Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Dig

Director: Simon Stone
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes, Monica Dolan
Running Time: 112 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

While watching Simon Stone's biographical British drama The Dig, it's not hard at all to believe it's based on a true story. It tells us as much in the opening minutes, and even while creative liberties are  taken, there's something about the delivery that feels particularly authentic, regardless of names and dates. Some may view that as a turn-off, or sign they're going to endure a stuffy period piece lacking the momentum or excitement to grab their attention, but it's nearly impossible not to get caught up in the characters' enthusiasm. Because they care so much about the title adventure and we ultimately grow invested in what happens to them, it succeeds, harkening back to a time where mid-range adult dramas were a big draw simply due to quality alone. 

With pitch perfect performances, memorable cinematography from Mike Eley and a criminally overlooked Stefan Gregory score, it's almost as if this was released in the wrong era. Despite having been nominated for four BAFTA's, it's still hard to argue that if this came out in the mid to late 90's it would be screening next to The English Patient, Secrets and Lies or Waking Ned Devine at the local arthouse multiplex. And it would probably be among the five Best Picture nominees, while likely racking up additional acting nods for its cast. 

Being that it's instead 2021, a prestige film like this now just basically drops on Netflix with very little promotion. And that's not entirely a criticism considering it may not have otherwise seen the light of day at all given the current film climate. Nor is this some passionate defense of The Dig as an unheralded masterpiece because, on the whole, it's just fine. But boy is it ever just about the most comfortable thing you could hope to land on when scrolling through your queue. It's like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket for almost two hours, without worry the filmmaker will suddenly start making wrongheaded decisions or take the material to places it can't or shouldn't go. Given the circumstances, that's an achievement.

On the eve of World War II in 1939, Suffolk, England landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires local excavator and archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig at the burial mounds at her estate in Sutton Hoo after both agree on a fair wage. With his former employers attempting to get him to abandon the project for work they've deemed more important, Brown and his assistants soon unearth the remnants of a ship, with him suggesting it could be the possible burial site of someone of high class or great nobility.

As Brown forms a fatherly bond with Edith's imaginative young son Robert (Archie Barnes) and her cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) joins the dig, noted archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) crashes the site, determined to wrestle control from Edith and Brown. Taking over with his own team, including a relatively inexperienced Peggy Pigott (Lily James), a major discovery is made, forcing Edith to make some important choices, even as her health rapidly begins to decline.

Managing to walk the the extemely thin line of delivering exactly what's expected while having just enough surprises up its sleeve, Moira Buffini's screenplay (adapted from John Preston's 2007 novel), stays tightly focused on this escavation's historical implications, as well as the personal ones for those directly involved. After an initial feeling out process between Edith and Brown, an early accident at the site ends up framing their friendship and motivations from that point forward. After that, she quickly realizes he's the right man for this job, regardless of the lack of respect he receives from his archaeological peers, mostly due to ignorance and jealousy. 

Having lost her husband and trying to raise a son while struggling with an undisclosed condition, Edith turns to Brown as kind of a surrogate companion. With him ignoring letters from his own wife, May (Monica Dolan) and spending nearly all of his time with Edith and young Robert, we start wondering where this relationship's going. But the movie's smarter than that. May couldn't be any more supportive of the bond he's formed with them, despite her feeling he's overworked. It's a nice reversal of expectations while also managing to be completely logical. And it's through Edith and Brown's shared discovery that we realize just how damaged she is, with this undertaking clearly giving her the only glimmer of hope and personal sense of purpose she's had in years. It feels right that this is as far as it will go for them, especially considering the film already has a romantic sub-plot that works exceptionally well.

Following her Oscar-nominated turn in Promising Young Woman, it could have been jarring to see Mulligan back doing the period pieces her against type role in that film proved to be a welcome respite from. But it instead only serves to further showcase her versatility in tackling a part that was originally intended for an older actress, more closely matching the fifty-something Edith Pretty was at the time. Fortunately, none of that matters in relation to the narrative and few could have played this as well as Mulligan does. Edith's no pushover, and even as the pressure mounts and the actress effectively conveys a marked physical deterioration in this woman's appearance and demeanor, her loyalty to son Robert and Brown perservere, partially stemming perhaps from regrets over an abandoned archaelogical career. 

Similarly, Fiennes scenes opposite Mulligan and the boy really resonate, with Brown charging forward despite being undermined at every turn by beaurocrats wanting a piece of his discovery. Ken Stott plays the film's biggest blowhard, Phillips, whose lack of knowledge is matched only by his elitist snobbery and frequently incorrect deductions about the project. Lily James appears about an hour in but quickly makes up for lost time as Peggy, dragged along by Phillips and husband Stuart (Ben Chaplin) only because her small stature won't disrupt the site. It's the first of many microagressions she endures from the men on the project, most notably her husband. While having a star at James' level show up so deep into the story is a curious decision, she conveys everything we need to know about this nervous,  bespectacled woman in only a matter of minutes. 

Trapped in a loveless marriage, it's clear where things are going for Peggy as she falls for Edith's cosuin Rory and must battle all these insecurities in the face of this epiphany that she needs to leave her controlling, apathetic husband. With Peggy's feelings slowly bubbling under the surface until finally breaking through. when that moment comes, it's surprising just how emotionally resonant it is, largely due to James' invaluable performance. Seemingly, out of nowhere, she becomes as essential to the film's success as Mulligan's or Fiennes, with the sub-plot also achieving its goal of stirring something in Mulligan's character as she comes to terms with her own mortality. In Peggy, Edith finds a younger counterpart she can mentor and perhaps encourage to take the risks she failed to, with Buffini's script presenting much of that as subtext since the two actresses don't share more than a couple of scenes together. Stone's direction compliments that with restraint, gliding along effortlessly in not telling us how to think or feel and just letting these actors take us there.

It's a relief to know it's possible for screen adaptations to make adjustments a true story that make sense and have those decisions actually enhance the source material. They unquestionably shifted details around, changed characters and added events, but all of these choices were good ones that made for a far better experience than a straight re-telling would. Of course, the irony is that some may still find this too dry, but for fans of these kinds of humanistic dramas, it hits all the right notes.      

That The Dig could be watched repeatedly becomes that much more of a compliment when you realize it doesn't do anything necessarily special that sets it apart from past releases of a similar ilk. But from start to finish, it's just an absorbing story, solidly made and intelligently told. Sometimes that's enough, as certain unremarkable qualities that would cause it to blend in with the pack ten or twenty years ago only serve to make it stand out that much more today.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Amusement Park

 
Director: George A. Romero
Starring: Lincoln Maazel, Harry Albacker, Phyllis Casterwiler, Pete Chovan, Sally Erwin
Running Time: 52 min.
Rating: Unrated

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

When legendary horror director George A. Romero was commissioned by the Lutheran Society in 1973 to make an educational film on elder abuse, they ended up getting more than they bargained for with his surrealistic nightmare, The Amusement Park. Shelved due to its disturbing content and perceived failure at accomplishing the mission at hand, this intended PSA has long been discussed in cinematic circles as one of those great lost treasures that probably wouldn't ever see the light of day. Think Jerry Lewis' The Day The Clown Cried, minus the baggage. Now, almost fifty years later, the George A. Romero Foundation (a nonprofit founded by his widow, Suzanne Desrocher-Romero) has restored the film, and after being purchased by Yellow Veil Pictures, the rediscovered effort has premiered on the Shudder streaming service. And it's really something else. 

While criticisms could certainly be leveled that's it's almost too ambitious to effectively function as a traditional PSA, but not large enough in scope to qualify as the masterpiece many expected, it still comes dangerously close, making for a fascinating experiment that's just as socially relevant today as then. Containing many tenets that would inform the director's later work, it's easy to see how it was shelved, even if having the message delivered in this manner leaves a traumatizing imprint that wouldn't be possible without Romero's distinctive approach. Depressingly cruel and punishing at only 52 minutes, the abbreviated length works to its favor, even as the entire scenario and lead performance will probably have you too shaken to check the time.

Besides functioning as a invaluable period piece, it takes public perceptions of amusement and theme parks and turns them on its head, reminding us just how truly unpleasant a trip to a bad one can be for anyone, regardless of age. Existing somewhere between reality and metaphorical fantasy, this park's amongst the more hellish you'll see, particularly for a protagonist with whom everyone will eventually relate. That's ultimately the film's most powerful statement, as this seemingly innocuous outing rapidly disintegrates into a fable of mortality, with a man staring down the barrel of a culture's complete disregard for his existence. 

A painfully true testament to how society degrades then disposes of its elderly population, Romero really does pile it on here, but rarely without purpose. Far from straightforward "horror" in any conventional sense, it's still every bit as as terrifying, with images and sequences that linger in the mind long after the credits roll. It's just a shame that a film capable of making such an impact instead collected dust for almost half century for being both of and ahead of its time.  

Shot at the now-defunct West View Park in West View Pennsylvania and bookended by Twilight Zone-like narration from its lead actor, the film focuses on an elderly gentleman (Lincoln Maazel) in a white suit who bares more than a passing resemblance to Colonel Sanders. If only he were treated with as much reverence as that iconic restaurateur upon his entry into an amusement park that's populated by visitors of all ages, but has a harsh pecking order. It opens with him entering a mysterious door into a white, sterile room, and despite warnings from someone he really should listen to, he remains enthusiastic and undeterred about his upcoming excursion into the park. 

All that optimism quickly fades when the man's faced with what initially seems like merely dismissive treatment, before it escalates into far greater forms of discrimination with each passing stop. Wading his way through this claustrophobic, overcrowded atmosphere, he's constantly marginalized along with others his age and even harassed, beaten, and verbally abused by younger parkgoers unsympathetic to his plight. Bruised, battered and limping his way to what could be his final destination, this ordinary day out reveals itself to be a true living hell.

Strung together as a continuous series of vignettes, the unnamed elderly man is confronted by various forms of hostility, but he's hardly the only one, as many of these situations break the barriers of ageism and enter territories of racism and classism as well. While the man's immediately segregated with his contemporaries, it's actually quite startling how many elderly citizens are in this park and that the amount of business they bring do little to temper how badly they're treated. 

What's even sadder is that a lot of these people aren't even THAT old. When one of the characters reveal they're in their sixties it's kind of a shock, mainly because these patrons (who, with the exception of Maazel, aren't professionally trained actors) all look much older than they likely are. It's yet another reminder of how much and little has changed since 1973, as advances in medicine and self-care have enabled us to look younger for longer, but caused the age at which one is considered "old" to drop precipitously. You could actually imagine a modern-day remake where a 35 year-old is kicked and dragged out the park for their advanced age as if it were a bizarro version of Logan's Run. 

These observations may carry false pretenses that this is an actual amusement park and what we see is to be taken literally rather than some nightmarish hallucination taking place within the man's mind. If it's not, the film still works as an all-encompassing metaphor, as many of its memorable sequences sharply illustrate. At a makeshift restaurant, he's given humiliatingly shoddy service while a wealthy, well-dressed cigar-smoking customer is waited on hand and foot by the staff. A policeman arrives to settle a bumper car fender bender and shames an elderly couple. And Romero even manages to deliver a scathing commentary on the health care system and nursing home facilities as the protagonist attempts to escape what looks to be an unfortunate inevitability. 

In what may be its most ambitious sequence, a fortune teller gives a young hippie couple glimpses into a future that looks mighty bleak, if not far scarier than the old man's. The flashforward is a chilling distillation of Romero's intentions, as well as the perfect encapsulation of the film's cruelest twist; that the tormentors don't have much further to go before they find themselves on the receiving end of the ignorance they've willingly participated in.

As the anonymous elderly gentleman is circled like vultures by a biker gang and even literally has a book closed on him during his sole moment of human acceptance, it's clear we're witnessing the passage of time right before our eyes. Though this was filmed only a few years later, it's hard not to be reminded of my favorite pictures of the era, Frank Perry's The Swimmer, when considering the trajectory Romero puts this character on. While that dealt with aging, the passing of time and human cruelty by way of a journey through the neighborhood's pools by its far more flawed and unsympathetic lead, this substitutes an amusement park as a setting for events that could be borne from reality, hallucinations or possibly death. 

Like that film, there's also a mental and physical deterioration that occurs with each new interaction, as if the man's entire lifespan has been compressed into a single day. By its end, he's a shell of himself, heading back to the white waiting room from which he came to repeat the process again, and like so many in the park, failing either out of fear or denial, to heed the advice of those who came before. It may be the irony of all ironies that actor Lincoln Maazel (who would appear again in Romero's 1978 thriller, Martin) ended up passing away in 2009 at the age of 106, having still not lived long enough to see his shattering performance exposed to the masses and given the credit it deserves. 

The film's satirically sarcastic tagline, "I'll see you in the park, someday." couldn't be more fitting in reflecting the obliviousness of the movie's antagonists, behaving without a care in the world that their time is coming. Less a brutal critique of ageism than a damning indictment of the lack of basic human decency, Romero never shied away from calling out the shallowness of American materialism, as he'd later demonstrate in Dawn of the Dead. But there's something almost entirely darker and sadder going on here in watching this defeated, ostracized man entirely shut out by those who can only hope they're someday granted the grace and compassion they fail to offer him. It's a true to life terror resonating more now than perhaps it ever could back then. And in that sense, Romero didn't have any idea just how right he'd eventually be.       

Friday, June 4, 2021

Unhinged


Director: Derrick Borte
Starring: Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Gabriel Bateman, Jimmi Simpson, Austin P. McKenzie, Juliene Joyner
Running Time: 93 min.
Rating: R 

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

If there's anything to be said about the very accurately titled road rage thriller Unhinged it's that you get exactly what's advertised. Approaching the film with hopes of gaining deep insight into the sociological implications of stress on the human psyche or underlying causes of vehicular assault in America would be a mistake. This is a B-level potboiler. Plain and simple. And when viewed through that lens, director Derrick Borte delivers a tight, suspenseful 90 minutes that doesn't reach too far or try to be something it isn't. Aiming higher would assuredly result in less, even as the story's basic premise calls to mind superior efforts like Steven Spielberg's Duel or Joel Schumacher's Falling Down. In terms of quality and content, it shares little with either, as much of the action doesn't take place on the road and it's not all that interested in providing social commentary or exploring the antagonist's state of mind. But in this case it's fine since that just isn't what we're here for. 

The events that occur may be wildly implausible, but they're not exactly silly. Okay, maybe they are, but it's good enough for viewers to resist mocking the entire scenario and at least respect that the movie never breaks from its reckless abandon to wink at us. Borte really plays it straight, relishing in this lack of humor as he escalates the violence to uncomfortable levels. On its surface, the plot's absurd, tracking a stone cold killer on his rampage to teach an unlucky mororist what a "bad day" really feels like. He also might also have the best luck of any murderer since Ted Bundy at evading law enforcement, disposing of victims left and right in broad, busy daylight while driving his easily identifiable vehicle through a crowded city. And yet, this somehow works, mainly because of Russell Crowe, who we just don't see in sadistic, villainous roles like this nearly enough. 

Mentally disturbed and existing on the fringes of life, Tom Cooper (Crowe) is in a precarious state. Laid off from his job and going through a divorce within the past year, he's about ready to snap. And he does, breaking into the home of his ex-wife and beating her boyfriend with a hammer before setting the residence ablaze, driving away into the night as it explodes. Meanwhile, newly divorced single mother Rachel Flynn (Caren Pistorius) has been struggling through some personal problems herself, battling her ex-husband over money while trying to take care of their teen son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman). Already under immense pressure and seeking advice from friend and divorce lawyer, Andy (Jimmi Simpson), she's dropping Kyle off at school and running late to work when she honks at a pickup truck stopped at a green light. 

The truck's driver is Tom, who catches up to Rachel, rolling down the window and demanding an apology for honking him, insisting he deserved a "courtesy tap" first. She refuses, leading to a tense exchange and him following her on the road and into a gas station, where she realizes he's just not going to let this go. So begins his murderous rampage, threatening everyone near and close to Rachel while collecting additional victims along the way. With cops on his trail, he has Rachel in his crosshairs, and she'll have to use all her strength and resourcefulness to escape him.     

Unlike Michael Douglas' D-Fens character in Falling Down, Tom starts the film as a complete psychopath and descends from there. Whatever events or circumstances led to his violent, agressive actions were well underway before he was introduced on screen so any hopes of humanizing the guy are pretty much dashed in the opening scene when he commits the first atrocious crime. The film proudly announces what it will be right off the bat and doesn't waver throughout, even while being careful enough not to go too far into the weeds regarding his mental stability, or lack thereof. 

While they show Tom popping prescription meds and he's referred to as "ill" in both the descriptions for the picture and in passing dialogue, you have to wonder the reasoning behind that disclosure. Since mental health is a sensitive topic, you'd figure the last thing filmmakers would want to imply is that just anyone with these issues could do this. What's likelier is that this is screenwriter Carl Ellsworth's sole attempt at giving the character some degree of nuance despite it not being particularly necessary. Regardless, his horrific actions speak loudest, as an almost unrecognizably heavier Crowe adopts a menacing southern drawl while pausing to fiercely lecture his intended victims about the unfair hand he's been dealt. 

Alternating between intensely calm soliloquies and explosive fits of rage, Crowe's best scene comes in a diner opposite the great Jimmi Simpson as Rachel's attorney. With Tom having already absconded with her cell phone and fully manipulating his way into her circle of friends and family, Simpson's lawyer knowing something's off with this guy, but not enough to call him out. Crowe perfects Tom's deflections and lies to a hilt so by the time Simpson's character realizes the extent of what's happened, it's too late.

It would be easy to pick every piece of this apart, especially the incredibly slow police response when it comes to tracking a pyromanical vehicular killer so visible that the "hiding" part of hiding in plain sight barely seems applicable. Then again, had the script involved too much law enforcement, it could easily lead to a Saw-like scenario where we're watching a crime procedural instead of the thriller it should be. So it's probably the right call keeping Crowe front and center, even if the audience has to kind of check their brain at the door regarding how far this goes.  

If Crowe steamrolling through everyone seems on brand for the film, its most believable aspect is South African actress Caren Pistorius' performance as Rachel, naturally and credibly reacting to this trauma as you'd envision a normal, overly stressed single mother would, conveying a fear and panic that lends even more tension to the proceedings. Doing far more than merely holding her own, Pistorius wrings genuine pathos out of the situation's most ludicrous developments, desperately conveying the conflicted fight or flight response you'd associate with someone experiencing this. 

Allowing a suspension of disbelief that may not have been possible with a more recognizable name in the role, casting the right protagonist opposite Crowe only enhances everything he does, making sure all the heat stays on him. And he brings plenty of it, taking us on a wild ride where we're fully invested in seeing this guy really get his in the end. When that moment comes, it's surprisingly cathartic, and maybe the surest sign that everyone involved with Unhinged fully understood the assignment. By knowing what had to be accomplished and achieving it, the film clears a low bar, executing an admittedly familar formula in skillful, exciting ways.          

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Woman in the Window

Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Anthony Mackie, Fred Hechinger, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tracy Letts
Running Time: 100 min.
Rating: R
 

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)  

The most surprising aspect of Joe Wright's long gestating The Woman in the Window is how underwhelming the results are given the staggering amount of talent involved. Of course, this happens, as movies collecting dust in post-production are frequently dumped onto streaming services with little to no fanfare. But in this instance, Netflix actually went to some lengths to promote it, perhaps hoping the cast's pedigree would overcome its creative flaws, which keep piling up as its story becomes more involved and convoluted. It starts with rather transparent aspirations of honoring Hitchcock or De Palma before devolving into an inferior Scream sequel in its second half, complete with a clumsy reveal. And that's a shame since you can kind of see the skeletal framework of a film that may have really worked under different circumstances, as a few stronger performances seem in search of the better material these actors mistakenly thought they signed onto.

Based on a 2018 bestseller by A.J. Finn, that this script was adapted by Tony-winning playwright (and gifted character actor) Tracy Letts leads you to believe something got lost on its journey from his pen to the screen. That it was supposed to be released in late 2019 confirms as much, as viewers will be jumping through hoops to deal with some of the arbitrary contrivances before reaching an ending that lands with a thud. While there are laughs to be had, it mostly takes itself too seriously for that, especially when information comes to light that would have ended the film ten minutes after it started. Knowing this, it's unlikely many would have stuck around for the over-the-top third act that wraps up what's been a strange and wildly inconsistent mystery.

Depressed, agoraphobic child psychologist Anna Fox (Amy Adams) lives alone in her Manhattan brownstone apartment after separating from her husband Edward (Anthony Mackie), who currently has custody of their daughter, Olivia (Mariah Bozeman). Mixing drinks and medications on a daily basis, Anna's psychiatrist Dr. Landy (Letts) becomes concerned with her obsession of watching all the neighbors from a second floor window, while also acknowledging that interest could be a subtle sign of progress in her therapy. But when spouses Alistair (Gary Oldman) and Jane (Julianne Moore) Russell move in across the street with their teen son, Ethan (Fred Hechinger), Anna's takes her spying to another level.

After two separate encounters with a clearly dispondant Ethan and a flighty Jane, Anna begins suspecting the mother and son are trapped in an abusive household. When she believes she sees Jane get stabbed to death by husband Alistair through her zoom lens, his furious denials and attempts to discredit Anna to Detective Little (Brian Tyree Henry) begin. Anna's basement tenant, singer-songwriter David (Wyatt Russell), provides little help in corroborating her story while possibly hiding some secrets of his own. With her mental state deteriorating and everyone gaslighting her into doubting what she saw, Anna works overtime to put together clues that prove this horrific crime was really committed and not merely a construct of her fragile psyche.

While the film is all over the map in terms of plot, the amount of time it spent on the shelf probably helped it in some ways, at least as far as its themes of isolation seeming timelier than they otherwise would. And for about half the film, the script does seem very seriously interested in taking us into the fractured headspace of this woman who obviously experienced a severe trauma we only later discover the details of. 

Losing herself in classic movies and TV, Anna's exiled herself inside this apartment with her cat, and the remainder of her entertainment is provided by spying on this wealthy, dysfunctional family across the street. Other than  sporadic phone conversations with her estranged husband and the weekly psychiatric counseling, she's in her own world, reality hanging by a thread after an adjustment to her meds. 

Adams is really strong in these opening scenes and her interactions with Hechinger, as this desperately off, needy teen, are unnerving and affecting. But it's the entrance of an entertainingly loopy Julianne Moore as "Jane Russell" that sends everything into a tailspin, but not an altogether welcome one, through no fault of Moore's performance, which is probably better than the story deserves. 

After Anna witnesses Jane's murder the entire scenario goes down this rabbit hole where everyone starts questioning her sanity and the mystery unfolds as to whether everything's playing out in her head. The more information that's revealed the sillier it gets, more closely resembling one of those 90's direct-to-video thrillers than the Hitchcockian whodunnit it initially purported itself as being. 

Most of the film's charms are found in these supporting turns, with the possible exceptions of Gary Oldman's relegation to stock villainy and Jennifer Jason Leigh being given the least to do of anyone as the supposed "real" Jane Russell, an eleventh hour wrench thrown into the plot. While the characters are comparable to pieces on a game board, both Hechinger and Wyatt Russell make the most of what they're given, with the latter proving more than capable of handling darker material you'll wish was better after seeing his performance. And despite fairly limited screen time, Moore makes the biggest impact in her extended scenes opposite Adams, teasing the potential for a gripping mystery that just never quite gets off the ground.

This is one of those projects where the harder the script works, the returns only seem to keep diminishing. It's not a chore to sit through and Adams has a great grasp on her character, but whatever subtly the story had at its start literally goes, if you'll forgive the pun, out the window with a fascinating mess of a finale. Featuring a gotcha revelation that's partially confusing and not as surprising as you'd think, it really does channel one of those cheap slasher endings in all the wrong ways. 

Since Adams basically headlines every other film released these days, this feels like a bigger departure for Wright, who's a long way off from Atonement and Hanna, dipping his feet into the waters of a bargain basement thriller he tries his best to elevate. We'll never know the exact circumstances surrounding how The Woman in the Window turned out like it did, making it almost uncomfortable to assign blame. But even those able to have fun with this would have a tough time claiming it reaches its full potential, whatever that was intended to be.       

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Oxygen

Director: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi
Running Time: 101 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Given its single location, Oxygen attempts to do a lot, to the point that even if this wasn't a film that took place within such a confined setting, audiences would still be taken aback by its ambition. Crawl director Alexandre Aja's French language thriller operates on overdrive, preemptively addressing any potential criticisms of its seemingly sparse scenario. Considerably better than anticipated, it features a downright amazing performance from Mélanie Laurent, while moving at a far brisker pace than we're used to in this growing sub-genre, keeping us engaged and visually stimulated as its many puzzle pieces slide into place. Even when they don't always fit perfectly together and Aja's reach exceeds the script's grasp, it's an emotional, tension-filled experience that stands more than a step or two above similar efforts. 

What's been true since 2010's Buried and even far before, are how many devices are used to limit the action to its closed confines, keeping the viewer distracted enough not to think about the fact everything's taking place entirely in a coffin, elevator, phone booth, ski lift, ATM, under a boulder or even in an enclosed swimming pool. If these methods become a lifeline for both the writer and their trapped protagonist, the skill at which they're incorporated determine just how much slack discerning audiences are willing to allow. 

Christie LeBlanc's screenplay takes huge gambles by going all out, encasing the main character in a predicament where an overwhelming number of options strangely make it less survivable. First part mystery, second part survival tale, it also reaches outside its O2 depleting tomb, looking toward a world that at least feels partially inspired by the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar, and most surprisingly, Contagion.

Sometime in the future, Dr. Elizabeth Hansen (Laurent) awakens in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of who she is or how she became trapped inside. An advanced computer assistance program named M.I.L.O. (voiced by Mathieu Amalric) guides her, but initially provides little help other than informing her she's not cleared to obtain the necessary authorization code in order to get out. With her oxygen level rapidly decreasing and just over an hour left until depletion, she attempts to jog her memory while using M.I.L.O. as a resource for clues about her past and who could have done this. Experiencing hallucinations while desperately trying to contact anyone on the outside, Liz is haunted by flashbacks that give glimpses into a life she's not sure can be trusted. With oxygen in short supply, the one thing she doesn't have is time, as this claustrophobic cryo unit will quickly become her final resting place if she doesn't find a way out.    

Much of the first half-hour is reserved for setting up this elaborate mystery, which isn't to say the narrative loses any momentum once more information is slowly revealed. It's just the opposite, as Liz uses every piece of information at her disposal to have a shot at escape. Was she abducted? Part of a scientific experiment? Did she do it to herself? All these possibilities are on the table, as cryogenic chambers have apparently come a long way, with this one fully loaded with access to the internet, touch screens and a HAL-like AI providing guidance and medical monitoring. 

The whole thing's a bit more cerebral than you'd expect despite all the tools at Liz's disposal, or even sometimes because of them. Beyond the survival element and milking the oxygen counter for maximum suspense, the scenario has to be mentally navigated, with her frequently asking questions and breaking clues down into their simplest terms. Obtaining the serial number and name of the pod is only a start until the realization kicks in that she still has a long way to go before being able to alert anyone on the "outside," wherever that undisclosed location may be.

Gasping for air and frantically searching for solutions, Laurent (in her best role since Inglourious Basterds) is really challenged here, carrying the entirety of the proceedings as its sole actor while the camera remains fixed on her sweaty, exhausted face for over 90 minutes. Dealing with the devastating emotional and physical blows as they come, the actress has to ride this giant wave, and whatever you think of how it all comes together from a logical standpoint, her performance holds up to the closest scrutiny, never feeling less than completely believable. 

Everything comes down to the reveal and while the eventual explanation requires a certain suspension of disbelief, Oxygen mostly holds together, which given its premise, may be reason enough it stands out as an anomaly in the genre. One timely aspect is especially affecting, conveying a very immediate sense of loneliness and isolation in way that will hit uncomfortably close to home for many at the moment.  If prompted to really pick this plot apart, you easily could, but the script rarely strays from own self-imposed rules, tackling far bigger themes than its small scale implies. Even when it flirts with going overboard, it's hard not to be taken in, curbing anyone's worst expectations that this would join Netflix's growing scrap heap of anonymously interchangeable sci-fi and horror titles.  

Friday, May 14, 2021

The Nest

Director: Sean Durkin
Starring: Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Charlie Shotwell, Oona Roche, Adeel Akhtar, Anne Reid, Michael Culkin
Running Time: 107 min.
Rating: R
 

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The final words of dialogue spoken in Sean Durkin's psychological drama The Nest comes when a character is told under no uncertain terms to just "stop it." Give up. It's over. You're not fooling anyone. It may not be the denouement viewers were looking for or the explosive culmination of this slow burn of a plot, but it's somehow perfect nonetheless. Not entirely but perhaps partially miscategorized as a thriller, the film's a gripping exercise in subverting expectations, as notable for where Durkin chooses not to go with the material than where he does. For a while, we're just not sure where things are headed since the mood and tone lulls us into thinking supernatural elements could be at play or it's traveling down a road resembling that taken by Jack Torrance and family in The Shining.  But as the story progresses, I found myself increasingly relieved that it doesn't, as the performances, setting and characters are too complex for the script to compromise or merely settle into straightforward horror. 

Its creepiest elements hover ominously in the background, which is exactly where they belong. And none of the them have to do with the story's narrative, which fits squarely into the fractured suburban nightmare subgenre occupied by the likes of The Ice Storm, The Swimmer, Ordinary People or American Beauty. Accompanying it is a sinister mood that suggests something bad will inevitably happen, if said event isn't already well underway. We're not completely sure how or what, and that we seem no closer to that answer by the time it concludes will undoubtedly infuriate audiences expecting a spectacularly violent outbreak of some sort.

The true horror centers around a woman's realization her husband's in a permanent state of self-denial, pushing forward with an act even he's having trouble justifying anymore. And now after his most selfish, poorly motivated decision yet, he's taking the entire family down with him. So entrenched in its materialistic "me first" 1980's milieu, you'd almost be convinced these events couldn't take place in any other decade but that. Of course, it could, but things just couldn't be the same given how intrinsically its themes are tied to this particular period. This is Durkin's first film since his heavily praised debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene introduced the world to Elizabeth Olsen, and proves worth the nine year wait, complete with a shelf life and accompanying discussion capable of lasting far longer.

It's the mid 80's and English-born commodities trader Rory O' Hara (Jude Law) lives with his American wife Allison (Carrie Coon), biological son Ben (Charlie Shotwell) and stepdaughter Samantha (Oona Roche) in an upper middle-class New York suburb. Allison teaches horseback riding while Rory's contemplating an offer from his former employer, Arthur Davis (Michael Culkin), to rejoin him in England to explore new financial ventures. Having already moved and uprooted the kids four times in the past decade, Allison very reluctantly gives in as the family moves into a dark, cavernous mansion in Surrey. With Rory gifting her a new horse and planning the construction of stables on their giant property, the kids are enroll in expensive private schools while he wines and dines associates at posh restaurants with Allison on his arm. 

Despite Rory flaunting the family's apparent wealth, nothing is what it seems, with him spending far more cash than he's taking in and they're soon miserable in a creepy, dimly lit house that's far from a home. Isolated and depressed, they attempt to make the best of it until it's clear Rory doesn't believe there's a problem at all, doubling down on his failed business proposals and blowing money by the truckload. Reckoning with the reality that the man she married is a greedy social climber putting on an elaborate show, Allison will need to decide how much more she can take before his uncontrollable ego decimates them all. 

The more we learn about Rory, the less there is to like, or even tolerate. Whether it's some combination of the move, location, mansion, circumstances or him just generally doing a worse job than usual at playing the role of a loving husband and father, the cold truth is now being fully revealed to Allison. In many of their heated verbal exchanges, she's able to curb his rampage with just a few carefully cutting words. It's a far cry from the film's opening scenes where Rory's making breakfast for the kids, driving them to school and asking about their day. His explanation for their relocation to England ends up being the first big lie we witness and it only worsens from there, as he soon gives up all pretensions of being a responsible husband or parent. The curtain comes down, revealing an image-obsessed narcissist, or as Allison would call it, "a poor kid pretending to be a rich." . 

Questions regarding identity and the stress of living a lie can't help but call attention to Jude Law's most famous role in The Talented Mr. Ripley, leaving little doubt that it had to be a major catalyst behind his casting. And this may be his best work since, with the actor making Rory charming and friendly enough to initially convey that friends and acquaintances would take him at face value. It's when this thin, superficial facade starts to crack that things really get interesting, like when he literally pushes his wife's rebellious daughter Sam out of the perfect portrait he envisions with Allison and "real" son Ben. It's clear Sam has a far different relationship with Rory, yet not necessarily an adversarial one, which makes his apathy toward her all the more infuriating. 

Roche's supporting turn as Sam provides a different take on your typical angsty teen because it's sprinkled with these self-aware moments of remorse and flickers of sympathy for what her parents are going through. Even when falling into drugs and partying, she displays an unexpected protectiveness toward her little brother, whom Charlie Shotwell portrays as completely terrified and withdrawn, clinging to his mother for dear life. It's tough to blame him, especially when, in a nice piece of foreshadowing, even the horse recognizes that this move was a bad idea. 

If there were any lingering doubts of Durkin's intentions, his casting of scene-stealing genre vet Michael Culkin as Rory's boss further emphasizes the film's sinister undercurrents. Rory's hotshot, hyper-aggressive American deal making heavily clashes with Arthur's more conservative approach, leading to a great Culkin speech that completely chops his former underling down to size. Jolted in such a satisfyingly clever way, Rory's entire game drops multiple notches for the film's remainder, making him easy pickings for Allison.   

As his inferiority complex takes center stage, you'd easily be fooled into thinking this is Rory's story when it's really about Allison unchaining herself and the kids from his hubris. Having transitioned from stage to screen in a big way within the past decade, Emmy-nominated Carrie Coon has what's arguably her biggest showcase yet with a lead role unlike anything she's previously tackled. Playing a woman so unlike her husband you wonder how they ever wed, she values work and pragmatism far more than cultivating any kind of image. Having hustled for everything her whole life, many of the best scenes revolve around her character's outward disgust at being paraded around by Rory as a trophy wife, calling out his excessive spending, neglectful selfishness, and in a great final stand, intentionally humiliating him in front of his clients. 

Allison's entire presentation and demeanor drips in the time period, with Coon incorporating it into every subtle signal and gesture. Right down to her clothes and sensibilities, she's a woman trapped in evening gowns and fur coats, quietly seething with anger that her entire identity is being so blatantly disregarded. But Coon never leaves much doubt as to who's really pulling the strings, with Allison letting Rory get all this out of his system before going in for the knockout blow. After impressing with seriously memorable TV turns in Fargo, The Leftovers and The Sinner, Coon manages to level up here without dulling any of the sharper edges that's defined so much of her character work.

Whatever hints were teased from its poster and promotional materials that Durkin would go all in on the 80's aesthetic are followed through ten-fold, from the washed-out, vintage TV sheen of Mátyás Erdély's cinematography, to the music, title treatment, production design, pacing and performances. Nothing here feels like a mere approximation of the era, making it impossible to doubt these characters are living in that decade while still not calling unnecessary attention to it. And all of this converges in a slow, steady stream of escalating discomfort, creating the eerie mood of a story heavily flirting with horror without ever fully crossing the threshold into it.

You know it's gotten bad for Rory when even his estranged mother thinks her son's a total fraud and he  makes a pathetically unconvincing case to a cab driver why he should win "Dad of the Year" for fulfilling the bare minimum of parental responsibility. He even gets a long, defeated Lancaster-like trek back to the mansion, unaware what he'll find beyond the crumbled remnants of the pain he's caused. It doesn't feel like a victory for Allison even when it should, as her one moment of celebratory freedom looks strangely lonely despite appearing to have broken free, at least in a metaphorical sense.  

The ending is the closest the script comes to faintly acknowledging something more supernaturally sinister is afoot, leaving that door slightly open to the possibility, though not by much. Calling the film unresolved or contending it doesn't lead anywhere ignores that maybe it goes exactly where it needs and no further, reveling in the curiosity that comes from speculating what happens to this family after the final credits roll. Rory's ultimate punishment is the realization that everyone's suffered enough for him to be exposed for the world to see, no longer in possession of the upper hand he only imagined holding all along.  

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Nobody

Director: Ilya Naishuller
Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen, Aleksei Serebryakov, RZA, Christopher Lloyd, Gage Munroe, Paisley Cadorath, Michael Ironside, Billy MacLellan, Colin Salmon
Running Time: 92 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Chuck Norris. Charles Bronson. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sylvester Stallone. Bob Odenkirk? As odd as you'd think that seems, the crime thriller Nobody is all about this. The concept of not just Odenkirk as an action star, but the idea of a performer stepping so far outside audience's preconceived notions of them that we begin to grow an even greater appreciation of of their many talents. Not that it's newsworthy for actors to frequently dabble in different genres, with viewers now more aware that the crossover between TV and films have created an environment where "typecasting" nears extinction. 

That someone like Bryan Cranston, who played a sitcom dad on Malcolm in the Middle could later immerse himself in a cancer-striken drug kingpin on one of televison's greatest dramas certainly helped change perceptions. Actors act, but there will always be doubters, especially of someone as comedically inclined as Mr. Show vet Odenkirk, who aleady proved naysayers wrong as Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad, before dramatically powering its prequel, Better Call Saul, with a character many falsely assumed was too silly to stand on its own. 

If a precedent of defying odds had already been set with Odenkirk, it's taken to an entirely different level here, as he enters the genre with a pushback that's not entirely dissimilar to what Liam Neeson initially encountered. That Neeson is the closest comparision should give you an idea at the kind of leap he's taking, even if it's unlikely he'll want to carve out a similar action career. But the point is that he could. That's the shocker, even for those with full faith in his ability to pull this off. Granted, it isn't Death Wish, Rambo or even John Wick, but there's very little winking at the audience, with moments of dark, self-referential humor that play directly to his strengths, taking itself dead seriously when necessary. 

Hutch Mansell (Odenkirk) is a seemingly average guy who has two kids with his successful real estate agent wife Becca (Connie Nielsen) and frequently forgets to take out to the trash before going to work at father-in-law Eddie's (Michael Ironside) metal fabrication company. Between a lack of intimacy with Becca, tending to his ex-FBI agent father David (Christopher Lloyd) in a nursing home and teen son Brady (Gage Munroe) showing him no respect, Hutch's life is in a rut, as this boring routine zaps him of all ambition and drive. But when the family are subjected to a home invasion and Hutch lets the intruders get away, his inaction is heavily scrutinized, prompting him to hunt down the criminals himself. 

Hutch finds the perpetrators, but also gets more than he bargained for when a violent encounter with gang members on a public bus make him the target of ruthless Russian mob boss,Yulian Kuznetsov (Aleksei Serebryakov). Now a marked man with his family in grave danger, the shady nature of Hutch's past starts coming to light, revealing the true motivations behind his passive approach during the attempted robbery. Suddenly sucked back into a violent life he left far behind, he'll need to rely on his resourcefulness and maybe recruit some unexpected help in finishing a war that wasn't supposed to start. 

Hutch's trajectory isn't that far removed a pre-Heisenberg car washing, high school chemistry teaching Walter White on Breaking Bad or a Cinnabon managing Gene Takovic from Better Call Saul's flash forwards. By society's standards he's considered a total failure, or by more realistic expectations, a depressed, sad sack who simply blends in. It's clear his family, aside from a doting young daughter, turn their noses up at him, as do co-workers and mere acquaintances who sure are judgy about his actions during a burglarly they didn't even witness. Odenkirk's so good at making us think this bothers Hutch more than it actually does since the character already knows something we don't. This isn't just about an emasculated middle class white guy snapping and going on a rampage ala Falling Down. 

The events and its ensuing fallout get to Hutch, just not in the way we would have suspected. It doesn't necessarily wound his ego because he isn't a Walt, but instead a Gene. This isn't his first rodeo, and the anguish he's been feeling stems mainly from having to suppress these dark, turbulent tendencies behind the facade of a once happy marriage and white picket fence. A new life is what he wanted and still does, but it's starting to bore the hell out of him. The reckoning that begins with this break-in was a long time coming and that's what makes the story a lot more engaging than if some loser suddenly took to the streets vigilante-style. The script also provides great cover for Odenkirk doing things that even under the most fanciful Hollywood circumstances would be too far a bridge for disbelieving audiences to cross. 

This backstory allows them to effortlessly cross that barrier of skepticism and let Odenkirk do the rest, as it can't be overstated just how well he pulls that off. The bus fight sequence is pivotal in not only providing the film its centerpiece, but establishing the rules. This guy's dangerous, but not invincible. What plays out from then on can best be described as an ongoing symphony of violence, as Hutch's fearless, all-out assault against these mobsters gets underway, along with some really inspiring and off-the-wall music choices providing the backdrop. Even the main villain gets a musical introduction so bizarre that it nearly forces itself to work, and succeeds. And if trying to spot a completely unrecognizable Michael Ironside as Hutch's father-in-law isn't enough to get your attention, there's barely enough time to register that the legendary Christopher Lloyd hasn't been given enough to do before he's suddenly handling a great deal more than we thought was possible. 

Proving the power of inventive casting, Nobody couldn't have stood out nearly as much with a more predictable performer in the lead. It's rare that the entire draw of an action project rests with the audience's relationship and familiarity with the star, but Odenkirk's performance is why this all works.  He believably shifts into ass-kicking mode and does it with large doses of brutality, leaving little doubt this is someone who shouldn't be underestimated, complete with an ending and mid-credits scene heavily implying we haven't seen the last of Hutch. Whether or not the role was specifically tailored to the actor's skillset, director Ilya Naishuller and writer (and John Wick creator) Derek Kolstad craft the action and story around Odenkirk's ability to play a seemingly ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. And he's more than up to the task, elevating a well-made, if functionally generic action vehicle into something that leaves a stronger impression.