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  • Coal country noir – ‘The Devil All the Time’
    Coal country noir – ‘The Devil All the Time’

    The relationships that exist between people – and the motivations that drive them – are often the best fodder for storytelling. The reasons we do the things we do and the people for whom we do them can be the purest distillation of our character.

    Novelist Donald Ray Pollock has a knack for evoking the dark side of that equation; his books are packed with the brutality and evil that people do even while feeling utterly justified in doing them.

    That sense of physical and emotional violence is omnipresent in “The Devil All the Time,” an adaptation of Pollock’s 2011 novel of the same name. Directed by Antonio Campos from a screenplay he co-wrote with his brother Paulo, the film is set in midcentury West Virginia and Ohio and follows a sprawling collection of different characters through narratives whose connections – both overt and subtle – constantly ebb and flow toward one another.

    It’s a story of sin, of the evil that even the pious are capable of if they can convince themselves of the righteousness of their acts. It’s a striking representation of the time and place, to be sure, while also featuring an incredible collection of talent in the cast. But that unrelenting representation of the dark side of human nature, the ongoing parade of terrible people doing terrible things for terrible reasons – it’s a lot. The bleakly entangled constancy of sex and violence and power and religion is frankly exhausting, though the excellent performances and quality filmmaking make it worth the undertaking nevertheless.

  • Peculiar institutions and the sins of the present – ‘Antebellum’
    Peculiar institutions and the sins of the present – ‘Antebellum’

    Genre filmmaking has long been used as a tool for social commentary. The trappings of sci-fi or horror or what have you give cover for filmmakers to deliver messaging that might be met with more resistance other arenas of expression. The extrapolation and/or exaggeration of typical mores can say a lot about the world.

    “Antebellum” – currently available via VOD – certainly TRIES to say something, though whether it is ultimately successful is debatable. The movie, written and directed by first-time feature filmmaking duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, attempts to bring together the past and present of racism and white supremacist ideas in service of a horror story. Unfortunately, using real-life horrors as the basis for fictional ones requires a delicacy and sophistication that “Antebellum” can’t quite manage.

    It’s a well-made film, with good performances. It just doesn’t deliver on the underlying ideas; instead, it reads as using historical atrocities as simple horror fodder, largely content to stay on the surface of the overt rather than diving fully into the ideological depths. This means that “Antebellum” feels more exploitative than it ought; it seems unlikely that that was the intent, but it rings wrong regardless.

  • ‘Alive’ a bloody, brutal horror offering
    ‘Alive’ a bloody, brutal horror offering

    Memory – both its presence and its absence – has long been a central theme of the horror genre. Remembering past trauma can be truly terrifying, but so too is knowing of said trauma without being able to remember it. Amnesia offers a great deal of scary narrative possibility.

    The new film “Alive,” directed by Rob Grant from a script cowritten by Chuck McCue and Maine native Jules Vincent, offers up a grisly exploration of just how that lack of memory can make a horrifying situation – one steeped in gory intensity and stirred by a wonderfully unhinged performance from Angus Macfadyen – all the more frightening.

    The small cast – the majority of the film features just three actors – allows for the development of an intimacy that intensifies the impact of the gruesome actions we’re witnessing, as well as lending itself to the claustrophobic nature of the setting. And their relative anonymity – names are nebulous to the degree that they exist – offers a canvas onto which we can project ourselves.

  • ‘Blackbird’ an elegant, elegiac expression of goodbye
    ‘Blackbird’ an elegant, elegiac expression of goodbye

    So much of Hollywood is driven by spectacle. There’s a bigger-is-better ethos at work that drives more and more of the industry with each passing year, often crowding out some of the less flashy fare. Yet one could argue that movies work even more effectively as a medium for delivering smaller, more intimate stories. Bigger might be better, but sometimes, smaller is superb.

    Take “Blackbird,” the new film directed by Roger Michell. A remake of the 2014 Dutch film “Silent Heart,” “Blackbird” is the story of an ailing matriarch bringing her family together for one final celebration of their lives together before her death – a death that she intends to be entirely on her own terms.

    Featuring an absolutely stacked cast, “Blackbird” is a heartfelt meditation on the familial complexities that come with death and a look at how an impending loss can impact our choices. It’s a movie about choices and wrestling with the consequences of those choices and how, in the end, we must allow people to make those choices for themselves.

  • Wisdom born of pain – ‘I Am Woman’
    Wisdom born of pain – ‘I Am Woman’

    Biopics – particularly music biopics – can be difficult to pull off. Telling the stories of iconic figures is always tricky, but when you introduce a level of performance into the mix, well … it doesn’t always go the way you’d want. I tend to be more into “slice of life” biopics than “cradle to grave” – the truth is that most of the time, the beginning and the end don’t necessarily contribute significantly to the tale being told.

    “I Am Woman,” the new biopic of singer Helen Reddy, falls into the former category (though the slice is pretty hefty, traversing the mid-1960s and moving well into the ‘80s). Directed by Unjoo Moon from a screenplay by Emma Jensen, it focuses on the heyday of the iconic singer, from her early struggles through her meteoric rise and on to the inevitable tumble.

    It’s a charming, albeit formulaic film, hitting all the standard beats that we’ve come to expect from the genre. That’s not meant to be dismissive, though – it’s a formula because it works if it’s executed properly. And this one is, dipping in and out of the timeline as the story of a woman who was more than the song that came to define her.

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