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.

—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

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

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

EMILY THE CRIMINAL (2022) – Aubrey Plaza Shines in Riveting New Thriller

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When the criminals treat you better than the employers, you know there’s something wrong.

I mean, if you’re going to work your fingers to the bone and get paid bare minimum, with no rights as an employee, why not work for the criminals who are paying you lots of money and are being more up front and honest with you than people in the workplace?

That’s the premise behind EMILY THE CRIMINAL (2022), a new thriller starring Aubrey Plaza about a young woman who is struggling to make ends meet who turns to crime when she is finally fed up with it all.

Emily (Aubrey Plaza) works long hours for a food delivery service and spends her days delivering and serving food to various clients. She is saddled with student debt that she cannot pay off… we witness one phone conversation where she learns that her recent payment only covered the accrued interest and not the principal of the loan…. and her efforts to find a better paying job continually fall short. She has a criminal record, for one incident of aggravated assault, and this hinders her job search. In one interview, the interviewer tells her he hasn’t read the record yet and asks her to explain it, and when she gives an alternate account, he reveals he has read it, which she sees, and rightly so, as an act of deception.

When she interviews for an upscale design position, she learns it’s actually an unpaid internship. And when her current boss changes her hours without warning, she complains, but he tells her there’s no union, no place to file grievances, so either work or leave.

All of this is why when a co-worker gives her a phone number and tells her to call it because it’s a gig that will pay her $200, she does it. After calling the number, she meets Youcef (Theo Rossi) who explains to her and the others who have also showed up that day that they will all make $200 cash, but that they will be doing something illegal. It turns out it’s a “dummy shopper” scheme where they use stolen credit card numbers to buy goods, in this case a flat screen TV, which they then turn over to Youcef who will then turn around and sell the TVs to make more money. Emily agrees, it goes well, and Youcef tells her there is another job if she’s interested, but the stakes are higher, but it will also pay $2,000.

After some soul searching, Emily decides to do the job, and even though it is more dangerous, she gets the money, and soon after decides to go all in with Youcef and continue this life of crime.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL is a well-made, smart and ultimately enjoyable thriller that I liked a lot. Its story works, like most good stories do, because it is based on truth. Employers often do treat workers terribly, prospective employers are sometimes less than honest in interviews, and there are lots of places that believe unpaid internships are real jobs. If you have spent time struggling to find work, especially work that pays well, you know this is the case. I certainly do.

Emily is an artist who loves to paint, but she can’t even think about doing what she loves because her life is a grind where she’s working only to pay bills and her student loans, and in spite of long hours, she’s failing at both. And so, it makes perfect sense for Emily when she discovers the illegal dummy shopper scheme, that she’s not going to say no. She’s desperate. And when she takes things to the next level, the audience understands her decision, because they understand her motives. She just wants to live her life. And capitalism just isn’t giving her a fair shake at the opportunities.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL features a terrific performance by Aubrey Plaza in the lead role. Plaza has been around for a while, and I have not seen a lot of her work, but she’s riveting here. She plays Emily as tough as nails, someone who is sick and tired of being pushed around, and when she decides to push back, it’s something to watch. Plaza of course played April on the TV show PARKS AND RECREATION (2009-2015) and she also starred in the TV show LEGION (2017-2019). She also starred in the remake CHILD’S PLAY (2019), which I liked, and she was in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010) as well.

Theo Rossi, who has also been in a ton of stuff, plays Youcef, who in spite of seeming cold and detached at first, shows more honesty in his dealings with Emily than most of the traditional employers she has dealt with. He also has a soft side, and as the story goes along, he and Emily grow closer. Rossi nails the role, which was much more satisfying than his recent comedic turn in ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021). Rossi played the villain, Shades, in the Netflix Marvel TV show LUKE CAGE (2016-2018), and he was memorable as Juice on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2014).

Jonathan Avigdori makes for a nice villain, playing Youcef’s cousin Khalil, who is much more heavy-handed than Youcef, and who also doesn’t like Emily all that much.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL was written and directed by John Patton Ford, and it’s his first feature film credit. I loved the script, as it both tells a riveting story based on truth, and also creates a captivating character in Emily. You’ll root for Emily the same way you rooted for Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in BREAKING BAD (2008-2013).

There are some intense scenes here, like Emily’s attempt to steal an expensive car, and the sequence where a couple breaks into her apartment to turn the tables on her and rob her.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL is a satisfying small market movie that is more enjoyable and refreshing than many of the bigger budget movies in release today.

Definitely check this one out.

It would be a crime to miss it.

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WATCHER (2022) – Thriller Speaks to Women’s Fears and Frustrations at Being Stalked

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The best part about WATCHER (2022) is that it speaks to the vulnerabilities and frustrations women face when speaking out about being stalked, as here even the main character’s husband struggles to believe her fears are real.

The worst part is its story is told at such a dreadfully slow pace that it is difficult to get through, and it withholds any real shock until the final few minutes of the movie.

WATCHER, which premiered in theaters in June and is now available to rent or buy on Prime Video, tells the story of Julia (Maika Monroe), an American woman who relocates with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) to Romania, as his job gives him the opportunity to return to his native country. Not knowing the language, Julia finds herself isolated and alone while Francis works long hours at the office, and she soon notices in the window of an apartment across from theirs the figure of a man who seems to be watching her. While she’s out and about in the city, she notices a man (Burn Gorman) following her, and she believes it’s the same man in the window.

Further complicating matters is the fact that there is a serial killer at large who decapitates his female victims. Julia tells Francis about the man, and they call the police, and the officer investigates and basically tells the man to stop watching Julia through the window. But Julia continues to see him, and she decides to be proactive and starts following him to learn more about his identity. Eventually he calls the police on her, and when the police show up at their door, Francis begins to believe that his wife is getting carried away with things that aren’t real. But Julia persists in believing that the man is following her, and her frustrations grow when her husband pretty much stops believing her.

The audience most likely stops believing her as well, as the film offers very little evidence to support that her fears are real. But just before the end credits roll, the film takes a shocking turn, and the final few minutes of this one, by far the very best part of this movie, go for the throat and really deliver a horrifying crushing conclusion.

That being said, while I really liked the ending, WATCHER is the type of movie with its long-drawn-out scenes of Julia alone roaming around Bucharest looking over her shoulder that I don’t generally enjoy, as for the bulk of the story not a lot happens. We mostly watch Julia exist alone as her fears ramp up that she’s being stalked by a serial killer. This doesn’t translate to easy viewing, even for a movie that’s only 91 minutes long. So, I have to admit that for a lot of this movie I was bored.

But director Chloe Okuno succeeds on two fronts. One, we really feel the same sense of isolation which Julia feels living in a foreign country not knowing the language and having a husband who works all the time. Most of the movie features scenes of Julia alone and struggling to adapt. And two, as I mentioned earlier, Okuno captures that sense of frustration for women who struggle to be believed when they report their fears of being stalked. At one point Francis makes a joke to his co-workers at Julia’s expense, in Romanian, but Julia gets the gist of it and storms away. And as the movie shows, the price for not being believed is often deadly.

Maika Monroe, with her fashionable haircut and clothes, looks more mature than the younger lead character she played a few years back in the superior horror movie IT FOLLOWS (2014), and she gives a performance that is equally as effective. She plays Julia as a character who is not overwhelmed by her isolation and who takes proactive steps to fit in, but the longer the stranger watches and follows her without anyone intervening to stop him, the more unraveled she eventually becomes. Even so, she remains steadfast and strong to the last. It’s a really good performance.

I also enjoyed Karl Glusman as Julia’s husband Francis. He’s just the right balance of concerned loving husband with the “I have to work, and I don’t know what else to do to help you” attitude to make him seem very real. He never deviates into a complete jerk which would have made him cliche.

And Burn Gorman is sufficiently creepy as the silent man who watches Julia, pretty much saying nothing until late in the movie, and even then, even as he is proclaiming his innocence, he still exudes weirdness.

Director Chloe Okuno wrote the screenplay based on a prior screenplay by Zack Ford, and it features realistic dialogue and characterizations, as well as a story that ultimately works, even though it takes its time getting to anything worthy of this movie being called a thriller. It’s a slow burn ride for sure.

However, the ending is really, really good! Shocking is the best word for it.

But because of its snail-like pacing, taken as a whole, WATCHER is a mixed bag. Intellectually, I liked its story and what it had to say about women needing to be believed and taken seriously from the get-go, but emotionally the film is lacking until its powerful final few minutes.

And the voyeurism theme is downplayed here. Even though the film is entitled WATCHER and does feature someone watching Julia inside her apartment, this plot point is minimal, and the story is more about the fear Julia feels from being followed on the streets of Bucharest. The film THE VOYEURS (2021) starring Sydney Sweeney did a better job overall dealing with the theme of voyeurism, although its plot eventually goes down a ridiculous path leading to a rather dumb disappointing ending, whereas WATCHER remains low-key throughout and then goes for the jugular in the final few minutes of the movie. The ending to WATCHER is its best part.

I imagine women will appreciate WATCHER more than men, as they can more easily relate to the fears Julia experiences throughout the story. However, regardless of gender, if you can stick with it and get through the slow burn pace, you’ll come face to face with quite the lurid ending.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022) – Big Screen Adaptation of Popular Novel Superficial but Satisfying

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022), the big screen adaptation of the immensely popular novel of the same name by Delia Owens, probably will not satisfy fans of the novel since its screenplay by Lucy Alibar is superficial at best, but it still manages to tell a compelling narrative in spite of a pace better suited for a sultry summer North Carolina afternoon.

It also features a terrific performance by Daisy Edgar-Jones in the lead role.

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING opens in 1969 North Carolina where a young woman Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is accused of murdering the man she was seeing, the former high school star quarterback Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson). Kya is known in town as the Marsh Girl, because she has lived her whole life alone in a house on the marshes. The townsfolk think she’s weird, and rumors about her have run rampant. The bottom line, however, is that few in town have ever given her the time of day.

When the gentle kindly attorney Tom Milton (David Strathairn) steps up to defend Kya, she tells him her story, which we learn in flashbacks, and the movie plays out in this way, jumping back and forth between Kya’s past and her present trial for murder. We learn that Kya grew up in the swamps with her abusive father (Garret Dillahunt) after her mother and older sisters and brother fled the home. Kya remained, and when eventually her father leaves as well, she takes to surviving on her own.

Her only friends in town are the black owners of the local store, Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer, Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt), and a boy her own age named Tate. As the years go by and Kya and Tate (Taylor John Smith) grow up, they fall in love and become best friends until Tate has to leave for college, but he promises he will come back to see Kya, but he never does, tearing a new hole in Kya’s heart. She then meets Chase, whose attempts to date her she rebuffs, but he’s persistent, and eventually she gives in and starts to see him, not knowing that he is being less than honest with her about his intentions.

And that’s the story told in WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, with the climax being will Kya be found innocent or guilty, and what will then happen to the mysterious young woman known as the Marsh Girl?

I didn’t really have high expectations for WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, so maybe that’s why I kinda enjoyed it.

The best part by far is the lead performance by Daisy Edgar Jones. She captures the innocence and wildness of Kya while giving her both the toughness and intellectual curiosity needed to nail the role. She’s in nearly the entire movie, and she’s good enough to carry this film on her shoulders.

Jones receives fine support from veteran actor David Strathairn as sympathetic and very astute attorney Tom Milton. He makes Milton a very likeable character, and an attorney who would have been right at home in an old episode of LAW AND ORDER. Strathairn has been in a ton of movies over the years, going way, way back to films like THE RIVER WILD (1994), and we saw him last year in NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021). He also has been stuck playing a boring military character, Admiral William Stenz in the meh Godzilla reboots, GODZILLA (2014) and GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019).

I also really enjoyed Sterling Macer, Jr. and Michael Hyatt as the shop owners who in their own way become surrogate parents for Kya, always looking after her and caring for her. They show their frustration with their own situation, being black in rural North Carolina in the 1960s, knowing that they were limited in how they could help Kya, and understanding that it would have been best for them not to be involved with her at all.

Both Taylor John Smith as Tate and Harris Dickinson as Chase are okay. They’re not terribly exciting or interesting and are about as intriguing as a slice of white bread, but maybe that’s the point. Taylor John Smith reminded me a little bit of a young Paul Rudd.

The screenplay by Lucy Alibar as I said is a bit superficial and really plays out like someone trying to summarize a longer and deeper novel. Lots of points are made, none of them all that deeply, but that being said, Alibar does succeed in fleshing out Kya’s character at least, and combined with the wonderful acting of Daisy Edgar-Jones creates a memorable character. The dialogue is also decent. The trial scenes aren’t that exciting, however, and seem like they belong in an old TV movie.

Director Olivia Newman captures the North Carolina scenery and gives this film a lazy, hot humid summer feel. Unfortunately, that also goes for the pacing as well, which is slow and lethargic. The film is two hours and five minutes, and at times feels longer. It really isn’t much of a thriller, and the emphasis here is instead on romance. That being said, while the weather may be steamy, the romances are not. This is definitely a PG-13 love story, not an R rated one, and the film suffers for it, because it comes off like an adult tale tailored for younger audiences.

Newman does create some memorable scenes, however. Some of the best sequences involve Kya’s interactions with Jumpin’ and Mabel, with one of the best late in the film when a bruised and battered Kya visits an emotional Jumpin’ who tells her how much he and Mabel truly care for her.

Taken as a whole, WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING is a satisfying and generally moving drama about a young woman who lived an extraordinary life alone in the swamps of North Carolina, and who had to fend for herself to survive both the hardships of nature and the ways of men. Accused of murder, her life becomes front and center for all in town to see, and the story becomes less about her innocence or guilt, and more about who she is and why she has to do what she does.

In the hazy lazy days of summer, watching WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING in an air-conditioned theater might be just the ticket to pass a sweltering afternoon.

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THE OUTFIT (2022) – Mark Rylance Performance Leads Compelling 1950s Era Mob Thriller

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Mark Rylance delivers another superb performance in THE OUTFIT (2022), a compelling thriller which takes place in 1950s Chicago and is about a tailor, played by Rylance, who finds himself in the middle of a mob war fighting for his survival when efforts to find a mob rat play out in his shop during one eventful evening.

Rylance plays Leonard, a World War I veteran who says he moved to Chicago from London when the market for fine clothing dwindled after blue jeans took over the men’s clothing scene. Leonard is quick to point out that he’s not a tailor but a cutter, someone who designs and makes quality suits. The film opens with a voice over of Leonard explaining the many intricate steps of creating such a suit. Leonard owns a small shop with just one employee, his young secretary Mable (Zoey Deutch), who seems to have eyes for the young mobster Richie (Dylan O’Brien) who frequents the shop.

At times, this movie called to mind PHANTOM THREAD (2017), another 1950s period piece in which Daniel Day Lewis played a dressmaker, but that film became a love story, whereas THE OUTFIT becomes a mob crime thriller.

Richie is the son of mob boss Roy (Simon Russell Beale), who uses Leonard’s shop as a front to deposit and retrieve messages from other mobsters. Leonard wants no trouble and allows them use of his shop without argument, as he quietly goes about his cutting business. But one night, Richie and Roy’s right-hand man, Francis (Johnny Flynn) return to the store after being ambushed by a rival family, and Richie has been shot. Francis forces Leonard to sew up the wound, and afterwards, Leonard learns that Richie and Francis have in their possession a cassette tape which when played will reveal the identity of the rat in their outfit who has been supplying information to the FBI. Richie and Francis were on their way to obtaining a recorder to play the tape when they were attacked, and now both the FBI and the rival mobsters want that tape.

Tensions rise between Richie and Francis, as they both suspect the other of being the rat, and things grow more complicated when Roy arrives and then Mable, and through it all, Leonard finds himself having to outwit the mobsters in order to save his life and Mable’s.

THE OUTFIT is a handsome, polished production by first-time director Graham Moore, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Moore also wrote the screenplay for THE IMITATION GAME (2014), the excellent World War II drama which starred Benedict Cumberbatch as genius Alan Turing, the man who cracked the Nazi messaging code.

Here, Moore gives THE OUTFIT a claustrophobic feel as the entire film takes place within the small confines of Leonard’s shop. The costumes and sets look authentic to the period, and the somber cinematography supports the quiet, unobtrusive persona of the solitary cutter.

The screenplay by Moore and Johnathan McClain is excellent. The dialogue is first-rate and the characters, especially Leonard, Richie, and Francis, are well-developed. Things do get more contrived as the story goes along as Leonard continues to pull one rabbit out of his hat after another, and the final premise of the movie, the notion that things were more planned than they seemed, is not terribly convincing.

Mark Rylance, as always, is a joy to watch. If you like fine acting, you want to watch Rylance. He’s a master at his craft and has been memorable in such movies as BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015), DUNKIRK (2017), and more recently DON’T LOOK UP (2021). Here, Rylance plays Leonard as a man who definitely seems to be hiding from some past life, harboring a tragic secret, and we know this long before the plot tells us, because Rylance plays him this way. With his quiet, unassuming and methodical delivery, Rylance makes Leonard someone who is adept at listening and observing details, two skills which serve him well when dealing with the mob.

Also making an impression and giving the second-best performance in the movie is Johnny Flynn as Francis. Flynn stood out as Ian Fleming in the recent World War II drama OPERATION MINCEMEAT (2021), as well as in THE DIG (2021) and in EMMA (2020). Francis is a much different role than the ones Flynn played in these other movies. Francis is a hardened killer, a man who has risen in the mob ahead of the obvious heir apparent, the mobster’s son, which causes a lot of tension between Francis and Richie. Flynn gives an edge to the character which make other characters in the movie as well as the audience feel uncomfortable whenever he’s around.

Simon Russell Beale is spot-on once again as head mobster Roy. Beale also starred in OPERATION MINCEMEAT alongside Johnny Flynn, as Beale played Winston Churchill in that movie. Beale was most memorable, however, in THE DEATH OF STALIN (2017).

Dylan O’Brien is also very good as Richie.

And Zoey Deutch is fine as Mable, Leonard’s secretary, and the two characters share a sort of father/daughter relationship. But the role is limited and doesn’t allow Deutch to show off her talents as well as she has in some other movies, films like BUFFALOED (2019) and ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019).

THE OUTFIT was released theatrically in March and is now available to rent on Prime Video.

The term “outfit” has a double meaning here, as it refers to what Leonard creates as well as being the term used to describe the league of mobsters spread out all around the country. And more specifically, at one point in the movie, Richie’s outfit, his coat, becomes a key item in the plot.

I really enjoyed THE OUTFIT. I could watch Mark Rylance all day, and his performance is the driving force behind this movie, which also tells an entertaining story filled with some twists and turns, and it’s fun to watch Rylance’s character Leonard outsmart the mobsters. It’s also shot very well by first-time director Graham Moore who invites you into this small shop in Chicago in 1956, and under his expert direction, you really feel as if you are truly there.

So much so that when Leonard and Mable are fighting for their lives, you feel as if you are right there with them, which only adds to the suspense and intensity of this fine period piece thriller.

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EMERGENCY (2022) – Exceptional Eloquent Drama About Racism Intense Yet Funny

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My favorite movies often are the ones in which the script is spot on and honest and taps into truth, so that regardless of where its story goes, it’s believable and clicks, because the audience knows where its coming from and understands what’s going on.

EMERGENCY (2022) is such a movie, with an exceptional script by K.D. Davila that speaks to race relations in the here and now, specifically the treatment of black men by the police, and it does so in a way that not only isn’t overbearing and heavy-handed, but instead is wild and insane and even funny.

EMERGENCY, now available on Prime Video, tells the story of two black college students, Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler), who on the eve of spring break, are on their way to an epic night of partying, but first they return to their campus apartment and there discover the door open and an unconscious body of a white girl lying on their living room floor. Their video game playing dorky roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) is in his room playing on his computer and doesn’t even realize there’s a girl sprawled out on their floor.

Kunle wants to call 911, but the streetwise Sean stops him from doing so, explaining that if they call the police, no one is going to believe them that this girl just showed up on their doorstep. They will suspect Kunle and Sean of foul play, and worse, things could get out of hand quickly and they could be shot. This plot point isn’t hard to believe because… it’s true.

Kunle, who is responsible to a fault, eventually convinces his two friends that they should drive this girl to the hospital, as she definitely seems intoxicated or perhaps worse, drugged, and needs medical attention. Sean and Carlos agree, and they covertly carry the girl out to Sean’s car where they hope to drive her across town and leave her at the emergency room.

And thus begins an odyssey of a night that gets crazier and more intense by the second, as what could go wrong does go wrong, and then some.

While director Carey Williams obviously seems to have been influenced by the work of Spike Lee and Jordan Peele, two other films come to mind when describing how EMERGENCY plays out. In terms of sheer intensity and frenetic stress, I was reminded of brothers Benny and Josh Safdie’s GOOD TIME (2017), the film which told the story of the harrowing efforts of a bank robber played by Robert Pattinson trying to spring his mentally challenged brother from a hospital before he was transferred to prison. EMERGENCY also calls to mind the original THE HANGOVER (2009), the insane comedy starring Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis, where three men awake after a bachelor’s night out to find the groom missing and their lives in complete disarray, and their attempts to locate the missing groom only make things worse. THE HANGOVER of course was played completely for laughs, whereas EMERGENCY isn’t, but the two films share the zany unpredictability of the best of intentions gone awry.

EMERGENCY captures that same HANGOVER- type journey blowing-up-in-your face vibe as things continue to unravel for these three young men as they try to do the right thing, even as they remain afraid of the simplest solution, calling 911, fearing it could cost them their lives.

Things that go wrong include the girl becoming more intoxicated when Carlos offers her a sports drink which he doesn’t realize is an alcoholic concoction created by Sean; the tail light on their car isn’t working, something that could get them pulled over by the police, and so they try getting another car; they learn that the girl, Emma, is underage, and Emma’s sister Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter) is hot on their trail with her friends, as she is tracking Emma with her cell phone.

I really enjoyed EMERGENCY. As I said, the script by K.D. Davila is as real as it gets, and it makes its points while also telling a compelling and entertaining story. Carey Williams’ direction is equally as good. The in-depth characterizations do not come at the expense of plot, as the film moves quickly through one ordeal after another. This is a high energy tale that does not sacrifice storytelling for poignancy.

Donald Elise Watkins is excellent as Kunle, the student with a bright future, described as the Barack Obama of the science world by his buddy Sean. Watkins plays Kunle as a young man who disagrees with his friend’s Sean’s take on the world and wants to call 911 and do the right thing, but ultimately, he doesn’t.

He also gets one of the best moments in the movie, the moment where his view of the world changes. When they are finally stopped by the police outside the hospital and are ordered at gunpoint to get out of the vehicle, Kunle is shoved to the ground after having a gun pointed directly in his face, even after he says that he is only trying to save the girl. The most interesting aspect of this scene is that the police do not overreact, but there is still a marked difference between the way Kunle is treated and the way the other students who are all white, are treated. It’s almost imperceptible, since this isn’t an overdramatic “shoot first ask questions later” scene, but it’s there. The experience not only frightens Kunle but traumatizes him, as shown by the last shot of the film, when he hears a police siren in the distance, and his expression goes cold.

RJ Cyler is also excellent as Sean, the street wise friend who knows a bit more of the real world than Kunle does. Sebastian Chacon as Carlos largely serves as the comic relief, and he’s very good at it. And although she spends most of the movie unconscious, Maddie Nichols makes her mark as Emma, and when she’s not vomiting and gets to speak some dialogue, has some key moments. Likewise, Sabrina Carpenter is explosive as Emma’s older sister Maddie, who is guilt ridden over bringing her sister to a college campus and then losing her. She has her own issues with racism which come out over the course of the movie, even as she pushes back and claims she’s not racist.

K. D. Davila’s screenplay provides first-rate dialogue throughout.

EMERGENCY is a superior movie, a film that tells a story of our time that as a wild and oftentimes funny vehicle is about as far removed from a preachy sermon as one can get. Yet, it makes its social and racial points as eloquently as any well-written speech or diatribe.

It’s one of my favorite movies of the year so far.

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NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021) – Visually Intriguing Remake Is Mostly for Guillermo del Toro Fans

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Well, I continue not to be a fan of director Guillermo del Toro.

And I say this with a great deal of respect, because visually, del Toro’s films are genuinely impressive. Trouble is, I just don’t like many of them, mostly because where he excels with the visual aspects of film, he struggles with the storytelling.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021), del Toro’s latest, released in cinemas back in December and now available on HBO Max, falls into this same category. Visually, the movie is a real treat. The story which takes place in the late 1930s and early 1940s, with the first half set inside a travelling carnival, is beautifully shot, and the imagery is mesmerizing. The mix of vibrant and shadowy colors, the use of snow, blood, and carnival lights all add up to inspired cinematography. Del Toro’s imagery here is reminiscent of the works of Tim Burton.

But the story is far less inspired and ultimately fall short.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY is a remake of the classic NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) which starred Tyrone Power. It tells the story of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who when the film opens is seen burning a corpse and an entire house with it, and he then leaves in silence and eventually finds work at a carnival. He befriends Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn) who once had a very successful mentalist act, during Pete’s younger days. Stanton learns the tricks of the trade and finds that he has a real talent for the mentalist act. He runs off with the young and lovely Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) to start a life of their own, where they take their mentalist act on the road and begin to do exceedingly well.

Until they cross paths with Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) who puts them in touch with some powerful clients who are looking for individual help as they try to contact their dead loved ones. This is a line Stanton has been taught not to cross, that once someone wants deep personal help, it’s best to let them know it’s all an act, so they don’t get hurt, but the money these people will pay him is too much for him to ignore, and so he embarks on the dangerous path of conning some very powerful people into believing that he is indeed communicating with their deceased relatives.

In addition to its fabulous visuals, NIGHTMARE ALLEY is also blessed with an exceptional cast. Bradley Cooper is excellent as he always is, and he’s in nearly every frame of this movie. He takes Stanton Carlisle from mysterious stranger to eager carnival hand, to a successful mentalist at the top of his game to finally when he takes things too far, to a tragic figure, and he is convincing in all of these stages. While not as impressive as his work in A STAR IS BORN (2018) or AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) it’s still pretty good stuff and a solid reminder of how far Cooper has come from his days in THE HANGOVER movies, a comedy trilogy in which he was also excellent.

Rooney Mara is sincere as Molly Cahill, and is the one constant positive force in Stanton’s life, while Cate Blanchett makes Dr. Lilith Ritter a shady film noir femme fatale. Blanchett is fine here, but I enjoyed her more as the powerful TV host in DON’T LOOK UP (2021).

The stellar cast also includes Willem Dafoe as carnival head Clem Hoatley, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, and Holt McCallany.

The screenplay by del Toro and Kim Morgan, based on the novel by Lindsay Gresham, works up to a point. I thoroughly enjoyed the set-up, the stranger with the mysterious background who joins the carnival to finally fit in somewhere, but as the plot progresses, and Stanton grows more confident and takes his act on the road to hit it big, the intrigue dies down, mostly because none of the characters are fleshed out enough to make their contributions to the story worthwhile. And Stanton becomes a one trick pony after a while. Plus, the film is very, very long, clocking in at two hours and thirty minutes, and it feels like it. Shave off thirty minutes, and the movie probably works better.

As I said, visually the film is outstanding, and so del Toro fares better as a director here. There are some brilliantly conceived almost mesmerizing scenes, featuring merry go rounds, ferris wheels, and buildings with cold, labrynth-like hallways. There’s also plenty of blood and violence. And with its talented cast it has the makings of a winner, but sometimes these elements are not enough, and that’s the case here with NIGHTMARE ALLEY. The story falls flat long before the end credits roll.

I feel the same way even about some of del Toro’s celebrated hits, films like the Oscar-winning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), CRIMSON PEAK (2015), and even PAN’S LABRYNTH (2006). All of these films have winning visual styles, and all labored to tell a decent story. My favorite of del Toro’s films remains his HELLBOY movies.

If you are a fan of Guillermo del Toro, you will no doubt enjoy NIGHTMARE ALLEY much more than I did. But the rest of us, while we may be wowed by its vibrant onscreen artistry, will find sitting through two hours and thirty minutes of labored storytelling an arduous task at best.

At the end of the day, NIGHTMARE ALLEY isn’t much of a nightmare. It’s not even much of a bad dream. It’s just an alley, a very long alley with lots of offshoots that ultimately lead to nowhere.

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