The Woman in the Window


Amy Adams peers out into a frightening world.

(2021) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Amy Adams, Fred Hechinger, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry, Jeanine Serralles, Anthony Mackie, Mariah Bozeman, Daymien Valentino, Anna Cameron (voice), Myers Bartlett (voice), Haven Burton (voice), Ben Davis (voice), Blake Morris (voice), Liza Colón-Zayas, Tracy Letts, Gigi Jones. Directed by Joe Wright

 

Some movies are so completely original you go through every scene realizing you are watching something fresh and new. Others are so derivative that you carry with you a sense of déjà vu throughout the film, whether you want to or not.

In this adaptation of a bestselling thriller by A.J. Finn (the nom de plume of Dan Mallory, who has had a checkered past as detailed in this article in The New Yorker), Dr. Anna Fox (Adams) is suffering from severe agoraphobia. She spends most of her day in a tony New York brownstone washing down her meds with generous portions of wine. She peers out of her window at the brownstone across the street and through her observations becomes acquainted with the Russell family. Son Ethan (Hechinger) comes over to introduce himself and is awkwardly sweet; his mother Jane (Moore) comes over and commiserates over even more wine with Anna. The only member of the family she doesn’t like is the bullying father (Oldman) who would just as soon she had no interaction with his family.

When she witnesses Jane apparently getting murdered, she is horrified and calls the police, only to discover that Jane isn’t dead – but Jane isn’t Jane either. Instead, another woman (Leigh) shows up and is introduced as Jane. The kindly but disbelieving police detective (Henry) is understanding, given that Dr. Fox has psychological problems; is she really going mad, or is there something terrible afoot?

This movie has been cobbled together from elements of other far better movies, including Rear Window (a clip from which they brazenly show early on in the film), Gaslight and Gone Girl to certain extents. The plot twists, when they come, aren’t particularly jaw-dropping. Most of them are fairly easy to spot.

And that’s a shame because there is an awful lot of talent here both in front of and behind the camera. While Adams acquits herself reasonably well (as does Henry), actors the caliber of Moore, Leigh, Oldman and Anthony Mackie (in a role as Anna’s ex-husband) are largely wasted. Given the convoluted plot, the preposterous eye-rolling plot twists and a director in Joe Wright who should know better, having directed some pretty stellar, Oscar-worthy pictures in the past, there really isn’t much to recommend this film other than morbid curiosity, given the movie’s production issues which led to reshoots that delayed the film for two years before it was pawned off on Netflix finally.

REASONS TO SEE: Adams tackles a different kind of role for her and ends up doing a respectable job.
REASONS TO AVOID: An uninteresting derivation of Hitchcock.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film by screenwriter Tracy Letts that is an adaptation of another work (in this case, a novel by A.J. Finn); Letts also appears in the film as Dr. Landy. Incidentally, this is also the final movie to be made by the Fox 2000 imprint; Disney shuttered the production studio following their merger with 20th Century Fox.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Girl Next

Those Who Wish Me Dead


Angelina Jolie is hotter than ever.

(2021) Action (New Line) Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Jon Bernthal, Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, Jake Weber, Medina Senghore, Tyler Perry, Boots Southerland, Tory Kittles, James Jordan, Lora Martinez-Cunningham, Howard Ferguson Jr., Ryan Jason Cook, Laura Niemi, Dylan Kenin, Faith Lynch, Alexander Wagerman, Mason Howell, Calvin Olson, Sofia Embid. Directed by Taylor Sheridan

 
I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of kids in peril movies. Too often Hollywood films that put children in the path of evil adults portray the kids unrealistically, either as much smarter than the adults that are after them, much braver than the adults around them, or much cooler than anyone in a similar situation would be. While kids do come in all shapes and sizes – and personality types, including heroic – Hollywood tends to idealize them in one way or another which can make an entire film ring false.

Forensic investigator Owen (Weber) discovers that the district attorney he works for has been killed in a freak gas explosion. He doesn’t believe it for a moment – after all, Owen discovered some disturbing information about some very powerful people. Realizing that the death was no accident, he gathers up his son Connor (Little) and makes a run for Montana, where his brother-in-law, Deputy Sheriff Ethan (Bernthal) might be able to help.

But there are a pair of vicious hired hitmen on their trail, Jack (Gillen) and Patrick (Hoult) and when they ambush and kill Owen, Connor gets away into the Montana woods. There he meets up with Hannah (Jolie), a smokejumper who is currently working in a fire tower after a mistake on her part led to the deaths of her crew, including several children they were in the process of rescuing. She has been covering up her pain with a surfeit of drinking and one-of-the-boys behaviors that have led to her being sent somewhere where she can get her head together. A fire tower is certainly a place where there isn’t much to distract you.

Unless it’s the sudden appearance of a young, terrified boy on the run from ruthless assassins who have set a raging out-of-control forest fire to literally smoke the boy out and keep the local law enforcement busy while they complete their nefarious task. Can Hannah’s survival skills help her protect Connor from the men who wish him dead?

In all honesty, I have to admit that while these types of pictures tend to not thrill me much, Little actually does a pretty fair job of playing the kid realistically; numb and terrified. However, he is overshadowed by the main stars – Jolie, in a return to the front of the camera (she has spent the last few years concentrating on her directorial efforts) reminds us that her star quality has never left. She continues to be absolute money in the bank when it comes to these sorts of physically demanding action roles. Few other actresses handle physically demanding roles as ably as she does.

And lest we forget Bernthal, the one-time Walking Dead baddie who has been on the cusp of being a big star for awhile. This role won’t push him over the edge in either direction, but he continues to be impressive. I’m hopeful that Marvel makes a new Punisher movie at some point with this guy; he deserves the kind of career push that kind of movie would give him.

The action sequences here tend to be pretty big and well-choreographed. That’s not the problem. The problem here is that the plot is just oh-so-predictable and while the characters are given some backstory, they feel kind of shoehorned into cookie cutter cliches of psychologically wounded leads 101. The roles never really feel authentic and the story never takes an unexpected turn. I’m not saying that moviemakers have to reinvent the wheel with every film – that’s simply not a realistic expectation – but this one is a bit too by-the-numbers for me to give it anything but a mild thumbs up.

The movie was one of those released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max; it is still out in some theaters but is no longer available on the streaming service at the present. It will be made available on most VOD services starting July 2nd and will be on HBO (and by extension, HBO Max) sometime later this year.

REASONS TO SEE: Jolie retains her star power and Bernthal continues to get better with every role.
REASONS TO AVOID: An utterly pedestrian plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sometimes brutal violence and profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicolas Cage was at one time considered for a role as one of the hitmen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now (effective July 2)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Professional
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer

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

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

Recon (2019)


Walking in the woods on a snowy evening.

(2019) War (Brainstorm) Alexander Ludwig, RJ Featherstonhaugh, Franco Nero, Chris Brochu, Mitch Ainley, Christopher Crema, Julian Domingues, Sam Keeley, Lochlyn Munro, Tyler Hynes, Blake Williams, Robert Stratford, Nathan Jean, Chase Sander, Luigi Platania, Justin Derrickson, Kevin McPherson Eckhoff, Christie Burke. Directed by Robert David Port

 

It is World War II and the fighting in Italy is coming to a close. The Nazis are on the run, and the fascist government in Rome has collapsed. An American officer, Captain Rogers (Munro) – not Steve – has tasked one of his units with going into the Italian mountains to find reliable intelligence as to where the Germans are and whether they are massing for a counter-attack.

This particular unit is a bit traumatized. They had witnessed their commanding officer (Hynes) execute an innocent and are being sent on a dangerous mission with very little idea of what they are getting themselves into. The sergeant splits his team into two units; we are following the one led by Corporal Marson (Ludwig), along with Privates Asch (Brochu), Heisman (Featherstonehaugh), and Joyner (Keeley). They run into an aged Italian man named Angelo (Nero) who is willing to lead them into the mountains – even though his English is dicey at best – and point out where the Germans are, but can they trust him, or is he really a German spy, who is leading them to their death?

It wouldn’t take much to get them there. They are being stalked by a German sniper (Jean) and the mountains are bitter cold and full of wolves. They must traverse rickety rope bridges and the stress becomes palpable as the men bicker among themselves, much to the disgust of Angelo who, as it turns out, has some military experience.

The movie is surprisingly strong, but then again, Port was an Oscar winner for his documentary short Twin Towers. He builds a sense of dread that is gripping, and while the characters are a bit war-movie cliché – the loud-mouthed city boy, the aw-shucks football player, the conflicted leader, they’re all here. Cinematographer Edd Lukas does a great job of capturing the stark winter landscape, making it both forbidding and beautiful.

The movie is a bit slow-moving as we follow this remarkably talkative unit into dangerous territory where snipers could be anywhere; even when they are under fire by a hidden gunman, they still insist on talking as if their pursuer can’t hear them. It’s a bit unrealistic and it does take the logically-minded out of the movie a bit.

The performances, though, are strong – in particular Ludwig, who most know from the recently-completed Vikings TV series, and Nero, who is worth seeing even in a fairly small but pivotal role. Brochu is also sufficiently entertaining as the team’s wiseacre. Apparently based on an actual incident (as chronicled in a book by Richard Bausch entitled Peace which was the original title of the film), the movie could have used some trimming but be that as it may, it’s a surprisingly strong, surprisingly taut war movie that should be on the radar of war movie buffs.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a decent job of setting a tense, suspenseful atmosphere.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a while to get where it wants to go.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in British Columbia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Private Ryan
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Dear Santa

Beasts Clawing at Straws (Jipuragirado japgo sipeun jimseungdeul)


She drives all night.

(2020) Thriller (ArtsploitationDo-yeon Jeon, Woo-sung Jung, Sung-Woo Bae, Man-sik Jeong, Jin Kyung, Shin Hyon Bin, Ga-ram Jung, Jun-han Kim, Yuh Jung Youn. Directed by Yong-hoon Kim

 

South Korea has been quietly, without fanfare, turning into a world class film capitol. It’s no accident that the most recent Best Picture came from South Korea; the movies there have been getting better and better in quality over the past 15 years, and now can proudly be put up there with any on the planet.

This ensemble noir black comedy/drama/thriller starts off with a Louis Vuitton bag left in a sauna locker. The very put-upon attendant at the gym, Jung-Man (Bae) discovering that the bag is full of cash. Enough to make a lot of problems go away, and brother, does Jung-Man have problems. His mother is convinced that Jung-Man’s wife is trying to kill her, but only if her son’s fecklessness doesn’t kill her first; she’s convinced her flesh and blood can do nothing right. The kind of money that’s in the bag can get the bitter old woman into a facility for bitter old women and Jung-Man and his wife into a nicer home.

But how did that bag get there in the first place? Oh, that’s explained in a flashback as Tae-Young (W-s Jung), a customs inspector with the moral compass that always points at his own best interests, has fallen deeply into debt to mobster Du Man (Jeong). You see, Tae’s girlfriend, brothel owner Yeon-Hee (Jeon) ran out on her debt to Du Man after Tae-Young vouched for her, meaning that now he owes her debt. He must come up with the money quickly, and so he comes up with a scheme to defraud a sucker, whose girlfriend, Mi Ran (Bin) works in the brothel of Yeon-Hee. The sucker also beats her regularly, so she enlists a Chinese client to kill the boyfriend and make it look like an accident. There is also a greasy cop who is sure that something unsavory is going on, and there’s also a serial killer on the loose. Got all that so far?

It sounds like a mess and I’ll admit that early on, it’s a bit difficult to follow. You need to be on your toes and paying attention, but I promise you, it is truly worth it. The ending brings all these separate stories together and as things slowly begin to untangle, your first instinct will be “How did I not SEE that coming” before sinking into a satisfied smirk that you’ve lucked into watching one of the better crime movies in recent memory.

The ensemble cast is really good – there’s not a false note in any performance that I could see. The movie is so well-scripted and so perfectly plotted that even though you may sometimes have some doubts that the filmmakers can tie all this together, they do. That they do with as much style and humor as they do is a tribute to their filmmaking skills; I’d put this on the level of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, two filmmakers who have clearly influenced Yong-hoon Kim a great deal.

If you like movies that keep you guessing, if you like movies that have endings that give you faith that it is still possible to create great movies, if you like movies that you like better the more you think about it after seeing it, and if you don’t mind slowly building to that point, this is a movie you need to see. Keep an eye out for it on your favorite streaming service; this one’s a keeper.

REASONS TO SEE: An intricate plot that keeps you guessing. The ending is jaw-dropping.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit of a slog at times (but worth it in the end).
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is based on a novel by Japanese writer Keisuke Sone.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Rakuten Viki
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knives Out
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Recon

Once Upon a River


A little walk in the woods.

(2020) Drama (Film MovementKenadi DelaCerna, John Ashton, Tatanka Means, Ajuwak Kapashesit, Kenn E. Head, Lindsay Pulsipher, Dominic Bogart, Evan Linder, Sam Staley, Coburn Goss, Arie Thompson, Josephine Decker, H.B. Ward, Claudia Church, Bradley Grant Smith, Angela Rak, Jules Reid, Shane Simmons, William Sidney Parker, Kayla Frischkorn. Directed by Haroula Rose

 

It goes without saying that the world can be a cruel, difficult place even under the best of circumstances. Thus has it always been, and chances are, always will be despite our best intentions.

Nobody needs to ell that to Maggie Crane (DelaCerna). At 15, she lives with her Native American father Bernard (Means) on the Stark River in Michigan. It’s 1977 and the battle between conservationists and industrialists is in full swing. Maggie’s mom Luanne (Pulsipher) has abandoned the family, wanting a much different lifestyle than her husband was willing or able to give her.

Now the sole parent, Bernard teaches her how to shoot a gun, how to fish, how to be self-sufficient – lessons taught to him by his own father. Those lessons are going to come in handy when a tragedy leaves one person dead and another injured, forcing Maggie to leave her home in search of her mother. Travelling down the river, she meets Will (Kapashesit), a full-blooded Cherokee, who encourages her to explored her own native heritage. She also meets and is briefly caretaker for Smoke (Ashton), an emphysema-ridden old curmudgeon who is resisting being put in an assisted living facility by his family, while continuing to live life pretty much on his own terms – which includes continuing to smoke heavily, not a good idea for someone with a lung disease.

Maggie’s journey is one that could have made for a fascinating film, but the director makes some odd choices here. We get little idea what’s going on inside Maggie; she seems to be merely reacting to what goes on around her and often relies on older men for guidance and help. She makes an extraordinary number of poor decisions – not unusual for a 15-year-old girl – but doesn’t seem to learn anything or really take much ownership for them. It becomes frustrating for the viewer as we see her making these bad calls and we never really get a sense of what is driving her to them. After awhile, we tend to lose interest.

That’s a shame, because DelaCerna shows signs of being a gifted actress. Her performance here is very natural and at times spectacular; perhaps with a different director she might have turned in one of those monster performances that put her on everbody’s radar, but as it is I’m sure many of those who see her in this film will be keeping an eye out for her next one.

So, too, with cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby, who is given some beautiful scenery to work with and turns in a master class of near-perfect framing and perspective. It is not often you notice a cinematographer for things beyond having an eye for a pretty picture, but the invention Hornsby shows here shows her to be someone who needs to be working on important projects.

Based on a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, the movie turns a blind eye to Maggie’s Native America heritage for the most part, and seems to see her journey as simply a means of taking her from one bad situation to another. This might have been originally meant to be a coming of age film; if so, it would need to show some kind of growth in the main character, and I left the film feeling that Maggie was doomed to continue making the same kind of mistakes over and over again. I suppose that’s true of a lot of people, but it certainly isn’t something I want to watch an entire movie about.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful scenery.
REASONS TO AVOID: Watching teens make bad decisions isn’t my idea of fun.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexuality and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tatanka Means is the son of Russell Means, the Native American activist.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Peanut Butter Falcon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Out of the Fight

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

The Painted Bird


If you thought Bergman was bleak…

(2019) Drama (IFC) Petr Kotlár, Nina Shunevych, All Sokolova, Stanislav Bilyi, Barry Pepper, Zdenek Pecha, Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Lech Dyblik, Jitka Cvancarová, Julian Sands, Marika Procházková, Marie Stripkova, Milan Simácek, Martin Naholká, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominik Weber, Per Jenista, Irena Måchovå. Directed by Václav Marhoul

 

Some films are made for their times; others seem to exist in no specific time period whatsoever. Then there are movies that are a product of their times and reflect a mindset or an aspect of an era. Given the times that we live in, seeing a movie like this one might not necessarily be something you’ll want to put yourself through – it’s brilliant, but brutal.

During World War II, a young Jewish Boy (Kotlár) – who is never named in the film – is sent to live in the countryside of an unnamed Eastern European country (in the press material, she is referred to as his aunt). She tries to keep him in their isolated farmhouse, but every time he ventures out village boys torment him and in a memorable scene, set fire to his pet mink which runs around, screaming as it is immolated. This is in the first five minutes of the film.

Shortly thereafter, the Boy discovers that his protector has died during the night. Startled by the sight of her corpse, he accidentally sets fire to the farmhouse and burns it to the ground. On his own now with nobody to protect him in an increasingly chaotic and desperate landscape, he meets a variety of people – some kind, some cruel – and witnesses an assortment of disturbing and venal acts, including but not limited to child abuse, spousal abuse, lynching, bestiality, rape, torture and anti-Semitism.

All of this serves to create a shell around the boy’s soul as he tries to survive the horrors he has witnessed, all the while searching for his family. But if he is to find them, will he return to them the same boy as he was when he left? Don’t count on it.

The film is based on Polish author Jerzy Kosinsky’s (Being There) first novel which became controversial when he claimed it was autobiographical, but it turned out to be not the case. Shot in lush, glorious, black and white, the cinematography helps the film feel timeless – the small, rural villages seem to be as much a part of the 15th century as they do the 20th, with superstitious villagers committing acts so barbarous that they can almost never be forgiven. That such things actually happened is almost of no consequence because the filmmakers give us almost no context on which to bolster the film, leaving us to feel like we just had a bath in raw sewage.

That’s not to say that every moment in this film is unredeemable – there are some characters in the film who aren’t out to rape and murder the Boy, such as a kind-hearted but misguided priest (Keitel), a gruff Russian sniper (Pepper) and a good-at-heart German soldier (Skarsgård) who spares the Boy after being ordered to kill him. Such moments, though, are few and decidedly far-between.

At just a touch under three hours long, this is a marathon and not a sprint. An early scene in which a jealous miller gouges out the eyes of a man who he thought was staring at his wife with the intention of fornicating with her (followed by the inevitable beating of said wife by the eye-gouging miller) which the miller’s cats then feasted on inspired literally dozens of patrons seeing the movie at its debut at the Venice Film Festival last year to walk out, or attempt to with increasing levels of desperation (less than half the original audience was left when the lights came back up).

There is some definite talent here and even if Marhoul attempts to stave off criticism by stating that he’s less interested in the truthfulness of the film’s subject matter but rather in the truths of human nature that they reveal. That’s the cop-out response of someone who believes his art (and therefore himself) are Above It All. Nyet to that, comrade.

This isn’t an easy watch and certainly those who are sensitive or squeamish should stay the hell away from this thing. There are some truths revealed here that remind us that we are not so far removed from being these Luddite villagers who feel it is their religious duty to execute the unholy among them, even if they are innocent children. The kind of ignorance and madness on display here seems eerily familiar – and disturbingly current.

REASONS TO SEE: Black and white photography makes the film timeless. Bears some warning in this ear of rampant nationalism.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unrelentingly bleak and brutal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of violence (much of it graphic), animal cruelty, disturbing images and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The language spoken in the film is not an actual language, but an amalgam of various Slavic languages and dialects. Marhoul didn’t want the film location associated with a specific nation, so he put together a fictional language in order to leave vague where the action takes place. In the original novel, the film takes place in Poland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Europa Europa
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
We Are the Radical Monarchs

The Tobacconist (Der Trafikant)


“Tell me about your dreams…”

(2018) Drama (MenemshaSimon Morzé, Bruno Ganz, Johannes Krisch, Emma Drogunova, Regina Fritsch, Karoline Eichhorn, Michael Fitz, Vicky Nikolaevskaja, Martin Oberhauser, Christoph Bittenhauer, Gerti Drassi, Rainer Woss, Thomas Mraz, Martin Thaler, David Altman, Tobias Ofenbauer, Erni Mangold, Tom Hanslmaier, Robert Seethaler, Angelika Strahser. Directed by Nikolaus Leytner

 

Figuring out who we are is one of the most difficult tasks that we undertake during our lifetimes. Many of us still haven’t got a clue even into our advanced years – and it’s well-nigh impossible for someone just starting out in life. Life is confusing even for the brightest and most experienced among us.

 

Franz (Morzé) is a bit of a dreamer. He lives in a bucolic Austrian village on the shores of Lake Attersee. It is 1937, and things in Europe are changing rapidly. Franz is 17 years old and lives with his mother (Fritsch). Franz has discovered girls, and spends much of his time swimming in the lake. He particularly likes to see how long he can stay submerged, but one day as he is enjoying the peace and quiet of the bottom of the lake, he sees flashes in the sky and realizes a thunderstorm is approaching. The one place you don’t want to be in a thunderstorm is in a lake, so he quickly emerges from the lake, high-tailing it for home and passing his mother on the way. She’s preoccupied with her lover giving her what-for against a tree; the lover finishes and decides to take a quick dip before the storm arrives. Not a good idea; a chance lightning strike in the lake punches his ticket for the express train to the afterlife.

Mama can no longer afford to feed her growing boy, so she sends him to Vienna to apprentice with another former lover of hers, Otto Trsnjek (Krisch) who lost a leg in the war and currently runs a tobacco store on a side street in the capital. At first, the two guys react to each other warily, but Otto is a kindly sort who is willing to sell his products to anyone – Jews, Communists, everyone – except Nazis, who come in looking for the party newspaper which Otto refuses to sell.

One of his customers is none other than the legendary father of modern psychiatry Sigmund Freud (Ganz) who comes to the shop to get his cigar fix. Franz is fascinated by what he does and determines to have Freud help him overcome his inability to find somebody to love. Freud, for his part, says ruefully that he is as confused about love as Franz is.

Things are going from bad to worse in the Austrian capital, but for Franz there is a saving grace; the beautiful young Bohemian Annezka (Drogunova) who works as a dancer in a cabaret and who seems to have lots of boyfriends. However, she and Franz hook up although when he gets serious, she backs away, leaving him bitter and confused. That’s the least of his worries, though, as the Nazis tighten their hold on Austria, people whose behaviors are disapproved of are whisked off of the streets, never to be seen again and prudent Austrians are finding someone with a swastika arm band to protect them – or make a hasty exit for less fraught environs.

Freud, as a Jew, is particularly vulnerable but he is not eager to leave his home. It falls upon Franz, who has become friends with the aging doctor, to try and convince him to leave before it’s too late. Franz is being forced to grow up quickly as he takes on more responsibility at the store and continues to pursue Annezka. Everyone seems to be doing what they can to get by.

Watching movies about the ascension of Nazi Germany are doubly disturbing in these days of rioting, pandemic and increasingly authoritarian posturing by the current administration. The parallels seem inescapable and it’s likely the filmmakers are fully aware of that. Some may find it extra-disturbing.

This was one of Ganz’ final films (it is the final Ganz film to be released in the United States) and his performance is heart-wrenching. He plays Freud as a gentle man with a self-deprecating sense of humor, not at all the way most of us picture him. Morzé is handsome enough in the lead role, but his performance is pretty bland for most of the film, and by the time the character shows signs of growth the damage is done. Krisch does a good job as the kindly Otto, and Russian actress Drogunova adds a dash of sensuality to the movie.

Freud’s psychological theories are on display throughout the film, as we are treated to Franz’ dreams which are full of symbols; submersion, spiders, isolation, mother bonding, and so on. Some of the dreams have rich imagery, but Leytner relies on them a bit too much. They interrupt the flow of the story and obfuscate what’s going on.

The movie is based on a novel by Richard Seethaler, which was a massive best-seller in Germany. There is a literary quality to the film which is a little more common in European films but which mass American audiences tend to shy away from. We are invited to psychoanalyze Franz, although to be honest as the movie starts he’s basically genitals with legs and with not a whole lot of responsibility or ability to see beyond his own immediate needs. That changes as the movie goes along, but the effect is at least at the beginning akin to the emperor not wearing any clothes.

The movie might have benefitted from less time spent on the dreams, although some of the dreams are actually kind of fascinating. Still, they do tend to get in the way of the best part of the movie – the story of Franz’ maturation process as he discovers that the things that were important to him as a boy matter less to him as a man. It’s a lesson that not all of us actually learn.

The movie is currently playing as a Virtual Theatrical Experience. Among the Florida theaters benefitting from this pandemic-centric VOD delivery are the Tampa Theater, the Tropic Cinema (Key West), All Saints Cinema (Tallahassee), Corazon Café (St. Augustine), Pensacola Cinema Art, and the Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival. Click on the link below to buy your tickets to benefit those theaters or others closer to where you might live.

REASONS TO SEE: Ganz is magnificent as Freud. Some interesting dream imagery.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story meanders quite a bit.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is nudity, sex and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional and Franz isn’t real, the facts about Freud’s last days in Vienna are largely as shown.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews; Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book Thief
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Happy Death Day 2U