GOOD TIME (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, Violence, Drug Use and Sexual Content

Directed by: Ben Safdie & Josh Safdie

Written by: Josh Safdie & Ronald Bronstein

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ben Safdie, Barkhad Abdi, Buddy Duress, Taliah Webster & Necro

GOOD TIME is an independent crime-drama that wasn’t exactly a hit at the box office, but made a big impression on the festival circuit. Some folks have even gone as far as to compare this flick to Martin Scorsese’s early work and that comparison is completely valid. Shot in an unconventional style and brimming with seedy plot points, this film might rub certain viewers the wrong way. If you’re a fan of gritty crime-dramas that push the envelope of what is appropriate and dig on arthouse cinema, then GOOD TIME is likely up your alley.

Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) wants to make some quick cash by robbing a bank. In an effort to make this seemingly simple job go by as easily as possible, Connie enlists the help of his mentally challenged brother Nick (Ben Safdie, who also co-directed this film) as back-up. The robbery goes wrong and Nick is hauled off to Rikers Island. Worried that his brother won’t survive the night in a holding cell, a desperate Connie scrambles to get together 10 thousand dollars to secure his sibling’s release. This night-long journey puts Connie in some tricky scenarios and forces him to come face-to-face with unsavory individuals as his situation increasingly goes from bad to worse.

When I say that GOOD TIME is shot in an unconventional style, I mean that the Safdie brothers like using close-ups…lots of them. In fact, there are hardly any wide shots or establishing shots to be found in this film. There are a few of both that exist to give the viewer a bearing on where characters are or because an on-screen event requires more visual room, but that’s about it. 90% of this film is told with close-ups on characters faces and items. This style takes a few minutes to adjust to, but has a weird effect of sucking the viewer into the film. This movie’s technical aspects are just as impressive as the gritty race-against-time plot.

Speaking of which, GOOD TIME’s script threatens to become cliched and familiar at any given moment. We have a bank robbery gone wrong. There’s a disabled brother who placed into a dangerous situation. The events unfold over the space of a single night. The protagonist is running from place to place in search of a solution. However, GOOD TIME never once feels predictable or forced in its progression of going from bad to worse to “oh my god, I can’t believe this is happening” and this all makes for one hell of an intense cinematic ride.

Another remarkable quality in GOOD TIME arrives in the form of its protagonist, who one could easily describe as the scum of the earth. Robert Pattinson delivers an amazing performance as Connie, a man who has love for his brother…but it’s the wrong kind of love and his methods of showing it are downright detestable. There are moments where the viewer might almost be able to sympathize for Connie and then Pattinson’s character does something even more repugnant. This character is a dumbass and doesn’t have any redeemable qualities, but he sure makes for an extremely interesting lead and I never got bored while watching him.

This being said, GOOD TIME will likely make every audience member uncomfortable at some given point. There is a specific scene that knocked me senseless in how it progressed and I could not believe that the film went there. It was a disturbing moment that also felt like a bit of harsh realism that’s often passed up in gritty crime stories about trashy gangsters, run-down neighborhoods, and bad situations. You’ll know the scene that I’m talking about if/when you see this movie. Also, Ben Safdie’s portrayal of Connie’s mentally challenged brother (complete with a mumbled voice and slack-jawed appearance) doesn’t feel the least bit exploitative. That in and of itself is an impressive feat and his final on-screen moment is emotionally sound.

If there are any complaints to be found in GOOD TIME, it’s that the film has one flashback that feels completely unnecessary and briefly breaks the flow of following Connie’s neon-lit quest through New York’s scummy side. Put that one sequence aside and pretty much everything else about GOOD TIME blew me away. If you’re into gritty crime-dramas that make you want to take a shower afterwards, you’ll find an uncomfortably effective experience in GOOD TIME. If you appreciate unconventional filmmaking, you’ll love the technical craft of GOOD TIME. Finally, if you devour great pieces of cinematic art, you’ll find that GOOD TIME is actually a great time!

Grade: A

THE BEGUILED (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Sexuality

Directed by: Sofia Coppola

Written by: Sofia Coppola

(based on the novel A PAINTED DEVIL by Thomas P. Cullinan)

Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence, Emma Howard & Addison Riecke

I’ve heard about 1971’s THE BEGUILED and apparently it’s known as an unconventional entry in Clint Eastwood’s filmography, though I have yet to watch it. I mention that tidbit to let you know that I walked into Sofia Coppola’s hotly anticipated BEGUILED remake with little-to-no preconceived notions about what I was about to watch. The trailer intrigued me as this basically looked like a psychological thriller that contained a tense war of the sexes at an all-girls school during the Civil War. While the first film told the story from Eastwood’s character’s point-of-view, Sofia Coppola aimed to tell this story from the girls’ points-of-view. Though it does have a couple of effective scenes, THE BEGUILED is mostly an underwhelmingly bland viewing experience.

In the midst of the Civil War, a small group of young girls and two adults take refuge in a Virginia all-girls school. The women make do with what they have and life seems almost tedious, until one of the students stumbles across wounded Union soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell). Taking pity on the poor soul, headmistress Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to his wounds, locks him in a bedroom, and kindly neglects to inform passing Confederate soldiers about the enemy in their midst. As the days go on, John’s wounds begin to heal and he desperately attempts to manipulate all of the women around him in order to stay alive. It turns out that John might have been better off in the war-torn landscape, because hell has no fury like a woman (or group of women) scorned…

THE BEGUILED has an intriguing set-up. From what I hear, the 1971 version is rather intense and strange. However, Sofia Coppola’s take on the material seems to be more in the form of a dark drama. When I say dark drama, I don’t strictly mean the story’s content. Though the trailer contained lots of well-shot and well-lit scenes, it’s hard to make out what’s happening in certain sequences. Those previously mentioned trailer visuals might have had added touch-ups, because I struggled to figure out what the hell was happening during many important (but poorly lit) moments. This might just be a sad side effect of the disc release, but I highly doubt that.

To further harp on this more-than-noticeable problem, a dinner scene appears to be authentically shot with candles as a sole light-source. It’s ambitiously realistic to the point where the viewer can’t see much of anything on the set. There are enough poorly lit scenes to become a big annoyance, especially as really crucial scenes happen during late hours of the night (with no light source). The Southern Gothic atmosphere doesn’t feel convincing either as the costumes feel stagey (even though they were crafted from period authentic material) and the locations seem manufactured (even though they shot this film in Louisiana and at a real New Orleans house).

At the very least, you’d hope that BEGUILED would successfully use big talent who are sure to deliver strong performances, right? Well, you’d also be sadly mistaken on that front as well. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman do the bare minimum of what’s expected of them in this story. Farrell’s character does seem like quite the scumbag, even though he’s fighting on the right side of the war. However, his ultimate desperation doesn’t feel nearly as desperate as it should feel (especially as he’s begging to remain as a gardener and avoid the rest of the war altogether). The same can be said about Nicole Kidman’s headmistress, who seems oddly wooden in her delivery. I should potentially be scared of her character, but she only seems tepidly threatening by occasionally flashing a stern look. That’s about all the darkness that she emotes in her performance.

What the BEGUILED gets totally right is a sense of believable connection between the students at the girls school. Apparently, Sofia Coppola worked on building a community of friendships between the young actresses and that comes across in their performances. Elle Fanning gets to play a real brat this time around too, while Kirsten Dunst is the most sympathetic character in the entire film. The rest of the young actresses also appropriately come off as either bitchy or charming, depending on the moment.

The BEGUILED’s biggest problem is that it’s too simple and, at points, noticeably dull. You can guess how this movie is going to play out well before the end credits roll. To make matters worse, the ride of getting to the all-too-predictable finale isn’t exactly a fun one either as it feels like Sofia Coppola is hitting things in a fairly safe by-the-numbers fashion. This material should feel far more interesting than it does here. I wouldn’t be surprised if the 1971 original is vastly superior to this 2017 remake, because a lot of this film’s problems mostly come down to its bland execution and poorly lit production values. Even though I had hopes for THE BEGUILED, I’d recommend passing up on this disappointment. If you don’t wind up seeing THE BEGUILED, you’re not missing much.

Grade: C-

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

Directed by: James Foley

Written by: David Mamet

(based on the play GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS by David Mamet)

Starring: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce & Bruce Altman

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS is quite interesting for a lot of reasons. In 1984, playwright David Mamet penned the play that this film was based upon and that play went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony. In 1992, Mamet adapted his own play for the big screen and whoever cast this film did one hell of a job in filling the roles. Pacino, Lemmon, Baldwin, Arkin, Harris, Spacey, and Pryce have all put in acclaimed performances throughout their success-filled careers. However, to see them all in one place is stunning. Even though this film bombed at the box office, it wound up being nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. If you like dialogue-driven narratives and amazing acting, then you’ll likely find something to love in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS.

At a small real estate firm, four salesmen are competing in a high-stakes competition that will result in the winner getting a bonus and a brand new car. This competition just got more important as the company higher-ups have sent in a trainer (Alec Baldwin) to reveal that the top two salesmen will be keeping their jobs and the rest will be fired. This dire discovery puts the employees in a desperate spot. Dave Moss (Ed Harris) and George Aaronow (Alan Arkin) talk about possibly getting revenge on the company. Washed-up, has-been Shelley “The Machine” Levene (Jack Lemmon) desperately tries to close his lousy leads. Meanwhile, office superstar Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) seems to be sky-high on his sales. However, things become drastically more complicated when a burglary occurs at the firm and its clear that one (or more) of the salesman might be responsible.

Though there are crime-mystery elements in its second half, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS mainly functions as a downbeat drama and dark comedy about four salesmen desperately trying to prove their importance. As a result, this plot is purely forward by dialogue and conversations…which means the acting had better be really damn good or the viewer would be in for one long drag of a film. Thankfully, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS’s strongest qualities are its powerhouse performances and the snappy dialogue.

The best performance easily comes from Jack Lemmon as “The Machine” Levene. This character seems like a sad shell of the person he used to be. Lemmon won a Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival for his more than believable portrayal of the live-action equivalent of Gil from THE SIMPSONS. Honestly, Lemmon deserved this film’s nomination for the Academy Award and Golden Globe as well. You legitimately feel sorry for his character and you can visibly see the desperation on his face throughout damn near the entire film. You also see how cocky he gets upon potential newfound success as well. Lemmon’s Levene steals the show!

Though he’s only regulated to a single scene, Alec Baldwin dominates his sole moment as the foul-mouthed company “motivator.” Baldwin’s character’s motivational methods mainly consist of verbally demolishing everybody around him and laying on deep psychological abuse as he seems to almost revel in the fact that half of the firm will be out of jobs by the end of the so-called “competition.” Meanwhile, Ed Harris and Alan Arkin play off each other as two men who are so desperate for cash that they might put their entire futures at risk with thoughts of a bone-headed decision.

Al Pacino plays Ricky Roma, the only “good” salesman of the bunch. Roma’s devilishly slimy tactic is building trust/friendship and then unexpectedly springing his sale pitch on his newfound “friends.” Pacino’s Roma is about as scummy as a salesperson can be and there doesn’t seem to be a genuine bone in his body, unless he’s talking about screwing someone out of their hard-earned cash or ultimately benefiting himself. Jonathan Pryce pops in for a couple of scenes as one of Pacino’s insecure customers/”friends.” Also, Kevin Spacey stars as the stuck-up office drone, who coldly pisses off every single salesman at one point or another.

If nothing else, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS will make you paranoid about ever talking to a salesperson again. The dialogue is loaded with more profanity than your average Quentin Tarantino movie, but flows along in a naturalistic and witty manner. The film’s constant conversations might bore some viewers who cannot stand the idea of watching salespeople talk, fight, argue, and accuse each other for just under two solid hours. However, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS is an example of how great acting and smart dialogue can carry a film all by themselves. It’s not for everybody, but GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS should satisfy cinephiles who want to dig on an amazing cast of actors delivering fantastic performances.

Grade: B+

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence and Thematic Elements

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Written by: Michael Green

(based on the novel MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Agatha Christie)

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton & Marwan Kenzari

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is arguably Agatha Christie’s most popular mystery novel (with AND THEN THERE WERE NONE being the only possible exception). Christie’s book has been adapted onto the big screen, the radio, and the small screen (three different times). ORIENT EXPRESS’s most recent adaptation has come loaded with big talent and recognizable faces. Though this film isn’t perfect and I wouldn’t rank it as the best Agatha Christie adaptation that I’ve sat through (that honor actually belongs to the miniseries adaptation of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE), MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS should provide classy entertainment for mature audiences.

In the 1930s, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is famous for solving seemingly unsolvable cases. Poirot seems determined to put a stop to all crime, but he also needs occasional vacation time. In an effort to get away from his stressful line of work, this mustachioed crime-solver has booked passage on the Orient Express in the dead of winter. Poirot’s holiday is cut short by the sudden murder of shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp). To make matters even worse, an avalanche has derailed the train. With a train full of suspects and an increasingly tense atmosphere, Poirot must uncover the killer’s identity before another life is lost.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS benefits from high production values and a cast/crew who clearly cared about putting their all into this project. Kenneth Branagh shot this film on 65mm cameras and the resulting visuals are gorgeous to behold. Most of MURDER’s plot doesn’t necessarily rely on effects (other than shots of the train and its snowy location), instead playing out as a tense thriller between its contained cast of characters. There are a couple of confrontations and suspenseful chases, but this film mostly builds its tension from conversations and flashbacks within those conversations (that reveal further clues about a possible motive and the killer’s identity).

Having not read the source material, I had the pleasure of not knowing a thing about MURDER’s conclusion. Though thrilling, unexpected and oddly moving, I have to imagine that ORIENT EXPRESS will likely lose some of its impact on repeated viewings. Still, the film benefits from the sheer entertainment of Kenneth Branagh in the leading role as Hercule Poirot. This over-the-top Belgian detective is quirky to the extreme and noticeably obsessive-compulsive, as opposed to being a borderline sociopathic detective (ala Sherlock Holmes). Besides driving the plot forward and cleverly piecing together clues for the viewer, Branagh’s Poirot also provides enjoyable comic relief. The tonal mix of almost cartoonish humor and straight-faced seriousness never once dissuaded my love for this strange protagonist.

As far as the supporting cast goes, ORIENT EXPRESS contains quite the impressive gathering of A-listers and emerging talent among its passengers/suspects. Johnny Depp gets some mileage out of his scumbag victim because he actually gets to flex his acting muscles in this role. Penelope Cruz is a standout as a suspicious missionary, while Willem Dafoe plays an oddball professor. Judi Dench fits well into the role of a creepy princess. The usually comedic Josh Gad plays a far darker character than his usual light-hearted fare. Michelle Pfeiffer is a hysterical (though possibly deceptive) passenger, while Daisy Ridley is a charming (though possibly homicidal) woman hiding secrets. Meanwhile, Leslie Odom Jr. is good enough as the charismatic (but possibly murderous) doctor.

On the non-suspect side of things, Tom Bateman is also a lot of fun as Poirot’s best friend (and the Orient Express’s director) Bouc. ORIENT EXPRESS’s only noticeably bad performances come from Lucy Boynton as a reclusive countess and Sergei Polunin as her ill-tempered count husband. Boynton is bland in her role and doesn’t get enough screen time to leave much of a positive impression at all. Meanwhile, Polunin is laughably over-the-top in the scenes where he switches from a calm 0 to a furiously enraged 100 in a matter of seconds. His violent temper just feels unbelievably forced. One confrontation involving this character comes out of nowhere and is almost laughably bad due to Polunin’s unconvincing line delivery. Still, both of these performers don’t receive too much screen time.

The beauty of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is that its seemingly simple murder-mystery that gets drastically more complex as the list of possible suspects and motives continues to grow. Clues and red herrings run rampant. The viewer’s emotions are thrown into a borderline distressed state as you try to figure out who the killer is…much like protagonist Poirot. As I mentioned before, I don’t think this film will hold up nearly as well upon a second viewing. Once the cat has been let out of the bag, the film’s surprise and novelty is pretty much gone. However, Branagh’s Poirot, the visuals, and performances from a talented cast make a viewing worthwhile. If you’re into murder mysteries and enjoy classy slow-burn storytelling, then you’ll likely dig MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.

Grade: B

THE SQUARE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, some Strong Sexual Content, and brief Violence

Directed by: Ruben Ostlund

Written by: Ruben Ostlund

Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary & Christopher Laesso

Art can be hilarious, insightful, powerful, heartbreaking, and force people to contemplate deep thoughts long after they’ve finished watching, listening to, interacting with, or looking at the piece of art. Art can also be extremely pretentious. Much like beauty, what constitutes the pretentious side of art is all in the eye of the beholder. I’m sure that I’ve raved about certain arthouse flicks that have rubbed certain readers the wrong way, while I also roll my eyes towards what I view as pretentious nonsense. THE SQUARE is a satirical drama that openly mocks and draws dark laughs from its vicious skewing of the fartsier, ultra-pretentious side of the art world. It also tackles a few deep themes of its own and contains lots of absurdity. While this film certainly isn’t for everybody, I truly enjoyed THE SQUARE!

Christian (Claes Bang) is the upper-crust curator for a Stockholm art museum. With a new exhibit (a square of neon lights simply called “The Square”) on the way and little to garner public excitement for it, the museum attempts to draw controversy and inflammatory press to generate much-needed publicity. Meanwhile, Christian is preoccupied by a quest to retrieve his stolen cell phone. To boot, Christian’s apathetic attitude towards the bombastic press campaign might land him in hot water and he also finds himself romantically drawn towards ditzy journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss). Much like the museum’s reputation, Christian’s life begins to fall apart at the seams.

Even though THE SQUARE’s narrative frequently dips into absurdist comedy, it also has the feeling of a bizarre slice-of-life tale. Selling us on the role of snobby pretentious asshole Christian is Claes Bang. Bang’s protagonist starts off as a thoroughly unlikable, but remains amusing to watch. As the film goes on, Christian goes through a convincing story arc that progressively forces him to confront his uglier qualities and attempt to fix them. This adds a level of believable emotion to a movie that gets crazy and ridiculous. On the supporting side of things, Elisabeth Moss gets a few great scenes as strange journalist Anne, Christopher Laesso is hilarious as a cowardly assistant, Dominic West pops up (twice) as a frustrated artist, and Terry Notary makes a huge impression during the film’s most memorable sequence!

One scene that has been mentioned in many reviews and discussions about the film is the already infamous “dinner scene” in which a shirtless man parades around a room, acting like a violent chimpanzee. This moment starts off as strangely funny, but things quickly take an intense turn when people refuse to help dinner guests who clearly might be in real danger. This dark tone may seemingly come out of nowhere for some viewers, but transgressive humor fills the entire film. Other humorous moments include a man with Tourette syndrome interrupting a press conference, an awkward battle over the contents of a used condom, and painfully ironic interactions with homeless people. This movie is sure to shock and offend some people, but it simply isn’t afraid to push touchy buttons in order to entertain and make darkly humorous observations about society.

THE SQUARE contains lots of laughs, but a surprising amount of heart as well. Christian’s gradual transformation from heartless asshole to person who actually cares about his fellow-man is at this film’s core. However, the final minutes come to an abrupt conclusion that left me a bit unsatisfied. The point of this conclusion might be that life doesn’t quite work out the way you want to, but it felt like something crucial was left out that could tie everything up as a cohesive whole. To make the sudden finale even more baffling, THE SQUARE has a couple of spots where the pacing noticeably lags.

While it may not be perfect and the final third seems incomplete (like the story required something more to wrap it up), THE SQUARE is a cinematic oddity that provides genuine emotion (encased in a video message-turned-rant about society that brilliantly sums up the film’s main themes), lots of laughs, and a foreboding sense of psychological darkness (that damn dinner scene is satirically scary). THE SQUARE is a ballsy piece of art that will leave some viewers head over heels in love with it, others completely indifferent towards it, and some folks absolutely loathing it. I fall into the “I really liked it, but it could have been better” crowd. If you love arthouse cinema and also love mocking the pretentious art crowd, then you’ll likely get a lot of enjoyment out of THE SQUARE!

Grade: B+