Gerald’s Game


Carla Gugino is literally a captive audience.

(2017) Thriller (Netflix) Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Carel Struycken, Henry Thomas, Chiara Aurelia, Kate Siegel, Natalie Roers, Tom Glynn, Stu Cookson, Gwendolyn Mutamba, Ben Pronsky, Jon Arthur, Nikia Reynolds, Kimberly Battista, Michael Amstutz, Chuck Borden, Dori Lumpkin, Chad Kinney, Bill Riales, John Ceallach, Tony Beard, Victoria Hardway, Adalyn Jones. Directed by Mike Flanagan

It has been the year of Stephen King adaptations, with Dark Tower and It having already made their theatrical runs and 1922 recently released on Netflix. This adaptation is of particular interest because 1) Mike Flanagan, who has been impressive with Oculus and Hush, is in the director’s chair here and 2), this is one of King’s lesser works that was thought to be virtually unfilmable. How wrong they were.

One can see why that thought occurred however. The movie is mostly set in a single bedroom with the protagonist alone and immobile for the bulk of the story. There is also a kinky sexuality to it that in the current atmosphere is both timely and perhaps may incite a certain segment of the population to point their fingers and cry shrilly “Objectification! Objectification! Objectification!” We are, these days, gunshy about sex (particularly of the kinkier variety) on both sides of the political aisle.

The marriage between successful attorney Gerald (Greenwood) and his trophy wife Jessie (Gugino) has been troubled for some time now and the two decide to take a romantic trip to a beautiful but remote vacation cabin to try and heat things up. Gerald’s idea of romance is a lot different than Jessie’s however; he wants to handcuff her to the bed and enact a rape fantasy on his wife. At first she goes along with it, but as Gerald gets deeper into the game she freaks out and demands that he stop and free her. At first he is petulant, like a little boy who’s been told he can’t have a cookie. Then he does what most little boys don’t do – he has a heart attack and dies.

Slowly the realization comes to Jessie that she is in an absolutely terrifying predicament; she has no way to free herself from the stainless steel cuffs, no way to get food or water and she is sharing the bedroom with her husband’s corpse and a hungry dog who is desperate enough to enjoy some Gerald tartare. As panic begins to set in and she realizes that nobody can hear her screams, she begins to speak with the angels and devils of her better nature – her angels represented by a strong, self-possessed version of herself and her devils by Gerald himself. While Gerald mostly relates the scenarios in which she dies a horrible death, the alter-Jessie figures out ingenious ways to get water and eventually to concoct a desperate plan to escape – one that will take all of the actual Jessie’s willpower and courage.

But there is soon another player in the play; a deathly, spectral figure with a bag of bones who is stalking her after dark. She realizes that as the last evening falls that he will come for her in the night…and she will join her husband as potential puppy chow if she doesn’t escape before then.

The script follows King’s book pretty faithfully but it lacks the sense of dread and terror that King was able to weave in the book – but to be fair, not every writer is as talented at that particular skill as King is. In fact, very few writers are. Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard turn this more into a suspense film than a supernatural thriller which is what King produced – but the Moonlight Man is excellently rendered, I’ll give them that.

I’ll also give you that this is the performance that I’ve been waiting for Gugino to deliver. It’s masterful as she captures both the strong, self-assured side of Jessie and the frightened, wounded and disregarded part of her. She spends nearly the entire movie in a negligee (and looks mighty fine doing it) but you never get a sense of her being exploited (although some may disagree); she’s a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality and one senses that if Gerald had actually had a romantic weekend getaway planned instead of a kinkfest, he’d have gotten plenty of action.

She and Greenwood actually work very well together. Greenwood is sixty-plus at this point but he looks a lot more buff than the overweight Gerald of the book; it’s possible that Gerald’s use of that Little Blue Pill may have been what done him in. The relationship between Jessie and Gerald is believable; these are people who feel like they’ve been together for awhile but have begun to diverge away from one another and neither one knows really how to get back on the same page – or if it’s even possible. They remain civil to one another but there is that undercurrent of tension between them that tells a story of frustrations not voiced and petty arguments that are.

There is a subplot about Jessie’s past about a terrible incident that takes place during a rare total eclipse that does a lot to explain her backstory. It’s sensitively handled and again is pretty timely considering the events of recent months but it might be a little disturbing for people who have a history of childhood sexual abuse.

All in all this turned out much better than I think most of us had a right to expect. It re-emphasizes that Flanagan is the genuine article, a master of horror films who tends to elevate every project he works on and this one is no exception. Not only is it maybe the best adaptation of King you’ll see this year, it is one of the better original films you’ll see on Netflix this year as well.

REASONS TO GO: Gugino gives a career-defining performance and she works very well with Greenwood. The plot is fiendishly clever.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is not nearly as creepy as the book.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, a good deal of sexuality and some disturbing images and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dialogue and plot devices from the film reference such Stephen King books as Dolores Claiborne, Cujo and The Dark Tower.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girlfriend Experience
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
More of Six Days of Darkness

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The Wall (2017)


Everything is more intense when you’re under fire.

(2017) War Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, Laith Nakli. Directed by Doug Liman

 

In the desert, there is not much beyond scorching sun, deep blue sky and wind-whipped sand. It is dusty, hot and dry. Humans can survive there but far from comfortably. It is a terrible place to have a war.

And yet we’ve spent the last 16 years and counting in the desert at war. In this movie, it is 2007 and the war in Iran is “winding down” as the opening credits inform us. Remembering that this is the era of the infamous “Mission Accomplished” faux pas of George W. Bush, the movie begins on a wry, humorous note. We see that there are two Marines – Shane Matthews (Cena), a sniper and “Eyes” Isaac (Taylor-Johnson), his spotter – observing a pipeline construction site. Their banter is the kind between brothers or bar buddies; occasionally vulgar, snarky for certain but affectionate nonetheless.

All the men working on the pipeline are dead. The spotter thinks they are all head shots; the sniper is not so sure. If the former is right, then there is a highly skilled sniper in the neighborhood. If the latter is correct, then it was likely an insurgent patrol that surprised the construction workers and is likely long gone. The two men have been sitting in the hot son in full camouflage for 22 hours. Matthews has about had enough. There has been no movement. Nobody is there.

He heads down to the construction site to make sure and to request that the two be picked up and returned to base. There is a crack-thump and down goes the Marine. His buddy runs out to help him and crack-thump he’s hit as well. Isaac is forced to take shelter behind a crumbling wall, one which is barely standing on its own and threatens to come down on top of him if the wind gets too high.

He is forced to take the bullet out of his own leg in a squirm-inducing moment and then needs to look to the survival of himself and his buddy who appears to be unconscious or dead. The outlook is grim; the radio antenna has been damaged so all he can pick up are people who are close by; his canteen has also been shot and the water drained out. The dehydration combined with his serious wound is likely to kill him before base camp comes looking for them.

At first things take a turn for the better; Isaac gets in contact with a patrol team who must be close by but when they keep asking for his exact position, he begins to get suspicious, suspicions which are confirmed when the man on the radio tells him that he is the sniper who has shot him. The two strike up a conversation; it turns out that the sniper is the legendary Juba, who has 75 confirmed American kills to his credit. He seems eager to get to know Isaac who wants nothing more than to figure out where Juba is so that he can shoot him.

It becomes a game of cat and mouse with Juba threatening to shoot off the face of Matthews if Isaac doesn’t answer the questions that Juba poses, the most important being “Why are you still here?” That’s a question Americans have been asking as well.

Liman has constructed a taut three-person movie that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats from minute one. It’s a short but sweet movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome and although there is a bit of a lull in the middle, mostly keeps the tension at a high level throughout. The movie is shot so well you can almost feel the sand getting in your eyes.

There is an authentic feel to the film from a military standpoint. I’m not ex-military myself but the characters act as I would think well-trained Marines would; they are imperfect and have their moments when they let their guard down but nonetheless they (particularly Taylor-Johnson) act with a sense that the training has kicked in as the situation is assessed, immediate needs seen to and a plan to get out of a bad situation put together. We see all of this from the comfort of our theater seats (or our living room sofa as the case may be) and likely feel quite grateful that it is not us cringing beneath that poorly constructed wall.

Cena spends most of the movie lying face down in the dirt but this is maybe his best performance of his fairly brief acting career. The WWE superstar has always impressed me with his screen presence but over time he has developed some real acting skills. I’m not sure he’s at the level of a Dwayne Johnson yet but as wrestlers turned thespians go, he certainly has the tools to construct a pretty satisfying career and maybe more down the line.

Taylor-Johnson has been in my opinion on the fringe of breaking it big with some fairly good performances in fairly good movies, but nothing has really brought him to the A-list quite yet. Much of the film rests on his shoulders as he is interacting with a voice on his radio more than with a live actor as Cena is mostly unconscious in the film. That takes a lot of chops and fortunately Taylor-Johnson has them. We shall see if this finally puts him over the top and gets him that role that will elevate him into the next level.

This is a movie in which sound plays an unusually important part and Liman’s sound team comes through in spades. From the sound of the wind whipping the sand around, the crack-thump of the gunshots and the metallic bangs of the construction site, the sounds make the movie. We really don’t have a lot to look at other than endless vistas of sand and the half-finished construction site. We need the additional stimulation and we get it.

Amazon Studios helped to produce this, likely with a goal of getting their Prime users to watch this at home, but this is one of those rare movies that I think despite having an intimate setting should be seen in a theater where the outstanding sound work and impressive visuals will work best. This hasn’t gotten a ton of buzz amongst indie film fans but it deserves some. This is a very strong movie that is worth seeking out and at least here in Orlando is playing in enough theaters that there’s no excuse not to find it.

REASONS TO GO: The expected route is not taken. Taylor-Johnson and Cena; who knew? There is a lot of authenticity to this film.
REASONS TO STAY: The middle third is a little bit slow. Juba as a disembodied voice lacks menace.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of salty language and a fair amount of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicholas Irving, the Army Rangers sniper who served as technical adviser for the film, was nicknamed “The Reaper” during his tour of duty.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Phone Booth
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Last Shaman

In the Heart of the Sea


Chris Hemsworth wonders where his hammer went.

Chris Hemsworth wonders where his hammer went.

(2015) True Life Adventure (Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Paul Anderson, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawle, Edward Ashley, Sam Keeley, Osy Ikhile, Gary Beadle, Jamie Sives, Morgan Chetcuti, Nicholas Jones, Donald Sumpter, Richard Bremmer, Charlotte Riley. Directed by Ron Howard

Most people are aware of the saga of Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab’s obsession with a great white whale that took his leg and eventually much more than that. Many consider it the greatest novel ever written by an American. What a lot of people don’t know is that it is based on the story of the whaleship Essex which was attacked by an unusually large whale in the Pacific in 1820.

It’s a story that has made the rounds in Nantucket and the whaling community of New England, so Herman Melville (Whishaw) wants to get the scoop right from the horse’s mouth – the last survivor of the Essex, Tom Nickerson (Gleeson). At first, Tom is loathe to tell the tale but at the urging of his wife (Fairley) who points out to her husband that they need the money – and to Melville that Tom needs to let all of the demons of that ill-fated voyage that have troubled him for so long out. Eventually, Tom tells the tale and quite a tale it is.

Putting to sea for a two year voyage, the Essex is commanded by George Pollard (Walker), scion of a respected Nantucket seafaring family but inexperienced at the helm. He is given Owen Chase (Hemsworth), a well-regarded first mate who has ambitions to captain his own ship someday but a son of landsmen (or land lubbers if you prefer). As they head out on their trip, hoping to pull In 400 barrels of whale oil, Pollard steers them directly into a squall, nearly wrecking the ship in the process. Not an auspicious start.

Things get worse though. The usually fruitful hunting grounds of the Atlantic are barren – already almost completely fished out – so the crew makes a try to go around Cape Horn for the Pacific fisheries, a long journey adding months to their already long and arduous trip. Lurking there is an abnormally large white whale, one that means business. The encounter between the whale and the Essex won’t be a happy one – certainly not for the seamen of the Essex.

The ship is stove and the crew is forced to abandon ship, the survivors getting into three ships normally used in the harpooning of whales. One disappears completely, never to be seen again (in reality, the third ship washed ashore years later with three skeletons aboard, and while the remains were never positively identified it as believed to have been the one from the Essex) while the other two, try for the coast of South America or at least Easter Island. However there are more than a thousand nautical miles to make it there and little food or water. Pollard commands one ship, with his cousin Henry Coffin (Dillane) aboard while Chase the other with his close friend Matthew Joy (Murphy) and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Holland) on board. Which ones, if either, will make it to safety? And what must they do in order to get there?

Tales like Treasure Island and Moby Dick have always excited the American imagination, although to be honest in these more cynical days of CGI and cell phones, the lure of uncharted waters is not as enticing so in that sense In the Heart of the Sea is something of a hard sell for the American moviegoing public. It would take a truly stirring movie to get people into the theater to see it.

Unfortunately, that’s not what Ron Howard delivered. There are moments, yes, where the movie really works – the sequence of the whale attack is actually one of them, although it is clearly a digital creation. The framing device of the conversation between Melville and a middle-aged Nickerson also works, mainly because Gleeson is so compelling an actor.

But there are also moments in which the movie just seems to drag. Quite frankly, watching sailors slowly dying of starvation and dehydration is not exciting which sounds a little bit cold but there you have it. Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt draw parallels from the whaling industry of the 1820s to the oil industry of today, parallels which have some justification, but still the harpooning sequences are bloody and a off-putting to modern sensibilities. I’m not sure we need to be told that whaling was a brutal, bloody business.

I did want to like this movie more than I ended up doing and I think that I may well have gone a little easy on it if the remarks of other reviewers are to be believed. Hemsworth, usually reliable an actor, feels like he’s had all his charisma sucked out of him for this one; you get the sense he’s like a caged animal, wanting to break out of the shackles his character has had put upon him. When the framing sequence is what works best about a film, you have a problem. And yet, I still recommend the movie nevertheless. There is enough here to keep one’s attention, but if you choose to wait until it’s available on home video, I wouldn’t dissuade you.

REASONS TO GO: Rip roaring adventure yarn. Framing sequences work well.
REASONS TO STAY: The story isn’t as exciting as the book based on it was. The pace is a bit leaden through the second act.
FAMILY VALUES: Some startling violence, disturbing images, moments of peril and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the sixth film directed by Howard to be based on a true story. The others are Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon and Rush.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moby Dick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Youth

Meek’s Cutoff


How Wong Kar Wai would shoot a Western.

How Wong Kar Wai would shoot a Western.

(2010) Western (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux. Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Travelling from East to West in the mid-19th Century wasn’t something undertaken lightly. Prior to the establishment of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the only ways to get from the east to the west was by ship around Cape Horn in South America all the way back up to San Francisco; it was a perilous journey in which ships frequently were wrecked on the treacherous passageway.

There was also the overland route on the Oregon Trail which was just as arduous and nearly as lethal. Settlers would pack up what provisions and goods as they could carry in their wagons (not all of which were Conestogas), hitched up their oxen and set off hoping their guide knew where he was going, which wasn’t always the case.

Guide Stephen Meek (Greenwood) sure talked a good game – to hear him tell it, no man alive knew the Oregon Trail as well – but this two week journey has stretched into five with still no end in sight. Supplies are getting dangerously low and there has been no water in the drought-stricken west. There are only three families on this wagon train; Emily (Williams) and Soloman Tetherow (Patton), Millie (Kazan) and Thomas Gately (Dano) and Glory (Henderson), Jimmy (Nelson) and William White (Huff). The women are skeptical of their guide’s ability to lead them to safety. The men are dithering and unwilling to stand up to the overbearing lout.

When the men capture a Cayuse Indian (Rondeaux) who has been shadowing them, they are eager to kill the native. However the women urge that he be spared and convinced to lead them to water. For once they get their way. Still, there is a good deal of mistrust; is the man leading them to water or into a trap? And will they find their way to their destination or will they all die out there in the wilderness?

Reichardt, best known for her edgy modern drama Wendy and Lucy (which also starred Williams) tackles one of the American cinema’s most iconic genres and adds to it a uniquely feminine viewpoint (even though the script was written by her frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, a man). Clearly the strongest and staunchest of the settlers is Emily, although mores and custom of the day required her to take a back seat to her husband.

Williams, whose next role would net her an Oscar nomination, is wonderful here. She gives Emily a marvelous inner strength which the pioneer women certainly must have – and did – have. Williams is careful not to turn Emily into a 21st century woman in a 19th century milieu which is what some actresses might have been tempted to do; Emily is very much a product of her time. However that doesn’t mean she didn’t have a strong personality or a will to match.

The entire cast is actually quite strong and all of them seem to be authentic to their roles. There are no jarring out-of-place anachronisms, and even better, this doesn’t feel like a bunch of modern people playing at cowboys and Indians – this feels like real settlers, unsure of what to do, completely out of their element and terrified that they’re going to die.

The vast vistas that are both barren and beautiful add to that feeling of a bunch of small people in a very large wilderness – kudos to cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt for capturing it onscreen. The result is a very intimate film on an epic scale, which is a hard feat to pull off.

However be warned that the pace is slow, maybe too slow. A lot of time is spent showing the settlers doing their day-to-day activities – grinding coffee, gathering wood, repairing wheels and so on, to the extent that you might feel like you’re sitting in a classroom. In fact, high school history teachers looking to give their students an idea of life on the Oregon Trail (and others like it) might want to arrange a screening of the movie for their classroom – it’s that informative.

The story progresses organically but slowly and much is left to interpretation. Audiences used to being led from point A to point Z with all the answers pointed out to them as they go along might find this frustrating. Still, it is one of the better Westerns to come along in the 21st century and those who love the genre will find much here to love – but traditionalists might find little here to love as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A very different Western. Strong performances throughout the cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a very contemplative pace. Framework is very bare-bones which may ask too much from audiences used to being spoonfed.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a little bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Meek Cutoff follows Bear Creek to the Deschutes River near Bend, Oregon.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $977,772 on a $2M production budget; it certainly didn’t make money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: September Dawn

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Perfect Storm