‘Swallow’ Review: Haley Bennett is unforgettable in psychological thriller about a woman desperate for control

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

All it takes is some of the most anxiety-inducing click-clack-click of fingers typing on an iPhone that you’ll ever hear to empathize with the emotionally claustrophobic position of Haley Bennett’s Hunter in “Swallow.” She sports the hairdo and quiet presence of a housewife from the 1950s, but domestic surrender to her careless husband and in-laws isn’t the primary intention for director Carlo Mirabella-Davis—it’s the foundation for one of the more viscerally unsettling psychological thrillers that’s come about in recent years, an examination of how we cope with a loss of control and the hypnotic power objects can hold over us.

Despite his insistence otherwise, Hunter is more accessory than life partner to her husband, Richie (Austin Stonewell), who barely tends to acknowledge her existence except when he needs someone to blame for his wrinkled tie. There’s a pungent early air of foreboding in “Swallow,” as well as of imprisonment within the concrete-and-glass walls of a lake-side home. The location may be serene, but what goes on inside is Hunter’s quiet desperation for any semblance of control over her station.

The relationship feels downright abusive, and Bennett’s chillingly excellent performance as a woman shackled by judgement goes a long way toward making the viewer understand what she may be getting out of a habit that’s easy to imagine as horrific in any other context, and perhaps this one as well: Consuming small objects decidedly not made for consumption. After gulping down a marble, a tack or a battery, there’s a release that plays out on Bennett’s face. The shackles, it seems, are briefly loosened. Continue reading →

‘The Invisible Man’ Review: Unseen horrors in the #MeToo era

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

If H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel “The Invisible Man” imagines that the scariest thing is that which is unseen, Leigh Whannell’s new big-screen adaptation realizes the scariest force is that which is unseen and perhaps not even in front us—but internalized, agonized over and shaped into an object by which we are made to interrogate our sense of reality.

The legacy of Wells’s story through the decades has been diluted to the elevator pitch of its title, serving as the inspiration for many a film, most recently the simple-minded “Hollow Man” movies of the 2000s and, on a more elemental level, 2003’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.” More often than not, foundation tends to be the whole story when it comes to invisible men on the screen. Whannell’s iteration, however, is savvy enough to know that while the implications of its title can make for inspired set pieces, it can also be stretched into something more resonant than a one-note story. That doctrine has produced a great movie that is smart, satisfying and totally subversive in its recalibration of a 19th-century story into a modernized parable for the #MeToo era. Continue reading →

‘Parasite’ Review: Bong Joon-ho’s critique of socioeconomic systems is exacting, exciting and endlessly entertaining

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

One of the more uniquely integral aspects of Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s films, particularly over the last 15 or so years, is a meaningful sense of place—a realization of geography between characters and their goals that extends to mood and meaning, and which ultimately turns the experience of watching a 2-D movie into something more tangible, thrilling and involving. A major reason the writer-director’s 2006 monster movie “The Host” endures is the symmetry of how physically close the bumbling Park family is to finding the captured Hyun-Seo and the minimal extent to which the forces of authority are willing to aid them; the ecologically-minded themes of 2017’s “Okja” are drawn out through the movie’s dichotomy of location as it goes from serene South Korean jungle to dangerously bustling American metropolis; and you can’t discuss 2013’s “Snowpiercer” to any extent without touching on the deliciously simple symbolism of the class hierarchy toppled horizontal in the form of a speeding train, with cars that become more affluent and cozy the closer you “fight your way to the front,” as the tagline reads.

Joon-ho’s “Parasite” – the 2019 Palm d’Or winner and now a righteous Best Picture nominee nine months later – brilliantly manages to find a primal form of his filmmaking ideologies while evolving them into a magnificent – and bloody – cinematic Russian doll. A story of class struggle that literalizes economic imprisonment, “Parasite” is both evocative of current global truths and also an echo of the sociopolitical commentary that the auteur injects his films with, giving what he’s saying as much consideration as how he’s saying it. Namely, by bouncing between genres as defly as he ever has, and in endlessly-thrilling fashion. Continue reading →

‘Uncut Gems’ Review: Adam Sandler has never been wilder than in the Safdie Brothers’ new anxiety attack of a movie

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

Adam Sandler is such a morally unkempt, familiarly uncouth and determinedly unkillable livewire of shameless intention in the adrenaline rush of “Uncut Gems” that watching him in Josh and Benny Safdie’s new film doesn’t involve seeing an actor strut about and say their lines so much as observing a star on the verge of bursting into supernova.

And as Sandler’s pernicious Jewish jeweler Howard Ratner goes, so do the Safdies and their movie. “Uncut Gems” – a grand showcase of acting, and also of the Safdies’ cosmic filmmaking sensibilities – swells when Howard swells, spirals when he spirals and takes a breath when he takes a breath (which, if I recall, is practically never). As with Robert Pattinson in the Safdies’ 2017 breakout “Good Time,” Sandler’s performance and the movie itself are impossible to separate and scrutinize on separate terms. A scant few other films in 2019 have had a similar kind of deeply-anchored performance—among them Elisabeth Moss in “Her Smell,” Lupita Nyong’o in “Us” and Jessie Buckley in “Wild Rose.”

It may very well be a career-defining performance for Sandman, but it’s worth parsing out what exactly that means for someone whose filmography is enshrined in memes and reaction gifs, and not necessarily conversations of the prestige. Continue reading →

‘Dark Waters’ Review: Mark Ruffalo does battle with systemic corruption in grim, slow-burn drama

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

“Dark Waters” spends its two-hour runtime desperately searching for something to be hopeful for. Many scenes early in Todd Haynes’s enraging, dispiriting corporate-greed-run-amok truth-teller of a story have the feel of an ecological horror – the teeth of an American heartland town’s denizens are blackened, a cow inexplicably turns on its owner, a chemical plant lingers like a beast of steel and steam – in which hope extends as far as putting up a fight for as long as you can.

Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) knows all about refusing to put down the sword. As the events of “Dark Waters” depict with slow-burn intensity – and as the details of the Nathanial Rich-penned New York Times article on which the screenplay is based show – a substantial part of the lawyer’s career was devoted to holding the American company of DuPont to account, after discovering it had for years knowingly contaminated water resources. Lives were endangered for the sake of that common American drug: Profit.

It’s one of the movie’s many ironies that Robert, up to the start of his crusade (1998, sparking an in-movie chronology that stretches unbearably close to present-day), started his career defending chemical companies like DuPont, which is presented as less a company and more a harbinger of American essence—and excess. It isn’t a stretch to say that his life – professional and personal – is turned around after a farmer with loose familial connections seeks him out with concerns that something is wrong on his property. Continue reading →

Review: ‘The Death of Dick Long’ is a poignantly ridiculous Southern-set thriller

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

Like most movies that we expect to devolve into chaos before the characters we’re watching ever do, “The Death of Dick Long” begins with images of everyday, carefree life involving everyday, carefree people. Three friends shatter the serenity of a quiet rural evening with their rock music – “Pink Freud,” their band is apparently called, a hint at the imitation game the movie will deftly play – and we quickly learn that this, in fact, is what constitutes their serenity.

Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.), Earl (Andre Hyland) and Dick (Daniel Scheinert, also the movie’s director) continue their night with an appropriately obtuse carousel of friendly redneck tomfoolery; drinking, smoking, lighting couches on fire, lighting fireworks from their crotches. They’re somehow able to keep their irresponsibility in check while resembling the kind of infantile thirty-somethings who always luck their way out of trouble. Or worse.

Our intuitions prove fruitful—moments later, they’re speeding—through red lights and through the middle of the night—Dick bleeding from somewhere in the back seat—Zeke and Earl panicking before leaving him collapsed and unconscious outside a hospital. They’re in trouble, clearly, though Scheinert and the film’s writer, Billy Chew, leave it to the audience to piece together what exactly happened to make things go so south so fast, at the same pace that this small town’s small-town police force does, and why Zeke and Earl suspiciously abandoned a third of their trio. Continue reading →

Review: Blumhouse thriller ‘Don’t Let Go’ never goes all-in on its fantastical premise

“Don’t Let Go,” a supernatural crime drama arriving in the dog days of summer from writer-director Jacob Estes and Blumhouse, is just strange and unusual enough to belong in the production company’s stable of strange and unusual movies, though also enough of a conceptual bait-and-switch that it stands out among the much zanier “Happy Death Days,” “The Purges” and “Paranormal Activitys” of the world.

The story juggles multiple timelines, puncturing the fabric of logic when Jack (the reliable David Oyelowo), a cop mourning the sudden murder of his niece – along with his brother and sister-in-law – suddenly receives a phone call with her on the other end and seemingly from before the crime, ostensibly setting up a trippy mind-bender of a movie.

But Estes here is interested mostly in humanity—not genre. The high-brow is just a different, if not unearned, guidepost to a formulaic cops-n’-robbers story, with shades of domestic drama barely potent enough to keep the world from operating outside a palette full of gritty greys. Continue reading →

Review: Olivia Wilde is a weary warrior in the contemplative, inconsistent ‘A Vigilante’

I’m not totally sure if “A Vigilante” – the feature debut from writer-director Sarah Daggar-Nickson – is meant to be soaked up as entertainment so much as a reconciliation between movies-as-art and movies-as-therapy. The small-scale story is interested in a single dominating issue, that of domestic violence, though in ways that feel inconsistently intentioned, despite the high amount of promise on display Daggar-Nickson.

Her screenplay is a contemplative, slippery ice puck of a revenge-fantasy story, slip-sliding everywhere in chronology and priority. The movie has some interesting, if questionable, points to make about an issue that many other films are frustratingly content with circling overhead of, namely: Does eye-for-an-eye have a place in the age of #MeToo? Where is the line drawn between moving on and fighting on, and – more urgently, at least in the movie’s purview – are they one-in-the-same? Continue reading →

Review: Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ is a deeply-layered, uber-ambitious genre movie

“Blink, and you might miss it” is the great, contradictory nature of horror. Spontaneity is an on-ramp to FOMO when watching a scary movie; there’s a reason the genre is so closely associated to images of multiplex audiences practically peeling back their eyelids like they themselves are the target of the flashing knife, the pouncing boogeyman, the black-magic spell being cast.

For as long as we’ve been terrified by the nightmarish images conjured up by Hollywood’s twisted minds, we’ve been equally as enamored. Our hands can be cages in which we’d gladly cut ourselves off from watching what unfolds on-screen, but – to borrow from the same metaphor – our fingers are also the bars. And some deep-rooted force is typically victorious at encouraging us to bear witness.

Continue reading →

Review: In ‘Velvet Buzzsaw,’ a painting is worth a thousand gallons of blood

In “Velvet Buzzsaw” – Dan Gilroy’s third film in five years after “Nightcrawler” and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” – art is a destination for curious eyes, eager wallets and ostensibly deep critique.

It’s also, eventually, a channel for horror, bloodshed and shlock. The contrast isn’t accidental, and the transition happens nearly as fast as it took you to get to this paragraph from the one above.

The general absence of subtlety in Gilroy’s film, a contemporary art-market satire drunk with a few drops of cinematic absinthe, makes parts of “Nightcrawler” feel like a PBS documentary. For better or worse, hyperbole is a way of the world in “Velvet Buzzsaw,” and even more so as it reaches the realm of violence. “I think sober hasn’t been good for him,” Jake Gyllenhaal’s faux-elitist art critic utters at one point. “Velvet Buzzsaw” doesn’t think so either.

Continue reading →