Sympathy for the Devil

(Spoiler Alert: to properly discuss this series, I will be covering some plot points.)

While I’ve usually reserved this blog for movie reviews, with the pandemic I’ve binged a couple TV series. Recently I watched “Lucifer” on Netflix, and it surprised me. The series began on Fox in 2015 and ran for three seasons. As fans of “Firefly,” “Dollhouse” and other shows can attest, Fox isn’t supportive of unusual shows and it was cancelled. (The production had already started filming the fourth season, leading to two stand-alone episodes that were tacked on to the end of the 3rd Season.) But Netflix stepped in and picked up the series, both replaying its Fox run and adding new episodes. Season 4 and 5 have been released, and they’ve been better than the Fox seasons. Season 6, expected to be released soon, will be the series finale, but as I’ll explain later that’s a good thing.
The series was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer’s company, not known for subtly or nuance, and it fits into the high concept niche that Hollywood loves. You can imagine the pitch meeting with Fox executives. “Picture this: the Devil takes a vacation from Hell and moves to Los Angeles.” You can almost hear the oohs and aahs of the execs. Essentially the plot is a retread of “Castle,” with Lucifer Morningstar (Tom Ellis) becoming caught up in an investigation led by LAPD Detective Chloe Decker (Lauren German) when a friend of Lucifer’s is killed. Wanting to make sure the ones responsible get punished, he teams up with Chloe to catch the killer, and discovers he enjoys the process.

The character of Lucifer is lifted from Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series, though the original is too phantasmagorical to film in a weekly broadcast series. Creator Tom Kapinos came up with a decent ecosystem for the show, but the major credit for the show’s success and quality goes to show runners Ildy Modrovich and Joe Henderson, who have credit as executive producers and who, between them, wrote almost half of the episodes.

Chloe, whose parents were a cop and an actress, at first followed in her mother’s footsteps, appearing in a popular movie the included a nude scene to her lasting embarrassment. However, her father was killed in the line of duty shortly before the film’s release, leading her to switch careers and become a cop. She married another detective in the department, Dan Espinoza (Kevin Alejandro), with whom she had a precocious and wily daughter, Trixie (Scarlet Estevez), but the relationship failed and they’re separated by the first episode, though still working in the same precinct. Chloe is partnerless when Lucifer comes on the scene because her former partner is on life support after being shot under suspicious circumstances. Chloe was sure he was dirty and was trying to prove it when the shooting occurred. Now she’s ostracized by the other officers in the precinct.
Since coming to LA five years earlier, Lucifer has become the owner of Lux, a popular nightclub, and he lives in a swank penthouse above it. He’s known as a person who can help open doors and give opportunities, someone who knows all the important people in the city. He never hides his identity, openly telling people he’s the Devil, but in Los Angeles it’s viewed as a metaphor. (Interestingly, the root for the club’s name isn’t luxury but rather a unit of illuminance, playing off Lucifer being an angel of light.) Accompanying Lucifer to LA was his demon assistant and bodyguard, Mazikeen (Lesley-Ann Brandt), who at the series beginning tends bar at Lux. In the first episode we meet Amenadiel (D.B. Woodside), a brother angel of Lucifer’s who has come to earth to get him to return to Hell, and in the course of that first investigation Lucifer meets Dr. Linda Martin (Rachel Harris), a psychologist that he begins seeing to gain insight, especially into Chloe.

From the beginning the series set up powers for the angels. Both Lucifer and Amenadiel have superhuman strength and can’t be harmed by mortal weapons. Amenadiel can slow time while Lucifer can make a person share their deepest desire, which does come in handy for police work. Lucifer looks incredibly handsome and refined. Ellis, who was born in Cardiff, Wales, uses a British accent since you can get away with rude and over the top statements when you say them in a posh way. However, Lucifer can display what he calls his demon face, which can go from burning red eyes to a full bloody skull, to put the fear of God into those he feels are deserving.

Built into the story from the beginning is a bit of mystery. While Lucifer has his deepest desire mojo and can seduce women with ease, Chloe is impervious to his charms. A couple of episodes into the first season, Lucifer discovers that his invincibility doesn’t work when Chloe is close. Wisely, the writers teased out the reason why these things happen over the course of five seasons.

They also began exploring the full roster of characters and fleshing them out. While Dr. Linda fell under Lucifer’s spell and had sexual relations with him, after a couple of episodes she recovers her professional ethics. Over the course of the series she becomes friends and also counselor to almost all the main characters. In the first season Dan is shown to be not completely dirty but definitely soiled, and he ends the season demoted. Through the course of the following seasons, Dan seeks to atone for his sins, though he does have times when he backslides and must start again. While it doesn’t happen until later, Mazikeen grows beyond her demonic nature and, while she still can be a wild card, ends up becoming a protector to many of the characters, especially Trixie. At the beginning of the second season, the production added Forensic Scientist Ella Lopez (Aimee Garcia), which was like a shot of adrenalin. Ella is smart and competent, but we soon learn that she had a rough youth in Detroit before she turned her life around and moved to LA. Ella is also very open about her faith in God.

Part of the appeal of the show is its sharp wit along with Lucifer’s often outrageous narcissistic behavior that leaves Chloe exasperated. They also have a wonderfully meta sense of humor. Several times people tell the dark-haired Ellis that they thought the Devil would be a blond – which he is in the Sandman series. Another time, while trying to stay awake, Lucifer binges through all 14 season of “Bones” and ends up confusing plot points from that series with what’s happening to him and Chloe. But the most meta episode comes in the 5th season, when Chloe and Lucifer investigate the death of a TV writer who had spent a lot of time talking to Lucifer. They find he’d created a TV show based on Lucifer and Chloe. In one stand-alone episode, we see the characters in an alternate reality cause by one particular plot point not happening. The episode is narrated by God whose voice is provided by Neil Gaiman, the creator of Lucifer in the Sandman series.

But along with the humor there’s a deep humanity that can tug at your heart. In the first season, in the episode “A Priest Walks Into A Bar,” a priest seeks out Lucifer to help him save a young man who’s being drawn into a drug dealer’s crew. Lucifer refuses, assuming the absolute worse about the priest, and when the priest is tied to a murder Lucifer is sure he’s guilty. But when the priest is almost killed in a drive-by shooting, Lucifer realizes the priest is honestly trying to save the young man. There’s a lovely scene where priest and devil bond over playing jazz piano together. When the priest ends up sacrificing himself to save the boy, Lucifer is devastated.  

Similar to the concept of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the writers will have a “Big Bad,” a villain that moves the story over the course of several episodes or even a full season. However, there’s nuance to the plots. No one’s simply evil; there’s motivation, and often good characters end up making bad choices that lead to repercussions. In the first season, Amenadiel heals Chloe’s partner to use him to force Lucifer to return to Hell. The partner was crooked, but after surviving the shooting – and spending what felt like an eternity in Hell before being brought back – he becomes as twisted as a corkscrew. He nearly kills Lucifer, Chloe and Trixie before some divine intervention helps Lucifer and Chloe stop him.

Throughout the show, the characters are faced with dealing with the fallout from what happens in the ongoing story. One powerful story arc begins in Season 2 with the “Big Bad” coming in the form of the Goddess, whom Lucifer and Amenadiel call “Mom.” She’d been confined to Hell for causing plagues on Earth, but she managed to escape and jumped into the body of a freshly murdered lawyer named Charlotte Richards (Tricia Helfer, who played Number Six on the SyFy version of “Battlestar Galatica”). While it’s foreign to Judeo-Christian theology, the concept of a Mrs. God does show up in other religions both old and new. Helfer, who in heels stands imposingly over six feet, was wonderfully devious and conniving in the role, while still retaining some sympathy. Mom tries to get Amenadiel and Lucifer to help her get back to Heaven to have a final ultimate domestic squabble with God, but in the end, Lucifer sends her to an alternate universe.

Most series would leave the story there, but “Lucifer” had a twist – when the Goddess leaves the body, Charlotte’s soul is dragged out of Hell and she returns to life. While it’s clear Charlotte as a lawyer had a similar killer instinct like Mom, after she returns she’s haunted by visions of her hell, and the months Mom used her body are blank on her memory. She makes major changes, trying to make herself worthy of heaven, but doubts she can tip the scale in her favor. In the end she sacrifices herself for another. It’s one of the most powerful spiritual moments I’ve seen on TV. But it causes ripples that continue to affect the characters through the next season. Dan, who had grown close to Charlotte, is devastated by her death, while Ella suffers a crisis of faith that makes her doubt her belief in God. It’s only at the end of the 4th season that Ella makes a realization that restores her faith in a much deeper way.

And that is the biggest surprise. While it can be irreverent, “Lucifer” has a well-developed theology along with a fascinating take on the concept of Lucifer. It should be noted that there isn’t much in the Bible on the Devil. He’s never identified as the snake in the Garden of Eden, nor does he show up in Job. Old Testament Judaism didn’t have a concept of an embodiment of evil. Instead, they had a tempter, but he was a servant of God. The New Testament has plenty of instances of Jesus healing demonic possession, and the Devil appears to tempt Christ and cause Judas’ betrayal. However, most of what people take as Gospel about the Devil comes from the writings of Dante and John Milton, illustrated by Hieronymus Bosch. In some Christian denominations, the Devil is lifted to the same level as God, a ying-yang of good and evil.

“Lucifer” rejects that theologically dubious idea, and instead focuses on him having been an angel who, through his rebellion, was condemned to preside over Hell. While Lucifer may complain about God’s actions, he’s always in a subservient role. While he’ll do deals with people, it is not of the Mephistopheles type. Knowing what people desire, he finds it fun to help them. Occasionally he’ll ask for something in return, but there’s no selling your soul. The series also rejects the idea of the devil leading people to sin, instead stressing individual responsibility for free-will actions and choices. The quickest way to feel Lucifer’s wrath is to say, “The devil made me do it.” Those who wind up in Hell are sent there by their own guilt, and the torture is to relive that guilt over and over throughout eternity.

A couple of times conservative Christian groups have tried to organize boycotts of “Lucifer” with the justification that it’s sacrilegious. While he has a strained relationship, and the writers enjoy giving a twist to “daddy issues,” one thing “Lucifer” never doubts is the existence of God. Many of the characters are frustrated by not understanding God’s purpose and action, but that is part of life for any true believer. God would rather have a wrestling match with us than to be blandly accepted and then ignored.

While it has the glitz and polish of a TV production and has a mystery play out over the course of 45-55 minutes, “Lucifer” is essentially a modern morality play. It’s funny, dramatic, witty, and heartbreaking, but it also requires the viewer to think on a spiritual/theological level rarely attempted in this medium. When the celestial is revealed to mortals, it shakes their world. The one mortal who is most clued into who Lucifer, Amenadiel, and Mazikeen are is Dr. Linda, but she essentially went catatonic when Lucifer showed her his demon face. She was able to handle it by focusing on her responsibility as a doctor, but there are times it still freaks her out.

Central to the story has been the relationship between Lucifer and Chloe that went from antagonistic to grudging respect to burgeoning love. At the end of season 3, Lucifer’s devil form was revealed to Chloe, causing her to run off to Europe for a month. While she’s almost led astray by a priest who tries to use her to destroy Lucifer, Chloe’s relationship with Lucifer ends up being stronger. There have been other series, notably “Castle,” where the will-they-won’t-they relationship between the leads has been left simmering too long and ends up ruining the show. The final 6th season of “Lucifer,” which will be two blocks of eight episodes each, will give the series a chance to come to a resolution and, hopefully, a satisfying end. It’s not easy to pull off – ask any fan of “Game of Thrones” – but “Lucifer” has managed to do its balancing act with panache up to this final season. I do hope they can stick the landing.

Two Streams

I recently watched The Midnight Sky and The Little Things, two very different movies on two different streaming services. Both boasted a top-flight cast and crew, and you could trace both of their roots to the films of the 1970s, though they have the polish of modern-day productions. But while one was effective and touching, the other was a waste of time.

First, the good one. The Midnight Sky harkens back to pre-Star Wars science fiction movies such as Silent Running or Colossus: The Forbin Project. It reflects a less-hopeful time when things will not necessarily work out well, so your strivings might be for naught. But that’s the time when heroism means something. Set in the not-too-distant future, the film begins with an arctic science station undergoing an emergency evacuation. An unidentified apocalypse has released a toxin into the atmosphere. Faced with the end of the world, the people at the station are rushing to return to their homes and families – except for Augustine (George Clooney), a terminally ill scientist who has no family to which he could return.

At the same time, a spaceship is returning to Earth from exploring one of Jupiter’s moons that turns out to be inhabitable for humans. The crew of five is led by Adewole (David Oyelowo), though our narrative focus is on Sully (Felicity Jones), a scientist on the flight who is now pregnant with Adewole’s child. Augustine hears them trying to raise Mission Control but can’t warn them that the Earth is now toxic. To reach them, he must travel through the frozen world to another research station that has a much more powerful transmitter. There’s a complication, though: Augustine has discovered a young girl in the station, apparently left behind in the confusion of the evacuation. She doesn’t speak, though not because of any medical condition. She lets Augustine know her name by drawing a picture of an iris. As the toxin spreads towards them, Augustine and Iris (Caoilinn Springall) head for the other outpost.

Clooney also directed the film, which he’s referred to as a cross between Gravity and The Revenant, with its blend of outer space and survival story. Augustine’s story is fleshed out by flashbacks to when he was younger and sacrificed the chance of love and a family for his pursuit of science. The younger version of Augustine is played by Ethan Peck, who is Gregory Peck’s grandson. Even in the face of the end of the world, the story finds at least the possibility of hope.   

Now for the bad. The Little Things is being shown on HBO Max at the same time it is in theaters under the agreement with Warner Brothers for their slate of 2021 releases. It was written and directed by John Lee Hancock, who’d written and directed The Rookie and The Blind Side, as well as directed Saving Mr. Banks, all movies that I enjoyed and have watched multiple times. However, The Little Things is completely different in tone. It’s like he wanted the hardboiled moral ambiguity of Sidney Lumet in films like Dog Day Afternoon or Prince of the City, while grafting it onto a cat-and-mouse serial killer film like Se7en or Silence of the Lambs. Instead of an effective hybrid, it blends as well as spoiled cream in a cup of coffee and is just as appetizing.

Kern County (CA) Deputy Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) is sent on an errand back to Los Angeles County, where he’d once been a high-flying homicide detective before he crashed and burned. He gets drawn into a murder investigation by Detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who’s essentially taken over Deacon’s position in the office. The case has echoes of Deacon’s last one, which led to a heart attack and cost him his job and his marriage. Following a lead, they find Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a repairman who may have had access to the victim’s apartment and possibly has ties to several other recent homicides. Sparma seems to know way too much about the cases, but he’s also previously confessed to crimes only to have those confessions fall apart.

Set in 1990, Hancock actually wrote the screenplay around that time, after scripting the Clint Eastwood film A Perfect World. It then went into development hell, at different times having Eastwood, Spielberg, and even Danny De Vito attached as directors. Sometimes a good script will get stuck there until it’s rescued, but other times the property should be consumed by blazing brimstone. This is one of the latter cases. Worse, Hancock tells his story at a glacial pace with plenty of long, thoughtful shots and little action. It’s a waste of the talent of three Oscar-winning actors, along with the two-plus hours of life for anyone who watches this mess.

There are several new films coming available this month. Hopefully they’ll be more of the good than the bad. I’ll let you know.

Wish It Had Been Better

While I’ve been a fan of the Marvel movies ever since Iron Man started the string of hits, I’ve been less taken with the recent DC films. Man of Steel plowed the same field as the first two 1970 era Superman films by Richard Donner and Richard Lester. While Ben Affleck has done good films like Argo, The Town, and The Accountant, his performance as Bruce Wayne in Superman v. Batman and Justice League couldn’t hope to compete with the fresh memory of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy with Christian Bale. (Justice League was a mishmash that came across like a poor man’s Avengers; I’m planning to check out the Zach Snyder cut when it comes to HBO Max, though I’m not hoping for much of an improvement.) But Patty Jenkins’s take on Wonder Woman in 2017 was wonderful, with Gal Gadot becoming the hero we needed for the #MeToo era.

I’d been waiting anxiously for the sequel and was particularly saddened when Covid-19 shut down theaters because of the delay in seeing Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84). Having it released on HBO Max seemed like a Christmas present. However, sometimes the best wrapped gifts under the tree are a disappointment when finally opened.

The movie opens with a long competition back when Diana was a child, designed to show her learning the lesson she needs to prepare her for the events in WW84. However, it’s jarring after the start of the first movie which had Diana constrained as a child from training with the Amazons. It would have played more logically if Diana had been a pre-teen or teen. (The unitard costumes for the racers are anachronistic after the training sequences in the first film. Why the change?) We then jump forward to 1984 with Diana in Washington, DC, working at the Smithsonian. A long sequence of her helping regular people, followed by her foiling a robbery in a mall, is marred by poor writing and substandard special effects.

If you can make it that far, the film improves when Kristen Wiig comes on the scene in the role of Barbara Minerva, a wallflower antiquities expert who’s saved from an assault by Diana (Gal Gadot). Barbara’s drawn to Diana’s confidence and wishes she could be like her, without knowing Diana’s secret identity and power. The wish becomes fateful when Barbara’s recruited by the FBI to help after the mall robbery. The crew was after a secret store of antiquities, and Barbara’s tasked to identify them. One, though, is the Dreamstone, created by a god of treachery and mischief. It will give you what you wish for, but at a high cost. Barbara gains Diana’s strength but loses her warm, caring soul. The artifact had been promised to TV huckster Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) who’s been running a massive Ponzi scheme that’s about to collapse. He manages to get into the Smithsonian through making a large donation and absorbs the power of the stone, but not before Diana has accidentally made her own wish in the stone’s presence – a wish that allows her to be reunited with her lost love, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).

WW84 veers wildly in mood, from poignant to cartoonish to tragic to painfully comic. Much of Pine’s presence in the film is wasted on cheap jokes about ‘80s male fashion and modern art, demoting him to sidekick status rather than the competent, brave operative of the first film. Pascal’s Lord isn’t so much a villain as a hyperkinetic huckster, which makes him more annoying than threatening. The bright spot, though, is Wiig and her interaction with Gadot. That came close to saving the movie for me, but the over-bloated 2 ½ hour run time dragged me down, and the resolution strained credulity even in a superhero flick.

Though it’s been down in theaters, the movie is a hit for HBO Max, and a third entry in the franchise will be in the future. One hopes Jenkins and the screenwriters will take a hard look at the mediocre response to WW84 and seek to recapture the sharp thrills of the original.

There is a nicely meta mid-credits sequence that’s worth seeing, so if you do watch the film, don’t shut it down too early.

A Gift for This Christmas

Once upon a time I’d see a couple of movies every week, but this year I was hit by a double-whammy. Obviously, Covid-19 made theater-going hazardous to your health – I haven’t sat in a theater since early March, and likely won’t again until my full family is vaccinated. At the same time, cataracts robbed me of clarity of sight so everything looked like an Impressionist painting. As a result, my movie review blog has been dormant for months. Now, though, the cataracts are gone and movies are going directly onto streaming services. So I’m returning to my blog, and I think the best movie with which to restart is a Christmas present from Hulu.

For at least the last 60 years, we’ve not only gathered around the Christmas tree or the family dining room table to celebrate the season, but also in front of the TV. Kids continue to watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and the original “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” narrated by Boris Karloff, all of which premiered in the 1960s. Series TV shows often did episodes with a Christmas theme, and holiday specials went from the sublime (Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s doing a medley of Peace On Earth/The Little Drummer Boy) to the ridiculous (The Star Wars Christmas Special). Throughout these years, movies have been an integral part of getting into the Holiday spirit. Classics like It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and one of the many versions of A Christmas Carol (for me, the 1951 version starring Alistair Sim is the gold standard) will spread the Christmas Spirit, but you can also get it from newer films like Elf, The Santa Clause, Love Actually, or The Holiday. This year sees a new entry into the canon of Christmas, and it’s a stocking filled with sweet treats: Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season.

Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are in a wonderful, committed relationship, so much so that Abby’s planning to ask Harper to get married. When Harper invites Abby to join her at her parents for Christmas, Abby decides that she’ll pop the question Christmas morning, after getting permission from Harper’s father, Ted (Victor Garber). When Abby tells her plans to their friend, John (Daniel Levy), he is less than enthused (“Way to stick it to the patriarchy,” is his response), but he does agree to watch their pets while they’re gone.

However, it isn’t until they’ve almost arrived at Harper’s home that she pulls the car over and confesses that, contrary to what she’d told Abby before, she’d never come out to her parents. They think Abby is simply Harper’s roommate and she’s coming for Christmas because of her parents having passed away and having no one else with which to celebrate the season. Ted is a local politician and Harper has always felt the need to be the perfect (and straight) daughter. It makes for an incredibly awkward time as Abby meets Ted and his wife, Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), their other daughters Sloane (Allison Brie) and Jane (Mary Holland), and Sloane’s husband Eric (Burl Moseley) and two children. Abby finds herself reaching out for help to Harper’s school friend Riley (Aubrey Plaza) who has reason to understand what Abby’s going through.

The film comes from the experiences of Writer/Director Clea DuVall, who co-wrote the script with Mary Holland. DuVall has a strong resumé as an actress in movies (But I’m A Cheerleader, 21 Grams, Girl Interrupted) and TV (Handmaid’s Tale, Carnivale, Heroes, Better Call Saul), but she shows a sharp eye and ear with this production. The humor is pretty much on a constant roll, be it in awkward moments or thrown away lines. Yet the film also has rich emotion and heart that leads to devastating moments.

DuVall is assisted by a cast filled with wonderful actors. Stewart gives a nuanced and heartfelt performance, well matched by Davis. (Davis has performed in movies like The Martian and Blade Runner: 2049, though my favorite role she’s done is Yorkie in the Emmy-winning episode of Black Mirror, “San Junipero.”) While she’d cut her teeth on comedy, Plaza has developed as a deft actress with a broad emotional range, and Levy  is as strong as his father Eugene on the screen, which says a lot. I’ve enjoyed Steenburgen and Garber throughout the years, and they’re pitch perfect here.

While it may not achieve classic status, Happiest Season manages to both tickle your funny bone and tug at your heart strings, and I’ve no doubt it will become a Christmas tradition for some as it speaks to both wanting to be accepted by family, and wanting to accept yourself. To see the trailer, please click here.

Hang On

My Tivo gave me a present. After I got it, it went through a stage of recording shows I had absolutely no interest in watching – Real Housewives, Ghost Adventures, 90 Day Fiance. I hadn’t even heard of that last one until it showed up in Tivo’s suggestions. About once a week I’d go through and delete all the recorded crap. But then it started recording movies, and because of it I found a small gem from 2019 that I’d missed in the theaters.

Don’t Let Go stars David Oyelowo as LAPD Detective Jack Ratcliff. The movie opens with him receiving a distress call from his niece Ashley (Storm Reid) that her parents hadn’t picked her up from the light rail station. Jack rescues her and buys her supper at a favorite restaurant, and later he talks to his brother Garrett (Brian Tyree Henry). Garrett had been mixed up with drugs along with facing mental health issues, but he’d turned his life around. A few days later, Ashley calls and thanks Jack, saying things were much better with her parents now. But then, a short while later, Jack answers a call from Ashley only to hear her in distress before the line goes dead. He rushes to his brother’s house and finds his sister-in-law and Garrett dead in what looks like a murder-suicide. Ashley is in the bathtub, also brutally murdered.

Jack’s partner, Bobby Owens (Mykelti Williamson), is assigned to investigate while the head of the detective bureau, Howard Keleshian (Alfred Molina), puts Jack on compassionate leave. To Jack, though, the scene seems staged, clearly framing his brother, but he doesn’t know how to figure out what happened. Then Jack’s phone rings, and it shows Ashley is calling him. He comes to realize that Ashley is talking to him from two weeks earlier – a couple of days before her death.

The movie, written and directed by Jacob Estes, contains echoes of Frequency in the plot. However, the vibe of Don’t Let Go is hard-boiled L.A. Noir. It has more in common with L.A. Confidential or Training Day than the other movie. While it has the usual convention of the time travel genre where a small change to the past alters the future, the compact time frame of the movie make the changes more subtle, with only Jack aware of thems. They also allow the plot to make shocking, lethal twists and turns.

Oyelowo was outstanding as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, and he’d also starred a couple of years later with Rosamund Pike in a historical romance picture I thoroughly enjoyed, A United Kingdom. This time he’s cast in an action hero role, but he brings his signature intelligence to the part. This was Storm Reid’s follow-up to the debacle of A Wrinkle In Time, and she is compelling and winning as Ashley. Since then she’s done two limited series (“When They See Us” and “Euphoria”) and had a main supporting role in this year’s The Invisible Man. It appears that she will successfully navigate the transition from child to adult actor, which is never easy, and I look forward to watching her in future roles.

At 103 minutes, Don’t Let Go keeps a strong pace throughout. It also manages to resolve the sci-fi aspects of the plot in an unusual but effective way. It didn’t do well in its release, essentially making back its production cost, but if you’re looking for a thriller that manages to present a fresh story, check this movie out. Click below to see the trailer)

Pedestrian Story, Soaring Execution

With the coronavirus shutting down the movie theaters – and questions about possible safety even when they do reopen – I’ve spent most of the last two months watching favorite movies. However, I have managed to catch some new ones via streaming services. One I watched recently was a co-production between Amazon Studios with the German company Augenschein Filmproduktion.

7500 would win a competition for the most claustrophobic thriller hands down, if there were such a prize. From shortly after the opening credits end through to almost the last shot, all the action takes place in the cockpit of an Airbus A-319 airliner. It makes the underwater scenes in Das Boot seem positively spacious. Not even United 93 kept the story this tight.

The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as co-pilot Tobias Ellis, an American living in Germany and flying for a regional carrier. He and pilot Michael Lutzmann (Carlo Kitzlinger) are preparing for an evening flight from Berlin to Paris. While Lutzmann does the preflight walk-around of the plane, Tobias is joined in the cockpit by Flight Attendant Gokce (Aylin Tezel). While they keep their personal life separate from their professional, Tobias and Gokce have had a relationship for a couple of years and have a son together.

After a minor delay, the flight takes off without incident and heads for its cruising altitude. But when the cockpit door is unlocked by the pilots so one of the attendants can enter, a group of men rush forward and burst in, armed with makeshift knives. Tobias manages to fight off a young man (Omid Memar) and secure the cabin door, though he’s stabbed in the arm during the melee. He then overcomes and knocks out the hijacker who attacked Lutzmann, whose wounds are much more serious than what Tobias suffered. It leaves Tobias on his own to fliy the plane, try and keep Lutzmann alive, and do something about the unconscious terrorist before he awakens. At the same time, on a monitor, he can see into the galley just outside the cabin door where the other hijackers are trying to break down the door.

The title of the film is taken from a code that pilots can enter in their plane’s transponder. Normally the transponder gives the identification of the plane – airline and flight number – but changing the code to 7500 is a silent warning to the Air Traffic Control Center that a hijacking is in progress.

The film was directed and co-written by Patrick Vollrath, and is both his feature film debut after several shorts, and his first English-language film (though a fair portion of the story is in either German or Turkish). The story, such as it is, doesn’t get any awards for originality. It hits the expected plot points over the course of its 93 minute running time. However, Vollrath makes up for the standard story by telling it with style. The opening credits play over surveillance camera footage of the airport, focusing on the young man. Its commonness serves to increase the tension. On the plane, the director turns the subtle movement of the curtain separating the galley and the passengers, visible on the monitor, into a moment worthy of Hitchcock. I look forward to seeing what Vollrath will do in the future, especially with a better story and a higher budget.

But what truly makes the movie work as well as it does is Gordon-Levitt. From his first films after graduating from “Third Rock From The Sun,” like the excellent high-school noir Brick (the first feature by Knives Out director and scribe, Rian Johnson) and the romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer, to major productions like Inception, Looper, and Lincoln, Gordon-Levitt has demonstrated a true gift for both disappearing into a character while making them mesmerizing. (I’d also recommend checking out a small caper film, 2007’s The Look-Out, that’s a memorable showcase of his ability.) Tobias is by necessity an interior performance with most of it projected through his eyes, and Gordon-Levitt nails it.

If you have Amazon Prime, 7500 is available to stream now. As noted, it has its faults, but it also has its pleasures.

To view the trailer, please click here.

Classic Horror, Classy Update

Aussie-native Leigh Whannel has been scaring people for seventeen years. He began his film career as an actor, appearing in a couple of Australian TV shows and small films before getting a role in 2003’s Matrix Reloaded. But that same year he appeared in a low-budget horror film that he also wrote – Saw. He’s continued to act, amassing 45 credits on IMDb, including as the cargo plane pilot in Aquaman. His main focus, though, has been behind the camera, adding producer and director credits to his writing. He left the Saw series after the third film (a wise decision), only to mine a new vein of terror with the Insidious series. Now he’s taken a classic horror story and reimagined it for the #MeToo generation.

The Invisible Man was a different entry in the classic Universal horror films, as it stayed closer to science fiction than Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Wolf Man. That was to be expected since it was based on an H.G. Wells story. It did prove one truism of horror – sometimes it’s what you don’t see that scares you. The 1933 version was helped by having the classic voice of Claude Rains as the Invisible Man, and the female lead was played by Gloria Stuart, whose heart would go on until she played the elderly Rose in Titanic. The story, or variations on it, has been filmed a score of times, not always well. You have a comedic version with Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, and the over-the-top Paul Verhoven film The Hollow Man, and everything in between. Most share the essential plot of a scientist who creates a formula that turns his body invisible, but the serum also twists his mind into a narcistic murderer, freed from the constraints of morality by his god-like power.

In the new version of The Invisible Man, the story focuses on Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), the wife of millionaire optics inventor Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). In the middle of the night, Cecilia awakens and climbs out of bed after carefully removing her husband’s hand from where it rested on her side. She lifts a water glass from his bedstand, and we can see residue from her drugging him. Her silent escape from the house is incredibly tense and brilliantly highlights her fear of Adrian. The tension is ratcheted higher when the family dog trips the motion-sensor alarm on a car, causing Cecilia to dash away and quickly scale the wall surrounding Adrian’s modern mansion on the coast north of San Francisco. She races to a dirt road, where she meets her sister,Emily (Harriet Dyer), but before they can leave Adrian races out of the woods and breaks the car window, trying to grab Cecilia. Emily floors the accelerator and they make their escape. (A nice touch with the filming is that you never clearly see Adrian. He’s either hidden by covers or obscured by darkness, so right from the start he’s essentially the invisible man.)

Cecilia hides out with James Lanier (Aldis Hodge), a police detective, and his teenaged daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Wracked by PTSD from the physical and mental abuse inflicted on her by Adrian, it’s almost too much for her to leave the house to check the mailbox. She’s angry when Emily shows up at the house two weeks after her escape, afraid that Adrian could follow her. Emily, though, has important news: Adrian is dead by suicide. Cecilia doesn’t believe it since Adrian is too much of a malignant narcissist to ever take his own life. But the body was identified by Adrian’s brother Tom (Michael Dorman), who also has news for Cecilia – Adrian left her five million dollars. At first it seems like the nightmare is over. Then things start happening – the heat on a fry pan gets turned up high, causing bacon grease to catch fire; a door opens by itself; a blanket is pulled off in the middle of the night as Cecilia sleeps. Cecilia soon comes to believe that Adrian is alive and has found a way to make himself invisible, but that makes the others doubt her sanity.

I won’t go any further on the plot, only to say Whannel keeps the intensity building and building. It’s hard to watch the mental torture of Cecilia early on, but Whannel isn’t interested in simply portraying every woman’s nightmare. Between her roles in “Mad Men” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Moss has portrayed the underdog who comes to find an inner strength, and Cecilia is another example. She may be victimized, but she won’t let herself remain a victim. There are multiple twists that take the story in new directions, something that Whannel has always excelled at in his writing.

Made for what these days counts as a tiny budget (approximately 7 million dollars), Whannel as director, producer, and writer makes every dollar count. The special effects actually help with the plotting this time around, and they’re a far cry from the wire work of the Claude Rains version. The tiny budget also means the film which won the box office in its first week, is already a financial success. The good news is, it’s also one of the better thrillers to come along in a while.

Better Classics Through Technology

The explosive expansion in computer graphic effects, along with the achievement of photo-realistic quality, has remade the way films can tell a story so they are, strangely enough, more realistic. Disney can go into its animation vault and pull out stories that could never have been done in a live-action film. The rubber suit of Godzilla or the stop-animation effects of King Kong, effective in their day, are now the equivalent of sailing ships in the era of space probes.

It’s a positive when it comes to animal stories. Back when “Lassie” was a hit TV show in the 1950s and ‘60s, a stable of dogs were needed to play the role – one for close-ups, others for particular stunts. You could also have concerns about an animal being endangered to get a shot, which led to the Humane Society’s monitoring and certifying the safety of actors who couldn’t speak for themselves. With the new film version of Jack London’s classic tale, The Call of the Wild, the dog at the center of the story is a CGI creation that lets the story be told without worries about the animal.

The Call Of The Wild is the granddaddy of dog stories, predating “Lassie, Come Home” by 35 years. Buck is a St. Bernard/Scotch Shepherd mix, a massive, strong dog. He lives a pampered life as the pet of a judge (Bradley Whitford) in a Californian town in the mid-1890s. Far to the north, though, the Klondike gold rush is in full swing, and strong dogs for use with dogsleds bring a high price. Late at night, Buck is dognapped by a local ne’er-do-well and sold to a wrangler heading to the gold fields. Separated from his family and starved, Buck attacks the wrangler, only to be taught “the law of the club.”

When he gets off the boat in Alaska, Buck meets a kindly prospector, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), before he’s sold to Perrault (Omar Sy), who handles the mail runs along with Francoise (Cara Gee). At first Buck is hapless working with the team, but slowly he becomes integral to the pack – something that doesn’t sit well with Spitz, the vicious white Husky that leads the pack.

Director Chris Sanders was part of the classic Disney animation renaissance, helping to write Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Mulan. He added director to his resume with Lilo and Stitch and codirected How To Train Your Dragon. This is his first live-action movie. This is also the first time, after multiple adaptations over the course of a hundred years, that the filmmakers matched London’s description of Buck. It happened that Sanders’ wife owned a dog of that exact mix of breeds, named Buckley. Buckley became the model for CGI renderings of Buck.

London was a product of his age, and that is visible in The Call of the Wild. But Screenwriter Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049, the Branagh version of Murder on the Orient Express) has made the story less prejudiced and more multi-cultural. He also expands the character of Thornton with a back story that mirrors Buck’s, so when they come together in the last portion of the film, they’re like kindred souls. Ford has often been underestimated as an actor, but he is outstanding in the role of Thornton.

In the end you completely forget the CGI aspect of the film and accept Buck as the central character. I confess that I’m a sucker for dog stories, and The Call of the Wild had me tearing up a couple of times, but in the end it’s a triumphant story of overcoming adversity. While I might recommend bringing along a tissue or two, I do also recommend you see The Call of the Wild.

Modern Romance

For a day celebrating romance, this past February 14th didn’t offer much in the way of love stories opening in theaters. You had horror masters Blumhouse putting their distinct touch on the TV series Fantasy Island, while the black comedy Downhill had the marriage of Will Ferrell and Julia-Louis Dreyfus falling apart. The box office champion was the videogame adaptation Sonic the Hedgehog. But there was one adult romance available – The Photograph.

While researching a story on the continuing effects of Hurricane Katrina, magazine writer Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) interviews Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan), a fisherman on the bayous outside New Orleans. While there, Michael sees a photograph of a striking woman. Isaac explains she was his lost love Christina Eames (Chante Adams) who left the bayou and made her way to New York City where she became a successful photographer. Back in Brooklyn, Block discovers Christina had recently passed away. He reaches out to her daughter Mae Morton (Issa Rae) who works as a curator for one of the galleries in the city.

The movie becomes a retelling of Christina’s star-crossed love affair with Isaac, even as Michael finds himself falling for Mae. Mae is consumed with fear, though, that she will be exactly like her mother, who was always restrained and distant with her daughter and her husband, Louis (Cortney B. Vance). even as she achieved the success she desired.

Written and directed by Stella Meghie, The Photograph harkens back to the classic love stories filmed in the 1930s and 1940s, but with a decidedly modern take. It also deals with the mystery of parent and child, where the child is completely familiar with the parent, yet they’re also a complete obscure, as if they had no life before parenthood. Meghie sets a leisurely pace as Michael and Mae are drawn together, even as Christina and Isaac fall apart.

It helps to have two excellent actors in the main roles. Stanfield and Rae have a palpable chemistry between them, and it’s a delight to watch two fine actors working off each other. Morgan shows the regret for what might have been, and Chante Adams is wonderful as Christina. You see the desire for success burning inside her, and the knowledge that she can’t fulfill that dream without leaving the world of her childhood behind. There’s also a short but striking performance by Marsha Stephanie Blake as Christina’s mother, in whom you see an echo of both Christina and Mae.

Some complain that these days you can’t find a movie that doesn’t have explosions or wall-to-wall special effects or superheroes. There’s none of that in The Photograph, just a compelling modern take on love, romance, and whether they can survive success.

Two Halves That Don’t Make A Whole Movie

I’d look forward to the release of The Rhythm Section since I saw the first trailer. I’ve been impressed with Blake Lively’s work, starting with The Town, and she was one of the good parts of Savages. I became a fan with the wonderful romance Age of Adaline. A Simple Favor had charm in its wicked sense of humor overlaid on a film noir plot. The Rhythm Section’s trailer looked like a foray into the thriller genre in the John LeCarre vein with a sprinkling of Bourne action. The movie does deliver on that promise, but only after you sit through the tedious first half.

It’s based on the first book in a series that was published in the late 1990s and early 2000s, written by Mark Burnell. Burnell himself adapted the book for the screen, so he doesn’t have the excuse it was a bad adaptation. Rather than building an authentic female character, the story comes across as a male fantasy with unrealistic actions and reactions. The director, Reed Morano, had been a cinematographer before she moved into directing, and she’d done good work on early episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which won her a Primetime Emmy. The visuals are effective throughout the film, but she appears to go with the script rather than leavening the testosterone of Burnell’s novel or fixing its structure.

After a brief opening scene (more on that later) the story jumps back eight months. Stephanie Patrick (Lively) is strung out and working in a brothel in London. A man hires her, but it turns out he’s a journalist named Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) who’s hunted Stephanie down. Three years earlier all of Stephanie’s close family died in a plane crash over the ocean. Proctor has found it was brought down by a bomb, an assassination of a dissident with 250-plus collateral victims, only to be covered up by the government. Proctor has found the bomb’s maker, a London student named Reza, but the person who got the bomb on the plane is a shadow known as U-17. Stephanie gets a gun, intending to kill Reza, but she can’t go through with it. Reza steals her bag, learns about Proctor’s investigation, and murders him. From Proctor’s notes and phone, Stephanie discovers his source, a disgraced former MI-6 operative who goes by B (Jude Law). Stephanie pushes B to train her so she can get revenge on Reza and U-17. After at first refusing, B begins to tutor her in the necessary skills.

There are several weaknesses with this. The descent of Stephanie from bright and beautiful (seen in brief flashbacks with her family) to drug-addled whore is extreme, to say the least. Harder to believe is the progression from that low point to a trained killer seeking revenge. But that is the first hour of the movie – Jude Law putting her through a punishing physical regimen to toughen her up, all against the bleak landscape of rural Scotland in winter. It becomes a marathon for the audience to maintain their focus through the repetitive scenes. As mentioned, the movie starts with a short scene as Stephanie approaches her first target after her training. If the training had been integrated with the pursuit of vengeance – flashbacks to show how she acquired the skills she needs – it could have increased the energy of the story.

For the second half of the film is effective, as Stephanie pursues her vengeance while also masquerading as a lethal contract killer whom B had dispatched months earlier but whose death is still a secret. There are several thrilling set pieces, including a violent car case told with the camera in the car with Stephanie. The second half also features a CIA agent who’s gone freelance, played with fluid charm by Sterling K. Brown. But getting to that part is a hard slog. Lively is also more – I have to say it – lively in the second half, and she could make a believable female agent in a different movie.

Here, though, the latter half can’t make up for the former. It is a disappointment.