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Voyagers

13 Apr

‘Voyagers’: It’s Lord-of-the-Flies-into-space, with kids off their meds and onto adult trouble

By Tom MeekFriday, April 9, 2021

Playing with YA future tropes (think “Hunger Games” and “Chaos Walking”), director Neil Burger (“Limitless” and “Divergent,” another YA sci-fi flyby) fills a spaceship with the genetically engineered offspring of MIT scientists and Nobel laureates and sends them off into the universe to find the next place for humans to expand, because, well, we’ve screwed Earth so royally – no surprise there. The journey, as we’re told by Richard (Colin Farrell), the one adult/chaperone aboard, will take 86 years, and it will be the grandchildren of the mensch progeny that will reseed mankind on a far distant planet, where one can foresee a wash, rinse, trash orb and repeat cycle.

Like “Passengers” (2016) and Clare Denis’ alluring jump into space, “High Life” (2019), “Voyagers” is more about the sexual and personality play among those onboard as opposed to the quest at hand. Of the myriad high-cheekboned Calvin Klein models, the main trio consists of the blandly heroic Christopher (Tye Sheridan, “Ready Player One”), a manically glossy-eyed Zac (Fionn Whitehead, “Dunkirk”) and the dour Sela (Johnny Depp’s daughter, Lily-Rose Depp, who channels dad’s “Cry-Baby” sullenness here). Everyday the sexually budding teens drink a shot of mouthwash-blue liquid that, as Christopher discovers, contains a toxin. Richard quickly explains it away, but the persistent Christopher learns it’s a drug to control, numb and pacify them like saltpeter was rumored to be used on soldiers in days of old. Once the kids go off their meds, merriment, Greco-Roman wrestling and libidos take center stage. It’s here that Richard, through dark happenstance, exits and Christopher and Zac vie to be the alpha male, with Sela’s chastity as the prize hanging in the balance. Other little horny teen fires flare up too, and there’s the threat of an alien aboard whom no one has seen, but can be heard roaming and clanking in the passages above and below. 

What the film comes to is “Lord of the Flies” in deep space with sensual desires being acted upon – forget the conch, it’s all about the satiation of urges. The problem is that everything feels staged and unfelt, even those urges. More problematic perhaps is the sexual aggression some of the young lads unleash upon their female co-explorers. One vicious breast grope is a real eye catcher, but then you realize that the inflight film selection probably didn’t include “Promising Young Woman” (2020) or any proper sexual code of conduct lessoning, given that they’ve been chemically sedated (what was Richard’s master plan, considering the kids would outlive him?). Since this is 2063, #MeToo is clearly a distant memory, or because these kids were deposited on the space vessel so as to not be acculturated to our fat and obsolete ways, how would they know? The provocatively fun thing about Denis’ “High Life” was the way checked and regulated sexuality bent and shaped character and pushed the rules of conduct aboard the ship, as well as our own sense of sexual turpitude. Here it’s like boys discover erections and go berserk with the future of humanity the last thing on their hormone-guided minds.

Godzilla vs. Kong

2 Apr

‘Godzilla vs. Kong’: The humans wisely step aside for a battle of titans, with more kaiju ready to join

By Tom MeekWednesday, March 31, 2021

Pretty much a toe-to-toe slugfest between two alpha males. Think of any of the three Frazier vs. Ali fights or Ali vs. Foreman in the “rumble in the jungle” classic, but at under two hours, the CGI-propelled monster smackdown of “Godzilla vs. Kong” is more like Hagler vs. Hearns, light, fast and furious. The thing about that epic 1985 middleweight bout was its resonance: People were so awed by the raw brutality, the nuclear salvo of haymakers thrown, so violent and yet balletic, three frenetic rounds that would be watched and rewatched, etching Hagler into Boston sporting lore alongside names such as Orr, Bird, Williams and Russell. (Hagler, who sadly just passed, was one of the most dominant boxers of his era; he hailed from Brockton and became an adopted son of Boston).

Speaking of Boston, the last time we got a look at Godzilla in “King of the Monsters” (2018) he was giving Ghidorah a beatdown at Fenway Park. Here, mumblegore stalwart Adam Wingard (“You’re Next,” “V/H/S”) makes an odd but effective choice of director, and with a phalanx of screenwriters forms a crew that knows that the green screen titans getting it on is the jam; they dispatch the what’s-what with a brief undercard of mumbo-jumbo about there only be one ruling kaiju, and then we get into it. Kong is taken from his tiny island; Godzilla comes for him; and aboard the deck of an aircraft carrier we get round one. Cities in the aftermath get obliterated as the lads wander off into their respective corners. There’s something clearly up with Godzilla, we’re told by myriad humans with thespian mettle (and more Boston connections) including Kyle Chandler (“Manchester by the Sea”), Rebecca Hall (“The Town”) Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown from “Stranger Things” and Brian Tyree Henry. What’s eating the big green lizard is Florida. It’s not Mar-a-Lago, the maskless hordes or hanging chads, but a firm called Apex Corp. that makes giant robots – think “Pacific Rim” (2013). Meanwhile, the humans get to fly around in cheesy, neon-lit space pods as they trail Kong, venturing to the earth’s core to retrieve an artifact that will allow him to level the field with the brash lizard. The journey’s a bit of brief psychedelic wonderment, but the buzz is interrupted by some human-hungry fledglings and a radioactive projectile vomit from Godzilla. 

To tell you how the final round goes would be to do a disservice. I can say it’s a worthy climax and, as always with these things, you can be sure the avarice of man has a play in it. And smartly (from a business sense) in this mini-running “MonsterVerse” (two Godzillas, Kong’s “Skull Island” and this) the door’s left open for more.

The Father

14 Mar

‘The Father’: Unforgettable visit with a patriarch who increasingly can’t remember his own family

By Tom Meek Friday, March 12, 2021

In “I Care a Lot,” the recently released Netflix film, Rosamund Pike plays an opportunistic caregiver who imprisons the elderly afflicted with dementia (getting their power of attorney and dumping them in prison-like convalescent homes) and bilks them of their life savings. It’s a slickly made film with a repugnant underbelly – I mean, how can heroes legitimately prey on the weak and infirm? “The Father” stars Anthony Hopkins in a masterclass performance as a memory-challenged senior who may have made a perfect mark for Pike, except for the fact Pike’s deceit took place in our fair Hub and “The Father” unfurls across the pond in England.

What “The Father” also has going for it is Olivia Colman as Anne, the daughter of Hopkins’ aging elder – named Anthony, of all things. Later we see Anne played by Olivia Williams, and Anne’s husband, Paul, is played by Mark Gatiss and then Rufus Sewell. So may Annes, Olivias, Pauls and Anthonys. Is this a Charlie Kaufman film, you might ask. Sure, it’s a bit of a head spin on paper, but it’s masterfully orchestrated by first-time filmmaker Florian Zeller, adapting his stage play. The rooted point of view is that of Anthony’s, so when we first glimmer Paul (Gatiss) in a room in Anthony’s flat it’s as if he’s stumbled upon a burglar – “Who are you?” he barks like a once-feared alpha dog grown long in the tooth. The whole movie proceeds this way, through the eyes of an unreliable narrator; Hopkins’ immersive portrayal helps show what it’s like to see your mental faculties dim in real time. Coleman, so fiery a Queen Anne (that name again) in “The Favourite” (2018), is somber, soulful and deeply compassionate here. It’s a perfectly subdued performance, as Anne’s life with her own growing family has been put on hold, in a sense. Her frustration is clear despite being tucked way down as she remains dutiful and supportive, first and always. Sewell’s Paul is not so restrained, allowing frustration and pain to erupt into anger.

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Chaos Talking

11 Mar

‘Chaos Walking’: On this sci-fi New World, displays of masculinity are clear, dangerous

By Tom Meek Thursday, March 4, 2021

On a far distant planet two centuries into the future, a colony of humans lives in what feels like a Western frontier town atop a forested hilltop. Verdant and inviting like the Adirondacks or British Columbia’s Northwest Pacifica, this is some great outdoor space. The humans in “Chaos Walking,” however, are at war with the planet’s indigenous species, known as the Spackle. It’s an interesting, and I guess, apt name, as the tar-textured, obsidian-colored humanoids look something like sculpture park art more than anything threatening – I feel like I’ve seen them around the grounds of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.

Throughout the film we hardly ever see any of the wall patch-named menace, besides one or two encounters. No, the evil here comes in the form of other humans. David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) – make that Mayor Prentiss – presides over Prentisstown, seemingly the only outpost on the planet. The main things to note about Prentisstown is there are no women, and all the men have digital Pig-Pen dust clouds over their heads called “The Noise,” which basically is whatever’s going on in their mind. What’s that, you say? Imagine going to your boss to ask for a raise and the request is promptly denied due to “tough times,” so you politely say, “Thanks for hearing me out, maybe next year?” as your Noise blurts, “Bastard, you knew I just had a kid, you told me you would bump me up two years ago and you just got a 20 percent bonus for holding down costs? Such a liar!” Awkward and dicey moments happen. (So what of the title? Would not “Chaos Talking” make more sense?) Some of the men can mute their Noise, though; others, including the mayor, can turn it into a sonic shockwave of sorts or project doppelgängers.

“Chaos Walking” is very much a Western in construct, a sci-fi crossover like “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011). The men have blasters, ride horses and are draped in Viking fur dusters, if ever such a thing existed. The reason there are no women, we’re told (like much in Prentisstown, it comes from the lips of the mayor), is that they couldn’t handle The Noise and that the Spackle targeted them. There’s also, across a valley dell, a husk of a gigantic space ship that holds some answers. No one seems curious enough to seek them, and of course, the mayor doesn’t want anyone to go looking.

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I Care a Lot

27 Feb

‘I Care a Lot’: Trying to scam the wrong senior? You realize, of course, that this means war

By Tom MeekFriday, February 26, 2021

“Playing fair is a joke invented by rich people to keep the rest of us poor” – a quote that might ring true if it was about racial inequality, leveling the playing field or creating opportunity for those normally denied. But in “I Care a Lot” it’s from the lips of a corporate Karen who dupes the elderly on the cusp of dementia out of their amassed wealth for her own gain. Yeah, that’s right: Taking advantage of memory challenged seniors so as to fleece your own pockets. The badass “lioness” here, Marla Grayson, is played by Rosamund Pike, who makes the unpalatable role of shameless predator semi-digestible as the caregiver with a swank office of minions who slides into any court hearing about a rich elderly person who may become a ward of the state and sweeps their care under her wing. Then she gets them locked up and drugged up she can liquidate their assets.

Happy days for the elderly and those boxed out who may care for them this is not, but writer/director J Blakeson, channeling David Fincher (who did “Gone Girl” with Pike) musically and in agile editing style, keeps the unlikeable audacity clicking and infectious. It’s something of a cinematic bag of Doritos: The universe says it’s bad for you, you know it’s bad for you and yet you’re all in. How many times has the POV of a serial killer ever worked? (“Dexter,” “Hannibal”?) 

Grayson catches a snag when she targets Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) whose son (Peter Dinklage) is Russian mob connected. You’d think that would be a big cup of no-thank-you-tea, but Grayson doubles down and, as the film wants you to have it, becomes the victim. It’s a ruse that never sticks, considering the countless seniors duped, bilked and bled, left on the shores of nowhere and certain oblivion. We never see that, and Pike’s edgy, engaging performance obscures this into a slick, twisting thriller – and it is slick – but at the heart is a victimization that goes beyond unconscionable. Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell in “Basic Instinct” (1992) feels like a blueprint for Pike’s Grayson, but Tramell was a lioness hunting bull rhinoceroses in their prime; Grayson is an opportunistic hyena sourcing wounded old birds. 

Nomadland

22 Feb

‘Nomadland’: Traveling stoically from job to job, and sometimes it’s cold and the van breaks down

By Tom MeekThursday, February 18, 2021

The films of Chloé Zhao, a short list that is certain to grow, are something else – a unique blend of narrative fiction and docudrama reenactments in which real folks play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, if not just themselves. This kind of filmmaking went disastrously off track for Clint Eastwood in 2018 when he cast the U.S. tourists who thwarted a terrorist attack on a French train as themselves in “The 15:17 to Paris.” Neat idea, but the result was inert, nearly unwatchable. And yes, Jackie Robinson played himself in “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950), but Zhao in her somber wonderment “The Rider” (2018) cast Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn, a horse trainer from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota who, because of a giant scar across of his noggin, is told he can’t ride a horse for fear he’ll take another toss and die. Guess what? Jandreau really has that scar and lived that life that Zhao recreates from the inside out, and that’s the allure of Zhao’s craftsmanship; she’s able to capture that, from the union between man and land to the quiet, tumultuous struggles within.

Here Zhao has added to her stock, inserting a Hollywood A-lister into the mix of regular folk. Frances McDormand, however, is not your typical A-lister, ever amiable and humble in comport, but she is top tier – of that we need to be clear, lest you want to have a backyard scrap. Sporting short cropped hair, McDormand plays Fern, a semi-recently single middle-aged woman cruising the northern plains, bouncing from one seasonal McJob to the next, cleaning toilets at a Badlands glamping site and slinging grub at a rustic lodge-type resort. It ain’t pretty, but Fern seems resigned and dutiful in her tasks. It’s a way of life that affords her freedom – I half expected The Who’s “Going Mobile” to cue up, but there are times Fern comes out from a night in her comfortably worn van wrapped in three layers of blanket and the chill is bone-rattlingly real. And then that aging van dies on her.

That’s about as complicated as “Nomadland” gets. It’s not about a grand crisis du jour, but the tao of our motorized, nomadic workers and their community. The film, like the Jessica Bruder nonfiction book it’s based on, subtitled “Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” is a meander through meanderers who were ostensibly downsized or tossed out of the ivory tower during the 2008 financial meltdown and either couldn’t find their way back or didn’t want to.

For her cast, Zhao does what she did in “The Rider”: Linda, a seasoned nomad with a thick, lustrous silver mane, is played by Linda May; and Swankie, another big-personality road warrior whom we learn has eight months to live, is played by Swankie. You get the idea. The acting by some is great at turns, but it’s not always consistent, and you realize just what you have in someone as good and capable as McDormand (she, the film and Zhao and will continue to reap accolades; the film was part of the Day’s Top 10 Films of 2020 and it won the Boston Society of Film Critics’ Best Picture and Best Director honors). We do get a beat deeper in on Fern when she stops by her sister’s house for a visit. They live very different lives, and in that short stop we learn all we need to know about Fern and where she’s going. Fern is a lonely soul, and it’s something she embraces. David Strathairn drops in as a campground worker named, well, uhmm, Dave who takes a liking to Fern – their online profiles, should they ever get back on the grid, would be a 100 percent match – but Fern holds him at bay. “I have to do laundry,” she says to a holiday invite.

The real star of the film is the Badlands and plains, so alluring and grand and framed so by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who collaborated with Zhao on “The Rider.” How “Nomadland” ends isn’t really the point; it’s about the journey and disconnected people connecting, finding solidarity in their transient way of existence. 

Judas and the Black Messiah

14 Feb

Judas and the Black Messiah’: Black Panthers attempt to change history, but it repeats itself

By Tom MeekFriday, February 12, 2021

“Judas and the Black Messiah” begins as a fairly rote history lesson – though an important one – detailing the galvanization of the Black Panther Party in Chicago in 1968 and onward in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the year’s chaotic Democratic convention (so beautifully chronicled by Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” a wild blend of real footage and staged narrative, and Aaron Sorkin’s faux follow-on, “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” which came out last year).

The film, directed by Shaka King (“Newlyweeds”), is blessed with the thespian thunder and lightning punch of Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) and LaKeith Stanfield (“Sorry to Bother You”) playing 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal, Hampton’s security adviser who also happened to be an FBI informant. Hampton as depicted seems enlightened and visionary beyond his years – charismatic, powerfully eloquent in the way other iconic Black leaders of the era were, and willing to take up arms if the structures of society try to cage or emasculate a people. It’s a riveting tour de force by Kaluuya, but the film’s engine and drive comes from its Judas. King, who also penned the script, tries to cast O’Neal in a somewhat sympathetic light, more pressed by his FBI handlers (Jesse Plemons and Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover), but we also get framing footage of a 1990 interview with the real-life O’Neal (his only interview), and the character in the dramatization and the one in the archive reel don’t feel congruent. It’s not hampering to the film, which finds fire as the Panther movement builds, matched by police that employ offensive (and perhaps illegal) force to hammer it down. But it does leave the enigmatic burn of just who was Bill O’Neal, and what was his motivation?

How things sort out in history for Hampton and O’Neal is on the record, and to give those details here I believe would be to underserve the film and the viewing experience. In texture, “Judas and the Black Messiah” reminds me of Kathryn Bigelow’s dark, underappreciated 2017 unrest drama “Detroit,” in that it takes a smaller chapter of the civil rights struggle and shines a light on police audacity and social inequity. In their dramatic richness, the films help to keep those chapters in our minds, educate, revise the record and spark historical and social interest. “Judas” does all that and cements Kaluuya as an A-lister.

Malcolm & Marie

8 Feb

‘Malcolm & Marie’: Couples get in arguments, but this barn-burner gives us front-row seats

By Tom MeekSaturday, February 6, 2021

MALCOLM & MARIE (L-R): ZENDAYA as MARIE, JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON as MALCOLM. DOMINIC MILLER/NETFLIX © 2021

“Malcolm & Marie” is a he-she rat-a-tat that revolves around a couple that has just notched a new high, and as a result is on the edge of breaking apart. The entirely of the film takes place in a chic Malibu bungalow. Just how chic it is we never really know, because most of the action takes place inside (with a few artful outside-looking-in shots) and it’s night. One o’clock and onward, to be exact. We catch up with the titular couple arriving at the rented-by-the-studio digs following the premiere of his (John David Washington) film about a young female drug user’s struggle to recovery. The film’s a hit, but she (Zendaya) is the one whose life is up on screen – and she’s an actor he did not cast. Those things could float, but in his big post-party speech he fails to acknowledge her. it’s here that a bowl of mac and cheese becomes a driving wedge, and through the night the conversation ebbs and flows in tides of rage, compassion, accusation and revelation.

It’s something like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) without the second couple, though the specter of other paramours creep in (she’s cheated on him, he’s still fond of an old flame who likes cheesy motels). It’s also not as dark or compelling as that barn-burning Mike Nichols adaptation of Edward Albee’s play, though the film, written and directed by Sam Levinson – who pens the hit streaming series “Euphoria” that has rocketed Zendaya to fame – has a trio of aces to play here: the drop-dead gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Marcell Rév (who has done several projects with Levinson), his two actors (more on that in a bit) and edgy dialogue that often takes on white privilege. Given that topic, does it matter that the performers are black and writer-director Levinson is white? The answer really lies in the verisimilitude of the art. And while it’s riveting to hear Malcolm take apart a white female critic who’s paying him praise along color lines (“White-assed writer making it about race, because it’s convenient”), it feels fabricated and overly highbrow. One thing it raises is the odd, symbiotic relationship between critic and artist and the lines each draw, which most recently blew up when Casey Mulligan took exception to a Variety review of “Promising Young Woman” (2020) that she felt unfairly took shots at her credibility in the part due to her looks.

All the arguing can be entertaining, but does it feel genuine? In pieces it does, which helps the film work given the thin conceptual veneer. The performers are dead on too. It’s mostly Washington’s film, but Zendaya gets her licks in (feigning despair to prove she can act, describing how to be a better partner in a bit that feels ripped from a Spike Lee joint). Washington’s career seemed so promising after “Blackkklansman” (2018), and then he got caught up in Christopher Nolan’s time rewind riddle “Tenet” (2020), where he felt less than heroic or involved in stature and I developed some doubts about Denzel’s progeny being able to carry a film; here he’s set the record straight with range, charisma and a character conviction that shows.

By the end, “Malcom & Marie” doesn’t really move the conversation on race, relations or art. It’s two great performances on an alluring stage, but nothing feels truly at risk and nothing life-altering is revealed. This is the blueprint for the next red carpet event – one I’d want a ticket to, as well as some post-party mac and cheese with Malcolm and Marie.

Bliss

8 Feb

‘Bliss’: Wilson and Hayek simulate ‘The Matrix’

By Tom MeekFriday, February 5, 2021

Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek in “Bliss.”

Mike Cahill, the somber indie voice behind “Another Earth” (2011) where alternate realities coincided, overlapped and collided, retools the concept here with a bigger palette and broader ambition. It grips and grabs as his former film did, but the result’s not nearly as compelling. “Bliss” begins something like a Mike Judge offering (“Idiocracy,” “Office Space”) with an IT office cog gloriously named Greg (Owen Wilson) who doodles sketches of a fetching woman on some exotic veranda. The place Greg works at, Technical Difficulties, is a pressure cooker, bleeding business to cheaper, India-based call centers; needless to say, Greg’s artistic malaise doesn’t bode well with his coworkers. In short order he’s called in and terminated; but before the escorted-out-of-the-office walk of shame takes place, Greg accidentally kills his former boss, decides to cover it up (in a great tracking shot) and heads to the bar next door to steel his nerves.

It’s a grandly dark and goofy (mostly because of Wilson’s shaggy dog persona) waltz in. You’re hooked; Greg’s either liberated from the yoke of unappreciative capitalism or en route to a 10-to-life term for manslaughter. But where Cahill goes from there becomes muddled and disconcerting. At Plato’s Dive (said watering hole ) Greg is called out by a woman (Salma Hayek) sitting across the dark divide in a booth. “You’re real,” she exclaims, pointing a finger at him like she has him snared in a tractor beam. Curiosity piqued, Greg takes a seat, tunes in and over the course of a soul-nourishing scotch, the thick-haired maven (Isabel, as the film has it), operating with shamanistic authority, pops a few magic crystals and makes Greg’s office worries disappear. It’s here that we learn Greg is newly divorced, his daughter is graduating college and he’s been living in a motel somewhere around the corner. It also looks like he hasn’t washed his hair in weeks. (Some people might find the pairing of Hayek and Wilson a curious one. I did, but the Mutt and Jeff contrast abates early.)

The film bounces us to Isabel’s digs, something of a hobo encampment within the confines of the concrete channel that is the L.A. River (“I’m not homeless,” she says. “I’m living off the grid”) and pulling back the veil, the two are at a grand Riviera estate with Bill Nye in a tuxedo addressing Isabel as a doctor and professor. The two are also in grand attire, with Greg’s hair washed and blown out, and every now and then passersby are seen as glitchy computer generated images – FGPs, or Fake Generated Persons, as Isabel tells us. What’s going on? Have we jumped down some weird, sci-fi rabbit hole? Are these homeless delusions à la “The Fisher King” (1991), or some type of a psych ward or science experiment gone off the rails like “12 Monkeys” (1995)? Then there’s all the “Matrix”-esque crystals Isabel keeps popping.

The device that rooted the viewer in that stasis-dreaming-man-as-a-battery trilogy helmed by the Wachowskis and those Terry Gilliam films (and “Vanilla Sky” as well) was the reliable point of view from their unreliable protagonists: We saw only what they saw. Here Cahill has us tight in with Greg, and halfway through the film offers side vignettes of his children (interestingly, looking nothing like Greg – something that’s never really explained and doesn’t really need to be) and other POVs that jar and poke holes in the tenuous bubble he’s filled with techno/other-world mumbo-jumbo.

One of the more interesting spins is that Isabel and Greg, when jacked on crystals, can use their fingers to throw the fake people around. “You’re a telekinetic warrior,” Isabel says of Greg after he crushes a van full of harassing hoods like a tin can. But it’s somewhat unsettling to see him take a walker out from under an old woman just because of a scowling glare directed at Isabel. What begins as a social justice payback when Isabel takes out the legs of a creep copping butt grabs of yoga-panted women at a skating rink becomes something of the bar bloodlust scene Hayek was part of in “From Dusk Till Dawn” (1995). In that Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez vampire creation, it was comical and to the point; here, even given the impunity of consequence, it’s not dark or even cruel like a boy blowing up frogs with firecrackers – it just undermines the characters and the tone of the film.

The Little Things

31 Jan

‘The Little Things’: Tracking a killer before GPS, with detectives who also wander the moral map

By Tom MeekFriday, January 29, 2021

In this throwback neo-noir baked in the David Fincher oven of dark serial-killer thrillers (“Seven,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Zodiac”) director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “The Rookie”) scores something of a casting coup, landing a trio of Academy Award-winners for his leads. Hancock has been wanting to make “The Little Things” since the early ’90s, when he penned it and (around the same time) “A Perfect World,” the Clint Eastwood-helmed crime drama starring Kevin Costner. At one point Steven Spielberg’s name was attached to the project (too dark), but now things have come full circle with the writer-turned-director taking charge of his scene-by-scene, murder mystery blueprint.

The drama takes place in L.A. around the time Hancock wrote it, well before cellphones, social media and reliable and readily available DNA testing. A gray-dusted Denzel Washington takes center as Joe “Deke” Deacon, a deputy from a dusty town north of L.A. who must reluctantly head back to the city of his former employ to pick up evidence. While there he drops in on a burgeoning investigation led by Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), a tightly coiled homicide dick newly onto the trail of what looks to be a serial killer. Deke tags along to one crime scene, and the Frick-and-Frack tandem click. Deke decides to stick around and help QB from the backseat. Like “LA Confidential” (1997), the “The Little Things” is less about the who-did-it than the people pursuing the criminal acts, though suspect numero uno Albert Sparma (Jared Leto, sporting bad chompers, a prosthetic schnoz, low-riding paunch and a bow-legged gait) is something of a scene stealer, two parts Charlie Manson (sans flock), one part the maniacal god complex that Leto dredged up for “Blade Runner 2049” (2017) and a dash of Hannibal Lecter thrown in for good fun. Granted, he’s not as lethal as any of those lads, but he does drive a bitchin’ ’70s Chevy Nova SS and really knows how to get under everybody’s skin. When Sparma (sounds like a hot Italian sub with oozing mozzarella, right?) isn’t ripping it up with philosophical psychobabble that feels written for the lips of Jim Morrison, we get the dark why of Deke’s being run out of L.A. and start to see that Baxter’s overreaching confidence might be more chest puffing than can-do.

“The Little Things” moves in mysterious, murky tics embossed by John Schwartzman’s shadowy but sharp cinematography and Thomas Newman’s moody score. Ir all feels so visceral, deep and compelling, but when the reveals come back around, many of the threads register all for naught, a goose chase without the fowl. Washington (“Training Day,” “Glory”) and Malek (an electric Freddy Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody”) often feel like they’re occupying sketches of complex men, their renowned talent square pegs shoved in round holes. Malek, boyish and slick, feels too fresh and wide-eyed for a part that demands a more world-weary soul. Leto (“Dallas Buyer’s Club”), on the other hand, is a merry pixie of perversion, dancing his way around Hancock’s noirish landscape pulling strings and pushing buttons, consequences be damned – much like the film itself.