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

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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

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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

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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

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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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