Film Review – “Stillwater”

STILLWATER

Starring: Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin

Directed by: Tom McCarthy

Rated: R

Running Time: 2 hrs 19 mins

Focus Features

 Matt Damon delivers a performance worthy of being on his career highlight reel as a father trying to free his daughter from a French prison in the controversial drama, “Stillwater.” Directed by American filmmaker Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight,” “Win Win”), “Stillwater” was shot in in the second half of 2019 and was supposed be released in November 2020, but because of the COVID 19 pandemic, it was delayed until this year when it premiered on July 8th at the Cannes Film Festival where it received a standing ovation.

 A small Oklahoma town has been recently demolished by a devastating tornado. Amidst the cleanup effort is laid-off oil worker Bill Baker (Damon) who is also busy trying to pick up the pieces of his family that has been laid waste by tragedy. For the past four years, Bill’s estranged daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin, “Signs”) has been serving time in a French prison for murdering her roommate. It is a heinous crime she says she did not commit, and Bill is steadfast in his belief in her innocence.

 Despite their troubled past, Bill has been flying to France on a regular basis to visit Abigail in her Marseille prison. When we meet them on this trip, Allison asks Bill to hand deliver a note to her French defense attorney. In it, Allison begs to have her case reopened, but the attorney refuses because the new evidence she presents is hearsay. When Bill has it translated it to him by an English-speaking neighbor, Virginie (Camille Cottin, “Allied”), he learns Allison has zero confidence in him. 

Spurred to investigate on his own to free Allison, Bill enlists the aid of Virginie, a single mother and aspiring actress, to help him with getting around and with translations. However, Bill is a fish out of water and his actions end up putting his life in jeopardy. After taking a step back, Bill settles into a new life in Marseilles that includes living with Virginie and her daughter, which provides a chance to redeem himself as a father figure … that is until a “shocking” opportunity presents itself for him to be a screw-up again. 

It is not shocking that “Stillwater” has been compared to the high-profile case of American student Amanda Knox who in 2007 was arrested in Italy and charged, along with her then boyfriend, of murdering her British roommate. Knox was wrongfully convicted and was not completely exonerated until eight years later. Clearly, the Knox case served as an inspiration to some degree for McCarthy’s film. Knox herself has criticized the film for its quasi depiction of her ordeal. At the very least, “Stillwater” comes across as unimaginative and a little predictable. 

What makes “Stillwater” watchable is the stellar performance by Damon who nails his portrayal of a man with a lot of demons who cannot seem to avoid screwing up. Damon manages to infuse him with a sense of likability even though we should probably be as disgusted with him as Bill’s daughter is. His performance captures the old, male blue-collar mentality of not wearing your emotions on your sleeve, which makes the brief moments of tenderness all the more powerful. 

Overall, if you’re a fan of anything Damon is in, then you will probably enjoy “Stillwater.” If not, then “Stillwater” may not be your cup of tea when it comes to looking for over two hours of cinematic entertainment.

Film Review: “A Quiet Place Part II”

  • A QUIET PLACE PART II
  • Starring: Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds
  • Directed by: John Krasinski
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Running Time: 1 hr 37 mins
  • Paramount Pictures 

Three years ago, “A Quiet Place” became THE breakout film of the year as it grossed over $188 million domestically and landed in many top ten lists. Its long-awaited sequel, “A Quiet Place Part II” picks up right where its predecessor left off and it does not disappoint. From the get-go, we are put on the edge of our seats as this fast-paced, sci-fi/horror flick keeps our hearts racing a million miles per hour. A smart script and superb direction by John Krasinski help make this film the first true “must-see” of the year. 

(If you have somehow not seen the original film yet, then do not read this any further.) When we last saw the Abbott family, the father, Lee (Krasinski) had sacrificed himself so that his family would have a chance to live. Thanks to the subsequent resourcefulness of his deaf daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and the tenacity of his wife, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), not only were they able to survive, but they also found a way to kill the sound sensitive aliens by utilizing Regan’s cochlear implant. 

“Part II” takes us back to Day 1 when a normal afternoon of little league baseball turns into an extinction-level event for humanity. After this brief flashback, we are flung forward to day #474 of the invasion. Evelyn and her three children – Regan, Marcus (Noah Jupe) and her infant son – gather up what possessions they need and make a silent, perilous walk into town. 

As they reach the deserted town’s railroad depot, they accidentally make enough noise to attract an alien. It is at this point they stumble upon Emmett (Cillian Murphy, “Inception”), an old friend of theirs who has lost everyone and everything. He is initially adamant they leave, warning Evelyn there is not anyone left worth saving. However, Regan figures out a way for a much broader application of her cochlear implant and it sets into motion events which put everyone’s lives in serious jeopardy. 

“A Quiet Place Part II’ is a superb work of cinema as it excels in all three major phases – writing, acting, and directing. Good luck in finding a flaw with the script. In fact, you will have a better chance at finding a needle in a haystack first. Blunt delivers a perfect blend of strength and vulnerability as does Simmonds, who again demonstrates with a wonderful range that she is a star in the making. Lastly, Krasinski successfully duplicates the pacing, tension, and thrills of the first film, which earned an Oscar nod for Best Sound Editing. 

Overall, “A Quiet Place Part II” already has a good shot at being on a lot of top ten lists again when 2021 is over.

Film Review: “Cruella”

  • CRUELLA
  • Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson
  • Directed by: Craig Gillespie
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Running Time: 2 hrs 14 mins
  • Walt Disney 

There is nothing cruel about watching the new Walt Disney prequel “Cruella,” starring former Academy Award winner Emma Stone in a role she absolutely nails. Unlike 1996’s “101 Dalmatians,” in which Glenn Close played Cruella with over-the-top, maniacal behavior, Stone infuses Cruella with emotional complexities that draw us into a character who becomes much more than a punchline. Ultimately, there is an almost Joaquin Phoenix-as-Joker vibe to Stone’s performance, just not nearly as dark. However, do not be worried, “Cruella” is not all doom-and-gloom as there are enough light-hearted and even tender moments to keep it from falling too far down the rabbit hole. 

As a little girl, Cruella goes by Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland, “Krypton”). Raised by her loving mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham, “Daphne”), Estella manages to get into a private boarding school. Her mother warns her, though, to not be rebellious and cruel, but the fashion curious Estella cannot prevent herself from getting into continuous trouble. Eventually, Estella wears out her welcome and is expelled. 

Estella’s expulsion does not turn her world upside down. In fact, she views it as a new adventure complete with a new puppy she finds. However, reality of how cruel the world can be takes place when Catherine dies and Estella becomes homeless in London’s city streets when she encounters two young boys who are always up to no good. 

Flash forward ten years later when the trio of Estella, Jasper (Joel Fry, “Game of Thrones”) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, “Richard Jewell”) are busy stealing from anyone they can. Yet Estella still has her eyes set on the world of fashion and a series of lucky events puts her into the employment of the most powerful fashion designer in London – The Baroness (Emma Thompson). At the pinnacle of her happiness, Estella learns a dark secret and Cruella begins to take over. 

Stone has all the appearances of being born to play this role in what is an overall terrific origin story. Her portrayal never becomes too unhinged, and she even manages to do the previously unthinkable – make Cruella De Vil a sympathetic character. Of course, she was guided with the steady direction of Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya”), had a fresh and inventive script to work with, and shared the screen with the equally fantastic Thompson who makes The Baroness about as unsympathetic and diabolical as they come. What should also be mentioned are the film’s fantastic costume designs which will hopefully not be forgotten about when Oscar season rolls again, not that more than 10 or 12 people will be watching it anyway. 

Overall, “Cruella” is probably not for small children. Let them watch the 1961 animated version instead. Otherwise, “Cruella” is a wonderful, two-plus hour escape.

Film Review: “Spiral”

  • SPIRAL
  • Starring: Chris Rock, Max Minghella
  • Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
  • Rating: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 33 mins
  • Lionsgate 

Part of the premise of the “Saw” franchise is that the story’s victims are put in horrendous situations and then forced choose to do something terrible to escape or die horribly. Except possibly the 2004 original, I have desperately wanted to run away from each one of these dismal death traps as they begin to flicker to life on the screen. The newest installment, “Spiral” is easily one of the most unsurprising, stereotypical works of cinema I have ever seen in my career as a professional film critic. 

The story, which is a nice way to describe what is presented to us as entertainment, begins during a 4th of July celebration when an off-duty detective does not call for any backup before chasing a purse snatcher down into a darkened subway tunnel. Shockingly, he never sees the light of day again. Enter Det. Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), a lone wolf cop who is hated by every police officer in his precinct as they all view him as a rat. 

Divorced and estranged from his father, former police chief Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson), Zeke is forced to take on a younger partner, Det. William Schenk (Max Minghella, “The Handmaid’s Tale”) as he begins his investigation into crimes committed by a Jigsaw-inspired killer. Despite his efforts, the body count climbs as more dirty cops are killed in such horrific ways that you cannot help but wonder how the writers who come up with these ideas sleep at night. 

At the risk of ruining any surprises those who wish to spend their hard-earned dollars on seeing “Spiral,” I will refrain from going into any more details about the story. It should be noted that while there has been a total of eight “Saw” films in the franchise, “Spiral” is technically not part of the franchise’s ongoing tale as villain Tobin Bell (John Kramer) is only mentioned in this endeavor. 

Directed by Overland Park, KS native Darren Lynn Bousman, who also helmed “Saw II,” “III” and “IV,” “Spiral” overflows with unbearable, over-the-top grotesqueness matched only by ridiculous stereotypes (e.g. a captain who yells and waves fingers at a “rogue” detective) and plot points so predictable that you could go to the bathroom for ten minutes and not miss a beat. A good chunk of Rock’s dialogue feels like a stand-up comedy routine and when he wants to present himself as intense, he often resorts to squinting his eyes like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western. Minghella is stoic while Jackson is too underutilized. The rest of the cast delivers choppy performances with dialogue that may have been written in crayon. 

Overall, “Spiral” spirals down into an abyss of mindlessness so bad that not even a stiff drink could help salvage it as being watchable.

Film Review: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2)

  • MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
  • Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman
  • Directed by: George C. Wolfe
  • Rating: Rated R
  • Running Time: 1 HR 34 MINS
  • Netflix 

With the 93rd annual Academy Awards just days away, it is a good time to take a look at “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a film unforgivably snubbed in the Best Picture category. Garnering a total of five nominations, “Ma Rainey’s” is a fantastic drama with a brilliant cast punctuated by memorable performances from Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. 

Based upon the 1982 stage play by the late American playwright August Wilson (1945-2005) and wonderfully directed by George C. Wolfe (2005’s “Lackawanna Blues”), “Ma Rainey’s” is set on a hot and steamy July day in 1927 Chicago. Popular Georgia-born blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (Davis) is scheduled to record a song – “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – for a pair of white producers anxious to make a profit off her music. 

Ahead of her much-anticipated arrival, Ma’s band arrives to prepare for the day’s recording session. Her musical quartet is made up of three seasoned veterans (Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts) and an ambitious trumpet player named Levee Green (Boseman). Levee has a head full of dreams of becoming a star on his own, but his fellow players scoff at his ideas, at least until he tells them in a powerful scene about a disturbing racist experience he had while growing up. 

When Ma (Davis) arrives late there is heavy tension in the air, especially when it comes to her interaction with one of the white producers, Mel (Jonny Coyne, “The Blacklist”). Neither likes the other as Ma does not take any guff from anyone and Mel does not like her because she is black. In the middle is the other producer, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos, “Better Call Saul”) who will do anything to appease her. After many hiccups, the recording session finally begins but it is afterwards when the story’s haunting climax occurs. 

The real Ma Rainey lived from 1886-1939 and is often regarded as the “Mother of the Blues.” The Columbus, Georgia native was a force of nature in life and Davis drives this home with a tour de force performance that dominates the silver screen. It’s almost no wonder that Davis thrives so well on the script since she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2016’s “Fences,” another of Wilson’s works.

 Equally spellbinding to watch is Boseman whose last performance before his untimely passing is one never to be forgotten. His progression from a bravado-filled, star-seeking musician to a broken man seething with rage, pain, and frustration is done with amazing skill. It is arguably the best acting of his brief career and makes his death that much more tragic. 

Overall, “Ma Rainey’s” is an important, transformative work of cinema. How it was ignored in the Best Picture category is a travesty of the highest order.

Film Review: “The Violent Heart”

THE VIOLENT HEART

Starring: Jovan Adepo, Grace Van Patten

Directed by: Kerem Sanga

Rating: Unrated

Running Time: 1 HR 47 MINS

Gravitas Ventures 

The brutal murder of a young woman leaves a family in agony and for her little brother, an intense anger that while growing up is a powder keg ready to explode at any given moment. “The Violent Heart” is a dark crime drama with a dose of young romance that keeps your attention from start to finish. With fresh, young actors who have talent to spare and some nice twists and turns, “The Violent Heart” provides some nice entertainment for an evening at home. 

A nine-year-old boy named Daniel watches his older sister load a suitcase into a strange car and get in before it speeds off down the road in the middle of the night. Concerned, Daniel sets out after them on his motorbike. He spots the car sitting vacant on the side of the road. After shutting off his bike, Daniel hears voices in the nearby woods. Through the darkness, Daniel follows the sounds until he sees his sister and a man standing in a clearing. A pair of shots soon ring out and Daniel’s sister is dead. 

Fifteen years later, his sister’s unsolved murder hovers like a dark cloud above his family. Daniel (Jovan Adepo, “Fences”) now works as a mechanic while helping to take care of his mother (Mary J. Blige) and younger brother. However, he still desires a life in the Marine Corps like his father. On one fateful day, 18-year-old high school senior Cassie (Grace Van Patten, “The Meyerowitz Stories”) drops off her father’s car to be serviced. There is an instant attraction and a romance soon blossoms between them. 

Unlike Daniel, Cassie is close with her father, Joseph (Lukas Haas, “Inception”), who is an English teacher at her school. This fact makes an affair she uncovers all that much more devastating for her, but it does her closer to Daniel who has his own newfound struggles to deal with. Ultimately, “The Violent Heart” shows that no matter how deep secrets are buried, they seem to always rise back up to the surface. 

Written and directed by Karem Sanga (“First Girl I Loved”), “The Violent Heart” has steady pacing throughout with a pair of nice lead performances by Adepo and Van Patten. Adepo demonstrates solid depth as he portrays someone who erroneously fears that his life will amount to nothing if he does not get into the military. 

The film’s weaknesses can be found in a lack of serious relationship development between the characters within Daniel and Cassie’s immediate families. Therefore, we feel a sense of disconnection which makes it hard to be truly impacted when crisis hits the families towards the third act of the film. It is particularly disappointing that Daniel’s career military father is omitted from almost the entire story. 

Overall, “The Violent Heart” is well worth your time.

Film Review: “Sound of Metal”

  • SOUND OF METAL
  • Starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke
  • Directed by: Darius Marder
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 2 hrs
  • Amazon Studios 

To be succinct, the Oscar-nominated drama “Sound of Metal” is a cinematic revelation which will sear itself into your memory. With six total Oscar nods, including Best Picture, “Sound of Metal” is a powerful story by first time, feature-length film director and co-writer Darius Marder. Riz Ahmed (“Venom”) in the lead delivers the best performance of the year with gritty and powerfully emotional acting as a man whose tenuous hold on sobriety is put to the test. 

Trying to make a go of it as the heavy metal duo Backgammon, Ruben Stone (Ahmed) and Lou Berger (Olivia Cooke, “Ready Player One”) travel across the United States from one small gig to another in their RV, which also serves as their home and studio. It is a grueling lifestyle, but the couple, who are recovering addicts, are devoted to their music no matter their circumstances. 

Without warning, Ruben begins to experience hearing loss, putting his role as the duo’s drummer in jeopardy. Eventually, Ruben is referred to a specialist who informs him that his hearing is deteriorating rapidly, and he will lose it permanently if he continues to perform. Angry, frustrated, and desperate not to lose his creative outlet, Ruben pushes forward anyway and tries to keep playing. 

Scared that Ruben’s volatility might lead him to return to his addiction, Lou tearfully convinces Ruben to stay at a rural shelter that treats recovering addicts who are deaf. Run by a mild-mannered Vietnam veteran (Paul Raci), the shelter is supposed to be a place for Ruben to find peace with his new condition. Despite learning sign language and establishing relationships, Ruben’s desperation to get cochlear implants, and return to Lou, threatens his newfound stability.

Also nominated for Best Film Editing, Sound and Original Screenplay, “Sound of Metal” is a masterful tale of a man trying to find his footing in a world that has been turned upside down. Marder places us in Ruben’s head by allowing us to hear what he is going through. It is a strong tool that punctuates his deafness and how he attempts to adapt to it. 

The emotions conveyed through the script are raw and brought with ferocity to the silver screen by Ahmed. Of course, Ahmed had a terrific co-star to bounce off of in the form of Cooke, who was snubbed horribly by the Academy in this writer’s humble opinion. They exchange a chemistry of the highest sincerity and her individual performance is just as remarkable. Last, but not least, Raci, a veteran TV series actor, is an absolute delight to watch as a genuinely good man who tries to show Ruben how he can overcome his challenges. 

Overall, “Sound of Metal” is a heavy work of brilliant, cinematic art.

Film Review: “On the Rocks”

ON THE ROCKS

Starring: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones

Directed by: Sofia Coppola

Rating: Rated R

Running Time: 1 hr 36 mins

American Zoetrope 

There is nothing rocky about the dramatic comedy “On the Rocks” as comedian/thespian extraordinaire Bill Murray delivers a superb performance as a wealthy, partly retired art dealer with a penchant for the playboy lifestyle. Arguably his best role since 2014’s “St. Vincent,” this marks the third time Murray has teamed up with filmmaker Sofia Coppola – 2015’s “A Very Murray Christmas” and 2003’s “Lost in Translation,” which garnered her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Murray received a Best Actor nomination for that collaboration and deserves another for this one. 

In “On the Rocks,” which made its world premiere last September at the New York Film Festival, Laura (Rashida Jones) is a successful yet mild mannered New York novelist who is currently experiencing a severe case of writer’s block. A devoted wife and mother of two young daughters, Laura is often on her own as her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans) is typically away trying to launch his startup tech company. Troubling signs, like a woman’s travel bag in Dean’s luggage, give Laura pause. 

Worried that an increasingly absent Dean could be cheating on her, Laura calls her father, Felix Keane (Murray) for advice. This seems to be a bad idea as we soon learn that Felix, who years ago left Laura’s mother for another woman, believes all men are hard wired in their genetic code to cheat. With all sorts of conspiracy theories, Felix becomes convinced that Dean is having an affair with an assistant despite a lack of concrete evidence. His paranoia, though, feeds into Laura’s concerns and she starts to think her marriage is on the rocks. 

Murray is a perfect fit for his somewhat eccentric character who proves to be one of those rare people who can charm almost anyone. His natural delivery and timing is spot-on, and it often feels like his lines are more often improvised than not. The chemistry he shares with Jones is terrific and their scenes are consequently performed effortless ease. This is best magnified during a casual lunch scene and a more dramatic one later involving a serious emotional confrontation. The latter is given a dash of gravitas as Murray throughout the film subtly infuses Felix with a complexity and fragility that lies below his flirtatious, playboy façade. 

Perhaps best known for her TV series work on “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office,” Jones holds her own as she delivers a nice, consistent performance throughout the film. Her character’s relationship with Dean could have been explored more thoroughly to help enhance depth to the married couple’s relationship, and therefore a better understanding of their issues. However, “On the Rocks” is much more of a father/daughter story than a husband/wife one. It is one that should not be missed.

Film Review: “Promising Young Woman”

  • PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
  • Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham
  • Directed by: Emerald Fennell
  • Rating: Rated R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 53 mins
  • Focus Features 

Former Academy Award nominee Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) delivers the performance of her career in the inventive crime drama “Promising Young Woman.” Written and directed by British actress Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman,” which marks Fennell’s first attempt as the creative force behind a feature length film, is a well-crafted tale of revenge by a woman scarred by the tragic loss of her best friend.

 The night is getting late at a local bar where three single men spot Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Mulligan) sitting alone at a booth. She appears to be so drunk that she cannot sit up or see straight. The supposed “nice guy” of the three jumps in to save her but betrays who he pretends to be by taking Cassie to his apartment where he attempts take advantage of her. Much to his shock and fear, Cassie suddenly reveals she has been faking inebriation. What she does to him exactly we do not know, but we do see her make a mark in a ledger she keeps that also contains the names of predatory men she has turned the tables on.

 We soon learn that 30-year-old Cassie lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, “2 Broke Girls” and Clancy Brown, “The Shawshank Redemption”) and that she has worked at a coffee shop ever since she dropped out of medical school several years earlier. Her decision came in the wake of her best friend, Nina being raped in school and no one believing her, which ultimately led to her friend’s suicide. Cassie is clearly a broken soul full of rage against most of humanity, especially anyone male excepting her doting father.

 During the process of going after those who she most blames for her best friend’s death, Cassie meets Dr. Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham, “The Big Sick”), a former medical school classmate who awkwardly asks her out on a date. Things move slowly at first, but a romance does unexpectedly develop. It goes so well, that Cassie decides to move on with her life, especially after a conversation with Nina’s mother. However, a ghost from the past reveals an old bit of information that turns the story on its head. 

“Promising Young Woman” made its world premiere on January 25, 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival but its release had to be postponed until this past Christmas weekend thanks to COVID-19. Except for a couple of brief, poorly done supporting performances near the climatic end, the cast surrounding Mulligan does a solid job with the script and Fennell keeps us wondering where exactly she is going to take us. The material is dark yet remains engrossing.

 

Film review: “Promising Young Woman”Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo BurnhamDirected by: Emerald FennellRating: Rated RRunning Time: 113 minutesFocus Features Former Academy Award nominee Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) delivers the performance of her career in the inventive crime drama “Promising Young Woman.” Written and directed by British actress Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman,” which marks Fennell’s first attempt as the creative force behind a feature length film, is a well-crafted tale of revenge by a woman scarred by the tragic loss of her best friend. The night is getting late at a local bar where three single men spot Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Mulligan) sitting alone at a booth. She appears to be so drunk that she cannot sit up or see straight. The supposed “nice guy” of the three jumps in to save her but betrays who he pretends to be by taking Cassie to his apartment where he attempts take advantage of her. Much to his shock and fear, Cassie suddenly reveals she has been faking inebriation. What she does to him exactly we do not know, but we do see her make a mark in a ledger she keeps that also contains the names of predatory men she has turned the tables on. We soon learn that 30-year-old Cassie lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, “2 Broke Girls” and Clancy Brown, “The Shawshank Redemption”) and that she has worked at a coffee shop ever since she dropped out of medical school several years earlier. Her decision came in the wake of her best friend, Nina being raped in school and no one believing her, which ultimately led to her friend’s suicide. Cassie is clearly a broken soul full of rage against most of humanity, especially anyone male excepting her doting father. During the process of going after those who she most blames for her best friend’s death, Cassie meets Dr. Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham, “The Big Sick”), a former medical school classmate who awkwardly asks her out on a date. Things move slowly at first, but a romance does unexpectedly develop. It goes so well, that Cassie decides to move on with her life, especially after a conversation with Nina’s mother. However, a ghost from the past reveals an old bit of information that turns the story on its head. “Promising Young Woman” made its world premiere on January 25, 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival but its release had to be postponed until this past Christmas weekend thanks to COVID-19. Except for a couple of brief, poorly done supporting performances near the climatic end, the cast surrounding Mulligan does a solid job with the script and Fennell keeps us wondering where exactly she is going to take us. The material is dark yet remains engrossing. Mulligan is nothing short of spectacular in a role that requires her to dwell in a painful place filled with darkness and anguish. She deftly switches between her character’s wide-ranging emotions with the ease of someone who has become an expert at their craft. Mulligan is nothing short of mesmerizing as she elevates “Promising Young Woman” to a different level.

She deftly switches between her character’s wide-ranging emotions with the ease of someone who has become an expert at their craft. Mulligan is nothing short of mesmerizing as she elevates “Promising Young Woman” to a different level.

Film Review: “Driveways”

  • DRIVEWAYS
  • ”Starring: Lucas Jaye, Brian Dennehy
  • Directed by: Andrew AhnRated:
  • Unrated
  • Running Time: 83 minutes
  • Prime Video – Amazon 

The late Brian Dennehy, who passed away in April of this year at the age of 81, was a versatile actor perhaps best known for his interpretations of Eugene O’Neill’s works onstage, for which he received two Tony Awards (“Death of a Salesman” in 1999 and “Long Day’s Journey into Night” in 2003). Of course, he also had a prodigious film career that included such titles as “Silverado,” “Cocoon” and “Rambo: First Blood.” Dennehy continued to pursue his acting craft even through last year, which allows us the gift to witness his prowess a few more times posthumously. One of these titles is the drama “Driveways,” a wonderful, sweet little drama in which Dennehy shines in a supporting role as a Korean War veteran who befriends an 8-year-old boy.

Kathy (Hong Chau, “Watchmen” TV mini-series), a single mom from Michigan, has driven to a sleepy little New York town with her 8-year-old son, Cody (Lucas Jaye, “The Sleepover”) to settle the affairs of her recently deceased and estranged older sister. It is a shock to the system for Kathy when she discovers that her sister was a hoarder, which means an overwhelming amount of cleanup she must do by herself before she can put it on the market. 

Amidst his mom’s cleaning, Cody, a shy boy with a vomiting problem when placed in stressful situations, encounters the next-door neighbor, Del (Dennehy), a widowed Korean War veteran who is several degrees nicer than Clint Eastwood’s grizzled veteran in “Gran Torino.” A charming friendship begins to develop between them, probably the first one Cody has ever had, and it brings some happiness to Del’s often lonely world. 

Days turn into weeks as Kathy struggles to not only get her sister’s house ready, but also trying to be the best parent she can be for Cody, whose father could care less. In that way, Del becomes a grandfatherly/fatherly figure for Cody while the boy becomes a mirror for Del to realize the regrets he has regarding his deceased wife and his only child. 

With a couple of unimaginative character stereotypes mixed in, “Driveways” has a rather slow beginning, and it takes a while to really sink its hooks into us. Once it does, though, it becomes a touching, bittersweet drama. Kathy turns into a heroic character thanks to the toughness that Chau infuses into her and Cody, played with an innocent charisma by Jaye, is easy to root for. However, the greatest triumph of “Driveways” is Dennehy’s performance. While the director overdoes it with too many scenes of Del eating in silence in his kitchen (he is lonely, we get it), Dennehy delivers his lines with the ease of an expert craftsman. Even in moments of silence, Dennehy conveys to us tangible emotions. It is a supporting performance that lays the bedrock for this story and should be recognized with an Oscar nod.

Film Review: “RECON”

  • RECON
  • Starring: Alexander Ludwig, Franco Nero
  • Directed by: Robert David Port
  • Rated: Unrated
  • Running Time: 1 hr 35 mins

Available on VOD, including Apple TV, Prime Video and FandangoNOW 

While it may lack traditional star power on the marquee or an expansive budget that is more than what a small country spends in a year, the World War II flick “RECON” is nevertheless an intense, historical drama ripped from the horrors of combat. Based upon the 2008 novel “Peace” by American author Richard Bausch, who received the W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction from the American Library Association, “RECON” is a well-written work with a standout lead performance by Alexander Ludwig (“Vikings,” “The Hunger Games”).

 Inspired by true events, the story takes place near the mountainous area of Cassino, Italy during one long day in the winter of 1944. It begins with a punch to the face as an American squad encounters a Nazi officer trying to hide in a villager’s cart. Gunshots are exchanged. Two Americans and the Nazi officer lay dead in the road. But that is not the end. The squad’s sergeant mercilessly slaughters the Nazi officer’s unarmed wife, much to the horror of his men. 

When the sergeant realizes he may be ratted out, he orders four potential troublemakers – Corporal Marson (Ludwig) and Privates Heisman (RJ Fetherstonhaugh, “21 Thunder”), Hopwell (Mitch Ainley, “Heaven is For Real”) and Asch (Chris Brochu, “The Vampire Diaries”) – to follow an elderly villager named Angelo (Franco Nero, “John Wick: Chapter 2”) on a reconnaissance mission to find Germans. 

Up a lonely, snow and ice-covered mountain the four dysfunctional American GIs follow the mysterious Angelo, who is supposedly taking them to a German position. However, as they march on, the four gradually see that their sergeant was sending them on a suicide mission. Their resolve to turn the sergeant only grows but so do the dangers around them – the Germans, the weather, the terrain, and themselves. 

Director Robert David Port, who co-won an Oscar for the 2003 documentary “Twin Towers,” does a brilliant job at capturing the horrors of war with a no punches pulled approach. There is nothing glorious. It is tragic, terrible and at times difficult to watch. The main American characters are a little stereotypical and generic, and most moments designed to be red herrings or genuine surprise are predictable.

 Ludwig is superb with his role as a soldier on edge just wanting to somehow survive so he can return to his wife and young child back home. His emotional range and depth help with moving the story along and keeps our attention on the screen.

 Overall, “RECON” may be a small tale, yet one that is worthy of the greatest generation. 

Film Review: “Antebellum”

  • ANTEBELLUM
  • Starring: Janelle Monáe, Jena Malone
  • Directed by: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 45 mins
  • Lionsgate 

Kansas City native Janelle Monáe (“Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures”) gets an overdue opportunity to be a headline star in the alleged horror flick “Antebellum.” While Monáe burns brightly on the silver screen as a successful sociologist in present day and as a slave on a cotton plantation, “Antebellum” is such a meandering, sluggish work of cinema that you want to scream out, “Get on with it!” Furthermore, placing this film in the horror genre is a fallacy because while the story itself is horrific on every level imaginable, it is not necessarily a “horror” film like recent classics as “Us” and “Get Out.” 

We first meet Eden (Monáe) after Confederate officer Captain Jasper (Jack Huston, “Fargo” the TV series) executes a female slave as she tries to escape a Louisiana plantation during the Civil War. Eden is subsequently branded with a hot iron by a disgusting Confederate general who claims her as his own personal property. Despite the failure of the escape attempt, current and newly arrived slaves look to Eden as someone who can lead them to freedom. However, Eden tells anyone who approaches her to keep their eyes down and follow the Captain’s rules about not speaking unless spoken to. 

After being raped by the General, Eden dreams of being renowned sociologist and author Veronica Henley in modern day America. A woman who has found a balance between being a wife/mother and having a successful career, Veronica is often sought after for interviews and speaking engagements. One of whom is a mysterious southern-speaking woman named Elizabeth (Jena Malone in an almost maniacal performance), who bears a striking resemblance to the plantation’s white matriarch. After celebrating with friends, Veronica takes an Uber ride to her hotel, but discovers that Elizabeth, whom she only met via an awkward online conversation, is driving and Veronica is subsequently knocked out with a blow to the head. 

“Antebellum” does have an interesting twist, but there are so many glaring breadcrumbs that it is almost expected. Additionally, just to get to the “surprise” it takes as long to get there as it does to walk across the Sahara Desert. The supposed climax is a little clumsy and not as rewarding as one might hope it to be. Monáe is a delight to watch, though, as she infuses both of her characters with grace and an inner strength that is almost tangible. With superb skill, she contrasts these elements with a sense of sheer terror and tremendous pain when called upon to do so. 

Overall, “Antebellum” does have an intriguing premise with a talented star, but it fails to deliver on almost every level, and unfortunately, Monáe is left to carry the load as her supporting cast is largely forgettable. Much like the film.

Film Review: Babyteeth”

BABYTEETH
Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Ben Mendelsohn
Directed by: Shannon Murphy
Rated: Rated MA-17
Running Time: 1 hr 58 mins
IFC Films 

The tragic teen love story about a girl or boy who is terminally ill yet finds true love with minutes left on the clock is the poster child for cliched storylines. At first glance, “Babyteeth” appears to be nothing more than just that. However, with a quartet of interesting, complex characters trying to find their way in the shadow of a young girl’s terminal cancer, “Babyteeth” becomes something quite unexpected – pure cinematic art. The kind of art that provokes a deep, emotional reaction which will stay with you long after the final credits had disappeared off the screen. 

Based upon the stage play by Rita Kalnejais, who also wrote the screenplay for the film version, and directed by Shannon Murphy (“On the Ropes,” “Rake”), “Babyteeth” starts us at a train station where Milla (Eliza Scanlen, “Little Women,” “Sharp Objects”), bedecked in her high school uniform, stands gazing at the tracks in a way that suggests she is pondering death. This is when Moses (Toby Wallace, “Boys in the Trees”), a rat-tailed young man a few years her senior, bumps into her. When her nose starts to bleed, Moses, who may be high on something and possibly homeless, bends over backwards to help her, and from that point on Milla is smitten with him.

 Scanlen draws us in with a profound sense of innocence, despair and longing all rolled into one. There is an air of tragedy about her so thick that it is hard to breathe. Still, a visible spark is ignited within her and Scanlen plays it masterfully as Milla’s passion to live life is reawakened by what will become her first and only love. Wallace, the recipient of the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor or Actress at the 76th Venice International Film Festival for this very role, is damaged goods himself. He longs to have a relationship with his estranged mother, but Moses would rather play the tough, street thug card. On the surface, his character seems stereotypical, yet Wallace manages to subtly infuse several degrees of complexity into his role that is both surprising and rewarding. 

Rounding off the quartet is Milla’s psychiatrist father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn, “Ready Player One,” “Rogue One”) and her pill-popping, former classical pianist mother, Anna (Essie Davis, “True History of the Kelly Gang,” “Assassin’s Creed”). With his daughter’s terminal diagnosis looming over him, the pressure on Henry to get through each day keeps growing. It eventually pushes him to make a pass at his pregnant, much younger next-door neighbor, who symbolizes a way out to a more normal or at least alternative existence for him. All the while, Anna takes a wide array of pills as her way to escape from a reality that she knows deep down will not include her daughter for much longer. 

Mendelsohn and Davis share a great onscreen chemistry with one another as they face any parents’ worst nightmare. There are times when, especially towards the end of Milla’s life, they press on with a sense of grace that tightens their bond. They are even able to laugh at the craziness of letting Anna date a small time drug dealer in Moses who even breaks into their house at one point to steal Anna’s pills. However, how can they deny her the experience of a first love? Especially one which serves as a means for Moses to transform himself. 

We know how “Babyteeth” is going to end. It is clear as day. The brilliance of Murphy’s direction is that when we do reach the end, we are still emotionally moved to the point of tears.

Film Review: “The Other Lamb”

THE OTHER LAMB
Starring: Raffey Cassidy, Michiel Huisman
Directed by: Malgorzata Szumowska
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 1 hr 37 mins
IFC Films 

Officially, it is listed as a “drama/horror” film. However, “The Other Lamb,” currently streaming on-demand, is neither dramatic nor horrific. While it does have an interesting concept involving a mysterious cult leader and his all-female flock, “The Other Lamb” misfires on nearly every single level imaginable. In a remote section of forest dwells a small commune of women, ranging in approximate age from eight to thirty-somethings, who are held together by a man only referred to as the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman, “The Age of Adaline”). While doing his best to resemble the Caucasian version of Jesus Christ, the Shepherd exudes an inexplicable magnetism that his multiple wives are captivated by. 

There is a noticeable “Handmaids Tale” look to it all with the stark contrast of red and blue uniforms the Shepherd’s wives and daughters are forced wear against the often bleak, natural landscape around them. Unfortunately, “The Other Lamb” does not provide any background for the female characters other than the hint that they were once all “broken” women. Only his daughter, Selah (Raffey Cassidy, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) and a wife, Sarah (Denise Gough, “’71”) who has become disillusioned with the Shepherd, are given anything resembling depth. It is akin to looking at a coloring book without any colors filled in.

 We also never glean much about the Shepherd either, whether it be his past or how he can wield such control over the women. As a result, there is a psychological dynamic that is missing. All we see is him standing around looking stoic and telling the women how if they behave, they will have his grace, which they scream hysterically over like he was Elvis Presley.

 The director, Malgorzata Szumowska (“Mug”) inserts symbolic imagery throughout the film to explain what is going on in Selah’s head as she begins to spiral down into her own rabbit hole. Some of the images are intended as an allusion to Selah becoming a woman, yet, it often comes across as a boring, gimmicky acid trip. 

There is a bit of a mystery as to what happens to baby boys born in the Shepherd’s flock, something that is eventually answered in a memorable way as they trek to find a new home in the wilderness. It is also a turning point for Selah as she becomes increasingly revolted by the Shepherd whose actions turn more heinous, including incest. 

Overall, “The Other Lamb” is a rambling mess that wanders aimlessly across the screen until it reaches a conclusion that is meant to be unsettling but is unsatisfying.

Film Review: “Resistance”

  • RESISTANCE
  • Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Clémence Poésy
  • Directed by: Jonathan Jakubowicz
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 2 hrs
  • IFC Films 

The name Marcel Marceau (1923-2007) is synonymous with mime artistry as he was the godfather of the silent artform. While his name conjures white face paint and silent, comedic stagecraft influenced by Charlie Chaplin, there was a tremendous heroism behind the façade that had started to dim with time. However, the new war drama, “Resistance” seeks to remind us of the incredible actions Marceau undertook as a member of the French Resistance against Nazi occupation. 

An attempt to create a tone for “Resistance” is set during its opening scene, which takes place on the infamous night of November 9, 1938 in Munich, Nazi Germany. Known ever since as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, German Jews were targeted by Nazi paramilitary forces throughout the country. Thousands of businesses and hundreds of synagogues were destroyed while thousands of Jewish men were arrested. Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz (“Hands of Stone”) gives us a harrowing depiction of this horrific event through the eyes of a young girl who watches helplessly as her parents are murdered in the street during the assault. It’s a powerful sequence meant to grab our attention, but that momentum is quickly dissipated. 

We are suddenly transported to 1945 in Nuremberg, Germany where Gen. George S. Patton (Ed Harris) addresses troops under his command at a former Nazi rallying point. Harris does not capture the emotional spirit of Patton as he stoically tells his men about a resistance fighter who made their sacrifice worth it. It is then that we are whiplashed back to Strasbourg, France shortly after Kristallnacht. Marcel (Jesse Eisenberg), whose real last name was Mangel, is a self-absorbed, wannabe thespian whose disapproving Jewish father would rather see him become a butcher. 

Marcel’s life is forever changed when he is brought in by his cousin, Georges Loinger (Géza Röhrig, “The Chaperone”) to entertain over 100 German Jewish children, who were left orphaned after Kristallnacht, when they are brought over to France. Marcel becomes emboldened to join the French Resistance and finds an inner strength in the process as he and his fellow resistance members try to save Jewish children by crossing the Alps into neutral Switzerland. 

Eisenberg is at his best when he is portraying Marcel doing mime, particularly when it is in front of American troops. Even so, his overall performance fails to get us too deeply invested on an emotional level with his real-life character. This is representative of the entire film as it does not leave a lasting impression as say other titles like “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist,” or “Son of Saul.” For lack of a better word, “Resistance” is generic. There are moments of darkness and terror, punctuated by scenes involving Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer, “100 Things”) who is a little overplayed. 

Despite its subpar quality, “Resistance” is still an important film to be watched as it sheds light again on a true hero plus, it reminds us all again that we should never forget what happened to the Holocaust’s six million Jewish victims.