t lean on the Valak character as much as it should. She/It isn’t really let loose until the final 15 minutes which is a little too late. Instead the bulk of the scares are tried-and-not-so-true horror gadgetry that we’ve seen many times before. And how many times can you show a shadowy silhouette of a nun doing creepy things in the background before it loses its effect?

So “The Nun” qualifies as a dissapointment for a couple of reasons. First, I’m a fan of James Wan’s unorthodox horror universe but this film doesn’t offer a particularly good new installment. Second, because the pieces are here for a fun classic-styled horror picture but the filmmakers never put those pieces together in a satisfying way. The story ideas, the cool connections to the main Conjuring films, and a genuinely frightening antagonist should have been enough for a good franchise entry.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “1922”

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“I believe there’s another man inside every man – a stranger, a conniving man”. This early line of dialogue in Zak Hilditch’s “1922” sets the table for this simmering psychological horror-thriller. It taps into the mentality of the film’s fascinating lead character and lays the parameters for the mental chaos that follows.

You could call 2017 the year of the Stephen King adaptations. “It” stands as one of the top grossing movies of the year. “The Dark Tower” not so much. Then came the Netflix originals – “Gerald’s Game” and now “1922” which is based on 117 page short story published by King in 2010.

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The story begins with a grizzled man writing what he calls his confession. The man’s name is Wilfred James (played by Thomas Jane in an eye-opening performance). He is a farmer from Hemingford Home, Nebraska and as he writes it becomes clear he is mentally frail and devoured by guilt. The bulk of the story is framed by his confession which takes us back via flashback to the events which led to his current state.

 

Wilfred’s farm consists of 80 acres passed down to him by his family. (In one very telling line he writes “In 1922 a man’s pride was his land”). His wife Arlette (Molly Parker) owns 100 acres of adjacent land willed to her by her father. She’s grown dissatisfied with farm life and wants Wilfred to sell their land and move to Omaha where she can pursue her dream of opening a big city dress shop. The tension between their perspectives becomes obvious and their teenaged son Henry (Dylan Schmid) finds himself caught in the middle.

“The conniving man” within Wilfred devises a plan to kill Arlette and manipulates Henry into helping by exploiting his son’s affections for a neighbor’s young daughter. In Wilfred’s mind he can cover every angle to keep his crime hidden. In another revealing line he writes “In those days a man’s wife was a man’s business”. But Wilfred can’t perceive every consequence of his actions much less how they will effect both him and Henry. And he certainly doesn’t anticipate the weight of guilt that pushes him closer to his breaking point.

Hilditch’s direction is a wonderful compliment to King’s biggest storytelling strengths – developing slow-burning tension and eerie, uneasy moods. “1922” leans heavily on atmosphere which is captured through Ben Richardson’s crafty camera and Mike Patton’s haunting score. Hilditch shrewdly utilizes both to suck us into this twisted nightmare of Wilfred’s own making.

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But the biggest strength of the film lies in Thomas Jane’s standout performance. His stunning portrayal seems yanked right out of early 20th century middle America. Jane’s weathered, tanned face reveals a man who works the earth. But several other touches help give this character life. It could be something as simply as a squint of his eye or a draw of his mouth. It’s seen in his handling of small town period vernacular and his distinctive enunciations. It’s mesmerizing work that shouldn’t go unseen.

“1922” is a movie that gets under your skin. It maintains a menacing vibe from start to finish without ever relying on overused gimmicks or formulas. It may be a tad too slow for some, but its steady sense of discomfort and dread had me hooked. And then you have Jane who loses himself in the lead role and delivers a transformative authenticity that results in a character who is both disturbing and spellbinding. He’s very good as is this movie which nicely blends classic King with a nice touch of Hitchcock. That’s a really good recipe.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars