Tag Archives: Dark

Wind River

[3.5 stars]

Earlier this year, Wind River was seen as a hands-down awards winner.  Taylor Sheridan, writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, also gets behind the camera for this film. He delivers another intense script of a murder on an Indian reservation.

Jeremy Renner (Arrival) dials back his action-boy push to return back to his Hurt Locker roots. He is focused, quiet, and emotionally primed, but kept in check as he pursues his goals. Elizabeth Olsen (Avengers: Age of Ultron) also gives a great performance of a young FBI officer, not incompetent, but certainly unseasoned. Gil Birmingham (The Lone Ranger) is the other impactful surprise in the story. As a bereaved father, and mirror for Renner, he swings between strength and devastation in heart-breaking ways.

Wind River did capture a number of earlier festivals. But it has hit some bumps in the road having released so early in the year and with a number of other great films just starting to screen. It also is bucking the trend of naturalism I’ve been seeing on the screen. Wind River is very well crafted, but it feels that way too, especially by the final act. That doesn’t make it bad, by any means. It has incredible impact, though it does feel like Sheridan lost a little bit of his careful control during the climax of the film. But its competitors are large ideas and impact in smaller packages; more real life than screen life. What makes Wind River swim comfortably with these other films is the quality of its writing, acting, cinematography, and the reality that it is based on the truth. That last bit will leave you feeling hollow and ashamed by the final credits, and it should.

Wind River

The End of the F***ing World

[3.5 stars]

Evil, evil fun (with a point) in the vein of Skins meets Misfits meets Perks of Being a Wallflower. It even brought to mind God Bless America and not a small dash of Bonnie & Clyde, though this takes place in England. I hate trying to describe things by comparing it to other offerings, but sometimes it is the best way to get across a sense of what a non-traditional or surprising bit of media is like. And, boy, is this surprising.

Jessica Barden (Penny Dreadful) and Alex Lawther (A Brilliant Young Mind) create compelling teens struggling through the hell of adolescence by creating strong facades. We get to hear their inner voices as well as watch their actions, which adds to both the pain and the humor. Let’s face it, there isn’t a person who survived into adulthood who hasn’t lived through at least a moment of that kind of duality. Their journey, while alternately absurdist and hyper-realistic, will resonate with most people if they can get past the violence of it all. 

Wunmi Mosaku (Fearless) and Gemma Whelan (queers.) are the officers in pursuit of these hapless teens. Mosaku is starting to get type-cast a bit in her cop roles, but Whelan got to try out some new moves and layers. This isn’t a police procedural or typical UK suspense. The relationship between these two characters is reflective of the kids they’re after, directly in their relationship to one another and indirectly as a representation of the “world that is against them.”

Better known as an actress in shows such as Marcella and Cucumber, writer Charlie Covell tackled the adaptation of Forsman’s graphic novel brutally and without flinching. It took some serious guts to even consider the tale and serious skill to sell it with the nod and wink she did; and she even manages a stark and effective conclusion.

The series itself is designed like the serial graphic novel that was its root. It is broken into 8 2-part shots, each shot about 10 min. It isn’t a long commitment, but it is a wild ride right up to the final unforgettable moments. If you’ve got the stomach for it, and can ifnd it, this is definitely worth your time.

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Death Note (2017)

[3 stars]

Death Note has had many incarnations: manga, anime, live action (twice over with this entry, and the previous one was a trilogy). It is a great story that continues to draw an audience. Each version had its own focus and sensibility, but the overall message remained the same throughout: With great power comes great decompensation.

Basically, given the ultimate power over life and death, what would happen to a teen…y’know that age when we’re all so incredibly stable as it is. Let’s face it, it isn’t a pretty concept, but it is a fascinating ethical problem.

Nat Wolff (The Intern) and Margaret Qualley (The Nice Guys) make an interesting Bonnie and Clyde (or Sid and Nancy) combo. Each plays their part and path well without overselling it. Having them grounded really brings out the horror of what happens as the story progresses. And Wingard has plenty of blood and creative carnage to accompany the tale. And Willem Dafoe’s (The Great Wall) vocal talents to help drive the amused bedlam.

Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out) as L is a bit less believable for me. The character is already an absurdist rendition of an OCD hacker, but that seems to work fine in Anime. And the previous live action versions toned him down a little to get to believability. In this production he starts odd, and gets even odder. It is a good counter-point to the ethical dilemma about abuse of power, but Stanfield just didn’t sell me with his delivery that this person could really exist.

I was concerned that the 100 minute treatment of the first part of this tale would feel thin or overly compressed. But director Adam Wingard (You’re Next) took the script from the combined efforts of the writers of Immortals and Fantastic Four (not great bona fides) and wrangled it into something really pretty engaging.

Death Note

The Ticket

[3 stars]

Here’s a combo description for you… imagine 99 Homes meets the Talking Heads “Once in a Lifetime.” The odd/nice(?) thing about this film is that you can take it at face value or as pure metaphor. Either way it mostly works.

Director and co-writer Ido Fulk provides a number of great moments to work with, particularly the beginning and ending. They are sharp and feel honest. But the middle, especially some of the transitions for Dan Stevens (Colossal), feels forced into the narrative that had been created. Stevens plays with what he has just fine, but there are missing moments and odd leaps that make the character journey feel less that true.

For instance, one aspect that plays very believably is his individual relationships and scenes with Kerry Bishé (Grand Piano) and Malin Akerman (The Final Girls). And they, likewise, slam it home well. However, the pathway to and from each is more than a little muddled in the script. You can see how it might have gotten there, but you don’t get to experience the movement by degrees.

Likewise, his friendship with Oliver Platt (The 9th Life of Louis Drax) seems to be a highlights reel rather than interaction. In this case, it is less distracting or concerning as the steps are clearer, but it still left me wanting.

Ultimately, I think The Ticket is better as metaphor than reality. Using blindness as a literalization of impediment to personal growth and recognition is clever and effective. Used as reality, it is somewhat insulting to those who make their lives work well without sight. I’ve known many. Lack of sight is a challenge, to be sure, but it doesn’t have to limit your success. If it was meant as a true-ish story, I think I would have to rate it much lower than I have, which is already on a knife-edge due to the full shape of the tale.

So, do you want to spend time in the world of The Ticket? On the upside, there are some good performances and some interesting philosophical points to consider. On the down side, it is a compressed story that needed a bit more room to breathe.

The Ticket

It Comes at Night

[2 stars]

You have to give this movie credit for being what it wants to be: an intensely personal look at the dissolution of society after an unidentified catastrophe. Basically it asks, “What price, survival?” We’ve seen a lot of these in recent times (a subject I won’t go into here) but this is one of the weaker executions. Both Girl With All the Gifts and Into the Forest manage something more compelling and with better commentary.

The issue, however, isn’t with the acting. Joel Edgerton (Loving), Carmen Ejogo (Alien: Covenant), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Enders Game) give life to the main family. Christopher Abbot (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Riley Keough (The Discovery), provide another perspective and a bit of suspense and tension. Sadly, however, no answers. In all cases the families feel real, given the situation.

The weakness in this tale is the story itself. Trey Edward Shults follows up his critical hit Krisha with this latest foray into familial horror. Told primarily from the point of view of a teenage boy, we get a lot of suggestion, but little real resolution. And the ending is both obvious and pointless, and a tad out of left field. Initially the story has many elements of reality and dreams as Travis gets more and more sleep-deprived, whether due to sickness or stress we wait and see. The construct is an interesting aspect to the family’s predicament. However, it never pays off and we’re left wondering about far too much as the path that got us to the end just sort of peters out.

As a bit of tension and nihilist pondering, It Comes at Night succeeds. The film making itself is quite good. As a movie, however, at least for me, it felt unfulfilled and pointless.

It Comes at Night

The Loch, Dark and Fearless

This is a collection of three new series from the UK. All three are rather intense, but all boast strong female leads and nicely complex mysteries.

The Loch [3 stars]
A serial murder mystery set in the fictional community of Lochnafoy, on the shores of Loch Ness. Full of interesting characters and plenty of suspects, it is the weakest writing of these three, but still very engaging. At issue is that there are just too many unlikable characters who do some really foolish things. On the other hand, the mystery is nicely complex and is peeled back well over several episodes. How you feel about the final resolution may vary. I was a left feeling it was a bit unlikely, but not entirely unsatisfied. Siobhan Finneran (Happy Valley) and Laura Fraser (The Missing) are the driving female presences, balancing each other well. And there is a whole town of recognizable and new faces to enjoy as the bodies pile up and the detectives focus in on their perpetrator.

In the Dark [3 stars]
The shortest of the three series in this post (it is only two, two episode stories) it is also one of the slowest to reveal its character secrets, though less-so on the suspects. Its lead, MyAnna Buring (Lesbian Vampire Killers), just off the series wrap of Ripper Street, is transformed into an entirely different woman. If aspects of her face weren’t so distinct, I don’t think I’d have even realized who it was. The mysteries themselves are solid BBC style guessing games of possibilities. The first episode is a stronger story than the second, but both build on Buring’s character and set her up as a driven and strong detective, if not a bit reckless. She is supported by a range of recognizable men in her life, some in decidedly different roles than usual. How they go forward I’m not entirely sure, but I’d go back to see more if they make them.

Fearless [4 stars]
In some ways, this is the darkest of the three tales because it is such a reflection of our times and so close to the bigger realities. It spins around the political tides of public fear, war, and espionage even while the main plot is highly personal. It is definitely the strongest of the three on offer thanks to its writing and cast. Helen McCrory (A Little Chaos) is the primary driver in this unsettling, but likely to be more common theme, of terrorism and bad government actors (particularly the US) given today’s politics. She is joined by Wunmi Mosaku (In the Flesh) and Robin Weigert (Pawn Sacrifice). Each is a true-believer in their areas and has varying degrees of integrity based on those beliefs. What lines they will cross is part of the tale to tell. There is also a host of men it was good to see, starting with Michael Gambon (The Casual Vacancy), Jamie Bamber (Marcella), and, finally, Alec Newman who had been doing mostly voice overs for the last while. The story holds its tension from the first to the last and resolves in a believable and complete way. I am hopeful that we’ll see another mystery down the road for McCrory’s character. She is set up as an icon of public justice, which not only has a huge well to draw from, but is a much needed sensibility in today’s world.

The Loch Poster In the Dark Poster Fearless Poster

Top of the Lake: China Girl

[3 stars] The first round of Top of the Lake felt like a forced update of Twin Peaks; a bit less surreality but plenty of odd characters, strange speeches, and meandering plot. It was interesting, but not great. At least not to my mind. But the complexity of Elisabeth Moss’s (High-Rise) character was intriguing and I was curious to see where they might take her.

This second series returns Moss’s character to Sydney and approaches the story with a lot more realism. It takes a lot of the bits of the first series, in idea, and transposes them into more believable situations. It is still stretched in credibility, but a lot less obtuse in its plot and intention. For instance, the impenetrable Holly Hunter philosophy is mutated onto the differently twisted David Dencik (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Analogs to other characters can be found in Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones), Alice Englert (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), and Ewen Leslie. In particular, the broken creepiness of Nicole Kidman (Lion), who embraced her ugly role with abandon, is great fun. But the point isn’t to compare the two series too closely, only to highlight that the creators learned some lessons and built on them.

The series still loses its way about half way through, forgetting Moss is a police detective and focusing on the more soap opera aspects of the story. You get the feeling through the second half that if she’d just been doing her job finding the murderer, fewer bad things would happen. It still manages to keep up a good head of steam through to the end, and provides the opportunity for more stories to come. My hope is that they get someone on the team that understands police procedurals, which would really up the value and believability of the stories.

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Ripper Street (series finale)

[3 stars] Somewhere around series 3, Ripper Street lost its way and never found it again. It retained its beautiful language, a Western version of Shakespeare for lack of a better description, but it lost the drive of the characters and the inciting conceit of Edmund Reid’s policing.

In series 4 and 5 it all comes back around and, with contortions that PT Barnum would have hired, they manage to close the story. Sadly it isn’t with great skill, but with a wedge and shim. Series 4 leaped ahead in time, and the final episode in series 5 attempts, clumsily, to put a shape around the whole through a collection of vignettes to wrap up the present stories, and flashbacks to provide a mirror and meaning to them.

Does it work? Sort of, but it all feels so very forced. The show was provided more than enough advance notice to plan a better arc through its final 2 series. Instead we got the White Chapel Golem, which wasn’t uninteresting, but with a meandering plot and too much going on (and a load of death). We are left, at the end, with an idea and melancholy that has carried through the series as a whole. It is, to its credit, unwilling to go for the easy and pleasant solutions to all the issues, but in other ways it gave in exactly to expectations.

Ripper Street, as a series, was ambitious and richly textured. The first series is still the best focused, and the rest of the run certainly has moments and merits, if not stellar choices. I would have been happy with the conclusion at the end of series 3, but the 2-series wrap up did keep my attention, even if I was less than thrilled with the direction of that resolution.

On the up side, it was relatively self-contained so if you want to stop at 3, you don’t lose much by doing so. But, if you want to go forward and see the wrap-up for all the various characters, you have that option.

Ripper Street

Identicals

[2 stars] I don’t mind weird, but I need a little bit of conclusion with my weird to make it pay off. This really didn’t have that.

Simon Pummell’s first fiction feature has the makings of something intriguing and the trappings of a solid, hard science fiction tale, but lacks answers as it spins out the story. It certainly was visually interesting, though his accompanying script was either cleverly minimal or purposely obtuse. The overall result was…head-scratching.

The film is driven by three main actors, of which Nora-Jane Noone (Brooklyn) is the only one who turns in any kind of performance. It isn’t a brilliant performance, but it has levels and change to it. The two main men, Nick Blood (Bletchley Circle, Agents of SHIELD) and Lachlan Nieboer (Charlie Countryman) are wooden at best and never particularly sympathetic. On the other hand, Tony Way (Edge of Tomorrow) turns in a bit performance that lights up the screen briefly.

Ultimately, this story is either hard sf or purely an allegory about inner struggles. It could be both in better hands, but neither manages to come together. Honestly, save yourself the time unless you really like experimental film that leaves you hanging. Mind you, I don’t think this was intended as experimental. I think Pumell over-cut or under-shot to make his point and got left with a movie without meaning.

Identicals

A Cure for Wellness

A Cure for Wellness has many layers and is definitely not for everyone. It isn’t a great movie, but it is worth seeing.

It is, at its core, a suspense/horror film very much in the vein of Frankenstein and Dracula, even a dash of Phantom of the Opera. But it isn’t a B-grade flick nor is it histrionic or intended to get you with cheap scares.

Balancing the classic influences, there are also nods to Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch and Kubrik’s Eyes Wide Shut. For the former, it is the thin veneer of reality and matter-of-fact absurdity of what is going on, as well as some of the sense of the imagery. From the latter, it is the use of a simple, repeating musical theme and, particularly near the end, a sequence that echos Eyes and a load of Argento and other films from the 70s including Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, and others.

Visually, the film is full of gorgeous cinematography by Bazelli. The composition and clarity of the shots will make you want to pause every few moments to really examine the detail and relationship of the various objects. It is painterly in its execution, but always in support of the story.

The story itself is somewhat obvious, but what is reality is somewhat not. There are clues, but it is ultimately contradictory, and the ending is nebulous at best. And yet, somehow this gorgeous, Gothic, mental trip to the Swiss Alps is mesmerizing, even with a 2.5 hour run. The whole is, somehow, more than its parts.

There are several nice, small performances, but are only three main roles that form the framework of the movie. Dean DeHaan (Valerian) as the lead isn’t any more likable than he is in other roles, but he has a bit more energy. Generally, I’m finding DeHaan to always have a cool distance, an odd disconnect between his voice and his physical movement that removes you from caring about him. It can be very effective when you aren’t intended to like him, but it makes it hard to even care about what happens to him.

On the other hand, Jason Isaacs (The OA) is wonderfully creepy. He rides the line between care and conspiring beautifully. And Mia Goth (Everest) is practically ephemeral, going through her inevitable changes in a controlled and believable progression. You can see why DeHaan is drawn to her, why anyone would be. And yet she also manages to have a layer of both innocence and poisonousness lurking beneath her surface, like a toxic flower.

As I suggested, the end feels like it could be read in many ways. It is a strong choice, but not a clear one. And I say this despite one of the characters providing an explicit meaning to the title and their philosophy…I just don’t think it covered all that was going on nor the last image. Honestly, I’m still not sure what I think the entire intent was, and that’s somewhat OK because I’ve plenty to chew on.

Director Gore Verbinski and writer Justin Haythe reteamed for this production after their somewhat confused and misfire of The Lone Ranger. Bazelli returned behind the camera again as well. Seeing their efforts in an unfettered venue, absent any expectations, gives me a much better sense of their creative scope. While the end-result is a little baffling, it is a ride I willingly took and continue to think about. Make time for this when you’re in a mood for something darkly beautiful but very different.

A Cure for Wellness