Tag Archives: Dark

Our Kind of Traitor

[3.5 stars]

Most John le Carré adaptations, like A Most Wanted Man or even The Night Manager, are slow, intense burns, usually from the perspective of the criminal or an abandoned spy. Out Kind of Traitor, however, is from the perspective of a basically normal couple, Ewan McGregor (T2: Trainspotting) and Naomi Watts (Rampage), who get caught up in a hot mess…due to a criminal and an abandoned spy. OK, some things don’t change.

Stellan Skarsgård (Cinderella) puts together a delightfully over-the-top Russian mobster that becomes the pivot for the tale. He manages to swing between affable and homicidal without blinking, but remains sympathetic throughout. Even Damian Lewis (Billions), as a disgraced and desperate MI-6 agent, manages to create an understandable, if often despicable human being.

However Hossein Amin’s (The Snowman) script and Susanna White’s (Bleak House) direction manage to keep it as a suspense drama while inching it along with more an action-film pace. The story is unrelenting in its tension, which starts with something marital and quickly expands to something more deadly.

Is it perfect? No. There are some foolish errors in the script (can we talk cell phones, procedures, and monologuing?) but it still works rather well and will keep you guessing as to whether this will end as a triumph or a tragedy. If you enjoy tight spy tales, this is one you should have in your list.

Our Kind of Traitor

Death Wish (2018)

[3 stars]

A movie about violence in times of ineffective government is probably not the best timed release. Death Wish has always been a bit problematic as a story. Stories like Die Hard or Taken or other similar machismo-based tales of fathers and/or husbands fighting back, tended to be with a rescue in mind or they were forced into action due to time constraints or other issues. Death Wish is about the conscious choice to become a vigilante for the sole purpose of revenge…and not even against the perpetrators, but against all criminals that cross his path.

There is a 7-year-old part of me that applauds that sensibility, but there is also the adult that knows where that leads. In the current climate of hate being encouraged from the very top of our government, it is actually pretty terrifying. I’m not overstating it to say this is how the brown shirts got their start in the 1920s and 30s. So I have to wonder if we needed this remake at all.

Joe Carnahan’s (The Grey) script tries to balance this conversation, but ultimately ends up celebrating the choices. That happens in part due to the very nature of film, but also because of Eli Roth’s direction. While the first third or more is set up and family and relationships, the final third of the film progresses steadily off the rails both in plot situation/choices and violence. It shifts from a man getting involved to a man reveling in the carnage while the cops, essentially, give him a pass. And the final moment belies any positive message the story could have raised.

Bruce Willis (Rock the Kasbah) does a credible job as a distraught father and victim and a middling one as a surgeon. Script and direction on the hospital sequences were rather, let’s say under-researched. But it works fine enough for the intention. Vincent D’Onofrio (Emerald City) is an interesting foil for Willis as his brother. But while Elisabeth Shue (Battle of the Sexes) made a good showing as his wife, the less heeled Camila Morrone as their daughter was less engaging for me. To be fair, Morrone was there to serve a purpose rather than a character and the script didn’t really help show her off.

Outside of the family unit, Dean Norris (The Book of Henry) and Kimberly Elise (Dope) make an interesting detective duo. They manage to come off relatively competently but overwhelmed. It is the subtlest part of the script. Their characters break down towards the end, but through most of the story, we see them as a glimpse of sanity and potential rather than as ineffective or buffoons.

You may have noticed I don’t even mention the criminals. They’re there, but none came off as real. They’re all extreme portrayals intended to go without sympathy. We’re not supposed to care that they are offed in violent or tortured ways, so why flesh them out? Well, that is part of what is wrong with the pic…by not fleshing them out, they become purely “other” and it is OK to kill them, even enjoyable. The issue isn’t that these kinds of people don’t exist or even if they did or didn’t deserve their fates, the issue is that it makes it OK to view people as “other” and absolve yourself of the effect you have on them or the judgement you make of them. That is a major part of what is wrong with society and getting worse right now: we don’t recognize each other as fundamentally the same regardless of age, skin color, sexual preference, economic status, sexual identity, political affiliation, fill in the descriptor here.

So, did we need a remake of this Charles Bronson 1974 classic? The 70s were a different time, in many ways. The violence was as much about racial and economic tension as it was the existential horror of war. Today, hmmm… well, maybe it isn’t all that different, but the message should have been updated as well. Something more like The Equalizer in flavor, where the system honestly tried, but failed or where justice and humanity co-existed would have worked better for me. Stoking the anger and hate and divisiveness between people is the wrong message to enhance right now. That doesn’t mean you can’t have revenge movies or even movies about personal justice, but they should be better balanced. I guess what it comes down to is whether or not this movie depicted a world I’d like to live in and the answer for me in this case was: no. You’ll have to decide for yourself if that is the kind of story you need to see or not.

Death Wish (2018)

The Bridge (Bron/Broen) – Series 4

[5 stars]

The fourth, and last, series of this Swedish/Danish phenomenon goes out in style over eight episodes and with a feeling of completeness. The previous series had left Sofia Helin’s (The Divine Order) Saga in a precarious place; this series picks up a few months later. With her series three partner, Thure Lindhardt (The Borgias), the two assail a wonderfully complex mystery while also tackling their own demons. Helin’s performance continues to evolve and impress while Lindhardt really comes into his own this series.

The Bridge has always done its homework, even if it has pushed the limits of credibility at times. This most recent round is no exception. Through to the end they are getting things right, even when you think they’re getting them wrong. Series 4 will not disappoint anyone who has come to love and appreciate a storyline that has launched several copies and riffs (The Tunnel, The Bridge (US), etc), and helped open the door wide for more mysteries from its corner of the world.

I really give credit to the writers and producers who were willing to leave it on a high note rather than stretch it out until it lost its quality. That takes guts…but it also frees them up to give us new and different shows. Kudos and luck to them!

The Bridge

Double Lover (L’amant double)

[3 stars]

Writer/director François Ozon (Potiche) has created a highly tense, psychological drama delivered with deft visual and editing craft. The result is something like The Square meets Dead Ringers by way of Tully…maybe even a dash of Antichrist or mother! with an echo of Blue Velvet thrown in.  How’s that for a heady cocktail? Double Lover is full of incredible visual shots, with some expected elements that skirt horror, and with an unsure foundation of reality. Basically, this is not an easy movie to watch without squirming quite a bit as it unfolds.

The entire film is held in the capable hands of the young Marine Vacth (Young and Beautiful). From the outset, she is a complex and vulnerable woman in search of answers, but also with a poor sense of boundaries and choices. She is literally and figuratively laid open to us. Opposite her, Jérémie Renier (Saint Laurent) provides balance and reflection (an ongoing theme) as they battle and regroup emotionally and physically. The movie is really these two characters locked in a tarantella that is as fascinating as it is disturbing. There is also a small, but nice role for Jacqueline Bisset (Dancing on the Edge).

Ozon admits this is “freely adapted” from a Joyce Carol Oates tale. Not having read the short story I can’t say how freely, but I suspect it isn’t very true to that narrative. Unfortunately for Ozon, it also is rather violent toward women, making it fairly tone-deaf for the times. The intent is certainly more complex than that simple statement, but it will make many too uncomfortable to sit through the story to understand the action. I also think that the film is about 20-30 minutes too long to support its intent…at least for me. Some compression in the narrative might have improved the impact and pacing.

Ozon is no stranger to complex relationships, dark subjects, raw sexuality, and strong women. He is a very capable filmmaker with visual flare and little fear. This film struggles a bit to find a satisfying balance between the purposefully provocative and the honestly emotional. That is part of the point, but it will leave a percentage of the audience angry. This is especially true because of how long it takes to pay off the setup. This is a film for a night you feel patient and want to be challenged.

Double Lover

Hereditary

[3.5 stars]

Ari Aster’s first major script and directing gig betrays a love of intelligent, suspenseful horror from the 70s. There is an air of Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, and even a bit of The Omen and the (much older) Cat People and the more recent Get Out. It is in the tension he creates and the way he drives the story by raising questions around what’s really happening that echoes these earlier classics. He certainly did himself no harm with the cast he gathered either.

Toni Collette (Please Stand By) delivers a shattering performance as the matriarch of a broken family. Gabriel Byrne (Carrie Pilby) supports her as her husband with immense restraint and love, but with diminishing capacity as the story unfolds. And, as the children, Alex Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and first-timer Milly Shapiro turn in wonderfully creepy and sad performances that will break your heart before tearing it from your chest. As an added bonus, Ann Dowd (American Animals) gets to play a pivotal role and appear on multiple screens in different releases this season.

Hereditary is not an easy movie, either to watch or to define. Half the film I was wondering what I was watching, but was utterly riveted by the performances and the filmmaking. The end felt a bit forced and obvious, but the ride getting there was so solid I’ll give Aster a pass on his ultimate choices. The film gave everyone in its ensemble moments to shine, and made its audience gasp many more times than once. If you are looking for dark, creepy, and something just a bit different, you will want to see this on the big screen, in the dark, with others.

Hereditary

The City & The City

[3 stars]

Much like the title and conceit of the story, I had two simultaneous reactions to this story. First, I was awed watching the impossible being brought to screen. At the same time I was led down a path of disappointment in support of the purpose and the plot.

I’ll come back to that, but be assured there is a great ride for a long part of the series. A good part of that success goes to David Morrissey (Extant, Doctor Who). He is subtle but intense in his role, which is highly flavored with an East European flare. Mandeep Dhillon (Whitechapel), as his sidekick, is energizing and entertaining and far from superfluous. Maria Schrader (Fortitude), as another associate, brings a very different type of intensity to help it all along. And Lara Pulver (Electric Dreams) is a great Macguffin for the tale, slowly peeling back layers and history for Morrissey. And that’s just a sampling of the characters. You may have  noticed that despite the male lead, this story is dominated by strong women. In smaller, pivotal roles, Christian Camargo (Europa Report) and Danny Webb (A Little Chaos) are a bit less believable, but still serve their purposes.

Now, back to the plot. The first three episodes of the four installment series are brilliant and engaging. The combination of writing, directing, and cinematography walk you through a challenging set of ideas in a convoluted world. But in the fourth episode, after a promising start, it all falls apart into either an odd political polemic or disappointing bit of naturalism. I haven’t read China Miéville’s book of the same name yet, so can’t speak as to whether it follows the source closely, but I can believe it does; the flavor of the ending matches Miéville’s sensibilities.

But here’s the thing about The City & The City, you’ll get to the end and, probably, be annoyed. But you will keep thinking about this show and its  points and implications. In fact, it may not even land at first, but will keep poking at your brain demanding to be acknowledged; the metaphors are incredibly powerful. However, that doesn’t make it satisfying, only poignant. I think that it would have done better as an episode in an anthology series or a one-shot film rather than a four-part series that seems to lead in one direction only to veer off into another. Forewarned, it is likely a better experience than going in blind. So take this as your heads-up and then make time for the series, it really is worth it just for the brilliant execution of the near-impossible by director Tom Shankland (The Fades) and writer Tony Grisoni .

Ingrid Goes West

[3 stars]

Despite my reservations about the experience of this film, I will grant you that Ingrid is an effective commentary on the social media age.

As a first-time feature director, Matt Spicer took his and co-writer’s David Branson Smith script through to its painful and natural ends well. The duo captured the insidious and dark nature of the social world and how it affects some people. But while a movie about mostly unlikable, imperfect people can work, it isn’t an entirely pleasant experience. When the ultimate result is no better than where it all started, it becomes an even bigger challenge to enjoy or recommend. Part of the issue is that it is generally too naturalistic and caustic to be dark comedy, at least for me. There are funny moments, but I found it often more painful than amusing.

That is as much a compliment as it is a slight to the cast; they did their jobs well. But, let’s be honest, Aubrey Plaza (The Little Hours) as a slightly psycho social stalker isn’t a huge stretch in terms of new characters for her to play, even if she does play them so well. However, getting to see Elizabeth Olsen (Wind River) in a light and happy role was certainly a change, even if the mien eventually shatters. Billy Magnussen (Game Night), as her out-of-control brother, gets to cut loose in a foul character, but his and Olsen’s relationship doesn’t quite gel. Only Wyatt Russell (Everybody Wants Some) and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Den of Thieves) come across as good people, though each are flawed in their own ways. One neat surprise was Pom Klementieff (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) in a bit role.

This one I have to leave to you on whether to watch it or not. If you don’t want to go to dark places or can’t enjoy trainwrecks as entertainment, steer clear. If you must see it for the actors or are feeling deeply sarcastic about the world, it might fly for you.

Ingrid Goes West

Upgrade

[3 stars]

There is more to Upgrade than you expect. Not a lot more, but it has a better story and script than a good portion of the films that have come out so far this year. On the artistic and intellectual side there are clearly intentional nods to Da Vinci, Frankenstein, Robocop, even a bit of Hitler in the visuals. This isn’t so much a dystopic future as it is an apathetic one with economic divisions just a bit more obvious than the present.

But while it starts off with a sense of Ex Machina, it loses that higher ground to drift closer to the sensibility of Automata. Both good recommendations, but very different movies. Upgrade is certainly willing to dive into ideas, like the potential amorality (or different-morality) of AI and what evolution means. And it is equally unafraid of emotions or taking its time to set up and execute on story. But they say “write what you know,” and writer/director Leigh Whannell just couldn’t quite shake his roots in Saw and Insidious. The ultimate result here isn’t very surprising–a good action and horror piece done with some talent. As a sophomore delivery from behind the camera, Whannell delivered a fairly solid bit of splatter punk. If there is any weakness, it is that despite some truly nice vistas and sets, the piece feels claustrophobic on a world level.

That smallness to the world may be due to its small cast, but Blade Runner 2049 had a similarly small cast without that sense, so I think it has more to do with Whannell’s framing choices. The cast are fairly solid and led by Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus), who gives us an Everyman we can definitely sympathize and empathize with. He is a Luddite in a world of tech, but a person with deep passions and a sense of self and love of his wife and muscle cars (in that order). Betty Gabriel (Get Out) delivers to us a committed, if exhausted cop. Her role is challenging because we only see her decisions from the outside, which makes her seem disinterested or lazy, but I found myself enjoying the removed perspective and trying to piece together her off-screen and unspoken efforts. Harrison Gilbertson (Picnic at Hanging Rock) has an interesting challenge as well. Playing the distracted genius can be tiresome, but Gilbertson manages, by the end, to give us a shade of something new.

As purely a voice, Simon Maiden (The Dressmaker) imbues our nascent AI with a subtle personality. Stem is neither human nor too removed to keep it from becoming a character. There is a sense of HAL, but Maiden makes Stem very much his own. And, finally, there is Benedict Hardie’s (Hacksaw Ridge) neo-Nazi-ish villain. Here is where Whannell could have done a bit more. Hardie’s performance is well directed, keeping him from going to extreme, though his first scene is somewhat misleading on that point. But the character’s motivations and drive, though stated, never feel quite true. Some of that is on the script and some on the direction, but a better set of choices could have elevated this unexpected low-budget flick a couple more notches.

You do have to like violent, splatter-filled moments (not many, but enough of them) to enjoy this ride. It has the feeling of a video-game at times, but not so much that it breaks the story or the sense of the film. The story is actually engaging and the pace swift, even humorous at times, without short-changing the experience of the plot. Yes, there are some shortcuts, but most are given reasons not just shrugged off, and very little is too easy for our main character. And, yes, this one is dark, so keep that in mind as well.

Stem is not for everyone, but I have to admit I’m glad I got to see it and I’m glad it got a wider release than a non-traditional film like this normally would; definitely alternative popcorn fare for the right audience. And, perhaps most importantly, it is something new, not a sequel or prequel or reboot…and how many of those are we getting this year?

Upgrade

Mute

[3 stars]

Mute is not a feel-good romp nor even what could be termed a fun distraction. Its roots are in films like Blade Runner, but without the history to support it. However, it has its own sort of magnetic pull thanks to director and co-writer Duncan Jones’s (Warcraft) efforts in this noirish confection.

The film unfolds at Jones’s typical laconic, but compelling, pace. The story and genre aspects aren’t entirely right, but it is consistent in its approach which allows it to work. And Jones’s nod to his previous release, Moon, is both subtle and amusing… it took me a few minutes to even realize what I’d just seen. Nods like that, which also fit into the world that has been built, you have to respect.

Most dystopian stories are about overthrowing the status quo so that sanity and justice can reign. Not this tale. This dark story is small and intimate against the background of the greater darkness of a totally screwed-up world that looks all-to-familiar. Mute also takes time weaving its its multi-threaded story into whole cloth. And then it heads down a corridor that almost ends on one of the darkest moments I’ve witnessed (we’re talking Oldboy dark). Fortunately it goes beyond that to get to someplace more palatable, but still not what one would really call happy.

The main dance is between a near silent Alexander Skarsgård (The Legend of Tarzan) and a hyper-juiced Paul Rudd (The Fundamentals of Caring). Their paths intersect over and over, eventually pulling them into the same story. Around these two are a bevy of odd characters. Justin Theroux (The Girl on the Train) as Rudd’s sidekick is creepy if not entirely believable. And Robert Sheehan (Geostorm) gets to totally tear it up with his outlandish character, but still manages to give him a bit of heart. Just a bit. I was also surprised to spot Dominic Monaghan (The Day) and Noel Clarke (Star Trek Into Darkness) in a couple of smaller and nastier roles.

This movie had a long road to screen. That it landed on the little screen rather than the large is probably for the best. While it has visual scope, it definitely would have had a narrow audience appeal. However, the restrictions of theatrical release may have also forced Jones to tighten up his final cut a bit as well; sort of a dual sword. The story-telling and conceits of the result, particularly the unique blending of cultures he works with, make this an interesting couple hours. Just don’t go in depressed or angry as this will only feed that spiral.

I enjoy Jones’s willingness to try new things and difficult story lines, and to tell them at his own pace. His opus definitely isn’t for everyone, but there is a talent there that is still developing and one worth watching. He got great a great performance out of Skarsgård and took Rudd some places I’ve not seen him do…and even managed to guide him to just enough humanity to pay off the plot. If you like Jones’s previous work, you should give this your time. If you haven’t yet discovered Jones, you can try this, but you might want to start with Moon and decide if his style jibes with yours first.

Mute

Den of Thieves

[2.75 stars]

When the writer of London Has Fallen, Christian Gudegast, decided to write, direct, and produce this bit of caper-violence, I didn’t hold out much hope despite its surprisingly good reception on release. The result is mixed. It is either hyper-realistic, like The Departed without the careful control, or slow and boring with little understanding of pacing, depending on your point of view and likes. On its side, Gudegast really tries to create characters with depth on all sides rather than cardboard cutouts. The problem is that there isn’t a single likable character in the tale and it is clear from early on where the story going to end up, at least it was for me.

The two sides are led by Gerard Butler (Geostorm) and Pablo Schreiber (American Gods). Both are powerful actors and each brings some levels to these fairly flat characters. They each have a crew of misfits and some have families, but no one really stands out as anything special.

The plot is very much in the spirit of Oceans 11 (remake or the original) and Logan Lucky, though without the humor. In fact, the characters lead lives of fairly obvious desperation.  The plan is clever and the cat-and-mouse game with the police is intriguing. However, much of the police part lacks credibility and the final heist is a bit unexplained and unseen. Regarding the latter, it isn’t that you can’t guess what happened, but a few shots are missing to make it clear.

Overall, this will appeal to those who like dark and violent crime stories with exceedingly flawed characters. It isn’t so much a tragedy as it is a clusterf@*# on all sides. For Gudegast’s first time directing, it is an impressive show of juggling, and his script is better than some of his previous, but it isn’t a high recommendation. Basically, this is a distraction for the right audience, but it isn’t something that will demand rewatches to appreciate any nuance that may have been missed.

Den of Thieves