REVIEW: “No Sudden Move” (2021)

Steven Soderbergh’s latest, the straight to HBO Max thriller “No Sudden Move”, sees the filmmaker once again doing his thing and carving his own eclectic path. This stylish crime noir sports a star-studded cast who all effortlessly fit and flow with Soderbergh’s cool and intoxicating rhythm. Honestly it’s hard to watch and not notice his fingerprints all over this thing. Of course it could be because Soderbergh not only directs but also shoots and edits the film himself. The result is something fun and unmistakably his. And to think just a few years ago he was announcing his retirement.

While watching “No Sudden Move” I instantly began thinking of the terrific and underrated “Devil in a Blue Dress”, one of my favorite Denzel Washington films. This movie puts off a lot of those same vibes with Soderbergh once again embracing his long-held love for shady characters in tough spots. Set amid the racial boil of 1954 Detroit, “No Sudden Move” captures both the idyllic facade and corrupt reality of that period. Soderbergh and screenwriter Ed Solomon immerse us in a time where black neighborhoods were being squeezed out in the name of “urban renewal” and ruthless auto companies would use any means necessary to get ahead of their competition.

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

It’s this simmering and shifting setting that Soderbergh and Solomon sit us down in. They fill it with low-level hoods, shifty middlemen, menacing gang leaders, and corporate shysters, all basking in the technicolor(ish) glow of amorality and self-interest. At the center is Curt Goynes (played with understated precision by a terrific Don Cheadle), an ex-con who has managed to tick off every crime boss he has worked for. Fresh out of prison and in need of money, he takes a job from a shifty fedora-wearing Brendan Fraser who works on behalf of a mysterious unknown party. It’s should be easy and good-paying work – $5000 with $3K up front for only three hours of work. No killing, no beat-downs, just “babysitting”. What could go wrong?

Curt is teamed with the antsy and ever-suspicious Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro) and the feisty take-charge Charley (Kieran Culkin). The job calls for them to break into the home of an accountant named Matt Wertz (played by a delightfully skittish David Harbour). Curt and Ron are tasked with staying at the home and keeping an eye on Matt’s family while Charley takes Matt to his firm to retrieve some secret documents from his boss’ safe. But as you might suspect, nothing in this story goes smoothly. The documents are missing. Someone is shot and killed. And soon miscreants galore are crawling out of the city’s underbelly with vested interests in this seemingly simple score.

Curt and Ron form a brittle alliance once they realize they’ve been set up, but the allure of more money keeps them from skipping town. If these documents have this many people’s interest surely they’re worth a lot of money. And if the unlikely duo can get their hands on the documents they can sell them to this highest bidder. Considering the heat from the underworld and the corporate world, it’s probably not the smartest play. So it’s no surprise when they find themselves at odds with some of the bigger fish in the pond, namely gangsters Frank Capelli (the stern and menacing Ray Liotta) and Aldrick Watkins (the quietly charismatic Bill Duke).

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Solomon’s script fully embraces the concept of dishonor among thieves. His story overflows with back-stabs, double-crosses, and an array of criminal hoodwinks. Soderbergh has a blast with it, giving the characters room to walk their own paths and dig their own holes. Visually he shoots from a wonderful assortment of perspectives and mostly through wide-angle lenses. When combined with the gorgeous lighting, the film looks both stylishly modern and like something plucked from a bygone era of filmmaking. Mix in the snazzy score from David Holmes and it’s hard not to feel like you’ve stepped into a time machine.

Will the performances are great throughout (especially from Cheadle who blew me away), a few characters are wafer-thin and scream for more attention. Jon Hamm plays a police detective who pops up here and there but with little impact (although he does appear in the two funniest scenes). Also Julia Fox (“Uncut Gems”) ends up with a pretty significant role to play but is barely visible through most of the movie. Still, it’s great to see so many quality talents filling out Soderbergh’s world and operating on his unique wavelength. It’s part of what makes all of his films (even his misfires) so fascinating to watch. “No Sudden Move” is now streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “New Order” (2021)

Certain to be dismissed by many on all sides of the class warfare/income inequality discussion, “New Order” is a movie that doesn’t blindly take sides and doesn’t let anyone off the hook. The film plays like a “what if” story warning the audience of what could happen rather than championing a specific point-of-view. Mexican director Michel Franco dares to critique societal breakdowns as they’re actually occurring across our present-day world which likely won’t sit well will those who are deeply committed to certain movements or social statuses.

This nasty and confrontational coup d’etat horror film paints a bleak and hopeless picture of our future society if we don’t start facing certain realities. In Franco’s movie no one benefits and no one wins. There are no heroes riding in on white horses to save the day. Once everything begins to fall apart it only gets darker and harder to watch. Franco pulls no punches, subjecting his audience to all kinds of stomach-churning horror yet creating the kind of tension that’s hard to turn away from.

Image Courtesy of NEON

“New Order” is a portrait of human depravity and the many wickedly oppressive forms it takes. It ends in a much different place than where it begins. Franco (who also wrote screenplay) starts his story at a posh upper-class wedding party in a wealthy Mexico City neighborhood. For nearly twenty minutes Franco’s camera moves around the party, setting the scene visually rather than spelling it out. By simple observation we meet numerous party-goers stylishly dressed and fully immersed in their privilege. Guests greet and exchange pleasantries as the mostly indigenous workers park cars and prepare the food.

The bride Marianne (an exceptional Naian González Norvind) is the closest we come to a lead character. Like everyone else at the party she comes from a family of wealth and is blissfully in love with her architect fiance Alan (Darío Yazbek Bernal). And just like everyone else at the party she seems completely impervious to what’s happening outside of their high society walls. But we see what differentiates Marianne from her family when a former employee named Rolando (Eligio Meléndez) comes by in desperate need of money for his wife’s heart valve replacement surgery. Mariannne’s parents and older brother Daniel (Diego Boneta) give him a little cash and then coldly brush him off. A frustrated Marianne presses her folks and her fiance but all she gets in return is “It’s your wedding day. Enjoy yourself.

Meanwhile only blocks away, the city is crumbling as protests over economic disparity are overtaken by angry mobs mostly driven by the influence of violent revolutionaries. I won’t spoil what happens, but the first of many shocking moments comes when armed members of the mob invade the wedding party. As looting and murder spreads, the revolutionaries begin taking prisoners from the wealthy districts and holding them for ransom. Meanwhile the military seizes their opportunity and uses the violent uprising to impose their own fascist order.

Needless to say the movie has numerous moving parts and mining Franco’s overall meaning can be difficult at first. “New Order” is an angry film but its ire isn’t aimed in any one single direction. Instead its goal is to viscerally explore the utter collapse of a society and the many elements that contribute to it. The film delves into the ugly side of human nature, exhibiting what happens when morality gives way to anger, rage, greed, or indifference. In Franco’s scenario no one is exonerated, whether it’s the impoverished lower-class who turn from protests to violence or the privileged wealthy who dismiss the plight of the poor with ease. We do get small glimmers of compassion from each side – Marianne from the 1%, Marta (Mónica Del Carmen) and her son Cristian (Fernando Cuautle) from the other. But you never get a sense that their kindness will be rewarded.

Image Courtesy of NEON

The sheer brutality of “New Order” is effective yet hard to watch. Torture, rape, mass executions – its all vividly portrayed. Even when Franco turns his camera rather than subject us to the savagery, the implications are still carved into our minds. And then there are instances where he simply goes too far, portraying horrifying cruelty that’s sure to have some of his audience checking out. Yet through it all there are clear signs of brilliant filmmaking, especially in Franco’s ability to develop and maintain an unsettling tension, often through the camera work of DP Yves Cape. I was glued to every frame despite being frustrated by some of the excesses.

I’m betting there are deeper meanings buried within “New Order” that Mexican audiences will pick up but that I missed. It’s that kind of movie – one that doesn’t allow for a single-minded reading and that’s open for a range of interpretations. If you can approach the film with an open mind (and a strong stomach), you’ll find a movie willing to confront the way many people think about things today. That doesn’t let it off the hook for occasionally crossing the line of taste. But it does result in a thought-provoking nail-biter that covers some of the same subjects as the Oscar-winning “Parasite” but from a much angrier and more cynical point-of-view. “New Order” is out now in select theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Nobody” (2021)

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Hutch Mansell is a mild-mannered everyday average Joe. His days are an endless cycle of monotony – get up, catch the bus, go to work, come back home, go to bed. The only real highlights of his week are his morning cups of coffee and missing the trash truck every Tuesday. Even his family seems lulled by his ordinariness. But as the press notes for the upcoming film “Nobody” strategically warns, “Sometimes the man you don’t notice is the most dangerous of all.”

The aptly named “Nobody” is a gritty action thriller with a heavy dose of black comedy. It comes from director Ilya Naishuller and screenwriter Derek Kolstad who penned the three “John Wick” movies and is currently attached to the MCU streaming series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”. In “Nobody” Emmy winner Bob Odenkirk plays the aforementioned Hutch, an overlooked and altogether unremarkable fellow stuck in a rut. I’ll be honest, Odenkirk together with the the writer of the “John Wick” movies didn’t sound like the most convincing pairing. But the 58-year-old “Better Call Saul” star proved me wrong, especially in the film’s wacky and corpse-filled second half.

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Image Courtesy of Universal Studios

Hutch is someone you would barely even notice; a guy who would walk by and never catch your eye. Even at home his wife Becca (Connie Nielsen) seems to have lost interest in him. Then you have his teen son Blake (Gage Munroe) who looks at his humdrum father with indifference and poorly-hidden shame. The only warmth Hutch feels is from the idolizing glow of his adorable young daughter Abby (Paisley Cadorath). When she looks at her daddy she sees safety and security. She sees her hero.

Things at home get worse after two robbers break into their suburban house in the middle of the night. Hutch passes on the chance to club the thug holding a gun on Blake leading to his son getting punched in the face and the robbers fleeing. This strains their relationship even more and pushes Hutch closer to the brink. But not in the Michael Douglas “Falling Down” sense. Hutch isn’t having a mental breakdown and he’s certainly not insane. He simply has a “dormant” side that’s suddenly itching to come out.

I won’t spoil things but let’s just say we are introduced to that “dormant” side during a ferocious bus sequence that should instantly be front-runner for fight scene of the year. And just like that we’re thrust into an underworld where titles like “the Barber” and “Auditor” are the norm. We’re introduced to the film’s antagonist, a Russian drug kingpin named Yulian Kuznetsov (Aleksei Serebryakov), “a connected and funded sociopath” and babysitter for the “Obschak”. In gangland terms he manages and guards the Russian mob’s 401(k). And of course he has a slew of disposable henchmen, all dressed in black and armed to the teeth.

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Image Courtesy of Universal Studios

If you’re thinking all of that sounds pretty familiar you wouldn’t be wrong. We’ve seen variations of this story before. But several things make “Nobody” stand out. Tops on the list is Odenkirk who nails every shift and turn in his character (and there are several of them). He’s convincingly physical, funny, and even feral when things intensify. The movie also shows off a deliciously wicked and frankly wacky sense of humor. Whether it’s a perfectly timed line of dialogue, the hysterically over-the-top nature of some of the action, or the hilariously on-the-nose music choices from Louis Armstrong, Andy Williams, and the like. And then you have the great supporting cast. Connie Nielsen is always good so it’s no surprise she is here too. We also get a small but wildly entertaining role for Christopher Lloyd playing Hutch’s elderly father Harry. There’s even Michael Ironside, a face (and great voice) that I haven’t seen around in a while.

As “Nobody” propels forward the violence gets crazier and the body count mounts. Yet the movie never loses its self-awareness. Naishuller has a field day playing around with action genre norms and together with DP Pawel Pogorzelski puts together a number of thrilling sequences that are stylish and visually coherent (an often underestimated plus). And while it certainly has it’s fun, there is a nastiness to “Nobody” that might catch some folks off-guard. But that’s another part of what makes it such a rip-roaring ride. “Nobody” opens in theaters March 26th.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Night” (2021)

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Iranian-American director Kourosh Ahari delivers a striking feature film debut with “The Night”, a cerebral slice of psychological horror that impresses as much with its style as it does with its ability to get under your skin. Set within the creepy confines of an old history-rich hotel, “The Night” does what so many other good horror movies tend to do – explore some engaging themes while keeping you thoroughly glued to the edge of your seat.

Babak (Shahab Hosseini, so good in the Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 Oscar winner “A Separation”) and his wife Neda (Niousha Jafarian) are a Los Angeles couple with a strained marriage. Despite sharing a beautiful infant daughter, there is a visible tension between them from the film’s earliest moments. Ahari and co-writer Milad Jarmooz don’t immediately tell us why. Instead they want their audience to listen, to follow their cleverly cryptic trail of clues, and to piece it all together ourselves. Oh, and they’re more than happy to send chills up our spines in the process.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Following a get-together at his brother’s house, Babak passes on an invitation to stay the night and decides to drive his family home. Never mind that he had a few drinks and shared a joint. After their GPS goes bonkers sending them driving in circles for an hour, a fed-up Neda demands they stop and find a hotel for the night. Their choice is the nearby Hotel Normandie (an actual hotel in LA), not quite Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel or Hitchcock’s Victorian Gothic Bates home, but with a similar eerie presence.

They’re greeted by veteran character actor George Maguire playing the nameless yet delightfully creepy night clerk working the front desk. Despite seeming completely vacant, the receptionist sets the family up on the top floor, room 414 to be exact. Worn out and equally tired of each other, Babak and Neda aren’t even settled in before they start hearing noises – giggles in hallway, the patter of running footsteps from above, and soon loud bangs on their door. First they think it’s someone harassing them. But as the night goes on Ahari shows that there’s something far more sinister than a pack of pesky kids.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

The movie’s psychological edge really kicks in during the second half as Ahari gets us questioning what’s real and what’s a hallucination. A reappearing black cat, some unusual matching tattoos, a child’s voice softly calling “mommy” – just some the unnerving trickery to keep us guessing. At the same time DP Maz Makhani ratchets up the dread by using his camera to make the hotel a character. He slowly and methodically moves the audience from room to room, acquainting us with every shadowy corner and long spooky hallway. It’s visually striking and a key reason the movie works so well.

With a touch of Kubrickian flavor, “The Night” soon has its characters grappling with what’s inside of them as much as what’s inside the hotel. It’s here that the film’s themes slyly come into focus as does the richness of the story beyond the scares. Ahari uses every inch of his setting to immerse his audience and his characters in an atmosphere-rich environment and unloads in a final act full of chilling imagery and a steady feel of unease. “The Night” is streaming now on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “No Man’s Land” (2021)

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Brothers Conor and Jake Allyn grew up Dallas, Texas and made frequent trips across the southern border into Mexico with their father. The many visits opened their eyes to a much different side of Mexico and ultimately helped inspire their new film “No Man’s Land”. This modern-day western uses a reverse migration story of sorts to explore the human element at the center of the border crisis, bypassing the politics and looking straight at the people. It may not have the most clear-eyed vision, but it’s heart is definitely in the right place.

“No Man’s Land” was shot in Mexico over the course of 28 days with a predominantly Mexican cast and crew. Conor directs the film with Jake starring and co-writing with Mexican co-screenwriter and executive producer David Barraza. The title is a reference to a gap between the Rio Grande River and the border fence further north. That space in between is commonly referred to as No Man’s Land for migrants attempting to slip into the United States.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Bill and Monica Greer (Frank Grillo and Andie MacDowell, both really good and underused) own a ranch near the Texas/Mexico border. They work it with their two boys Lucas (Alex MacNicoll) and Jackson (Jake Allyn). The youngest of the two, Jackson has a promising baseball career ahead with the New York Yankees already showing interest. In addition to managing cattle and horses, the Greer’s are increasingly forced to fend off migrants who are crossing their property and getting into their barns looking for food and water.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Rio Grande a widowed father named Gustavo (Jorge A. Jiménez) works as a coyote for the church, helping people intent on crossing the border by providing a way other than through the cartels. Known as “the Shepherd” by the many people he has helped, Gustavo is ready to leave that dangerous life behind. He sets out on a final crossing, this time bringing his mother and two sons, with plans to stay in America to start a better life for his boys.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

The film sets up its pieces nicely and there is an ominous air of tragedy hanging over these early scenes. It inevitably comes in the dark of night as Gustavo and his family are passing through the Greer family’s property. There’s a confrontation and amid the chaos Jackson panics and fatally shoots Gustavo’s youngest boy. The migrants escape into the night while Bill works up a story to protect his son. But Texas Ranger Ramirez (George Lopez) doesn’t buy what they’re selling. Overcome by guilt, Jackson flees across the river into Mexico, avoiding arrest and hoping to find a way to make things right.

It’s here that “No Man’s Land” reshapes into a much different movie as Jackson becomes the migrant in a foreign country relying on the kindness of locals to survive. The underlying meaning behind the role-reversal is pretty obvious and the movie definitely has some meaningful points it wants to make. Thankfully it does so without standing behind a bullhorn or a pulpit. There’s also a “Fugitive” element to the story as Jackson is pursued by the determined Texas Ranger, the Mexican federales and a grief-stricken father thirsty for revenge.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

There is one character the movie could have done without. Andrés Delgado plays a young hoodlum named Luis whose tattoos, bleached mohawk and switchblade knife shows he’s bad news. Delgado does the best he can, but his character is trapped in that irredeemable ‘bad guy’ void. And he ends up being a loose string that is unfortunately tied up at the worst possible time. I’m keeping it vague due to spoilers, but the character takes away from the story far more than he adds to it.

Still, there’s much to admire about this well-meaning indie. It’s made by a diverse group (both in front of and behind the camera) who set out to emphasize our similarities with our southern neighbors while still acknowledging our differences. The story plows worthwhile themes of guilt, regret, forgiveness, and accepting the consequences for your actions. And it looks great thanks to cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez and production designer Liz Medrana. It has some rough patches and it tries to cover too much ground. But the Allyn brothers tell their story with heart and conviction, and it’s hard not to appreciate their ambition. “No Man’s Land” premieres January 22nd on VOD.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “News of the World” (2020)

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In the crazy world of cinema a seasoned actor or actress can sometimes find themselves inextricably bound to their big screen personas. In other words they can build such a reputation through their characters that they create a very specific appeal that audiences gravitate towards. Tom Hanks is one such actor. The latter half of his career has seen Hanks turn decency into a signature as he consistently turns in one sturdy good-guy role after another.

Some actors have bucked their on-screen image to great effect. Look no further than Henry Fonda in Sergio Leone’s classic “Once Upon a Time in the West”. Shocked audiences didn’t see the blue-eyed big screen nice guy they were accustomed to. Instead they saw Fonda playing a menacing cold-blooded killer. But for Hanks it has become a genuine asset – a dependable hallmark that he has used to bring to life an assortment of memorable and endearing characters. This has never been more true than in his latest film “News of the World”.

The film sees Hanks reteaming with director Paul Greengrass. The two previously worked together on 2013’s Oscar-nominated “Captain Phillips”. Instead of the high seas this time they head to the Old West some five years after the end of the Civil War. Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Confederate war veteran who now travels from town to town sharing news stories from around the world. Captain Kidd is a bit of a lost soul, haunted by demons from his past and burdened by feelings of guilt and regret. Constantly moving keeps his pain on his heels and reading the stories of others keeps him from dwelling on his own. Interestingly his melancholy and sorrow isn’t obvious right away. Kidd hides it well, but Hanks’ sad, world-weary eyes speaks volumes.

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Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

After an evening reading in Wichita Falls, Texas the Captain heads out for his next destination, coming across a wagon wreckage along the way. Among it he finds the body of a black soldier lynched by racist locals as a message to anyone who dares to challenge their pungent ideologies. He also finds a fair-skinned blonde-haired little girl, distraught and speaking no English (she’s played by the dazzling German actress Helena Zengel). The Captain discovers her paperwork and learns her name is Johanna and that the soldier was transporting her south to her Aunt and Uncle in Castroville. The papers say she was kidnapped as a child and raised by the same Kiowa tribe who killed her immigrant birth parents and sister. But now she’s twice orphaned and has fallen through the crack separating two very different cultures.

Kidd refuses to leave the girl behind, and after getting the runaround at an army outpost in Dallas he commits to taking her to Castroville himself. So the two unlikely companions set out on a 400-mile trek across a lawless Reconstruction-era Texas, crossing paths with an assortment of unsavory types. Greengrass uses their journey as a means to develop a touching human bond. But he also uses it to explore the complex anatomy of a turbulent America; one in the throes of some ugly and often violent growing pains. All while making some keen observations about our country’s modern day complexion.

It becomes evident over time that both Captain and Johanna are meant to represent a wounded and fractured nation. But there are so many more layers to their individual characters and their uncommon relationship. The script (written by Greengrass and Luke Davies and adapted from a 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles) portrays both as tragic figures, each alone in a hard and unforgiving world. Yet their attachment grows with each ugly encounter and dangerous hardship (and there are several).

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Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

One comes when they cross paths with a thug (Michael Angelo Covino) who offers to “buy” Johanna. He doesn’t take kindly to being told “no” which leads to the film’s action high mark – a thrilling and brilliantly devised shootout set on a jagged rocky hillside. Another is when they cross into a county ran by an oppressive and bigoted gang leader named Farley (a convincingly vile Thomas Francis Murphy). A tension-soaked sequence follows that speaks to our current issue of truth versus propaganda. Thankfully there are some helpful hands along the way and they’re nicely played by some wonderful familiar faces including Ray McKinnon and Elizabeth Marvel.

“News of the World” simmers with current day relevancy, but it very much looks and feels like a classic Hollywood Western in large part thanks to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. Perhaps best known for his collaborations with Ridley Scott, Wolski brings a painterly beauty to the sparse rugged territory and some of his images would feel right at home in a John Ford picture. And whether his camera is in a cramped dimly lit room full of news-hungry townsfolk or gazing over a sprawling countryside without a person in sight, his compositions crackle with life and sharp period detail.

It’s hard to believe that this is the first Western Tom Hanks has ever made. He’s such a natural fit especially at this stage of his career. But what a wonderful time for him to jump into the genre and what a great film for him to call his first. In addition to being wonderfully made and exceptionally well acted, “News of the World” is such a timely movie. Its like a soothing balm that comes at the end of a year that’s been full of division, strife, and distrust. Yet here we have a movie about the simple value of showing compassion and doing the right thing. A tender and heartfelt story about finding peace in the most unexpected of places. Yes the film prompted me to ponder our society both past and present. But it also left me with my heart full, which is feeling I welcome after a year like 2020. “News of the World” opens Christmas Day only in theaters.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars