Sundance Review: “Watcher” (2022)

A young couple moves into a new apartment in Bucharest, Romania just as news of a serial killer sweeps across the city. That’s the surface level setup for director and co-writer Chloe Okuno’s “Watcher”. But underneath its genre exterior is a clever and shrewdly made exploration of fear, isolation, and a woman’s need to be heard and believed. Those are the things Okuno is most interested in bringing to light.

This psychological slow-burn stars Maika Monroe as Julia, a former actress who leaves New York City and follows her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) to Bucharest following his recent job promotion. While she puts on a good show, you can’t help but sense Julia’s anxiety as she tries to adjust to her new surroundings. It’s a piece of cake for Francis who knows the language and plugs right in at work. But it’s harder for Julia, who doesn’t know anyone in Bucharest and doesn’t speak Romanian.

While Francis works long hours at his new job, Julia spends most of her time alone. She tries getting out and exploring the city. But without fail, the language barrier always comes into play. She can’t talk with her loud and abrasive landlady. She can’t understand the television reports of a suspected serial killer on the loose. Even standing in a group with Francis and his Romanian-speaking colleagues leaves her feeling like an outsider.

Among Okuno’s many good choices was the decision not to use subtitles. Romanian is spoken a lot in the film, and every word of it is subtitle-free. It’s a smart move that goes hand-in-hand with Okuno’s desire to put us in Julia’s headspace; to enable us to feel what she feels. For Okuno, the film’s visual language is essential to representing Julia’s state of mind. There are some clever tricks with the lensing and framing that create vast, seemingly empty spaces that emphasize Julia’s growing feelings of isolation. There are also interesting uses of color to convey mood and an increasing sense of dread.

The more time Julia spends alone, the more she withdraws. Fear and paranoia set in after she begins noticing a man from the apartment building across the street watching her from his fifth floor window. All she can see is a silhouette, but she’s soon convinced her watcher is the same man as the one who has been creepily following her around town (played by the always captivating Burn Gorman). Her fears are exacerbated after a woman is found murdered in their neighborhood – a death that is later attributed to the serial killer known as “The Spider”. A shaken Julia shares her suspicions with Francis who quickly brushes it off as “stress”.

Another of Okuno and her co-writer Zack Ford’s good choices was the decision not to paint Francis as the proverbial ‘bad guy’. In fact he’s quite the opposite. He genuinely loves and cares for Julia. At the same time, you want to hurl your shoe at the screen each time he attempts to explain away her unease. And he doesn’t even know he’s doing it. You could say he’s oblivious to his own condescension.

But Julia wants answers and before long she becomes the watcher, determined to connect the man stalking her to the shadowy figure in the window. This is where inspirations like Hitchcock, Polanski, and Lynch really come into focus. Yet even as the movie begins playing more with genre in the second half, it keeps us firmly planted in Julia’s head. It’s a tricky balance which works in large part thanks to Monroe who offers the right mix of vulnerability and fortitude.

“Watcher” is an eye-opening and artful directorial debut for Chloe Okuno who uses her deceptively simple premise to challenge those quick to doubt and dismiss female victims. Shot on location in Bucharest, the film uses the city’s beauty as both inviting and terrifying. DP Benjamin Kirk Nielsen, production designer Nora Dumitrescu, and composer Nathan Halpern all work in unison to ensure that we feel the same loneliness and dread as Julia. Ultimately that’s the key. Okuno wants her audience to enjoy the thriller genre dressing. But it’s the moody reflective psychodrama she wants us to sink our teeth into.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Wasteland” (2022)

The slow-boiling, atmosphere-heavy psychological horror film “The Wasteland” is among the first of Netflix’s 2022 offerings. It’s also a great way to kick off the movie year especially for horror fans. Set in 19th century Spain, the movie’s rich period setting brings with it a distinct folk horror flavor. But the psychological edge is just as potent, and it’s examination of heavy themes such as fear and isolation leave a strong impression.

Horror is a tricky thing these days. The genre can’t be narrowed down or painted with broad strokes. And while too many creepers come across as derivative and old hat, there are still filmmakers who are constantly finding new ways to use horror. “The Wasteland” certainly falls among the latter.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Directed by David Casademunt from a script he wrote with Fran Menchón and Martí Lucas, “The Wasteland” begins by telling us of consecutive wars in Spain that drove many people to isolate themselves in an effort to escape the “violence and madness”. We’re then immediately taken to a vast barren moor where a small stone house sits alone in the middle of nowhere. It’s where young Diego (Asier Flores) lives with his stern and rigid father, Salvador (Roberto Álamo) and his gentle and tender mother Lucia (Imma Cuesta).

Salvador is a sad and distant man, determined to prepare his son for the harshness of the outside world. There are only bad people out there, he explains to his son. He also tells of a beast which feeds on the fears of its victims. “Once you see the beast”, he ominously warns Diego, “you’re doomed forever.” Lucia scolds her husband for scaring the young boy with such tales. But Salvador’s solemn eyes and the tall posts draped in tattered cloth that he’s built around their property gives you the uncomfortable sense he believes it.

Things take a turn after a rickety boat floats up in a nearby stream. Aboard lies a man, bloody and unconscious. After the man dies (in one of the film’s more shocking moments), Salvador finds a picture in the stranger’s pocket. Its of the man and his family. It leads an already troubled Salvador to make a rash decision and take the stranger back to his family, leaving his own to fend for themselves while he’s gone.

As days turn to weeks, Diego watches as his mother begin to drift away, seeing things lurking in the shadows or behind bushes. Does she now see the beast? And as the security Diego once had in his mother starts to fade, will he too be terrorized by the fear-consuming creature?

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Casademunt poses these questions by slyly making us feel a part of this slowly deteriorating family. Through his sharp pacing, smart visual choices, and Balter Gallart’s fantastic production design, we’re able to feel the same isolation and fear they feel. It mostly comes through young Diego’s eyes whose perspective is raw, emotional, and sincere. But it also comes through the camera – the exquisite framing as well as the crafty use of focus, shadows, and angles.

There are other touches that soak us in atmosphere and sustain the film’s foreboding mood. Little details such as the eerie wood-carved toy figures or the macabre nursery rhymes and children’s songs Lucia sings to Diego. But it comes back to examining fear and feelings of lonliness and isolation. It’s a tough subject especially during this pandemic era we still find ourselves in. But Casademunt uses horror to explore it all in a way that should impress viewers whether they’re fans of the genre or not. “The Wasteland” is now showing on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “West Side Story” (2021)

Let’s be honest, there aren’t many filmmakers out there who can suddenly decide to make a musical and it turn out to be something truly extraordinary. Yet that’s exactly what Steven Spielberg has done with “West Side Story”. Think about it, he’s the man behind the camera for such movies as “Jaws”, “E.T.”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Jurassic Park”, and “Saving Private Ryan”. And now he’s given us the best movie musical of 2021 and one of the very best since the genre’s recent resurgence.

Story has it that Spielberg has wanted to adapt Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 Broadway musical for years. It took a while, but now late in his incredible career he’s given the chance. There are so many ways this could’ve went bad. But Spielberg isn’t simply remaking the well-known Natalie Wood led 1961 adaptation. He and screenwriter Tony Kushner offer a surprisingly fresh take on the story while still capturing that classic movie musical style.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

The story is set in 1950s New York City and it’s a time of obvious change. There’s a growing Puerto Rican community in the city’s West Side. Meanwhile poor families are losing their homes to powerful land developers who were buying up blocks and tearing down old apartment buildings with plans to replace them with fancier lofts for higher paying renters. That helps set the powder keg dynamic that simmers all throughout “West Side Story”.

The musical is essentially part romance and part street gang drama. A turf war has broken out in the West Side between the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets are a pack of local kids from poor broken families who’ve been raised on the neighborhood streets. The Sharks are a Puerto Rican gang carving out and protecting a few blocks of turf for their community. Both gangs are pressed under society’s thumb and both are about to be squeezed out by a common threat. But their unbridled animus towards each other blinds them to the reality of their shared situation.

Spielberg does a good job developing what divides the Jets and the Sharks. Both groups of angst-filled young men have been shaped by an assortment of factors – cultural, socioeconomic, domestic, and even racial. “Go back where you came from” yells Riff (Mike Faist), the street-tough yet pained leader of the Jets. “Stick with your own kind” warns Bernardo (David Alvarez), the straight-shooting and protective leader of the Sharks.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

But what really brings things to a head is the romance that springs up between Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler is her stunning feature film debut). Tony is best friends with Riff and is a co-founder of the Jets. But he’s fresh off a year in prison and determined to stay clean. Maria is sweet, hard-working and the sister of the overly protective Bernardo. So when their eyes lock at a school-sponsored dance and they immediately fall in love, you have all the ingredients for a combustible situation.

Already hungry to fight, the two gangs use the budding romance to set up a ‘rumble’ – an armed showdown 1950s style. The cops, led by the shady Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll), get wind of the rumble and search from Lincoln Square to San Juan Hill to find it and stop it before the violence erupts. Meanwhile Tony and Maria are caught in the middle; torn between their love for each other and their loyalty to their friends and family.

It may be hard to imagine a story like this in the form of a musical, but Spielberg tells it through a near seamless mix of song, dance, and drama. With its soaring music and energetic dance numbers, “West Side Story” plays like a smile-inducing ode to the classic movie musical. By that I mean it gives a hearty embrace to both music AND dance. The choreography is terrific as is the overall look of the film thanks to the eye-popping production design from Oscar-winner and Spielberg favorite Janusz Kamiński’s lively and immersive cinematography.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

As for the performances, Spielberg’s casting is mostly spot-on. Rachel Zegler is a star born, with a deep emotional resonance and a powerful voice that I never expected. Stoll is great in a small role as is Rita Moreno who gets some great scenes playing the owner of a neighborhood drug store who tries to guide Tony down the right path. I also loved Ariana DeBose as Bernardo’s spirited girlfriend Anita. But for me, the scene-stealer is the charismatic Faist. He’s a perfect fit for his role, and both his acting and dancing transported me back in time, both within the story and as a fan of 50s era big screen musicals. It’s some of my favorite supporting work of the year.

I went into “West Side Story” not knowing what to expect. But Spielberg’s latest swept me away and I left the theater on an emotional high. Some of his points are a little too on the nose and there’s a small underdeveloped side story that never feels true. But those are small things in a movie that put all my reservations to rest. Some have questioned the need for another “West Side Story”. I don’t know whether we “needed” it. But I’m thrilled that Steven Spielberg gave us one. What a rush. “West Side Story” is in theaters now.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Worth” (2021)

When terrorists took down the two towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 it shook an entire nation. But for the families and loved ones of the 2,977 people who died, their lives were forever changed. These families are an essential part of director Sara Colangelo’s new Netflix feature “Worth”. Her film debuted way back at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and finally hits the streaming platform this weekend.

Based on a true story, this absorbing legal drama follows Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton), an attorney who takes on the daunting task of heading the government’s September 11th Victim Consolation Fund. As Special Master his unenviable job is to figure out how much compensation each victim’s family would receive. It’s a job no one wants, but it’s something Ken thinks he can do to help. He has noble intentions, even insisting on working pro bono. But he’s someone who tends to look at numbers more than people which proves to be the wrong approach.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

On the surface the victim’s fund sounds virtuous, but there are other motives at work. The government hopes to avoid crippling civil lawsuits against airline companies that could potentially crater the economy. So the grieving family would get tax-free money from the government in exchange for their pledge to never sue the airlines involved. Ken gets caught in the middle of an array of conflicts he hadn’t accounted for.

Ken’s formula for calculating payments is based on a number of factors. But he quickly learns it isn’t as easy as throwing some figures on a check. Who’s eligible; who gets how much; where does Ken and his team draw the line? The process proves messy and with countless human variables factoring in. It’s made worse by Ken underestimating the still raw emotions. In his efforts to be neutral he comes across as cold and aloof. It quickly puts him in the crosshairs of the rightfully skeptical public.

Colangelo and writer Max Borenstein do a good job of defining Ken as more than some uncaring federal suit. Like all of us he felt the jolt of 9/11. As many did, he sat up through the night after the attack watching the news in quiet shock. He has a compassionate heart, but it’s lost under his by-the-book business-like exterior. He talks more than he listens. He focuses so much on the task at hand that he misses the human component.

While much of the film plays like a captivating procedural, “Worth” is also about Ken’s evolution as a human being. His encounters with various families leaves a lasting impact and causes him to change the way he looks at his process. The biggest influence is Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), an advocate on behalf of the victims whose own wife died in the 9/11 attacks. “Everything about this fund offends me,” Charles says. When their together, the two give us some of the film’s best scenes.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Calangelo impresses most with her ability to balance the enlightening legal proceedings with the heavier emotional elements of the story. She brings a sensitive and empathetic touch while also showing a remarkable amount of restraint. There’s no big “Oscar moment” and the movie never panders to awards season voters the way some weighty dramas tend to do. Instead she trusts her material and her cast led by a stellar Michael Keaton. Brandishing a thick Massachusetts accent, Keaton gives another lights-out performance. And he’s helped by great supporting work from Tucci, Amy Ryan, Shunori Ramanthan and a scene-steaming Laura Benanti.

“Worth” picks out and then leans a little too heavily on a couple of victim’s stories, milking them dry in an effort to drive home certain messages. And there are a handful of odd choices that stick out like a sore thumb (a phone call with then president George Bush is particularly jarring). But those few hiccups are easy to look past when the rest of the movie features such smart direction, a genuinely gripping story and a nomination-worthy Michael Keaton performance. Hopefully Netflix puts some energy into getting this movie out there. It deserves an audience. “Worth” premieres this Friday (September 3rd) on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Werewolves Within” (2021)

How can you not be drawn to a movie that’s best described as a ‘small town werewolf horror-comedy’? It’s a fitting description on “Werewolves Within”, a wacky new film directed by Jack Ruben that’s actually based on a 2016 virtual reality game of the same name. The movie isn’t all that interested in the well-worn werewolf mythologies that have been handed down through generations. Instead it’s about communities and the wild potpourri of people that often make them up.

“Werewolves Within” sounds like a horror movie and certainly borrows from the genre. But it’s just as much an uneven yet crafty whodunit with a satirical bite. It stars a terrific Sam Richardson who plays Finn, a forest ranger and all-around nice guy who arrives at the sleepy Vermont town of Beaverfield. He’s been assigned there after some mishaps at his old post. The first person he runs into is a peppy mail carrier named Cecily (TV’s infectiously charming AT&T sales rep Milana Vayntrub) who gives him an introduction to community with consists of a veritable collage of colorful zany characters.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

The movie really is all about this wild assortment of characters and Ruben along with screenwriter Mishna Wolff unload most of the town’s drama through them, a lot of it revolving around a proposed pipeline. Comprising the small eccentric population is the town’s innkeeper Jeanine (Catherine Curtin) who mutters about her absent husband and makes a mean sandwich. There’s the aggressively weird Trish (Michaela Watkins) and her creepy husband Pete (Michael Chernus). You have the corporate pipeline pusher Parker (Wayne Duvall) and the bone-dry environmentalist Dr. Ellis (Rebecca Henderson). Add in a cartoonish gay couple (Cheyenne Jackson and Harvey Guillén) and the dimwitted redneck husband and wife (George Basil and Sarah Burns). Meanwhile the town hermit Flint (Glenn Fleshler) lives in the woods and pretty much hates them all.

This peculiar bunch is brought together when a snowstorm knocks out the power and closes the roads leading in and out of town. To make matters worse, signs suggest a razor-clawed beast of some kind is roaming around the area. Of course the film’s title lets us know that it’s not a possum as one of the oddballs hilariously suggest. The group gathers in the Beaverfield Inn to wait out the storm. But when people start dying inside suspicion and paranoia sets in. The panicking neighbors begin accusing each other while never passing on the chance to air out some old local baggage.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Through it all the movie never loses its sense of humor. In fact this is very much a straight comedy built upon some familiar horror movie framework. Some of the funniest bits come with watching Finn’s bewildered face as he watches and listens to this motley group of townsfolk. Wolff fills their mouths with some of the most outlandish stuff and the performances relay it with hilarious conviction. The dialogue is full of laughs that range from subtle to wildly absurd.

Unfortunately the movie doesn’t quite hold together in the final act. While attempting to bring everything to a close it loses some of its charm and originality. And as the story locks into a more predictable movie formula, some of the characters fare considerably better than others. It all culminates in an ending that doesn’t exactly satisfy. With that said, the film’s comedy element carries it through. Wolf’s script along with a cast full of game performances had me laughing more than I ever expected. “Werewolves Within” opens June 25th in theaters and July 2nd on VOD.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “The Woman in the Window” (2021)

“The Woman in the Window” is yet another movie planned for a big screen release, pulled after the COVID-19 theater closings, and then nabbed by a big spending streaming company. Netflix, Amazon, and Apple have all dropped loads of cash to bring high profile movies to their platforms. It’s a practice that has worked out great for both the companies and those of us who have been stuck inside of our homes for over a year. Will it be a long term thing? Who knows?

This Joe Wright directed psychological thriller was originally a 20th Century production. But after early delays following some concerning test screenings and later delays due to the pandemic, the Disney-owned 20th Century Studios sold the film to Netflix. Based on a 2018 New York Times best-selling novel and packing a star-studded cast, “The Woman in the Window” seemed like a good catch. But Wright’s Hitchcockian aspirations are never fully realized and his movie slowly begins to resemble one hampered by re-writes and re-shoots.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

A very game Amy Adams stars as Anna Fox, a child psychologist who struggles with agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that has left her fearful of going outside. She’s spent the last ten months isolated inside of her Manhattan townhouse, slowly losing herself to prescription medication and alcohol. Her deteriorating condition has led to a separation from her husband Ed (Anthony Mackie) who still calls to check on her from time to time. So she’s left watching old movies, fussing at her tenant David (Wyatt Russell) who rents out her basement, and observing her neighbors from her window “Rear Window” style.

Anna takes a special interest in the Russells, a family of three who just moved into the house across the street from Boston. She first meets their lone child Ethan (Fred Hechinger), a simple and inquisitive 15-year-old who takes a liking to Anna and doesn’t mind stopping by unannounced. But she really hits it off with Ethan’s mother, the brash and outspoken Jane (Julianne Moore) who brings a little energy and spirit into Anna’s home.

But the more she spies on the Russells (who are firm believers in leaving every curtain in the house open) the more she begins noticing signs of an abusive household. It culminates in Anna witnessing a particularly violent argument ending with Jane being stabbed to death. She immediately calls the police who investigate but find no evidence of foul play. Adding to the confusion, two detectives (Brian Tyree Henry and Jeanine Serralles) come to visit Anna with an agitated Alistair Russell (Gary Oldman) from across the street and an entirely different Jane Russell (now played by Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Image Courtesy of Netflix

With all of its pieces nicely in place, the gnarly story (written by Tracy Letts) begins to uncoil in an uneven mix of interesting imagery and on-the-nose exposition. Nearly all of the story’s twists, turns, and revelations are told to us rather than shown. Characters spell out practically everything to the point where we’re left with little to figure out for ourselves. It’s frustrating considering the film’s first half weaves together a fairly compelling mystery. But it’s undone by a second half that relies too heavily on a series of surprisingly pointed conversations accompanied by an ending that offers no believable payoff.

It’s also amazing to see this many big names given so little to do. I’m not sure if they owed the filmmakers a favor but Oldman, Moore, Leigh, and Mackie each pop up in a scene or two and then they’re gone. It’s not a dealbreaker, but in a movie that’s struggles to reveal its mystery in a unique and interesting way, a few more scenes with some key players might have helped. Instead everything falls on Adams who is both committed and convincing. If only the same were true for the material. “The Woman in the Window” premieres today (May 14th) on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS