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

REVIEW: “Nomadland” (2020)

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With only three feature films under her belt, Chloé Zhao has already proven herself to be an essential filmmaker of our time. Her first two films “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider” were both honest and heartfelt blends of real life and fiction that focused on people living on the fringes of modern society. Her latest “Nomadland” is cut from the same deeply human cloth and the three films together play like a slice-of-life trilogy set in the American West.

“Nomadland” has been a hit on the festival circuit since premiering in September, taking home top honors in both Venice and Toronto. The film is based on the nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder which explores the lives of Americans travelling from place to place doing seasonal work while living out of their vans and RVs. Zhao (who serves as writer, director, and editor) doesn’t set out to adapt the book as much as capture the spirit of these free-wandering van-dwellers.

In true immersive nomadic fashion Zhao, her star Frances McDormand, and many from the crew lived out of vans for much of the four month shoot. And as with her previous works Zhao populates her film with real people playing versions of themselves. It’s a Bressonian touch that strips away any artifice or bravura for the sake of raw, unvarnished authenticity. And what better professional actress to meld into that deep-rooted setting than McDormand. This is easily the Oscar winner’s most subtle and unmannered performance, brilliantly coating her character in these unique real-world sensibilities.

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Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

McDormand plays Fern, a widow in her early 60’s originally from Empire, Nevada who lost what what seemed like a happy life. Following her husband’s death Empire’s lifeblood, a gypsum plant, closed and the town itself soon followed. People were forced to move away in search of work and within six months the town’s zip code had been eliminated. It’s a vivid reality that may be lost on some but will be painfully real for many in small-town rural America.

Now Fern lives an itinerant life, looking for work and living out of her customized van which she has affectionately named Vanguard. At first you get the sense that Fern isn’t looking to be a nomad. It’s a matter of necessity. She doesn’t consider herself homeless. “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless,” she explains to a former pupil. “Not the same thing, right?” Over time, especially after befriending new people along her journey, the alone and quietly mourning Fern begins to embrace the life of a wanderer, seeing it as the one place someone like her can carve out an existence.

Through Zhao’s neo-realist lens, Fern’s journey is realized with aching detail, moving along with a near lyrical style that makes the mundane and routine flow with narrative and emotional meaning. Whether she’s working at an Amazon fulfillment center during their Christmas rush, cleaning bathrooms at an RV park, or watching a Nevada sunset from a lawn chair. Seemingly simple things matter and when threaded together by Zhao’s mesmerizing storytelling, it’s hard not to be moved.

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Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

And the people Fern meets along the way are just as important. The story features several real-life nomads – nonprofessional actors who are as essential to the film’s setting as any location. Salt-of-the-Earth people who bring their unconventional lifestyles into focus. Linda May and Swankie are two friends and mentors who take Fern under their wings while Bob runs Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a traveling training and support group for van-dwellers. The lone seasoned actor she meets is the always reliable David Strathairn. He plays a fellow nomad who takes a liking to Fern. But while her wandering journey is just beginning, his appears to be approaching its end.

Zhao’s careful casting means so much to the story, but the visual language is equally vital. It’s easy to get lost in cinematographer Joshua James Richards stunning gaze. Whether he’s capturing a picturesque ocean sunset or a vast arid valley lined with snow-capped mountains. It’s the same for the deeply humanizing ways he frames the characters. When brought together through Zhao’s Oscar-worthy editing, it’s like postcards of America’s natural beauty built around a story of grief, introspection, and self-discovery. Then add in the soul-stirring score by Ludovico Einaudi whose mix of piano chords and strings are as evocative as they are lovely. It’s easily one of my favorite scores of the year.

From a Nevada desert through the South Dakota Badlands to the Pacific coast, “Nomadland” is a work of visual poetry, but it’s the human element at its core that gives it such an emotional pull. In one sense observing the freedom felt by van-dwellers is inspiring and heartwarming. But the steady undercurrent of loneliness and uncertainty is a solemn reminder of the day-to-day reality for those who have fallen through America’s economic cracks. “Nomadland” is set for a one-week virtual screening December 4th before opening in theaters February 19, 2021.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight” (2020)

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A group of teenaged internet addicts go to a rehabilitation camp only to find something terrifying lurking in the forest. That’s the unashamedly simple premise of the trope-soaked Polish horror flick “Nobody Sleeps In The Woods Tonight”. To its credit, this goofy and often gruesome horror flick is very open and honest about what it wants to be and it barely diverts an inch off of its path. In the process director Bartosz M. Kowalski shows off a keen cinematic eye, but don’t expect anything new in terms storytelling.

It’s opening scene will have you swearing you’re watching a spoof. A new group tech junkies arrive at the camp HQ where they are immediately relieved of all smartphones and laptops. During orientation a mutton-chopped counselor barks orders and lays out the plan for their next few days. Kids draw numbers and are broken up into groups of five. The campers we follow fit the horror movie model: the geek Julek (Michal Lupa), the sexpot Aniela (Wiktoria Gasiewska), the athlete Daniel (Sebastian Dela), the jerk Bartek (Stanislaw Cywka), and the troubled good girl Zosia (Julia Wieniawa). It’s all such familiar genre fare.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

The five meet their their group leader Iza (Gabriela Muskala) and set off into the woods to begin their “offline survival”. The entire hike sequence is basically a chance for the filmmakers to reinforce their character types. In other words the jerk acts like a jerk, the camera zooms in on the sexpot’s backside, the geek says really geeky things, and so on. They finally arrive at their spot and set up camp. But remember that ‘something lurking in the woods‘ I mentioned? It comes in the form of a grotesque boil-covered backwoods brute who has an insatiable appetite for all kinds of meat.

As you can guess it becomes a movie of survival as the group are trapped in the woods with no means of calling for help. In one scene the geek worriedly explains the Six Deadly Sins of Horror Movies (ala “Scream”). And of course the group breaks every single one of them, making a host of dumb choices and illogical moves leading to some bloody (and more importantly fatal) results. Slasher fans will have fun with gloriously gory kills, some of which are borrowed from other films, others that are brutally original. If you’re squeamish be warned. The second half is pretty much soaked in blood and body parts.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

There are some brief moments where the writers try to add a little nuance to a couple of the characters. But these scenes end up being hammy and completely unconvincing. So with the exception of Zosia (who is paper-thin in her own right) we end up with a cookie-cutter variety of disposable players. Therefore the movie really becomes all genre and no emotional connection whatsoever. But again, Kowalski really knows how to shoot a scene and his crafty use of camera and setting always gives you something cool to look at.

The movie’s biggest stumble is in the writing. From a story point-of-view it brings nothing new to the table, borrowing from countless genre films that came before it. That wouldn’t be a big deal if it really was a spoof. But the filmmakers quickly extinguish that idea and ratchet down on the more serious horror elements. Perhaps a more optimistic view is that the film is a celebration of horror’s gory slasher sub-genre. Maybe it is attempting to say something about the importance of tech but also the dangers of dependence. I don’t know, I think it’s more dim teenagers getting hacked to bits. But that can be fun too, right? “Nobody Sleeps In The Woods Tonight” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT- 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “The New Mutants” (2020)

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At one time there were big plans for “The New Mutants”. It was originally slated as a full trilogy – a stand-alone extension of the X-Men universe that would tell darker stories from an array of new characters. It had its script and the backing of 20th Century Fox. Then the wheels began to come off. Rewrites, recasts, reshoots, and genre tweaks led to numerous delays. Then Disney acquired 20th Century Fox adding more uncertainty and in turn more delays. People wondered if “The New Mutants” would ever see the light of day.

Well, it’s finally out and let’s just say it takes no time for its rocky development to show up on screen. It pains me to say it but “The New Mutants” is a perplexing and frustrating slog. It’s a film categorized as superhero horror which is an intriguing selling point. The problem is it lacks all of the energy and wonder of the superhero genre. Even worse, you won’t find a single scare or the slightest bit of tension. This is horror in the barest and most ineffective sense.

“The New Mutants” is considered to be the last of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men films, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find much of a connection. The X-Men really have nothing whatsoever to do with the story outside of a couple of fleeting mentions. Being mutants is the most relevant and obvious link, but don’t expect this film do anything new or interesting with the subject. Instead all we get is a something akin to a bland YA drama minus any of the genre spark it advertises. And it plays more like a mediocre television pilot for The CW than a need-to-see big screen experience.

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Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

The story begins with Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt), a teen of Cherokee descent, being shaken from her sleep by her father (Adam Beach) as a computer-generated “tornado” ravages their village. Her father gets her out, but Danielle is knocked unconscious while trying to escape. She wakes up in a high security hospital single-handedly (somehow) operated by Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga). The remote facility takes teenage mutants and teaches them how to harness their nascent powers, both for their safety and everyone else’s.

Danielle has yet to fully understand her power but Dr. Reyes seems to have an idea and immediately begins working to help the new mutant. Danielle is introduced to the other four patients. There is Rahne (Maisie Williams), a soft-spoken Scot with wolf powers. We get Illyana Rasputin played by Anya Taylor-Joy with a thick Russian accent and a hand puppet. Her powers are never really explained, but her arm turns into armor and a magic sword appears. Sam (Charlie Heaton sporting a wildly fluctuating southern drawl) vibrates really fast which enables him to speed around and tear things up. And then there is Roberto (Henry Zaga) who gets the short end of the superhero stick. Basically he gets really hot when excited. Sorry dude.

The teens cover many familiar archetypes. There’s the shy one, the bad girl, the big brother, and the jock. Much of the film is spent with them hanging out, arguing, venting frustrations and growing closer in the process. Kinda like “The Breakfast Club” minus the fun personalities and the great Simple Minds track. But when their greatest fears from their pasts suddenly come to life, the five teen mutants must fight together within the confines of the hospital (the only remotely creepy thing in the film), embracing their powers in order to survive.

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Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

That doesn’t sound half-bad, right? You can see the ingredients for something fun and unique. That’s why it’s so disappointing to get a story that’s so flat and lifeless. Much of it goes back to the shallow, bullet-point characters and their unconvincing, superficial relationships. From a half-baked romance to the overall camaraderie, it’s hard to invest much into them. And relevant chunks of their stories seem to be missing, namely them facing and then reckoning with the tragedies of their past. Some get a few words and a quick scene, but so much more time could have been (and frankly needed to be) spent on them coming to grips. Especially Danielle who ends up being the biggest casualty.

It’s also worth noting that “The New Mutants” ends up feels incredibly dated, even as you can see director Josh Boone playing with several new ideas. Visually it’s a downer, with its drab colorless pallet and so-so special effects. And it misses so many story opportunities. For example it does nothing with the mysterious organization Reyes works for. It leaves her character hollow and with no sense of importance.

I really feel for Josh Boone who clearly had big things in mind for this film and the potential sequels that would follow. It’s pretty clear the countless production hurdles and delays took their toll. He still deserves credit for sticking by the project and all those involved and seeing it through. I just wish the results were better. Instead “The New Mutants” is a hard-to-embrace grind – the beginning and end of a once promising spinoff series. “The New Mutants” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Night Clerk” (2020)

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Depicting a disability or condition of any kind offers a number of challenges for filmmakers. Showing sensitivity and empathy without falling over into exploitation is no easy task. And using it as a simple plot device can be problematic despite a movie having the very best of intentions. “The Night Clerk” straddles that fine red line, never crossing it but coming pretty close.

Filmmaker and playwright Michael Cristofer pens the screenplay and directs his first movie since the 2001 Angelina Jolie/Antonio Banderas stinker “Original Sin”. “The Night Clerk” is hands-down a better movie but it’s not without its own set of issues. While it’s never boring and the characters keep it lively, I kept waiting for it to go a little further, to be more suspenseful and offer more thrills. Basically I kept waiting for it to be as good as it could have been.

“The Night Clerk” plays like a modern noir complete with a murder, a not-so-hard-boiled detective, and of course a femme fatale. It stars Tye Sheridan who plays 23-year-old Bart, our eyes and ears through the entire picture. We learn he has Asperger’s Syndrome which makes everyday communication a challenge. To help he uses his job as a nighttime front desk clerk at a moderately priced hotel to observe guests and mimic their speech.

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PHOTO: Saban Films

Here’s the catch, the tech savvy Bart has rigged several of the hotel’s rooms with cameras which he monitors on his tablet. His intentions aren’t perverse or voyeuristic (so the movie says). Instead he records and studies the guests, their interactions and conversations, in hopes of improving his own skills. One night while ‘observing’ a new guest, Bart witnesses a violent altercation. By the time he gets to the room a woman is dead, the assailant is gone, and Bart is in a pickle. Does he tell the police what he saw, exposing his spying and costing him his job?

Nobody believes Bart is involved especially his overprotective mother (Helen Hunt). The lone exception is the suspicious Detective Espada (John Leguizamo going through the motions). He doesn’t buy Bart’s simplistic and straightforward explanation. Bart’s sympathetic boss transfers him to another hotel across town where he picks up where he left off. Enter Andrea Rivera, the femme fatale played by a sizzling Ana de Armas. She checks in one night and Bart is instantly smitten. But (obviously) there is something mysterious about her which Bart’s cameras soon reveal. Meanwhile the detective stays on his prime suspect, confident he is hiding something.

Does Bart know more than he’s letting on? Who is the killer? Does Andrea have some kind of connection? The pieces slowly and mechanically start coming together yet there is nothing especially thrilling about the mystery. Instead it’s the characters who keep our attention, specifically Bart and Andrea. Their interactions always seem to unveil something new while never revealing everything. One of them is always hiding something from the other. The characters turn out to be more interesting than the web they’re caught up in.

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PHOTO: Saban Films

You get the feeling this was intended to be a breakout dramatic role for Sheridan and he’s impressive. He gives a hard-working performance that pays a lot of attention to the details. And you can’t help but notice the time and research he put into it. Most importantly he does it without the performance falling into caricature. I don’t feel like I’m qualified to fully review its accuracies, but it is an earnest portrayal that doesn’t belittle people with Asperger’s.

While Sheridan is good, it’s Ana de Armas who steals the show. She was cast here before her star-making turn in “Knives Out”, but you can see why she has become such a captivating actress. She does several interesting things with a character who could have easily been your garden-variety enigmatic beauty. She shows compassion and elicits sympathy yet there is always something cryptic and impenetrable about Andrea. Her performance creates more mystery than the script itself.

“The Night Clerk” is an enigma in itself. It’s hard to gauge its convictions or tell where it lands. Take Bart and his ‘surveilling‘ of hotel guests. I’m still not sure if the movie wants us to wrestle with it or give him a pass. It’s mainly due to the film playing everything so aggressively down the middle. Still it has enough meat on its bones and two reasonably compelling characters to keep your engaged. Ultimately, as thrillers go you could do a lot worse. At the same time you can’t help but think this could have been a lot better.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars