This Is a Movie Review: ‘Destroyer’ is Worth Admiring for Nicole Kidman Inhabiting a Detective Whose Soul and Psyche Are Paralyzed by Undercover Work

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CREDIT: Sabrina Lantos/Annapurna Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Jade Pettyjohn, Bradley Whitford, Scoot McNairy, Toby Huss

Director: Karyn Kusama

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: R for The Nasty Violence, Sex, and Drugs of Police Work at Its Most Unmoored

Release Date: December 25, 2018 (Limited)

Destroyer plays a bit like Memento, with its irregular temporal structure and out-of-sorts lead character investigating some unsavory behavior in Los Angeles. But besides a few moments in which everything clicks into place, Destroyer‘s narrative approach is more maddening than brain-tickling. Where Memento‘s backwards arrangement was both revolutionary and strikingly purposeful, Destroyer‘s propensity towards flashbacks and withholding information just feels haphazard. Perhaps director Karyn Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi had a clear purpose in mind, but that does not really come across in the final product. But at least they have a typically riveting performance from Nicole Kidman to hold everyone’s attention.

Kidman plays LAPD detective Erin Bell, who is basically the epitome of someone whose life has been destroyed by working undercover. The events cut back and forth between her time infiltrating a criminal gang and nearly two decades later when the leader of that crew re-emerges. With perpetually puffy eyes, chapped skin and lips, and dusty hair, she is a walking husk of a person, and you get the sense that she has been that way every day for quite some time. The message seems to be that the lying and identity warping of undercover work cannot possibly be worth whatever good it accomplishes, to which I say: you didn’t have to make an entire grungy movie to convince me! There are a few pleasures to be had when you finally realize why certain memories are as traumatic as they are for Erin and why the opening scene is what it is. But it is a big ask to go down into the muck with Kidman for two hours, although she is at least decent company.

Destroyer is Recommended If You Like: Appreciating the full range of Nicole Kidman’s oeuvre, The dry skin-cracking Los Angeles sun

Grade: 3 out of 5 Spoiled Relationships

 

Halt and Catch Fire Season 4 Review: An Under-the-Radar Gem Solidifies Itself as One of the Best Dramas of the Decade

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CREDIT: Tina Rowden/AMC

This post was originally published on News Cult in October 2017.

Network: AMC

Showrunners: Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers

Main Cast: Kerry Bishé, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy, Lee Pace, Toby Huss

Notable Guest Stars: Anna Chlumsky, Annabeth Gish, Kathryn Newton, Susanna Skaggs, Carol Kane

Episode Running Time: 42 Minutes

SPOILER ALERT: This review discusses significant plot details of all four seasons of Halt and Catch Fire. Read only if you have watched the entire series or don’t mind being spoiled.

I have heard the appeal of Halt and Catch Fire described by some of its viewers in a manner reminiscent of that of Lost. Like those who said that the latter was not really about the island and all its mysteries, there are those who would have it that HaCF is not really about the technology industry but rather the people who just happen to be employed by it. To which the correct response is: of course the characters are great, but the reason they are so compelling is because of their relationships with computers. All four of HaCF’s principals – Gordon the tinkerer (McNairy), Donna the explorer (Bishé), Cameron the restless (Davis), and Joe the visionary (Pace) – know that their destiny is inextricably bound by tech. But really, what they are all searching for is connections with other human beings. In the fourth and final season, the indelible impact they have made on their audience is proof of their success.

Each season has served as a fictionalized examination of the major developments in technology. Season 1 concerned the personal computing revolution, Season 2 brought to life the birth of online gaming, Season 3 detailed e-commerce and computer security, and now Season 4 brings it all together with the expansion of the World Wide Web. Gordon and Joe have reunited for a new venture as an internet service provider, but they ultimately convert to a focus on search, almost by accident, when Gordon’s teenage daughter Haley (Skaggs) tools around the office on her own personal website. Gordon and Joe fall in love with what she’s up to, and bring her onboard for the re-tooled company, now called Comet (as in Halley’s Comet), which is basically a highly curated predecessor to Google. But the thing about being a predecessor, as so often befalls this crew, is that your ideas end up ahead of your time while your implementation somehow ends up behind the times.

The driving momentum of this final season is the reunion of the core four. After years of manipulation, both real and imagined, Joe and Gordon are finally on fully equal terms, passionately working towards a shared goal. Elsewhere, Donna and Cameron make more halting efforts in being drawn back into each other’s orbit. Recently divorced from Gordon, Donna finds herself overseeing another search website, and accordingly struggles to attain personal success as a professional rival to her ex-husband and daughter. Cameron reunites romantically with Joe; their relationship at the beginning of the series was a tad abusive, but after years of healing and a pivot to total honesty, they confirm that they do indeed have real respect and love for each other. But any efforts for Donna and Cameron to reconcile with each other are much more halting, their wounds more recent and bitter.

About halfway through the season, the reunions are not complete, but everyone is closer to inner peace than we ever have seen them. This sense of contentment is on full display in “Who Needs a Guy,” which represents just about the perfect day for Gordon. But anyone who knows how writers effectively manipulate viewers’ emotions should view such an instance with concern. That hour of television ends with Gordon passing away, finally succumbing to the toxic encephalopathy he was diagnosed with in Season 2. The end of this episode, and the entirety of the following one (“Goodwill”), are incredible reflections on how it feels to lose someone so young who has just found inner peace. At this point, it does not matter at all that this is a tech show – the truth and bittersweet satisfaction it conveys are all just about being human.

I have on multiple occasions made the perhaps crazy claim that a great TV show can be enjoyed no matter what order you watch it in. I (inadvertently) tested that theory with Halt and Catch Fire, having watched the first half or so of Season 1 when it originally aired but then gave up on it, only to hear that it got significantly better in Seasons 2 and 3. So I jumped right into Season 4 for its initial airings while concurrently catching up on every episode I had missed, finishing Season 3 just before the series finale. So when I watched “Who Needs a Guy,” I had yet to see the episode with Gordon’s diagnosis, so his death surely hit me harder than it did most viewers. I enjoyed experiencing Season 1 and Season 4 sort of back-to-back, as they work as mirror versions of each other. Furthermore, with HaCF’s frequent time jumps (including one at the start of Season 4), it is designed to be easily jumped right into more than the average show.

Here now is where I make room to praise the supporting and guest characters. The Clark daughters, Joanie and Haley, were always adorable kiddos in earlier years, but in Season 4, they are now teenagers, with correspondingly beefed-up roles. Kathryn Newton and Haley Clark have the obsessive minds and deep wells of feeling necessary to fit in and thrive with these people. Anna Chlumsky comes onboard easily and delightfully as Comet’s chief ontologist and as a new, perfectly matched love interest for Gordon. Her quick departure after his death captures the ephemerality of some of the best things in life. And then of course there is Bos, who is some combination of mentor, therapist, father figure, and best friend to everybody. Toby Huss’ portrayal of him is and has always been the embodiment of the perfect dadgum Texas folksiness.

In an immensely satisfying finale, HaCF calls back to a credo expressed in Season 1: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets you to the thing.” The purpose of all the technological breakthroughs these people have been chasing has never been the point in and of themselves, but rather, the personal connections that they forge is the point. For a moment, it seems like everyone is about to go their separate ways and miss out on the opportunities to hold onto those connections. History is threatening to repeat itself, but then … that repetition is embraced. The patterns of the computer industry, and life, are unavoidable. We end where we begin, hopefully wiser and corresponding ready, and eager, to start all over again.

Best Episodes: “Signal to Noise,” “Miscellaneous,” “Who Needs a Guy,” “Goodwill,” “Ten of Swords”

How Does It Compare to Previous Seasons? Halt and Catch Fire is practically symphonic in how its conclusion wraps around to its beginning. It fulfills the promise that was always there, maybe even confirming that a brilliant plan was in place all along. Thus, Season 4 is the show’s most hopeful, most peaceful, and best.

Halt and Catch Fire is Recommended If You Like: Silicon Valley but want something less cynical, Mad Men but wish every character were the Peggy

Where to Watch: Seasons 1-3 are available on Netflix, and Season 4 is currently on AMC.com.

Grade: 4.7 out of 5 Things

This Is A Movie Review: Non-Stop

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Non-Stop-Liam-Neeson
When Liam Neeson entered the action star portion of his acting career, my reaction was, “Yes, of course.”  Actually, I may not really have had any reaction at all because the one-man army role suited him so well that I hardly noticed any difference.  This is partly a way of getting at the fact that Neeson’s action stardom has been more successful than the actual movies have been.  He made Taken work as well as it did by sheer force of will, but I found that movie to be too distressing and overly tidy to be able to embrace it completely.  His subsequent lone hero actioners have for the most part been variations on Taken.  No doubt about it, Non-Stop is Taken on a Plane, but I preferred it to the kidnapping thriller because it was just so insane that I might have had to lose my mind, and I was happy to.

(GENERALLY SPOILER-ISH INFORMATION FROM HERE ON OUT, BECAUSE I FEEL THE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS MOVIE IN SPECIFIC TERMS.)  Non-Stop is filled with improbabilities right from the get-go.  Neeson plays Bill Marks, a federal air marshal who has turned to the bottle to deal with his daughter’s death.  The fact that Marks still gets assigned jobs despite obviously being affected by his drinking and the cause of his alcoholism being overly pat strain credulity, but it is actually purposeful to the narrative that his competence is suspect and that information about his troubles could be public knowledge.  Anyway, though, Non-Stop gets away with most or all its implausibility by being upfront about it.  A movie that crosses a classic mad-villain extortion scheme with a cat-and-mouse game at 30,000 feet is not aiming for everyday verisimilitude.

In addition to reveling in its absurdity, Non-Stop excels in its suspense by establishing just about every character as a legitimate suspect.  Julianne Moore, as Marks’ seat neighbor, is overly talkative.  Scoot McNairy, who excels at playing slimy (check him out getting into deep shit in Killing Them Softly) plays a punk who is rather inquisitive about what plane Marks will be getting on.  Certain traps and killing maneuvers suggest action in areas of the plane that only the pilots and flight attendants would have access to.  A second marshal is the only other one who should be on the cellular network that Marks is receiving the threatening texts from.  Corey Stoll is an overly aggressive New York City cop who questions why Marks doesn’t give the Muslim passenger as thorough a shakedown as he gives everyone else.  This seems like a typical moment playing on post-9/11 paranoia, but it may actually be a matter of class or profession bias, as Marks may have overlooked him because he is a doctor.

(THINGS GET EVEN MORE SPOILERY IN THIS PARAGRAPH.)  The nature of the manhunt suddenly changes in the final act when it is revealed that the killings are not just going to be those happening one by one every 20 minutes due to the revelation of a bomb, which had earlier been disguised by cocaine.  This new crisis prompts Marks, who has been backed into a corner by passengers suspicious of him, to reveal everything about his previously secretive investigation.  This sequence sets quite a benchmark for excitement that the rest of the 2014 film slate will have a tough time matching.

If you are worried that too many twists and turns have been spoiled by the promotion of this movie, don’t be.  While the trailer does include a fair amount of footage from the final act – and, admittedly, does feature as its centerpiece the most memorable shot of a pivotal struggle – there is actually a fair amount of misdirection.  The first death in particular does not go down exactly as the previews would lead you to believe.

Non-Stop falters a little bit with its ending, as the motivation for the extortion is revealed – it tries to be straightforward, which is difficult amidst all the insanity.  I did not have a problem with the spirit of the motivation itself, or how it went about being explained, so much as the fact that it was a bit too simplistic.  Still, that does not take away from all the highly pressurized excitement that precedes it. A-