REVIEW: “The Son” (2022)

Playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and director Florian Zeller blew me away with his 2020 directorial debut, “The Father”. The film, an adaptation of his own 2012 play of the same name, was a heart-wrenching story of an elderly Welsh man suffering from dementia. The film’s lead performance earned Anthony Hopkins his second Best Actor Academy Award which was one of the most deserving Oscar wins in recent years. So naturally I was excited for what Zeller would do next.

His sophomore feature is “The Son”, another deeply human drama yet again based on his own stage play of the same name, this one from 2018. The film sees Zeller exploring painfully real subject matter that doesn’t make for the most comfortable viewing. But much like its predecessor, “The Son” keeps its characters and its story grounded in such fashion that it’s hard to turn away. Overall it may not be as seamless or as focused as “The Father”. But the script (co-written by Zeller and Christopher Hampton), combined with some truly absorbing performances, vividly brings this character-driven story to life and keeps us glued to every meaningful exchange.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Where as “The Father” dealt with an octogenarian with dementia, “The Son” revolves around a teenager with clinical depression. But it’s just as much about a broken family and a man confronted with his own failures as a father. Zeller takes a deep look at depression, from the warning signs to the near unexplainable nature of the pain to its crushing effects. But it’s seen mostly through the eyes of a well-meaning dad who struggles to grasp his son’s mental illness while coming to grips with how his own past actions might have contributed to it.

For Peter (a devastating Hugh Jackman), things couldn’t be better. He’s a successful attorney working for a big New York City law firm, and he’s just been offered a prominent role in a Delaware senator’s upcoming campaign. At home, he and his second wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby) just had a healthy baby boy. But Peter’s seemingly blissful life is shaken when his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern) unexpectedly shows up at his door and tells him that she’s concerned about their 17-year-old son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath). She mentions his anger, detachment, and the fact that he’s been skipping school for nearly a month.

The next day, Peter stops by Kate’s to see Nicholas. Their conversation stalls mainly because Peter believes his son is simply going through a phase, while Nicholas knows he can’t explain his feelings in a way his father would understand. It ends with Nicholas asking if he can come live with Peter and Beth. Knowing it’s the right thing to do (and possibly out of a sense of guilt), Peter agrees. Beth has concerns, but she stands by her husband.

To Peter’s credit, he loves Nicholas and truly wants what’s best for him. But his blind optimism keeps him from truly seeing his son’s condition. In Peter’s mind, all Nicholas needs is a change of scene – a new school, some new friends, and everything will be alright. Peter even makes an effort to be around more for Nicholas, like a good dad should. It’s all sincere and well-intended, though slightly self-serving. Peter also wants to prove to himself that he’s better than his own vain and coldhearted father (played in one profoundly revealing scene by the indelible Anthony Hopkins).

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

To no surprise, Peter’s efforts only exacerbate the problem. He finds himself routinely suggesting the wrong thing or responding the wrong way. Communication breaks down, deep-seated pain comes to light, animosity and resentment set in. Through it all Zeller maintains a tight rein, and his stagecraft proves to be an asset. He’s very good at fleshing out characters through rich organic dialogue. And in doing so, his cast is given some strong material to work with. Jackman benefits most and gives what may be the best performance of his career. Kirby is excellent as is Dern. Unfortunately the latter disappears for much of the second half which is a shame considering Kate offers a fascinating angle to the story. McGrath is shakier and can’t quite match his seasoned co-stars. He especially struggles in the more emotionally demanding scenes.

In “The Father”, Zeller cleverly used point-of-view to catch us off-guard and pull us into the failing mind of his main character. Here his storytelling is more streamlined and straightforward. But to be honest, that’s exactly what material like this needs. There is a questionable choice at the end that means well but doesn’t really work. Outside of that one noticeable stumble, the storytelling is top-notch, the character work is dynamic, and the handling of subject matter is admirable. It all works to make “The Son” a worthwhile follow up to “The Father” and further establishes Florian Zeller as one of the most exciting dramatic filmmakers of this new batch. I can’t wait to see what he does next. “The Son” opens November 25th in Los Angeles and New York.


REVIEW: “The Stranger” (2022)

Actor, director, producer, screenwriter, and playwright Thomas M. Wright helms “The Stranger”, a new psychological crime thriller inspired by the real-life police investigation into the murder of 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe. In 2003, young Morcombe was abducted while waiting at a bus stop. Eight years later, police arrested Brett Peter Cowan and charged him with Morcombe’s murder. Cowan was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment.

“The Stranger” is based on Kate Kyriacou’s non-fiction book “The Sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe’s Killer”. Wright fictionalizes the intense undercover sting operation that eventually brought the killer to justice. Out of respect for the family, all the real names were changed and the movie (thankfully) makes no attempt at recreating the boy’s death. Instead it stays focused on the police officers – those working covertly in the field and those working behind the scenes putting the pieces together in order to build a case. It does move to its own unique gritty rhythm. But once you get in step with it, it’s hard to turn away.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Wright’s story takes place in 2010, some eight years after the abduction and murder of a young boy James Liston. The police suspect a man named Henry Peter Teague (a cryptically chilling Sean Harris) but they lack the evidence for a conviction. So they set up a Mr. Big operation. That’s when the police create an elaborate ruse meant to fool their suspect into making a confession. It often consists of undercover cops creating a fake organized crime ring and then luring the suspect to join. They then build a relationship with the suspect in hopes of earning their trust.

Joel Edgerton plays a cop going by the assumed name Mark Frame who works in the Undercover Crimes Unit of the Western Australian Police. He’s good at his job and committed to every case. But it’s starting to take a toll. We get references to stress, depression, and trouble sleeping. He’s haunted by terrifying dreams, often connected to his work. And we see him laboring at home to be the best father he can be to his young son.

A fellow deep-cover officer named Paul (Steve Mouzakis) strikes up a conversation with Henry Teague on a late-night bus ride. Paul offers to let Henry in on some small jobs for the make-believe gang he works for. Henry accepts and is introduced to Mark who who takes him under his wing. Mark’s job is to loosen Henry up over time and get him to start talking. But this proves to be difficult and taxing. Since Henry is considered too dangerous for densely populated areas, Mark is ordered to isolate him. But that leaves Mark unprotected and unobserved (aside from his unreliable recording gear). Exasperated and worn down, it becomes a question of whether or not Mark can keep it together long enough to get the confession they need.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

While Mark works in the field, Wright routinely cuts back to Detective Senior Constable Kate Rylett (Jada Alberts). Her side of the story plays as a serious-minded police procedural as she works to put together a case against Henry that will stick. While her scenes feel a bit underserved, they’re still compelling and Wright uses them to offer us another side of the police-work that goes into cases like these.

As “The Stranger” shows, this kind of cop work changes people, and Mark is no different. Is it the prolonged close proximity to evil? Is it the crushing stress? Is it the feeling of isolation? Wright shows how all three wear down his lead character. And Joel Edgerton is essential to conveying Wright’s message, thoroughly convincing in his portrayal of a tortured man slowly losing his edge. It’s a central piece of this understated yet gripping thriller; a key ingredient that makes this cold, moody, and evocative slow-burn work so well. “The Stranger” is now streaming on Netflix


REVIEW: “Smile” (2022)

2022 has been a weird year for horror movies. Per usual, studios have pumped out a steady stream of them; some good and others not so much. But what’s been strange is seeing fair-to-middling horror flicks (à la “Barbarian”, “X”, “Bodies Bodies Bodies”, “Scream”, etc.) being granted ‘instant classic’ status by some truly passionate fan bases. Now don’t get me wrong, these films aren’t in the same abysmal vein as the “Firestarter” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” reboots from earlier this year. Not even close. But it’s strange to see this level of enthusiasm over such unremarkable genre entries.

Thankfully 2022 has had a few good horror movies, including several originals (“Fresh”, “The Black Phone”, “Hatching”), a killer prequel (“Pearl”), and an unexpectedly satisfying sequel (“Orphan: First Kill”). Now we have another one to add to the list of bangers. “Smile” is a genuinely creepy chiller with all the ingredients genre lovers will be looking for. But it’s also surprisingly clever in how it deals with depression, trauma, and even suicide. The film peers beyond the cheery facial expression of its title to show that many things can be hidden behind a simple smile.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

A really good Sosie Bacon plays Dr. Rose Cotter, a therapist at a New Jersey hospital’s emergency psychiatric unit. The film opens with Rose meeting a new patient – a traumatized young woman named Laura (Caitlin Stasey) who recently witnessed the suicide of her college professor. Laura begins telling Rose about her horrific visions. “I’m seeing something,” she says, visibly rattled but unable to put who or what she sees into words. All she can describe is the sinister, blood-chilling smile carved into its face.

Much of Rose’s job is spent trying to convince disturbed people that what they’re seeing is in their minds. But Laura is convinced that her visions are real. Then their session takes a horrifying turn. Laura suddenly calms, an eerie smile spreads across her face, then she slits her own throat right in front of Rose. Cut to title card!

That brilliantly orchestrated opening helps set the tone for the entirety of “Smile”. And it maintains that same unsettling mood for its duration. It’s not often that a horror movie can keep an audience in its clutches quite like this. But first-time feature director Parker Finn (who also wrote the script) deserves a ton of credit for creating and keeping a disquieting atmosphere. He also tells a story that’s simple on the surface, but with harrowing layers, often rooted in truth, that keep us on edge. The film’s biggest weakness comes when Finn loses faith in what he’s crafted and resorts to annoying over-used jump scares.

Reasonably so, Rose is shaken by the events of the opening and after the stress starts affecting her work, she’s asked by her boss (Kal Penn) to take a paid week off to clear her head. But when Rose starts having terrifying visions similar to those described by Laura, suddenly she’s the one who must convince those closest to her that she’s not crazy. It starts with her paper-thin fiancé, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), by far the weakest of the movie’s characters. Then it’s her self-centered sister, Holly (Gillian Zinser), her former therapist, Madeline (Robin Weigert), and even her ex-boyfriend, Joel (Kyle Gallner).

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Of course rather than believing Rose is being tortured by a malevolent spirit who smiles a lot, those close to her think she’s having a mental breakdown. And that gets to part of the genius of “Smile” – the indescribable nature of the entity itself. It makes the victims sound delusional despite describing the evil to the best of their abilities. As she’s constantly doubted, Rose’s growing feelings of isolation and despair only intensifies and opens the door for her own personal traumas to resurface. Soon she’s fighting two wars – one with a devilish supernatural evil and the other within her own head.

With the subtle (and some not-so-subtle) metaphors for mental health and its rich theme of processing past trauma, Parker Finn thrusts us into a world that pulsates with real-life resonance despite its outlandish (yet undeniably fun) premise. Not all of the dot-connecting works particularly well, and the above-mentioned jump scares cheapen things a bit. But Finn creates and sustains a gnawing tension, leaning on some gruesome visual effects, DP Charlie Sarroff’s disorienting camera, and the droning and wailing of Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s mood-setting score. It all makes for a gnarly cocktail; one packed with as many surprises as frights. “Smile” is out now in theaters.


REVIEW: “The Silent Twins” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska, “The Silent Twins” is based on the book of the same name by investigative journalist and author Marjorie Wallace (portrayed briefly in the film by Jodhi May). Wallace met June and Jennifer Gibbons in 1982 after they had been committed to the notorious Broadmoor Hospital in Crowthorne, Berkshire, England. Over several years and numerous visits, Wallace eventually earned the sisters’ trust and was given the opportunity to chronicle their troubling story.

For those unfamiliar with June and Jennifer Gibbons, this isn’t an easy watch. The approach by Smoczyńska and screenwriter Andrea Seigel is unconventional, but it sharply captures the emotional complexity of the sisters’ story. The film can be sweet, heartbreaking, insightful, and even a bit bizarre at times. But it’s the humanity that matters most in a movie like this. The filmmakers understand that and never lose their grasp of that truth.

The film begins during June and Jennifer’s childhood (they’re played by two talented young actresses, Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter). Their family are immigrants from Barbados who moved the UK as part of the Windrush Generation. Their father Aubrey (Treva Etienne) is an air traffic controller while their mother Gloria (Nadine Marshall) is a hardworking housewife.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

While the film doesn’t explore it, there’s a racial dynamic at play especially at school where June and Jennifer are the only black students. This leads to some disturbing scenes of bullying and abuse that impact the girls’ lives in a significant way. But what affects them most is a pact of silence they make, developing a form of cryptophasia and refusing to communicate with anyone other than themselves. Their utter silence crushes their parents and siblings and drives a wedge between them and their family. It also creates an unhealthy dependence between them.

The longer the sisters stay closed off, the more isolated the pair become. They begin seeing the world through their imaginations rather than experiencing it. To get us inside their heads, Smoczyńska periodically inserts these stop-motion puppet sequences inspired by June and Jennifer’s unique perceptions. They’re often cryptic and metaphorical; sometimes borderline macabre and unsettling. But it’s an ingenious way of conveying the way the two girls think and feel.

Another way Smoczyńska explores their mindsets is through DP Jakub Kijowski’s camera. We often get these daydream sequences which visualize the romanticized way June and Jennifer imagine certain experiences. These scenes often have a bright golden hue, and Kijowski plays with focus which accentuates their dreamy quality. Contrast that with the cold, harsh color palette whenever Smoczyńska switches back to reality.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

While the entire movie is achingly sad, it’s most despairing moments come after the story shifts to June and Jennifer’s late teen years. Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance are extraordinary in portraying this darker phase of the sisters’ life. They share a dream of becoming published authors, but their lack of real-world connection leaves their stories lacking. But their attempts at rectifying that leads them down some bad paths. It begins when both June and Jennifer develop an infatuation with an abusive jock named Wayne (Jack Bandeira). He introduces them to drugs and takes advantage of them in a number of cruel and vile ways.

From there the girls watch their lives spiral, leading to them getting into trouble with the law and eventually being institutionalized in Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital. Through it all their pact of silence remained intact. But it’s also a key reason they find themselves confined and more isolated than ever before. And we watch every painful step through Smoczyńska’s ever-observing camera. Sometimes we feel like the third person in the room. Other times it’s as if we’re peering around corners or through doorways. These visual choices allow us to see these two lives in significantly different ways.

While Smoczyńska’s approach to the story gives us a lot to admire, there are times where her flourishes don’t quite connect. And the movie’s fleeting interest in the factors that led to June and Jennifer’s mental descent leaves too much untold. At the same time, “The Silent Twins” is most interested in capturing their experiences rather than exploring roots causes. And by keeping its focus directly on them, it gives us a better chance at understand where the two sisters are coming from even if we only get sketches of where they’ve been. “The Silent Twins” is now showing in select theaters.


REVIEW: “See How They Run” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

First time feature film director Tom George teams with screenwriter Mark Chappell for the old-fashioned mystery caper “See How They Run”. With a strong cast and plenty of nostalgic charm, this playful and thoroughly enjoyable whodunit is a full-blown homage that balances suspense with a healthy dose of chuckles. It’s as much of a comedy as it is a murder mystery – one full of dry humor, deadpan deliveries, and a not-so-subtle air of absurdity that had me laughing quite a bit.

Among the many amusing things about “See How They Run” is its connection to Agatha Christie’s renowned stage play “The Mousetrap” which opened in 1952 at London’s Ambassadors Theater. Now here we are, 70 years later, and it’s still being performed in London’s West End. Despite a 14-month mandatory shutdown in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “The Mousetrap” remains the world’s longest-running play, with nearly 29,000 performances to date.

Yet there has never been a proper film adaptation of “The Mouse Trap”. That’s because Christie had worked a clause into her contract that said no film could be made until six months after the production closed. Seven decades later and the show is still going strong. “See How They Run” waggishly plays with that obvious constraint by creating an original whodunit around Christie’s beloved whodunit. More specifically, the film is loosely based on early plans to make “The Mouse Trap” into a movie. But with a little fictional murder thrown in, of course.

Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Set in 1953 London, the cast and crew of “The Mouse Trap” are at the Ambassadors Theater celebrating the play’s 100th performance. This snappy opening is narrated by the ghost of Leo Köpernick (a terrific Adrien Brody) who’s recounting the events that led up to his murder. Leo describes himself as a “big shot Hollywood director“, but he’s more of a condescending lush. And within the film’s first few minutes, he’s bumped off in the theater’s backstage costume room. But why is a Hollywood guy like Leo at the party? Even more, who would want him dead?

We learn in Leo’s introduction that prominent theater impresario Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson) has sold “The Mouse Trap” film rights to John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), the famed British producer behind “The African Queen”. Woolf has hired Leo to direct his adaptation once the play closes (and following Christie’s six month stipulation). While at the party Leo butts heads with the film’s preening and forcefully proper screenwriter, Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo). He even comes to comical blows with the play’s dashing young star, Richard Attenborough (Harrison Dickinson) after Leo makes a play for the actor’s wife, Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda). And just like that, we have the first draft of our suspect list.

In very Agatha Christie fashion, George and Chappell offer up ample motives for these characters to want Leo dead. Could it be creative differences? Maybe he has dirt on them? Perhaps it’s something more complicated? All we need is someone the untangle this mess of a mystery. Enter the unlikely Scotland Yard duo of Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).

Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The not-so-hard-boiled Stoppard looks fresh out of a low-budget 1950s noir with his felt hat, frumpy suit, and wool topcoat. He checks off many of the boxes – cynical, world-weary, prefers to work alone. But Rockwell brings an understated goofiness to the character and pulls some good laughs out of the Stoppard’s obvious detachment. The chatty, enthusiastic Stalker makes a perfect foil for her aggressively aloof partner. Ronan is delightful and channels a similar comedic energy as in her movies with Wes Anderson. She not only gives us the story’s most likable character, but also its funniest.

“See How They Run” is full of creative flourishes that work really well. Take Leo’s opening narration where he gets sidetracked talking about how whodunits work (“You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”). He amusingly recites the very rules our movie will be playing by. You also have George’s clever incorporation of flashbacks and his stylish use of split-screen which may feel a little arbitrary at first, but that makes sense once you realize what the movie is going for. There are also some fun inside jokes for theater fans and some good ribs at Old Hollywood. And the movie looks great and period proper, from Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s fantastic costumes to Amanda McArthur’s stellar production design.

Now I don’t want to oversell it. “See How They Run” isn’t something revolutionary. Yet I kinda love this cheeky throwback. Sure, it plays it safe and doesn’t take its genre to any bold new place. But you could say that’s the point. As Leo emphasizes, we know the rules. We’ve seen these movies before. Yet (much like “The Mousetrap”) they’re still here, we still watch, and we still enjoy them. George and Chappell look to celebrate these classic whodunits while poking fun at them along the way. It turns out to be a charming mix. “See How They Run” opens today in theaters everywhere.


REVIEW: “Samaritan” (2022)

Samaritan and Nemesis were super-powered twin brothers who went down dramatically different paths after their parents were killed. Samaritan served and protected the people of Granite City. Driven by fury and revenge, Nemesis fought against law and order. The two became sworn enemies which culminated in an epic battle ending in the deaths of both brothers. The loss of their superhero now hangs over the city like a shroud.

That’s the gist of the opening setup for the new movie “Samaritan”, a superhero action film but not in the tradition sense. In fact, you could call “Samaritan” an anti-superhero movie with the way it gleefully tosses aside both the tropes and expectations commonly attached to modern day superhero flicks. To its credit, “Samaritan” has its own ideas, and there’s enough originality in the story to make this feel surprisingly fresh. It also has a welcomed edge to it – something that caught me off guard.

Julius Avery directs from a script by Bragi F. Schut, and the film is produced by Sylvester Stallone’s Balboa Productions. The story follows 13-year-old Sam (Javon Walton), a Samaritan super-fan who soon begins to suspect that his neighbor, a grizzled, blue-collar sanitation worker named Joe Smith (Stallone), is his beloved (and long thought dead) hero. To no surprise the truth eventually comes out, but it’s the path to that reveal that ended up being far more entertaining than I anticipated.

One of the first things you immediately notice is the impressive inner-city world-building. The poverty-stricken Granite City is on the verge of collapse. Union strikes and unemployment has hit the urban areas the hardest with homelessness and crime on the rise. Avery captures the decaying city with remarkable detail. The weathered concrete and asphalt; the rust and grime; the graffiti covered walls and the trash collecting along the streets. Avery gives us an authentic sense of place.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

This is the world Sam lives in with his struggling single mother (Dascha Polanco). She works long hours at low-paying jobs just to pay their rent. In the meantime Sam runs around with his buddy Jace (Abraham Clinkscales) stripping copper wire out of old abandoned buildings for a few bucks. But when he gets in with a local hood named Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), Sam learns there’s no such thing as easy money.

Sam, who has bought into the theory that Samaritan actually survived his epic fight with Nemesis and is secretly living among them, Begins taking notice of Joe who lives in an adjacent apartment building. After watching him manhandle a pack of thugs, Sam becomes convinced that Joe is none other than Granite City’s lost hero. While the two develop an unexpected friendship, Cyrus connects with his inner Nemesis and hatches a plan to carry out his super-powered idol’s ultimate plan – plunge Granite City into anarchy and chaos in the name of “returning the power to the people”.

And like that the pieces are in play for the bulk of the story which bops along at a fun and energetic pace. Stallone gives a solid performance and slides seamlessly into his role. His tired eyes and deep growl fits his frustrated, world-weary character. But we also get hints of a buried softer side, specifically in Joe’s scenes with Sam. Best of all, their scenes together aren’t what we’re used to getting. Rather than the usual cloying, superficial mush, this is a kid/adult friendship that feels organic, both in how it begins and grows.

The eventual action beats are done pretty well, using a mix of the 76-year-old Stallone, stunt doubles, and some decent CGI. Like much of the movie, the action has grit, but it’s not over-the-top or excessively brutal. And as most things, it’s done in a way that fits well with the story. As far as the villain goes, Asbæk has an appearance that’s a cross between a cartoon and Kiefer Sutherland from “The Lost Boys”. But minus a couple of goofy chest-pounding moments, he makes for a good baddie. And he too is a nice fit for this ‘superhero movie in name only’ feature. One that nicely separates itself from all the others in the genre. Yes, it’s a little corny in a few spots, but it has its boots planted in the real world. And it has a few nice surprises that turned out to be icing on the cake. “Samaritan” premieres today on Amazon Prime Video.