MISSING (2023) – Computer Screen Gimmick Tale is Missing a Story

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Can someone say contrived?

The people who made this movie obviously can’t. The plot here in MISSING (2023), a brand-new thriller about an 18-year-old girl searching for her missing mother, tells a story so convoluted it’s laughable. It’s one of those movies where when the final twist is revealed, and we learn what the villain’s plan actually was, you’ll scratch your head and ask, well, why didn’t he just do that in the first place? Why devise this complicated ruse just to do what he ultimately does?

Then again, the point of MISSING isn’t its story, but the way it tells its story, which features the gimmick of having the entire movie play out on a computer screen. If this idea floats your boat, you might love MISSING. Otherwise, you might be in for a very long night at the movies. This gimmick has been done before. For example, it was featured in the movie SEARCHING (2018), which evidently was made by the same folks who made MISSING, although it’s a different creative team, a different set of writers and directors. MISSING is being called a sequel to SEARCHING, but it really isn’t. It’s an entirely new story that has nothing to do with the first movie. I wasn’t that crazy about SEARCHING, and similarly, I wasn’t crazy about today’s movie, MISSING.

MISSING tells the story of 18-year-old June (Storm Reid) who doesn’t get along with her mother Grace (Nia Long) at all. Things have been tough between them for a while, and they are both scarred by the untimely death of June’s father about ten years earlier. When Grace leaves for a vacation with her new boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung), she leaves June home alone, which is fine with June because it means party time with her friends, although she is miffed at her mom for asking her best friend Heather (Amy Landecker) to check in on her regularly.

When June goes to the airport to pick up her mom at week’s end, her mom doesn’t show up. June calls the hotel in Colombia where her mom was staying and learns that her mom and her boyfriend left the hotel, but without their luggage. Finding this strange, June calls the U.S. Embassy in Colombia for their help, and not being satisfied by their response, decides to investigate on her own, and she does it all sitting in front of her computer. What she learns, and the revelations and twists and turns in the plot that this movie has to offer all come out of the soap operas of old, meaning they’re completely ludicrous.

And that’s the worst part of MISSING, the story it tells. It is flat out ridiculous. Before the movie is finished, June pretty much suspects nearly every character in this movie, even her mom of faking the whole thing, and then, when the final revelation is made, it’s just stupid. Without going into spoilers, if the villain’s goal in this one was to harm the person they wanted to harm, and then connect with the other person they wanted to connect with, there are far simpler ways to do it. Screenwriters Will Merrick and Nicholas D. Johnson, both of whom also directed this movie, seem to have concocted this plot just so they could tell a story all through computer use.

MISSING plays out like one big commercial for the internet. What June is able to do throughout this movie is admittedly impressive. There’s no doubt about that. She’s able to make phone calls, access video feeds, hire a man in Colombia to help her search for her mom, hack into private emails, access private photos, look up the personal history of people she doesn’t know, and she does this all from her bedroom using just a computer and her phone. The fact that we as a society have this kind of technological power is kinda neat. Screenwriters Merrick and Johnson, who based their screenplay on a story by Sev Ohanian, at least deserve credit for writing a story that makes full use of all these technological advances. But like I said, this movie plays out like a commercial, and commercials as we all know aren’t exactly truthful.

Everything that June does in this movie involving internet use not only works perfectly but works fast! I don’t know about you, but my experience online is that things don’t work perfectly, and they certainly don’t work quickly. Then again, I’m an adult of a certain age, and June is 18, and so maybe for most teenagers, the internet is that fast and precise. I have to admit, that while I didn’t enjoy the story in this one at all, I did marvel at the technology featured in it.

On the other hand, I spend most of my days looking at a computer screen and a smartphone, since basically here in 2023 nearly every aspect of life is conducted on a screen, from writing to teaching, to paying bills, checking the weather, socializing, it’s all screen time! So, the idea of watching a movie which in its entirety is taking place on a computer screen, does absolutely nothing for me. That’s the last thing I want to look at while watching a movie. So, I hope that this kind of movie storytelling doesn’t become more of a thing.

Storm Reid is okay in the lead role as June, although most of what she gets to do in this one is offer facial reactions to things playing out on screen. Likewise, Nia Long is fine as missing mommy Grace. Faring a bit better is Amy Landecker as Grace’s friend Heather, as we get to see various emotions from her, as her character goes through some changes in this one. Megan Suri is fun in a small role as June’s friend Veena, and veteran actor Joaquim de Almeida probably gives the best performance in the movie as the man on the ground in Colombia who helps June search for her mother. He’s the only character in the movie that in the brief time we see him we get to know him and know what he is thinking and feeling. Everyone else in this movie takes a backseat to the computer screen, and they come off as superficial.

The ending to this one is also a bit of a headscratcher. I won’t get into it, but it involves a TV show June was watching at the beginning of the movie.

I didn’t hate MISSING. I was impressed enough with the computer and internet aspects of the story to look past its convoluted plot, for a while, anyway. But as it goes along, it simply gets more contrived, to the point where it finally becomes just flat out stupid.

I know there’s some love out there for this one, as critics and fans alike have been saying good things about it. But it didn’t work for me.

So, while MISSING displays an intriguing gimmick where the entire film takes place on a computer screen, it simply can’t overcome the fact that it plays like one big commercial rather than a movie.

And that’s because what’s missing from this movie is a good story.

I give it two stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

My Top 10 Movie List for 2022

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Another year of movies has come and gone, and all things considered, it was a darn good year for celluloid.

I returned to the movie theaters this past year, after keeping away since spring 2020 due to the pandemic. I still wear a mask in the theater, except when eating popcorn, of course, and I’m usually the only one in the theater wearing a mask, but that’s okay. I have no problem wearing a mask in public places. If it was good enough for the Phantom of the Opera, it’s good enough for me!

Anyway, I returned to seeing theatrical releases in July, and so I pretty much saw films in the theater for half the year, and streaming releases the other half. An interesting thing happened during the pandemic. By watching movies at home, I discovered that streaming platforms like Netflix and Prime Video offer a lot of quality original movies, so much so, that I’ve now fully incorporated their offerings into my movie selection process. Sure, they offer duds as well, but so do the movie theaters.

I saw approximately 75 new movies this year, and the list below comprises my ten favorites of 2022. I am always amazed by the number of new movies that are released each year, which is a good thing, but there are so many that I know that you and me don’t see all the same movies, and so there are bound to be movies that you loved this year that I simply didn’t see. But of the ones I did see, here are my Top 10:

10. BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER – it’s been a rough stretch for Marvel. Even as a big Marvel fan, I’ve been disappointed with most of their recent movies of late. Not so with this superior BLACK PANTHER sequel. It pays respectful homage to late actor Chadwick Boseman and to the Black Panther character, while telling a compelling story, featuring a formidable villain, and nicely setting up the future of the Black Panther superhero. Three and a half stars.

9. BABYLON – I loved this tale of early Hollywood by writer/director Damien Chazelle, starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt. The movie has a lot to say, but my favorite part was its take on fans’ relationships to movies, how important movies are to people, and how film really is high art, and it says all this in the raucous, bawdy, unpredictable and unforgiving world of 1920s Hollywood. Three and a half stars.

8. THE WONDER – It was a great year for period pieces, and several of them made it into my top 10 list. THE WONDER is one of them. This Netflix original period piece thriller stars Florence Pugh as an English nurse sent to the Irish Midlands in 1862 to observe and either validate or disprove the claim that a healthy young girl has gone months without food, an event the locals are calling a religious miracle. Florence Pugh is one of the best actresses working today, and so her presence alone lifts this movie, but THE WONDER has more to offer. Where this story ultimately goes speaks to both the hypocrisy of religion, and faith in humanity. Three and a half stars.

7. THE MENU – a delightfully dark comedic thriller starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes about a select group of rich guests traveling to a private island to partake in an extravagant meal prepared by a team of chefs led by one of the world’s finest chefs, played by Fiennes, who just happens to have an agenda which he enacts on these folks, who mostly deserve the comeuppance he has planned for them. Like Florence Pugh, Anya Taylor-Joy is also one of the best actresses working today, and while there is a lot to like about this delicious thriller, her performance is the best part. Three and half stars.

6. THE PALE BLUE EYE – Another Netflix original, and another period piece. Written and directed by Scott Cooper, THE PALE BLUE EYE tells the story of a serial killer loose at West Point Academy in 1830 who likes to cut out the hearts of the young cadets there. Disenchanted detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is called in to solve the case, and he receives help from a young cadet there named Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). Beautifully shot, exquisitely written, and well-acted by a veteran cast, led by Melling in a phenomenal performance as Edgar Allan Poe, and by Christian Bale as the weary, somber detective with secrets of his own. Three and a half stars.

5. THE BANSHEES OF INERSHERIN – certainly one of the more unusual movies I saw this year, and another period piece, as it takes place in 1923 on an island off the coast of Ireland. Receiving lots of hype, deservedly so, but erroneously marketed as a comedy, this tale of a man named Padraic, played by Colin Farrell, who out of the blue is told one day by his best friend that he no longer likes him as a person and that he doesn’t want to spend any more time with him, ever, starts off light and humorous but grows increasingly dark as it goes along, building to a very somber conclusion. This one is offbeat to be sure, but you can’t beat the dialogue or the acting. Colin Farrell is superb as Padraic, the man who begins to question his very existence and being, when he is faced with an absolute and unforgiving rejection by a man who he thought was his best friend. Three and a half stars.

4. EMILY THE CRIMINAL – I loved this small market thriller starring Aubrey Plaza as a young woman struggling to pay off her college debt and pay her bills with one thankless low paying job after another, and when she says yes to taking part in an illegal credit card scheme, because it will pay her a quick $200, she finds that the criminals treat her better than her employers. The scams certainly pay her better, and as she discovers she has a talent for this sort of thing, she agrees to take on bigger scams, which earn her more money but also become much more dangerous. This is a tight, hard-hitting thriller with no fat on its bones. Much more satisfying than many of the big budget Hollywood releases and features an exceptional performance by Plaza. Three and a half stars.

3. ELVIS- I love writer/director Baz Luhrmann’s visual style, and he’s at the top of his game here with ELVIS, a glitzy rocking extravaganza of a bio pic of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. Featuring an energetic and uncanny performance by Austin Butler as Elvis, and Tom Hanks as Presley’s slimy self-serving manager, Colonel Tom Parker, ELVIS is a visual and musical tour de force. Don’t expect a deep insightful look into the inner mind and soul of Elvis Presley. This movie doesn’t go there. Instead, it plays out like an Elvis performance in Las Vegas, which artistically speaking, is a perfect way to tell Elvis’ story. Three and a haf stars.

2. LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER – Another Netflix original, and yes, another period piece. This latest film version of the D.H. Lawrence novel, scores so highly for me because of the way it honestly and unabashedly features sex in its story, something that Hollywood movies these days strangely shy away from. LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER is the story of Lady Connie Chatterley (Emma Corrin) who’s stuck in a loveless marriage with rich Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett), and when she meets and falls in love with the gamekeeper on their estate, Oliver (Jack O’Connell), she realizes that he’s the love of her life, and she decides that in spite of the odds against her– she’s married, and Oliver is of a different social status than her— she will not conform to social norms and instead will do whatever it takes to ensure her happiness and a future life with Oliver. Wonderfully filmed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, and perfectly capturing the World War I English countryside, LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER features fine performances by all involved, but the most captivating part of this one is the way de Clermont-Tonnerre films the story’s love scenes, as they are boldly realistic and passionate, showing physical love in a way that most other films these days don’t have the guts to do. Four stars.

1. EMERGENCY – My favorite movie of 2022 was this Amazon Prime original film which received very little attention this year. I liked it because it speaks to race relations here in 2022 in a way that is far more natural and effective than most, and it does it largely on a comedic platform. EMERGENCY tells the story of two black college friends, Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (R J Cyler) who before a night of partying discover an unconscious white girl on the floor of their apartment. When Kunle attempts to call 911, Sean stops him, telling him that the police will never believe that they— two black men– had nothing to do with how an unconscious white girl ended up on their apartment floor. So, instead, they decide to take her to the hospital, and so they embark on an odyssey of an adventure trying to transport this girl across town to the hospital, while the girl’s sister and her friends try to find her, and what can go wrong, does go wrong in this comedic drama that will have you both laughing and trembling. The scene late in the movie where the police confront Kunle, and pull guns on him, is nail-bitingly tense. EMERGENCY offers a fresh and funny premise— yes, officers, this girl really did just appear on our apartment floor unconscious, and we really have no idea how she got here or who she is— thrusts it into the racially charged environment of our current culture and delivers it all in a tremendously thought-provoking and satisfying package. Directed by Carey Williams and written by K.D. Davila. EMERGENCY is my pick for the best movie of 2022.

And there you have it, my picks for the Top 10 movies of 2022. It was a great year for movies. Now it’s on to 2023!

As always, thanks for reading.

—Michael

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

And coming soon, my Top 10 List for the Worst movies of 2022. Look for it soon right here in these pages!

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M3GAN (2022) – Evil Toy Doll Horror Movie Has Its Moments But Doesn’t Wow

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Do we really need another horror movie about an evil doll?

Of course, we do!

They’re friggin’ creepy!

Plus, truth be told, we really haven’t had a whole lot of evil doll movies which have saturated the horror market and made us sick of them. In recent years we’ve had the ANNABELLE series, which have pretty much been underwhelming, and we’ve had THE BOY (2016) and its silly sequel. M3GAN actually reminded me more of the CHILD’S PLAY (2019) reimagining, with its inclusion of present-day computer technology as a plot device for making the doll act the way it does.

In M3GAN, robotics engineer Gemma (Allison Williams) is desperately trying to create the world’s next best toy, a doll that is so life-like in the way it can think and learn, that it not only can be a perfect playmate, but also a babysitter, as it can remind children to brush their teeth or flush the toilet, but obviously such a project is incredibly expensive, and so her boss David (Ronny Chieng) isn’t interested and tells her to shut the project down.

But when Gemma’s sister and husband are killed in a car crash, leaving their nine-year-old orphaned daughter Cady (Violet McGraw) in Gemma’s custody, her life changes. She is not equipped to be a parent, and during her struggles to find time off work and connect with Cady, she introduces Cady to a prototype robot toy she once built, which Cady thinks is amazing, and which inspires Gemma to ignore her boss and go all in with her latest project. The result is M3gan, a doll that can think, learn, and seemingly care about the child it is joined with, and in this case that child is Cady.

It doesn’t take long for Cady to absolutely love M3gan, and at a demonstration for David, he is blown away by the way M3gan and Cady interact, and so he greenlights the project to move forward, which means one more demonstration in front of the people in the company with the money. To better ensure a successful second demonstration, he encourages Gemma to have Cady and M3gan spend as much time together as possible, even though Cady’s therapist warns Gemma against doing so, that Cady may be developing unhealthy bonds with the toy and may not be able to let it go later, and which may get in the way of the child’s grieving process.

Gemma ignores the advice, and all is well, until it becomes apparent that M3gan sees it as her mission to protect Cady at all costs and in every way possible, meaning that the doll won’t stop short of murder or of seeing Gemma as a threat as well.

I liked M3GAN well enough and had no major issues with it, other than taken as a whole, it’s all rather slight. It doesn’t really go to any thought provoking places, nor is it much of a scary horror movie. It’s entertaining, and it does have a devilish sense of humor, which for me, was the best part of this one.

Allison Williams makes for a decent lead as Gemma. She is the single professional who has no idea what it takes to raise a child, nor is she really interested, except she does want to be there for her niece, and so it makes for a legitimate conflict. And she’s quite tough later when she realizes what M3gan is up to, and fights hard for Cady. Williams was similarly effective in a darker role as Rose Armitage in GET OUT (2017)

Young Violet McGraw gives the best performance in the movie as Cady. She is perfect as the confused and conflicted child, grieving over the death of her parents, needing someone in her life, and finding that someone in M3gan. Her facial expressions alone capture so much in this movie. It’s a great performance by a young actor. And we’ve seen her before, as McGraw has appeared in BLACK WIDOW (2021), DOCTOR SLEEP (2019), and where she was most memorable, as young Nell in the Netflix horror series THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018).

Ronny Chieng is also memorable as David, Gemma’s opportunistic boss, and Chieng’s comedic timing here comes into play as he gets some laugh-out-loud lines.

M3gan is played by two different actors. Amie Donald provided the movements, and Jenna Davis provided the voice.

Akela Cooper wrote the screenplay based on a story by James Wan. It’s a pretty straightforward story. It has a decent premise but doesn’t really go anywhere beyond typical horror movie fare. The dialogue is the best part, which is tight and oftentimes humorous, and also tells a tender story from Cady’s perspective.

Gerard Johnstone directed this one, and like the screenplay, the film as a whole remains a standard horror movie trope. The murders are all rather predictable and not overly exciting or frightening. Interestingly, M3GAN was originally intended to be an R rated movie, but the decision was made to go with a PG-13 rating to attract more teenagers, so evidently the murder scenes were watered down for this version. Not sure if more gratuitous violence would have made things better (probably not) but as the film stands now, it’s not very scary.

All this being said, I still had fun watching M3GAN, but I wasn’t blown away by any means.

I give M3GAN two and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022) – Haunting Period Piece Thriller Mesmerizes from Start to Finish

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THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022) is a beautifully shot period piece thriller by writer/director Scott Cooper that tells the haunting story of a killer on the loose at West Point Academy, a killer who likes to slice out the heart of their victims.

But it’s more than just a serial killer story. It’s also a detective story, as the unconventional Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is hired to solve the case, and he drafts as his assistant a young cadet by the name of Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). It has as its prevalent theme the attachments we keep with our deceased loved ones, as most of the characters are influenced and oftentimes haunted by memories, spirits, what have you, of those loved ones who have gone before them. And it all takes place on the snowy West Point campus in 1830. It’s both a feast for the eyes and for the senses, as this atmospheric thriller now streaming on Netflix is definitely worth a look.

Christian Bale plays Augustus Landor, a man whose wife died after a long illness, and whose daughter ran away and never returned. He is a somber man who lives alone, yet each night when he’s on the case he has conversations with his deceased wife, who helps him with his deductions. He is hired by Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) to find out who is killing their cadets and cutting their hearts out. Landor doesn’t like the Academy, as he believes it robs men of their humanity, but he agrees to take the case.

He is soon approached by a young cadet named Edgar Allan Poe who offers his opinions as to who he thinks the murderer is and tells Landor he should be looking for a poet. Landor likes Poe and asks him to keep his eyes and ears open around the campus. The two detectives are both drawn to Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) and his family, which includes his wife, his son, who is also a cadet there, and their daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton). There is something about them that troubles Landor, and he can’t put his finger on it. Further complicating matters is when Poe befriends Lea, he finds himself falling in love with her, eventually writing his poem “Lenore” for her.

Tensions rise as the murders continue, and Landor and Poe are no closer to finding the killer, but eventually their painstaking detective work pays off, and they begin to formulate answers.

I absolutely loved THE PALE BLUE EYE, but admittedly, I’m a sucker for period piece thrillers, and even though THE PALE BLUE EYE isn’t really a horror movie, although the argument can be made that it is, it did remind me enough of the classic Hammer Films horror movies of yesteryear that I enjoyed this one from start to finish.

Does it have one plot twist too many? Perhaps. Just when you think the film is over, it adds another element, another twist, that I don’t think the story needed, but when all was said and done, it still worked for me. I bought it. And I bought the characters’ reactions to it.

I really enjoy the work of Scott Cooper. His previous films include OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), an unheralded crime drama that was my favorite movie that year, and HOSTILES (2017), a hard hitting western. Both movies also starred Christian Bale.

Cooper is a terrific writer. Here, he adapted his screenplay from the book by Louis Bayard, and he includes riveting, realistic dialogue throughout. The characters here are all fleshed out, and the plot hooks you in immediately and never lets go. Regarding the characters, it helps that Cooper also has a fantastic cast here, but his writing is still superior.

He scores just as highly as a director. The opening shot of the movie, a hanged body of man dangling strangely, as if he is sitting, starts the film with a haunting image and honestly never lets up. If you like visual thrillers, with creative direction and eerie photography, you’ll love Cooper’s work here with THE PALE BLUE EYE.

Christian Bale is always a pleasure to watch. He fully becomes the characters he plays, which enables him to portray so many different kinds of characters, a trait that makes him such an exceptional actor. We just saw him in AMSTERDAM (2022) as a World War I veteran and doctor in David O. Russell’s quirky comedy drama. He was the best part of the inferior Marvel movie THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) as its main villain, Gorr. He was just as memorable in his previous four movies, FORD V FERRARI (2019), VICE (2018) where he played Dick Cheney and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work, HOSTILES (2017), and THE BIG SHORT (2015), where he was also nominated for an Oscar. He won an Oscar for his supporting role in THE FIGHTER (2010), he played Batman in the Christopher Nolan DARK KNIGHT trilogy, and on and on we could go. Bale is one of the best movie actors working today.

Here, he plays Augustus Landor as a man haunted by his past, by his deceased wife, and missing daughter. He’s also an effective detective, but he is going about solving the case with an obvious heavy weight on his chest from things we don’t know fully about, other than the loss he feels and the hurt that goes along with it. As you would expect, Bale nails this role, and is captivating to watch throughout this movie.

And if that’s not enough, Harry Melling is just as captivating as Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, as much as I like Bale, I enjoyed Melling more here, because I enjoyed watching his take on Poe as a character and bringing the poet/author to life. He’s wonderful. Melling is also a terrific actor. He’s known to Harry Potter fans as the irritating Dudley Dursley, but years later as an adult, he has really stood out in a host of supporting roles. Melling has been memorable in the Netflix TV series THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2022) and in the Netflix movie THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020). He’s also appeared in THE OLD GUARD (2020), THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT (2017) and THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016). Here, Melling is phenomenal as Edgar Allan Poe.

Interestingly, Melling is the grandson of actor Patrick Troughton, who is famous for playing Doctor Who in the 1960s. Troughton also appeared in Hammer Films, such as SCARS OF DRACULA (1970) with Christopher Lee, and in the Ray Harryhausen classic JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

And in another Hammer Films connection, Toby Jones, who plays Dr. Daniel Marquis, and who’s one of my favorite character actors working today, is the son of actor Freddie Jones, who made his debut as the tormented creation of Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969). No wonder this one has such a strong Hammer Films vibe! As he always is, Toby Jones is excellent here as Dr. Marquis, playing a man, like Landor, haunted by a family secret.

Simon McBurney as Captain Hitchcock and Timothy Spall as Superintendent Thayer both stand out as cranky and crotchety officers. Lucy Boynton makes for a lovely yet troubled love interest for Poe as Lea, and as the story progresses, she becomes a much more integral character.

There are also a couple of major acting veterans in the cast. Gillian Anderson, known to X-FILES fans as Dana Scully, is fantastic here as Mrs. Julia Marquis. She gets some of the best scenes in the movie, especially the ones she shares with Christian Bale. The acting here, especially with Anderson and Bale, is so precise the characters almost leap off the screen. They are created with such precision.

And Robert Duvall also has a small role as Jean Pepe, a man who helps provide some historical information for Landor when he needs it.

I found THE PALE BLUE EYE to be an absolutely mesmerizing movie. I loved its story, its characters, and its overall mystery. I also enjoyed its theme of communication with the dead. As Poe explains in one scene, where he’s talking about his communications with his deceased mother, as he feels a connection with her and hears her voice often, in general he says, people forget their loved ones who have passed on before them, and these deceased spirits miss being remembered and reach out to the living in angst. But for those like himself who listen to the voices, much wisdom and caring is shared.

I love the work of Scott Cooper. His writing here, with the plot, the characters, and the dialogue, is superior, and his direction nearly flawless as he creates an eerie visual gem. And the cast, led by Christian Bale and Harry Melling, is a joy to watch.

THE PALE BLUE EYE is a masterful period piece thriller that will keep you glued to the screen, especially during a cold, winter evening.

I give it three and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

NANNY (2022) – Story of Undocumented Immigrant Nanny Better Drama than Horror Movie

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NANNY (2022), now streaming on Prime Video, is marketed as a drama/horror movie, which it is, but it’s a much better drama than it is a horror movie, and as such, I almost wish it had skipped its supernatural elements.

Written and directed by Nikyatu Jusu with a serious command of storytelling, NANNY tells the story of undocumented immigrant Aisha (Anna Diop) living in New York City and getting her first real big job, working as a nanny for a wealthy couple, Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector), watching their five-year-old daughter Rose (Rose Decker) since they both work long hours. Aisha and Rose hit it off big, and Amy and Adam love the way their new nanny cares for their daughter.

All is well, except that Amy begins to be negligent in paying Aisha for all the overtime hours she puts in when she is asked to stay overnight when neither Amy nor Adam can be there. At first, Aisha hardly notices, as she is preoccupied with her own son who is back in Africa, and she misses him dearly. She is saving up to bring him to America, and so when Amy continues to not pay her, this grates on her even more. But she needs the job.

Things grow more complex when Aisha begins having weird experiences which seem like supernatural encounters with some unknown entity. Then Adam makes a pass at her. But still, she needs that job. She eventually starts dating a man from her apartment building, Malik (Sinqua Walls) who has a son of his own, around the same age as Aisha’s son. She also meets Malik’s grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggams), who is a seer with experience with the supernatural, and she begins to school Aisha concerning her own experiences.

All of this is well-acted, well-written, and well-directed, and so I was all in, along for the ride, but where this story ultimately goes is a disappointment, mostly because it goes nowhere. The revelation at the end is surprisingly for a movie that up until that point got all the storytelling parts right, sloppily done in a very unrealistic sequence. Plus, the revelation itself, while tragic, is handled so quicky, it doesn’t pack much of a punch.

And it also doesn’t truly impact the main story in this movie, which is about Aisha’s strained relationship with Rose’s parents, but by film’s end, they’re nowhere to be found, and the story of Aisha’s dealings with them is mostly forgotten.

The supernatural elements are subtle and refreshingly realistic, and I appreciated that. The horror elements here are not dumb. They are smartly handled. They just don’t have much of an impact. NANNY plays like a Hallmark movie that forgot what it was for a little while, took a detour into the supernatural for a brief bit, then went back to being a Hallmark movie.

That really isn’t a fair assessment. I don’t like Hallmark movies, and I definitely was enjoying NANNY, but while it attempts to be something of a horror movie, ultimately, it’s a love story, and while the whole thing doesn’t play like a Hallmark movie, it certainly ends that way.

I enjoyed the work of writer/director Nikyatu Jusu here. She is in command of the storytelling process from beginning to end. I enjoyed the characters, especially Aisha, and I wanted to see what was going to happen to her. Unfortunately, while she suffers a life altering incident, that’s the one part of the story that isn’t expertly handled, and as a result, combined with the very subtle supernatural elements, prevents this from being much of a horror movie.

Anna Diop is excellent as Aisha. She’s in most of the movie, and she delivers. She makes Aisha a very strong character, one you can build a story around. I really cared for her and wanted to learn more about the supernatural episodes which haunted her throughout the second half of the movie.

Michelle Monaghan as Amy and Morgan Spector as Adam were also both very good as the parents who become increasingly annoying as the movie goes on. One can argue that the most horror in this movie comes from Aisha’s dealings with them. Yet, they are both portrayed as real people, which makes them all the more difficult to like.

Sinqua Walls makes for a dashing love interest, and the talented Leslie Uggams shines in the pivotal role as Grandmother Kathleen who shares her supernatural insights with Aisha in scenes which manage to keep all the dialogue real and authentic.

I would have enjoyed NANNY more had it been a straight drama about a young undocumented immigrant nanny and the challenges she faces working for a difficult couple. This part of the movie is spot-on throughout.

The supernatural elements are less compelling, mostly because they are so understated and of less consequence.

NANNY is worth a look, but only with the understanding that this example of quiet horror is so quiet it’s pretty much inconsequential.

I give it two stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

IN THE SHADOWS: ELISHA COOK, JR.

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Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, the column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today, it’s Elisha Cook, Jr., one of the most recognizable character actors of all time. Small in stature, he often portrayed intense oftentimes frightened characters, especially in his horror movies. One of my favorite Cook performances in a genre film was in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), in which he co-starred with Vincent Price as the terrified Watson Pritchard, the one man in the movie who believed ghosts were haunting the house. Cook also enjoyed a memorable moment in THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) when he falls asleep in the back of Kolchak’s car, scaring the living daylight out of the reporter (Darren McGavin) when he bolts upright in the back seat!

Here now is a partial look at some of Elisha Cook, Jr.’s impressive 220 screen credits:

HER UNBORN CHILD (1930)- Stewart Kennedy – Cook’s first screen credit is in this 1930 love story drama.

STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) – Joe Briggs – co-stars in this film noir with Peter Lorre. Often cited as the first film noir movie ever.

THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) – Wilmer Cook – one of my favorite Elisha Cook Jr. roles is in this classic film noir by John Huston starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. Cook plays the enforcer for Mr. Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who Bogart’s Sam Spade torments throughout, at one point slapping him around and eventually turning Gutman against him. Cook is wound up and intense throughout. Also starring Peter Lorre and Mary Astor. One of my favorite movies of all time.

A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO (1942) – Frank Lucas- supporting role in this Laurel and Hardy spooky comedy.

THE BIG SLEEP (1946) – Harry Jones – reunited with Humphrey Bogart, with Bogart this time playing Philip Marlowe. Directed by Howard Hawks and written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, this one is so complex that even after subsequent viewings it’s still difficult to figure out who did what to whom, and why! Bogart famously married co-star Lauren Bacall shortly after this movie.

SHANE (1953) – Stonewall Torrey – supporting role in this classic Alan Ladd western. His character is dramatically slain by the villainous gunslinger played by Jack Palance.

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1954)- “Semi-Private Eye” – Homer Garrity – plays private detective Homer Garrity hired by Lois Lane to prove that Clark Kent is really Superman in this episode of the George Reeves Superman TV series.

THE KILLING (1956)- George Peatty – supporting role in this film noir thriller directed by a young Stanley Kubrick.

VOODOO ISLAND (1957) – Martin Schuyler – zombie horror movie starring Boris Karloff, notable for featuring the screen debut of Adam West. Holy horror movie, Batman!

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) – Watson Pritchard – one of my favorite Elisha Cook, Jr. roles is in this William Castle horror movie starring Vincent Price as a cold, calculating husband who along with his equally manipulative wife plan a party in a haunted house where the guests are each paid a large sum of money if they remain in the house all night. And they have no choice once they agree, because they are all locked inside until dawn. Cook plays the one man there who believes in ghosts, and spends most of his time drinking and warning the others that they are all doomed. One of the earlier horror movies to employ jump scares, and the scene with the old woman who appears out of nowhere in the basement is a classic.

BLACK ZOO (1963) – Joe – horror movie starring the Hammer ham himself, Michael Gough, playing a character who uses his zoo animals to kill his enemies. Of course!

THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963) – Peter Smith – reunited with Vincent Price in this horror movie directed by Roger Corman based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft. Cook plays a frightened townsperson who is a yes-man to a tougher townsperson played by Leo Gordon, and they lead the villagers in attempts to oust Vincent Price’s Charles Dexter Ward from their community fearing that he is a menace to their community. And they’re right! Also stars Lon Chaney Jr., in a rare paring with Vincent Price. One of my favorite Roger Corman/Vincent Price movies.

ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) – Mr. Nicklas – part of the terrific cast in Roman Polanski’s classic horror movie which also stars Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Maurice Evans, and Ralph Bellamy.

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) – Mickey Crawford – plays an informant for Darren McGavin’s Carl Kolchak in this groundbreaking vampire movie written by Richard Matheson. Cook provides one of the better jump scares in the movie as noted above.

BLACULA (1972) – Sam – Cook appears in back-to-back vampire movies, this one featuring a commanding performance by William Marshall in the lead role in this underrated horror movie which is actually very good.

THE BLACK BIRD (1975) – Wilmer Cook – Cook reprises his role from THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) in this comedy about the son of Sam Spade, played by George Segal.

SALEM’S LOT (1979) – Gordon ‘Weasel’ Phillips – this TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s vampire novel starring David Soul and James Mason is considered by many fans and critics as one of the two greatest vampire TV movies ever made, along with THE NIGHT STALKER. Elisha Cook Jr. appeared in both these movies!

MAGNUM, P.I. (1980-1988) – Francis “Ice Pick” Hofstetler – Cook’s final screen appearances were on the popular TV series, MAGNUM, P.I., in which he appeared in 13 episodes.

Elisha Cook Jr. appeared in tons of TV shows over the years, including GUNSMOKE, THE WILD WILD WEST, STAR TREK, BATMAN, THE ODD COUPLE, and STARSKY AND HUTCH, to name just a few.

I hope you enjoyed this partial list of Elisha Cook Jr.’s career. He was a character actor who starred in many genre films, some, like ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE NIGHT STALKER, are some of the more important ones ever made.

Join me again next time for another edition of IN THE SHADOWS, where we look at the careers of character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael


THE MENU (2022) – Thought-Provoking Social Satire Won’t Spoil Your Appetite

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So, what’s on the menu?

Exquisite food from one of the world’s top chefs, tension, plenty of tension, a little violence, a little horror, and to top it all off, satire. Lots of satire.

THE MENU (2022) is an odd movie, as many satires are, but at the end of the day, if nothing else, it’s thought-provoking. It’s the type of movie that will have you thinking, and that’s a good thing.

THE MENU opens like an episode of the old TV show FANTASY ISLAND (1977-1984) where a group of strangers are about to travel to a remote island, but rather than taking a plane (“da plane! da plane!”) they take a boat, and rather than meeting Mr. Roarke and Tatoo, they meet one of the greatest chefs in the world, Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), and he’s their host. They have all paid exorbitant amounts of money to be treated to a private dinner by one of the world’s most renowned chefs.

The characters we meet first are Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who is so enamored with the Chef that he practically has an orgasm every time he talks about him, and Tyler’s date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who becomes the central character and the person who the audience most identifies with, because as we soon learn, she wasn’t supposed to be there, as Tyler’s girlfriend broke up with him, and so she was a last minute second choice.

All the guests are wealthy, and all of them have their reasons for coming to this dinner, but with the exception of Tyler, none of them are really there purely for Chef’s food. Things start out well enough, as if it’s going to be an evening of fine food and performance dining, but then in what once more feels like an episode of FANTASY ISLAND, things begin to grow weird and unsettling. Tortillas are served with personal images on them, and so secrets are suddenly revealed. And later when one guest has a finger chopped off, and a cook shoots himself in the head as part of a dish, the guests realize they may not get off the island alive.

That being said, THE MENU is not a straight thriller or horror movie. While those elements are there, the main focus of this movie is undoubtedly satire, and there are various levels to it.

There’s the social status satire. These folks are all there because they have tons of money and can afford to be there, but Chef makes it clear that they’re not really there for his food. He talks about the art of food preparation and consumption, and tells them not to eat, but to taste. His passion for the symbiotic relationship between food and nature reaches almost religious proportions. And it’s also clear that he is insulted that they are there only because they can afford to be, and his passion for cooking is totally lost on them. At one point, he reminds a guest that he has been to multiple dinners on the island, and he asks the man to name at least one dish he’s eaten while there, and the man can’t even do that.

But the sharp screenplay by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy doesn’t stop there. There’s a food critic on the guest list, a washed-up actor, and three arrogant moneymakers who work for the company which sponsors these dinners, and so they feel entitled to threaten the Chef when he doesn’t please them. Each of these characters have back stories, all of which add to the social commentary.

As such, one of the film’s most significant moments comes when Tyler becomes increasingly frustrated by Margot’s complaints about what is going on, and he snaps his fingers at her before becoming flat out rude and insulting, prompting her to get up and leave. It’s a moment where we see his complete lack of acknowledgement of Margot as a person, and that the only reason he is there is because of his blind passion for the Chef, something that the Chef later shows him to be a waste of his time. It’s a moment in the movie that speaks to the way men sometimes treat women, and while that theme is not the main one of the film, it works all the same.

When Chef speaks to Margot privately, he laments that she wasn’t supposed to be there, and he needs to know her story for the dinner to work, because he needs to know who she is. Is she a server, and thus belongs in the kitchen, or is she like the other guests, a taker, and belongs out with the guests in the dining room?

In another biting moment, Chef reveals that he told Tyler ahead of time that everyone was going to die that night, and yet not only did Tyler still agree to come, he also still invited Margot, knowing that she too would die. And when Chef asks Tyler why he invited Margot, Tyler answers that guests were not allowed to come solo. They had to have a guest. Which speaks to the shallowness of our society and the total disregard people have to their fellow humans.

Similarly, the Chef mocks his guests later in the movie, telling them that if they really wanted to escape, why didn’t they make a stronger effort to do so? Would it really have been that difficult to overpower him and the other chefs? He asks them to think about that, and the audience does as well. Why didn’t these people try harder to escape? Is it because they are all too lethargic and passive? Because they wanted to remain to get what they paid for? Or did they on some level enjoy what was going on? Or perhaps they all believed it was just an act, and a safe answer would be revealed in the end?

Again, it’s a thought-provoking script, and it will have you thinking.

Anya Taylor-Joy is a terrific actress who continues to deliver in her movies, often giving the best performance in the film. She’s best known for her work in the Netflix TV show THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2020) and in the horror movie THE WITCH (2015). But we just saw her deliver back-to-back excellent performances in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021) and AMSTERDAM (2022). She’s at it again here in THE MENU. Margot is the most dynamic and interesting character in the movie, and the more we learn about her, the more we like her. Anya Taylor-Joy brings this character to life, creating a fiery yet sympathetic person who we feel comfortable rooting for.

Ralph Fiennes is perfect as Chef, a culinary version of Mr. Roarke. While he has his own agenda, his own final masterpiece, he also sheds light on the make-up of each and every one of his guests. It’s yet another masterful performance by Fiennes, and while he doesn’t exactly make Chef a sympathetic character, he does make him understandable. We get where he’s coming from, and why he is doing the things he does. While he has countless movie credits, this performance follows upon the heels of two other equally impressive ones, in THE DIG (2021) and THE FORGIVEN (2021).

The supporting cast is terrific.

Janet McTeer is cold and biting as food critic Lillian, and Paul Adelstein is agreeable as her yes-man magazine sponsor Ted. John Leguizamo is the washed-up actor who is looking to make a comeback. He’s also the butt of one of the better jokes in the film, when Chef pretty much tells him he’s there to die because Chef hated his last movie, which was a complete waste of his time, and he doesn’t like wasting time.

And Hong Chau nearly steals the show as the tight-lipped yet brutally honest right-hand person to Chef, Elsa, in effect playing Tatoo to Ralph Fiennes’ Mr. Roarke.

Director Mark Mylod keeps things tight, and the pacing here is brisk, and the suspense builds. I was unsettled throughout, and really didn’t know where this one was going. The photography is brilliant, the island locales beautiful, with my favorite part being the connection shown throughout the movie between people and the ocean. The dining area and kitchen also share special significance, as at times it feels like a fortress in a James Bond movie, only much smaller.

Not everything works. Like most satires, the humor is there, but often you have to work hard to find it, and much of the laughter is of the under your breath variety. And while the plot of this movie is built around food and food preparation, don’t expect the kind of movie, a la CHEF (2014) and THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014) where all the mouthwatering meals cooked in the film make you want to buy a second popcorn and then go out to dinner afterwards, because as this one goes on, the food becomes less appetizing, and in general there’s less of it, rather than more.

While things grow dark, the film never becomes an all-out horror movie or gross fest. For the most part, I liked this, but it could have gone further in the disturbing department, because there were moments where I felt things didn’t go far enough.

Speaking of horror movies, with a little imagination, it wasn’t difficult to imagine this one being made in the 1970s with Vincent Price playing Chef. Now that would have been a black comedy/horror movie to be sure!

But overall, I really liked THE MENU. It makes its points about what money has done to our society, and it presents its satire like a five-course meal, spreading out over the evening in a movie that will have you on the edge of laughter and of your seat from beginning to end.

Waiter? I’ll take mine to go, thank you very much!

I give it three and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

THE GOOD NURSE (2022) – Netflix Drama is a Really Good Movie

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Netflix has been able to attract A-list actors in many of their original movies. The results are fifty-fifty. Sometimes the films are disappointing, but other times they really work and make for solid movie viewing, all in the comfort of your own home.

THE GOOD NURSE (2022), based on the true story of serial killer Charles Cullen, a male nurse, who murdered dozens possibly hundreds of people while working at various hospitals, before he was finally stopped by a co-worker, the “good nurse” in the title of the movie, falls into the latter category. It’s really well done, and the two A-list actors in this one, Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain, both deliver compelling performances which carry the movie from beginning to end.

I was surprised how effortlessly THE GOOD NURSE plays out, and a lot of the credit here has to go to director Tobias Lindholm, who directs this one with a straightforward style that tells its story starting with the first frame of the movie, where we see a patient dying, doctors asking questions, and male nurse Charles Cullen in the room feigning innocence, and then moves forward without any diversions or wasted scenes.

Equal credit goes to screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who wrote the screenplay based on the book by Charles Graeber, as she outlines the story perfectly and includes superior dialogue throughout, which comes as no surprise, since Wilson-Cairns was nominated for an Academy Award for her co-written screenplay to 1917 (2019).

And then you have Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain, who both play their roles at the top of their games, and the result is THE GOOD NURSE is a really good movie, much better than I expected it to be.

Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain) is a single mom struggling to raise her two young daughters. She works long hours as a hospital nurse, and she also suffers from a heart ailment which could prove fatal, but she can’t stop working because she needs to work for at least six months longer in order to qualify for health insurance. Her supervisor can’t cut her hours, but she does hire an extra nurse to help out, and that nurse is Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne).

Amy and Charlie hit it off immediately. They are both single parents with young children, and once Charlie learns of Amy’s condition, he promises to help her, and he assures her that with his help she’ll make it through the six months to get her health insurance. When one of their patients dies unexpectedly, Amy is surprised, but hardly takes notice, and when several months later, the police are alerted, the two homicide detectives Danny Baldwin (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Tim Braun (Noah Emmerich) shrug their shoulders and wonder why they are even being called in. But after meeting with icy cold hospital administrator Linda Garran (Kim Dickens) and the hospital attorney, and having their questions go unanswered, Baldwin and Braun feel that something is not right. And when Garran refuses to hand over the internal investigative report, citing one delay tactic after another, the officers’ suspicions are heightened.

They do a random background check on the hospital staff who dealt with the deceased, and they find that male nurse Charlie Cullen has a record for assault. When they attempt to follow-up, they find resistance from every hospital where Cullen ever worked. And when during follow-up questioning with Amy, she tells them that another patient has died, they see a blazing red flag. Amy of course, since Charlie has been such a good friend to her, can’t believe he would be involved in the killing of a patient, but then she begins looking into the matter on her own. What she finds surprises her. She then risks her career and possibly her life as she agrees to work with Baldwin and Braun to finally put an end to what Charlie has been doing.

The story is told through Amy’s perspective, and the events in the movie are framed around her. Jessica Chastain is in top form as the nurse who legally is not allowed to talk about any of the hospital deaths, as her contract explicitly prevents this, and so by helping the police she is risking losing her job. Chastain captures Amy’s exhaustion, from her strenuous nursing position, in a hospital that isn’t funded enough or prepared to properly take care of its staff, to her heart condition, to dealing with difficult children at home. Chastain makes the weary Amy sympathetic and later heroic.

I like Jessica Chastain a lot. She’s been enjoyable in so many movies, from THE HELP (2011) to ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) to THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017), to name just a few. We just saw her in THE FORGIVEN (2021), where she co-starred with Ralph Fiennes, and she’s even better here in THE GOOD NURSE. And of course, she won the Oscar for Best Actress this past year for her performance in THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (2021)

Eddie Redmayne kills it as Charlie Cullen. While he is soft-spoken, gentle, and polite, the way Redmayne plays him, there is something off about him, as if he is covering a deep wound, or harboring a sinister secret, which he is. He gets one of the best lines in the movie, when asked by the police why he did it, he answers simply, because they let me.

And that’s a huge part of the story told in THE GOOD NURSE. Hospital after hospital where Charlie worked knew what he was doing, but none of them sought the authorities to go after him, because as explained in the movie, that would make them vulnerable to expensive lawsuits. THE GOOD NURSE does a nice job painting a troubling portrait of the health care system and of hospitals in general, and this is before COVID!

Redmayne won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014), so I won’t claim that his work here in THE GOOD NURSE is his best yet, but it’s pretty darn good! He’s really convincing as a man who would be capable of killing that many people for no other reason other than he could.

I also enjoyed both Nnamdi Asomugha and Noah Emmerich as the two homicide detectives who go from initially feeling like the hospital is wasting their time, to hmm, that seemed like a cover-up, but we doubt it, but we’ll check it out anyway, to full blown holy sh*t! this guy’s been killing people for years and no one has brought charges against him!

I didn’t really expect much from THE GOOD NURSE, but it exceeded my expectations. Driven by two exceptional performances by Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne, THE GOOD NURSE tells a riveting story that is about more than just a serial killer, as it also makes clear that the hospitals which knew of his crimes did nothing about them. And it tells this story through the eyes of one very hard-working nurse, Amy Loughren, who’s struggling to get through her life with a job that doesn’t give her health insurance— and she’s a health-care worker! —and as a single mom with two children. She’s in jeopardy long before she meets Charlie Cullen, and once she does meet him and learns what he’s been doing, she puts her friendship aside and her job on the line, in order to finally put an end to his killing spree.

Just before the end credits roll, the movie reveals what Amy is doing in the here and now, and after some family updates, concludes that she is still “a good nurse.”

I give THE GOOD NURSE a solid three stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

LOU (2022) – Allison Janney Solid in New Netflix Action Thriller

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LOU (2022), a new action thriller now streaming on Netflix, isn’t half bad.

Which, of course, also means, it’s not half good!

What are you going to do?

LOU stars Allison Janney… who looks like she walked off the set of an episode of THE WALKING DEAD…as a rough and independent woman named Lou living with her dog in the Pacific wilderness on an island off the coast of Washington. She is somewhat of a pain in the backside.

She rents out a home on her property to a single mother Hannah (Jurnee Smollett) and her young daughter Vee (Ridley Asha Bateman), and when she nearly runs over Vee with her pick-up truck, she is chastised by Hannah for driving too fast, to which Lou replies that Hannah needs to teach Vee to look after herself and not run out into the road. Hannah does not like Lou, but Vee kinda does.

But when one night during a major storm, a man breaks onto the property and abducts Vee, Hannah turns to Lou for help, and it’s a good thing because at the very moment Hannah was banging on her door, Lou was seconds away from committing suicide. It turns out the man who abducted Vee is the girl’s father, Philip (Logan Marshall-Green), and he is an ex-Green Beret, so Hannah warns Lou that they can’t take on Philip on their own, which is a problem since the power is out, and they can’t call the police. But Lou ignores the warning and vows to track Philip immediately. Why? Because Lou is ex-CIA.

Let the chase begin!

If only the plot had been this simple, LOU would have been highly entertaining. As it is, it’s not bad, but the screenplay by Maggie Cohn and Jack Stanley makes things complicated and convoluted when it turns out that Lou is also Philip’s father, which makes her Vee’s grandmother, which makes the entire plot suddenly fall into the overused trope…this time it’s personal!…which by the time all is revealed, makes everything that happens in this one less credible and less believable.

Why couldn’t Lou just be a pain in the ass old lady bitter from her CIA past who just when she was about to end it all, finds one last moment of redemption, as she uses her skills to save a little girl from her crazed ex-Green Beret father? That would have been an exciting and worthwhile story to tell. Instead, she’s a manipulative mother, whose son is not only trying to get back at his ex-wife, but also his mother. It’s PSYCHO Plus!

It’s also a bit too much to swallow.

The story takes place in 1986. Not sure why. In terms of plot, it does give Lou some historical CIA missions to be bitter about. In terms of the movie, it provides an excuse to have lots of 80s songs on the soundtrack, which definitely helps.

Allison Janney, who did not star on THE WALKING DEAD, but did star on the classic series THE WEST WING (1999-2006) as C.J. Cregg, is terrific here in the lead role as Lou, and she’s also believable. Even as she deals with arthritis, she makes for a realistic bad ass who is believable kicking the butts of much younger adversaries. Janney has been making movies regularly, having appeared in BOMBSHELL (2019), I, TONYA (2017), in which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as Tonya Harding’s mother, and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016), to name just a few.

Jurnee Smollett is also believable as Hannah, the mother who had no idea her landlady was really her mother-in-law and the root of her crazy ex-husband’s problems. We just saw Smollett in SPIDERHEAD (2022), the Netflix thriller in which she co-starred with Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller.

Even better is Logan Marshall-Green as Philip, the volatile ex-Green Beret who abducts his daughter as part of a plan to blow up everyone he used to love. Not exactly daddy day care here! But Marshall-Green is really good in the role, and my favorite part of his performance is he somehow actually makes Philip somewhat sympathetic. He makes the guy human, and when he talks about his pain, and what his mother did to him, he’s believable. This is no surprise, because Logan Marshall-Green also delivered a standout performance in the superior independent horror movie from a few years back, THE INVITATION (2015), in which he played the lead role.

Matt Craven also stands out in a supporting role as Sheriff Rankin, the island sheriff who knows his people and rushes to help Hannah and Lou even as he is warned by the CIA to keep away from scene.

LOU was directed by Anna Foerster, and there are no complaints here. The action scenes are realistic, and some of the sequences are rather suspenseful. There’s a neat sequence where Lou and Hannah have to cross a dilapidated bridge that I thought was particularly effective. Foerster also takes full advantage of the Pacific Northwest scenery, especially during the scenes with the big storm.

Other than its convoluted plot which gets in the way of the true story here, the one about Lou and her attempts to save an abducted child, LOU works, making it for the most part a satisfying and entertaining action flick, anchored by a solid performance by Allison Janney in the lead role.

I give it two and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

GOD’S COUNTRY (2022) – Powerful Drama Uses Subtlety to Ratchet Up Tension

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GOD’S COUNTRY (2022) is a slow-burn thriller that grows stronger the longer it goes on, using subtlety to ratchet up the tension the way other lesser-made movies use violence to do the same. As such, it’s a refreshing and resounding drama that packs a punch from start to finish.

What GOD’S COUNTRY has to say, that racial disparities and violence against women continue to be unchanged is disturbing, mostly because it is hard to argue that the movie is wrong.

Figuratively, the film plays out like a western of old, only the protagonist is a woman of color, alone on the prairie, dealing with bad men with guns, pushed to the limit, until she has to stoop to their level, like a classic gunfighter of yesteryear, and beat the villains at their own game. But GOD’S COUNTRY isn’t a “western,” nor an action movie, but a drama about a college professor dealing with both subtle racism and in-your-face violence.

It’s a masterful story and movie well worth the price of a movie ticket.

GOD’S COUNTRY takes place in beautiful western Montana, “God’s country,” where college professor Sandra (Thandiwe Newton) has recently moved from New Orleans, and with the passing of her mother, she is grieving. She lives alone with her dog in a farmhouse with stunning mountains and wilderness all around her. One morning after her morning jog, she finds a red pickup truck parked in her driveway. Her employer and dean at the college Arthur (Kai Lennox) tells her not to worry about it, that it probably just belongs to some hunters, and they never bother anyone.

But Sandra takes offense to their parking on her property, and when the truck is parked there again, she leaves a note asking for them not to park on her property. But they ignore her request, even after she speaks to them in person, and when they shoot an arrow into her front door, she calls the police. Acting sheriff Wolf (Jeremy Bobb) tries to tell Sandra that things are different in Montana than in New Orleans, and that most of the time, these issues are solved not by calling the police, but by the folks themselves. But Sandra says she feels threatened, and so against his better judgment Wolf agrees to talk to the two men. Sandra insists on going with him, which doesn’t make the situation any easier.

They meet the first man Nathan (Joris Jarsky) at his job, and he takes offense at Sandra being there with Wolf, and he worries that Wolf’s presence there in the store will cost him his job, which Wolf assures him it will not. Nathan reluctantly agrees not to park in Sandra’s driveway anymore. But when they visit the second man, Samuel (Jefferson White), the more unpredictable of the two, at his place of work, cutting down pine trees, they find themselves in the forest suddenly surrounded by hostile men wielding chainsaws, in one of the movie’s most riveting scenes, men who refuse to listen to Wolf, because, as we find out, the former sheriff is on a leave of absence for shooting and killing one of the men’s brothers, and so they do not trust the police at all. It’s Sandra who steps up and offers her sympathy and condolences to the men and gets them to agree that the man who shot the brother is not there with them, and so she convinces them to let her, and Wolf walk away, no harm, no foul. It’s here where Wolf recognizes that Sandra wasn’t a college professor back in New Orleans.

And later over a conversation at a party hosted by Arthur, Wolf learns that his suspicions are correct, that Sandra was a cop back in New Orleans. And in one of the movie’s best scenes, Wolf asks Sandra why she left the force, and he guesses that she shot someone in the line of duty, to which she replies, that’s the worst thing you can think of? When she goes on to tell him that the reason she left was because of what happened after Hurricane Katrina, how the authorities and the system failed her people, and her mother specifically, it’s a powerhouse moment, where the audience feels as dumbfounded and as foolish as Wolf, who offers a weak “I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” which causes Sandra to walk away.

The tension rises when Sandra begins to follow Nathan and Samuel to learn more about them, and they view this as an escalation, and the acts of violence against her grow more serious. Meanwhile, Sandra grows more frustrated at her job when Arthur fails to include a person of color for an open professorship. Things build to an explosive climax, and as I said, this one gets better as it goes along.

There’s a lot to like about GOD’S COUNTRY. Director Julian Higgins continually inserts brief snippets of close-ups of items inside Sandra’s home, soaking in pouring rain, giving the audience a sense of foreboding that something awful is yet to come. The entire film is beautifully shot in western Montana, and this natural scenery is at odds with the humans who inhabit it. The film’s title GOD’S COUNTRY has multiple meanings here. The literal, the setting, but it also refers to the recurrent theme of useless faith. Sandra’s mother put her faith in God yet was left to fend for herself in the hurricane in New Orleans. It also speaks to what God’s country ultimately is in the United States, a flawed unfair system that hides behind the notion of God while it does whatever the heck it wants.

Thandiwe Newton, who stars in the TV series WESTWORLD (2016-2022), plays Sandra as a sad, cautious, and ultimately fed-up woman who is sick and tired of being bullied by the folks around her. She comes off to the casual viewer as being somewhat of a pain in the backside, and early on in the movie the audience tends to agree more with her levelheaded boss Arthur, and the two hunters don’t at first seem all that unreasonable. But Sandra asked them not to park in her driveway, and they refused. That in and of itself needed to change, and when it doesn’t, the audience’s view on Sandra changes. It doesn’t matter that she might seem annoying, those guys should one, be off her property, and two, should leave her alone, and when they don’t, that’s when the problems get worse.

Jeremy Bobb as acting-sheriff Wolf is convincing as the laid-back country police officer who became a cop because his high school coach was also a cop, and he figured it was a worthwhile profession.

Kai Lennox is excellent as dean Arthur, the man who seems fair minded at first, but the more we learn about him, the more we realize he’s not as progressive as he says he is. The scene where Sandra has had enough and tells him to f*ck off, is one where the audience feels the same exact way.

Jefferson White is sufficiently slimy as the unhinged hunter Samuel, but Joris Jansky is even better as his buddy Nathan. In another of the film’s many powerful sequences, the scene where Sandra follows Nathan into a church is a perfect microcosm for the story this movie tells. When Nathan sees Sandra, he tells her she has to leave, but when she sees his mother playing the organ, she tells him that her mother also used to play the organ at church, and she also tells him that her mother has just recently died. The two converse quietly in the back of the church, on their mothers, and on faith, and they seem to gain an understanding of each other and bond, but moments later, he tells her in a harsh and threatening manner, that she has to leave the church now!

That’s what happens in God’s country.

The screenplay by director Higgins and Shaye Ogbonna is a real strength. It makes its points without hitting you over the head with them. It uses subtlety to great effect. When Arthur’s young secretary confides in Sandra and tells her that Arthur sexually assaulted her, when she gives the details, it at first sounds so harmless— in other words, it’s not a blatant rape or grope, but it is a massage, and the film gets you to realize, of course this isn’t harmless!

The film’s ending, in which Sandra realizes there is only one way to finally stop these men, which comes after they have inflicted great harm to her, hearkens back to the classic westerns of old. In a way, this seems disappointing, that this is the best we have as an answer. But that is what the film is ultimately saying, that as much as we want change, nothing is changing.

It’s a somber message, but it all works.

GOD’S COUNTRY is well-made drama that speaks volumes as to what life is really like in this nation some people call God’s country.

I give it three stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful