My Wonderful Wanda (Wanda, mein Wunder)


Not your typical family gathering.

(2020) Dramedy (Zeitgeist) Agnieszka Grochowska, Marthe Keller, André Jung, Jacob Matschenz, Birgit Minichmayr, Bruno Rajski, Iwo Rajski, Anatole Taubman, Cezary Pazura, Agata Rzeszewki, Gottfried Breitfuss. Directed by Bettina Oberli

 

In recent years, women from Eastern Europe have flocked to wealthier countries in Western Europe to act as in-home caregivers for wealthy families. Often, these women are the sole breadwinners for their families and are away from their children often for months at a time.

Wanda (Grochowska) is one such, a Polish woman who travels by bus to Switzerland where she works for the industrialist Wegmeister-Gloor family who have a gorgeous home on the shores of Lake Zurich. Patriarch Josef (Jung) has been laid up by a stroke and needs Wanda to stretch his atrophied limbs, help him go to the bathroom, bring meals and whatever else needs doing. She does so with quiet competence and compassion. Josef is fond of her, but perhaps not so fond as his 28-year-old son Gregi (Matschenz) is, although Gregi lacks the intestinal fortitude to act on his desires. Daughter Sophie (Minichmayr), a redheaded hurricane who is petulant and paranoid, and says all the wrong things, arrives with her lawyer husband Manfred (Taubman), while regal Elsa (Keller) presides over all with elegance and warmth.

Wanda also has a less savory side deal going on with Josef that yields unforeseen consequences and throws the delicate family dynamic into chaos. Sophie, already convinced that Wanda is out to screw the family over, is livid and while a compromise is worked out that will theoretically make everyone happy, nobody consults those most affected by the situation.

While there are elements of a class war farce going on here, the movie is really about family dynamics and although there is a good deal of eccentricity in this particular family, there is something realistic about them as well. Oberli, who co-wrote the film along with Cooky Ziesche, takes great pains to give the family members distinctive personalities and backgrounds. Oddly enough, that is not the case for the title character whose motivations and feelings are rarely expressed in the movie, and while some of her backstory is given through Zoom conversations with her kids back in Warsaw, Wanda remains the most enigmatic character in the movie.

The acting is strong here, but none stronger than Keller, who like Charlotte Rampling, was a big star in Europe who was imported to Hollywood in the 1970s and then after a brief run as a leading lady, returned back to European movies. She remains an engaging screen presence and is the emotional center of this particular film, and for those like me who got to know her in films like Bobby Deerfield and Marathon Man, it is wonderful seeing her again, particularly in a role that utilizes her talents nicely.

The movie tends to be at its weakest when it goes for farce, particularly in the third act. It does run a little bit long for American audiences and some of the action tends to be a little bit soap opera-esque in places, but overall this is a strong film with some terrific performances that while not particularly illuminating, is at least a bit different than what we’re used to.

REASONS TO SEE: Keller is a regal presence, and it’s wonderful to see her onscreen again.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little on the soapy side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Keller trained as a ballet dancer before a skiing accident at age 16 forced her to change her emphasis to acting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Being There
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
My Fiona

The Oak Room


Not the guy you want to see come into your bar after closing.

(2021) Thriller (Gravitas) RJ Mitte, Peter Outerbridge, Ari Millen, Nicholas Campbell, Martin Roach, David Ferry, Amos Crawley, Avery Esteves, Coal Campbell, Adam Seybold. Directed by Cody Calahan

 

You’ve heard it before. A guy walks into a bar at closing time (or shortly thereafter) with a story to tell. It’s a dark and stormy night and the snow is falling, and the rest of the world is asleep, but those in the bar are very much awake.

Bartender Paul (Outerbridge) is closing up when a masked, hooded figure walks in – not something you want in the middle of a dark and stormy night. After nearly clobbering said figure with a baseball bat, the stranger removes his mask to reveal that he is Steve (Mitte), also someone Paul in particular is not happy to see. See, Paul was buddies with Steve’s Dad Gordon (N. Campbell) – everyone’s dad is named Gordon in Canada – and Steve had left town to go to college, flunked out and promptly disappeared. He hadn’t even come home for Dad’s funeral, so Paul was left to foot the bill. He still has Gordon’s ashes in a tackle box, waiting for Steve. Steve owes Paul, that’s for sure – but Steve wants to repay Paul with a story.

Steve’s not a particularly good storyteller – he tells Paul the ending of the story first, and is eager to tell him the beginning, but Paul isn’t interested. Paul has a story of his own to tell. And so the two men swap stories in the cold, wintery night, and there is something darker taking place in the bar than a winter storm could account for.

There’s a feeling of noir to the film, and that’s a good thing. The movie owes its gestation to a stage play, and there is definitely a stagey feel to the single set production which takes place in two separate bars, including the titularly named Oak Room – which isn’t the bar that Steve and Paul are sitting in. There isn’t a ton of action – how could there be when you’re talking about two guys telling stories, and those stories include stories about guys telling stories – and there’s a ton of dialogue, nor is the dialogue particularly snappy. What the film IS successful at is keeping the viewer’s interest and keeping the tension building, and there’s something to be said for that.

The themes of father-son relationships and their breakdowns, mistaken identities (as a metaphor, or at least that’s what I figured), and the place of stories in modern culture are all well-taken and require a little bit of thought from the viewer. Even so, this is the kind of movie you can sit back and watch on a cold, dark night if you’re looking for a certain type of atmosphere and not necessarily have to think too hard. How much effort you put into the movie won’t necessarily determine your enjoyment of it, which is a rare feat in moviemaking. I don’t always see it in the movies I review, but I try to applaud it when I do see it.

REASONS TO SEE: Your interest is piqued throughout. Has noir-ish elements with a Northern edge.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit stage-y and may be a bit too dialogue-heavy for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drinking and violence – some of it graphic.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: No women appear in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catch .44
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
My Wonderful Wanda

Slalom


The ski slopes can be their own kind of prison.

(2020) Sports Drama (Kino Lorber) Noée Abita, Jérémie Renier, Marie Denarnaud, Muriel Combeau, Maira Schmitt, Axel Auriant Blot, Melle Tistounet, Gaspard Couder, Maxence Clément, Victor Senegas, Alice Berger Sabbatel, Catherine Marchal, Fred Epaud, Dominique Thomas, François Godart, Michael Vander-Meiren, François Briaut. Directed by Charléne Favier

 

The relationship between an athlete and their coach is one driven by trust. In recent years, we have heard – to our horror – of youth coaches who have taken advantage of their positions of authority to gain sexual favors from those in their charge. It is not a pretty story.

Lyz Lopez (Abita) is a 15-year-old girl with enormous potential to make the French ski team. Her single mom (Combeau) works far away, leaving her alone to study at an exclusive private school where she is trained by Fred (Renier), a slalom champion who has retired from the sport. Fred is, at first, demanding and autocratic, but soon turns gentle and supportive as the unconfident Lyz starts to win races and, more importantly, believe in herself. The relationship between Lyz and Fred grows closer.

It is cringeworthy when we see Fred touching Lyz in places I would not want my teenage daughter to be touched by her coach; nor would I want to have her grilled about her menstrual cycle, as Fred does to Lyz. But we all know where this is heading; so, too, does Lyz, I believe. And she’s okay with it, at first, as she enjoys the attention of a charismatic, attractive older man but when the house of cards begins to tumble and the inappropriate crosses the line into abuse, it threatens to destroy both coach and athlete.

Although there are scenes of sexuality, this is not a sexy film. As we watch Fred groom his victim for later sexual conquest, we recoil and see Fred, perhaps, as a monster, although there are signs that Fred himself is a wounded soul, even more so than the vulnerable Lyz. This doesn’t excuse his behavior, however.

The movie hinges on the performances of Abita and Renier. It is no surprise that the latter delivers; he is, after all, a veteran of several Dardenne Brothers films and has a history of charismatic performances. However, Abita is a relative newcomer who lit up the screens in Genese and shows that she is likely to be one of the most important actresses in Frances for the next several decades with her performance here. It is subtle, nuanced and rarely goes in for unnecessary histrionics. She is absolutely note-perfect here.

So too is the cinematography; the ski sequences are breathtaking as the camera is right there with Lyz on the slopes, giving the audience a feeling as close as possible to flying down a mountainside without first having to strap on a pair of skis themselves.

The subject matter is handled matter-of-factly and although most will tend to see Fred as a monster (and he is), there is more than one dimension to the character which makes the role somewhat heartbreaking. If you’re looking for a nice, neat, Hollywood resolution at the end of the film, you are likely to be disappointed. What you WILL get, however, is an outstanding, sober and quietly damning look at how easily authority is abused.

REASONS TO SEE: Harrowing and occasionally deeply disturbing. Ski footage puts the viewers on the slopes.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the teen angst material seems forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, nudity, sexuality, and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film (after several shorts and a documentary) by Favier and is based on her own experiences as a young athlete.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Downhill Racer
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Oak Room

The Rookies (Su Ren Te Gong)


Toto, we’re not in Racoon City anymore.

(2019) Action Comedy (Shout!) Talu Wang, Sandrine Pinna, Milla Jovovich, David Lee McInnis, Meitong Liu, Timmy Xu, Suet Lam, Kwok-Kwan Chan, Zhan Xiao, Nuo Lu, Kathy Chow, Paul Allica, Bernadett Ostorhazi, David Rayden, Mekael Turner, Kyle Paul, Pierre Bourdaud, Barret Coates, Temur Mahrnisavilli, Isaac Fernandez, Franz Rugamer, Bjorn Freiberg, Timea Saghy. Directed by Alan Yuen

 

You’ve probably seen this one before; a billionaire decides to unleash a world-ending catastrophe being opposed by a dedicated spy of undeniable physical skills. Then again, saving the world isn’t what it used to be.

In this hot mess by veteran Hong Kong action director Alan Yuen, social media extreme sports star Zhao Feng (Wang) literally drops in on a meeting of criminal gangs who are delivering the gas to the billionaire in exchange for the (wait for it…you guessed it…(wait for it)…Holy Grail. Indiana Jones would be rolling in his grave if he had one. Graham Chapman certainly is.

Feng is rescued from the gun-toting baddies by Bruce (Jovovich), a stone-faced agent for the Order of the Phantom Knighthood (I’m not making this up) and who now recruits Feng into the Order to help them steal the Grail from its current resting place in the collection of a Hungarian squidillionaire and keep it safe while protecting the world from the crazed Iron Fist (McInnis) who frequently talks to his dead wife’s eyeball, which he keeps preserved in a jar. Doesn’t everybody?

Feng is joined in his quest by a ragtag team of other novices; Miao Yan (Pinna), a cop with anger management issues, Ding Shan (Xu), a somewhat eccentric genius and crackpot inventor, and LV (Liu), an unemployed doctor who worships Ding and cheerfully tests his dangerous inventions. Feng’s own exaggerated ego may come back to haunt the team as they race against time and the odds to save the planet. Can these rookies succeed where seasoned pros have failed?

Like many Hong Kong action films dating back to the 80s and 90s, there is an absurdist streak that is rampant in the film, something that Hong Kong audiences tend to accept a bit better than their American counterparts. However, Yuen takes it to new heights (or depths) in this case with sight gags that fall flat and quips that lose something in translation. And speaking of translation, the distributors elected to dub this rather than subtitle it which is not always a good idea. Unfortunately, some of the signs and titles go untranslated which is frustrating to those who don’t read Mandarin, and we get the sense that the translation may not be all its cracked up to be.

But most folks watch these sorts of films for the action sequences and those are in general right on the money. Feng may be an insufferable boob whose face you may want to punch ten minutes into the movie, but Wang (or his stunt double) is a pretty able action star which does take some of the sting out. Jovovoich, ever the consummate pro, does what she can here until her character is sidelined way too early in the movie and she is more or less out of the picture from then on.

The CGI tends to be pretty weak here, but from what I can tell Chinese audiences tend to be a lot less discriminating in that regard, so take that for what it’s worth. There is some entertainment value here, but American big-budget action fans are likely to find this primitive, dumb and unsatisfying, but those who have already embraced Hong Kong action films for the delights that they are may find this a worthwhile investment of their time.

REASONS TO SEE: Some nifty action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The lowbrow humor wears on you as the film goes along.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexuality and nudity, adult themes and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was released in China in 2019, but did mediocre business which may account for it not getting a Stateside release until now.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Spy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Slalom

Monday


Love can leave us underwater.

(2020) Romance (IFC) Denise Gough, Sebastian Stan, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos, Michalis Laios, Michalis Alexakis, Giorgos Valais, Vangelis Mourikis, Fivos Kontogiannis, Grigoris Sarantis, Panagos Iokeim, Dominique Tipper, Prometheus Aleifer, Dimitris Kouroubalis, Orfeas Aygoustidis, Alexandros Logothetis, Syllas Tzoumerkas, Nikos Gialas, Elli Tringou. Directed by Argyris Papadimitropoulos

 

The flush of love is equal parts sex and ego. We feel a connection that builds us up, comforts us, makes us feel deserving and worthwhile. And then there’s the sex. Let’s not forget that.

Greek director Papadimitropoulos (Suntan) doesn’t let that happen as his ex-pat couple Chloe (Gough), an immigration lawyer living in Athens but preparing to return to the States to take a hefty offer at a Chicago law firm, and Mickey (Stan), an oh-so-fine musician now working as a popular nightclub DJ, engage in passionate sex at the drop of a hat, or generally, with a whole lot less cause.

This romance takes place over the course of several weekends in their relationship, all involving some sort of watershed moment in the couple’s lives. We see them meet in an Athenian disco, begin making out before even learning the other’s name, and ending up naked on the beach which gets them escorted to the hoosegow. Despite Chloe’s career plans, that draw towards Mickey changes them and the two begin a relationship.

We learn that Mickey is the irresponsible one, a manchild who lives a party hearty lifestyle in a profession that most certainly has a shelf life, and is the father of a six-year-old son that his ex won’t let him see because of Mickey’s irresponsible tendencies, tendencies that will begin to surface and imperil the budding relationship, although it doesn’t stop them from having sex anywhere and everywhere.

In case you haven’t guessed from my vague clues, there are a lot of sex scenes in the movie which may make certain viewers uncomfortable or downright hostile. If sex scenes bother you, this is a movie to be avoided. Me, I’m all for a good roll in the hay during a movie, but while I get that the director was trying to make a point, I do subscribe to the theory that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

The saving grace here is that Gough and Stan are not only attractive but charismatic screen presences, particularly Stan who most viewers know better as the Winter Soldier in the MCU films and Disney Plus TV show which has created quite the stir among fans in recent weeks. Stan has tended to be cast as a second banana in many of his appearances but Monday at least proves that the young actor is ready to take the next step in his career.

The movie clocks in at nearly two hours long which is about half an hour too long for a movie of this sort. Cutting about half of the sex scenes might have done the trick. Still in all, if you’re in the market for watching a couple of hot, attractive people in a romantic, sun-drenched location, this might be the cup of tea for your kettle.

REASONS TO SEE: Stan is a charismatic performer with a future as a romantic lead.
REASONS TO AVOID: Much too long for what it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a great deal of sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harrison’s mother is Vietnamese and met her father, a U.S. soldier, during the War. They eventually got married and had seven children of which Patti is the youngest.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews; Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: In the Realm of the Senses
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Rookies (2021)

The Catch


Some towns are darker than others…

(2020) Drama (Self-Released) Katia Winter, Bill Sage, James McMenamin, Kyle Gallner, Emy Coligado, Jere Burns, Gianna Capri, Ellen Hsu-Balzer, Melissa McMeekin, Thomas Kee, Caroline Portu, Dawn Tucker, Tuggelin Yourgrau, Bart A. Piscitello Jr., Bill Thorpe, M. Lynda Robinson, Michael T. Francis, Benjamin Grills, Patty O’Neil. Directed by Matthew Ya-Hsiung Balzer

 

All of us make mistakes in life. Some are minor little faux pas-types of things; others are life-changing errors that alter the course of our lives and generally, not for the better.

Beth McManus (Winter) has returned to the small New England fishing village that she left abruptly five years earlier and her family isn’t exactly overjoyed to see her back. Family patriarch Tom (Sage), a salty old lobsterman, is particularly gruff with his daughter. He still hasn’t forgiven her for missing her mother’s funeral. He has since remarried Lily (Coligardo), who worked as a nurse in the hospital where his first wife passed away.

The town is undergoing hard times and jobs are scarce Beth seems, now that she’s returned to where she grew up, as eager to leave the town in her rear-view as she had been five years earlier. Jobs are scarce and there’s that quiet certainty that the town is dying.

For Tom, he is coping with his lobster pots being cleaned out by an unknown miscreant. Beth, on the other hand, has discovered that her ex-boyfriend (McMenamin) is involved with drug smuggling within the lobster fleet. She immediately senses an opportunity to solve her problems and get out of New England to make a fresh start. That’s usually a good road to a bad end.

This is a dark film in more ways than one. The subject matter of family disintegration and of the slow and painful decline of the working class is one thing. There is also the physical film; much of it is deliberately underlit, giving the movie a blue and grey patina that while aesthetically pleasing can make the action harder to follow unless conditions are perfect.

Fortunatedly the movie is possessed of a strong cast whose names are not necessarily household names (and whose faces aren’t necessarily ones you’ll easily identify) but this is a troupe of actors who are absolute pros. The dynamic between Winter and Sage as Beth and Tom is absolutely believable and at various times, apt to make you angry or heartbroken.

One of the problems with the movies is that there are a lot of subplots going on, with one of Tom’s brothers involved in….well, I won’t spoil it. There is also the relationship between Beth’s ex and her that is complicated to say the least. The New England atmosphere also appears genuine and reminds us that it is a region that has its own special warmth – and it’s own special coldness. Make of that what you will.

In the meantime, the movie is playing the Florida Film Festival through tonight and the film is available to be streamed at the festival’s website through midnight EDT tonight. After that, keep an eye out for it on the festival circuit; the movie hasn’t gotten distribution yet, but something tells me that some purveyor of fine indie fare will snatch this up before too long.

REASONS TO SEE: Winter and Sage deliver engaging performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many subplots.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity (including sexual references).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winter will be appearing in the upcoming third season of the hit Amazon Prime series The Boys.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ozark
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Monday

After Antarctica


Traversing the Antarctic is like travel on another planet.

(2021) Documentary (Moniker) Will Steger, Jean-Louis Etienne, Keizo Funatsu, Geoff Somers, Dr. Victor Boyarsky, Dr. Qin Dahe. Directed by Tasha Van Zandt

 

In 1989, a multi-national team led by American polar explorer Will Steger and French naturalist Jean-Louis Etienne, determined to make a non-mechanized journey from coast to coast in Antarctica. This meant they crossed on foot or by dog sled, and navigated by sextant. The 220 day expedition covered 3,741 miles through some of the most ferociously inhospitable terrain on the planet. They faced a storm that lasted 40 days (and 40 nights, I assume) that led to near-whiteout conditions. At times, the temperature reached 113 degrees below zero.

The purpose of the trip was to call attention to the polar regions and the effect that changing climactic conditions were having. The scientific data that the team recorded helped climate scientists determine that the ice caps were melting, and that climate change was posing a survival threat to the human race.

Steger has gone on to do other polar expeditions – it is something in his blood, in his nature. Footage of that 1989 trek, a journey that shaped his life. Now in his mid-70s, he decided to make a trek across the Arctic circle by himself to further call attention to the crisis, one which has in many ways largely been ignored in any meaningful way since that first expedition.

This documentary juxtaposes footage from that 1989 expedition – which is simply terrifying – with the gentler footage of Steger’s more recent trek, undertaken 30 years after the first. The idea, I think, is to illustrate how the climate crisis has grown more urgent in the intervening years but the idea backfires as the viewer gets involved more in the adventure aspect of that 1989 expedition which was undertaken in such hazardous conditions, than in the message that Steger himself is trying to deliver. It is truly a vivid illustration of the adage “never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” and the 1989 Trans-Antarctic was a hell of a good story.

The footage – some of it shot by Steger himself – is phenomenal and certainly the movie is worth seeing for that alone; it’s just I think that the important message that is trying to be communicated here gets lost in the sheer magnitude of the courage of those men who undertook the trip, which I think is somewhat ironic. What Steger ends up doing is competing with his younger self for screen attention. That’s never an easy task no matter how important the message.

The film is currently playing the festival circuit and has yet to get distribution. However, don’t be surprised if a documentary-oriented streamer like Discovery Plus, or a program like POV on PBS snaps this one up eventually.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful natural footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: The back and forth between the 1989 Trans-Antarctic expedition and Steger’s recent solo expedition robs the film of dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some animal peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steger was 75 years old when he embarked on his final Arctic expedition.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shackleford
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Catch

Cryptozoo


Giant snakes always make a movie better.

(2021) Animated Feature (Magnolia) Starring the voices of Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Emily Davis, Alex Karpovsky, Zoe Kazan, Louisa Krause, Angeliki Papoulia, Thomas Jay Ryan, Peter Stormare, Grace Zabriskie. Directed by Dash Shaw

 

Some readers may be old enough to remember the underground comics of the 1960s and 1970s in which artists such as R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Trina Robbins made comic strips distinctly aimed at adults, laden with sex, drugs and what have you. A kind of counterculture acid trip made printable, these comics enjoyed a brief heyday and their influence can be felt today in online comic strips, from which sprang Dash Shaw (My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea).

His latest has the look and feel of those halcyon works of art with a touch of 70s tarot cards mixed in. The visual style has a reason; the movie is set in an alternate version of the Sixties. Hippies Amber (Krause) and Matthew (Cera) wander into the woods near San Francisco to get stoned and have sex. Naked in the afterglow and not having come down from their high quite yet, they decide to go exploring and run into an impossibly high fence. Matthew immediately wants to see what’s behind it whereas Amber is a bit more cautious. When Matthew spies a castle (“Walt Disney must live there” he exclaims), Amber reluctantly follows. The two then see something even more incredible; a unicorn, but when Matthew stumbles and falls when trying to touch the creature, the animal gets spooked leading to tragedy.

The unicorn is one of hundreds of mythological creatures from all over the world called cryptids who have been gathered in this preserve as a means of protecting them and educating the public about them. They have been gathered in this enclosure, called the Cryptozoo, by Joan (Zabriskie), an elderly wealthy philanthropist. Her right hand is Lauren Gray (Bell), who as an army brat in Okinawa encountered a baku, a Japanese creature resembling a pig/baby elephant hybrid, that eats bad dreams. Since then, she has tracked down legendary creatures and brought them to this place, a kind of Jurassic Park for mythical creatures. She is on the lookout for the baku but then again, so is the U.S. military in the form of Nicholas (Ryan) who seeks to weaponize the cryptids ad put an end to any discussion of any military supremacy other than American. Lauren is aided by Phoebe (Papoulia), a gorgon (don’t call her Medusa) who longs to fit in to society with a normal husband and a normal life.

However, bad things are happening at the Cryptozoo and things have been loosed that shouldn’t ever have been confined. Will Joan’s dream of integrating the cryptids into society be destroyed, or should the cryptids be free to live as they choose – even if they must remain hidden?

There’s a lot going on in this movie – maybe a little too much. There are some of the obvious subtexts – wariness of the military-industrial complex, respect the environment and ecology, zoos and other places where wildlife are kept for public display are inherently bad places, and the like. It’s a lot to pack in to an hour and a half and at times the movie seems lost in its own maze of subtexts.

What works here is the animation; it is inventive (as is the story itself) and most of the time, gorgeous to look at. Clearly a lot of imagination went into this and you see all of it on the screen. While the drawings themselves aren’t super-detailed (this is hand drawn 2D rather than CGI) the viewer is allowed to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations. I find that’s the sign of a director who trusts his audience.

My main objection is that the story can be hard to follow at times; there is a fragmentation that occurs because I think Shaw and his wife and creative partner Jane Samborski (who supervised the animation) had so much to say that they could have easily fit it in to several films. I imagine when you are doing something as labor-intensive as an animated feature, there is a tendency to want to fit as much in as possible, but in this case it hurt the movie a little bit.

The film continues to play the Florida Film Festival the rest of the week and Florida residents still can purchase a virtual copy, although they are going fast. If you’re not able to do so, the movie will be released theatrically in August and it might be better seen on the big screen anyway. Animation this gorgeous deserves the best possible presentation.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully inventive and gorgeous animation.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story is a bit disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sex, violence and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at Sundance earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Unicorn
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
After Antarctica

Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut


Matt Smith gets high.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Goldwyn) Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey, Brandon Sklenar, Tina Benko, Mark Moses, Carolyn McCormick, Thomas Philip O’Neill, Mickey O’Hagan, Anthony Michael Lopez, McKinley Belcher III, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Karlee Perez, David J. Cork, Kerry Butler, Hari Nef, Robert George Siveris, John Bolton, Christina Rouner. Directed by Ondi Timmoner

 

There are figures in popular culture that loom large, directly or otherwise, in the national psyche, but for one reason or another we don’t really know much about them well, other than what our own personal prejudices tell us about them. One such is Robert Mapplethorpe.

His name still evokes powerful feelings among many today. Some see him as an artistic genius, one who pushed boundaries on male sexuality and the male body. Others see him as little more than a pornographer, a gay man whose work epitomized the bathhouse scene of New York in the 70s and 80s. His work was so controversial that it was the first (and to date only) exhibition to ever cause the gallery owner displaying it to be arrested on obscenity charges.

This biopic, helmed by able documentary filmmaker Timmoner, stars Matt Smith (roaming much further from Doctor Who than even Gallifrey) in the title role. We see him as a member of the ROTC at Pratt Institute, just before dropping out and moving to Greenwich Village in the 1970s, where he would take up with legendary punk goddess Patti Smith (Rendón) who was then a struggling musician. The two carried on a brief romantic relationship but it soon became obvious that young Robert swung for the other side. Eventually his relationship with gallery owner Sam Wagstaff (Hickey) would lead to him being championed by Wagstaff and his work to be discovered.

This isn’t a very flattering portrait of Mapplethorpe, who here is portrayed as someone who habitually used people and discarded them when they were no longer of use to him – including his own brother. He spent most of his life trying to catch the brass ring and when he finally did, found that it didn’t bring him any more happiness than chasing it did.

Smith is wonderful here, inhabiting his role admirably. The thing with biopics that most viewers, nearly all critics and quite a few filmmakers seem to never understand is that except in very rare cases, the actor’s job is not to portray the subject as they are/were, but as the audience thinks they should be/have been – after all, the audience likely never met Mr. Mapplethorpe or know anyone who did. We have only what we read about him (assuming we’ve read anything about him) or heard abut him or, more to the point, what we think about him. We think of Mapplethorpe as a gay man who was obsessed with male genitalia and homoerotic images; we are given a Mapplethorpe who is just that. So in that sense, Smith is entirely successful.

The movie covers some of the bases here; the effects of his strict Catholic upbringing, his contentious relationship with his father, the estrangement from his brother and so on. Timmoner doesn’t really get us too far into Mapplethorpe’s head; we rarely know what he’s thinking, although to be fair, Mapplethorpe played his opinions pretty close to his chest when he was aiive.

What is more disappointing is that the movie feels choppy and fragmented. There’s no flow to the film, no fluidity. Instead, we move from one set piece to the next, almost as if each scene was directed by someone completely different. It leaves you feeling like the film was directed by committee.

The film was originally released in 2019 without making much of an impression so I’m not exactly sure if anyone was calling for a director’s cut of the film. 12 minutes of additional scenes are added to the movie, which doesn’t really improve the film any. It just means you have to sit through twelve more minutes of it. The expanded edition is available on Hulu and Amazon Prime; most of the others have the original theatrical version.

REASONS TO SEE: Matt Smith loses himself in the role.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fragmented and overly long and ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexuality and nudity, adult themes and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mapplethorpe’s mother passed away three days after her son did.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Kanopy, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews; Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Basquiat
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cryptozoo

Together Together


A truly odd couple.

(2021) Comedy (Bleecker Street) Patti Harrison, Ed Helms, Rosalind Chao, Timm Sharp, Bianca Lopez, Nora Dunn, Fred Melamed, Vivian Gil, Tig Notaro, Julio Torres, Evan Jonigkeit, Sufe Bradshaw, Travis Coles, Jo Firestone, David Chattam, Heidi Méndez, Ellen Dubin (voice), May Calamawy, Greta Titelman, Tucker Smallwood, Terri Hoyos, Ithamar Enriquez, Gail Rastorfer. Directed by Nikole Beckwith

Our biological clocks tick inexorably. Our time is limited and if we want to have kids, there is a time where we’ve got to buckle down and get to parentin’ if we’re going to do it at all. Not having a partner at that point in life isn’t necessarily the obstacle it once was.

For middle-aged app designer Matt (Helms), he hasn’t had any sort of romantic relationship in eight years but he REALLY wants to be a dad. He decides to go the surrogacy route and that’s how he meets Anna (Harrison). She’s a barista in a coffee shop in San Francisco (where Matt also lives) who has been estranged from her family ever since a teenage pregnancy led to her dropping out of high school and giving up the baby for adoption. She wants to break out of the rut her life has settled into and knows that she needs to complete her education – complete with college degree. The money she makes from having a baby would essentially be able to pay for getting her life back on track. She considers it a fair trade-off.

For Matt, being in control of things has been the secret to his success and at first he can’t help but be a bit of a control freak when it comes to Anna’s pregnancy, giving the stink eye over dietary choices and pushing for her to get clogs (“pregnancy shoes,” as he calls them). At first, Anna is annoyed by his intrusion into her life, but she soon begins to see inside the surface and realizes that Matt is really a nice, kind man who is looking to fulfill a life goal and on his own terms. That’s something they have in common.

Gradually the two form a bond, whether it is Anna showing up at a decidedly uncomfortable baby shower, or binge watching episodes of Friends with Matt. As the big day looms on the horizon, the two are constantly attempting to define their relationship and the boundaries therein. It’s not always easy.

In lesser hands this would have been a sappy rom-com with Matt and Anna falling in love and having a happily-ever-after but these are not lesser hands. Beckwith shows a deft touch with comedy and as she also wrote the script, a good deal of insight into parental urges and the nature of inter-gender friendships. Unlike the main premise of When Harry Met Sally, Beckwith not only supports the idea that men can be friends with women without a sexual element involved in the relationship, but that the friendship can be as deep and as fulfilling as a romantic relationship (I happen to agree with her). That friendship is at the center of the film.

For that reason, the movie is remarkably schmaltz-free. The emotions that come up are generally earned and feel organic. The two squabble from time to time, but it’s ot the cute squabbling of rom-coms but the honest disagreement between two adults who see things differently. Harrison, who most people know from Shrill (if they know her at all), is brilliant. Her performance here is compared to Melissa McCarthy’s in Bridesmaids in the sense that it is a breakout of a gifted comedian who is ready to become a major star, and I think Harrison could have that kind of success.

Helms has become a steady performer, excelling at playing decent guys and so he does here. You can’t help but be drawn to him, even though at times he is a bit overbearing (Matt, not Ed Helms). Watching Ed Helms work has always given me the feeling that he’s the kind of guy you want to be friends with. That’s a good skill to have for an actor.

The movie has some terrific supporting performances, ranging from Notaro as a therapist that both Matt and Anna see, Melamed and Dunn as Matt’s parents, Torres as Anna’s gay co-worker, and especially Bradshaw as an ultrasound technician who gets to witness Matt and Anna’s squabbles.

Maybe the best thing about the film is its ending, which takes place appropriately enough in the delivery room. Cinematographer Frank Barrera keeps the camera tight on Harrison’s face and Harrison gives him good reason to. Her expressions are beautiful and bittersweet, and the ending is about as perfect as a movie ending can be, fitting the tone of the film perfectly and providing a graceful coda. This was a movie that was far better than I had a right to expect it to be, and I recommend it highly.

The movie is currently playing the Florida Film Festival and can be streamed (by Florida residents only, unfortunately) at the link below, but be of good cheer – it is getting a national release a week from today (as this is published). So no excuses…

REASONS TO SEE: Helms and Harrison have excellent chemistry together. There is surprising depth in the comedy. Looks at surrogacy from an unusual angle.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor might be too low-key for modern audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including female reproductive references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harrison’s mother is Vietnamese and met her father, a U.S. soldier, during the War. They eventually got married and had seven children of which Patti is the youngest.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema (through April 25)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Baby Mama
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Mapplethorpe