THE STRAYS (2023) – Underwhelming Thriller’s Unusual Premise Only Takes It So Far

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THE STRAYS (2023), a new thriller now available on Netflix, has as its greatest strength an unusual premise, one that held my interest for two thirds of the way through the movie, but where it ultimately goes with its plot is a major disappointment.

The story told in THE STRAYS can be separated into three parts.

In the first part, we meet Neve (Ashley Madekwe), a Black woman who is so overwhelmed by her family life, two young children and an abusive husband, that she just up and leaves. The story finds her years later with a new family, a white husband Ian (Justin Salinger) and two teenage children, Sebastian (Samuel Paul Small) and Mary (Maria Almeida). They are an affluent family, and so unlike her previous life, Neve is doing quite well, and she has a good job at the private school her children attend. Neve works hard to put her past behind her, including seemingly disowning her blackness, as she tries exceedingly hard to fit into the white culture found in her wealthy British neighborhood.

Life is good for Neve, until she spies two strangers watching her at various times in the day, and these same strangers also take an interest in her children. At this point, the film takes on a creepy vibe and begins to work more as a thriller than a drama. Once these strangers identify themselves, the film reveals their backstories, and it’s here where the vibe of the movie changes yet again, and honestly where it becomes most intriguing. Amid the revelations made about these two characters, the story is set to go to some very dark and sad places, and the potential is ripe for some serious drama.

Which brings us to the third part of the movie, and by far, the weakest part, because it’s here where THE STRAYS goes full blown thriller, which doesn’t really work. The movie offers a thought-provoking premise but then resolves everything in the final reel in the least thought-provoking way. On one level, it makes sense for these two characters to act this way, because they are acting out of raw emotion, but there were so many more impactful ways this story could have gone, so many other conversations and situations. But the film settles for the easiest way out.

And the ending is both predictable and a letdown. Because really, the conflict presented here is not really resolved.

THE STRAYS was written and directed by first-time director Nathaniel Martello-White, and what he is saying in this movie almost works. The undercurrent in this story is the disowning of one’s race and culture, as Neve buries her past and focuses only on fitting into the new white culture she has married into. The story also examines the fallout such a choice has on the people left behind. I liked all of these aspects of the story, but the third act doesn’t handle the material satisfactorily, and settles for a straight-forward violent conclusion.

The acting is all fine. Ashely Madekwe is superb in the lead role as Neve. She captures the duality of the character, and she possesses the ability to turn facets of her personality on and off at will. She also gets one of the best lines in the movie, where she is explaining what she did, leaving her family behind, and she asks why she should be held accountable when it is something that men do all the time and society accepts it. And early on before leaving her first family, she laments that this wasn’t how she expected her life to go, that she worked hard and did all the right things, and she didn’t deserve this. She is told to be patient. Instead, she shakes her head and leaves. Madekwe gets many powerful scenes and handles them all well.

The first two thirds of THE STRAYS are compelling, but the final act is a letdown.

I give this underwhelming thriller two stars.

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars – Perfect, Top of the line

Three and a half stars- Excellent

Three stars – Very Good

Two and a half stars – Good

Two Stars – Fair

One and a half stars – Pretty Weak

One star- Poor

Zero stars – Awful

JESUS REVOLUTION (2023) – Very Vanilla Take on Historical Religious Movement

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JESUS REVOLUTION (2023) is based on the true movement in the early 1970s when hippies discovered Jesus Christ, which would make perfect sense, since hippies were all about peace and love, concepts which mirror Christ’s message.

The film obviously contains a heavy Christian slant, no doubt intended to be more inspirational than historical, but the truth is it has little to offer in the way of inspiration because the story simply preaches to the choir, and if you aren’t Christian, there’s nothing in this movie that is remarkable or telling. As such, it fails to portray this revolution as something that was real. The story and characters just go through the motions.

JESUS REVOLUTION gets off to a solid start, focusing on frustrated minister Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer) who laments that his church is mostly empty and struggling, and that he doesn’t understand the youths of today, who he sees as lost and disrespectful. He tells his teenage daughter Janette (Ally Ioannides) that he wishes God would send a hippie to his house so that he could understand them. And so, when Jannette meets a hippie named Lonnie (Jonathan Roumie) who speaks of Jesus, she brings him home to meet her father, who isn’t thrilled by having this stranger in his house.

But after a rough start, Chuck finds himself impressed with Lonnie, and he invites him and his friends to his church. Suddenly, more and more of Lonnie’s friends arrive, and after Lonnie preaches at the church, the building becomes packed with hippies, which causes a stir among some of Chuck’s more prominent parishioners. In a sermon, Chuck speaks of the open door at his church, which is both an invitation for everyone to come in, and also an exit, for those who no longer feel comfortable by the younger folks who have now become part of the community.

The story follows Lonnie’s rise in the church where he also becomes a healer, and this storyline early on works. However, the film also follows another young man searching for answers, Greg (Joel Courney), who along with his girlfriend Cathe (Anna Grace Barlow) join Chuck’s church. Greg and Cathe are two of the least interesting characters in the movie, and their stories, Greg’s dealings with his ailing mother and with Cathe’s overprotective father, are the weakest in the movie, yet as the film progresses, these storylines become the focus of the film. Which is no surprise, because the screenplay by director Jon Erwin and Jon Gunn is based on the book by the real-life Greg Laurie.

Lonnie, after an argument with Chuck, disappears for the latter half of the movie, which is too bad because he’s the one character who brings the most conflict with him. In one of the better conversations in the film, Chuck tells Lonnie that he mistakenly thinks that the movement can’t proceed without him, and he tells Lonnie that the movement is bigger than just one man.

But unfortunately, most of the rest of the movie is without conflict. The screenplay by Jon Erwin and Jon Gunn is largely superficial. For example, in the big baptism in the ocean sequence, we see characters baptized and immediately afterwards experience a religious epiphany, but no one in the movie says why or how. No character explains what just happened to them. We just see it, and we take their word for it that they are now saved.

The pacing to this one is also dreadfully slow. The movie runs for 120 minutes and feels longer. Director Jon Erwin seems to be content with telling this story without a sense of urgency or history. The characters remain superficial, the conflicts nonexistent.

Strangely, the Netflix horror TV mini-series MIDNIGHT MASS (2021) — a horror tale, mind you! — did a better job of capturing the religious beliefs of the characters in its story than anything shown here in JESUS REVOLUTION.

I enjoy watching Kelsey Grammer, as I’ve always been a fan of his hit show FRASIER (1993-2004) back in the day, and he was the main reason I went to see this movie, and as expected, he turns in a solid performance here as minister Chuck Smith. He gets some of the better scenes in the movie. There’s a notable conversation between Smith and his wife, when he’s worried about offending the big vocal donors in his church, where she tells him that truth is always quiet, and that it’s lies that are spoken out loudly, a sentiment which rings true. He says it’s complicated, and she reminds him that truth is simple. Truth usually is simple, but unfortunately, this movie doesn’t do a good job of speaking to truth.

Jonathan Roumie is quite good as Lonnie Frisbee, and Ally Ioannides has some nice moments as Chuck’s daughter Janette, but the rest of the cast is as bland as the overall story told in this one.

At the end of the day, JESUS REVOLUTION is a very vanilla take on a historical religious movement. There’s no dark side, no ugliness, no pain, and that certainly gets in the way of successfully trying to tell a story of light. Now, the plot has these moments, as we see the negative effects of drugs on some people, and we see Greg upset about his mom, but these interpretations are all so weak and bland, like a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Also, whether intentional or not, JESUS REVOLUTION works against its own main message of religious inclusion in that there isn’t one person of color who is a major character in this movie. Not one.

Not the best decision for a movie that is supposedly about inclusion and the welcoming of all.

I give this one a bland two stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars – Perfect, Top of the line

Three and a half stars- Excellent

Three stars – Very Good

Two and a half stars – Good

Two Stars – Fair

One and a half stars – Pretty Weak

One star- Poor

Zero stars – Awful

WOMEN TALKING (2022) – Important Drama Struggles to Make Emotional Impact

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Sometimes a movie just doesn’t work as well as you expect it to.

WOMEN TALKING (2022) makes its points throughout, but it does so on an intellectual level. Emotionally, I wasn’t moved anywhere near as much as I thought I would be, and for a story about women struggling to escape abuse by men, the fact that I was not emotionally moved really surprised me.

Admittedly, I was distracted throughout the movie by its vague sense of time and place. This is a story about an isolated religious community, where the women aren’t educated— they can’t even read— and the setting looks like somewhere in the distant past. Yet, the movie takes place in 2010, in some unknown location in the United States. It takes place in 2010 because this story is loosely based on true events which occurred inside an isolated religious community in Bolivia in the early 2000s. Since the movie makes no attempt to talk about time or place, I felt distracted because I couldn’t wrap my head around this story taking place in 2010. I get it, that these communities ignore present day life, but it just made everything that happened here a bit… off. While the point of the movie is about the women’s struggles, I found myself wanting to know more about this community and how they had reached this point in their lives. The film doesn’t speak to this.

The plot of WOMEN TALKING is simple. In this community, women are being drugged and raped at night by some of the men there, and their complaints are dismissed as female imaginations. So, a group of women meet in a barn to discuss their options. As they see it, they have three choices: stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. And that’s the movie. Because over the course of the next hour and 45 minutes, the women discuss, argue, and ultimately come to a decision.

These discussions bring up many important issues: the need for women to have a voice, the culture of men’s treatment of women, ongoing from generation to generation, and the violence that men inflict on women without penalty. I appreciated these arguments intellectually, but emotionally not so much, because the experience was similar to sitting in the audience listening to a panel of women discussing these issues. That’s all well and good, but movies can communicate in ways that panel discussions cannot. Movies can move people on a whole different level. And that’s where WOMEN TALKING didn’t succeed for me as well as it could have. In fact, I probably would have been moved more watching that panel discussion because I wouldn’t have been wondering what year this was or where these events were taking place.

Of course, I do realize that the possibility exists that I wasn’t moved as much because I’m a man, but I don’t think this is the reason. I certainly empathized with all of the female characters in this movie. I just wasn’t moved much by the movie as a whole.

WOMEN TALKING features a solid cast. Rooney Mara is captivating as Ona, the unmarried woman who is pregnant, who has an artistic and almost poetic view of the world. Ona is the most interesting character in the movie.

Claire Foy plays Salome, the feisty character who is ready to fight and kill anyone who harms her children.

The rest of the cast all do admirable jobs. But I can’t say the characterizations won me over either. We know very little about these characters other than what we learn from them through their discussion in the barn.

WOMEN TALKING was written and directed by Sarah Polley, the screenplay based on the book by Miriam Toews. The color scheme is muted for effect, and at times the cinematography almost looks black and white. This is for effect, of course, and it works, in that it speaks to the oppressed life these women faced. It also works on a symbolic level, that even today, women can feel like they’re living in the Dark Ages. On the other hand, it makes you think you are watching a story from a century or two ago, not in 2010, which sadly for me, just made for a distraction.

The subject matter of WOMEN TALKING is important. The fact that events like these happened in 2010 speaks to that.

Unfortunately, as a movie, WOMEN TALKING doesn’t take this important subject matter and turn it into an emphatic piece of cinema, which is too bad because its subject matter is something people need to hear about, think about, and act upon.

Sadly, I saw this in an empty theater. Not one other person was in attendance.

Which for me, begs the question: women are talking, but is anyone listening? I hope so.

I give WOMEN TALKING 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

SHE SAID (2022) – Important Movie on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Is Must-See Viewing

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SHE SAID (2022) is the type of movie that I don’t feel like criticizing one bit because its subject matter— sexual harassment of women in the workplace— is so important.

In other words, while the movie is far from perfect, it’s still a film everyone should see. Period. So, let there be no ambiguity about that. SHE SAID is a must-see movie for everyone.

SHE SAID is based on both The New York Times investigative reporting by reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, and their book She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, and while it chronicles their investigation into Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, an investigation which eventually led to his arrest and conviction, the story in general is really about how pervasive sexual harassment is in the workplace and how deeply rooted these attitudes against women are engrained in men, especially but not limited to, men in power. The screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz makes this abundantly clear, and rightly so, as its take on this subject is spot on.

I found SHE SAID to be a very somber and unsettling movie because the story it told not only was true but exposes horrible things regarding the way men treat women that sadly are ongoing.

SHE SAID basically follows the two New York Times reporters, Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) as they painstakingly and persistently follow leads and search for victims to speak on the record and for proof to back up their claims as they try to tell the story and expose the abuse and harassment propagated by Harvey Weinstein over the years.

The film gets this right, as we witness how frightened Weinstein’s victims are, and how not only are they afraid to talk, but so many of them signed settlements which legally prevented them from talking. It also prevented them from ever working again in the movie industry, as Weinstein would make sure they couldn’t.

The more Twohey and Kantor learn about Weinstein, the more emotional they grow, because they know what he has done and continues to do, but they can’t get anyone on record to speak about it, and so they persist and go to nearly superhuman lengths to seek out and find both the proof and on the record accounts they need. They also have to deal with Weinstein, who with his connections learns they are investigating him, and he intimidates the women who are thinking of speaking out, and there are also anonymous violent and vulgar threats against Twohey and Kantor.

What the film doesn’t get right— and again, because of the subject matter, I encourage everyone to see this movie in spite of this— is a cinematic style. While the content held my attention throughout, both the writing and by-the-numbers directing by Maria Schrader kept this from being a powerful film in its own right. For example, the movie SPOTLIGHT (2015), which covered the Boston Globe investigation into the Catholic Church’s child molestation crimes and its subsequent cover-up, was a phenomenal movie in its own right on top of its riveting subject matter. Not only did it feature a strong cast and powerhouse performances, but the writing dug deep into the reporters writing the stories, and the film also had villains, portraying the Catholic Church as being stubbornly out of touch with its victims. It never got melodramatic. It stuck to facts. But it also went for the jugular and really hit hard with its message of just what happened and was continuing to happen.

SHE SAID doesn’t quite do this. While I applaud the choice the movie made not to ever show Weinstein speaking on camera, and we only see the back of the actor’s head who is portraying him, the sad side effect of this is we never really feel the ugliness and vulgarity of the man. Not that we have to. In terms of story and making its point, we don’t need more of Weinstein. But we need something. Because the movie is almost all Twohey and Kantor and their reporting. Why isn’t this enough? Well, technically it is, but as a movie, the two hours spent watching SHE SAID are nowhere near as riveting as watching SPOTLIGHT.

And the story does give us some family background on Twohey and Kantor, but their backgrounds aren’t what is missing. It’s the process of their investigation which needs more dialogue and angst. The drama is flat.

Carey Mulligan is a terrific actor, and she nails the experienced Megan Twohey, who while growing increasingly rattled by this investigation also is dealing with a newborn at home. She also has a great scene in the movie, where at a meeting at a bar, a guy comes over and hits on them, and when she tells him they’re not interested, and he persists and becomes vulgar, she lets him have it and tells him to f*ck off! Mulligan has wowed me since I first saw her in DRIVE (2011) and THE GREAT GATSBY (2013). She was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her phenomenal performance in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020), and she also was pretty darn good in the more recent THE DIG (2021), in which she co-starred with Ralph Fiennes.

Zoe Kazan is also exceptional as Jodi Kantor, the less experienced of the two reporters, but the one who initially started the investigation. She also has her share of potent scenes, like when she inadvertently mentions to one of the victims’ husbands what supposedly happened with Weinstein, and the husband says his wife has never mentioned this to him. I’ve enjoyed Kazan in the horror movie THE MONSTER (2016) and even more so in the romantic comedy THE BIG SICK (2017).

The supporting cast is very good. Andre Braugher turns in a fine performance as executive editor Dean Baquet. The way he confidently pushes back against Weinstein provides some of the more satisfying moments in the movie.

SHE SAID is a very good movie, and while it has its flaws, its content is must-see viewing, and its perspective on sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be heard, acknowledged, and understood, and changes need to continue to be made.

I give it three 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

AMSTERDAM (2022) – Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington Lead All-Star Cast in David O. Russell’s Lighthearted Murder Mystery Period Piece

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AMSTERDAM (2022), director/writer David O. Russell’s first film since JOY (2015), is loosely based on a true story, a political conspiracy in 1933 known as the Business Plot, where wealthy businessmen and bankers plotted a behind-the-scenes coup d’├ętat to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt and replace him with a military general.

With its all-star cast, led by the triumvirate of Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington, combined with its artful cinematography capturing 1933 New York and its impactful and hopping screenplay by David O. Russell, AMSTERDAM largely entertains for all of its two hour and fourteen-minute running time.

The movie gets off to a lively start as we meet Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) in 1933 New York. Berendsen is a doctor and World War I veteran who treats his fellow veterans who returned from the Great War with unspeakable scars, injuries, and pain. So much pain. Berendsen is always looking for more powerful drugs to help his patients deal with the pain, and he himself lost an eye during the war, and his back is terribly scarred and twisted, so much so he has to constantly wear a back brace. Bale with his character’s glass eye and odd manner of speaking channels a lot of Peter Falk throughout his performance. When they are later trying to solve the mystery, it was easy to imagine Columbo on the case.

Burt and his fellow veteran and best friend from the war Harold Woodman (John David Washington), an attorney, are hired by Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift), the daughter of their former commanding officer, to look into her father’s death, which she believes is the result of foul play. And when Liz is pushed in front of an oncoming vehicle and murdered right in front of their eyes, they realize something big is going on.

Burt, who narrates the movie, then says it’s time for some background information, and the film jumps back in time to 1918 where he and Harold are cared for in army hospital by a nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). The three become inseparable, and their friendship blossoms as they spend a magical period shut off from the rest of the world in Amsterdam. But they pledged to always be there for each other. And so eventually when the action returns to 1933 New York, Valerie re-enters their lives as they, in the process of investigating their former commanding officer’s death, uncover a vast conspiracy against the United States government.

All of this sounds serious, and some of it is, but the screenplay is anything but a straight drama. It’s quirky and humorous, generating enough clever laughs to keep this one lighthearted throughout.

The biggest story with AMSTERDAM is its cast, both its three main players and the supporting cast of actors. Anytime you have Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington sharing ample screen time in your movie, chances are things are going to be purdy darn good. And they are.

Christian Bale is a phenomenal actor, and his performance as broken Burt Berendsen drives the entire movie forward. With his quirky Peter Falk-style delivery, Bale is watchable throughout. The same goes for Margot Robbie and John David Washington. The three of them deliver throughout this movie.

The supporting players also make their mark. Probably the two best supporting performances belong to Rami Malek as Valerie’s manipulative brother Tom, and Anya Taylor-Joy, who other than Bale, delivers hands down the best performance in the movie, as Tom’s eccentric wife Libby.

It was fun to see Mike Myers back on screen again, playing a British intelligence officer named Paul Canterbury, in a role which would have been perfectly suitable for Michael York a few years back. Myers and Michael Shannon, who plays Canterbury’s American intelligence counterpart, share lots of scenes together and seem to be having a great time as the two men who steer Burt and his friends towards uncovering the conspiracy plot.

Chris Rock in limited screen time gets some genuine laugh out loud moments as Milton King, one of the other soldiers in Burt’s and Harold’s platoon. Timothy Olyphant is also memorable under heavy face-altering prosthetics as Taron Milfax, a villainous henchman and murderer. And Zoe Saldana is enjoyable as a beautiful coroner who has eyes for Burt.

By the time Rober De Niro shows up as the level-headed general who refutes the coup, the film has lost a lot of its energy and pizzaz. While it remains entertaining throughout, the first two thirds of AMSTERDAM are much more energetic than its third act, which slows down as all the answers are revealed.

And David O. Russell’s screenplay keeps things simple. When De Niro’s General Dillenbeck delivers his much-anticipated speech, the words he uses to explain the evil that these men plan to do sounds like he’s speaking to a room of first graders. I suppose this is better than an explanation that is unclear and cryptic, but things are explained in straightforward simplistic black and white terms, in language that definitely calls to mind current events and what was attempted in the United States on January 6, 2021.

Overall, I enjoyed AMSTERDAM quite a bit, and I liked it better than Russell’s previous two movies, JOY and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013). My two favorite Russell movies remain THE FIGHTER (2010) and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), but AMSTERDAM is right up there with them.

The 1933 New York sets, costumes, and cinematography were so authentic, I half expected to see King Kong rampaging through the streets on his way to the Empire State Building.

AMSTERDAM covers more than just its murder/coup plot, as it touches upon love, relationships, race, and art. At the end of the movie when Valerie and Harold have to leave the country, because they know their mixed-race relationship will not be allowed in the United States, it’s a powerful point that not many movies have felt comfortable making, and when Burt vows to work towards changing things, so his friends can return and live in this country freely, it’s a bittersweet moment because while we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.

But the overall feel of this drama/comedy period piece is definitely on the lighter side, and the film provides plenty of humorous moments and laughter, most of it of the quirky variety, and it all works, even if the final third of the film slows down somewhat.

AMSTERDAM is well worth the visit.

I give it three stars.

—END–

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

BLONDE (2022) – Netflix’ NC-17 Rated Fictional Account of Marilyn Monroe Major Disappointment

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Some movies have “it.” Others don’t.

BLONDE (2022), unlike its subject, Marilyn Monroe, doesn’t have “it,” which is too bad because Ana de Armas is terrific in the lead role as Norma Jean, aka Marilyn Monroe, but this fictional account of the life of Monroe based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates just never came to life for me. It didn’t grab me at the outset, nor did it pull me in later as it went along, and for a movie that runs nearly three hours, that’s a long time to be uninvolved. A very long time.

The first issue I had with this movie is why do we need a fictional account of the life of Marilyn Monroe? Wasn’t her real life fascinating and tragic enough? I couldn’t really wrap my head around the idea. Sure, it’s based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel, but again, why? I was especially distracted by this in this day and age where a growing number of political leaders make their living promoting fictional accounts as true, and so this whole notion didn’t sit well with me here in 2022. That being said, I went in with an open mind, and was ready to enjoy this one regardless, but the film itself prevented me from doing so.

BLONDE, which is rated NC-17 for strong sexual content, nudity, rape, and child abuse, is now streaming on Netflix and playing at some theaters. Most of the content here is typical of R rated films. The one exception is a rather vulgar scene between Monroe and JFK, vulgar in the way the President treats Monroe. But this is all fiction so… it doesn’t resonate as it otherwise would.

The film opens with a young Norma Jean living with her alcoholic and abusive mom (Julianne Nicholson), giving the film a very unpleasant first few minutes which seem to go on forever before finally cutting to an adult Norma Jean (Ana de Armas) as she first breaks into the film industry. And in this story, she gets her first role after being raped by the studio head. He has his way sexually with her, and then he gives her the role. Again, fictional account. This never happened.

The rest of the movie follows Monroe’s traumatic life and career, following its factual path through movies she made and the lovers she had, but all with a fictional twist, right up until her tragic death in 1962 at the age of 36.

BLONDE tries to be stylish, and director Andrew Dominik mixes black and white cinematography into the mix, as well as different variants of color photography, and even inserts de Armas into real scenes from Marilyn Monroe’s movies where de Armas stands side by side with the real actors from those movies. Yet, none of this worked for me. In terms of style, BLONDE is vastly inferior to another bio pic from earlier this year, ELVIS (2022) by Baz Luhrmann. That film had me hooked within its opening seconds and it never looked back. BLONDE, in spite of all its technical innovations, labors from start to finish.

A large part of the problem is its pacing. It moves like a snail, and never builds on what has come before it. It just moves from one plot point to another. It really could have used some serious editing.

There are some impressive acting performances. I’ve been a fan of Ana de Armas for a while, and she is making a ton of movies these days. We just saw her in THE GRAY MAN (2022) and before that in the James Bond movie NO TIME TO DIE (2021). Her performance as an A. I. being was one of the better parts of BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017).

Here, she gives it her all as Marilyn Monroe, and at times she is good enough to lose herself in the role, and you think you are watching the real Monroe. Other times, however, de Armas’ Cuban accent is still detectable. If BLONDE had been a better movie, this distinction would have worked better because it would have supported the notion that this is a fictional account and not a true biography, but the film just isn’t up to the task, and so I imagine de Armas’ accent will only irritate Marilyn Monroe fans.

Bobby Cannavale turns in a fine performance as the “Ex-Athlete,” based of course on Joe DiMaggio, who famously married Marilyn Monroe, and Adrien Brody is even better as “The Playwright,” based on Arthur Miller, who married Monroe after she and DiMaggio divorced. Neither one of these two have much of an impact here though, since neither actor is in the movie all that much.

The screenplay by director Andrew Dominik based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates falls flat, and then some. I was amazed at how much I did not like this movie. Considering the subject matter, Marilyn Monroe, the actor in the lead, Ana de Armas, and the impressive looking cinematography.

None of it comes together. The story struggles. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the narrative because it’s a fictional account of a real person, and so these traumatic events which shaped Monroe’s life— didn’t actually happen, at least not in the way as depicted in this movie.

For me, the bottom line is this: did this really happen to Monroe? No. So, why do I care?

The short answer? I don’t.

So, in spite of tremendous potential, BLONDE was a huge disappointment.

Monroe and her fans deserve better.

I give it one 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.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

THIRTEEN LIVES (2022) – Ron Howard Expertly Chronicles True Story of Extraordinary Underwater Rescue

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THIRTEEN LIVES (2022), the latest movie from director Ron Howard, tells the extraordinary true story of the rescue of thirteen young soccer players from a flooded underground cave in Thailand in 2018, and it does so in a straightforward manner without fanfare or fuss.

This is both good and bad.

But since the story on its own is indeed so extraordinary, it’s mostly good.

In June 2018, a group of school-age boys on a soccer team decide to visit a cave before going to one of their teammate’s birthday parties, and they’re accompanied by their coach. Despite the fact that the cave has a history of flooding, it’s still before the monsoon season, so the boys feel they are safe. However, torrential rains hit shortly after they descend into the cave, flooding it and trapping them deep below. By the time their families arrive at the cave looking for them, it’s too submerged in water for them to go inside and search for the boys.

They call the local authorities, who quickly see they are in over their heads, both figuratively and literally. Soon, Navy Seals arrive, but they too cannot get far into the cave to reach the boys, as it’s all underwater in narrow passageways, and there is zero visibility. The call goes out worldwide for help, and two of the most skilled cave divers in the world, John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) heed the call and arrive in Thailand where they are looked down upon by the Thai Navy Seals for being too old, and while they certainly are older than the Seals, John points out that they train specifically for diving in and around caves.

John and Rick receive permission to dive into the cave, and after many trials and errors, they eventually, after a six hour plus dive, find the boys and their coach alive. They promise to return to the boys with help. When news breaks that the boys are alive, there is great joy and celebration, but Rick is not happy at all, and as he tells the authorities privately, the boys may be alive now, but there is no way they are getting out of the cave alive. For that to happen, each of them would have to be able to swim underwater with the divers for six to eight hours, and as Rick points out, even when earlier they helped an adult volunteer who had been trapped inside, he had panicked during a much shorter swim.

Faced with a no-win situation, the authorities go silent, frustrating the waiting families, but it’s Rick who suggests a very controversial plan, one that had never been tried before. Even though it is extremely risky, and he tells the authorities point blank that the boys may die, if they try nothing, they will die anyway.

Ron Howard directs this one without any frills, and it plays out like watching news footage or a documentary. It’s really well done. I’m not always the biggest fan of Howard’s movies, but he definitely taps into here the suspense of one of his best movies, APOLLO 13 (1995) starring Tom Hanks which chronicled the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon mission. I enjoyed THIRTEEN LIVES more than some of his recent movies, including SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018) and IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (2015). Howard won an Oscar for Best Director for A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), which also won for Best Picture that year.

Here, the most amazing part of Howard’s work is the underwater photography. It’s breathtaking. The scenes of the divers submerged in the caves are claustrophobic, riveting, and heart pounding. And like I said, Howard doesn’t film these like a suspense movie. He simply lets the action unfold, and we are drawn in watching these volunteers risk their lives to save these boys. Just as astounding, the actors, including Mortensen and Farrell, did their own underwater stunts! Even though professional divers were there and available, Mortensen felt so strongly about the authenticity of the project that he and the others trained to dive in caves, and they convinced Howard to let them do it.

And while obviously it was filmed in a massive underwater set and not inside real caves, it was still a dangerous undertaking for all the actors. Their dedication pays off, because these scenes really work.

Viggo Mortensen is terrific in the lead role as diver Rick Stanton. His cool, aloof persona is perfect for a man who spends his time swimming in life-threatening, narrow underwater caves. And he’s not reckless. At one point, he says point blank that as much as he wants to save the boys, if he thinks they (the divers) can’t get out alive, he’s not going in.

Colin Farrell is also superb as fellow diver John Volanthen. He’s the more empathetic of the two, and as a divorced dad of a young son, his own child is always on his mind as he tries to rescue the trapped boys.

Equally as good in a supporting role is Joel Edgerton as Harry Harris, another diver who John and Rick call in to join them, as they assemble a team of the best cave divers in the world. And they are particularly interested in Harry because of his expertise, which is part of Rick’s controversial plan to rescue the boys. And when they first tell Harry of this, he refuses, because he knows it could kill the boys, but later, when he sees there is no other alternative, he relents and changes his mind.

The screenplay by William Nicholson based on a story by Don MacPherson is comprehensive and thorough and goes beyond just the story of the divers. There’s a whole other story of other volunteers led by a water expert who understands that the cave is not flooding from below but from the rains above, and so he assembles a team to find and plug up all the sink holes in the area, an undertaking that is nearly as impossible as the underwater diving mission. In fact, the sacrifice among the locals is just as great, as plugging up the sink holes means diverting the water, which will destroy the local farmers’ crops. The farmers agree, knowing they are helping to rescue the boys.

There’s the story of the families, waiting anxiously over the course of seventeen excruciating days, and of the local leadership who have to navigate around the politics of the lives and possible deaths of thirteen children under their watch. It’s a really good screenplay, which comes as no surprise, because William Nicholson has a ton of writing credits, including EVEREST (2015), MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (2013) and LES MISERABLES (2012) to name just a few.

If there’s any knock against THIRTEEN LIVES it’s that it runs for two hours and twenty-seven minutes, and with its no frills style, sometimes it seems a bit long. When the divers are underwater, the film had me on edge. When the action returned to above ground, things could have been edited a bit more tightly.

THIRTEEN LIVES is an Amazon Original movie and premiered on Prime Video and in select movie theaters. It’s one you definitely want to see.

Sure, you may already know the ending, but the story of human ingenuity, camaraderie, and bravery it took to rescue these boys under pretty much impossible odds, is one you don’t want to miss.

Thirteen lives could very easily have been lost that day. But they weren’t.

The movie THIRTEEN LIVES successfully celebrates this fact by so expertly telling this amazing story.

—END–