Synchronic


Two EMTs shooting the breeze.

(2020) Science Fiction (Well Go USAAnthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Katie Aselton, Ally Ionnides, Bill Oberst Jr., Natasha Tina Liu, Martin Bats Bradford, Devyn A. Tyler, Betsy Holt, Lawrence Turner, Shane Brody, Walker Babington, Sam Malone, Hawn Tran, Carl Palmer, Rhonda Johnson Dents, Adam J. Yeend, Ramiz Monsef, Matthew Underwood, J. Lamb, Sophie Howell. Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

 

One of the advantages of being a mainstay in the MCU movies as Anthony Mackie is, is that he has the option to fill his down time between MCU epics with movies of his choosing. The downside is that people might see him more as a second banana instead of a lead, so when he does spectacular work as a lead, people might be surprised.

They shouldn’t be. Mackie has been a terrific actor for years now, and he shines in just about every role he takes on. Here he plays Steve, a New Orleans EMT, working the night shift with his partner Dennis (Dornan). Steve is a bit of a party animal, never forging any kind of relationship save with Dennis; Dennis, on the other hand, is a family man with a wife (Aselton) who is becoming exasperated with Steve, and teenage daughter Brianna (Ionnides) who is growing more difficult by the day.

The two have been seeing an increase in gruesome deaths which are connected with the designer drug Synchronic. At the same time, Steve receives some bad news and is forced to face his own mortality. And when he discovers that Synchronic has an unexpected quality that has to do with the disappearance of Brianna, Steve realizes he is the only one to get his partner’s daughter back home.

I’m being deliberately vague here about the nature of what Synchronic does and how it shapes the plot because, quite frankly, the less you know going in the better. I will say that a healthy suspension of disbelief is absolutely necessary, and a willingness to accept some lapses in logic. That said, the plot is a doozy and the concept a thoughtful one.  Mackie shines here in a bit of an anti-hero role; Steve is a bit of a curmudgeon and an equal bit of a jerk, but when the chips are down he’s as loyal as they come, so there’s that.

The cast is rock solid and the special effects are, considering the low budget, pretty impressive, but it is Mackie that is the reason you’ll want to see this. It’s fairly thought-provoking sci-fi but as I said there are some “huh?” moments which do bring the movie down some. Benson and Moorhead excel at creating an atmosphere and there is a definitely desperate vibe here, but the movie does take it’s sweet time getting going and the ending is a bit of a groaner. That said, though, this is a pretty solid mid-fall film that is likely to get traction once word gets out about it.

The movie is currently available in select theaters around the country. A VOD release will be coming soon.

REASONS TO SEE: Mackie channels Will Smith in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit slow in developing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth directorial collaboration between Benson and Moorhead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jacob’s Ladder
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness begins!

Martin Eden


Brave workers, unite against the evil bourgeosie!

(2019) Drama (Kino LorberLuca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Vincenzo Nemolato, Marco Leonardi, Denise Sardisco, Carmen Pommella, Carlo Cecci, Autilla Ranieri, Elisabetta Valgoi, Pietro Ragusa, Savino Paparella, Vincenza Modica, Giustiniano Alpi, Giuseppe Iuliano, Peppe Maggio, Maurizio Donadoni, Gaetano Bruno, Franco Pinelli, Anna Patierno, Lana Vlady. Directed by Pietro Marcello

 

2020 has given us not one but two films based on novels by Jack London, the Harrison Ford-led Call of the Wild and this one. They couldn’t be two more different films.

The titular Martin (Marinelli) doesn’t toil as a longshoreman in Oakland as was the case in the original 1909 novel, but as a sailor in the Mediterranean. When he saves a young boy from a beating on the pier, it turns out that the boy is the scion of a wealthy family, the Orsini clan. Their comely daughter Elena (Cressy) is well-educated, intelligent, witty and an angelic beauty. She falls for the ruggedly handsome Martin much to the dismay of her bourgeois family.

Martin is equally smitten but realizes that any kind of relationship between the two of them is impossible so long as he is poor. He determines to make his fortune as a writer, and as a writer he follows the dictum to write what he knows. Unfortunately, what he mainly knows is rage against the machine, as he becomes slowly more radicalized. He moves from menial job to menial job, scraping by, while his writing career goes nowhere. He perseveres and Elena hangs in there, but as Martin finally finds success, he changes and slowly the thing he wanted most begins to slip away, furthering his rage.

There is an epic quality to the film as we watch the arc of Martin’s life, his involvement with intellectuals, with the wealthy Orsini family and with radical socialists who seek to make sweeping changes in Italy. Much of what Martin communicates in the second half of the film is half-screamed as he rails at socialists whom he sees as doomed to fail, but more so at capitalists who exploit people like himself. Soon, all he has is that anger.

Marcello, better known for his documentaries although he has an excellent narrative feature (Lost and Beautiful) on his resume, has a good eye. He intersperses archival footage of turn-of-the-century Italy as well as faux archival footage of a magnificent sailing ship which seems to be a metaphor for Martin’s success…or ambitions…or dreams; take your pick.

The movie is extremely well-acted as Marinelli does his best to make a character who slowly becomes consumed with fury likable and relatable and, for the most part, succeeds. Cressy is luminous and radiates intelligence; in many ways, she’s a more interesting character than Martin is although his story is a tragic one.

I suspect conservative-leaning readers may shudder at the thought of a movie that looks at socialists but they are not romanticized in the least. However, it doesn’t sugarcoat the snobbery of the Orsinis. Painting both sides as equally non-admirable. London wrote the novel as a means to reconcile his success (the novel was written after the bulk of his most successful novels had made London a wealthy man) with his socialist leanings. I don’t know if London had an inner uncontrollable rage that characterizes Martin (at the time he wrote it he was suffering from the kidney disease that would become nearly unbearable in the later stages of his life) but certainly there’s a lot of Martin Eden in Jack London, and vice versa. Success comes with its own measures and they don’t always have to do with the size of the paycheck.

REASONS TO SEE: A lyrically photographed tale that is epic in scope and feel.
REASONS TO AVOID: Turns into a socialist polemic at times as Martin becomes more unlikable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, violence and sexual content..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The ending of the novel led to speculation that London’s death may not have been accidental.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Reds
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Linda and the Mockingbirds

Herb Alpert Is…


The brass still gleams.

(2020) Music Documentary (AbramoramaHerb Alpert, Jerry Moss, Lani Hall, Sting, Quincy Jones, Billy Bob Thornton, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendes, Lou Adler, Terry Lewis, Bill Moyers, Randy Alpert, Jimmy Jam, Quest Love, Chloe Flower, Richard Carpenter, Eden Alpert, Hussain Jiffry, Ken Robinson, John Pisano, Chip Tom, Eric Pryor, Richard W. Lariviere, Bill Cantos, Aria Alpert Adjani. Directed by John Scheinfeld

 

In the early-to-mid Sixties, the biggest musical group in the world was the Beatles. All the kids listened to them. But it might surprise you to know what their parents were listening to; Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The two groups were the biggest selling musical acts in the United States in 1965 and 1966. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve heard “A Taste of Honey” at some point in your life. You’ve had to.

In the sixties, his music served as something of a soundtrack. It was used as incidental music on The Dating Game and could be heard in movies and of course, on the radio. As ubiquitous as his music was, he might be best remembered in the music business for being the “A” in A&M Records, whose roster of artists included at one time or another Janet Jackson, The Carpenters, Carole King, The Police, Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66, Bryan Adams, Soundgarden, The Black-Eyed Peas, Sheryl Crow, Peter Frampton, Styx, Amy Grant, Joe Jackson, the Neville Brothers, Atlantic Starr, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Human League, Oingo Boingo, Hugh Masakela, Iggy Pop, the Neville Brothers, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Cat Stevens, the Tubes, Simple Minds, UB40, Rick Wakeman, Supertramp, Bill Withers and the Stranglers.

These days, Alpert spends a lot of time sculpting and painting. Music has taken a back seat to the visual arts, although he still dabbles. He sold the record company years ago, and is able to live a pretty comfortable lifestyle. He’s reached a point in his life where people tend to turn inward and ask themselves “Did I do okay?” It is also the time of life when documentarians tend to come knocking on your door.

Scheinfeld has assembled some pretty impressive interviews, and Alpert himself, notoriously an introvert, actually proves to tell some pretty fun stories. The tone of the film is, as you might expect, somewhat reverent and if you’re looking for a “warts and all” portrayal here, you will likely be disappointed. Still, the archival footage is absolutely amazing – the TJB were making music videos back in the early Sixties before just about anybody else – and you get to hear a little bit more than just ten-second snippets of songs.

Alpert seems to be a pretty forward-looking guy as most artists tend to be. Still, in an era when looking forward tends to bring on depression, it was a pleasure to look back a bit. My mom and dad owned the South of the Border album and they played the heck out of it – I’m surprised it still plays (my mom still has the album somewhere). It represents a simpler, more innocent era to me, and I lived in Southern California – the perfect environment to hear Alpert’s music. Some today might mutter about cultural appropriation and watered-down version of Mexican music, but it was more than an accompaniment to chips and salsa at your local Mexican chain restaurant. It introduced a lot of people to a different type of music and made them receptive to hearing still more. Whatever you think of the TJB, you have to admit that Alpert made an indelible mark on the music industry and thus, on our lives. For my money, he done good.

REASONS TO SEE: The music clips are a little longer than usual for this genre. There is some terrific archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film occasionally descends into hagiography.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alpert got his start in the music business as a songwriter; among the songs that he wrote was the classic Sam Cooke song “Wonderful World.”
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20.20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews; Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Great Deceiver

A Call to Spy


Virginia Hill wonders how come James Bond got a sports car and she got a bicycle?

(2019) War (IFCSarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Samuel Roukin, Andrew Richardson, Laila Robins, Marc Rissmann, Mathilde Olivier, Lola Pashalinski, David Schaal, Rob Heaps, Matt Salinger, Marceline Hugot, Cynthia Mace, Joe Doyle, Alistair Brammer, Helen Kennedy, Juliana Sass, Sigrid Owen, Gemma Massot. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher

V

When we think of the heroes of the Second World War, we often think of lantern-jawed white men, aw-shucks farm boys, daring partisans and clever Englishmen, often played by such as Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks. There were, however, many different kinds of heroes.

After France fell, there was a feeling of desperation in England, knowing that they were likely the next to feel the brunt of the Nazi war machine (America hadn’t entered the war at that time). Finding out what the Nazis were up to was paramount, and there were no reliable ways to get that information; spies were being discovered and executed by the SS almost as soon as the Strategic Operations Executive – the office of British intelligence during the early days of the war – could send them.

In desperation, Winston Churchill ordered that women be sent over to Occupied France. He reasoned that women might be able to move about more freely and attract less suspicion. Vera Atkins (Katic), a Jewish-Romanian immigrant and a secretary in the SOE office was tasked with recruiting women for the job by her boss, Maurice Buckmaster (Roche).

Atkins took the job seriously and went after women that the Nazis might not suspect of being spies. One of her recruits was Virginia Hall (Thomas), a secretary in the American embassy with aspirations to becoming a diplomat, although her wooden leg (she lost her leg in a hunting accident) seemed to be keeping her from achieving her goal. Another was Noor Inayat Khan (Apte), a Muslim-Pakistani of royal lineage who wanted to make a difference in the war for her adopted country.

It was obviously dangerous work; most of the women sent overseas never made it back home, but the work they did was invaluable. Buckmaster characterized it as “ungentlemanly warfare,” recruiting members of the resistance, relaying information back to England via wireless operators (like Khan) and committing acts of sabotage. They were surrounded by collaborators and counterspies, and many of the women were betrayed to the Nazis.

The movie, which was written by Thomas who also co-produced it, is largely the work of women behind the camera, which is to be celebrated. A story about women by women is something that cinema needs more of, particularly those about women whose accomplishments were largely lost to history. Thomas and director Lydia Dean Pilcher concentrate on the stories of Hill, Atkins and Khan. All three women were facing death at any moment – for Atkins, her citizenship was held up and she lived with the constant threat of being deported back to Romania, which was part of the Axis back then and almost certainly she would have been promptly executed had that happened. All three women were fighting against the preconceptions of men – Hill because of her disability, Khan because of her diminutive stature and nationality – as well as the Nazis.

The story is one worth telling, but that doesn’t mean that it is told particularly well here. The dialogue has a tendency to be eye-rolling and the movie takes on a Girl Power tone which, although understandable, was completely unnecessary; the accomplishments of all three women were impressive enough that they don’t need further “see what women can accomplish” hagiography. The movie would have benefitted from a simpler storytelling style.

The film is a bit muddled in terms of going back and forth between the three women, particularly in the second half of the film. It felt that there was so much to tell about these women’s lives that we got only the barest minimum to keep our interest; they would have been better served with a longer format which would have gotten us more insight to who they were, which would have allowed the audience to get more deeply invested in their stories.

That said, it isn’t often that a movie gets reamed for not being thorough enough, but that is the case here. I think the hearts of the filmmakers were in the right place, but taking on the project left them with a quandary; whose story do we tell, and how much of it? They chose three worthy women, but in the end, they should have concentrated on one or gone the miniseries route. I think the subjects deserved one or the other.

REASONS TO SEE: A rare look at some of the unsung heroes of the war.
REASONS TO AVOID: Probably should have been a miniseries.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of period smoking, some graphic violence and scenes of torture, and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During shooting, Thomas ruptured her Achilles tendon that required surgery once filming had been completed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Catcher Was a Spy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
American Murder: The Family Next Door

Draupadi Unleashed


The lot of a woman in India has long been sadness.

(2019) Romance (Passion RiverSalena Qureshi, Cas Anvar, Taaha Shah Badusha, Dominic Rains, Anna George, Melanie Chandra, Azita Ghanizada, Paras Patel, Saad Siddiqui, Indigo Sabharwal, Abi Bais, Gopal Divan, Anil Kumar, Meghana Mudiyam, Pooja Batra, Kai Gowda, TeriEnna Blanco. Directed by Tony Stopperan and Nisha Sabharwal

 

Passion can be a liberating thing, but it can also be a damning thing. Our passions can lead us into great happiness, but more often, into big trouble. But passion is an indelible part of our nature, like it or not.

Young Indira (Qureshi) has passion to spare, but you’d never know it. For one thing, female passion is frowned upon during the British raj of the 1930s, and certainly in the upper caste to which she belongs. She is expected to be submissive to her husband – when a marriage is arranged for her – and to let him do all the thinking. Her job is to keep his house and make him happy.

But Indira wants more, and more might be her cousin Gautam (Badusha), her childhood playmate grown to handsome young manhood. However, the match arranged for her is with Amar (Rains), the heir to a sugar fortune, but another cousin of Indira, Masumi (Ghanizada) – who happens to be married to the rarely present Dev (Saddiqui) – has designs on Amar. She approves the match, if only so that Indira can turn down his sexual advances so that he is driven to Masumi. Blessing the union of Amar and Indira is the reclusive swami Manu (Anvar) who instantly realizes what’s going on and tries to steer this ship away from the rocks it is heading to, but the tremors that begin to occur with more frequency presage a disaster coming to the city of Quetta that would eventually kill more than 40,000.

I will say this is a lush and beautiful looking and sounding film; the visuals have that Downton Abby sheen of wealth and privilege, while the score – utilizing traditional Indian instruments and melodies – is absolutely breathtaking.

The movie exists in kind of a bubble; the social upheaval going on in India during the same period is never referred to – they may as well have set the action on Mars. There is a curiously bloodless feeling here, as if everyone is on lithium. From time to time, someone (usually Amar) raises their voice, but for someone who is willing to run off with her cousin, Indira sometimes comes off as someone who really can’t be bothered to make a decision on her own. The effect is to make her less compelling as a character, which is a shame because Qureshi has a great deal of charm which shows up in unexpected times and ways. With a little bit more character development, she could have been truly memorable.

Although set in India, this is an American production so the sensuality is a little bit pronounced although still of the PG variety. There is some violence and the climactic sequences are fairly thrilling, although by the time the movie hits the two hour mark you’re pretty much ready for it to be done. I like the idea here a lot more than the execution.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful score and costumes.
REASONS TO AVOID: Far too long to be this passionless.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some mild violence and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sabharwal not only co-directed the film, but she did the narration (as an older version of Indira) and wrote the novel it’s based on.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Remains of the Day
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Racer

We Are Many


Proof that politicians can ignore even the loudest voices of the people.

(2014) Documentary (Area 23aRichard Branson, Hans Blix, Susan Sarandon, John Le Carré, Damon Albarn, Mark Rylance, Ken Loach, Danny Glover, Tom Hayden, Brian Eno, Noam Chomsky, Ron Kovic, Jesse Jackson, Robert Greenwald, Jeremy Corbyn, Gen. Lawrence Wilkerson, Tariq Ali, Philippe Sands, John Rees, Lord Charles, Victoria Branson, Rafaella Bonini. Directed by Amir Amirani

 

“The power of the people” rests in the will of the people to act in concert. When people unite, they can accomplish great things. That is, at least, the story we’ve been told, but what if I told you that somewhere between six and thirty million people worldwide gathered on the same day around the world to protest a war – and the war happened anyway?

After 9-11, the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan because reliable intelligence had the leadership of Al-Qaeda holed up in the caves of that country. The military might of the United States and its allies quickly overwhelmed the Taliban government of Afghanistan. After the collective trauma, grief and rage of the collapse of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon, it didn’t feel like enough. The Bush Administration turned its eyes to Iraq, the country that the president’s father had invaded nearly twenty years before. Aided and abetted by the Tony Blair government in the UK, the word went out that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that he would launch at the West.

We know now that those weapons of mass destruction never existed, r if they did, they didn’t exist anymore. Blair, Bush and their governments knowingly and willfully lied to their citizens in order to popularize a war that they couldn’t legally justify. Most of the people of both countries bought the lies hook, line and sinker, myself included. Not everybody did, though.

Some felt that the war was an unjust one; that the real motivation for the war was to enrich the profits of the oil companies. “No blood for oil,” was the popular chant. Protests were organized in Europe and then, although social media was in its infancy, the Internet was used to plan and co-ordinate massive rallies across the globe. While the movement began in Europe, it quickly spread to become a worldwide phenomenon.

But as we all know, all the outpouring of dissent went for naught. A month later, the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom and the U.S. and many of its allies remain there to this day, 17 years later. Thousands of coalition soldiers never came home. The number of Iraqi dead may be as much as more 1,500,000. There is a little bit of a post-mortem, but other than one semi-tenuous link to much more successful protests later (more on that below), we really don’t get a sense of what the march actually accomplished, and its lasting legacy, if any.

One thing I would have liked to have seen is detailed information on how the massive march was coordinated. You get the feeling it was just kind of a grass roots seat-of-the-pants operation that just sprouted up independent of one another in various cities, countries – and Antarctica (that’s right). We get more information about the political goings-on leading up to that time – most of which is easily available elsewhere – and not nearly enough inside information on how difficult it was to coordinate the marches, the logistical issues they ran into, that sort of thing. We do get a lot of celebrity talking heads, talking about their involvement with the march. The only one I found truly compelling was Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, Lawrence Wilkerson who expresses regret now about the events that brought the United States into Iraq.

The movie was actually filmed in 2013, ten years after the protest, so there is a bit of perspective here. The film has been given a virtual theatrical release, six years after its original theatrical release in 2014. For whatever reason, it never got a North American release back then, so now that we’re dealing with massive protests around the country, a pandemic and the most contentious Presidential election since the Civil War, I guess they figured the time was right.

You also have to take into account that at the end of the day, the war happened anyway, but the filmmakers don’t really address that in any detail. They do point out a tentative connection between the protest and the Arab Spring that took place seven years later, and they may not be wrong; certainly the organizers of those protests used the march as inspiration, but how much is subject to interpretation.

It is important that we remember the march because it was an important moment in which the world came together with one voice for possibly the first time – and were ignored by their leaders. It is a sobering thought that if peaceful protests that massive in nature may no longer influence the powers that be. One wonders how far the people will have to go to get their point across now.

REASONS TO SEE: Very timely given the current climate of protest around the world.
REASONS TO AVOID: Explains why the protests were made but doesn’t really get into how this massive event was organized.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some profanity and depictions of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The protest still remains the largest worldwide gathering of people; it took place on February 15, 2003.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter on Fire
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Draupadi Unleashed

Blackbird (2019)


Taking comfort at twilight.

(2019) Drama (Screen MediaKate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon. Directed by Roger Mitchell

 

Most of us fear dying. We are dragged towards it, kicking and screaming, not wanting to go gentle into that dark night. Some of us, conversely, embrace it, death being a comforting alternative to a life of pain and humiliation.
That’s what Lily (Sarandon) is faced with, entering the final stages of ALS, popularly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” She is already having difficulty doing ordinary things, having lost the use of one arm and nearly unable to walk. She is looking at a future of breathing on a ventilator, being fed intravenously and unable to speak. This is not a future she wishes to endure. She wants to exert the last little bit of control she has over life – she wants to end it while she is still able.

This is a decision that she has debated with her family – her husband Paul (Neill), a doctor who has managed to purchase the fatal cocktail that will send her into sleep one last time; her eldest daughter Jennifer (Winslet) who inherited her mother’s control-freak nature without inheriting her warmth; younger daughter Anna (Wasikowska), the family black sheep, whose on-again off-again paramour Chris (Taylor-Klaus) is apparently on-again with her and has accompanied her to Lily and Paul’s extravagant beach house in the Hamptons. So, too has Jennifer’s husband Michael (Wilson), a reciter of minutiae so irritating that Anna has dubbed him “Mr. Dull,” and their son Jonathan (Boon), who has clearly spent a lifetime not living up to his mother’s expectations. Then there’s also Liz (Duncan), Lily’s long-time best friend (dating back at least until college) whose presence Jennifer deeply resents.

Lily clearly expects a sweet send-off, in the bosom of a loving family ready to send her off with love and joy, but she apparently hasn’t met her own children. Anna is so self-absorbed that she threatens to put a stop to Lily’s plans in order to get to know her mother better before she goes; Jennifer can’t help but criticize every little detail in everyone else and she and Anna are at each other’s throats. Paul takes the high road, but he simply wants peace and knows he’s not going to get it, particularly when a late revelation calls into question everything.

The film has an understandably elegiac tone, borrowed from the Danish film it is remade from (Silent Heart) whose screenwriter Christian Torpe also penned the English-language version. Even the warm tones of Mike Eley’s cinematography doesn’t disguise that we are observing a life in winter, awaiting its end. Then again, this isn’t a movie about death so much as it is about the dynamics of family. This is a family that has had a comfortable life, but has profited little by it.

The attraction here is the cast, and they don’t disappoint. Sarandon has played the dying mom before (Stepmom) and experienced pro that she is, refuses to turn her illness into Camille-like histrionics. She is making her best effort to die with dignity, but she is flinty enough to call her family down to breakfast by grumping “Get down here – I’m going to die today!” Winslet plays a character that is recognizably Lily’s daughter – strong, strong-willed, and yes, a control freak, but she chooses to exercise it by tearing down.

Neill has been one of my favorite actors over the years and his quiet dignity makes his part all the more poignant. Wasikowska, Duncan and Taylor-Klaus manage to hold their own against the Oscar-winning leads and Wilson does a surprisingly good job in a rare straight dramatic role for him. Boon, a relative newcomer, also is impressive in his scenes as the straight-shooting grandson.

This is hard to watch at times in the sense of dealing with a loved one. I found myself wondering if I would be as sanguine if it was my mother who was purporting to end her own life with dignity. I’d like to think I’d support her decision if she felt it was the right thing, but I can’t help wondering if I would handle the situation gracefully. Chances are, not.

This is a movie that inspires reflection, and that is definitely not a bad thing. That said, it isn’t always an easy watch and requires much of its viewer. Also, not a bad thing, but it can be more than the average viewer might be willing to give. Still in all, it is worth the effort to watch if for no other reason for the stellar performances of its cast.

REASONS TO SEE: Some wonderful performances from Sarandon, Winslet and Neill. Lovely cinematography. The family dynamic is the focus of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kind of a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some brief sexual material, drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers initially wanted Diane Keaton in the role for Lily, but eventually Sarandon was cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Here Awhile
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story

3 Day Weekend


No matter what, he’s got her back.

(2019) Suspense (Sleeper CellMorgan Krantz, Maya Stojan, Nathan Phillips, Scott MacDonald. Directed by Wyatt McDill

Sometimes a movie will show a tremendous amount of promise but end up sabotaging itself with the execution. 3 Day Weekend is just such a movie.

Millennial Ben Boyd (Krantz) decides that after a painful relationship break-up to go camping and get away from his heartache. Never mind that he really has no experience camping; how hard can it be to pitch a tent and set up a sleeping bag? Exactly.

However, he stumbles upon a deaf girl (Stojan) locked in the trunk of a car and intuits that a kidnapping is in progress. There is a menacing looking redneck (Phillips) with a gun involved and Ben’s attempts to rescue the damsel in distress go awry. When another redneck bearing a gun (MacDonald) shows up, things get even more lively, but Ben couldn’t possibly imagine the truth of what is happening; it certainly isn’t what it might seem to be to him at the time.

And there you have it; a simple concept, which McDill enhances by keeping dialogue to a bare minimum (there’s almost no dialogue at all in the first 30 minutes other than text messages which become important later), and to McDill’s credit he pulls it off. Also adding to the list of admirable qualities for the film is that it is told from the viewpoint of each character at various times with each character adding to the information that the audience has, changing our interpretation of events subtly until it ends up being quite a major shift. Kudos to McDill (who also wrote the script) for that.

Where the film loses its goodwill is in the camera work. McDill and cinematographer Brian Lundy rely a great deal on handheld cameras, leading to shaky cameras running through the Minnesota woods. He also utilizes some very questionable camera angles that end up annoying the viewer rather than impressing us with their skill. I’ve never been a big fan of shaky cam to begin with; it’s a much-overused camera technique. Used in moderation, it adds immediacy. Used to excess, it adds nausea.

It’s a shame because Lundy and McDill have some beautiful woods to work with, and McDill has written a very good film. However, movies are a visual medium and if that aspect of the project isn’t up to par, it really creates an unpleasant experience. The good news is that McDill shows a lot of potential here and if he just settles down a bit with the cinematography I’m positive he’s capable of delivering some really good movies.

REASONS TO SEE: Builds up the tension nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some really questionable camera angle choices and way too much handheld shaky-cam.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the 2019 Twin Cities Film Festival, near where filming took place..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood and Money
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Musical Comedy Whore

Hollywood Fringe


Kirk and Prediger can’t believe the dialogue coming out of their mouths.

(2020) Comedy (Sleeper CellJennifer Prediger, Justin Kirk, Nishi Munshi, Maya Stojan, Tory Devon Smith, Rainbow Underhill, Erica Hernandez, Jim Holmes, Terryn Westbrook, Cyd Strittmatter, Frank Cappello, Shaughn Buchholz, Aaron Conte, Miles Dausuel, Amit May Cohen, Max Goudsmit, Neel Ghosh, Jolene Kay, Charley Koontz, Aimee McGuire, Anna Shields, Michelle Nakamoto. Directed by Meghan Huber and Wyatt McDill

I would assume at least some of my readers have attended a local fringe festival (and here in Orlando we happen to have a good one). For those not in the know, fringe festivals are a festival of short, generally experimental or avant garde performance media, generally theatrical in nature although some fringe festivals also include short film screenings. Fringe performances are meant to push the boundaries a bit, sometimes dealing with uncomfortable subject matter, sometimes involving audience participation, sometimes being really weird and way out there. Fringe festivals are something of an acquired taste, one I’m sad to say that I’ve never acquired and I’ve been to a few, mostly in California.

This piece is essentially a feature length fringe festival film involving married couple Samantha (Prediger) and Travis (Kirk). They are struggling actors and writers, originally from the Midwest but gradually coming to the realization that they are approaching 40 and have nothing to show for it. They have one last shot – a TV show they have developed about a self-sustaining farm – which they have pitched to a fictional network. If this doesn’t click for them, they have decided to leave L.A. and move back home and start a different life.

But there’s good news and there’s bad news for them; the series is picked up. Yay! But the network only wants Travis, finding Samantha to be too unlikable. Boo! This puts a strain on their marriage as Travis continues on with the show, getting more and more disillusioned as the network changes their original concept into something completely unrecognizable. Meanwhile, Samantha is looking to put on a piece from their younger days, entitled The Alien Play and after auditioning a group of actors from a long line of really bad actors, settles on a group of highly strung actors who, like Samantha, haven’t found success yet  Samantha is turning into a drama teacher as well as theater director, and as Travis gets discouraged, she gets more energized.

But wait! Is that what’s really happening? Co-directors McDill and Huber leave that extremely open-ended, presenting the story as a series of short vignettes that have an audience, generally a very small one. We are left to wonder whether this is reality or performance or a clever mix of both, and the filmmakers leave it to the audience to decide which. That’s to the good. Also to the good is Prediger, who has just enough of an edge to be interesting, but not so much as to be unlikable. She has some real screen presence and has a good deal of potential, kind of like a poor man’s Tina Fey.

But this is often a slog to watch. The dialogue is flat out bad; it is like the dialogue you’d find in a badly written community play. Now, that might well have been done on purpose, but it gets extremely annoying, as does the hand clapping and melodica blowing in between scenes. What probably sounded like an original idea on paper becomes on film somewhat gimmicky and overbearing. Less is definitely more.

I can’t say as I enjoyed this film very much, but take that with a grain of sand – as I intimated earlier, I’m not a big fan of fringe theater to begin with and that is a personal preference. The acting here is decent and the idea would be intriguing if the execution wasn’t so annoying. It comes off a little bit pretentious, like a Fringe performance without the intelligence, innovation or humor. Chalk this up as a noble failure.

REASONS TO SEE: Prediger has some real potential.
REASONS TO AVOID: Real. People. Don’t. Talk. Like. This. Very much like spending 90 minutes with people you can’t stand to be around.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Huber and McDill are a married couple.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING:Your local fringe festival.
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
3-Day Weekend

I Am Woman


Hear her roar.

(2019) Music Biography (Quiver)Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald, Matty Gardarople, Jordan Roskopoulos, Molly Broadstock, Gus Murray, Dusty Sorg, Rita Rani Ahuja, Michael-Anthony Taylor, Scout Bowman, Liam Douglas, Coco Greenstone, Gregg Arthur, Nicola Frew, Shakila Zab, Katerina Tsompanis, Frank Violi, Maddison-Cleo Musumeci. Directed by Unjoo Moon

It is hard to overstate the importance of Helen Reddy to pop culture. Most people know her through her iconic “I Am Woman,” essentially the unofficial anthem of the women’s movement, but in the mid to late 70s she had a string of hits that made her one of the most popular performers in the world.

It wasn’t always that way. When Reddy (Cobham-Hervey) won a singing contest in her native Australia, the prize was a recording contract for Mercury Records. She arrived in New York City with her three-year-old daughter in tow, only to discover that the misogynist executives at Mercury had no intention of honoring the contract. One must wonder how many heads rolled after Reddy achieved her international superstardom.,

She decided to give it a go in the US and moved in a roach-infested apartment, paying the rent (barely) with cocktail lounge singing gigs. She was befriended by fellow Aussie and influential rock critic Lillian Roxon (Macdonald) who championed her career. At a rent party, she met Jeff Wald (Peters), an aspiring talent manager. She eventually married him, and the expectation was that he would manage her career and get her that elusive record contract, but he needed to establish himself first.

Frustrated by his lack of support, she finally forced him to work harder to get her signed which finally happened. After a couple of minor hits, “I Am Woman” came out in 1974 and swept the charts, winning her a Grammy (where she famously thanked God, because “she makes all things possible”) and began a string of hits including “Leave Me Alone,” and “Angie Baby.”

In the meantime, her close friend Roxon had passed away after a severe asthma attack and hubby Jeff had blown most of her fortune on cocaine. She eventually would divorce him, and her career came essentially to an end, although that really isn’t covered in the film.

In fact, a lot of things aren’t covered in the film. Moon is apparently a friend of Reddy (whom she met at an awards show) but delivered a very basic version of her biography. We see none of her ex-husband’s attempts to sabotage her career after their divorce, nor do we see much of her creative process. Mostly what we see is her early struggles and then her marital problems later on. You’re given a sense of her status of a feminist icon, but we never get a sense of what Helen herself thought of this.

Cobham-Hervey has a good deal of presence in the role of Reddy but it oddly doesn’t manifest in the concert footage. For the most part, Cobham-Hervey performs with a bemused smirk on her face; I never saw Reddy live myself but I understand she was a dynamic performer in her heyday. There’s no sense of that here, nor of her flinty sense of humor which characterized her entire career.

I also think it was a major mistake for the production to use Aussie performer Chelsea Cullen to dub Reddy’s voice – people are coming not just to see a biopic on her life but to hear her music as well. While Cullen does a decent job mimicking her phrasing and style, I think most people watching the movie are going to miss her actual vocals. If you’re going to make a biography of a singer, you should get the rights to use their actual voice. See Bohemian Rhapsody for an example.

This is the kind of movie that will end up being damned by faint praise. The heart is in the right place, but the execution is lacking. This feels like a Behind the Music version of a pop icon’s life story, and it leaves the viewer feeling distinctly unsatisfied. However, Reddy’s importance both to pop music and to pop culture make this a worthwhile venture, albeit one that could have been a much better film.

REASONS TO SEE: Cobham-Hervey has great presence as Reddy in the non-performance sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Cobham-Hervey is strangely distance in the performance sequences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Unjoo Moon and cinematographer Dion Beebe are married in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Redbox
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Runaways
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Hollywood Fringe