Tag Archives: Dark

The Swimmer

[3 stars]

This blast from the past about a man swimming home via his neighbor’s pools is actually an unexpected commentary on Hollywood and privilege, and it predates #metoo by about 50 years. Frank Perry (backed silently by Sydney Pollack [Amazing Grace]) were surprisingly, and quietly, subversive in their directing choices.

You know there is something off with Burt Lancaster from the opening moments of the movie. It takes a good part of the film before you know generally what that is (and we never know exactly, though you can guess). We watch his interactions with a slew of recognizable faces as well as a few surprises like Joan Rivers and even Diana Muldaur in one of her few big screen roles. But it is Lancaster who is turned into an object from the outset of the story.

He is quite literally stripped bare (or nearly) and exposed to the effects of the world. The approach riffed against this movie’s time (1968) even though it was concurrent with the Women’s Lib movement. And as we follow Lancaster’s episodic journey, our perceptions and assumptions keep shifting, which helps drive the otherwise mundane, if odd, tale forward.

The foundation of this layered and pointed tale was driven by scriptwriter, and wife of the director, Eleanor Perry who adapted Cheever’s story for the screen. She structured the reveals carefully and subtly to help drive the improbable tale; it serves as its own metaphor as well as a sort of absurdist presentation of the action. I suspect that part of the success of the finished piece is due to her close relationship with the director providing some broader perspective to the events.

Whatever the realities, it ends up an unexpected gem that is hewn from a pile of rough material and realities. If you’re looking for something a bit different but still surprisingly relevant, seek this out.

After We Leave

[3 stars]

Yes, the millionth-and-first end of the world movie. But, much like the recently viewed Last Night, this one is more contemplative although with a bit more action and violence thrown in. And while it’s a little predictable, there are some nice variations and sense of motivation helping lift the story.

For a first feature, Aleem Hossain wrote and directed his story with a sure and clever hand. The world and story aren’t over-explained, some things are just inferred or hinted at. And the resolution is both hopeful and weird but still manages to be romantic and obvious.

Brian Silverman does a nice job carrying the movie as a n’ere-do-well who’s turned the page on his life. And Anita Leeman Torres adds a subtle sub-plot to it all that allows for a lot of satisfying interpolation. The rest of the cast is, frankly, a bit over-wired, particularly Clay Wilcox. The choices can all work, but they felt too much like stock bad-guy decisions rather than organic decisions.

There is enough world-building in this story, even with the inconsistencies, to make it stand out. And there is enough tension and action to keep you connected even with the slower pace thanks to the story and the editing. I appreciated the movie and my time spent with it. Houssain has an interesting eye and an opportunity to build on a solid foundation with this first film. I’d definitely be curious to see what comes next.

After We Leave

Uncut Gems

[1.5 stars]

Sometimes you’re just not the audience for a film, whether due to timing or timbre. This latest Safdie brothers (GoodTime) offering is clearly done with ability and Adam Sandler (Murder Mystery) delivers an amazing performance, but I just couldn’t watch it.

Sandler’s character is on a collision course with disaster from the opening moments, not because of circumstance, but entirely because of his own self-destructive nature. Honestly, at the best of times I find that hard to stomach or invest in, but at this particular moment, I found it impossible.

So, if you like the Safdies’ work, you’ll likely love it. If you can handle a dark rumination on the nature of addiction and wonders of the universe in the microcosm, you’ll probably find it engrossing. If you’re looking for something just a bit more positive or less self-inflicted…look elsewhere.

Uncut Gems

@Suicide Room

[3.5 stars]

Suicide as a subject, even when the best intentions are observed as with 13 Reasons Why, often ends up exploitative. Writer/director Jan Komasa, most recently lauded for his Corpus Christi (including an Oscar nomination), managed to respect its realities and create an engrossing story.

Jakub Gierszal (Dracula Untold) is at the center of this gut-punch of a tale; a teenage boy who starts (over)confidently and then crumbles despite and because of everything around him. His performance is raw and, at times, uncomfortable, but always gripping. Roma Gasiorowska becomes his gadfly and external conscience as he withdraws from the world that is simultaneously pushing him away. She is as magnetic as she is mercurial. In a smaller but pivotal role is Bartosz Gelner (Floating Skyscrapers), providing the catalyst and lighting the fuse for Gierszal’s discovery of his online world and a group of lost individuals.

The story has a lot of interesting devices and tremendous amount of emotionally exposed nerves. It is at once a fable and plain look at broken people. And broken here has many levels for both the kids and the adults. Frankly, the story itself starts strong and then loses its thread and references, but pulls it all together at the end in a way that works, even if it is far off track from where you think it may go from the opening 20 minutes.

Don’t go into this one lightly. It feels light at the top, but that masks the currents in the depths that will eventually reach the surface. However, it is another stepping stone for Komasa’s body of work, which continues to impress me. And it is a peek into Polish culture and family that isn’t often seen.

Suicide Room

Color Out of Space

[2.75 stars]

Tackling HP Lovecraft is an act of hubris most of the time, especially if done in complete earnest rather than humor (such as Cast a Deadly Spell).  But what do you expect when you’re dealing with subjects like elder gods that can make you insane just by looking at them? It isn’t easy to make that serious and genuine without a nod and a wink.

Despite the risk, Color Out of Space tackles the material head-on. And there are some good aspects to the result. The cinematography and production design of the landscape are exceptional. However, the script and direction by Richard Stanley (Hardware) lacks credibility for almost every character. The only one even close to believability is Elliot Knight (Life Sentence). However, I will admit happily that the script doesn’t talk down to its audience. There is a lot of subtle and unexplained action where the answers are in the background or obvious when paying attention.

I can’t say I understand why Joley Richardson (Emerald City) agreed to join this adventure, but credit to her for committing to it utterly. And Tommy Chong (Zootopia) adds a certain sort of meta fun to it all. The two young adult actors, Madeleine Arthur (Magicians) and Brendan Meyer (The OA), tackle what they can with what they’ve got. Sadly, poor Julian Hilliard (Haunting of Hill House) is only allowed to stare emptily most of the time rather than exercise any real craft. And despite a lot of chatter likening this to Nick Cage’s recent Mandy, this film at least has an understandable and semi-logical plot (as logical as Lovecraft ever was). It does, however, allow Cage to cut loose again as he loses his grip on control and reality.

Perhaps the best way to think of this is as a horror version of Annihilation since it shares some ideas at the root. Color Out of Space, however, veers away from Annihilation’s intellectual path and quickly devolves into a slaughter-fest once it gets going. I can’t say that the resolution and implications are exactly clear, even with some of the explanation, but at least it tries to wrap it up into something complete. Ultimately, this is going to depend on your personal taste. I would have been fine if I hadn’t seen it, even having appreciated some of its better qualities, but if you love Lovecraft or enjoy purely grim slasher events, this may fill the bill at a reasonable level for you.

Color Out of Space

Wisting

[3.5 stars]

You may be thinking: yet another Scandinavian mystery series? But there are reasons to take a look at Wisting. While the feel and flow of the mysteries may seem familiar, the series has an intriguing structure.

First, there are two main mysteries in two five-episode chunks. But there are several smaller mysteries as well, not all of which connect (but some of which that do) over the ten episodes. That alone helps provide a more interesting journey through the season; we see cause an effect of various decisions within the season rather than from season to season.

Second, to help gain a broader audience, the first five episodes include an American element. Carrie-Ann Moss (Jessica Jones) is a core part of the first mystery as a semi-rogue FBI agent on the heels of an old murder.

There are some challenges with the series. Part of that stems from the difference in culture (and that Wisting’s family is messed up on top of that). The other part stems from different power structures and laws in Norway. If you’re a procedural fan, the stories here will hurt your head at times as you try to figure out why some things are such a big deal and who is really exposed by aspects.

That said, as a whole it is a solid start that adapts several of Jørn Lier Horst’s books into a fairly satisfying series, and whets the appetite for the next.

Wisting

The House that Jack Built

[2.5 stars]

Lars von Trier (Nymphomaniac) is never an easy artist to watch. And, of late, I’m not entirely sure he’s as capable of delivering a complete and cohesive message, as he did with films like Melancholia. But you can’t say he isn’t fearless in the material he tackles.

His latest film is a foray into the sociopathic mind by way of Dante, and it isn’t just a little self-referential at times. As Jack, Matt Dillon (Going in Style), spends 2.5 hours explaining his concept of art and his reason for his efforts to Bruno Ganz (Remember) in a wide-ranging and rambling dialogue. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on the surface of it, but as metaphor for filmmaking it’s a message to von Trier’s audiences and critics. Whether you accept that message or not, well that’s up to you.

But, as always, von Trier pulled together a solid supporting cast to help make his point. Top among them are Uma Thurman (Burnt), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Wayward Pines), Sofie Gråbøl (Fortitude), and particularly Riley Keough (We Don’t Belong Here). Keough transforms for her role completely and is the most complex of the women in this offering.

So, do you need to spend time in Jack’s house? That’s pretty much up to you. If you’re a completist or truly love von Trier’s work, then you should settle in for the assault. If you are new to von Trier or are simply looking for a movie to make you think… you may want to look elsewhere. I’m still torn about it as there are moments and an overall shape and motion that was intriguing. But ultimately, I think, it is too self-conscious and takes too long to get to the point.

The House That Jack Built

A Christmas Carol (2019)

[3.5 stars]

Seriously, did we need another Christmas Carol? Well, actually, as it turns out: yes. Steven Knight’s (Serenity) take on Scrooge’s tale is creepy and revelatory, as opposed to rushed and predictable. Guy Pearce (Mary Queen of Scots) embraces the dark and navigates our humbug-spewing character through memories and experiences that finally make it clear why and when he lost his way.

Joe Alwyn (Harriet) provides a solid foil as Crachit, though he is well over-shadowed by his screen-wife Vinette Robinson (Sherlock). Robinson drives the true catalyst of change. But these are the characters we always have known. Part of what Knight does is broaden the tale and provide Marley with a voice in Stephen Graham (The Irishman). Marley was always just an excuse to tell Dicken’s story in previous adaptations. In this one, he truly has something at stake.

Even the other Christmas ghosts have a bit more going on in this telling. Andy Serkis (Black Panther) and Charlotte Riley (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), especially, get their own tales.

If, like me, you have always found the saccharine retelling of redemption just a bit too much to stomach, this will give you new appreciation of the story and the message. The experience is probably a lot closer to how Dicken’s audience received the story as well.

Admittedly, you still have to believe someone can utterly change just by seeing the truth, but Knight doesn’t really let anyone completely off the hook in his resolution. It’s messy, like life, but he allows for the nearest thing to a believable change in this classic tale that I’ve seen.

Dracula (2019)

[4 stars]

I’m not here to stake Dracula, but to praise him. Well at least Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for their imaginative retelling of Stoker’s classic. The two used their Sherlock chops to capture the original’s sense and structure, but recast it and the dialogue into something more digestible for today’s audience.

Gatiss (Christopher Robin) also took the plum bit part of Renfield for himself. Who can blame him, it is always a tasty role.

But while Claes Bang (The Square) burns up the screen as a rather self-aware Dracula, it is Dolly Wells (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) who steals this show utterly. Her alacrity with language and facility with accent set her apart. She really has the best lines as well. Which isn’t to say the rest of the cast isn’t strong. They are, and many are recognizable from earlier Moffat/Gatiss collaborations. Outside of the known ensemble, there was also a nice showing by Matthew Beard (Vienna Blood) and Lydia West (Years and Years) in smaller roles sequestered to the third episode and a nice, if type-cast role, for Patrick Walshe McBride (Shakespeare & Hathaway).

The 3 90-minute episodes allow the story to expand in ways that a 2 hour movie just can’t manage. We get depth and scope as well as answers (some clever, and some inconsistent) and a solid parallel to the book that is usually a jumping off point rather than template. That said, the series definitely departs radically from the book in specifics, but somehow retains the intent and purpose, making it the most authentic version I’ve seen. Even the ending, which is not exactly satisfying (to say the least), best mirrors Stoker’s final pages as compared to other adaptations (the book ending was challenging as well).

Overall, this is an emotionally and intellecutally dense portrait of Dracula, with enough of all the bits we’ve particularly loved about this tale over the last 123 years (sex, violence, murder, seduction, romance). Moffat and Gatiss yet again prove they can take dated, original material and honor it without just slavishly following it.

 

 

The Boy (2015)

[2 stars]

Motels and psychopaths go together like cookies and milk, or so the modern lore would have us believe (and not a few true tales of mayhem). But I didn’t know that was the focus of this movie going in. Based on the description I’d read, the story sounded something more like traditional supernatural horror of some sort. I was incorrect. I also came to this movie for Rainn Wilson (Backstrom) and David Morse (Horns), two actors I enjoy and who often deliver complex, interesting characters. While they both certainly delivered on that aspect, neither was the lead.

The focus of this story is really the young son of Morse’s character, played by Jared Breeze. He is the quintessential dissaffected youth. Though in his case it is due to isolation, maternal abandonment, and well, something not quite right inside. Breeze comes across as suitably creepy and even a little bit sympathetic at the beginning. But he is quickly identifiable as a sadistic sociopath in the making. And, lucky us, we get to watch his blooming.

Whether or not this was the story I wanted to see, it still might have pulled me in. But the pace dragged for me as it is about as subtle and inevitable from the opening moments as you can get. And, frankly, there isn’t a totally likeable character to latch onto in the story. Director/writer Craig William Macneill (Lizzie) delivered us Brightburn without the superpowers and with no handle into the family. Though, unlike Brightburn, this depiction takes us on many more small steps and, to Macneill’s credit, through very uncomfortable moments.

Entertaining is not a term I’d use for this journey, so beware before you check into the Mountain Vista Motel. The slow burn train wreck of a tale may be for you. It really wasn’t for me.