REVIEW: “Run” (2020)

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Originally set for a theater release them nabbed by Hulu, “Run” is a “Mommy Dearest” styled psychological thriller that highlights an often underrated actress while welcoming an exciting young newcomer. It’s also the sophomore effort from director Aneesh Chaganty who earned a lot of well-deserved attention for his 2017 tech thriller “Searching”.

In “Run” Chaganty (who also co-wrote the script with Sev Ohanian) examines mother/daughter relationships through a sleek Hitchcockian lens. In his film Sarah Paulson plays Diane, a devoted single mother who has cared for her wheelchair-bound 17-year-old daughter Chloe (Kiera Allen) since her troubled premature birth. That means raising her, homeschooling, and tending to her numerous medical needs. “No one in the universe loves their kid as much as I do.”

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Photo Courtesy of Hulu

At first look their relationship seems heartwarming, even inspiring. Sure Diane is a bit overprotective but she clearly loves her daughter. Chloe on the other hand loves her mother but she’s eager to leave the nest, anxiously awaiting an admission letter from The University of Washington.

Chaganty doesn’t waste time showing cracks in Diane’s psyche and the smart, resourceful Chloe begins questioning her mom’s restrictions. Things like her refusal to let her daughter have a cell phone, no internet browsing, and Diane’s insistence on being the only one who gets the mail. Things get even fishier when Chloe finds a bottle of her pills with her mother’s name on it instead of hers.

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Photo Courtesy of Hulu

As you can guess things get darker and deranged as we learn the lengths momma will go to keep her baby under her wing. Paulson’s methodical portrayal of an unhinged Diane is terrific, revealing a deeply sinister edge to the character without going overboard. And Allen is a convincing foil, nailing down several demanding scenes with both physical and emotional commitment.

Sadly the movie does run out of steam before sticking its big batty finish. And while I liked the nuttiness of the last act, countless questions came to mind once the obligatory reveals started pouring in. And to be honest, it took a ton of effort to look past them. Still, “Run” is a sneakily absorbing thriller that pokes at the idea of a mother’s domineering love and a child’s blind trust. And the two central performances keep us glued to the screen even when things get a little hard to swallow. “Run” premieres Friday, November 20th on Hulu.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Rebecca” (2020)

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Daphne du Maurier’s classic 1938 novel “Rebecca” is no stranger to the stage or screen. Perhaps the most celebrated adaptation is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Academy Award Best Picture winner. It was Hitchcock’s very first American production and the first film in his rather bumpy seven-year deal with film producer and studio executive David O. Selznick.

Director Ben Wheatley is the latest to take a stab at this alluring romantic thriller working from a script written by the team of Jane Goldman, John Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse. This new Netflix Original stars the vastly underrated Lily James, the busy Armie Hammer, and the always great Kristen Scott Thomas. It gets off to a strong start, smartly and smoothly manages its significant shift in tone, and then brings everything to light in a satisfying but hurried finale.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

In “Rebecca” James plays a young woman working as an assistant to a wealthy and pompous crow named Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). Much like in Daphne du Maurier’s popular novel, James’ character is given no name yet we learn all we need to know about her through the unfolding story. We learn she comes from a meager background. She lost her parents two years earlier. She’s smart, loves sketching, and dreams of traveling which is why she works for the globetrotting Mrs. Van Hopper. “Everything I know is from books. I haven’t really experienced anything yet.” Oh how that is about to change.

The story gets going in Monte Carlo with the young woman and Mrs. Van Hopper settled in at the posh Hotel Regina. It’s the first of several instances where the movie explores the subject of class and upper-crust snobbery. The assistant is repeatedly reminded of her role as “staff” or “help”. She’s verbally belittled by her employer, denied dining privileges, and given those haughty, dismissive glances from the rich pampered guests. This is a theme that the film revisits later on.

While running errands for her boss the young woman repeatedly crosses paths with the tall, dashing aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Hammer). Against all odds, the two hit it off and begin a simmering summer romance. She is swept away by the charming yet mysterious Maxim, a recent widower who brushes aside any questions about his late wife Rebecca.

After a spur of the moment proposal, the two marry, have a brief honeymoon, and then settle into Maxim’s huge Manderley estate. It’s an almost mythological family property that has been passed from fathers to sons for generations. A beautiful and lavish mansion, Manderley resembles something plucked right out of a new bride’s storybook dream. But the new Mrs. de Winter quickly learns that her husband has his secrets and the memories of Rebecca haunt every room and every hall. To make matters worse she quickly finds herself at odds with the cold and devious Mrs. Danvers (Kristen Scott Thomas), the chief housekeeper with an uneasy attachment to Mandeley.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

“Rebecca” may surprise those unfamiliar with its story. It turns a simply-looking romance built around naïveté and secrets into an unexpectedly empowering story driven by three very different women. The delightfully expressive Lily James makes an enchanting lead. Thomas imbues Mrs. Danvers with an unsettling menace. And the third woman, Rebecca herself, is someone we never really see. Yet the film does a terrific job showing the grip she maintains on Manderley well after her death. And the chilling echoes of her influence haunts her husband, their home, and really anyone close to her.

My biggest beef is with the last act. Wheatley flies through the final twenty minutes or so, covering so much ground in an effort to wrangle together the story’s numerous moving parts. It all comes together neatly enough, but you’ll need to be focused and locked in to keep it all together. Still, there’s so much to admire about this latest “Rebecca”. It maintains a wonderful period feel thanks to Julian Day’s costumes and Katie Spencer’s set design. Laurie Rose’s stellar cinematography vividly captures the beautiful sun-soaked Monte Carlo and as well as the gloomy, atmospheric Mandeley. It’s anchored by a wonderful cast and a story that still has the same kick it’s had for 80+ years. “Rebecca” premieres October 21st on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

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