Tag: james badge dale

Donnybrook


Donnybrook (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Tim Sutton attempts to comment on the current state of America, specifically of low-income communities in rural and forgotten parts of the country, through a microcosm: a man who signs up to participate in a cage match where the winner will walk away with $100,000. Although well-intentioned, this adaptation of Frank Bill’s novel is far from a compelling story because the screenplay fails to drill deeply into the humanity of key characters: a former Marine, a meth dealer and his accomplice, and a cop in charge of investigating drug-related murders.

Their surface characteristics are introduced in a formulaic fashion. Jarhead (Jamie Bell) may look tough and angry, but he actually cares for his drug-addicted wife and two children; Chainsaw (Frank Grillo) is psychotic and extremely violent, even to his sister Delia (Margaret Qualley) who yearns to be treated right; Sheriff Deputy Whalen (James Badge Dale) is jaded when it comes to his job—he, like Delia, struggles with loneliness and substance abuse. As you see, elements are present so that we wish to know more about the subjects. However, the picture fails to take off because the screenplay, for the most part, seems uninterested in exploring the connections among the characters as individuals facing external battles and as people who must fight their own demons in order to have the chance to come out the other side and start anew.

The approach is one-dimensional and tedious: present bleakness to the point of suffocation—perhaps then viewers will be forced to consider gravity of the topics it broaches. This strategy can be effective in the right hands but dangerous when not applied correctly. This film leans toward the latter. Drama must be mined, not just presented. A movie centering around poor, white Americans living in the Midwest must be relatable to the rich, non-white, non-Americans living in Silicon Valley. In other words, the story must be shaped and presented in a way that is accessible without sacrificing what it is about or what it wishes to say.

Even if it were successful on that level, Sutton’s film lacks urgency. The pacing is as slow as molasses, there are numerous steady shots of the sky, grass, and lonely roads, cold colors like blue and grey dominate the screen. Problems pile up but it offers no solutions. There is only violence. But even then the work offers no reprieve to the desperation and depression all around. By the end one is forced to ask the point of it all instead of arriving at a handful of insights. There is a disconnect between material and audience. It shouldn’t be this way.

It is a shame because Bell, Grillo, and Dale are the sort of performers who can communicate plenty with a glance held for one second too long. Here, they play characters who do not or cannot express themselves using words. And so their actions say a lot about them. Aside from the march to the cage fight, they are not given much to do. Once each character is given a definition, they fail to evolve. And because there’s no change, we ask why these specimens are worth putting under the microscope. I struggle to come up with an answer.

The Empty Man


The Empty Man (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

David Prior’s “The Empty Man,” based on the graphic novel by Cullen Bunn, already clocks in at about two hours and twenty minutes, but I believe this is a rare instance in which a horror film might have benefited had it possessed a running time closer to three hours. It is a long journey, filled with curiosities, mysteries, and terror—which opens in 1995 as two American couples stumble upon an ancient entity in Ura Valley, Bhutan at the end of their five-mile hike. This pre-title sequence leads us to believe that the story will be supernatural horror in nature. But the deeper it digs, my mind couldn’t help but think about Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”

Perhaps it is because there is a palpable sense of foreboding about it. Cut to 2018, we follow a former detective named James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) who chooses to help a neighbor (Marin Ireland) when her daughter (Sasha Frolova) goes missing. “The Empty Man made me do it,” is smeared on Amanda’s bathroom mirror and it is written in blood. Despite this ominous message, the cops have reason to believe it is a straightforward runaway case. Yet something tells James that the scenario is a bit off and so he decides to interview one of Amanda’s friends at the high school. Again, there is the mention of The Empty Man.

According to urban legend, if you find yourself on a bridge in the middle of the night, come across an empty bottle, and blow on it, you’d hear The Empty Man’s footsteps on the first night. On the second night, you’d actually see it. And on the third, you’d feel it—because it found you. What’s brilliant about this picture is that we are presented the source of this urban legend—the extended pre-title sequence in the Himalayas. And so when the core is chiseled and misshapen by time and word-of-mouth, we remain to have a solid reference. I wished more horror movies that deal with modern urban legends possess the patience that this work offers.

I enjoyed watching Dale as a man who is both guilt-ridden and in mourning of his wife and young son’s passing. We see glimpses of his nightmares, how he wasn’t there when his spouse lost control of the vehicle on the icy road. Dale plays James as a man who wants to move forward—choosing to take on mysterious case on an unofficial capacity—but his past holds him back like a giant boulder. As the Amanda case gets more bizarre, we can read in Dale’s eyes that perhaps James had bitten off more than he could chew. But he cannot quit; he is too entrenched.

Here is a story in which an argument can be made that the supernatural angle is less scary than what is really going on. Because in the former, without giving important details away, only minimal evidence can be found, circumstantial at best. Myths, rumors, and urban legends—they’re just words that can be heard, read in books or online articles and blog posts. But when there is tangible proof that something sinister is afoot, one that involves people in your lives, this is far more chilling because it forces you to re-evaluate how you’re living your life, how you see random people in the street, and perhaps relationships closest to you.

This is the point when the movie begins to fall apart. The overall mystery is fascinating and the lead character is someone we wish to follow, but because the film, especially since it is of a certain genre, feels the need to wrap up under a time limit, the resolution is rushed to the point where it gives the impression that it is uninterested in tying up loose ends. Clearly, the writer-director is more than capable of doing so because the work has proven its patience and penchant for details. When the film is already nearly two hours and thirty minutes, the correct choice is to take the story to completion even if it requires an hour more.

“The Empty Man” misses the mark by a hair.

Into the Ashes


Into the Ashes (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Most will walk away from “Into the Ashes,” written and directed by Aaron Harvey, and consider it to be too slow a thriller involving a man who attempts to exact vengeance on a trio who killed his wife. Who can blame them when revenge movies are typically fast-paced? A case can be made that a third to about half of this project is exposition. But that’s precisely what I liked about it: the template is familiar but the approach is different, challenging, perhaps even off-putting. I go even further: I think the story provides no catharsis. And so why is it worth seeing?

The answer lies in its style. Clearly influenced by character-driven neo-noir pictures with some philosophical leanings, the film is silent, brooding, and interested in observing the every day of its subject’s life. Nick (Luke Grimes) is married to Tara (Marguerite Moreau) and they live an ordinary partnership in rural Alabama. The camera captures and stays still during Nick’s private’s moments. There is suggestion that this man is more complicated than the mask he puts on for others. Does he consider himself to be a monster in the past?

When he is by himself, it feels as though he carries a secret so heavy that he is suffocating. It also comes across as though he is waiting for something that he knows will catch up to him. This sense of inevitability prevents Nick from being truly himself. And so there is a wall—between him and his friends (James Badge Dale), him and his wife, certainly between him and his father-in-law (Robert Taylor, also providing narration), as well as him and the audience. If you expect that penetration of such wall is in the formula, you will be disappointed.

People around Nick think they know him. There is a level of sadness to this incomplete connection, but the screenplay does not make it a priority to explore or exorcise it. It’s just the way things are. Grimes plays the enigmatic man as if he wishes to be invisible. There is a gentleness to Nick but a danger, too. When faced with a former colleague who has just been released from prison (Frank Grillo), Nick need not be reminded of his guilt for it is always there. Nick exhibits no fear. Perhaps it is because his anger is so overwhelming due to what Sloan and the other two (David Cade, Scott Peat) did to his wife. “We used to be a family,” one of them claims, as if he, too, is on a quest to set things right. They share no blood. But by the end of this story, blood will be shed. It must.

“Into the Ashes” reminds me of Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace” and Henry Dunham’s “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” not because of the content but in the senses they evoke while sitting through them. There is curiosity and excitement, yes, and there is violence. But what I love most is the feeling that the project is made without compromise—that the work is made with and driven by passion. It is not interested in meeting anyone’s expectation. What matters most is telling the story the way it ought be told. More filmmakers should follow suit.

The film is for those hoping to experience an alternative approach of telling a revenge story. It may not provide satisfaction in a traditional sense, but it offers an eye and ear for poetry. A heavy, portentous atmosphere. It gives images of action, but it is up to us to dig deeper and surmise what it is that propels each character and why. When the picture reaches moments of monotony, does a character on screen feel stagnant in some way? We are inspired to ask what makes sense for them instead of what feels right for a standard action-thriller. Do not expect to be spoon-fed here.

Little Woods


Little Woods (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Nia DaCosta’s “Little Woods” is a tale of two sisters living in fictional Little Woods, North Dakota who must continue with life after their mother dies. It is told with empathy and humanity without touching an ounce of sentimentality despite the crippling destitution all around. It is the kind of movie that invites us to look closely at how people live, from the size of their homes, the clutter, the food they eat, down to the items inside their cabinets. There is drama on the surface, but it requires looking just underneath the plot to become invested in it.

Tessa Thompson and Lily James play Ollie and Deb, estranged sisters who reconnect when life pushes them toward a new phase. With Ollie, she has ten days left of probation after having gotten caught smuggling and selling drugs between the United States and Canada. She wishes to move out of town and start anew, but there is so much temptation to go back to what she does so well. Meanwhile, Deb has just found out she’s pregnant. Already raising a young son, there’s just no chance she can continue to provide from waitressing.

Ian (James Badge Dale), her on-and-off lover, is deadbeat who promises a lot but delivers little. Deb wants an abortion, but even that costs money. Thompson and Lily are believable as sisters who may not be of blood but their history glues them together in such a way that they might as well be. There is not one scene or moment that does not come across genuine. And so, for instance, when Ollie decides to go back to selling painkillers, we have a thorough appreciation of her and her sister’s circumstances. In its essence, it is a survival tale.

It is interesting that although the plot involves selling and transporting drugs, there is not one cop that suspects and follows Ollie. This is a smart choice by the writer-director because doing so would have shifted the tone toward a thriller category. This is not meant to imply the picture is without suspenseful moments. On the contrary, there are plenty of it. For instance, Ollie must deal with suspicious individuals—many of them drug addicts—and she is required to check-in with her probation officer (Lance Reddick) who is really proud of her for coming so far.

In the latter situation, the fear is not so much about getting caught and being sent to jail. It is about not disappointing the one person who is tough on Ollie because he genuinely cares for how her life will turn out. Carter cares, I think, not just because it is his job but because he sees potential in Ollie to do good and to lead a stable life—a simple one—that’s rewarding in its own way. He sees the brightness at the end of her tunnel more clearly than she does. So, he tries to pull her toward it in a no-nonsense fashion.

Having said that, I appreciated that Ollie’s relationship with her probation officer is not explored. Thompson and Reddick are so communicative without having to rely on words. I felt a certain trust between the writer-director and the actors, and also trust between the thoughtful material and the receptive audience. It is not necessary to have to spell out everything for the sake of clarity. Because, as we all know, in life, certain things go beyond description or explanation.

“Little Woods” is not about action but about observation. We spend a couple of days in Ollie and Deb’s shoes and appreciate their loneliness and desperation to be free. Although the story is quite bleak, there are enough hopeful moments that hint at the possibly that the siblings would turn out all right eventually even though it is challenge to imagine it from moment to moment. Despite the plot lacking big, sweeping events, it offers many layers and dimension.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek


The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Hypnotic, tense, and with numerous tricks up its sleeve, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” tells the story of six members of a militia who gather at a warehouse following a gunman who opened fire at a police funeral. They realize that the perpetrator is among them given the fact that one of the automatic weapons in their stock is missing in addition to some grenades, bullets, and bulletproof vests. Going to the police as a group is not an option—it is certain that every one of them would get the blame. So it is up to Gannon (James Badge Dale), a former cop who specializes in extracting confessions, to determine which of his peers is the gunman (Chris Mulkey, Happy Anderson, Brian Geraghty, Robert Aramayo, Patrick Fischler). Put your seatbelts on.

It is proud to be a film for cinéphiles. Right from its excellent opening scene in which we observe Gannon hunting an animal but instead the quiet, meditative moment is interrupted by a muffled but terrifying assault rifle going off in the distance, followed by well-paced opening minutes in which the curious faraway event feels as though it is encroaching toward Gannon’s isolated existence, writer-director Henry Dunham proves to be in complete control of all the gears and machinations of his material. For instance, he is fully aware that men gathering in an enclosed space and pointing fingers is not fresh, and so he is quick to unearth character details—to show from the get-go why his subjects, and therefore his story, are special. This is Dunham’s first feature film. And I suspect, should he continue to deliver high caliber work, it will be one of many.

Gannon is neither the toughest nor the smartest man in the room. But we get the feeling he is most principled, the one who is likely to do what is right. Dale plays the protagonist with quiet but commanding charisma; he evinces a certain goodness, trustworthiness. As our kind-of moral compass, we bond with Gannon as he interviews those who may have done the crime. By asking questions, and the manner in which he asks them at times, not only do we learn about the suspects, we also learn about the interviewer. It is most fascinating when he—inevitably—loses control of the interview process. There is not one dumb person in the group, but some are certainly smarter than others. A few are quite cunning, particularly the one who treats J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” as his bible. He does not speak.

The dialogue-heavy script is fun to listen to, to drill into, and to look back on and connect the dots. On this level, the script is worthy of being in the same sentence as Quentin Tarantino for it inspires those who love words and conversations to lean closer and listen a little more heavily, to determine whether something is being said in the unsaid. Each character has a specific voice, a perspective we may not agree with but nonetheless fascinating. Furthermore, those who are well-versed in good mysteries are certain to catch red herrings. The challenge, however, is determining how each “misplaced element” fits into the plot. There is not one wasted image here. Each one has its place. Even quick flashbacks usually treated as throwaways in lesser hands. I admired that.

I found “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” to be riveting from start to finish. Even when I knew, for example, that a certain thing simply could not happen because doing so would betray the material’s themes, I caught myself feeling anxious anyway because what if turning certain themes inside out could end up more revealing than what is already in front of us? And therein lies Henry Dunham’s ability to play the audience like a piano. On the surface, the film is Tarantinoesque. But I’ll take it a step further and claim that, on the inside, it is Hitchcockian.

Miss Meadows


Miss Meadows (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Karen Leigh Hopkins’ “Miss Meadows” is the kind of picture that leaves the audience completely baffled, perhaps even deeply frustrated, by the time it is over. Although obviously a character study of a woman with a fixed idea of what is right versus wrong and anything that challenges her beliefs drives her closer to the edge of madness, the material does not know whether it is a satirical dark comedy or a serious meditation of morality and of violence, how complex it is for one to have a code and one must live in a world that may not abide by such code.

What results is a misfire of a film project, one that comes across as embarrassed to dig deeply into human psychology and face the horrors of what is in front of us, the unconscious, and the subconscious. Notice how the title character, played Katie Holmes, is often reduced to behavior, immediately observable during the moment we meet her, even during personal and revealing moments. Although tears fall from the performer’s communicative eyes, we simply do not believe the character’s pain, suffering, and whatever she is going through. This is because the drama, even though it is willing to embrace hyperbole at times, is not rooted in any reality, let alone one that is relatable. There is a wall between the material and the audience.

The look of the picture is dull and uninviting—a miscalculation because some of the uneasy topics it brings up, like vigilante justice and mental health that goes unchecked, are already repellent. Perhaps a point can be made that the romance between Miss Meadows, a substitute grade school teacher, and the town’s sheriff (James Badge Dale) is meant to be inviting because the performers share solid chemistry, but the script fails to take the relationship anywhere remotely interesting. The most tension it commands involves the cop possibly having to arrest his new romantic interest because she is a suspect to the recent murders around the neighborhood.

I looked at Holmes in this film and realized that it must be a passion project for her. She attempts to enrich the skeletal material by emoting to the point of near-satire but there is barely anything to work with. I watched the character closely and wondered if perhaps, given a far richer material, it would have been more intriguing had Miss Meadows’ histrionics been downplayed, portrayed as someone who looks and acts “normal” when out in public but one who is revealed to be deeply disturbed the more we get to spend time with her. It certainly could have been a more haunting approach to paint the character this way. I appreciate, however, that Miss Meadows is not depicted as a clear-cut anti-heroine.

“Miss Meadows” offers misguided social commentary—and one that isn’t even interesting. Long stretches of the project are downright boring, so tedious and repetitive that one is challenged not to look at the clock or check how many minutes left to be endured. Quirky or flashy behavior does not make a movie and this work is a prime example.

The Grey


The Grey (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Ottway (Liam Neeson) was considering to commit suicide the night before he and a group of oil rig workers were scheduled to take a flight to visit home, but he decided against it after hearing a wolf howl from a distance. When their plane crashed in Alaska, miles from the nearest town or city, Ottway and seven survivors (Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale, and Ben Bray) were systematically hunted and killed by ravenous wolves. As the men dwindled in number, Ottway’s insistence to live became clearer. Conversely, the possibility of Ottway finding refuge turned dimmer. Written by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers and Joe Carnahan, “The Grey” was a cut above us being reduced to passively watching men trying to survive against the cruelty of nature. It forced us to consider difficult questions by immersing us in images that ranged from the grizzly wolf attacks to the chilly landscapes of barren hope. Even though it was difficult to remember the men’s names, the majority of them serving as fodder for the canines, more was revealed about them in the second half of the picture. So when a character, for instance, decided that others should leave him behind because his will to live reached the bottom of the barrel, we felt bad for the character yet we understood where he was coming from. There was no melodrama. The aforementioned scene was especially well-executed. There was no music that served to signal that we should feel a certain way. There was only silence and peace, an acquisition of mental freedom through the act of surrendering. I found beauty in its attitude about death, how it shouldn’t be feared as long as it’s our choice. Notice the contrast between a sweet surrender and a wolf suddenly jumping from behind while the men kept warm around a fire. The title went beyond the color of the wolves that growled from a distance. The adventure was ultimately convincing because the film was essentially about the grey area of life and death. By watching the men march for a seemingly interminable distance, the picture dared us to question how far we think we would be willing to go if we were forced to be in their place. The men were supposed to be “tough” because they were hardened by their time and experiences in prison. Despite their histories and intrepid comportments, we could relate to them because the screenplay gave them a chance to open up and reveal reasons why they wanted to survive. Like them, the majority of us value our families most: we fight for them, to be with them, even if it meant making the ultimate sacrifice. That’s what separates us from other animals like the wolves in the film. They may be able to remember a person who harmed them in some way but they are incapable of loyalty or being connected to their conscience. “The Grey,” directed by Joe Carnahan, also benefited from Neeson’s versatile performance. He was able to keep an interesting balance between being animalistic and humanistic, a requisite for a movie driven by implications about our place in nature. But it wasn’t without a sense of humor. I wondered at some point if barbecued wolf meat was a delicacy somewhere out there.