First Glance: “Rebecca”

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Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel has been adapted several times for stage and screen. Perhaps the most celebrated is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Ben Wheatley takes a stab at this alluring romantic thriller which will star the vastly underrated Lily James and feature Armie Hammer in his second significant October film role (the other being Kenneth Branagh’s “Death on the Nile”).

The first trailer lays out the story well. A young woman (James) is swept away by a debonair widower (Hammer). The two marry and settle into his Manderley estate where the memories of his old wife Rebecca haunt every room and every hall. Add a deliciously devious Kristen Scott Thomas playing the housekeeper who’s happy to add even more tension between the new couple. The trailer shows off a sparkling period production design but melds it with a creepy Gothic feel, both of which fit the story well. I’m excited for this one.

“Rebecca” premieres October 21st on Netflix. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “Radioactive” (2020)

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Biographical films aren’t as easy to pull off as it may seem. There are plenty of conventional biopic trappings and many movies fall victim to them. But I appreciate the ones that open my eyes in meaningful ways to people I’m not familiar with. Shamefully Marie Sklodowska-Curie is one such person and the new film “Radioactive” from Amazon Studios offers a good yet flawed look into her fascinating life.

Madame Curie made groundbreaking discoveries in the world of science while paving the way for other women in a male-dominated field. Among her many notable accomplishments: She discovered two new elements, discovered and even coined the term “radioactivity”, and championed the use of X-rays during World War I which saved countless lives. She also became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person (man or woman) to win it twice, and the first female professor at the University of Paris.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“Radioactive” from director Marjane Satrapi works hard to avoid hitting the routine biopic beats with varying degrees of success. It’s most notable attempts come in its frequent use of flashbacks and (much more prominently) flash-forwards. They’re ambitious choices that yank us out of her personal drama to show the reverberation of her discoveries through the decades that follow. They are mostly well crafted but jarring interludes that leaves the impression of a movie torn between admiration and scorn.

The sturdy, unshakable, and always convincing Rosamund Pike plays Madame Curie and as usual she seems altogether comfortable in her character’s skin. In 1893 Paris, the Polish-born physicist and chemist finds herself booted from her laboratory for her big ideas and willingness to buck the stuffy male authority. She applies for other labs but is turned down by each. Then she (quite literally) bumps into Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), a fellow pariah among the Paris science elites. Pierre offers Marie a spot at his small but suitable laboratory. The socially awkward and boldly independent Marie initially turns him down, but soon after she accepts his offer. The two develop an impassioned, life-changing partnership that extends to both science and marriage.

From their Satrapi zips through chunks of Marie’s story, stopping briefly for key events such as the couple’s discovery of the elements radium and polonium along with their theory of radioactivity. “Well, I guess everything changes now, doesn’t it?” a character asks. Of course we know things do indeed change and the film stresses that many of those changes haven’t been for the better. Flash-forwards to the atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima, the Chernobyl disaster, the nuclear testing in Nevada during the early sixties (you even get to watch a baby mannequin burn, melt, and get swallowed up by the ground just to stress the point). A vignette on cancer treatment is the lone positive mentioned although even it comes with its own harmful caveat.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

I like the film’s willingness to wrestle with the pros and cons of Marie’s discoveries, even if it pulls away from the movie’s biggest strength – Rosamund Pike. She carries the load with an undeniable bravura and commitment to detail that captures Madame Curie both inside and out. She’s especially good when the story moves away from beakers, flasks, and test tubes and into a more personal space. Pike really brings out the humanity, showing off Marie’s drive and grit but also her insecurities and vulnerabilities. This is most vividly seen through Marie’s devoted marriage to Pierre, a devastating tragedy, and an ill-advised affair leading to her being ravaged by the headhunting press.

Some of my favorite scenes come in the last act with Marie and her now grown daughter Irene (Ana Taylor-Joy) on a World War I battlefield bringing mobile X-ray machines to field hospitals. It’s such a fitting place for someone who has battled both as a woman and a scientist. But on that battlefield it wasn’t for notoriety or advancement. It was to save the lives and livelihoods of young soldiers. Those scenes speak volumes about Madame Curie. The movie isn’t always as clear spoken. Some of the early science talk is painfully on-the-nose and the flash-forwards are audacious but a bit too invasive. Still, “Radioactive” did what I want biopics to do, and with a performer like Rosamund Pike doing this level of work, it’s hard not to be impressed. “Radioactive” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Rental” (2020)

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Dave Franco makes his directorial debut with “The Rental”, a surprisingly nimble horror-thriller that leads you in several different directions before fully revealing itself to be something I wasn’t expecting. The story (co-written by Franco and Joe Swanberg) makes some things a little too obvious, but the high-energy final 15 minutes comes out of nowhere and left a pretty big smile on my face.

The story follows two couples who rent a beautiful oceanside home for a weekend getaway. The first couple is Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his wife Michelle (Alison Brie). The other is Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand) who also happens to be Charlie’s close-working business partner. If that sounds a little icky to you then you’re right where the movie wants you. In fact the very first scene firmly plants a suspicion in the your head that sticks there for much of the film.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

The four arrive at the remote yet picturesque vacation home and are greeted by the property’s slimy caretaker Taylor (Toby Huss). He gives them the tour, says several creepy things, and then leaves them to their fun and relaxing weekend. Or so they think. Franco takes his time uncoiling his story, putting a ton of early focus on his characters. They prove to be a pretty flawed bunch.

You could say “The Rental” inadvertently makes a strong “Say No to Drugs” case because things really go south once the four decide to take ecstasy. I won’t risk spoiling things by elaborating, but suffice to say most of the bad stuff that follow comes from the group’s ill-advised decision to get high. Secrets are unearthed, jealousy erupts, bad decisions (as they’re prone to do) lead to bad consequences. Soon this fun celebratory getaway is boiling with tension.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

But then Franco adds another layer to his film once Mina discovers a hidden camera in the house. “The Rental” goes into full psychological thriller mode as we and the characters wonder who’s watching them? Why are they watching? Even more, what have they seen? And just when you think you’ve figured the movie out Franco hits you with one more change of direction that kinda turns the whole movie on its head (in a good way).

“The Rental” has a lot going on yet it clocks at just under 90 minutes. Franco’s economical storytelling keeps things rolling while giving a surprising amount of attention to his characters. Yet there are instances where he channels things a little too clearly, robbing some story threads of their suspense. It may be an unfair criticism considering we’ve been conditioned by the genre itself to expect certain things. But the film gets it right where it counts most – it’s entertaining, it keeps you locked in and it ends in a fun and unexpected place. A solid first feature behind the camera for Dave Franco. “The Rental” premieres this Friday on VOD.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

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