Tag Archives: Dark

Widows

[4 stars]

Think of this as the flip-side of Ocean’s 8; a very dark and disturbing flip-side, closer to Den of Thieves in sensibility.

Widows is a female-driven heist film dominated by Viola Davis (Fences) and Elizabeth Debicki (The Cloverfield Paradox). These women have the most compelling tales and the strongest screen impact despite it being primarily an ensemble movie. Joined by the equally capable, if less story impactful, Michelle Rodriguez (Battle: Los Angeles, Fast & Furious) and Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale), this group of women find themselves and their mettle trying to survive a lousy situation as they dig themselves out of the holes their respective partners dropped them in.

And speaking of their partners, the top line there is an unusual role for Liam Neeson (Peppermint) and a fairly standard one for Jon Bernthal (Baby Driver). Neeson’s time on screen is necessarily brief, but his and Davis’s intense relationship drive the entire tale. Garret Dillahunt (The Scribbler), Jacki Weaver (The Disaster Artist), and Carrie Coon (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town) also each get their moments to shine as the story unfolds.

Driving the movie from outside the women’s collective are a group of men, each with their own issues and particular brand of evil. Colin Farrell (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) has the most layered of these characters. He never quite comes into focus, but he is clearly conflicted and buffeted along by the past and the current situation. You never really know whether to feel sorry for him or to revile him. The same can’t be said for Brian Tyree Henry (Irreplaceable You), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther), or Robert Duvall (The Judge). These other men are dark, twisted, and out for themselves regardless of the pain and damage they cause. And they do. This is a violent film and hard to watch at moments.

Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) took an interesting risk directing this story. First, he dove into the story quickly, getting to the meat of the tale at the top. Typically, this would have been a good and obvious move. However, then he plowed on before we got to know anyone. He remained very natural rather than heightening or manipulating the audience with standard structures, letting us see realities, but not allowing us to bring emotion to it. We don’t know these people and we can’t yet sympathize with them at the beginning. We can abhor the situations, but there is no connection. The challenge is that it makes the first third of the film very flat in some ways. However, as the movie continues, it slowly builds the story and gets there; but it takes its time.

The story itself has some serious cred behind it. It was originally written by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect) and then adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and McQueen himself. None of these artists thinks in a straight line nor bends toward the light and airy in plot. Widows will coddle and assault you, but it will bring you along and make you invest. I will admit that while the ending left me wondering if I’d really understood the McQueen’s main point in the film, but I didn’t feel cheated, only a sense of pondering. It also contained a particularly wonderful moment with mirrors (which seem to be getting more popular again in films).

Widows is not your typical heist film, not just for its female leads, but also in its approach to story. If you want something different for your holiday week’s fare, this is one that should be on your list.

Overlord

[3 stars]

If you were somehow lucky enough to miss all the ads and trailers for Overlord, stop now and just see the movie blind. Honestly, the studio really did the flick a disservice by telling you what it was about. Part of the fun of the film is watching it all getting revealed, and they took that from me in spades.

OK, from here out I’m assuming you’ve seen the trailers and the ads. You’ve been warned.

Sure this is nothing but an update to Resident Evil by way of Dunkirk, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. It is, in fact, fairly well done and full of good moments, surprises, and the kind of splatter that combination would suggest. There is also a real sense of a good war film here that goes, shall we say, quite sideways. It is well shot and really rather well acted by most of the leads.

Jovan Adepo (Fences) is our way into this band of brothers…and it is very much a bro film. But Adepo gives it both heart and sense of danger. From early on it is clear that no one is safe in this story and that registers clearly for him, and through him to us. The machines of war quickly begin to eat up the people we meet.

Alongside Adepo fight a mixed batch of characters that each bring different levels and layers to the story. Wyatt Russell (Ingrid Goes West) is the seasoned veteran there to run the mission. John Magaro (Carol) is the smart-mouth jackass who nevertheless proves his mettle. And Mathilde Ollivier, in an early film for her, gives them something to fight for and just a touch of badly needed estrogen in the film. In a smaller role, but fun to see, is Iain De Caestecker (Lost River, The Fades) who does a great accent and has a bit of fun.

Arrayed against this motley gang are the Axis. Only a single Nazi stands out worth mentioning in that bunch: Pilou Asbæk (Ghost in the Shell). While it is a somewhat scenery chewing depiction of a German officer, he manages to find some balance, though not any heart. He certainly finds the creepy, which was his purpose in the tale.

Julius Avery (Son of a Gun) delivers a very watchable, enjoyable, and surprising movie for his Sophomore outing. Sure it is of a particular genre, but he doesn’t treat it that way. He treats it like a film about war, people, and the horror of what it takes to win and survive. Part of that success was the script from an unlikely pairing of Billy Ray (Hunger Games) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant). Both writers have a wide range of styles, but of very different sensibilities. Playing off the real events of Operation Overlord gave the two a solid underpinning for the story and its drives that allowed their talents to mesh well.

This was originally rumored to be a Cloverfield universe film. It is, in fact, designed much like those movies…slowly unrolling layers that end with unexpected aspects. But it isn’t part of that franchise in any other way. I wish the studio had believed in the quality of the film and allowed it to surprise and gather an audience. I get that it would have been challenging given the genre mash-up. Folks going for a war film would have been pissed and those showing up for pure horror would have been confused and angry that it doesn’t really become that till more than halfway through. But the story is compelling, well-paced, and nicely delivered. Definitely worth the big screen if you like either mashups, splatter horror, or both. And Avery is definitely a director you’re going to be seeing again, regardless of how Overlord legs out or not at the box office.

Black Earth Rising

[4 stars]

Like his previous Honourable Woman, Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising has a unique tone and flavor determined by its story’s origins. The approach sets his work apart keeps them feeling new, despite recognizable venues, structure, and format. The 8-part road is twisty and complex, but laid out logically and credibly to bring you along, though you are unlikely to get ahead of it. His ability to find strong and capable talent doesn’t hurt the result either.

This story, also like Honourable Woman, is driven by a powerful female character…given terrible life by Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, Black Mirror). Coel dominates the tale from her first moments on screen until her last in a complicated and dark role. It is riveting and heart-breaking to watch this woman come to terms with her past and her present. She is fiercely intelligent, physically powerful, and with a magnetism that takes over the screen when she appears. She doesn’t steal focus, but she cannot help but remake each scene around herself.

She is joined by John Goodman (Atomic Blonde) who brings us a troubled and layered lawyer seeking justice and happiness, though often watching both slip through his fingers. Harriet Walter (Donmar Project), as her mother, is a study in conflicting emotions; a tight and warring collection of memories and intentions expertly controlled and utterly riveting.

Additional roles fill out the world, with some notable performances by Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU), Noma DumezweniLucian Msamati (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Abena Ayivor, and Emmanuel Imani. But the entire cast is strong.

While these performances alone are a great reason to watch the series, it is the writing and the story that make it worth tuning into this dark but fascinating story about international justice and questions of truth and history. That quality shouldn’t be surprising given it is from Blick as the creator and writer/director for the 8 episode sequence. He also employs some interesting visual approaches to both expose the past and pull themes through the series.

Blick is unafraid of complex questions, politically and personally. He does have a penchant for high conspiracy but, in this case, it feels very logical if disturbing. The point of Black Earth Rising is to raise awareness and to force viewers to recognize some very hard truths about the world and how their own desires help drive it. But it is also a highly personal story and one that is deeply emotional and healing. Whether or not the story gets the accolades it deserves, Coel’s performance will certainly be identified as one of the best of the year.

Bad Times at the El Royale

[4 stars]

Are you looking for something different? Then checking into the El Royale may be your best destination. Director and writer Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has a very particular style to his film making. His stories have a similar color pallet and the plots are recognizable but not formulaic. They buck tradition but cleave to a sense of moral reality that is believable. They feel almost refreshing in their approach despite playing heavily into genre, whether that is horror, science fiction, or, in this case, noir. And his stories are chock full of subtle references for those steeped in the movies and television. (One nod to Silence of the Lambs was inspired.) This story is subtly political in its message as well.

Goddard is also good at assembling talented casts capable of bringing his vision to life in earnest without losing track of the style he is aiming for. Jeff Bridges (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Cynthia Erivo (The Tunnel) are particularly solid at driving a good part of the action. But Jon Hamm (Nostalgia), Dakota Johnson (A Bigger Splash), Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim: Uprising), and Lewis Pullman (Battle of the Sexes) complete the ensemble of odd characters who, despite coming to the El Royale for different reasons, find their paths crossing in unexpected ways. Nick Offerman (Hearts Beat Loud) has a nice cameo as well. As a final treat, Goddard got Chris Hemsworth (Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers) to reteam with him for a funny and terrifying role that continues to help establish his range (he can’t be Thor forever).

Like Cabin in the Woods, I suspect this film will take time to find its audience, which is a shame. It is crafted beautifully. Despite its almost 2.5 hour length it moves along crisply and keeps opening up surprises through till the finale. It is solidly acted and funny as well as dark and dangerous as its centering genre. It is very much a classic noir, but with Goddard at the helm very little can ever be assumed, and that is part of the joy of the story. And, as only his second stint in the director’s chair, it shows immense promise for what may come in the future as well. If you’re tired of sequels and formulaic drivel, support movies like this one that try to do something a bit different.

Disconnect

[3 stars]

Social media has remade relationships: familial, romantic, and even legal. Not a particularly clever statement nor revealatory, but still true. Disconnect is a cleverly plotted trip through various aspects of that idea. In a bit of nice subtlety, it intertwines several concurrent stories without forcing the combinations. The overall trip feels like a twisted path through a dark wood.

In one story, Jason Bateman (Game Night), Hope Davis (Wayward Pines), Haley Ramm, and Jonah Bobo (Choke) navigate family and school life…not exactly together, which is the point.

In the other main tale, Alexander Skarsgård (Mute), Paula Patton (Warcraft), and Michael Nyqvist (John Wick) form a tangled triumvirate working toward resolution.

Frank Grillo (Captain America: Civil War) and Colin Ford (Under the Dome) have their own familial challenges both within and without their house. These two form a natural point of intersection in the story to nicely bring it into a single focus.

And then there is Andrea Riseborough (The Death of Stalin) and Max Thieriot (Point Break) who dance a tarantella that raises all sorts of interesting questions, of which technology is only a small part. Their story rides mostly outside the others and, while the least compelling in many ways, also raises the most questions.

Every one of the actors delivers a strong performance. One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is actually how the various actors are mostly playing against their typical types. Grillo is probably the least off his normal characters, though his tough ex-cop is grounded in family life and emotional connection.

As a first film in the primary director’s seat, Henry Alex Rubin tackled a dark and complicated vision in Andrew Stern’s script (also a first time on big screen). There isn’t anything really new in the story, even from when it was made six years back, but it handles the various lines of social commentary naturally. It is less about exposure and more about raising questions and offering glimpses of issues across a whole environment. The end result is a taut suspense that slowly ratchets up the tension before releasing the wires all at once. To see Rubin and Stern’s potential and some nice performances, it is definitely worth your time, but you’re going to walk away from this one more contemplative than smiling.

Disconnect

Bleach (2018)

[3 stars]

Live action adaptations of anime and/or manga via anime often fail miserably. (Consider the recent Attack on Titan attempt.) Usually it is due to assumptions the audience will know the story or an insulting approach as to what they’ll accept. I have to admit Bleach surprised me. I wasn’t very familiar with the story, but there was enough in the movie to help me understand and to invest in the characters.

This isn’t a great movie, as movies go, but it was entertaining if you like the genre; I do. Director Shinsuke Sato gave me characters with motivations. He also provided fun fight scenes, a bit of humor, and probably a bit too much high school romance forced in (it simply goes no where in this short-ish film). It didn’t hurt that there was some very competent actors driving the piece like Hana Sugisaki and Sôta Fukushi, both from Blade of the Immortal. Even the side characters have some cred, such as Miyavi (Kong: Skull Island).

It succeeded enough that I’m now curious to explore the anime series and its various movies to see what else goes on…there are several sequences to Bleach and this covered just one of them. And while I’m sure it was in a highly compressed way, the movie didn’t feel overly cheated.

Life Itself

[3 stars]

If you were expecting a light, or even just endearing date movie, move along. Dan Fogelman (This is Us) has delivered an interestingly structured film that is well-executed, but it is none of those things. Life Itself is more of a “triumphant tragedy” with some amazing performances. But it is a long path through some dark times to get to that triumph. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have humor and lighter moments throughout, but part of the point of the film is the ups and downs of life.

Oscar Isaac (Annihilation) and Olivia Wilde (Love the Coopers) really dominate the story. Not only do they work well together, but their individual stories are also complexly layered. Antonio Banderas (The Expendables 3) also has a challenging role that he sells well. The rest of the cast are very good but don’t really have the time to have equal impact. Olivia Cooke (Thoroughbreds), for instance, has a powerful presence, but without the time to expand on or add to her character.

This is a story that may have worked better on the small screen or as a book. It is clever and its message is strong, it just doesn’t get there in the way you expect. And, frankly, the ending loses a bit of steam. I still think the film is worth seeing at some point, but go in expecting drama more than comedy or light romance. I felt positive leaving the theater, but it was a more sobering feeling than a warm, fuzzy one.

Life Itself

Cardinal: Blackfly Season (series 2)

[3 stars]

The first series for Cardinal was highly personal, very twisted and very bloody. This second series picks up the story where it left off with Billy Campbell (Modus) and Karine Vanasse (Revenge) putting their lives back together and expanding their partnership to catch killers. And, yes, this one is as gruesome as the first, though with considerably fewer unknowns.

Campbell’s story this round revolves around the return of his wife and the challenges of mental illness. Vanasse’s story is less clear this time and, frankly, rather side-lined. Overall, this felt like a transition series where the writers were trying to get the characters to a new place, but chose not to jump there. Instead, we are taking the long journey. While that works with a darker, slower-paced show like Wallander, it made this series drag a bit with a lack of energy, despite all the events.

On the wrong side of the law are two rather chilling, and very different, sociopaths embodied by Bruce Ramsay (Behind the Candleabra) and Dan Petronijevic (19-2). Unfortunately on this side of the story, though we also have Alex Paxton-Beesley (Copper) and Jonathan Keltz (Reign), there is nothing much sympathetic about any of them. The result is that we don’t invest overmuch in the outcomes. In the first series, we had characters to care about on all sides, so this was a definitely step backwards.

The series remains hard to get a hold of, but I expect it will eventually get wider distribution as it is about to go into its third series on CBC. If you like the darker suspense mysteries, this is one to add to your queue.

Cardinal Poster

Cargo Space is Cold

[2.5 stars]

I wanted so much more than I got out of this movie. There are some interesting ideas in here, but none are entirely new, even in the combination they are put together. There are riffs and nods to all manner of other films from Alien to Event Horizon, not to mention The Matrix and so many others. Which isn’t to say the plots were copied, but the production design and some sequences echo very loudly.

The film does tackle some of its ideas head-on, however, rather than leaving them as a surprise ending. For that I do give it credit. But the writing is very hit and miss. Some aspects of physics and space they nail and then follow it up with a scene or interaction that is a short-cut or blatantly stupid choice. Frustrating.

On the up side, at least this story does try to make a point and make you think. Admittedly not too hard, but at least there is an intention to use science fiction at its best rather than as just trappings for special effects and scares alone. It is just enough to get you through to the end, if you have a mind. But, to be brutally honest, you wouldn’t have lost much never having seen it either.

Cargo

Maps to the Stars

[2.5 stars]

I was rather rooting for this movie from about 15 minutes in. You can feel the craft and control as threads quickly begin to come together. No surprise given it is a dark fantasy by David Cronenberg (Crash). Unfortunately, the meaning and purpose all sort of drifted away by the end into the stardust it references. Perhaps I was just too dense to get the references, but even a bit of research afterwards didn’t illuminate anything obvious for me.

That said, there are some very good performances in this peek behind the surface of families and Hollywood. There really isn’t a truly sympathetic character in the cast, but there are those that are less despicable and more pathetic. However, there is no one who you can really feel good supporting or wanting to succeed, which makes the story a bit of a slog at times.

Mia Wasikowska (Alice Through the Looking Glass) is the best of the cast. She is intriguing and the most believable. The rest are all interesting to watch, but not entirely credible. Robert Pattinson (Water For Elephants) comes close, but then gets let down by the script. Julianne Moore (Maggie’s Plan) gives a brave and raw performance that is likely close to reality, but not a reality that many of us will have experienced and certainly not one that you’d support emotionally. Olivia Williams (Victoria & Abdul) and John Cusack (Chi-Raq), as bumbling parents, make a microcosm within the film that is interesting, but not much explored. Cusack does gets to explore a rather different character than his usual, which is intriguing to watch. And, finally, Evan Bird (The Killing) creates an l’enfant terrible, but without a lot of depth, only a wooden and hollow sort of desperation.

Admittedly, there are layers to this story…layers I also much admit I couldn’t uncover though it tickled my brain at the edge of understanding. Either I was trying to build patterns from chaos or I just missed the point. And, frankly, there were so many lost story opportunities to explore in the tale that it felt as surfacey as the culture it was exploring. It is also interesting to consider that this was released four years ago, before #metoo. I’m not entirely sure how reactions might differ before that boundary in culture. Within the first 5 minutes of the movie, several references are already out-of-date, not to mention nods and appearances by recognizable figures who have since died.

David Cronenberg loves crawling in the muck of people’s lives and emotions. But he is capable of good storytelling while doing so. He took Bruce Wagner’s complex script and slowly revealed its levels. But while there is a solid conclusion to the story, there isn’t a final meaning to it all. This can work when the point of the multiplicity of storylines and lack of direct connection is the intent, but not when you’ve gone to great lengths to imply a mythological or otherwise greater tale being told. It feels like a Sophomoric attempt to force meaning to come from the brain of the viewer rather than the mind of the filmmaker. Not a satisfying way to wrap your travelings through some very dark woods.

Maps to the Stars