Knocking (Knackningar)


What is real and what is not?

(2021) Suspense (LaskCecilia Milocco, Albin Grenholm, Ville Virtanen, Krister Kern, Alexander Salzberger, Charlotta Akerblom, Kristofer Kamiyasu, Christina Indrenius Zalewski, Naida Ragimova, Bengt Braskered, Karin Holmberg (voice), Tobias Almborg, Bill Hugg, Maria Norgren, Nilla Hansson, Karin de Frumerie, Emil Almén, Meliz Karige. Directed by Frida Kernoff

The mind is a powerful and mysterious instrument. It can pick up on the smallest clues, but it can make up things out of whole cloth. When it isn’t functioning properly, we cannot trust the sensory input we receive from it. What, then, does one do to distinguish what reality is?

Molly (Milocco) has suffered an awful tragedy. One moment she is napping on the beach, smiling at the whisper that her partner is going for a swim, the next her life has been completely upended. So much so that she has spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. Now, though, she is about to be released to try and resume a normal life. An apartment has been arranged for her in a high-rise on the edge of an unnamed city in Sweden. It is spacious, not particularly new but at least it has potential. There is a nice balcony with a view.

Molly settles in with what possessions she has and is urged to make of it a home. She tries gamely, looking for décor but seems a bit unsure as to what appeals to her. And there is a persistent knocking noise coming from one of the apartments above her. Maybe it’s someone hanging a picture, but the knocking is irregular and lasts too long. Maybe someone is dancing on their floor at night?

Molly goes upstairs to inquire of her upstairs neighbors – all men – as to what the source of the knocking is, but nobody else seems to hear it. There are also strange stains appearing in the ceiling. Molly begins to suspect that the rhythmic knocing could be morse code – someone might be trying to communicate with her. And the idea forms that there is someone being held captive – a woman. Other clues begin to arise – bloody clothes found in the dumpster, loud arguing, glimpses of abusive behavior by one of the men living above her. Molly calls the police, but they are less than helpful and given Molly’s history, fairly certain that what’s going on is all in Molly’s head. As the knocking becomes more insistent, Molly grows more desperate to find the source. She is absolutely convinced that there is a badly injured woman calling out for help the only way she can and Molly is just as certain that she’s the only hope the woman has of rescue.

Kernoff has some admirable instincts as a filmmaker. She creates an atmosphere that is slightly off-kilter, letting the viewer know that there’s something that’s not quite right. Is it Molly? Is it something sinister? We’re never really sure until the end and that’s some masterful filmmaking. Kernoff also makes magnificent use of light and shadow. Early on much of the light is reflected off of other surfaces – mirrors, windows, floors. Molly often tries to hide within shadows; behind the curtains of her apartment which are generally drawn, always in a kind of half-light that visually illustrates Molly’s fragile mental state.

She is aided by an extremely strong performance by Milocco who is on-camera virtually every moment, most of the time by herself. She carries the movie with confidence; the more certain Molly grows, the less certain the audience is. That’s in part good writing but also Milocco’s instincts that help create that dichotomy.

One of the underlying messages is the way women are marginalized by men. That’s not to say this is anti-man; Molly is generally treated like a well-meaning but foolish child who is given a pat on the head and reassurances that her concerns will be looked into – sometimes by other women as well. Our patriarchal society in general tends to believe women less often than men. It is why so many women are hesitant to report instances of sexual assault; often they are disbelieved, even asked if they might have misinterpreted what happened to them. To an extent, olly is treated as an unreliable witness in the film not only by the various men in the movie but also by Kernoff herself; we all have that kernel of doubt in our heads right up until the very last moments of the movie when that doubt is resolved.

Molly, like most victims of trauma, lives partially in those moments of trauma. Throughout the film, Molly returns again and again to that day in her head when tragedy befell her. We never see the event actually take place; we assume what has happened. It is as if Molly can’t bring herself to face the actual event. We hear a scream and we surmise. It’s very effective and from a psychological standpoint, quite an accurate representation of what trauma and tragedy does to the hyman psyche.

The movie is not without flaws. Although at a compact 78 minutes it doesn’t ask for an unreasonable investment of time, the pacing is kind of jerky; it does build to a climax but there are also some moments that seem inert compared to others that passed before it. During a freak-out near the end of the film by Molly, a GoPro is placed on Molly facing her so as she moves in almost a whirl of angry, frustrated movement – a tarantella of ranting – we are treated to Milocco’s facial expressions as she rages at the upstairs neighbors, insisting that there is something terrible going on – but the camera movement becomes dizzying and a bit intrusive. Molly’s world is spiraling around her, I get the visual representation but the end result is that I had to look away from the screen until the scene was done, missing the nuances of Milocco’s performance.

Although the movie does contain some horror tropes – the knocking itself sounds like it’s coming straight out of a haunted house movie – this isn’t a horror movie at all. It’s more of a psychological thriller. Given the strength of Milocco’s performance, the nuances of the film’s message and the overall unsettling tone, this is a worthwhile film to seek out. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the major indies picked this one up for release in the fall or winter. If you’re not already watching the Sundance festival virtually (where it premiered), this is one to keep an eye out for on your own local festival or when it eventually gets a national theatrical/VOD release, which I’m pretty certain it will.

REASONS TO SEE: Kernoff does a fine job of setting an unsettling mood. Milocco gives a bravura performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing is a bit uneven.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel by Johannes Theorins.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gaslight
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Night

Baby Done


The waiting is the hardest part.

(2020) Comedy (Gravitas) Rose Matafeo, Matthew Lewis, Rachel House, Nic Sampson, Madeleine Sami, Matenga Ashby, Fasitua Amosa, Loren Taylor, Olivia Tennet, Kura Forrester, Alice Snedden, Chelsie Preston-Crayford, Sam Snedden, Bree Peters, Hayley Sproull, Brett O’Gorman, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Angella Dravid, Guy Montgomery, Beth Allen. Directed by Curtis Vowell

 

We all react to pregnancy differently – whether our own or our partner’s. Some look forward to it eagerly as a new beginning; some see it as an end to a carefree life of fun and irresponsibility. The act of having a baby is, no matter how you react to it, a life-changing affair. There are no manuals and most couples (and singles) approach impending parenthood with the terror of the unknown staring them in the face.

Zoe (Matafeo) is a young arborist – down under in New Zealand, that means tree surgeon – who has big plans. She wants to win the World Tree Climbing Championship in British Columbia, for one thing (I didn’t know that was a thing either). Bungee jumping, having a threesome, and a whole laundry list of Type A shenanigans for another. But when she learns she’s preggers, her first reaction is denia. (“It’s a tapeworm. More often than not, that’s what it is”) to the point where she hides it from her partner in business and in life, Tim (Lewis). But at a gender reveal party for another couple, her competitive nature comes out and she spills the beans.

Zoe has spent her life defying convention and living on her own terms. Her obstetrician father is a bit clinical of the whole thing, but her mum is blunt: “You’re not cut out for being a mum.” That seems harsh at first but as the picture progresses, we begin to see that Mommy Dearest may have a point. As the due date continues to approach, Tim grows more excited and fearful and Zoe’s denial and disappointment reach record highs. Can their relationship survive having a baby?

This isn’t exactly new territory for movies, although having a prospective mom flat-out delusional is kind of a first. The movie has a kind of sitcom feel to it, often relying on its characters doing things that reasonable people would never do. Yes, I understand that people who are in this situation can sometimes lose perspective, but here it feels forced and unnatural, making the comedy at times a little awkward.

The saving grace here is that the couple – Zoe and Tim – as played by Kiwi TV vets Matafeo and Lewis – are charming as all get-out and there’s a real chemistry between them that works. Matafeo, in particular, is delightful as a Type A personality who has lots of plans who is terrified that the impending Blessed Event is going to force her to change her identity into something she doesn’t necessarily want to be – a Mom. She’s not the sort who takes easily to being told what to do in any case. I can say I’ve known a fair amount of women in my time who fit that description.

The movie is also refreshingly frank with some of the indignities that pregnant women have to suffer through. The ending comes as no surprise and is about as squishy as you might imagine, but it keeps the tone overall sweet and light.

We have all been through a year of heavy and portentous and many of us need a break from it. You could do a lot worse than this light comedy that is reasonably inoffensive and in all honesty, none too challenging in terms of viewer investment. But sometimes, that’s just the perfect tonic.

REASONS TO SEE: Pleasantly clinical about the difficulties of pregnancy.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little on the sitcom-y side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) is one of the producers of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nine Months
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Knocking

76 Days


Exhausted healthcare workers take a breather.

(2020) Documentary (MTV Films Various unidentified health care professionals and COVID patients Directed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and Anonymous

 

2020 will long be remembered as a tumultuous, challenging year and for many, the defining factor was (and is) the COVID-19 global pandemic. It first surfaced in China in late 2019 and soon became a global concern when the large city of Wuhan went into lockdown as the infection rate rose beyond the area’s health care system ability to adequately handle the influx of sick patients.

During the lockdown, two Chinese reporters – Weixi Chen and one who declined to release their name – were embedded in four Wuhan-area hospitals to see firsthand how the health care professionals dealt with the crisis. The footage was then sent to Chinese-American Hao Wu (The People’s Republic of Desirei) in Atlanta to edit the footage and put together a narrative.

What the audience is given is a “you are-there” look inside hospitals dealing with a terrifying and largely unknown disease that was spreading like wildfire through the city. We are treated to an emotional wallop in the opening scene as a nurse in hazmat suit runs down a hospital corridor, clearly distraught; her own father has contracted the disease and is dying. She longs to see him one last time, but this is denied her and she simply put, loses it as is completely understandable. She can do nothing but sob helplessly as her father gasps his last and his body is taken away for burial.

This sets the expectation that this isn’t going to be an ordinary documentary  We watch the doctors, nurses and technicians go about their daily routines which are anything but routine, watch as they grow progressivlely frustrated at the inability to treat the disease as they flail in the dark blindly, trying to alleviate the symptoms and save lives. Dealing with uncertainty and exhaustion, they are sometimes short with one another and often fall back on protocol in order to keep the hospital functioning in the face of rising panic. The patients are mostly terrified, wth the doctors able to bring them scant comfort and separated from loved ones who can only communicate with them via cell phone. In some cases, we have happy endings, as doctors see their recovered patients off as they are returned home to be quarantined an additional 14 days along with their family members.

There are some moments of wonderful tenderness, as a couple who have been separated from their newborn infant due to the mother having COVID when she delivered her, finally getting to meet their newborn after weeks of quarantine. We see a frustrating patient, an older man with dementia constantly battling his caregivers and refusing to follow their protocols, but eventually after weeks of hospitalization finally…well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.

There are also moments of grimness as we see a tub full of cell phones, taken from patients who have passed on, some of them ringing for those who can no longer answer. We also see the city streets deserted of traffic, a city that normally is bustling and alive, now a pandemic-induced ghost town. As the lockdown is lifted at the conclusion of the film, we hear the air raid sirens go off in memory of those that did not survive.

One of the memories I will take away from the film is one of the scenes near the end where a hospital administrator is charged with returning the disinfected personal effects of the deceased to their families. It’s heartbreaking to say the least and gives you an immediate understanding of the human toll of the disease; we see the numbers of the hospitalized and the dead, but we don’t really get it until we see the faces of those who are afflicted and of those who mourn the dead. It is a scene that is going on in thousands of hospitals across this country as well.

This is truly cinema verité, with the footage presented without commentary, musical accompaniement or much information beyond opening and closing title cards. The stories are allowed to be told with subtitleds flashing on the screen at a furious pace. The problem may be for those who have trouble reading them (and at times they are difficult to read because the subtitles are white and so too are the majority of hazmat suits and PPE worn by the medical professionals) quickly may quickly be left behind, for often the conversations are rapid fire as you might expect they would be in a crisis situation.

The movie is apolitical; they aren’t here to judge the Chinese nor compare them to anyone else. We just see events as they happened, edited to give context and to see the simple fact that most health care professionals are at heart deeply caring people no matter the nationality. We have been (rightfully) lionizing our frontline health care professionals of late for their extraordinary service to the community as we cope with a deadly pandemic that has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the United States alone and more than two million dead worldwide. Here, we see firsthand why we are doing so.

As we are still in the thrall of the pandemic, it is understandable that many might not wish to see a movie with the immediacy of 76 Days but we should, if only to get an appreciation and perspective on the reality of what the disease has done to us. While there is no commentary on how effective the Chinese response was as opposed to the American response, one can’t help but wonder if the Americans, who unlike the Chinese questioned their doctors and disease specialists and refused to wear masks or socially dstance (by contrast, you don’t see a single citizen of Wuhan without a mask), you can’t help but wonder if our numbers might not have been so tragically high had we been as cooperative as a society as the Chinese were. Food for thought.

REASONS TO SEE: An immersive look at what frontline health care workers are going through. Powerful and gut-wrenching. A little eerie in places. Makes one wonder how different things would be here if we had followed the Chinese model.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the subtitles are hard to read quickly enough.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes having to do with the current pandemic.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title refers to the amount of time that Wuham spent in lockdown during the initial crisis in 2019.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hot Zone
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Baby Done

Grizzly II: Revenge


She’s a big’un!

(1983) Horror (GravitasSteve Inwood, Deborah Raffin, John Rhys-Davies, Louise Fletcher, Deborah Foreman, Dick Anthony Williams, Jack Starrett, Charles Cyphers, Marc Alaimo, Laura Dern, Barbie Wilde, Ian McNeice, Charles Young, Charlie Sheen, George Clooney, Billy Boyle, Nigel Dolman, Edward Meeks, Timothy Spall. Directed by Andre Szöts

 

Some movies are most definitely products of their eras. You can look at them and immediately say “Oh, that’s a noir film from the 40s” or “that’s a 70s anti-hero film.” The 80s were like that; movies from that decade had a style and a presence all their own, much like the music and fashion of the time. Sometimes, that’s a very good thing. In this case, not so much.

When poachers kill a bear cub and remove its gall bladder for its aphrodisiac qualities – one would think it would work much better as a laxative – mama bear goes ballistic and starts shredding every humanoid she lays eyes on in Summit National Park. Park ranger Nic (Inwood) is trying to rally his rangers for an upcoming rock concert that park manager Ms. Draygon (Fletcher) insists must go off without a hitch, 15-foot-bear or not. The hunky ranger brings aboard the “best grizzly tracker” in the business, the French-Candian Bouchard (Rhys-Davies) with an accident that would embarrass Pepe LePew – much to the horror of “bear manager” (don’t all national parks have one?) Samantha (Raffin). Ahh, but the show must go on, something that the makers of this film took much to heart.

The story of how this movie finally made it into theaters 38 years after it was filmed probably makes a more interesting movie than the one that actually got made. Lensed at the tail-end (‘scuse the pun) of the killer animal craze that Jaws created, this sequel that nobody wanted was filmed in Hungary while the Cold War was still in full swing and the Iron Curtain was still Iron. The producers apparently ran out of funds before post-production could be commenced, and the uncompleted movie languished on the shelf, famous only for the future stars that appeared in it – all cast because of their famous relatives, being unknowns at the time. In fact, this movie has three Oscar-winners in its cast (two of them are killed before the movie is even five minutes old, so there’s that) but you’d never know it. But somehow, an unfinished work print started making the rounds on YouTube and at genre film festivals until original producer Suzanne Nagy, realizing that there was an audience for this, finished the special effects and got the movie edited for release. There is no disguising the mechanical bear, however.

Interspersed with the action is concert footage of very bad Hungarian new wve bands performing at the faux concert….in Hungarian. Yes, this concert that is supposedly taking place in an American national park features songs sung in a language only a tiny percentage of the population here speaks. And the music is about what you’d expect it would be.

This is the kind of movie that’s enjoyed more in retrospect. While you’re actually watching it, you might find yourself having a hard time keeping from turning the bloody thing off. In fact, those who do see the movie from start to finish should get some sort of merit badge.

So why the score it got? I’ll be honest with you, the movie deserves a much lower score and in fact my initial rating was going to be much lower, but the fact of the matter is as I sit down to write this, the more I think about the movie, the more enjoyment I’m getting out of remembering how ridiculous it was. I don’t know if Clooney even remembers making the film – I assume he likely remembered a trip to Budapest – but I’m sure he was just as happy it never was released into theaters. I would love to hear what he thinks of its release…I can only imagine the expression of pain he might extrude. All in all, with Rhys-Davies and Fletcher gamely delivering what they can in the way of performances and a kind of car crash vibe that really takes hold well after you have finished watching, the experience is one that I am glad of – and one I sincerely never hope to repeat.

REASONS TO SEE: Unintentionally funny, sort of like a Plan 9 From Outer Space.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much a product of its time and not in a good way.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and plenty of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fletcher and Alaimo, who have no scenes together here, would go on a decade later to play major recurring characters in Star Trek: Deep Space 9.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 9% positive reviews, Metacritic: 7/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grizzly
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
76 Days

Skyfire


Jason Isaacs is getting warmer.

(2019) Action (Screen MediaJason Isaacs, Liang Shi, Hannah Quinlivan, Ryan Wu, Leslie Ma, Shaun Dou, Lingchen Ji, Xuegi Wang, Bee Rogers, Alice Rietveld, An Bai, Tongjiang Hou, Yiqing Li, Lawrence de Stefano, Yugi Chen, Jianmin Cui, Gigi Velicitat, Makena Taylor. Directed by Simon West

 

It must suck to be a volcanologist in the movies. Nobody ever believes you that the volcano is about to erupt, it’s all just “ooh” and “aah” at the beautiful smoking cone, but then comes the blast, the screaming, and the dying.

The daughter of two volcanologist’s, Meng Li as a child (Rogers) was on Tianhuo island when the volcano erupted. When her father (Shi) was unable to save her mother (Rietveld) from the pyroclastic cloud that broiled her alive, the two became estranged. Now an adult, Meng (Quinlivan) works on the same island as a scientific advisor to Jack Harris (Isaacs), who has built a theme park resort around the volcano. With a high-tech monorail and a luxurious elevator that descends into the caldera, it’s certain to be the in spot for wealthy type A sorts the world over. To keep the guests safe, Meng has installed a fancy new high tech imaging system to monitor the volcano. She’s concerned over some of the initial readings Even more concerned is her dad, who takes one look at the data and hightails it out to the island to get his stubborn, angry daughter to flee the island before (heavy pause here) it’s too late!!!

Does anyone reading this not believe it’s already too late? If so, you need to watch more movies, my friend. The mountain blows it’s top in a spectacular shower of CGI lava and CGI pumice raining down from the crater. Because the director is long-time action veteran Simon West, we get some well-staged set pieces, like a daring transfer of passengers from one speeding monorail car to another.Because the film is Chinese, we also get some incomprehensible holes in logic and lapses in science. For example, a pair of young lovers (Dou and An) go for a swim in a beautiful tropical grotto as the mountain erupts. Suddenly, their idyllic swim – during which he proposes to her – is interrupted by lava flowing into the pool. They frantically swim for their lives, foregoing the need to breathe. Of course, they shouldn’t have needed to swim at all – the lava flowing into the pool should have parbroiled them. Don’t believe me? Drop a handful of red-hot coals into a small saucepan of room temperature water and see what happens. And that’s not even molten rock.

The movie suffers from severely underwritten characters, so it is hard to end up caring about which ones survive and which ones meet a horrific end. Still, most disaster movies aren’t exactly character studies, to be fair. However, one would like the special effects to be spectacular, and at times, they are. But they are dreadfully uneven; some of the green screen stuff looks like it was rushed and not given a whole lot of effort. The underwater sequence is cheesy enough to make Esther Williams blush.

Basically, what we have here is Jurassic World meets Dante’s Peak – which oddly enough, is a pretty accurate description of the first half of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – and if you ask me, that’s not necessarily a bad combination to have. The movie has enough entertainment value that most audiences are likely to forgive the bad science, bland characters and disaster film cliché-loaded plot. Some will look at this and snicker at the Chinese attempts to make a comparable big-budget disaster film. They certainly aren’t producing elite-level films in that regard, but if you look at their dramas and some of their genre films, they aren’t that far off. Give the Chinese film industry another decade or two and they are going to make movies that will put Hollywood to shame. And that’s not a bad thing either.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: The special effects are uneven.
FAMILY VALUES: There are perilous situations, some involving children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers used more than 20 tons of artificial volcanic ash for the picture.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews; Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Volcano
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Grizzly II: Revenge

One Night in Miami


Four giants. Four legends.

(2020) Drama (Amazon) Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Derek Roberts, Beau Bridges, Emily Bridges, Amondre D. Jackson, Jerome Wilson, Hunter Burke, Robert Stevens Wayne, Randall Newsome, Matt Fowler, Chris Game, Jeremy Pope. Directed by Regina King

 

On February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay won the heavyweight championship of the world against Sonny Liston. Clay, who would later become better known as Muhammad Ali (and who will be identified as such throughout the rest of the review for the sake of clarity), was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest – if not the greatest – heavyweight boxer that ever lived.

In town that night for the fight were three of his friends – Nation of Islam spokesman and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Ben-Adir), football legend Jim Brown (Hodge) who was just about to embark on an acting career, and soul legend Sam Cooke (Odom) who was one of the most popular singers in the country. All four were friends and they gathered at the Hampton House hotel to celebrate the triumph of Ali (Goree).

While this actually happened, what transpired that night in the hotel has been the subject of speculation, and playwright Kemp Powers – who recently co-directed Soul – wrote a stage play about it that he has now adapted for the screen, to be the feature directing debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King.

It is also sobering to note that within one year, two of the four men in that room would die violent deaths. Much of the focus is on X and Cooke, who are at loggerheads; the Black Muslim leader – who after some disagreements with Elijah Muhammad (Gilliard) is getting ready to break off and start his own movement – believes that Cooke should be singing about the struggle, protest songs about racial injustice to use his fame to spotlight the cause. Cooke counters that he doesn’t believe that kind of song will sell and that he can do much more as a black businessman than as an angry young black man singing about injustice. That’s the crux of the argument, and both of the participants are passionate about their positions – and to be honest, a bit rigid in their viewpoints.

There is a temptation to make these legendary figures larger than life and in some ways, that’s how they come off, but at the same time, King and Kemp humanize the men, Ali is unsure of the religious conversion, and wonders if he can give up the things that a conversion would demand, like alcohol and pork. Brown suspects that football has taken him about as far as he can go and that his future lies in acting, which at the time was a nearly impossible industry for African-Americans to break into. It was a turning point in all their lives and indeed, in America itself. King captures that moment very effectively.

It helps that she cast the film perfectly and the actors in return gave her uniformly great performances. I was particularly impressed with Hodge, who gives Brown (the sole surviving member of the quartet, by the way) a quiet dignity and gravitas, even as he experiences in a telling preamble to the film the blunt racism of the time as exhibited by a family friend (B. Bridges). Goree also nails the braggadocio of Ali as well as the charisma.

But the marquee performances are sure to be Ben-Adir and Odom. Ben-Adir gives a quiet intensity to Malcolm X that is certainly comparable to the Oxcaar-nominated turn by Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. In some ways I think that he manages to make the icon still relatable although I think that as written the character is made to look more rigid and unbending than perhaps he really was. I can see Malcolm giving Sam Cooke an upbraiding along the lines of what is given in the film, but I think he would have listened to his friend’s side as well – I don’t think that the Malcolm X in the film does that.

Of the two, Odom has a tougher task in many ways; he not only has to capture Cooke’s enormous talent and legendary presence, but also show a practical side – as well as a tragic flaw of being a womanizer. I think it’s very possible Ben-Adir will duplicate Washington’s feat of an Oscar nomination for the role. I think Odom deserves the same honor as well.

King may also add an Oscar nomination as a director in addition to her Oscar win as an actress. Even given a stage play that takes place in a hotel room as a source, she manages to keep it from feeling stage-y, using subtle camera movements and the judicious use of mirrors to give the film a depth of field that is anything but claustrophobic. King is already one of my favorite actresses; she may well turn out to be one of my favorite directors as well. Certainly this is a movie that has to be considered a major contender for this year’s Oscars and in an awards season that will be unusual to say the least, a real stand-out. The movie had a brief Christmas theatrical run and is currently available for viewing on the Amazon Prime service, included without additional charge for subscribers.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the frontrunners for Best Picture. Note-perfect representation of the era. Dialogue worthy of Aaron Sorkin. Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Thought it was a leeeeetle harsh on Malcolm X.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual references and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson, who play husband and wife Sam and Barbara Cooke, are married in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Selma
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Skyfire

The Reason I Jump


The diversity of humanity can leave one breathless.

(2020) Documentary (Kino Lorber Jordan O’Donegan (narrator), Jim Fujiwara, David Mitchell. Directed by Jerry Rothwell

 

Raising a child requires patience. This is especially true for parents of kids on the autism spectrum. They are often unable to communicate what they are thinking and feeling, some to the point that they are essentially non-verbal, requiring different means of expression. A young 13-year-old Japanese child named Naoki Higashida wrote a book, detailing what goes on inside his head and why he will jump up and down, seemingly for no reason (it’s to self-soothe).

The book has become something of a revelation for parents with autistic children who are unable to or have difficulty communicating. The film, which uses a voice actor to narrate passages from the book, visits five kids in similar situations from around the world. Amrit, in India, communicates using drawings and paintings to illustrate not only what her daily routine is, but how she experiences the world.

In England, Joss (the son of two of the producers for the film) battles memories of past traumas that feel current to him; for example, when his father goes to pick up a pizza for dinner, he has a meltdown in the car with his mother, insisting that there is no more pizza – until his dad appears, pizza and sodas in hand. His mother’s patience and loving reassurances are heartbreaking.

In America, close friends Ben and Emma communicate by pointing at letters on an alphabet board. They are surprisingly articulate – at one point, Ben says (through the alphabet board) “I think we can change the conversation around autism by being part of the conversation.” Finally, the film shifts to Sierra Leone where the parents of Jestina (the youngest child depicted here) face an almost insurmountable barrier of misinformation, superstition and fear (some autistic children are put to death there) as they try to bring a greater understanding of who these kids are and what they are capable of to villages who may see them as being demonically possessed.

The film does its best to replicate the overload of sensory input that those on the spectrum encounter every day, and at times this is effective. The passages from the book are illuminating and are effectively used, and when Higashida admits “I don’t pretend for a moment that everything I’ve written applies to all autistic people,” we are reminded that just like all children are different, so is every case of autism. What might be successful in one case may not be in another and while we get a sense of the loyalty and diligence that parents of kids on the spectrum have to possess, it can be daunting for those who aren’t directly affected by autistic family members or friends to see what these kids and their families go through every day.

Does the movie provide the same kind of eye-opening revelations that the book does? I don’t think so, no. There is an approximation of what Higashida is trying to get across and while we see more viewpoints than just his own, we also end up feeling somewhat scattered and overwhelmed. And that might be what Rothwell is trying to get across, but I don’t think that is the whole of it, or at least it shouldn’t be. Still, the movie might be an effective tool for those who are less experienced with autism and how it affects both the children and their parents, and that can’t be discounted either.

REASONS TO SEE: An often-compelling glimpse inside those who are unable to communicate.
REASONS TO AVOID: Requires some patience to get through.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won an audience award for documentary features at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Notes on Blindness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
One Night in Miami

Some Kind of Heaven


Life in The Villages has a surreal quality to it.

(2020) Documentary (Magnolia) Reggie Kincer, Dennis Dean, Gary Schwartz, Lynn Henry, Anne Kincer.  Directed by Lance Oppenheim

 

Residents of Central Florida, as I am, know about The Villages. The world’s largest gated retirement community, it is the subject of endless jokes and speculation. Known for it’s Disney-esque architecture (including faux Mission-style bridges and shopping-centers complete with fully invented historical backstories) – it wouldn’t surprise me if Disney itself took its cues for its own housing development in Celebration from The Villages, which was built about ten years earlier – and solidly Republican politics, not to mention a fleet of personalized golf carts that even residents who don’t play golf get around town in.

There is also a Disney-esque aura of positivism in The Villages; they have their own television news and newspaper, often devoting their energies to more fluffy news stories (residents can always turn to Fox News for their political news, which many do) and more than one resident describes living in The Villages as living in a bubble.

But while local filmmaker Lance Oppenheim’s documentary hints at the environment of the retirement community, he really doesn’t explore it deeply. Instead, he chooses to tell the story of several of its residents (and one conspicuous non-resident) with almost a set of blinders on to the fact that those living there seem to want to live out their golden years in a monocultural fantasyland that has more in common with the Magic Kingdom than with real life, although as it always does, real life intrudes.

We meet Reggie, an 81-year-old man who has been married for 47 years to Anne. She socializes while he keeps to himself. In fact, it soon becomes apparent that despite Reggie’s odd yoga-like exercise regimen, he seems dedicated to losing himself in a recreational drug haze – mainly cannabis, but also harder drugs. At first Anne puts up with her husband’s eccentricities but as they lead to legitimate legal issues, her patience wanes.

Barbara is a Boston native who moved down to Florida to retire with her husband, who then passed away. Forced to return to work because of money issues, she has lost a lot of the joy of life that animated her when she first moved to The Villages, but her first tentative steps into dating a handsome and kind golf cart salesman seem to be restoring her smile.

Finally, there’s Dennis whom Da Queen nicknamed “The Shark.” A ne’er-do-well from California living out of his van, the octogenarian is eager to land a good-looking widow with money as he trolls the churches and bars, but finds better luck at the pools. He is blissfully ignorant of the adage that when God wants to punish you, He gives you what you wish for.

Oppenheim seems to have watched a good deal of the works of documentarian Errol Morris – the style is unmistakable. There are scenes of golf cart precision drill teams, synchronized swimming, and spotless shopping centers that have fake cracks in the fake adobe walls. It all seems so surreal, but then we get the pathos in the three stories that highlight the issues that still occur despite the best efforts to turn the golden years into a kind of paradise of yesteryear. Local critic Roger Moore likens The Villages to The Village in the British science fiction spy drama The Prisoner and that pretty much sums up the attitudes of Central Floridians to the development.

I have to admit that the movie isn’t what I hoped it would be, nor what it could have been. That’s not really the fault of the filmmaker for not making the movie we wanted him to make; as much as I would have appreciated a deep dive into the reality of The Villages, that film remains to be made. This is a movie about four individuals who find their twilight years as challenging as all those that led up to them, which isn’t necessarily the message most of us want to hear.

REASONS TO SEE: A very Errol Morris-esque vibe. Some of the segments are pretty deranged. A different look at the aged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so much about The Villages as some of the people who live there.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is one of the Executive Producers; the New York Times was a partner in the making of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gates of Heaven
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
NEXT:
The Reason I Jump

The Midnight Sky


George Clooney confirms that Santa Clause has left the pole.

(2020) Science Fiction (Netflix) George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Caoilinn Springall, Kyle Chandler, Demiån Bichir, Tiffany Boone, Sophie Rundle, Ethan Peck, Tim Russ, Miriam Shor, Lilja Nott Karlsdottir, Ątli Oskar Fjalarsson, Eden Hayhurst, Jamie Schneider, Eysis Clarken, Sam Bond, Tia Bannon, Olivia Noyce, Kishore Bhatt, Natasha Jenssen, Sarah Guerin. Directed by George Clooney

 

Hope is a double-edged sword. Sometimes it’s all that keeps us going in the face of terrible odds; but as it can motivate us to greater things, it can destroy us when it is crushed inside us.

Augustine (Clooney) is an astronomer who is the last remaining researcher at a polar observatory. The rest of the crew were evacuated back home, where an unspecified disaster overtook them and the rest of the human race. Augustine himself didn’t leave because he essentially has nowhere else to go, and besides, he has a serious illness which he is self-treating with periodic transfusions which he administers himself.

He makes a couple of discoveries; one, a NASA spaceship – the Aether – is returning from an exploratory mission to Jupiter’s moons to see if a newly discovered Jovian moon is potentially habitable by humans. Thee good news is that the answer is YES) but the bad news is that they have no idea what has happened back home and should they attempt to land, the crew will all fall victim to the same thing that decimated the population of their home.

The other thing Augustine discovers is that a little girl, whom he names Iris (Springall) – after a drawing of the selfsame flower that she gives him – has apparently been left behind after the evacuation. She seems to be mute, but perhaps that’s just as well. Augustine knows that she is now his responsibility, as he can’t very well send her into the death zone and there’s nobody else there. However, he has to warn off the Aether and in order to do that, he has to get a bigger antenna (oh, save your jokes people – this is a family site) and in order to do that, he has to hike to a different site through a winter storm. Meanwhile, the Aether has problems of its own; the Commander’s (Oyelowo) girlfriend (Jones) is pregnant, and they are about to head through an uncharted meteor debris field with their communications array and radar equipment in need of repair which will require a dangerous spacewalk.

Clooney, who up to now has steered clear of effects-heavy films, actually proves to have a pretty good eye for them. The asteroid sequence is pretty thrilling and while the Aether has been accurately described elsewhere as a “baroque Christmas ornament filmed by Stanley Kubrick” (thanks, Variety) the space sequences are fairly realistic.

One of the problems with the film is that there are some holes in logic; for example, we have developed the technology to send a manned mission to Jupiter and equip it with an impressive VR technology, but back on good ol’ earth the technology doesn’t look much evolved beyond what we already have. Does. Not. Compute.

Still, Clooney tackles a role that he doesn’t often take on and he does a great job with it, particularly in the pathos-filled climax. There are three ongoing stories being told here; what’s going on with Augustine, what’s going on aboard the Aether and flashbacks to the past. Clooney as a director has the skill to weave them all together and tie everything up in a neat little bow by movie’s end.

The problem is that there aren’t any really fresh ideas here in terms of the story. It feels like the movie was assembled Frankenstein-style from the parts of a lot of other movies – some better than this one, some not so much. The movie lacks something fresh to it that sci-fi fans tend to crave, although an interesting watch party game could be concocted with a bingo card made up of different sci-fi movies that one checks off when something from that movie shows up onscreen in this one. Make sure you have Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar all on your game card if you decide to play.

Although this was always meant to be a Netflix film, this might well have been a Holiday tentpole in gentler times. It’s a shame some of the effects won’t have the advantage of being shown on a theater screen, maybe even a premium IMAX or equivalent screen (worth the admission alone for the asteroid sequence). For home entertainment purposes, it is a bit slow-moving and has some Deep Ideas to its credit, but still makes for interesting viewing if you’re of a mind to Netflix and chill and you are into some cerebral science fiction.

REASONS TO SEE: Clooney gives a strong performance. The special effects are pretty good.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels cobbled together from a lot of other sci-fi films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie that Augustine is watching is On the Beach, which stars Gregory Peck whose grandson Ethan plays a younger Augustine.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: IO
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Some Kind of Heaven

Museum Town


From factory town to museum town.

(2019) Documentary (Zeitgeist)  Meryl Streep (narration), David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Nick Cave, Joseph Thompson, Thomas Krens, Megan Tamas, Ruth Yarter, John Barrett, Francis Esposito, Simeon Bruner, Denise Markonish, Bob Faust, James Turrell, Jane Swift, Jack Wadsworth, Richard Criddle, Missy Parisien. Directed by Jennifer Trainer

 

No less a wrenching change in the American landscape than the Industrial Revolution was America’s loss of factory jobs that began in the late 1970s and has continued through now. Towns that had once been prosperous suddenly saw their economies obliterated overnight. Suddenly, everyone is unemployed. Despair and crime move in and the feeling of hometown pride moves out.

North Adams, Massachusetts – located in the picturesque Berkshires of the Western part of the state – is such a town. A bustling, productive town that relied on the Sprague Electric Company as the economic engine that powered the town. When the company abandoned the town and moved its facilities elsewhere, the town was devastated. The massive factory complex which had once supplied parts for war planes during the Second World War and employed most of the town’s women in that Greatest of Generations, stood empty, a symbol of changing times and of corporate loyalty (or lack thereof).

But there were people who had a vision. Thomas Krens, for one; a former director at New York’s Guggenheim (where he was a figure of considerable controversy, something not touched upon in the film) and director at nearby Williams College where he’d taught for 17 years (and graduated from in 1969). Inspired by German factories that had been repurposed as art museums, he came up with the idea of doing the same in North Adams.

It was a bit of a hard sell. The blue collar citizens and officials of North Adams were about as far from an art colony as it’s possible to get; ayor John Barrett once quipped that he wouldn’t cross the street to see some of the art instillations at the museum built in his town. And while Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis had been enthusiastic about the project and willing to contribute the funds needed to get the project off the ground, his Republican successor William Weld was less enthusiastic and the project nearly died almost before it began, saved only by the fact that Weld was – surprisingly – a Talking Heads fan, an anecdote that is explained further in the film.

If the movie seems like it’s gushing a bit from tie to time, it’s understandable; Trainer was for many years the director of development at the museum that eventually became known as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MassMoCA. This familiarity with the subject does give the film some insights that it might otherwise not have been possible to get, but there is also the other side of the coin – the filmmakers don’t always look with clear eyes at the museum, although an early dispute with a Swiss artist who objected to having his work displayed unfinished after refusing to finish the work when the museum objected to expensive overruns. Trainer does attempt to show both sides, but it’s telling that the only interviews on the incident come from the MassMoCA staff whereas representatives of the artist or the New York Times art critic who reported extensively on the subject were not.

Much of the film follows the installation of Until, an extensive work by Chicago artist Nick Cave (not the one you’re thinking of) made up of found items, ten miles of crystals, and some creative fabrications (the installation ran from October 2016 until September 2017. It is a look at how such installations are created and fabricated and will be of interest to art buffs.

This is clearly a labor of love, and as such there are some things that are endearing about it. Residents of the town – notably Ruth Yarter, a feisty senior citizen who worked at Sprague during the war years and then again at Mass MoCA as a ticket taker – are interviewed and many of them were skeptical and somewhat bemused, but when the dust cleared, the museum indeed revitalized the town. Art therapy, indeed.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating story of ambition and vision. Streep’s narration is unobtrusive.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit on the gushing side.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mass MoCA is currently the largest museum of contemporary art in the world.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Art of the  Steal
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Midnight Sky