REVIEW: “Unhinged” (2020)

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Movie theaters all around the country are welcoming back audiences with “Unhinged”, long advertised as the first major new release to come out on the big screen in five months. After several delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, the movie is finally set to open exclusively in theaters this weekend. “Unhinged” is a road-rage thriller from director Derrick Borte and writer Carl Ellsworth that starts off with a pulpy bang, foregoing all niceties and getting right to the dirty work of putting a face to its title.

In its terrific tone-setting opening, we see a man played by Russell Crowe sitting in his pickup truck as rain pours down from the night sky. He looks haggard and empty – his nerves clearly shot. He pops some pills, pulls off his wedding band and flicks it over his shoulder. With a sudden glance of calm resolution, he steps out into the downpour, pulls a long claw hammer and a gas can from his backseat and walks to the front door of a two-story suburban home. The violence that follows firmly sets him as the film’s antagonist and all before the title hits the screen.

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Photo Courtesy of Solstice Studios

That shocking prologue puts “Unhinged” in an interesting place. It’s a rousing, savage introduction that sets high expectations which the rest of the movie works hard trying to reach (it never quite does). One thing is for sure, Borte’s shrewd table-setting gets its hooks in the audience and Crowe’s grim manifestation of modern society’s festering angst, fury, and incivility leaves you glued to the screen.

Not wanting to overplay its ‘crazy man’ hand, the movie pivots to its main story. Recently divorced Rachel (Caren Pistorius) has hit rock-bottom, struggling financially while trying to take care of her young son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman). After oversleeping she speeds through the dense traffic of an unnamed city (filmed in and around New Orleans) to get her frustrated son to school on time. “Three tardies is an automatic detention” Kyle grumbles, used to his mother’s perpetual lateness.

Rachel pulls up behind a pickup at a traffic light. The light turns green but the truck doesn’t budge. A stressed Rachel lays on her horn and swerves around followed by an angry flip of her hand. At the next light the truck pulls beside her, the man from the prologue in the driver’s seat. He rolls down his window and explains that he’s been having a rough go and apologizes demanding Rachel do the same. When he doesn’t get the response he’s looking for his poorly veiled indignation boils over. “I don’t think you even know what a bad day is.” he seethes. “But you’re gonna find out.”

The encounter sets the single-minded story in motion as the deranged madman terrorizes Rachel for the duration of the movie’s running time. The man (who calls himself Tom Cooper in one scene but is hardly convincing) follows Rachel around the city, actually getting her phone at one point and threatening to kill her loved ones. “Who’s going to die? Or do you want me to play Russian roulette with your contact list?” Borte squeezes out everything he can from the simple story, cranking the tension level to 10 and not shying away from amping up the gruesome nature of the violence.

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Photo Courtesy of Solstice Studios

Pistorius makes for a solid protagonist, ably portraying a single mother down on her luck but not without her own shortcomings. She’s steadily convincing whether conveying abject terror or mama bear grit when protecting her son. But it’s Crowe who takes no time reminding us of his A-list acting chops. We know from the chilling opening that his character has more going on than a simple case of the Mondays. But Crowe goes all-in, bulling through scenes with sadistic blunt force. He’s the one people will be talking about.

“Unhinged” is a simple yet satisfying thriller that by the end turns into full-on maniacal horror. Its simplicity is its biggest flaw. While the film aggressively barrels forward, it sticks to its one single lane and never taking a detour. You know where it’s going to end. Still the trip there is worthwhile in large part thanks to Crowe and the unsettling menace he brings to the screen. You never doubt his character’s burning hatred towards everything living including himself. It’s great to see Crowe in top form once again. “Unhinged” opens Friday only in theaters.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Uncorked” (2020)

UNCORKEDposterThe new Netflix drama “Uncorked” tells the age-old story of a demanding father and a dutiful son. The father has plans for his son, but the son has dreams of his own. It’s a tried-and-true formula and well-plowed movie ground. Yet despite its familiar premise, “Uncorked” has its own welcomed flavor and is pleasant enough going down. And with that I promise no more wine-inspired puns.

Writer-director Prentice Penny caught the wine bug while attending a wedding in Paris. He quickly began soaking up books and documentaries as well as taking a wine studies class. All of this helped inspire “Uncorked” which sees a young man named Elijah (Mamoudou Athie) sporting a passionate interest in wine. The problem is his father Louis (Courtney B. Vance) runs a BBQ restaurant that was handed down to him from his father. “This place is historic,” Louis says. “Frankie Beverly had a stroke here.

Obviously Louis’ plan is for Elijah to one day take over the place. But he grows frustrated at his son’s lack of interest which (predictably) drives a wedge between them. As is often the case, it’s the mother who plays referee/voice of reason. Here she’s played by a fun but affecting Niecy Nash. While we have seen this whole family dynamic in numerous other films, Penny and his cast inject a strong dose of personality and authenticity while showcasing a welcomed perspective on the black experience not often represented in cinema.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Athie’s subdued performance hits it mark in giving us a conflicted twenty-something who feels an obligation to his family while dreaming of becoming a master sommelier (for the unlearned like me, a sommelier is a trained wine professional who specializes in wine services for fine restaurants). He finds encouragement in his new girlfriend Tanya (a terrific Sasha Compère) and his mother backs his enthusiasm. But it all comes back to his father who only thinks of the restaurant and his expectations for his son.

The central conflict plays out as you might expect, but it’s getting there that makes “Uncorked” feel fresh. First off, Penny nimbly walks a fine line and keeps Louis from being an all-out villain. You’ll want to pull his hair out at times, but Penny gives the character several dimensions and imbues him with enough human complexity to avoid caricature. In fact I can see Louis striking a chord with many people who will see shades of their own fathers.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

I also like the scenes with the rest of Elijah’s family, many of whom are endowed with their own special eccentricities. Penny gives them all a role in Elijah’s story whether it’s back-and-forths at the BBQ joint or the comical dinner table rapport when they all gather to eat. All of these side players breathe a lot of life into the story. So does the Memphis setting which moves in the background like a silent supporting character. The hip hop interludes aren’t quite as effective although I appreciate what Penny is going for.

As Elijah decides to pursue his dream the movie shifts to Paris but home is always somewhere in the scene. And while Penny allows us to dip our toes into wine culture, he doesn’t bypass Deep South urban living and all of it’s moving intimacies and bitter realities. And despite being built on an all-too-familiar framework, there is enough fresh meat on its bones to make “Uncorked” as enjoyable as a plate of Louis’ scrumptious ribs. Okay, maybe not that good but you get what I’m saying.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Underwater” (2020)

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Readers of this modest little site probably know I have a soft spot for all kinds of science-fiction. That even includes movies like “Underwater”, a sci-fi/horror/survival mashup from director William Eubank. The movie follows a pretty familiar path – survivors find themselves trapped after a catastrophic event and must find a way to escape. Of course they won’t all make it out (they never do in these things). But who survives and who doesn’t, that is the question.

“Underwater” isn’t all that interested in setup or background. It opens with a series of images and reports that tell us a giant corporation is drilling for resources on the ocean floor deep down in the crescent-shaped Mariana Trench. From there the movie wastes no time getting going. We are immediately dropped nearly seven miles below the ocean’s surface where we meet Norah. She’s played by Kristen Stewart with cropped blonde hair almost as if she were prepping for a Jean Seberg biopic.

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© 20th Century Fox Pictures All Rights Reserved

Norah is a mechanical engineer living and working on the Keppler 822 Deep Sea Station. Within a minute of actually screen time she begins hearing strange noises which are never a good sign. In an instant the hull of the facility begins to crack and Pacific Ocean water gushes in at every seam. Norah instinctually springs into action sprinting towards a hub where she is joined by a tech named Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie). The two seal off the hub and begin their search for other survivors. The entire opening sequence is tense, energetic, even a bit thrilling.

Norah and Rodrigo eventually meet up with a handful of other station dwellers. Several of them fit particular types common to these movies: the stoic captain (Vincent Cassel),  the terrified young technician who everyone tries to keep calm (Jessica Henwick), and the yawn-worthy comic relief (T.J. Miller before his litany of bad behavior had surfaced). None of the characters really develop past what you first see although Stewart deserves credit. She works hard to bring a welcomed vulnerability to Norah who turns out to be a tough woman but a very human one as well.

While the movie starts strong it’s hampered by a hit-or-miss mid-section. Way too much time is spent walking along the ocean floor in the dark murky waters. At first the tension is thick as the survivors come face-to-face with the harsh environment while an unknown and unseen predator prowls around in the shadows. But it eventually runs its course. And so much time in the water leads to several instances of undecipherable effects shots.

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© 20th Century Fox Pictures All Rights Reserved

“Underwater” gets back on track in the third act where it fully embraces its ‘creature feature’ influences. Unfortunately the story doesn’t get any deeper and some character motivations are still a little muddled. But for a movie that languished in development purgatory for three years following Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, it ends up being a fun although shallow (horrible pun intended) popcorn genre flick.

There are some who for whatever reason have zero tolerance for these kinds of movies. Perhaps its the redundancy of ideas or the predictable story structures. Maybe it’s the stock characters or their lack of depth. Those gripes aren’t without merit. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to have with these genre pictures. All of those things describe “Underwater” to a T. It’s not all that original and it has some character issues. At the same time it’s a fun deep-sea survival romp that essentially delivers on its promises.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Uncut Gems” (2019)

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I can’t tell you the last time I was genuinely curious about an Adam Sandler movie. Maybe 2002 with “Punch Drunk Love”? His latest man-child venture, the blandly titled but propulsive “Uncut Gems”, reminds us that when given the right kind material Sandler is more than capable of keeping your attention. And he certainly keeps you watching here even when other elements of the film test your endurance.

“Uncut Gems” comes from the directing duo of Josh and Benny Safdie. The pair also co-wrote the film along with Ronald Bronstein. It doesn’t take long to notice the movie doesn’t have much in terms of narrative. The Safdies seem far more interested in breaking the single movie f-bomb record than really putting together a compelling plot. Obviously I’m being a little facetious, but with the exception of a character or two, no one can hardly utter a line of dialogue without it. It’s a pretty big distraction.

The story is as simple as this: Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a sleazy jeweler working in New York’s Diamond District who owes some really bad people a lot of money (for what, I don’t know). We do learn he is a compulsive high-stakes sports gambler and he’ll pawn off anything for money whether it belongs to him or not. We end up following him around for over two hours as he works different angles to try and score some cash to pay off his debt. It requires a lot of lying, a lot of yelling, and a lot of avoiding various people he owes.

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Howard thinks he has found the answer to all his problems when he gets his hands on a rare Ethiopian opal which he values at $1 million. Normally that would be an incredible score, but Howard fails to consider his one biggest hurdle – himself. He’s a natural screw-up and after one irresponsible act here and a poor choice there he finds himself deeper in trouble than he was before.

The Safdies do try to add a little depth to Howard by throwing in some scenes with his estranged wife (Idina Menzel) and kids. To no one’s surprise they don’t like him very much since he’s proven himself to be self-centered and unreliable. About the only person who does is his girlfriend-on-the-side Julia (Julia Fox) who he secretly shares an apartment with. She’ll pretty much help him with anything and forgive him regardless of what he does.

None of the family scenes add much other than to establish his credentials as a crappy husband and father and also that he is Jewish. But again, the Safdies aren’t too concerned with that. They’re all about propelling forward at an adrenalized fever-pitch. The film’s aggressive pacing is relentless. There’s no nuance or complexity. It simply wants you to grab hold and brace yourself as it bulls forward. Stop to look for more and you’re going to be disappointed.

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One of the film’s big upsides is Darius Khondji’s kinetic cinematography. Khondji has shot several films I truly love including “Se7en” with David Fincher, “Midnight in Paris” with Woody Allen, and “Amour” with Michael Haneke. Here he creates a gritty, street-level aesthetic that maintains this steady fluorescent glow. He uses tight closeups and assertive camera movements which gives the movie some extra kick.

Many have mentioned anxiety and frazzled nerves when talking about “Uncut Gems”. I didn’t really have that kind of reaction. Instead I found myself asking more questions than I should have. How has Howard not been arrested? How has he not been killed? How does he still have a business? How is he still married? How can so many people be swindled (either emotionally or in business) buy such an obvious scumbag? I guess you could argue that Howard is shrewd and charismatic. But in “Uncut Gems” all we see is him consistently failing. But again, the Safdie’s are more interested in the ride.

So if you’re into what the Safdies are doing you’ll probably love this. But for others it will be similar to colonoscopy we see at the very beginning – extremely unpleasant. Sandler’s character may not be the best company, but his performance is solid. All of them are including from Lakeith Stanfield and NBA star Kevin Garnett. But I think you could make a case that this film wants to be off-putting. If so, mission accomplished.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Unicorn Store”

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Brie Larson’s directorial debut “Unicorn Store” is a movie destined to leave some of its audience scratching their heads. Bathed in glitter and pastels and juggling more themes than you would expect, Larson gives us a weird little concoction with a sweet, whimsical flavor that I kinda fell for.

Larson not only directs but stars as Kit, an aspiring artist who has her dreams shattered by her snobbish art professor. Dejected and cash-strapped, she moves back in with her hyper-motivated parents (really funny turns from Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford). It’s a big blow for a young woman still clinging to her childhood ideals. She finally crawls out of her melancholy, caves to her parents wishes, and joins the uninspired everyday work force.

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Kit lands a job as a temp at a public relations agency, a workplace filled with ambition-quenching monotony and one creepy boss named Gary (a wonderfully absurd Hamish Linklater). Kit tries to assimilate but her rainbow colored dreams are kept alive thanks to a series of elaborate invitation cards that lead her to “The Store”. It’s ran by the truly bizarre Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) who tells her his shop can provide whatever she needs.

The movie’s title probably gives it away, but Kit asks for a unicorn. A real one mind you although the metaphors are aplenty. The screenplay from newcomer Samantha McIntyre treats Kit with tons of sympathy and respect. She and Larson challenge us to do the same – to look at Kit through an empathetic lens. Everyone in the film wants Kit to change and be someone she isn’t. The exception is Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), a learn-on-the-fly handyman and the lone person who accepts Kit for who she is.

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Larson’s direction makes for a nice behind-the-camera debut. It doesn’t showcase a ton of flair but it’s proficient, nimble, and steady. She doesn’t overreach and has a nice actor-like way of highlighting her characters. That leads to her performance which is warm, charming and utterly convincing. And fans of “Captain Marvel” will instantly recognize the chemistry between Larson and Jackson. This was wrapped up prior to her big Marvel splash, but you can already see how well the two work together. Linklater, Athie, Cusack, and Whitford are all strong in supporting roles. Also toss in a very funny Karan Soni.

“Unicorn Store” slyly straddles the line between celebrating and embracing our inner child and finding identity and fulfillment in the real world. I can see it being too quirky for some. Maybe it is lighthearted to a fault and too optimistic for our cynical current-day climate. But despite its flaws I found it to be warm, charming and packed with a ton of heart and far more laughs than I expected. Even more, it’s a really good performance from Larson and a satisfying directorial debut. I’m anxious to see what she does next.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

 

REVIEW: “Us”

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After the enormous success of “Get Out” writer-director Jordan Peele found himself the object of near universal acclaim. Since the earliest screenings of his sophomore effort “Us” the acclamation has only intensified. He has already been heralded as “the new Hitchcock” and “the next Spielberg”. And one blurb has christened his newest movie “The Best Horror Film of All Time”. That’s an absurd level of praise and completely unfair to a filmmaker with only two movies under his belt.

“Get Out” was a movie full of big ideas but hardly what you would call groundbreaking execution. The sheer audacity of its story seemed to be enough for most people to overlook its gaping plot holes and third act sloppiness. “Us”, same genre but a much different movie, suffers from none of those same problems. In fact, it turns out to be a fascinating mélange of smart, well-measured comedy and straight-forward psychological horror but with a host of extra flavors tossed in. Most importantly, it’s a wonderfully original bit of horror which is something the genre is always in need of.

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© 2019 Universal Pictures All Rights Reserved

Peele begins his chilling and twisted tale with a really well crafted prologue set in 1986. On the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk a young girl named Adelaide wanders off from her parents and into a rinky-dink funhouse. She’s found there shortly after but not before a traumatizing encounter leaves her shaken to the core.

Jump ahead to the present day. A grown-up Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) arrives at her family’s lakeside vacation home with her garrulous and daffy husband Gabe (Winston Duke), their early-stage teen rebel daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and their precocious young son Jason (Evan Alex). Adelaide hasn’t shared her childhood trauma with Gabe who is understandably confused when she pushes back on his plans for an afternoon at Santa Cruz Beach.

Adelaide gives in and they head to the beach to hang out with fellow upper middle-classers Josh and Kitty Tyler (played by Tim Heidecker and Elizabeth Moss) and their two snooty daughters. But when Jason wanders off it’s deja vu for Adelaide. She finds her son but is clearly rattled and the family outing is cut short. Back at the lakehouse Adelaide and Gabe are hashing it out when Jason notices a creepy family lurking in the driveway. If you’ve seen the trailers you know these aren’t just pesky neighbors. They’re doppelgängers – ghoulish copies of Adelaide and her family. But what do they want and where are they from?

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© 2019 Universal Pictures All Rights Reserved

I’d be doing a major disservice if I went any further because the less you know the better the experience. Let’s just say the terror kicks in and “Us” takes the early form of a home invasion flick. But as it ventures further down Peele’s rabbit hole it slyly and in some instances gruesomely branches into several frightening new directions.

This is also where Peele’s interest in duality comes fully into focus. It’s seen not only within the narrative and the characters but also the cast members who play both the family of four and their macabre copies. All of them are good but it’s Nyong’o who shines brightest (Oscar I hope you’re watching?). When she steps into the skin of Red, her sinister other self, her performance takes on an otherworldly aura. From her eerie off-kilter mannerisms to her gurgling voice laced with a menacing wheeze. It’s fabulously unsettling.

You could argue that Peele has too much on his mind and that he has a hard time corralling his plethora of ideas and themes. Strangely I actually see its broader ambition as a strength. “Get Out” had a much tighter focus but its delivery was messier. With “Us” the aim may be a little messy but Peele brings it together with sharp instincts and a better grasp of scene-to-scene storytelling and tension-building. Best of all he maintains a level of uncertainty and ambiguity which allows for a variety of interpretations depending on the set of eyes you’re looking through. And oh how well he uses Michael Abels’ brilliantly chilling score.

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© 2019 Universal Pictures All Rights Reserved

While “Us” is not specifically about race Peele has intimated his desire for audiences to see a black family as simply that – a black family and nothing more. But even that is a sly way of challenging his viewers. Much of “Us” works that way – dealing with themes in subtle yet effective ways. The lone exception being a specific scene with a certain obscenity-jacked N.W.A. song blaring in the background. Funny at first, bludgeoning by the end. Most will love it but it’s the one instance where Peele gets a little sidetracked and the scene takes a hit because of it.

While many will point to “Get Out” as Jordan Peele’s seminal work, for me “Us” is the movie that puts him among those significant filmmakers to keep an eye on. What he does in “Us” isn’t stumbled upon. It comes from a shrewd understanding of his craft. He’ll have you scouring every scene for clues and digging deep for philosophical meanings. He’ll have you tense and on the edge of your seat wondering what comes next. And as he’s exploring this idea that “we all have a dark side”, he brings an entirely new meaning to the phrase ‘afraid of your own shadow’.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

 

4-5-stars