We’ve arrived at award season. Yes, there are plenty of other films out, and I have full reviews for them, but with film festivals starting up, there are a lot of movies to be looking out for in the months to come, as well. This week, I wrote about a gothic drama, a southern gothic drama, a possible wrong man thriller, a coming-of-age music comedy, and several other TIFF entries. The following features reviews for The Nest, The Secrets We Keep, Residue, Teenage Badass, The Devil All The Time, and a roundup of mini-reviews from 2020’s Toronto International Film Festival.
The Setup: Set in the 1980s, in an attempt to capitalize on greater business opportunities, an entrepreneur (Jude Law) relocates his wife (Carrie Coon) and kids (Charlie Shotwell and Oona Roche) to an old country manor in England. As the family begins to unravel, one has to wonder if it’s the circumstances or something more sinister.
Review: As he approaches his 50s, Jude Law seems to really excel at playing characters who are frequently on the verge of going mad. It’s generally no fault of the characters he plays, just the nature of stories and people around him who manipulate various aspects of his life. He wears this look well, even when he’s on the antagonistic side of things. That’s fortunate, as The Nest proves to be fertile ground for him and Coon to really dig into characters who have major problems thrust upon them.
This is the first feature from director Sean Durkin since his stunning 2010 debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene. Like that film, The Nest approaches the realm of a horror film without any real supernatural element to speak of. This isn’t to say that’s required for a horror film, but The Nest wrings tension out of its presentation thanks to the atmosphere set around this elaborate mansion Law bullishly buys. It’s as if we are watching a haunted house film, but the ghosts checked out a long time ago.
That doesn’t stop The Nest from being quite entertaining, as dramatic as the circumstances become. This is a film featuring spats between husband and wife, the impending doom of business deals, and possible trauma related to horses (Coon’s Allison is an avid rider and trainer). Still, the movie plays in a way where the viewer will be captivated to learn where this is all going. It’s the sort of mood Durkin brought to his previous film. While it may lack in the realm of paranoia that came from being involved with a cult, this film is all about soaking the screen with dread.
However dramatic or even deadly things may turn out, it is the strength of these actors, the confidence in the direction, and the use of locations that really sell this somewhat minimalist yet completely rich feature. Setting the film in the 80s (somewhere around 85 or 86) only adds to the commentary it is playing at, with the viewer left to draw comparisons to time since. Regardless, the universality of seeing what it takes to not only tear a family apart but keep them together, plays well in what may seem like a not so inviting nest for comfort.
Where To Watch: Available in Select Theaters September 18, 2020
The Setup: In post-WWII America, a woman (Noomi Rapace), rebuilding her life in the suburbs with her husband (Chris Messina) and child, sees and kidnaps a man (Joel Kinnaman) she believes to be responsible for war crimes committed against her, hoping to have him confess to his wrongdoings.
Review: I’ve heard thoughts on what Alfred Hitchcock could have done in a modern film world, where his mastery of suspense would be fitted into a realm of R-rated features. While Psycho did earn that rating, and Frenzy went even further, Hitchcock may have pushed boundaries, but the filmmakers inspired by him certainly went further in the time since. This isn’t to say director Yuval Adler had made a film deserving that much credit. I liked The Secrets We Keep just fine, but one can see the influence.
Is this a “wrong man” type film? Well, that’s key to the film’s story, but at its core are two desperate characters superbly performed by Rapace and Kinnaman, with Messina just happy to be along for the ride (he’s good enough, but offers little). For these main two, who may be as close as Rapace’s Maja believes they are, both are struggling with their identity, and it does wonders for a film that awkwardly handles its other thriller elements.
For Rapace, here’s a woman believing she’s gotten past the worst aspects of her life, only to have it come hurling back at her in the form of a seemingly familiar face. The fight she has with herself not to just straight away kill this man makes for great tension already.
With Kinnaman, we spend the film not knowing what’s true but understand that he’s an immigrant who has come to America with hopes of starting anew. There are other secrets to consider that are not central to the primary mystery but attempt to fill in this relatively concise story (it lasts just over 90 minutes).
Some creative camerawork and editing allow moments of flare to shine through, but the character play is the most compelling element. Yes, the torture involved in one woman’s attempt to get something out of this man makes for some gruesome scenes. Also, the dialogue sometimes arrives in too blunt of a manner. Still, as far as Hitchcock knock-offs go, I didn’t so much roll my eyes at seeing a marquee with North by Northwest on the banner as much as I simply nodded in acknowledgment and remained interested in where this whole thing was going.
Where To Watch: Available in Select Theaters September 16, 2020, and available On-Demand October 16, 2020
The Setup: An aspiring filmmaker, Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu), returns to his old neighborhood in Washington D.C. to find that it has been gentrified beyond recognition. In dealing with various forms of alienation, Jay attempts to confront the various issues concerning his identity and how that may affect his future.
Review: A couple of years ago, we were treated to a double-shot of gentrification-themed comedy-dramas set in Oakland, Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting. Now we have Residue, which plays like a more dramatic cross-country cousin. That said, while those other films featured characters watching their world change around them, Jay is practically like a reverse Marty McFly, who has literally gone back to the future version of his neighborhood and now feels like a fish out of water.
Writer/director Merawi Gerima is clearly bringing a lot of emotion to his debut feature (how could you not), but he adds to that with a blend of honest confrontation with the ways of modern society with an impressionistic take on what once was. This is important because the style on display never overwhelms the story being told, or the characters on display, but makes up for areas that feel murkier.
There are a lot of ideas and aspects of Jay that are implied, and while that may serve the film as far as keeping forced exposition out of the way, it still seemed as though some additional clarity, at times, would benefit the overall picture to make more of an impact. At the same time, while the immediate backstory of Jay’s time in college is only somewhat clear, the longer flashbacks to his childhood allow the film to take an interesting shape.
It is in these moments and the way they reflect the current state of things, where Gerima shows a level of confidence that supports the film’s larger premise and allows it to almost play as an arena for a character to express their grief. Another recent and great film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, played like a tone poem expressing thoughts on the essential death of “the Harlem of the West.” Residue confronts the situation head-on, with our main characters calling out those lacking in respect (white characters are notably only partially seen throughout), yet still be seen as ones who are on their way out of the picture entirely.
I appreciated what Residue was going for, with a lot to gather from what kind of imagery Gerima chose to put on screen. Some aspects work better than others, but the film sings in its attempts to show the complex nature of one affected by the change of a place they are no longer a part of.
*An additional note, Residue was released by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY, an independent film collective, which amplifies the creative voices of people of color and women of all kinds. Regardless of how affected I was by the story, representation matters, and the chance to see others get the opportunity to tell theirs is worthwhile.
Where To Watch: Now Available on Netflix
The Setup: Set in 2006, Brad (Mcabe Gregg) is a teenage drummer who dreams of being in a rock band. A chance audition allows Brad to join a new band fronted by the egocentric Kirk Stylo (Evan Ultra). Thanks to a spot on a local news show, and the buzz leading to a possible record deal with a legendary producer (Kevin Corrigan), things may be looking up, but chaos is always lurking close-by to threaten everything.
Review: It’s one of the main promo images that got my attention for this film. Corrigan staring down at a bunch of young punks was enough to make me wonder what Teenage Badass was going to be. That said, while Corrigan is only in the film so much to deliver the sort of fun character work that’s kept him somewhere between Michael Shannon and Christopher Walken for years, the rest of this film is a lot of fun.
A lot of that comes down to the naivety and earnestness of Brad. He’s a good kid and has skill as a drummer, but needs to show people what he’s capable of. His single and sick mother (Julie Ann Emery) is happy to go along with what he believes in, even while adding a couple of moments showing just how much she can both play along and seriously care for him. All of that allows for a central performance brimming with innocence, countering what’s around him.
It’s not that Stylo and the other band members are bad influences. If anything, they all have honest goals and are merely letting their punk personalities give off a particular impression. However, there’s enough in the way they all interact where mischief will undoubtedly play a role as needed. That said, this is not a mean film.
Teenage Badass actually works well as a coming-of-age movie in a lot of ways. We are watching characters who are trying to succeed, regardless of whatever drama they put themselves through. It manages to work out as far as delivering a solid story and being consistently funny. It’s all based around fun scenarios and interactions, but the film ended up making it hard for me to resist its charm while hoping Stylo and the Murder Dogs could do what they needed to get their stuff together.
Where To Watch: Available on On-Demand on September 18.
The Setup: Based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock, the film tracks a period of time between 1945 and 1965, where several sinister characters, all of whom are connected, converge around the least evil of the bunch (Tom Holland), who is devoted to protecting those he loves.
Review: A summary of this film could have just as easily read as, “People do horrible things,” and I could leave it at that. Watching The Devil All the Time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ridley Scott’s The Counselor. It’s similarly about one seemingly good person making a bad decision and watching lots of evil characters dealing with it. That film was scripted by Cormac McCarthy, which adds up here, since this Netflix release so badly wants to be part of the famed author’s oeuvre, with an added southern gothic aesthetic for kicks.
Making that comparison, however, I was possibly a bit fonder of what director Antonio Campos managed to put together. While not nearly as rich as a Ridley Scott feature, Campos puts his very talented cast to work, letting everyone breathe some sort of life into their heavily accented characters. The Devil All the Time also stars Bill Skarsgard, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastion Stan, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, Harry Melling, and (saving the best for last) Robert Pattinson.
Honestly, much of this movie can be looked at through the lens of what Pattinson does in his brief time. Much like The King, also on Netflix, Pattinson comes in with an evil little character role that involves a heavy use of accent, practically flailing arms, and a devilish charm that certainly fits this film. The man is so obviously bad news, and yet the film’s purpose is to show you just how willingly people want to step towards it.
The rest of the film follows suit. We follow along with various characters over the years, for over two hours and never approach anything surprising. There are shocking moments, sure, this is a film full of bloody violence, but the nihilism on display never allows the audience to be confused over what they are getting or what’s to come. What’s left is the sense of style on display, a good enough pace, and a chance to be reminded of how well Holland shines in roles separate from the MCU (he’s a fun Spider-Man, but don’t forget The Impossible).
There may not be much to The Devil All the Time, and I’m willing to be the novel manages to add more weight to the sense of bleakness communicated throughout this film, but it is quite watchable if you’re eager to watch a lot of good actors break bad.
Where To Watch: Now Available on Netflix.
Bonus: TIFF 2020 Roundup
In addition to my full reviews for Nomadland, I Care A Lot, The Water Man, and Concrete Cowboy, I managed to see several other films screened virtually at the Toronto International Film Festival, and wanted to share some brief thoughts.
One Night in Miami
Regina King’s feature directorial debut features a fictionalized story of Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke hanging out together in a Miami hotel room in 1964. Based on a stage play by Kemp Powers, best I can say is King finds a way to have the film transcend the staginess I often struggle with in these sorts of adaptations. There’s also the matter of new approaches to two historical figures already memorably captured on screen by major stars. Yet, Kingsley Ben-Adir shines quite well as Malcolm X. Meanwhile, Leslie Odom Jr. is my favorite performance of the bunch, allowing his more conflicted role as Sam Cooke to spark debate amongst the group, let alone reflect on his position in life. There’s only so much to do within the parameters of this film, but it’s quite engaging.
Emma Seligman’s expansion of her own short film, this is a very Jewish movie as far as the character dynamics, the setting, reveals, resolution, and everything else along the way. The story concerns a directionless young Jewish woman who attends a shiva with her family. Other attendees include an estranged friend and a man she’s having an affair with, who turns out to be married with a newborn. It becomes a comedy of errors, as Rachel Sennott’s Danielle does her best to hold back her frustrations, while every situation becomes more and more awkward and full of tension. There’s a sense of cultural authenticity that kept me entertained here, and while the comedy was cringe-inducing at times, having the always welcome Fred Melamed step in as a cheer father was an additional piece that worked in the film’s favor.
Pieces of a Woman
An opening, 26-minute long sequence features a Boston couple (Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf) go through an intense home birth, only for things to take a turn for the worse. The rest of the film deals with the fallout stemming from the grief Kirby’s Martha has over her loss. It is that stunning opening that is both incredibly done and the peak for the film. While worth exploring as a topic, the level of melodrama on display, complete with a very cliched courtroom finale, only does so much for those involved. At the same time, Kirby is rightfully earning plenty of praise for her efforts, while Ellen Burstyn steps in with a heartbreaking monologue to further show the level of talent available in this cast.
One of the most important films to screen at TIFF, this documentary explores J. Edgar Hoover’s relentless campaign of surveillance and harassment against Martin Luther King Jr. While rightfully celebrated today as a magnificent and influential figure, the film makes it clear that more than just a small part of the country had thoughts on MLK and black people in the nation, during the 50s and 60s. Exploring racial politics through the use of an ample amount of stock footage means seeing more examples of the ugliness that has attempted to stain America time and time again, yet I couldn’t help but enjoy seeing so much footage of the famed civil rights leader. It’s the presence he had that still stands strong, and while this documentary could open a lot of eyes as to what forces of change have been met with, just no progress can come as well.
Granted, this has not been a traditional year, but Wolfwalkers is currently my favorite animated film of the year and one of the strongest features to come out of TIFF. From Cartoon Saloon, the team behind The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, this may be their best effort yet. It’s the story of a daughter of a hunter who heads into the woods and discovers a key secret about the wolves who allegedly threaten a nearby town. Everything about this film is full of life, from the animation style to the vocal performances. It’s a fantasy adventure dealing with tolerance, and it does a terrific job of utilizing all the elements found in the best animated features meant for a broad audience.
Good Joe Bell
Here’s a film that is made up of good intentions despite not quite coming together as successfully as it could. Mark Wahlberg, in a rarer stripped-down and unguarded role, stars as Joe Bell, a man who started a walk across America to raise awareness of bullying, following an unfortunate situation with his gay son, Jadin (Reid Miller). Based on a true story, director Reinaldo Marcus Green takes a very deliberate approach to how it reveals itself. Still, I couldn’t help but think the film never got past its “afterschool special” tone in terms of what the script is trying to do with this situation, in addition to what we learn by the film’s end.
Shadow in the Cloud
Presented as one of TIFF’s “Midnight Madness” entries, Shadow in the Cloud takes a classic Twilight Zone premise to new heights, as we follow Chloe Grace Moretz’s Flight Officer character on a B-17, where she’s stationed in a secluded belly gun turret station. While the chauvinism from the all-male crew is already enough, things take a wild turn that amounts to more than just Japanese Zeroes closing in. What we get is a creature feature I feel I should have been more positive on, yet I felt held back by some casting elements and not having enough engagement with the desperate situation Moretz is placed in. There’s a lot of style on display, and a couple of moments that reached the level of gonzo fun I can see this movie wants to have, but it didn’t leave a lasting impression.