Sunday, February 25, 2024

Good Time

Movie Name:
Good Time
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Buddy Duress, Taliah Webster, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Peter Verby, Necro, Barkhad Abdi, Eric Paykert, Rose Gregorio, Rachel Black
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review
While Benny and Josh Safdie made a name for themselves with some very well received films such as "Daddy Longlegs" and "Heaven Knows What", "Good Time" is the film that finally expanded their features to a wider audience, propelling them to other features, such as "Uncut Gems", which was also met with rave reviews. "Good Time" follows the story of Connie Nikas, whom we first witness getting his brother Nick out of a court ordered therapy session. Nick has some cognitive challenges. The brothers rob a bank, however while they're making their escape in an Uber, the dye pack in the bag explodes, rendering the money unusable. They manage to wash the dye from their clothes but eventually get caught up with the police. While Connie manages to escape, Nick is sent to prison. While in prison Nick rapidly gets involved in a fight which results in a severe beating which sends him to the hospital. Connie in the meantime is desperately trying to find bond money, starting with his girlfriend, whose mother disapproves of their relationship. Connie goes to the hospital and manages to get a police-guarded patient out, whom he thinks is Nick. He manages to get help from another patient who was dropped at home, and plans to spend the night at that person's house, when much to his surprise, the person he helped escape is a man by the name of Ray. Ray recounts the story of his tribulations, and Connie figures out a plan of leveraging what happened with Ray in order to get the bail money he needs. However nothing is as simple as it seems.
There's something quite visceral and also eerily reminiscent of the thrillers of the 1970s in this feature. There's a Sidney Lumet aspect to "Good Time" that makes it that much more endearing, though the Safdie brothers manage to carve out a very authentic piece of the small criminal world of New York, that is very much their own. The journey Connie goes through that one particular evening is very much like an Odyssey, where he has to handle unexpected challenges being thrown at him from all directions. The film manages to have a pulse and rhythm that are quite impressive, in the sense that it feels realistic in its depiction of the characters whose lives are being illustrated, but also in the sense that the film-makers time the events of the narrative to this nightly excursion, and do so almost in real time. The cast is uniformly solid, with Robert Pattinson solidly bringing Connie to life, the same going for Jennifer Jason Leigh and Buddy Duress. However the great revelation from the cast is Benny Safdie playing Nick, who truly gives that particular character an authenticity in his reactions, which includes a sense of genuine bewilderment and constant sense of inadequacy to the events that are occurring in his life (alongside the sense of generally being lost and overwhelmed by life in general). The production team is equally fantastic, including the fantastic score from Oneohtrix Point Never and cinematography from Sean Price Williams. It's a riveting film, one that could have benefited from character expansion, but that is nonetheless impeccably crafted. Worth watching. 

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Badland Hunters

Movie Name:
Badland Hunters
Year of Release: 2024
Director: Heo Myeong Haeng
Starring: Ma Dong-seok, No Jeong-ee, Ahn Ji-hye, Lee Jun-young, Kim Young-sun, Andrew Grace, Lee Hee-joon, Roh Jeong-eui
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
Watch it on Netflix

Synopsis and Review
Netflix continues its constant output of various films, this time around the focus in on the South Korean feature directorial debut from Heo Myeong Haeng, himself an actor for films such as "Oldboy" from Park Chan-wook. The film takes place in Seoul, following a devastating earthquake which decimates a large part of the population. The survivors are trying their best to stay alive and live in refuge camps. Water is scarce, and the same goes for food in general. In one of those camps, Nam San and Choi, try their best at making a living by selling whatever food supplies they can. Choi has a long standing infatuation with Han Su-na, who mostly stays to herself and takes care of her grandmother. Life on the camp is disrupted when a female recruiter, alongside a few assistants comes over and explains that there's an apartment complex still standing, where they have potable water and where other amenities are available. The complex however is limited to adolescents and children, alongside their families. Han Su-na gets recruited, and soon gets separated from her grandmother. Upon arrival at the complex, she notices a series of weird occurrences, all the while her grandmother is nowhere to be seen. In the meantime Nam San and Choi learn through Lee Eun-ho, a former military officer and known to Nam San, that deadly experiments are being conducted at the complex, and that Han Su-na is in great danger. 
"Badland Hunters" is yet another post-apocalyptic film, this time around not focused on zombies, but opting instead for the "weird experiments" angle. It's a film where the dynamics of the opposing forces are quickly established, but where the characters are very thinly constructed. Not much background is given about the characters, or how they even know each other, however, the film's purpose is mostly to focus on the journey of the friends in tackling the apartment complex, and the action scenes that ensue. As a result, there isn't much to say about these characters, or even the plot itself, aside from the fact that both the narrative structure and characters are very much built upon well known archetypes and situations. It's not a particularly original film or premise, but manages to be watchable thanks to the charisma of its performers, particularly the always great Ma Dong-seok (who was also a compelling presence in "Train to Busan"). The production team is competent, making the post-apocalyptic world feel somewhat authentic and with some credibility (definitely with some inspirations from George Miller's "Mad Max" universe). While not particularly original and fairly limited on its premise, it's still a watchable feature. 

Thanksgiving

Movie Name:
Thanksgiving
Year of Release: 2023
Director: Eli Roth
Starring: Patrick Dempsey, Nell Verlaque, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Addison Rae, Chris Sandiford, Tomaso Sanelli, Gina Gershon, Ty Olsson, Karen Cliche, Rick Hoffman, Derek McGrath, Katherine Trowell, Mike Amonsen, Amanda Barker, Shailyn Griffin, Tim Dillon, Milo Manheim, James Goldman, Yusuf Zine, Russell Yuen, Jeff Teravainen, Jordan Poole, Joe Delfin, Dorian Giordano, Joseph Claude Dubois, Frank J. Zupancic
Genre: Horror, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review
Eli Roth has had a diverse career since making a name for himself with "Cabin Fever" and the "Hostel" series (the latter of which started a trend at the time named "Torture Porn"). He has also ventured into acting, as was the case of his performance in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Bastards". "Thanksgiving" is actually inspired by the short fake trailer for the "Grindhouse" film Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez released in 2007. The film follows the story of Jessica Wright, a high school senior in the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Jessica's father owns a local store called RightMart, and after Thanksgiving, the entire population it seems, is desperate to get into the store for the Black Friday sale. Jessica and her boyfriend Bobby, alongside a few of their friends manage to get in early, through a side door, which heightens the frenzy of people waiting, who witness them doing so. A stampede quickly ensues, resulting in something close to a riot in the store, resulting in multiple deaths. A year later, the store is getting ready for another Black Friday sale, even though there are multiple protests against it. However, multiple people involved in the riot at the store in the prior year, start being targeted and killed in particularly horrifying manners. Jessica aids the investigation by providing some of the footage of the riot to the town's sheriff. As more people get killed and abducted, the police set a trap by placing Jessica and her family as bait during the Thanksgiving parade. However things don't go according to plan. 
One of the best things about Eli Roth, is his economical way of showcasing a narrative, and the characters that inhabit it. He's very much deft at putting a polished B-movie spin on his best features. This one is no exception. He quickly creates the set up for the action that is about to take place, and populates the narrative with an inventory of characters where any of them can possibly be the lethal killer. What is less engaging on this narrative is of course the fact that most of these characters are threadbare developed, without much to them essentially, aside of the fact they all embody a type (the cheerleader, the jock, the trophy second wife, and the list goes on). Of course Eli Roth knows the rules of creating this type of device, and he also plays with it. Therefore the film moves efficiently, without being particularly original, but emphasizing the particularly brutal death scenes for the characters. The cast is a bit all over the place, with Nell Verlaque leading the group, but with the memorable roles going to Rick Hoffman and the underrated Ty Olsson. The production is solid, with highlights going to Milan Chadima's cinematography, Brandon Roberts' score and Peter Mihaichuk's production design. It's not a particularly memorable endeavor, but it's a watchable film. 

Sunday, February 11, 2024

My Friend Dahmer

Movie Name:
My Friend Dahmer
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Marc Meyers
Starring: Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Anne Heche, Vincent Kartheiser, Tommy Nelson, Harrison Holzer, Dallas Roberts, Miles Robbins, Liam Koeth, Cameron McKendry, Tom Luce, Nancy Telzerow, Dave Sorboro
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review
"My Friend Dahmer" premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival of 2017, where it was met with warm reviews, on its way to do a very robust run through most of Fall/Winter festivals of that year (it also made appearances at the BFI London Film Festival and the Deauville Film Festival to name but a few). The narrative focuses on the life of teenager Jeffrey Dahmer, who in 1974 is a high school freshman living in Bath, Ohio. We witness his family dynamics with his parents and younger brother, and his fascination with collecting dead animals, and the experiments he does with them. A few years later and now a high school senior, Jeffrey who typically flies under the radar, catches the attention of a few colleagues, when he imitates the speech and gestures of one os his mother's friends, who has cerebral palsy (an Interior Designer friends with his mom Joyce). He becomes a bit of a class clown, known for his fearlessness in portraying people with disabilities and for illustrating people with erratic behavior, which charms some of his high school colleagues, who even form a "Dahmer Fan Club". On the home front, things are disintegrating for Jeffrey, whose mother has a chronic mental illness that starts bleeding off into her relationship with his father, with frequent arguments taking place. Jeffrey starts drinking more and more, and in the meantime he also becomes obsessed with a jogger he sees frequently near his house. He starts stalking him with a baseball bat, but never attacks him. In the meantime, Jeffrey graduates, while his mom takes his younger brother Dave to live with relatives in Wisconsin, leaving him alone at home.
The number of films and TV series focused on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer have been steadily increasing. David Jacobson's "Dahmer" was a good showcase for Jeremy Renner playing the title role, and since then "Raising Jeffrey Dahmer" directed by Rich Ambler, and in particular the highly successful "Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story" miniseries from Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan (featuring Evan Richards in the title role), have kept the name of this infamous individual in the public consciousness. "My Friend Dahmer" opts for a different approach when it comes to the story of this individual/character: it tracks his teenage years, and how he progressively morphed into the person who would soon become a well known killer. The director successfully illustrates how Jeffrey is perpetually in a world of his own, even when surrounded by others who try to embrace and celebrate his idiosyncrasies. He comes across as someone alienated from the world, and mostly fascinated by nefarious experiences with animals (dead and alive), married with a pulsating desire for men and to also perform clinical experiences with them. The film walks a fine line between capturing a nuanced psychological portrait of this individual and also giving into the more gratuitous aspect of portraying his violent acts (which the director smartly refrains from doing so). While Jeffrey captures the lion share of screen time and attention, the supporting cast gets very little to do in the film.  For instance, the fan club devoted to Jeffrey, and in particular its members, could have benefited from having some additional screen time or at least more scenes capturing their interactions with him, but aside from a particularly tense moment towards the end of the film with Alex Wolff's Derf character, it's all rather bland. The same thing happens with the way his family life is illustrated: not much attention is given to it, or to Jeffrey's relationship with his parents. The cast is uniformly solid, with Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts all crafting solid performances. The production team is equally solid, featuring the cinematography from Daniel Katz, production design from Jennifer Klide, and costumes from Carla Shivener. It's a subdued film worth watching. 

Cube

Movie Name:
Cube
Year of Release: 1997
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Starring: Nicole de Boer, Maurice Dean Wint, David Hewlett, Andrew Miller, Nicky Guadagni, Wayne Robson, Julian Richings
Genre: Mystery, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review
"Cube" was writer/director Vincenzo Natali's feature directorial debut, which premiered at the 1997 Toronto Film Festival on its way to receiving considerable critical accolades, and being a staple for quite a variety of Film Festivals during 97/98 (it went to the Sundance Film Festival of 1998, but also graced the Berlin Film Festival, to name but a few). The film follows the narrative of 6 characters all of whom are strangers to each other and who individually wake up to find themselves inside a prison of sorts, where all the rooms are in the shape of a square, and have a series of gates to move towards another room. Everyone soon finds out some of these rooms have lethal traps. The group is comprised of a police officer by the name of Quentin, a doctor by the name of Holloway, a student by the name of Leaven, a somewhat mysterious man by the name of Worth, and they're soon joined by an escape artist named Rennes and an autistic gentleman by the name of Kazan. While Rennes wants to move forward with his plan of getting out of the cube, he's soon killed by one of the traps from one of the rooms. Leaven in the meantime finds out that each passage between the rooms has numbers imprinted and there's a code associated with them (related to prime numbers). Those that are indeed identified as prime numbers are safe rooms, whereas the others are not. While the group is initially very collaborative, even if suspicious of each other, as time progresses, and they become more and more frustrated, their violence towards each other also starts bubbling to the surface. Leaven in the meantime thinks she can guide the group to one of the rooms closer to the outside of the platform, so they can finally be liberated, while Holloway believes all the events to be part of a massive Government conspiracy. Worth suspiciously keeps his opinions to himself, until he finally reveals what he knows to the group.
One of the most interesting things about "Cube" is the claustrophobic environment the director manages to create throughout the entire duration of the narrative. The fact that everyone is unaware of why they've been caught, and what are the rules for getting out of the prison, remain pretty much one of the great mysteries of this narrative. The film for all intended purposes feels like a "Twilight Zone" episode, only without Rod Serling's narration, and without an epilogue that smoothly closes what just took place. The film is also a keen observation on the disintegration of people's best and more acceptable social behaviors, since as the threat remains constant, but their closeness to death increases, more of the characters' primal survival instincts come to the forefront (and some of their darker behaviors also make an appearance). The film feels very much like a slick B-movie, and considering it's small budget, it smartly leverages the claustrophobic stance of the prison (and the effective production design that brought it to life), to put these characters through considerable challenges. Where the film does miss out is on the character development, since all these characters are rather archetypes without much nuance or detail that illustrates who they actually are, and even in how they relate to each other. The acting within the group is also a bit all over the place, but the production team is effective, including Derek Rogers' cinematography and Jasna Stefanovic's production design. It's an interesting and worth watching film from a director who has gone on to create some interesting features. 

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Minari

Movie Name:
Minari
Year of Release: 2020
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Starring: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan Kim, Noel Cho, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton, Ben Hall, Eric Starkey, Darryl Cox, Esther Moon, Scott Haze
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review
"Minari" made a splash when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2020, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Of course it then went on to be nominated for 6 Academy Awards (though this in itself is no longer an indication of anything), amongst a string of other awards that it collected during the year (it almost reminds me of the string of awards the film "Coda" also won, and strangely enough, no one ever talks about that film just a few years later). The film takes place in 1983 and focuses on a Korean family who moves from California to a plot of land they've purchased in the Arkansas area. They move into a mobile home stationed in the property, and the father hopes to sell Korean produce to vendors in Dallas. Friction starts emerging when Jacob (the father) dismisses the services of a water diviner, and decides to dig a well on a spot he randomly chooses. That well soon dries up. He manages to secure the help of Korean War veteran by the name of Paul, to start working on the crops. In order to keep money coming in, Jacob and his wife Monica work in a hatchery, but Monica is increasingly unhappier with the situation, and concerned with the children, including David, their son who has a congenital heart issue. In order to help with the children, Monica arranges for her mom, Soon-ja, to travel from South Korea. Soon-ja's relationship with the children is initially quite difficult, and she has some challenges adjusting to life in the US. As the challenges mount, the strain on the relationship between Jacob and Monica also escalates. Things become more complicated when Soon-ja suffers a stroke, which impacts her speech and movement. 
Prior to the release of "Minari", Lee Isaac Chung had already directed 4 features all of which met some critical acclaim, but nothing like the universal applause that "Minari" achieved (and that has opened different doors for him, since he has gone on to direct episodes of Disney's "The Mandalorian" and has a new version of Jan de Bont's "Twister" coming up soon). The most interesting thing about "Minari" is in fact how authentic it attempts to be in depicting the tribulations and challenges a Korean family faces, particularly tackling a situation they're not familiar with, within a country where they're also strangers. The writer/director manages to give enough space for the characters to interact, and in doing so allows us to get to know more about their hopes, dreams, fears and ambitions. These relationships are woven very organically and very naturally. The family's core feels imminently real, including the relationships with the children and the grandmother, even if for her the reality she's dropped on is even more remote and alien to her habits. This microcosms of their existence is perfectly captured. Where there seems to be a bit of a loss of grit and veracity is the actual environment in which these characters actually live. The farming, the environment in which these characters exist lacks texture, and almost an identity in itself. Farming is a challenge, an all too consuming activity, and the film fails to illustrate that properly and how that significantly impacts the lives of people who choose to make a living from it. There's almost a disconnect between the staging of the relationships between these characters and the environment in which they exist (one feels more authentic than the other). The cast is fantastic, with Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan Kim, Noel Cho and Will Patton all excelling in their roles. The production team is equally solid, with highlights going to Lachlan Milne's cinematography, Yong Ok Lee's production design and Susanna Song's costumes. A solidly told narrative from an interesting and emerging talent. 

Look Away

Movie Name:
Look Away
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Assaf Bernstein
Starring: India Eisley, Jason Isaacs, Mira Sorvino, Penelope Mitchell, Harrison Gilbertson, John C. MacDonald, Kristen Harris
Genre: Drama, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 1
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review
Writer/director Assaf Bernstein made a name for himself with the film "The Debt", which ended being remade by John Madden in 2010 with a stellar cast, which included Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain. Since then he has devoted time to TV shows, with "Look Away" being his proper sophomore directorial effort. The film follows the story of 17 year old Maria Brennan, who is a high school student, with a less than harmonious family life and very few friends. She is bullied in high school, something she also keeps from her parents. Surprisingly she starts noticing and starts interacting with the reflection of herself in the bathroom mirror. This reflection of herself however bears a much stronger personality, and lures her with promises of being able to make her life better. After a particularly crushing high school prom, where she gets publicly humiliated, Maria decides to accept the reflection's help, and they "switch" places. The new Maria stands up to her bullies, and also unveils some harsh realities to her mom regarding some of her father's behaviors. This new version of Maria becomes increasingly daring, with violent behaviors which result in some accidents and deaths. As the body count increases, more about Maria's birth also comes into light, explaining her apparent duality of behaviors. 
There really isn't much to say about this film in all honesty. Assaf Bernstein poorly illustrates a rather pedestrian version of David Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers" (of sorts), but goes for the shock value and not for subtlety when it comes to the characters that populate this narrative. These pseudo twins, who are the center of the storyline, and who have very distinct personalities, bring to mind certain aspects of Barbet Schroeder's "Single White Female" (mostly the psychotic behavior Jennifer Jason Leigh embodied so well), but as the body count increases, the questions as to what exactly universe these characters live in becomes more and more puzzling. Maria and her evil twin, Airam (get it, it's Maria backwards), even though they're center stage of this feature, are surprisingly shallow in terms of character development. Maria is bullied, though we never really understand why. And Airam who also borrows/models some of her behavior from Lara Flynn Boyle's character in Tom Holland's "The Temp" or even from Linda Fiorentino's character in John Dahl's "The Last Seduction", seems to have forgotten that this isn't another episode of "Poison Ivy", and that the character in order to actually be edgy has to do more than squint her eyes or chase others on ice skates. The writer/director also throws in a variety of nightmares that afflict Maria's mom, in order to fully portray this reality as a dark one, but as most of the plot points in this film, it's both lackluster and undercooked (as are the incestuous hints that permeate throughout the film). Everything seems to be thrown into this broth, including all clich├ęs that anyone can think of when it comes to high school tropes (though even those are not that greatly illustrated). This confection doesn't work, and the sole highlight for this film is Jason Isaacs who is a solid actor and definitely deserves better. This is just a film to avoid.