Tag Archives: Dark

The Square

[2 stars]

Some movies are inscrutable, but at least this one is long and subtitled to boot. And I do mean long for this kind of movie; it clocks in at 150 minutes.

At best, The Square is a series of vignettes about man’s inhumanity and the definition and business of art, held together loosely by a single event. But that’s being somewhat generous. I think Ruben Östlund had aspirations of updating The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; assailing the limits of our willingness to intervene and help one another, and the taboos that sit at those boundaries. Frankly, he failed, giving us some nuggets of thought, but never grabbing us or pulling it all into a single, clarifying instant. The movie simply peters out, unresolved and unsatisfying. I guess Östlund would ask, did that make it art? His previous Force Majeure much more successfully ranged across humanity while focusing very specifically on individuals.

It isn’t that there aren’t some interesting questions in the film. And the peek behind the scenes of museum purchasing and marketing is interesting and disturbing, to be sure. But that isn’t enough to to make a movie. And if he wanted to turn the movie into a virtual square itself (which I do think he intended), Östlund should have begun and ended the film in 4:3 aspect rather than 16:9 to make the point.

The story is dominated by Claes Bang (The Bridge) whose awakening to the world around him is full of unrealized potential. He is clearly a well-to-do man in a position of power, and full of self-importance. Watching that surface erode, first with humor and, eventually with some humility, is intriguing. But we never connect with him in a way that makes us care. It is halfway through the tale before we even know he has kids; which is part of the point, I’m sure, but it just doesn’t work.

At the periphery of the story are Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake: China Girl) and Dominic West (Money Monster) who each bring a little of the outside world to Bang. They aren’t brilliant performances, but they’re probably the only faces you’ll recognize in the film.

One interesting, recurring bit part is played by Terry Notary. What makes it interesting is that he has stepped to our side of the motion capture suit to appear as human rather than as creature, as he has in Kong, Planet of the Apes, The Hobbit, etc. His casting is surely meant as another intended commentary on art, but you’d have to know who he is to even trip over the point.

Ultimately, this is a heck of a lot of time to spend in a world that is neither compelling nor fully realized. I can only think that the awards it won was due to people being duped into it being art, much like some of the odder installations in the movie itself (which isn’t to say those examples couldn’t be art, but even the story chips away at the core of that idea).

Personally, my though is that you could take the time you’d spend on this movie and see two other films that are much better…and you should.

The Square


[3 stars]

Requiem is an odd, 6-part mystery that is both modern mystery and Gothic horror. From the outset, it is clear that there is some kind of supernatural aspect to the events, but the story unfolds for a long time with that being very much in question and at the periphery. Part of the fun of the story is trying to identify truth and interpretation from fiction and assumption.

Lydia Wilson (Star Trek Beyond) leads the story as a delightfully and frustratingly flawed young woman. For all her strength and focus though, her character drifts into “willful stupid” territory about two thirds into the sequence thanks to writing choices. The Code collaborators, Mrksa and Ayshford,  relied a bit too much on some tropes to push the plot along rather than find more natural ways to have confrontations in their latest delivery.

Wilson’s sidekick, Joel Fry (Game of Thrones), has one of the more challenging paths in this story. Honestly, it never really entirely comes together, but it leaves him hanging in a realistic way. It is clear to us what the motivations are even though the characters rarely broach the subject.

Three other women have nicely complex roles in the series. Two are well recognized faces from many shows and movies; Joanna Scanlan (Electric Dreams) and Claire Rushbrook (Murder: Joint Enterprise) are terrific characters with difficult plots to navigate. The third,  Clare Calbraith, is less known, but is as integral as Wilson in driving the plot forward.

Additional support by James Frecheville (Adore), Brendan Coyle (Me Before You), Sian Reese-Williams (Hinterland) and Darren Evans (Galavant) are all worth mentioning, though far from the entire cast.

Overall, the mystery unfolds nicely and inexorably, but don’t expect all questions to be answered. Most will, and certainly enough will, but the show left itself a way forward and didn’t try to cover all bases. That was fair given that not all answers were or could be known in this part of the story. If you like moody horror and mystery, this is a good mix of the two, and definitely a binge-worthy series that will hook you quickly.

Hard Sun

[3 stars]

Assumption: The only thing that holds society generally, and people specifically, in check is the expectation of a future.

Experiment: Take away that future…what happens?

It isn’t a new idea, nor is it even the best tackle of that idea (Children of Men, probably tops that list). However, when the creator and writer of Luther, Neil Cross, wanted to tackle this idea and deliver something a bit more speculative in genre, it was something I wanted to check out. The dark, violent sensibilities of Luther are put into a new frame where the world itself could be ending. The concept and effects are an interesting study, and sad admission, about human nature.

The two detectives who lead the 6-part serial, Jim Sturgess (Geostorm) and Agyness Deyn (Clash of the Titans), are an uncomfortable  pair with complex lives. Splitting the focus between two leads challenges the show at times, but watching them work through their relationship and through the chaos of the world is instantly intriguing. The give and take doesn’t always feel quite real, but Deyn is a kick-ass fighter while Sturgess is an onion of strange psychology that never really comes completely into focus.

Nikki Amuka-Bird (Luther), a wonderful and prolific actor, adds an element of menace, but without a great deal of character. Perhaps that is fair in what is clearly intended to be a 5 series story. However, it doesn’t do her any favors in believability in this first installment. Derek Riddell (Happy Valley), another well-known face from many British series, is likewise incomplete in his character, but with the talent to make the thin meat on his bones work and leave it open to build on if it continues.

Also not helping the credibility of the show are some really, really dumb choices around mental health treatment and police procedure. More than once I found myself gritting my teeth through short-cuts and outright ridiculous choices. All very surprising given Cross’s ability and background.

Overall, there is enough here to keep you intrigued and wondering what will come next. It combines apocalyptic fiction with the standard British police procedural in an interesting, if sometimes clumsy, way.  What is most interesting is the final moments that are visually stunning, but probably lost and confusing to a general audience. Hopefully, though, it is enough to get the rest of the series made, because it definitely leaves you hanging and with a whole lot of potential going forward. Seek it out on Hulu in the States.


Wonder Wheel

[3.5 stars]

Wonder Wheel starts off like many Woody Allen (Cafe Society) films: A hapless narrator explaining the romance/farce/tragedy that is about to unfold. In this case, it is a bit of all of that, but it also quickly shifts into a new mode for Allen. With the immense help of Jim Belushi (Twin Peaks) and Kate Winslet (Collateral Beauty), we are suddenly transported into a Eugene O’Neill play with moments of Tennessee Williams, complete with claustrophobic set, heavy use of alcohol, violence, and disastrous romantic longings. Not to detract from Winslet’s more subtle performance, but Belushi is the real powerhouse behind these scenes; he is an unexpected gut punch in what you expect to be a light, period romance.

Those truly phenomenal scenes are broken up with more typical Allen moments, but without the forced, halting aspects that tend to distract in his movies. All of the scenes flow nicely, though the tenor of the dialog becomes lighter and a tad stilted. Justin Timberlake (Trolls) tends to herald these moments. To a degree, I understand the choice and it is explained at the very top of the film, but the scenes cut into a more powerful story and I think it could have been smoothed through a bit better.

Running between the two worlds along with Winslet is Juno Temple (Black Mass). She brings most of the Tennessee Williams sensibility: fragile, naive, tough, intelligent, lost, and desperate to be loved. She is a breath of Southern Gothic dropped into the Northeast Tragedy.

In many ways, while not necessarily the best Woody Allen film, it is one of his most impressive. The use of language and setting is powerful. The story is relateable and yet utterly designed. The tragedy inevitable and yet totally avoidable. If not for the recent events in the industry, Wonder Wheel would have garnered a lot more attention and nominations. That it didn’t is a complicated conversation every person will have to answer for themselves. But, from a purely artistic point of view, I can recommend the film for the performances, writing, and direction and it may suggest an entirely new direction for Allen’s oeuvre.

Wonder Wheel

Red Sparrow

[3.5 stars]

Red Sparrow is a surprisingly taut, female-lead spy drama that is Atomic Blonde by way of A Most Wanted Man.  Definitely Jennifer Lawrence’s (mother!) best turn in a long while, to my mind. Her character is fiercely intelligent, capable, and emotionally strong while being able to remain human. She finds a nugget of herself to hold onto until the bitter end.

As the men both caught in, and weaving Lawrence’s web, Joel Edgerton (Bright) and Matthias Schoenaerts (Far From the Madding Crowd) are both solid. The joy of this film is that everyone thinks they know what the others are doing, including the audience. But even when you are sure of what is to come, there is enough of a thread of doubt to keep the tension high and your curiosity peaked.

In two smaller roles, Joely Richardson (Emerald City) and Jeremy Irons (Assassin’s Creed) do some nice work. More so Richardson, to be honest, who’s existence is the MacGuffin for Lawrence’s entire set of actions. She doesn’t overplay it, nor does she disappear.

The weakest performance, frankly, was a surprise. Charlotte Rampling (Assassin’s Creed) just did’t fit in this production. Her accent was so wrong that even though her energy and demeanor were great it threw me straight out of the movie.

Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games) embraced the dark of writer Haythe’s (A Cure for Wellness) script and didn’t try to apologize for it. It isn’t overly brutal, but it implies a great deal of human darkness and pain. In fact, he makes it feel like there is much more on screen than there actually is, which is another nod back to the old days of movies; he allowed our imaginations to work for him.

This may not have been a film on your list for any number of reasons, but if you enjoy solid spy dramas, this will fit the bill nicely.

Red Sparrow


[2.5 stars]

This isn’t an entire waste of a film, but in the #MeToo era it rings a bit oddly and, frankly, doesn’t manage a satisfying journey even absent that cultural phenomenon. I will say that David Harrower did manage to adapt his own play successfully to a movie script, but Benedict Andrews’s direction of the result never quite leaves his National Theatre roots behind.

The experience is basically a two-person play with a few extra characters thrown in, despite the number of locations and situations that are used. Rooney Mara (A Ghost Story) does believably create the results and shattered confusion of a young victim grown up. It isn’t a break-through performance, but builds on her odd energy and presence to help us feel her damage. Opposite her, Ben Mendelsohn (Lost River) gives us a tortured, denying predator. There is also a nice turn by Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, The OA) who helps pull some of the threads together.

The struggle with the film in this hyper-aware atmosphere is that it dances between something a bit too close to Lolita and a bit too far from something like The Club or Mysterious Skin or any number of other titles. A couple of years ago, this may have been seen as intriguing or challenging, but today it is politically deaf, even with the best interpretation of the ending. It isn’t that the story doesn’t have points to make, it is that it plays heavily in the gray area of the subject at a time when only black & white are going to resonate. So, if you do want to give it your time, watch with care and awareness that it may be a tad out of step with your expectations.


Altered Carbon

[4 stars]

Altered Carbon is solid science fiction. This also means it has struggled to find an audience. If you want real science fiction set in worlds that have been thought through and, sure, with plenty of violence and skin, you need to see and support it, or we’ll lose another opportunity.

This series was ably adapted for Netflix by Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator: Genisys), based on Morgan’s award winning book. The world has some holes and gaps, but it is a believable society based on how the tech affected it. The show also has some incredibly complex plotlines going through it. In fact, probably a bit too complicated at times…the last couple of episodes have to rush to the end with a lot of rapid exposition to fill in the answers that are being revealed.

Driving the action, Joel Kinnaman (Suicide Squad) puts in one of his better performances. Alongside him is a kickass detective played by Martha Higareda (Royal Pains). A slew of great minor characters are around them, but it is their show through and through. Worth calling out, though, are Chris Conner’s delightfully weird and fun Poe and Dichen Lachman’s (Dollhouse) powerful and complex Reileen.

Adult science fiction is rare off the big screen (and not particularly prevalent on the big screen either). Typically, what is offered is something between Star Trek and Game of Thrones. In other words, something that may tackle tough issues, but usually in watered down or palatable ways without actually working through the true implications of the world that was created or the consequences of actions. Flash and action often substitute for actual logic and plot.

There are some exceptions. Humans is a current show that tries to tackle and deal with the implications of AI. Sense8, as well, took on a world altered by the possibility of gestalt entities. Farscape tackled an empire structured society with significant biotech. But, more often than not, you end up with something more like Stargate, Orphan Black, or The Walking Dead, all highly entertaining, but not good science fiction.

So, if you want the real stuff (with a bit of HBOness to it, without the HBO) jump on Altered Carbon so we can get another season. Even if we don’t, this 10 ep run is self-contained enough to not leave you hanging, but there is so much more to explore if they’re given the time to do so.

Altered Carbon


[2 stars]

Straight up, I am a Darren Aronofsky (Noah) fan and have been since Pi. His narratives are almost always complex and unexpected. Certainly mother! is anything but straightforward. Oddly, though, it isn’t anything new or unexpected either. And it certainly didn’t land with most audiences.

From the outset of the film, you know there is something off. First there is the apparent rollback in time from a disaster. Then there is the odd tension between Jennifer Lawrence (Passengers) and Javier Bardem (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) which just isn’t quite natural. By the time Ed Harris (Geostorm) and Michelle Pfeiffer show up, it is clear this isn’t reality, or isn’t being viewed from clear eyes. Domhnall Gleeson (The Revenant) makes a solid appearance as well to help seal the deal.

If you insist on still seeing the story as reality at any level after that point, it is no wonder that you would hate the film. Honestly, I was willing to go along for the ride, but in a year that included similar themes, like the more recent Phantom Thread, I was looking for something new, not just visually surprising.

Aronofsky has created a very personal vision and tale of his favorite themes: art, love, and religion/spirituality. But ultimately it is about a half hour too long to sustain the story and audience interest. After the first 90 minutes, you want answers, not more outrageous and infuriating situations. I appreciate he wanted to slow burn to the climax, but he asked too much from his audience; he never really fully earns our trust, providing no answers, only mystery and weirdness upon strangeness and offkey oddity. He has always been great skirting the edge of reality, as in Black Swan, to lead to a point. Here, however, the end result here is more the feeling of a surrealist play that is weird for weirdness’ sake alone rather than a cohesive movie. By the way, achieving that play-like presentation and pulling us along inexorably while staying true to the media is no small feat in itself.

I truly admire the craft and acting in the film, even if I disliked the result; it doesn’t feel satisfying in the end. After his last film, I was worried Aronofsky would try to stay more mainstream…I suspect he feared the same and veered way off the track to try and prove he wouldn’t both to audiences and, more importantly, to himself. The result is mother! Now that he’s made his point, I hope he will find his path again. He is a gifted film maker, but this isn’t his best onscreen musing.


The Limehouse Golem

[4 stars]

Limehouse is a tense and complicated period mystery; a wonderful, precise, dark gem of a movie.

Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) leads this twisting tale with character-appropriate confidence and acting ability. By her side, Bill Nighy (Their Finest) pulls at the threads of his open case and imagines the possibilities in an effort to solve the murders and save the girl in 1880 London. Sprinkled within the fictional are real-life characters who were in the Limehouse at this time in history, which adds some sense of reality to the tapestry of the film world.

Central to the story in tale and geography is a music hall dominated by Douglas Booth (Jupiter Ascending). His character, even from the wings (as it were), is an overshadowing presence that has him driving the film in his own right, even getting the opening and closing frames. Additionally, Sam Reid (2:22), and María Valverde (Exodus: Gods and Kings) play integral, if slightly less layered roles.

Two smaller characters are given quiet life by Daniel Mays (Against the Law) and Eddie Marsan (Atomic Blonde). These two actors are always great at making the most of small moments and minimal dialogue, and this movie is no exception.

One of the best parts of this film is the script, which has a strong female lead and an unconventional narrative. Jane Goldman (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) was on task to adapt this script from Peter Ackroyd’s book; the title of which is variously The Limehouse Golem, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (a reference to Booth’s character), and The Trial of Elizabeth Cree (a reference to Cooke’s character). That it has existed with so many different titles gives you a sense of how much she had her work cut out for her. With Goldman’s history of delivering some of the most delightfully odd films of the last 20 years, she was a perfect choice to tackle this project. And director Juan Carlos Medina showed himself well with this Sophomore feature as it bounced between different themes, plots, and timelines.

Make time for this mystery. It will keep your brain going and engage you from the moment it begins. And while the surface story is wonderful, it is only one of the layers of this film, and only one of the ways to approach your understanding of the movie which is dense in meaning and language, making it eminently rewatchable.

The Limehouse Golem

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

[1.5 stars]

The last film Yorgos Lanthimos directed and co-wrote with Efthymis Filippou was the oddly compelling and flawed The Lobster, which captivated a significant section of the film world and earned them an Oscar nod. Despite some early rumblings about Sacred Deer, it has nowhere near the sense of dark whimsy nor fascinating alchemy that The Lobster did. In fact, it is a bit of a boring mess that never pays off, though teases with many promises.

Much like The Lobster, the entire film is structured to get to the final moments, or final scene and coda in the case of Deer. It is a powerful couple of images, but they mean nothing because the previous two hours were spent laying out plots and ideas that went nowhere and had no support.

It probably didn’t help that Lanthimos prefers a presentational style of acting akin to pure Brecht; flat, stated rather than “acted,” allowing the ideas to be formed by the audience rather than manipulated or guided by the characters. It is a very intellectual approach to theatre and it is rarely as blank as Brecht probably wanted. However, if the ideas aren’t there to be formed, a lack of emotional connection simply distances and bores an audience.

[For a really good documentary and an interesting look at such a production done well, watch Theater of War that chronicles a production of Mother Courage starring Meryl Streep at the Papp.]

Given that Colin Farrell (Roman J. Israel, Esq) and Nicole Kidman (The Beguiled) lead this cast, a lack of connection is near criminal. Scraping against them and their family is the creepy Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), who creates a twisted combo of Crispin Glover and Paul Dano to drive the story as best he can. Sunny Suljic and Raffey Cassidy (Tomorrowland), as the children of Kidman and Farrell, struggle in this film to make an impression. Cassidy gets more opportunity, but neither ever make sense of it all and so their performances simply fade away.

And that, in the end is the real problem. The Lobster certainly left audiences with questions and debates around its ending. But there was context for that debate; there had been a story, however weird, that latched into base, human needs and desires. You couldn’t not talk about that film for days afterwards. Sacred Deer reaches for something similar but misses the grab leaving the rest of the story  just a series of forced vignettes and actions that have nothing driving them. It is a credit to Lanthimos that I kept thinking there was something coming, which is what kept me watching for two long hours. But, having never paid it off, I left the movie angry and frustrated rather than contemplative or in the mood to discuss it.

Even though I finished it, I can’t give it my normal 2 stars in rating for getting me to the end, because there was no end there. However, it is beautifully filmed and with competent actors that delivered a clear and consistent (if pointless) vision, so it isn’t a 1 star film either. Suffice to say: skip it. I’m sure Lanthimos and Filippou will deliver something down the road, but this movie is better shelved and ignored, except by film classes who wish to dissect it for craft.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer