REVIEW: “Relic” (2020)

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Plowing new ground in the horror genre is a bit of a challenge. It’s almost impossible to watch a horror movie and not see things that have been used before. Yet this genre above all others has proven that smart, inspired filmmakers are still finding ways to take something familiar and make it their own. That’s what we get from director/co-writer Natalie Erika James and her new film “Relic”.

This American-Australian chiller has all the markings of your standard haunted house picture – creaky doors, bumps in the walls, eerie noises at night. But what separates “Relic” is the deeply human heart at its core. Everything in the movie from the family drama to its unsettling horror flows from the same raw emotional center and its brought to light through three absolutely stellar performances.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

Emily Mortimer plays Kay, a workaholic who gets a phone call saying her elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been seen for days. Kay and her twenty-something daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive out to her mother’s rural homeplace but find it empty. They file a police report, question neighbors, and form search parties but to no avail. The only real clues are in a number of Post-it notes scattered around the house. They range from common reminders (“Take my pills”) to more troubling warnings (“Don’t follow it”).

Through these early scenes James (and her co-writer Christian White) cleverly let us in on several key details. We learn that Edna has been showing signs of early-stage dementia. While talking with the police Kay reveals that she doesn’t regularly speak to her mother hinting at past family tension. There are also hints that Edna friendship with a neighborhood boy with Down syndrome has mysteriously soured.

And then Edna suddenly reappears – her hair disheveled, her feet caked with dirt and grime, and a fresh bruise on her chest. Even worse, she gives no indication to where she has been. She’s clear-minded and lucid one minute, lost and frustrated the next. Kay and Sam chalk it up to dementia because sadly that’s often our first impulse. But is there more going on than just a frail failing mind? Absolutely.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

James’ movie is soaked in feelings of guilt and regret. Remorse over time wasted on family grudges and past traumas. Helpless attempts to make amends as a loved one deteriorates right before your eyes. Even worse is the sufferer’s loss of identity and crushing sense of isolation. This is most vividly seen in the house itself – a painful allegory for the devastating effects of dementia. DP Charlie Sarroff’s camera creeps from room to room with unsettling effectiveness capturing eerie signs that something is amiss. Black inky mold spreads across its walls (both symbolic and a wink to Japanese horror). And like Edna’s mind, the house grows increasingly cluttered, becomes harder to navigate, and slowly begins to collapse. Meanwhile, composer Brian Reitzell’s low ominous rhythms ensure we’re never fully at ease.

“Relic” isn’t a movie of big scares. Instead it burrows under your skin, patiently building and then sustaining a chilling sense of dread. It’s a savvy and assured debut from Natalie Erika James who covers some immensely personal ground that many will be able relate to. It’s cryptic final scenes could be an obstacle for some, but I appreciate its open-ended finish which (just like everything else in the movie) has a lot more going on under its surface. “Relic” premieres July 10th on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Roads Not Taken” (2020)

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For filmmaker Sally Potter her new movie “The Roads Not Taken” came from an intensely personal place. Her brother, musician Nic Potter, died in 2013 following a two year battle with young onset dementia. She pulled from her own emotional experiences caring for him mixed with what she describes as a “preoccupation with the nature of the mind“. This isn’t an autobiography, but it’s clearly something close to Potter’s heart.

Interpreting the film can be a challenge but it turns out to be well worth the effort. The title is the first hint that Potter is doing something unique. This isn’t your standard illness-driven drama and its inquisitive nature might catch some people off-guard. In one sense it is very much a thoughtful examination of neurological disorders and the devastating effects they have on sufferers and family caregivers alike. But it’s also an inquiry into a damaged mind – one that sees memory fragments of two pivotal choices from a man’s past and then wonders how life would be different had he chosen…you know…the roads not taken.

The film opens to the sounds of a ringing phone and a door buzzer. Leo (Javier Bardem), a Mexican immigrant and former writer, lays unresponsive in his cramped Brooklyn apartment. On the phone is his worried daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), at the door his caregiver Xenia (Branka Katić). Leo suffers from an unnamed ailment but it has all the marks of dementia. Molly arrives and lets herself in, relieved to find her father in his bed. And this begins the story which takes place over the course of one grueling day.

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Photo Courtesy of Bleeker Street

Much of the movie focuses on Molly caring for her father – getting him dressed, taking him to doctor appointments, keeping him from wandering off. And the simplest things such as going to the bathroom or getting into a cab, Potter shows to be both physical and emotional challenges. Throughout the day they encounter people who repeatedly refer to Leo is if he wasn’t there. “Can he hear me?” “Does he understand what I’m saying?” Molly, partly out of hope and partly out of denial, takes offense and often lashes out at the implication that her father may be gone. It’s Potter’s way of looking at our treatment of the sick while showing us a young women coming to terms with her father’s condition.

But a chunk of the film takes place inside Leo’s head. Through what initially looks like flashbacks, we see reflections of two key moments from his life. But instead of reliving past events, Leo’s mind is actually piecing together where those paths would have led had he chosen to follow them. It’s an audacious perspective that works far better than I expected.

The first is set in Mexico and wonders what would have happened if he had stayed with the love of his life Delores (Salma Hayak) instead of leaving for America. The second looks at a time when Leo took off for Greece, leaving behind his now ex-wife (Laura Linney) and his infant daughter. What if he had stayed in Greece and finished writing his book instead of returning home to his family?

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Photo Courtesy of Bleeker Street

I won’t spoil where either of the two scenarios go, but Potter uses them to offer up plenty of food for thought. Together they can be read as a tragedy, as an elegy on regret, and even as a hopeful meditation if looked at through a certain lens. Most importantly, Potter doesn’t take her subject matter lightly. While maybe not as visceral as the father and daughter narrative, these scenes shed some light on who Leo was. It’s not always flattering but it is illuminating, filling in the lines of his character while slyly earning our empathy and scorn at the same time.

Potter’s movie leans heavily on its two lead performances, both dramatically different but equally essential. Bardem’s long face and dark, weary eyes convey a perpetual state of lostness. It’s a carefully calculated performance that sees the actor plowing some of the same somber, melancholy ground that earned him in an Oscar nomination for “Biutiful”. Fanning continues to get better and better, here giving a performance rich with depth and maturity. Molly’s story is just as heartbreaking as Leo’s and you can see her optimism crumbling through Fanning’s gripping portrayal.

In addition to writing and directing, Potter (a composer herself) wrote the score and was a co-editor for what must have been a cathartic undertaking. I can see where her personal approach could push some people away. Perhaps one-half of the film is built more on hope rather than science/medicine. Maybe it does challenge us to look past the eyes and into the soul. But for me, that’s when some of the deeper questions Potter poses came into focus. And that’s when I knew I really loved her movie.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Run All Night”

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There are several common threads that run through amost every Liam Neeson film so that you know what to expect. Since the always likable Irishman redefined himself with 2008’s “Taken”, he has become a bona fide action star. Armed with his signature gravelly voice, some clever one-liners, and particular sets of skills, Neeson has created his own unique brand of action movie and audiences normally have an idea of what they are going to get.

But sometimes Neeson adds a twist – something different to his successful formula. We get an example of that in “Run All Night”, a crime thriller from Spanish director and frequent Neeson collaborator Jaume Collet-Serra. Set (mostly) over the course of one night and spanning across a night-lit New York City, the film is a fast paced, high stakes game of cat and mouse laced with an assortment of complicated relationships.

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One of the differences from other Neeson pictures is that his character isn’t what you would call a ‘good guy’. He plays Jimmy Conlon, a former mob hitman who was given the nickname “Gravedigger” (now that just screams bad news). Jimmy is struggling with the sins of his past which cost him his relationship with his son Mike (Joel Kinnaman). Mike is now married with children and he mentors fatherless boys at a local gym while also driving a limo at night for extra money.

Jimmy’s only friend is his former boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Shawn has adapted his criminal organization to the times but his cocky and careless son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) is a loose cannon. When a deal goes bad, Danny murders some Albanian drug dealers and Mike witnesses the crime. Danny sets out to take care of the witness but Jimmy kills him in order to save his son. An angry and grief-stricken Shawn sends his army of thugs and crooked cops to kill Jimmy and Mike before the night is over.

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The story puts Jimmy and Mike together with their very lives on the line. But that brings along a very interesting dynamic. The two must navigate the animosity from a broken relationship just as much as the numerous dangers Shawn sends their way. This little father/son angle adds some cool elements to the story but it also results in a couple of odd plot twists that defied common sense. Plus it leads to an obvious ending that you see coming a mile away.

Despite that, “Run All Night” is a fun crime thriller that jets along at a nice pace and keeps you entertained. There is some good action and real intensity yet very little in terms of surprises. But perhaps the most fun comes from watching Neeson and Harris, two always reliable and enjoyable actors squeeze every bit out of their roles. This is an edgier Neeson picture and it does differentiate itself a bit from his action catalogue. Maybe not enough to make it something truly special, but I still appreciated its effort.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

REVIEW: “Resistance” (2020)

ResistposterIn a gut-churning prologue set in 1938 Nazi Germany a young Jewish girl named Elsbeth asks her loving parents a simple but weighty question, “Why do they hate us?” Her comforting father (Édgar Ramírez) tells her to not worry and that things will soon get better. Within seconds writer- director Jonathan Jakubowicz shatters that optimism and a child’s innocence is stripped away in a flash. It’s a short yet visceral opening to “Resistance”, the true story of an uncommon hero.

In Nuremberg, Germany, 1945, General George S. Patton (Ed Harris) taken the stage at the Kongresshalle, a former Nazi rallying grounds to address a large gathering of American troops. Through what is essentially a framing device, he shares with them the story of Marcel Marceau, an aspiring stage performer and mime. Later generations would best know Marceau for his silent character Bip the Clown (among other things). But as Patton begins his story we quickly learn that Marcel’s inspirational life’s journey began well before he became famous.

The film hops back to 1938, this time to a cabaret in Strasbourg, France. On a tiny corner stage and mostly unnoticed by the crowd, Marcel (played by Jesse Eisenberg) performs his mime routine inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character. It’s what he dreams of doing, but he doesn’t get much support from his well-meaning father (Karl Markovics), a third generation kosher butcher who prefers his son to follow in the family’s footsteps.

But Marcel sees himself as “a serious actor“, spending his time working on his act rather than cutting meat or trying to win over Emma (Clémence Poésy), a young woman he wants to marry someday. She’s a part of a local activist group organized by Marcel’s cousin Georges (Géza Röhrig) to help smuggle Jewish orphans to safety. Marcel shows no interest in joining the efforts, selfishly declining Georges’ plea for help. “I’m no good with children” he weakly contends. Yet he reluctantly agrees and his entire perspective forever changes after seeing three truckloads of frightened children, among them young Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey) from the prologue.

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PHOTO: IFC Films

It’s here than Jakubowicz makes one of several smart choices. Marcel begins using mime to comfort the children, but never in a silly or mawkish way. In fact, it’s an essential yet pretty small part of the story. Jakubowicz wisely sticks to his timeline, making this more about wartime heroism than artistic expression. “Resistance” chronicles Marcel’s brave and often harrowing early life which unquestionable helped shape the renowned peacetime performer he would later become.

After Germany invades Poland, French border towns are ordered to evacuate. The entire population of Strasbourg (including Marcel’s family) head for southern France, leaving everything behind expecting to return soon. Of course their lives were never the same. In six short weeks Hitler’s Germany conquered Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and then much of France including Paris. Not long after, the rest of the country fell to Nazi rule.

The group lead the children to Limoges, hiding them with local families and churches. It’s the only instance in the movie where the time gap seems curious as the nearly 400-mile trek is passed over. Nonetheless the danger remains which inspires Marcel, his brother Alain (Félix Moati), Emma and her sister Mila (Vica Kerekes) to join the French Resistance. The four travel to Lyon which suffers under the brutal fist of SS officer Klaus Barbie known as “The Butcher of Lyon” (he’s played with disquieting menace by Matthias Schweighöfer). Barbie is instantly made into the movie’s chief villain. And while there is no evidence that Barbie and Marceau ever crossed paths, the Gestapo head’s barbaric presence in Lyon is well documented and several of his actions we see are pulled from true accounts.

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PHOTO: IFC Films

After facing Barbie’s brutality Marcel finds himself at a crossroads. Do you fight and die just to kill a few Nazis or is living and saving the lives of others the greatest form of resistance? For Marcel the answer is an easy one, setting up a tension-soaked final act which teaches us that that not every form of resistance came at the end of a gun.

All of Eisenberg’s normal acting ticks are put to good use. His Marcel is timid, slightly neurotic, even a little bratty when we first meet him. All things the actor can do in his sleep. But even when his character becomes a hero, he’s still fraught with uncertainty and insecurity. While his accent may not always be convincing, Eisenberg brings plenty of sincerity and emotion making this one of strongest performances. Poésy is even better, serving as much more than your standard love interest. In fact any hint of a romance is passed through fleeting looks or gentle smiles. We know it’s there but it’s never intended to be a major story point. This allows Poésy to extend her character and performance into several satisfying directions.

Keenly shot, deeply affecting, and historically valuable, “Resistance” brings to surface another largely unknown true story of courage and sacrifice set during the Holocaust. I say this often, but I’m glad filmmakers are still plowing this ground and unearthing these powerful stories which need to be told. Marcel Marceau would go on to become the world’s most famous mime artist. In 2001 he wrote “Destiny permitted me to live. This is why I have to bring hope to people who struggle in the world.” With “Resistance” Jonathan Jakubowicz opens ours eyes to the weight of that statement while shining a much deserved light on a truly remarkable life.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Rhythm Section” (2020)

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‘Tis the season for January new releases. Known as a veritable wasteland of movie projects which studios have no faith in, a January release is usually a bad sign for the film and the audience. Enter “The Rhythm Section”, a globe-trotting revenge thriller with some interesting names attached. Unfortunately it feels right at home among the usual January movie doldrums.

Revenge thrillers are a dime a dozen these days and finding one that can stamp its own identity is pretty rare. “The Rhythm Section” looked promising. A gritty female-led tale of vengeance featuring Blake Lively, Jude Law, and Sterling K. Brown sounds alright. But 30 minutes into it I was still looking for a spark, something to energize a movie that frankly never generates any real excitement or suspense.

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

“The Rhythm Section” comes from cinematographer turned director Reed Morano and from a screenplay written by Mark Burnell (adapting his own novel). In it Lively plays Stephanie Patrick, a former Oxford student with a bright future. But that life is gone following a plane crash that killed her entire family, a plane she too was supposed to be on. The tragedy sent her spiraling into a world of depression, prostitution and heroin addiction. We don’t see how she got there. Instead the first act spends most of its time showing her in various states of misery.

She’s contacted by a journalist named Proctor (Raza Jeffrey) who has information that the plane her family died on was actually blown out of the sky by a terrorist’s bomb. He identifies the bombmaker who was doing the bidding of an unidentified higher-up who ordered the bombing. Stephanie wants payback but going from street worker to avenging angel is no easy task.

Enter Boyd (Jude Law), a disgraced MI6 agent living off the grid in a remote part of Scotland. If you need quick lessons on how to become an assassin he’s the kind of hard-nosed guy you go see. After some tried-and-true, cliche training sequences Stephanie heads out, tracks down Sterling K. Brown who plays a pretty hilarious (unintentionally) CIA operative and information broker, and sets her sites on the terrorists responsible for her family’s death.

You have to give Lively a lot of credit. She really commits to her role, deglamorizing to the extreme and squeezing whatever emotion she can out of the character she’s given. Unfortunately her performance is undercut by a script that is painfully dull. You can see what it’s trying to be, but it never gets there and sadly Lively is the biggest causality. She deserves better. As for Law, he’s kinda fun but you can’t help but think he’s cashing a check or doing a favor.

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

As for the action, there is nothing to it that really sticks with you. The lone exception is an inspired scene involving a car chase where the camera sits in the passenger seat next to Lively. It plays like one continuous take with the camera looking out the front windshield, panning to Lively driving, looking out the back, and so on. It’s a relatively short scene but visually impressive. Everything else is pretty run-of-the-mill.

Part Bourne, part Bond but with none of the vigor or personality of either, “The Rhythm Section” has some good ideas but not enough original ones. And despite a determined Blake Lively performance, the bland low-energy script simply can’t match the film’s ambition. I really wanted to like this movie, but wading through the implausibility and monotony proved to be chore.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Richard Jewell”

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The real story of Richard Jewell is both heartbreaking and infuriating. Jewell was a security guard during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. While working an evening of concerts at Centennial Olympic Park he discovered a suspicious backpack containing a bomb. He was instrumental in moving people out of the area just before the bomb detonated.

Many lives were saved and Jewell was instantly heralded as a hero. But it all changed when the FBI suddenly made him their prime suspect despite having no evidence to charge him. Information was leaked to the media who unfairly presumed his guilt and spent weeks demonizing him in print and on television. Jewell was eventually exonerated but not before it all had taken a terrible toll.

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© Warner Brothers Pictures All Rights Reserved

Clint Eastwood directs the simple-titled “Richard Jewell” which follows this aspiring ‘law enforcement officer’ through the events that would alter his life forever. The film stars Paul Walter Hauser as the title character, a Michigan native who sports a pretty impressive Deep South accent. Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray dig a little into Richard’s past but mainly focus on Olympic Park bombing, the FBI’s shady work to pin it on Richard, and the media’s aggressive rush to convict him through their reporting.

The film portrays Richard as a gentle and well-meaning guy. He’s shown to be naive and unassuming to a fault which FBI agent Tom Shaw (John Hamm) will later exploit regardless of the legality. We also see that Richard sometimes takes things too seriously (which costs him his job as a college campus cop). Hauser’s spot-on performance captures all of Jewell’s kindness but also his eccentricities which leads to him being perceived as sympathetic and at times pitiful.

Hamm’s Agent Shaw was on duty at Centennial Olympic Park when the bomb went off. Bitter that it happened on his watch, Shaw is selfishly motivated to pin it on the man being called a hero. He has a ‘mutually beneficial’ relationship with Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), a cutthroat journalist with the Atlanta-Journal Constitution who is more interested in getting the scoop first than testing the truthfulness of it.

You kinda expect Hamm to be good considering he has done variations of this role several times before. But Wilde stands out the most, vividly portraying a character who is brash, tenacious and boiling over with confidence. She’s unspeakably devious but just as intelligent. Both of their characters are implicit in hounding Richard and starting the firestorm of negative and in some cases abusive reporting (one paper gives him the title “Bubba Bomber”).

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© Warner Brothers Pictures All Rights Reserved

This opens the narrative door for two other great supporting performances. Sam Rockwell is fantastic playing Richard’s attorney Watson Bryant. The two men first cross paths early in the movie and then reconnect after Watson agrees to defend Richard against the unfounded allegations. And Kathy Bates is a real scene-stealer playing Richard’s mother Bobi. It’s an earnest, grounded performance and it’s easy believing in her as a caring and supportive mom.

“Richard Jewell” moves at a surprisingly snappy pace despite taking a while to show any real emotional conviction. It does a good job establishing its characters, but much like the movie’s namesake, it’s easygoing when it comes to emotions and a little too absorbed in the details. But Eastwood finally gives us a much earned payoff in a strong final act where Hauser, Bates, and Rockwell really humanize the story. I just wish we didn’t have to wait so long get there.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars