Though it might push the doomsday clock closer to midnight, spycraft aficionados rejoice at the reemergence of Russia as a global adversary and therefore a stock villain in Hollywood movies. A few seconds more towards nuclear annihilation is a small price to pay if it means more dead drops and surveillance on the big screen. Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow doesn’t even bother to place its tale of Russian espionage during Soviet days, preferring to set itself in the modern day. One can imagine the marketing team saying a prayer of thanks when Maria Butina was arrested in the months before its release. Serendipitously relevant only in the broadest geopolitical sense, Red Sparrow is a perfectly fine thriller, albeit one with little to say about the modern Russia its wunderkind spy lives in.
For the latest in micro-budget workarounds, the world turns to Searching, a kidnap thriller with the gimmick that all of its events take place through a webcam or on a screen. For his debut feature, director Aneesh Chaganty gives himself a high degree of difficulty, ensuring that his film will not exactly be the most cinematic to grace theater screens. However, thanks to the frayed-nerve desperation of star John Cho and a propulsive script, Searching transcends its technologically-imposed limitations to tell a classic story of a father and daughter drifting apart long before the dramatic events of the film. The germ of Chaganty’s film would work in a pre-smartphone era, though the gimmick would have to be reconsidered.
Taylor Sheridan has made his name as the writer behind crackling Southwestern thrillers like Sicario and Hell and High Water. After this productive period, he returns behind the camera for Wind River, a film far from the desert but as bleak as those landscapes are dry. There are striking similarities between all three, like culture clashes, communities in decline, and a female outsider butting up against entrenched and male-dominated systems, but why change what’s been working? Sheridan maintains his above-average credentials with Wind River, another quality entry in the emerging genre of the contemporary wilderness Western kicked off by No Country For Old Men.
Guillermo del Toro, a director best known for his creature design, makes a Gothic doomed romance in Crimson Peak, but del Toro being del Toro, he can't help but include some supernatural elements. His heightened, Bronte-ish tale of murder and subterfuge and illicit passions is a familiar story dressed up with del Toro's fantastical sensibility. Unsatisfied with the drafty mansions these stories take place in, he puts his titular decrepit estate on top of a red clay mine, causing the structure itself to bleed with viscous fingers of earth that rise out of the ground, almost pulling the building into hell. Crimson Peak is a pleasure to watch frame to frame, even as the plot gets increasingly predictable.
The Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks-produced miniseries John Adams opened with the titular founding father defending the hated perpetrators of the Boston Massacre. Despite the threats to Adams' economic and personal safety, he stood for principle when seemingly the rest of Boston stood for revenge. Wanting to shepherd a very similar story to the big screen, Spielberg's Bridge of Spies exchanges Adams for Hanks in everyman mode and British soldiers for a single Soviet spy.
Perhaps the most intense, bleak, soul-searing WWII film since Come and See, Laszlo Nemes' Son of Saul buries the viewer in human misery and evil. There are no last second reprieves a la Schindler's List or life-saving acts of mercy a la Fury. It is black all the way through, a form of cinematic homework that found this viewer taking a breath before pressing play, knowing it was going to be an endurance test. It's a test worth taking, not only to bear witness to an adaptation of first-hand accounts of the Holocaust, but also because Nemes drops the viewer as far into historic atrocity as any work has before.
After Blue Ruin, his gritty, low-rent revenge thriller, Jeremy Saulnier plainly isn't about to wash all the grime off in his follow-up, Green Room. Taking place almost solely in a backwoods neo-Nazi bar, this pot-boiler upgrades the cast but retains Blue Ruin's shocks and visceral violence.
Bryan: Jon, thanks for attending Ebertfest with me. I had a great time. We saw “Radical Grace” and “Blow Out” but before we discuss those movies, what were your thoughts on the venue? I thought the Virginia theater had a great atmosphere - the sight lines were good, the volunteers were helpful, and the audience was in it to win it. They laughed at semi-awkward times, but that probably comes with the territory when three-quarters of your audience has a Master’s degree or higher. Watching a movie in a full house isn’t typically my cup of tea, but I really enjoyed this experience. The biggest downfall was the incredibly lumpy, cramped seats.
Jon: Hey, thanks for hosting me. This was my first film festival, and will certainly not be my last. On the venue itself, we’re pretty much on the same page, though I’d give butt comfort a higher grade than you might. We both agree that leg comfort was lacking, in that it was bad enough to keep me from sticking around to hear Nancy Allen discuss Blow Out after the credits rolled on that movie. We definitely picked good seats for both showings. On the audience, I was more mixed. While I thought they laughed at mostly appropriate times during Blow Out, the same couldn’t be said for Radical Grace, where deserved laughter occasionally morphed into political choir-preaching. We’re watching a movie, not attending a fundraiser, and the applause at hearing a liberal bromide, whether I agree with the sentiment or not, was a little annoying.
On the movies themselves, let’s start with Radical Grace, Rebecca Parrish’s doc about nuns in conflict with the strictly male hierarchy of the Catholic church. I’m the lapsed (what’s a harsher term?) Catholic after a rigorous upbringing, so it was a film attuned to my inner wavelength. Not coming from that specific religious tradition, how did the movie resonate with you?
By Jon Kissel
In Black Sea, Jude Law continues to demonstrate some mid-career range. In 2015, he's played a Bond-ian spy in, uh, Spy, and in Kevin MacDonald's claustrophobic thriller, he nails the polar opposite, a blue collar roughneck tasked with recovering sunken treasure. MacDonald uses Law and a gritty cast to great effect, recreating the dreary heist films of the 70's. Put a resentful Popeye Doyle in a submarine, and Black Sea stays mostly the same. Law's character, who often drives the action through sheer force of will, stands up nicely against that earlier incarnation of a man who sees what the job is, and drives steadfastly, if not recklessly, towards its completion.
Black Sea contains all the standard heist tropes of team assembly and plan-making, but its extra ingredient is a general, simmering anger at the higher-ups of society. As the film begins, Law's Robinson is being laid off from his long-time job at a salvage company, and he has plenty of compatriots going through the same thing. One of them tips him off to a plan that the company was unable to pull off, a sunken submarine in the eponymous body of water filled with gold that Stalin intended to transfer to Hitler in exchange for peace. Anxious for a big payday, and equally for a way to stick his thumb in his old company's eye, Robinson takes the job, funded by a mysterious money man and his associate Daniels (Scoot McNairy). From there, it's not difficult to find other men with similar impulses, and a mixed English and Russian crew strike out for their quarry.
Once the logistics and manpower are checked off, Black Sea joins the other taut thrillers set in submarines. That environment is inherently dramatic, and for my money, every film set in it has a baked-in degree of success. Several scenes of the sonarman plying his trade are excellent, as that's a task that is just arcane enough to inspire awe at its accomplishment while seeming knowable in its execution. Unwilling to settle for a straightforward heist, Dennis Kelly's script throws in several wrenches between factions of the crew. Daniels is forced to go along by his employer, and is decidedly out of place amongst these rough, burly, and bearded men. One short on his planned crew, Robinson also takes along the teenaged Tobin (Bobby Schofield) to serve as a gopher. Most interestingly, the always-welcome Ben Mendelsohn plays a significant role as the unhinged diver Fraser. Between Tobin's inexperience, Fraser's instability, and the ire that Daniels generates amongst the crew that see him as the upper-class avatar of all their problems, every action or conversation is fraught with tension.
In this potboiler, Law is utterly convincing as an alpha amongst alphas. It is vital that the film convey the strength required to keep the ship and its volatile crew on course, and Law has that gravitas, and then some. His Robinson rarely sets a foot out of place, though he does have his blind spots. His sense of fair play causes him to dictate that all crew members will receive an equal share, though it seems unfathomable to him that a crew member might conspire to reduce the crew's numbers and get a larger share. Robinson is so dead set against being like his former employers and their cost-cutting methods, that he forgets everyone's there for a mixture of greed and spite. Even when making short-sighted decisions like these, Robinson remains a man worth following. Creepy Mendelsohn and toady McNairy are square in their wheelhouses, and they do not disappoint. Schofield occupies a difficult space, as his existence makes up the most hackneyed portion of the film, though he does what he can to make Tobin a sympathetic character despite his occasional high-stakes clumsiness.
Black Sea is a highly-functional, compulsively watchable thriller built for an age of tenuous futures. In the annals of submarine films, The Hunt for Red October welcomes a compatriot with open arms. MacDonald, Kelly, and Law combine to make a resonant, adult film that leaves the viewer grateful for plentiful oxygen and personal space. B
Random projects from the MMC Universe.