REVIEW: “7500” (2020)

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The code 7500 is what pilots use to inform air traffic control that their plane is being hijacked. That should give you a good idea of what the new air-thriller from Amazon Studios is all about. The film marks the welcomed return of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who took over the lead role after Paul Dano dropped out) and he’s asked to put the entire movie on his back.

“7500” is writer-director Patrick Vollrath’s feature film directorial debut. He puts together a tightly-wound and claustrophobic thriller that takes place almost entirely within the cockpit of a commercial airliner. Minus some opening airport security camera footage, the camera literally stays within the cockpit for the duration of the movie. It occasionally looks through the window or out the cabin door, but it always maintains the same close-quartered cockpit perspective.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The aforementioned airport cameras offer a brief tone-setting introduction to the film’s antagonists. They quietly and effectively show four men making their way through security, a gift shop, the bathroom, and then onboard the plane. We never get much in terms of motivation or purpose. Just a generic splash of Islamist terrorism with no real depth of cause whatsoever. Instead Vollrath seems far more interested in human psychology under extreme duress. How do we respond when pushed to our emotional edge? How do we react in high-anxiety situations? Do we submit to self-control or allow our emotions to drive our actions? “7500” is constantly asking the question “What would you do?”

Gordon-Levitt plays Tobias Ellis, an airman for 10 years who still looks like a college freshman. For this particular flight from Berlin to Paris he’ll be the American first officer for the German Captain Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger). I admit to being really into their pre-flight prep of flipping switches, sharing figures, checking manifests. It’s pretty convincing stuff as they ready the plane and their passengers. These scenes also introduce us to Gökce (Aylin Tezel), a flight attendant who is also Tobias’ fiancé.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Once in the air and at cruising altitude another flight attendant checks on the pilots before locking them in the cockpit. But before she can close the door two men armed with glass shanks knock her aside and rush the cabin. The pilots manage to fight them off and seal the door but not before Tobias is slashed on the arm and Michael is stabbed multiple times. With terrorists threatening passengers and the captain incapacitated, it’s up to Tobias to either follow protocol or give in to the terrorists’ demands.

As the tension ratchets up the choices people make become more of the focus. It’s surprising how much the movie digs into the psychology especially in the third act. That’s also where the drama begins to sputter on its way to an inevitable finish that’s tipped off a few scenes to soon. Still, Vollrath keeps his audience involved and Gordon-Levitt is a solid lead. It all makes for a taut, immersive thriller that may be simple in concept but is crafty in its execution.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Shirley” (2020)

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Acclaimed American author Shirley Jackson, best known for her work in horror and Gothic-styled thrillers, worked for two decades before her untimely death at age 48. Throughout her prolific career she wrote a total of six novels, two memoirs, several books on parenting, and over 200 short stories. Her last few years were spent in seclusion as her health steadily deteriorated. Yet despite her early passing, Jackson left behind a fascinating literary legacy that has recently been discovered by an entirely new audience.

The new movie “Shirley” may sound like a biopic but that label doesn’t really stick. Loosely based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel, the film erases Jackson’s four children and uses the perspective of a fictional young couple among other things. Instead this is more of a biographical sketch that imagines Jackson’s life by placing her in a space that could pass for one of the author’s own short stories. Director Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins prove to be the right people to tackle this reality versus imagination mindbender.

Often tagged as “experimental”, Decker seems to have an inquisitive and explorative nature that often comes through in her filmmaking. While I’ve often struggled to get in tune with some of her work, here she cunningly melds numerous elements of her movie – narrative with visual, psychological with tangible, genre flavor with stinging social rebuke. It’s such rich and evocative filmmaking. It also doesn’t hurt to have someone like Elisabeth Moss as your lead.

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Photo Courtesy of Neon

Moss plays Shirley Jackson at that stage where her health was on the decline and she hadn’t left her North Bennington, Vermont home in two months. Her domineering womanizer of a husband Stanley Hyman (a devilishly good Michael Stuhlbarg) teaches at Bennington College during the day and at night attends numerous faculty ‘gatherings’ often frequented by young co-eds. I’ll let you do the math.

We learn all of this and more through the eyes of Rose (Odessa Young), a freshly married young woman who moves to North Bennington with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman). He’s been hired as a teaching assistant for Stanley while Rose plans on auditing classes at the university. Much to Shirley’s chagrin, Stanley invites the couple to stay with them until they can get their feet on the ground. Rose quickly has her plans dashed after Stanley sneakily puts her in charge of cooking and cleaning while introducing Fred to his college inner-circle.

Meanwhile Shirley observes it all, in one sense keenly aware of what’s happening yet seemingly on the precipice of a mental breakdown. Moss’ frizzy crop of hair and horn-rimmed glasses make her a spitting image of Shirley Jackson, and she brilliantly paints the author as an unsettling enigma. The townsfolk thinks she’s gone sick in the head while Stanley explains away her eccentricities and abrasiveness (such as masking her cutting cynicism as premonitions).

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Photo Courtesy of Neon

Meanwhile, Shirley slowly starts finding inspiration in Rose and in the mysterious disappearance of a local college girl. She begins furiously working on a new novel (what would be her 1951 book “Hangsaman”) getting closer to Rose in the process. But in Decker’s wickedly off-kilter sphere Jackson’s motives are always cloudy and we’re constantly wondering whether Rose helping to free Shirley from her isolation and misanthropy or if the seasoned writer is spinning a web and the young woman is trapped inside.

Like much of Shirley Jackson’s work, the film sets you down in a familiar real-world space only to subtly dissolve the boundaries between reality and illusion. Squeezing meaning out of some scenes can be a challenge and at times frustrating. For example, hard to resolve moments of romantic tension (or is it dark eroticism) can feel out-of-the-blue and weirdly disconnected. But Decker paints with expressionistic strokes, infusing scenes with a woozy, hallucinatory quality. Intense closeups, shifts in focus, ghostly gazes, slightly disorienting handheld camerawork – it’s all used to delightful effect.

Aside from its sharp psychological edge, “Shirley” gives a clear-eyed look at women in early 1950’s America and the modern day reverberations. It’s told entirely from the female perspective, showing two women trapped in worlds quietly dominated by their husbands. Moss’ uncompromising and self-contained performance is award-worthy, especially in the scenes with Stuhlbarg where the two vividly bring Sarah Grubbins’ searing dialogue to life. Not every scene gels together seamlessly but the look, tone, and curdling sense of unease keeps you glued to every frame.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Sergio” (2020)

SERGIOposterInternational diplomats tend to go largely unnoticed, but Sérgio Vieira de Mello was as close as they come to being a celebrity. The Brazilian born de Mello rose through the United Nations ranks due to his humanitarian efforts, his tireless quest for peace and his steady advocacy for those trapped in war-torn regions. On August 19, 2003 a truck loaded with explosives drove up to the UN headquarters in Baghdad and detonated. Sérgio Vieira de Mello was among the 22 people killed.

The new Netflix Original simply titled “Sergio” tells chunks of de Mello’s story from an unexpectedly unique point of view. The film opens with the bombing which left de Mello (passionately played by Wagner Moura) and his top aide Gil Loescher (Brian F. O’Byrne) pinned under a pile of rubble. We then bounce back-and-forth on the timeline as Sergio reflects on significant moments of his life. While the approach makes sense of the fractured storytelling, it doesn’t make it any less messy.

Director Greg Barker and writer Craig Borten hit a few of the high points from Sergio’s career. They touch on his efforts to ease the boiling tensions in East Timor which had been invaded and occupied by neighboring Indonesia. It shows bits of his work in Iraq, butting heads with George Bush’s envoy Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford) over the withdrawal of American troops. Yet while the filmmakers clearly admire de Mello and his work, they show surprisingly little interest in digging deeper and exploring what drove the man to risk life and limb for the persecuted.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Instead, much of the movie focuses on Sergio the romantic. Although married, he develops a fiery attraction to a beautiful U.N. economic adviser Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas). Interestingly, the movie doesn’t make much of a judgement on their affair and his wife gets nothing more than fleeting mentions. In fact the only real negative image of Sergio is in the movie’s brief depiction of his relationship with his two sons. Otherwise it’s a doting portrayal that removes any potential scandalous edge. As a result the film’s Sergio is missing the complexity and depth that comes with being flawed people.

While the heavy emphasis on the affair is a puzzling choice especially in light of Sergio’s accomplishments, there’s no denying the simmering chemistry between Moura and de Armas. They’re no strangers, also working together in Olivier Assayas’ Cuban political thriller “Wasp Network”, a Netflix film set to release later this year. Here the romantic tension is palpable even when their scenes wander into sentiment. But it still undercuts de Mello’s profound work in the field which only gets what amounts to the bullet point treatment.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

When the film is chronicling Sergio’s diplomatic journey it moves between inspirational and perplexing. For those who don’t know de Mello, the sheer scope of the movie reveals the importance of his impact even though on a mostly surface level. But it’s in the handling of the details where things get a little murky. For example, if you patch together a handful of seemingly damning scenes there is a subtle implication that the American military presence in Iraq was the indirect cause of the U.N. bombing. In reality, Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility stating that de Mello was targeted due to his work leading East Timor to independence. If explored that could be the kind of dramatic layer the movie really needs.

So we end up with an almost saintly portrait that glosses over milestones, mostly skips internal conflicts, and favors a passionate yet overcooked romance. The performances are strong, vibrant, and committed and you can squeeze enough out of the story to get a general idea of who Sérgio Vieira de Mello was. But if you’re looking for a deeper, more informative dive and want more high-stakes historical drama, “Sergio” will probably leave you feeling shortchanged.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Swallow” (2020)

SWALLOWposter“Swallow” is a frustrating movie that by the end will be seen as a battle cry for some and completely off-putting to others. It’s listed as a psychological thriller but I’m not sure the movie does enough to earn that title. It certainly has some of those elements, but it could just as easily be called a domestic drama, body horror, a twisted black comedy, or an on-the-nose political allegory. This identity crisis ends up making the film as a whole a little too hard to (wait for it…) swallow.

“Swallow” is most effective when it focuses on the main character’s Stepford existence and its…unhealthy consequences. Haley Bennett plays Hunter, a young woman who seems to be living the good life. She’s married to Richie (Austin Stowell), the hunky son of a gazillionaire and heir to his father’s fortune. They live in a posh modernist home in upstate New York. To top it off, she finds out the two are having a baby. It’s a far cry from the working class world she grew up in.

I’m so lucky” she says to an inattentive Richie, trying harder to convince herself than her husband. Hunter is a testament to the idea that money can’t buy happiness, especially when the cost is your independence and agency. Her facade of bliss begins to breakdown and her loneliness becomes more pronounced. It becomes clear that she’s trapped in a world dictated by others, ensnared by their expectations and serving their needs.

The downside is that Richie is more of a one-note caricature than a flesh-and-blood human being. First-time director Carlo Mirabella-Davis (who also wrote the screenplay) isn’t much for subtlety or nuance. There is never an ounce of suspense when it comes to the paper-thin Richie or his motivations. His dastardly parents (David Rasche and Elizabeth Marvel) are even more glaringly villainous, checking off every predictable box. It would be fine if this were a straightforward satirical black comedy. But that’s not the movie’s aim so we are left with characters bordering on cartoonish.

As the patronizing and neglect start to take its toll, Hunter finds inspiration in these lines from a book: “Every day, try to do something unexpected. Push yourself to try new things.” She does. She begins swallowing things around the house starting with a marble and then a thumbtack. It gets worse from there. She may be mentally coming apart, but for the first time in her life she feels in control.

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At times it’s hard to know how Mirabella-Davis wants us to feel. One minute he’s treating Hunter’s troubling new addiction as macabre and unsettling. Then we’ll get a scene or two where he plays it for laughs. Conversely it’s very clear how he wants us to feel about the pregnancy which is always portrayed negatively or forgotten altogether. It becomes more of a shameful plot device than a meaningful story thread.

It all culminates in a rushed final act where Hunter faces her current situation and past traumas. It leads to an iffy final shot that leaves a lot of questions but gives the movie an easy out. No spoilers here, but depending on where you land on certain things I can see the ending being interpreted as hopeful, tragic, or even repulsive. If you’re in with Mirabella-Davis’ convictions you’ll probably find it bold and liberating. If not you may see it as callous and appalling.

Almost lost in the film’s wobbly focus and dubious virtue is Katelin Arizmendi’s fabulous pastel-soaked cinematography and Haley Bennett’s quiet but forceful lead performance. “I just want to make sure I’m not doing anything wrong.” It may be the saddest line in the entire film and Bennett delivers it with such heartbreaking sincerity. It comes from a young woman so attuned to meeting the needs of others that she can’t even notice her own. If only “Swallow” had stuck with more of that.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

 

2-stars

REVIEW: “Spenser Confidential” (2020)

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The latest Netflix Original is “Spenser Confidential”, a Boston set crime thriller that starts with some promise but quickly turns into a derivative exercise in formula. Practically everything about it is familiar, and despite Mark Wahlberg’s tough New England charm, it can never shake that ‘been there, done that‘ feeling.

The film is taken from two separate works of fiction. The story is loosely based on the novel “Wonderland” by Ace Atkins. The Spenser character was inspired by Robert B. Parker’s private detective series which spanned a total of forty novels. I’m not familiar with any of the books, but “Spenser Confidential” doesn’t bear the marks of anything unique. It does bounce around the city of Boston, warmly shooting in a number of local areas including the Jones Hill neighborhood where Wahlberg grew up.

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PHOTO: Netflix

Peter Berg directs making this his fifth consecutive movie with Wahlberg who plays Spenser, a disgraced Boston police officer doing time for beating the wax out of his crooked police captain (Michael Gaston). After his five-year sentence is up he’s given a place to stay by an old friend Henry (Alan Arkin). Henry has also taken in another ex-con named Hawk (Winston Duke). Spenser and Hawk clash at first but soon reluctantly learn how to get along.

Spenser has his sights set on moving to Arizona and becoming a truck driver, but when the police captain is brutally murdered and a former friend is framed for it he sticks around Boston determined to find out the truth. As you can probably guess, Hawk lends a hand which has led to some people considering this a buddy comedy movie. But to be honest the two ‘buddies’ don’t fully come together until later in the film. And even then there doesn’t seem to be a very strong connection or camaraderie. This is Wahlberg’s movie and Duke just fills in the gaps.

Perhaps the weirdest thing about “Spenser Confidential” is the ‘comedy’ which the movie never seems fully committed to. First off there is very little of it. And when it does come it’s usually out-of-the-blue and out of sync with the flow of the movie. It’s as if there was some odd compulsion to meet some kind of genre requirement. The humor doesn’t work on any level.

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PHOTO: Netflix

The movie doesn’t do much to help the supporting cast. I’ve mentioned the woefully underused Duke. Bokeem Woodbine has a few good lines but needed more. Stand-up comedian Eliza Shlesinger does her best as Spenser’s shrill, abrasive ex. She has the charisma but her character turns out to be nothing more than a caricature. Post Malone (who I just learned is a rapper/singer) seems to be there strictly for his tattooed face and definitely not for his acting chops.

“Spenser Confidential” will probably fall into the ‘big dumb fun’ category for many people and I can see that. It has a throwback vibe to it that makes it all pretty easy to digest. But it’s even easier to forget. The movie’s sheer lack of originality and injections of unfunny humor keep it from leaving any kind of lasting impression.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

 

REVIEW: “Standing Up, Falling Down” (2020)

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It’s been four years since Scott (Ben Schwartz) left home in Long Island to pursue his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. Now, after striking out in Los Angeles, the out-of-work 34-year-old drives cross-country to move back in with his parents. It’s hardly how he envisioned his life when he took off for the west coast.

Back home we meet Scott’s not-so-supportive father (Kevin Dunn), his “he’s still my baby” mother (Debra Monk), and his equally unsuccessful sister Megan (Grace Gummer – one of the film’s biggest assets). She too lives at home and works at a pretzel shop in the local mall. Megan is also Scott’s biggest critic and frequent verbal sparring partner. None of his family expected him to make it as a comic and judging by the few slices we get of his routine it’s easy to see why.

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PHOTO: Shout! Studios

Scott tries reconnecting around town but comes face-to-face with a bruising reality. His friends have grown up and are living adult lives – you know, married with jobs and kids. That includes Becky (Eloise Mumford), his ex-girlfriend and the proverbial one that got away. She’s now married to the successful and all-around nice guy Owen (John Behlmann). But as all of Scott’s regrets come to the surface, he meets dermatologist and hard-drinking sad sack Marty (Billy Crystal), someone actually going through a rougher patch than he is.

First-time feature film director Matt Ratner along with screenwriter Peter Hoare make Scott and Marty’s friendship their centerpiece, cultivating it through a series of chance meetings – in the bathroom at a bar, a doctor’s office, or at a funeral. A strange camaraderie blooms between the two kindred spirits who find catharsis in collectively wallowing in their own self-pities while drowning their woes in booze, pot, and loads of jokey conversations. It’s all a diversion – a way for them to keep from taking responsibility and finally growing up.

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PHOTO: Shout! Studios

Crystal makes for a charming drunk but it’s his quieter moments that resonate the most. It’s then that we not only see Marty’s poorly-veiled sadness, but understand why he would want to be a father figure and the kick-in-the-butt Scott needs. Crystal is such a natural when it comes to snappy sarcasm and self-deprecating humor that it’s easy to forget about his dramatic chops. Schwartz, who is currently enjoying box office success voicing “Sonic the Hedgehog”, holds his own with Crystal. But isn’t it ironic that the dermatologist turns out to be funnier than the stand-up comic?

“Standing Up” is an often whimsical look at second chances and new beginnings. On the flipside it’s about remorse, loss, and self-destruction. Altogether it’s really nothing we haven’t seen before. It just happens to be sparked by some good lead chemistry and a solid group of supporting characters. And it’s nice to see Billy Crystal back on screen hitting many of the same notes that made him a household name.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars