Horror Film Review: Unsane (dir by Steven Soderbergh)


Oh, Steven Soderbergh.

Seriously, I know that everyone in the world is always going on about how brilliant he is but I have to admit that I always approach his film with a bit of trepidation.

I mean, yes, Soderbergh can be brilliant.  He’s made some legitimately great films, some of the best that I’ve seen.  The Informer! holds up brilliantly.  So does Traffic and The Girlfriend Experience.  Even a film like Logan Lucky remains amusing on a second viewing.

And yet, at the same time, he can be one of the most annoyingly pretentious directors around.  Contagion was a raging bore and, with Haywire, Soderbergh squandered the potential of Gina Carano.  Che started out strong before turning into a dull Marxist tract.  With the exception of Out of Sight, his friendship with George Clooney always seems to bring out the worst instincts in both men.  And don’t even start with me about the Ocean’s films.  Have you tried to rewatch any of them lately?

Whenever I start a new Soderbergh film, I find myself wondering which Stephen Soderbergh am I going to get.  Am I going to get the Soderbergh who is a crafty storyteller and a good director of actors?  Or am I going to get the pretentious Soderbergh who always seems to think that he’s doing all of us favor by lowering himself to make a genre film?

With Unsane, which was released way back in March, I got both.

Claire Foy plays Sawyer Valentini.  A year ago, Sawyer was working at a hospice when the son of one of her patients became obsessed with and started stalking her.  Fearing for her life and realizing that the police weren’t going to be much help, Sawyer moved away from home and tried to restart her life.

Seeking help for dealing with her trauma, Sawyer makes an appointment with a counselor at the Highland Creek Behavioral Center.  What she doesn’t realize is that Highland Creek is a scam.  The papers that she signed at her appointment allow her therapist to hold her for a 24-hour evaluation.  When Sawyer resists and attempts to call the police, her stay is extended by seven more days.  Every time that Sawyer demands to be released, she’s judged to be a threat to herself and others and more days are added to her stay.  As another patient explains it, Highland Creek basically holds onto its patients until their insurance runs out.

If that wasn’t bad enough, things get worse when Sawyer meets the new orderly (Joshua Leonard).  He says that his name is George Shaw but Sawyer swears that he’s David, the man who has been stalking her.  Of course, no one listens to her when she tries to tell them.  After all, she voluntarily committed herself to Highland Creek….

Unsane received a lot of attention because Soderbergh shot the film in secret with an iPhone.  The end results of Soderbergh’s experiment were mixed.  At its best, this technique gives the film a gritty look and it visually captures the shaky state of Sawyer’s sanity.  At its worse, it’s a distraction that leaves you feeling that you’re supposed to be more impressed by how Soderbergh made the film than by the story being told.

Fortunately, Soderbergh gets two wonderful performances from Claire Foy and the reliably creepy Joshua Leonard.  Foy brings just the right combination of fragility and strength to the role of Sawyer and she gives such an empathetic performance that you get involved in her story even if Soderbergh’s style is often distracting.  As for Leonard, you’ll recognize him as soon as you see him.  He’s a character actor who specializes in playing off-balance people and he’s memorably menacing in this film.

I probably would have liked Unsane more if I didn’t always have the feeling that the movie was mostly made so that Soderbergh could show off.  Whenever I see one of Soderbergh’s “genre” films, I get the feeling that he’s looking down on the material and that my reaction is supposed to be one of, “Soderbergh’s such a genius that he can even make crap like this entertaining!”  (You get the feeling that Soderbergh might be willing to make a B-movie but he’d never be caught dead actually watching one.)  That said, regardless of the motives behind it, Unsane was actually an effective and twisty psychological thriller.

If nothing else, it was better than Haywire….

Film Review: Black Mass (dir by Scott Cooper)


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You know how sometimes you watch a movie and you’re happy because you know it’s a good movie but, at the same time, you end up feeling slightly disappointed because, as good as it may be, it never quite becomes the great movie that you were hoping for?

That was kind of my reaction to Black Mass.

Black Mass tells the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger, the gangster who controlled the Boston underworld from the late 70s to the mid-90s.  Bulger was both famous and feared for his ruthless brutality and his willingness to murder just about anyone.  Bulger was also famous for being the brother of Billy Bulger, a powerful Democratic politician.  When it appeared that Whitey was finally on the verge of being indicted, he vanished into thin air and, for 2 decades, remained missing until he was finally captured in Florida.  Whitey Bulger is now serving two life sentences.

Black Mass is a solid gangster film.  We watch as Whitey (Johnny Depp) takes over Boston and essentially murders anyone who gets on his nerves.  Helping Whitey out is a local FBI Agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who grew up in South Boston with the Bulger brothers.  While Connolly originally only appears to be using Whitey as an informant to help take down the Italian mob, it quickly becomes obvious that Connolly envies the power and influence of both Whitey and Billy (played by Benedict Cumberbatch).  Soon, Connolly has become something of a Bulger groupie and is protecting Whitey from prosecution and even leaking him the names of anyone who attempts to inform on Bulger’s crime.

Indeed, the film’s best scenes are the ones in which it is shown how the FBI’s determination to take down the Mafia allowed the far more violent Bulger to move into their place.  Bulger was a criminal who worked for and was protected by the U.S. government and, as such, his story serves as a metaphor for a lot of what is currently messed up about America.  While I appreciated the time that Black Mass devoted to exploring Whitey’s relationship with the FBI, I do wish it had spent more time exploring his relationship with his brother, Billy.  The film places most of the blame for Whitey’s reign of terror on the FBI but it defies common sense not to assume that Whitey was also protected by his well-connected, politically powerful brother.

Black Mass contains all of the usual gangster film tropes.  There are sudden and violent executions.  There are drug addicted criminals who turn out to be less than trustworthy.  (Poor Peter Sarsgaard.)  There’s the usual talk of honor and respect.  Beefy men with pockmarked faces stand in the shadows and shout random insults at each other until someone finally snaps.  And, of course, we get the countless scenes where Bulger’s demeanor goes from friendly to threatening and we’re left wondering if he’s going to smile or if he’s going to kill someone.  It may all be a little bit familiar but director Scott Cooper handles it all well and keeps things watchable.

In this 122-minute film, there are exactly two scenes in which Whitey is in any way sympathetic.  In one scene, he breaks down after the death of his son and, in the other, he deals with the death of his mother.  These are the only two scenes in which Whitey shows any hint of humanity.  Otherwise, Bulger is presented as being almost pure evil.  He’s no Michael Corleone, trying to go straight and making excuses for the family business.  Nor does he possess the enjoyable flamboyance of Scareface‘s Tony Montana or The Departed‘s Frank Costello.  Instead, he’s a pure sociopath and  the film’s most effective shots are the ones that focus on Whitey’s expressionless gaze.  They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul and one only has to look into Bulger’s to see that they are windows without a view.

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Johnny Depp deserves all the credit in the world for making Whitey into a compelling character.  Wisely, Depp underplays Whitey’s most threatening scenes.  He rarely raises his voice and the only time he loses control of his emotions is when he’s confronted with something — like the death of his son — that even he can’t change.  Otherwise, Depp plays Whitey as always being in control.  (It’s mentioned, at one point, that Whitey was the subject of 50 LSD experiments while serving time in prison and Depp plays Whitey as if he’s always staring at something that nobody else can see.)  It’s his confidence that makes Whitey Bulger an interesting character.  You may not like him but you can’t look away because you know that he’s literally capable of anything.  Ever since the trailer for Black Mass was first released, Depp has been at the center of awards speculation.  Having seen the film, I can say that the Oscar talk is more than deserved.  He’s even better than people like me thought he would be.

Depp is so good that he overshadows the rest of the cast.  There’s a lot of good actors in this film, including Kevin Bacon, James Russo, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll, Jesse Plemons, and Rory Cochrane.  But few of them get as much of a chance to make an impression as Johnny Depp.  Much as Whitey dominated Boston, Depp dominates this film.  Joel Edgerton has several great moments as the not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is Connolly but even he is thoroughly overshadowed by Depp’s performance.  (That said, I did appreciate the fact that Edgerton’s too-eager-to-please Connolly came across like he might be a cousin to The Gift‘s Gordo the Weirdo.)

As I said at the beginning of this review, Black Mass is good but it was never quite as great as I was hoping it would be.  There’s a few too many scenes where you get the feeling that Scott Cooper woke up the day of shooting and said, “Let’s Scorsese the shit out of this scene.”  As a result, Black Mass sometimes struggles to escape from the shadow cast by Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, American Gangster, and the countless other mob films that have been released over the past few decades.  Black Mass is well-made and will forever be remembered for Johnny Depp’s amazing lead performance but it never quite reaches the status of a classic.

Finally, on a personal note, I did enjoy the fact that Black Mass dealt with the Irish mob.  I’m a little bit torn in my loyalties because I’m Irish-Italian but, if I ever had to pick a mob to which to serve as a cheerleader, I would go Irish Mafia all the way!

Sláinte!

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Trailer #2: Black Mass


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One of this year’s most-anticipated films (well, at least when it comes to award season) has a new trailer.

Black Mass stars Johnny Depp in the role of the infamous gangster Whitey Bulger who, as the film’s tagline states, became the most notorious gansgter in U.S. history. This is bold claim considering other gangsters in U.S. history such as Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel, Vito Genovese and Meyer Lansky to name a few.

What makes this film so interesting is the fact that we finally get to see Depp return to acting real, complex characters instead of just acting like a character these past decade. Plus, have you seen this cast supporting Depp: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Joel Edgerton, Corey Stoll and Jesse Plemons just for starters.

Black Mass is set for a September 18, 2015 release date.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #110: Atonement (dir by Joe Wright)


Atonement_UK_posterWhenever I think back on the 2007 best picture nominee Atonement, my first thought is usually, “Oh my God!  Benedict Cumberbatch is in this movie!”

And, indeed, he is.  However, I’m kind of glad that I didn’t know who Benedict was when I first saw this film because, if I had, I doubt I would have ever been able to look at him in quite the same way again.  (Fortunately, I had somehow forgotten that I had previously seen him in Atonement when I first saw Benedict in Sherlock.)  Benedict’s role in Atonement is not a large one but it is pivotal to the film’s plot.  He plays Paul Marshall, a man who has made a fortune as a chocolate manufacturer in pre-World War II England.  Paul is handsome, charming, and rich.  After all, he’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch.  He’s also a rapist who, later in the film, marries one of his victims specifically to make it impossible for her to ever testify against him in court.

Atonement is one of those films where the British upper class meets the lower class and forbidden love and tragedy follow.  Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) is the oldest of the Tallis sisters.  Her family is rich but she’s in love with Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the housekeeper.  One night, Robbie attempts to write a love note to Cecilia and, growing frustrated with his inability to come up with right words, he writes an over-the-top, sexually explicit letter as a joke.  (And the audience gaps, “Oh my God!  They used that word in the 30s!?”)  He then goes on to write a more standard love note.  However, when he asks Cicilia’s younger sister, 13 year-old Briony (Saorise Ronan) to deliver the note to Cecilia, he accidentally gives her the wrong note.  Briony reads it to her cousin Lola (Juno Temple) and, already jealous of Robbie and Cecilia’s flirtation, she decides that Robbie must be a “sex maniac.”

Briony, who writes plays in her spare time, later spies on Robbie and Cecilia as they have sex for the first time.  Briony, who has a crush on Robbie, grows more and more jealous.  Later that night, while looking for Lola’s twin brothers, Briony sees a man running through the woods.  When she goes to investigate, Briony discovers that the man has raped Lola.  When asked by the police, Briony lies and says that Robbie was the man running in the woods.  She also shows everyone the “joke” letter that Robbie wrote, proving, in their eyes, that Robbie is guilty.  Robbie is sent to prison.  Of the Tallises, only Cecilia believes that Robbie is innocent.  Angered over their quickness to accuse Robbie, Cecilia cuts off all contact with her family.

As the years pass, Briony comes to realize that Paul was the rapist and she struggles to deal with her guilt.  When World War II breaks out, Robbie is released from prison on the condition that he join the army.  Meanwhile, Briony volunteers as a nurse and tries to come up with a way to bring Cecilia and Robbie back together.

I didn’t really appreciate the film the first time that I saw it but, with subsequent viewings, I came to appreciate Atonement as an intelligent and well-acted look at guilt, forgiveness, and redemption.  James McAvoy and Keira Knightley both have amazing chemistry and Saoirse Ronan is amazing in her film debut.  You can see why Atonement‘s director, Joe Wright, subsequently cast her in Hanna.  Compared to the other films nominated for best picture of 2007 — No Country For Old Men, Juno, There Will Be Blood, and Michael ClaytonAtonement is definitely a low-key film.  But it definitely more than deserved its nomination.

For Your Consideration #3: Angelina Jolie in Maleficent


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Way back in March, when people like me first started to ask ourselves what and who would be nominated for Oscars in January, a lot of us assumed that 2014 would be the year of Angelina Jolie.  We predicted that her film Unbroken would be an Oscar front-runner and quite a few people felt that Angelina herself would become the second woman to win the Academy Award for directing.

And, it could still happen!

However, with Angelina being pretty much ignored by most of the traditional Oscar precursors and Unbroken getting positive but hardly rapturous reviews, it’s starting to look more and more like Unbroken will be lucky to receive a picture nomination, much less a mention for Jolie.

Now, I haven’t seen Unbroken yet so I can’t really judge whether it deserves any awards consideration or not.  However, I can say that Unbroken is not the only film for which Angelina Jolie deserves consideration.

Maleficent came out this summer and did quite well at the box office but it seems to have been forgotten and that’s a shame because it features one of Angelina Jolie’s best performances.  The film itself is a revisionist take on Sleeping Beauty, re-telling the story from the point-of-view of the fairy queen Maleficent (played, of course, by Angelina.)

In this version of the story, we see that the true villain was Sleeping Beauty’s father, Stefan (Sharlto Copley).  When they were younger, Stefan and Maleficent were lovers but the Stefan eventually abandoned her, knowing that having a relationship with a winged fairy would only serve to thwart his own ambitions.  Years later, when the humans attempt to conquer Maleficent’s kingdom, it is announced that whoever slays Maleficent will become the new king.  Knowing that Maleficent is still in love with him, Stefan drugs her and then cuts her wings off.  Using her wings as evidence to back up his claim that he has killed her, Stefan becomes the new king.  The now wingless Maleficent is left alone and embittered.  When Stefan’s daughter, Princess Aurora, is born, Maleficent announces that, on her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will sink into a deep sleep and will only be awaken by the kiss of someone who truly loves her.

Maleficent was one of those films that truly divided critics.  Male viewers tended to rightfully criticize the film for being tonally inconsistent and for relying too much on CGI.  Female critics, however, understood that none of that mattered.  As flawed as the film may have been, we knew that the most important thing was Angelina Jolie’s performance.  She may have been playing a fairy and she may have been appearing in a movie that was dominated by CGI but Angelina Jolie brought such strength and complexity to the role that she transcended all of the film’s flaws and instead created a thoroughly real character.  We understood and we related to Maleficent’s fury.  When she first woke up to discover that her wings had been stolen from her, it was devastating because the moment was real.  We all knew what had truly happened to Maleficent.  When she sought revenge, we sought it with her.  When she regretted her actions, we shared her regrets.  Her pain was our pain and her triumph was our triumph.

Angelina Jolie gave one of the best performances of the year in Maleficent and she certainly deserves your consideration.

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Trailer: Horns (Official Teaser)


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The kids of the Harry Potter film franchise have all gone their separate ways. Some have moved on to taking smaller roles. Others have begun to take on roles that tries to rehabilitate their image from just being a Harry Potter actor. Emma Watson has had some success in redoing her post-Potter image. Yet, it’s the “Chosen One” himself who looks to really be going with as many left-field film role choices since the end of the franchise.

Daniel Radcliffe has been taking some interesting risks with his post-Potter career. Even before the franchise was over he had begun working on redoing his image. Whether it was doing the stage play Equus or taking on a horror film role with the gothic horror The Woman in Black, Radcliffe seems more than willing to leave his Potter days behind him.

The first trailer from the film adaptation of the Joe Hill penned dark fantasy Horns has now arrived. We see brief glimpses of Radcliffe in the title role with the proverbial horns that becomes the center of the film’s plotline.

Time will tell if Horns will be another notch in making Daniel Radcliffe less the Potter-kid and ore the talented actor he’s turning out to be.

Horns will be making it’s presence know this Halloween 2014.

Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “Maleficent”


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Is it just me, or is this year’s summer blockbuster season incredibly front-loaded?  Not only did it get off to a ridiculously early start in April with the release of Captain America : The Winter Soldier, but it seems that, with the notable exception of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, which is slated for a July release, everything that I was interested in seeing came out prior to the Memorial Day weekend — which was, in years past, the time when Hollywood’s blockbuster onslaught usually began.

Oh well. I guess there’s still some stuff I have some sort of low-level semi-interest in hitting theaters, with Disney’s Maleficent being a prime example of what I’m talking about. I wasn’t “hyped” for it, per se, but on a rainy Saturday afternoon with nothing else going on, what the hell — it’ll do in a pinch. Anybody with a functioning neural cortex pretty much knows what they’re getting into with something like this — a purportedly “modern re-telling” of a classic fairy tale (in this case Sleeping Beauty) that’s also, perhaps paradoxically, billed as being “truer to the roots” of the story than the universally-known animated version. Maybe everything that’s old really is new again.

In any case, the pattern these kinds of thing inevitably follow was set fairly firmly by Snow White And The Huntsman a couple summers back, and with a live (well, okay, live plus lots of CGI) action version of Cinderella already in the pipeline, it looks like “modernized fairy tales” (that are, again, supposedly “closer” to the “source material”) is a full-blown trend in Tinseltown. At least until one flops spectacularly.

Maleficent is too precise, clinical, and by-the-numbers to be that first big flop, of course, as this is thoroughly audience-tested material from start to finish, and while that same uber-conservative approach definitely sucks any sort of life or individuality from the proceedings, it does ensure that Disney will almost certainly turn a healthy profit off this thing, even with a budget estimated in the neighborhood of $200 million. It is, for all intents and purposes,  a can’t-miss investment, and that’s what it plays out as.

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Which isn’t the same thing as me saying that Maleficent is actively bad — it’s just that it’s not particularly good, either. Oh, sure, Angelina Jolie is perfect in the title role (there’s already Oscar talk) and it really does feel like it’s a part she was born to play, and the CGI work is spectacular and breathtaking and jaw-dropping and all that, and yeah, Elle Fanning as Aurora ( that’s what we call her now, folks, not “Sleeping Beauty”) leads a very talented supporting case that also includes the likes of Imelda Staunton, Sharlto Copley, Juno Temple, and Brenton Thwaites, all of whom do good work, but it’s all in service to the most pedestrian, production-line cinematic engineering possible. First-time director Robert Stromberg, who hails from a CG effects background, most likely knows what he’s doing here, but he’s given so little room to maneuver that failure just simply isn’t an option. This is a film that literally could have been directed by nearly anyone with at least some sort of cinematic background and turned out okay.

And maybe that’s what bugged me about it the most : just that sort of hyper-aggressive okay-ness. Given the opportunity to completely re-set the table, the Disney execs who originated and then green-lit this idea were more than happy to just tinker around the edges and “update” things without actually changing them. We all know the story, and while we’re admittedly getting a heavily-padded version of it told from the perspective of the “bad guy,” the fact remains that at the end of the day, all we’re left with is a more expensive, glitzier take on what we’ve already seen.

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Maybe I missed a bit by just seeing this in 2-D, but let’s face it : any flick that leans upon the crutches of 3-D,Imax, and all that crap to “get the most from it” is one that’s entirely reliant upon bells and whistles — and while those bells and whistles are, no two ways about it, most impressive in this case, there’s just no substitute for a genuinely involving script, and Maleficent doesn’t have one. Mind you, it doesn’t have a bad script, either, it just — has a script. And the job of that script is to provide some sort of plausible set-up for one admittedly magnificent effects sequence after another. It’s cool and all for about a half hour, but after two full hours of Stromberg and company having to top themselves every five to ten minutes, you just end up feeling sort of worn down by events rather than invested in them.

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Still, I suspect that Maleficent is going to prove to be pretty well “review-proof” and enjoy a healthy run in theaters before going on to do equal, if not even greater, business on home video. This is a film that’s precisely engineered to do exactly what it’s supposed to and nothing less (or more). Kinda like a robot. And it’s that robotic, auto-pilot, cruise control sensation that prevents this movie from being at all memorable — for good or ill.