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

Family in Transition (Mishpakha BiTrans)


Morning bathroom time can be crowded in the Tzuk household.

(2018) Documentary (Abramorama) Amit/Imit Tzuk, Galit Tzuk, Agam Tzuk, Mimi Tzuk, Yuval Tzuk, Yarden Tzuk, Peleg Tzuk. Directed by Ofir Trainin

 

Even as gay and lesbian rights begun to begrudgingly be acknowledged, transsexuals continue to be seriously discriminated against. In a quasi-theocracy such as Israel, many citizens have a hard time dealing with it even today.

Amit Tzuk and his wife Galit have been together since they were 15. They live in the Northern Israel coastal town of Nahariya near the Jordanian border. It’s a fairly conservative town with a population of about 60,000. They are happy here, they have family here and if they both have their way they will spend the rest of their lives here, raising their four children.

Amit, like most Israeli men, is a veteran of the armed forces (the army in his case) and ran his household in the traditional manner, with the husband being the boss and the wife being submissive to his needs. However, he drops a bombshell when he announces to Galit that he is really a woman trapped in a man’s body and he intends to get gender reassignment surgery.

Galit is extraordinarily supportive through the hormonal treatments, complaining a bit that “as a man, she never cried but now she cries all the time” (welcome to the world of husbands, dear heart). She is his rock during the hormone treatments; she is equally his rock when he has the surgery in Thailand and during the extended and painful recovery process. The children, to their credit, show equal support even though they are bullied at school. The family must endure homophobic slurs hurled at them by passing cyclists from time to time.

The decision of Amit to transition to Imit is difficult on the entire family. A sister of Amit, married to an Orthodox Jew, refuses to speak to the couple or even acknowledge them. Other friends of the family also adopt the same policy. And shortly after the couple return from Thailand, the ramifications of the surgery begin to affect Galit as well.

Trainin elects to adopt a fly on the wall style for the documentary that ends up feeling like a home movie. That’s a compliment, as it gives the story an intimacy that a series of talking heads would not. The story is told sequentially and while it’s hard not to wonder how much the family played to the camera – that’s just human nature – it’s hard not to feel that the emotions you’re seeing aren’t genuine.

There is a radical tonal shift in the final third of the film that I don’t want to get too much in detail to simply not to spoil the film. Suffice to say that it is an emotionally powerful shift, one that enhances the film and contributes a great deal to the overall genuineness of the movie.

Although I have to say that the music that the couple listens to is cringeworthy to this ex-music critic (I’m very much a music snob I’m afraid) as being bland 80s style pop. Not my cup off tea, but that’s just me. Please don’t send Mossad to my home to teach me a lesson in manners.

The thing that I thought was more egregious is that while the documentary is only 70 minutes long which I appreciated, it felt like there were some things skipped particularly in the evolution of the couple’s relationship after the surgery. It doesn’t feel like we’re getting the whole story which is a bit frustrating.

The film looks at daily life in Israel in a place other than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem which is a pleasure. We also get an insight into Israeli views into LGBTQ rights which are evolving but still controversial, just as they are here. I might have liked the filmmakers to be a little less brief and maybe allow the Tzuk family to express their feelings a little more but it’s possible that the family was unwilling to do that. Still this is a fascinating documentary indeed.

REASONS TO GO: This is very much a home movie in the positive sense of the word. There are twists of emotional intensity that are surprising and heartrending.
REASONS TO STAY: At times it feels like there are some elements missing from the story.
FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is for mature audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers spent two years with the Tzuk family.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Transparent
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Border

Don’t Go


Ireland may not be the best place to go to assuage your grief.

(2018) Mystery (IFC) Stephen Dorff, Melissa George, Simon Delaney, Aoibhinn McGinnity, Grace Farrell, Gavin O’Connor, Lalor Roddy, Des Cave, Luke Griffin, Charlotte Bradley, Sean Mahon, Laurence O’Fuarain, Sahar Ali, Ella Connolly, Tara Breathnach, Grainne Coyne, Aiveen Gleeson. Directed by David Gleeson

When times are hard the movies tend to reflect that – not necessarily about the things causing those hard times but with films that reflect people going through hard times themselves. Any parent will tell you that the hardest time of all is losing a child; it’s not just the anguish of grief but the recriminations particularly when the death could have been prevented.

Writer Ben Slater (Dorff) and his wife Hazel (George) are going through exactly those circumstances. The two are renovating the family hotel that has been in Hazel’s genealogy for generations, a lovely boutique hotel right on the wild shoreline of Ireland. Ben is teaching at a local Catholic school where he pals around with the irreverent Father Sean (Delaney) who recognizes that Ben is using the booze a little too much, even for Ireland.

Often, Ben passes out on the beach near a rocky outcropping where he has a dream – or perhaps memory – of a family day at the beach not long before Molly (Farrell) fell down the stairs of the hotel and broke her neck. It was one of those lovely family days of building sand castles and two parents delighting in the antics of their daughter. Ben is also getting an odd recurring message: Seas the Day.

He becomes convinced that Molly, for whom spelling was a challenge, is the one behind the messages. He also begins to obsess with the idea that he is actually travelling into the past, particularly when he starts returning to wakefulness with mementos of that day clutched in his hand. In subtle ways he has begun changing things in the past but not enough to bring Molly back. To make matters worse, Hazel’s somewhat fragile and emotional friend Serena (McGinnity) has moved back in with them and she carries a secret that can break apart the already on thin ice couple. Things are definitely not right but what will Ben do to make things right?

Think of this as an Irish ghost story without the ghost. Molly’s presence is all over the place for Hazel and Ben, but she’s no apparition and there are no real scares here. Mostly, this is a mystery of a man desperate to change his circumstances and trying to interpret the clues left to him to do it. Dorff, a dependable performer who unfortunately has been stuck with comparisons to Kiefer Sutherland throughout his career, deserves better. His performance here is strong enough to take notice, although not strong enough to overcome the flaws in the script.

The story moves at an elephantine pace and it feels like it shouldn’t be. There are too many scenes that reconfirm points that have already been made; the script could have used a little more brevity or the film more judicious editing at the very least. At times it becomes too much the soap opera which undercuts the basic melancholy which suffuses the movie throughout. Then again, the grim tone could have used a little more lightness.

Besides Dorff, there are other reasons to see the movie. The picturesque Irish countryside and coast make for lovely backdrops and Ferry Corsten delivers a truly lovely score that enhances the beautiful images we are treated to. Still, this is a movie that just can’t seem to get out of its own way and while it comes together nicely with an ending that ties things together, it is definitely a downer of a movie that is best suited for rainy days and broken hearts.

REASONS TO GO: Both the score and the cinematography are lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much soap opera sabotages what would otherwise be a nifty concept.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, profanity and drug use extant.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Dorff will be a key cast member in the next edition of True Detective.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Time Traveler’s Wife
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story

Juliet, Naked


Love triangles are inherently awkwward.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Roadside Attractions) Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd, Jimmy O. Yang, Megan Dodds, Lily Newmark, Azhy Robertson, Ayoola Smart, Lily Brazier, Johanna Thea, Georgina Bevan, Paul Blackwell, Janine Catterwall, Michael Chapman, Ko Iwagami, Karol Steele, Steve Barnett, Lee Byford, Florence Keith-Roach. Directed by Jesse Peretz

 

Sometimes to make a relationship work, we go along to get along. That’s all well and good but it can leave us in a rut that is anything but comfortable but we accept that it’s the way that things are and we just accept our situation. What do we do then when that which put us in that rut in the first place kicks us out violently?

Annie (Byrne) is in one of those ruts. She is certainly a go along to get along kind of gal; she curates a local museum in an English seaside town because her father left it to her to do. She lives with her boyfriend Duncan (O’Dowd) essentially because she’s used to him; they’ve been together for eight years in a kind of stagnant inertia-free relationship. He works as a professor of Film and TV studies at a local college when he’s not taking Annie for granted or ignoring her needs.

In fact it can be said that he has more passion for a forgotten indie rock musician named Tucker Crowe (Hawke) than he does for Annie. Crowe was a singer-songwriter of enormous potential having released a well-regarded album called Juliet chock full of loved-and-lost songs that bespoke a soul that had something to say when he exited a tour mid-set and dropped out of sight. The blog that Duncan runs endlessly discusses with other Crowe fans the minutiae of the few songs released to the public and reviews bootleg tapes of live Crowe performances from back in the day. There are some who believe that Crowe is in fact dead and gone

It turns out he’s alive and well. A demo tape of Crowe’s original album titled Juliet, Naked makes its way to Duncan but is intercepted by Annie who gives it a listen. She sees it as a naked cash grab by someone trying to live off of past glory and posts it in response to Duncan’s worshipful review of the piece. As it turns out the real Tucker Crowe reads the review and Annie’s stark response and he appreciates the honesty. It turns out he is coming to England to visit an estranged daughter, one of several progeny from a variety of post-rock star lovers, most of whom he hasn’t had much contact with. The only child of his that he spends any time with is Jackson (Robertson), possibly because Jackson’s mom (who has a new beau) allows Tucker to live rent-free in her garage.

It turns out that Crowe has struck up an e-mail correspondence with Annie and the two are developing a relationship. It also turns out that Duncan has messed up big time and Annie has asked him to leave. And it turns out that Duncan has difficulty believing that the other man in Annie’s life is the object of his obsession.

If you guessed that this sounds like something Nick Hornby would write, give yourself a pat on the back – it’s based on a novel by the prolific English writer. If the plot doesn’t give it away, then the terrific soundtrack that includes songs by Red House Painters and Hawke himself covering the Kinks criminally overlooked “Waterloo Sunset” should seal the deal.

Hawke has been on something of a roll for the past five years, turning in one outstanding performance after another. In fact, ever since Boyhood I can’t think of any movie he’s been in that he hasn’t been outstanding in. He is a fair enough singer as well, performing original songs written by luminaries like Connor Oberst for the soundtrack.

Byrne isn’t really well-suited to play dowdy but she does a credible job of it. However, the real revelation (sort of) is O’Dowd who essentially steals the movie. His hangdog look and oblivious demeanor is perfect for Duncan. O’Dowd strikes the right notes as the comic relief and has moments of actual pathos during the course of the movie which he proves quite adept at. Duncan isn’t the most likable of characters but O’Dowd imbues him with enough charm that we don’t end up loathing him, although we end up cringing at his actions.

The movie can be a bit talky in places and there are rom-com clichés in abundance. However, the movie finds humor in the ordinary (despite the extraordinary premise) and those moments really are the best ones in the film. It seems to me that rom-coms are making a bit of a comeback after a few off years following a period when we were inundated by cookie cutter romantic comedies that led to a bit of a pushback by the moviegoing public who demanded (and got) better romantic comedies. This isn’t a game changer by any standard but it is a solid and entertaining entry into the genre which in 2018 isn’t a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO GO: O’Dowd steals the show. The soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few rom-com clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Byrne was six months pregnant during shooting. Her condition was covered up using shots medium shots and close-ups and strategically placed props.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Song to Song
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Blood Fest

Baywatch


Ladies, you are most welcome!

(2017) Action Comedy (Paramount) Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Priyanka Chopra, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera, Jon Bass, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Hannibal Buress, Rob Huebel, Amin Joseph, Jack Kesy, Oscar Nuñez, David Hasselhoff, Pamela Anderson, Clem Cheung, Belinda, Charlotte McKinney, Izabel Goulart, Arian Foster, Vernon Davis, Eros Exarhou. Directed by Seth Gordon

 

Television shows, particularly popular ones, tend to be products of their own era. They reflect the tastes and mores of their times; that doesn’t always make them dated so much as it makes it easily identifiable when they were made. Nobody can doubt, for example, that Welcome Back, Kotter was a product of the 70s, 21 Jump Street was a product of the 80s or that Baywatch was a product of the 90s. When transferring these products to the big screen, a certain amount of updating is necessary for them not to seem hopelessly anachronistic. That generally requires a change in tone from serious to self-mocking.

Mitch Buchannon (Johnson) is not only a lifeguard, he’s the lifeguard. He leads a crack team that includes CJ Parker (Rohrbach) and Stephanie Holden (Hadera). It’s that time of year when new trainees are being welcomed into the program and this year’s group is an odd lot, including the overweight nebbish Ronnie Greenbaum (Bass), the perky but serious Summer Quinn (Daddario) and the disgraced ex-Olympic swimmer Matt Brody (Efron) who is only there because he’s doing community service for a drunk and disorderly conviction.

Affable Mitch and arrogant Matt take to each other like hurricanes and small Caribbean islands, but they are more or less stuck with each other. When a body washes up on the beach, Mitch is suspicious. Eventually the evidence points back to Victoria Leeds (Chopra) a sexy but amoral real estate developer who intends to make the Bay private. Of course that doesn’t sit well with Mitch to begin with and when the local cop (Mateen) expresses disinterest, he decides to investigate on his own with Matt protesting that llifeguards aren’t crime fighters.

Nonetheless the Baywatch team takes on Victoria’s band of thugs and killers and she outsmarts them, leading to the breakup of the team. The only way for the Baywatch family to remain intact is to prove that Victoria is behind the infusion of drugs into the area and the murders that will allow her master plan to flourish.

I expected to really hate this and given the dismal reviews it got, it’s not hard to understand why. I was surprised that it was actually not that bad – not earth-shattering stuff mind you but I don’t think it was ever intended to be. This is, after all, based on Baywatch folks, not Shakespeare in the Park. This isn’t meant to be anything more than entertaining and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

As you might imagine, this isn’t your pappy’s Baywatch. This is far raunchier than the 90s version – I don’t recall ever seeing someone’s junk getting caught in a sun chair on the show – and there is a self-deprecating tone that I’m pretty sure was missing from the original, although I must admit that I wasn’t really a fan of the show; having lived near beaches almost all of my life the sight of buff tanned bodies in skimpy swimsuits really doesn’t do anything for me when it comes to making choices for regular TV viewing. If I want to see that, I just have to drive no more than 45 minutes and I’ve got all I can handle. But I digress…

Johnson is perfect for this kind of role. He has that easygoing persona with a core of “I can kick your ass anytime I feel like it” below the surface. He’s always had a natural comic timing so action movies with a comedic bent have always suited him best, although he’s just fine at straight action also. He’s one of the most charismatic leads working in Hollywood currently, on the level of Will Smith and Mark Wahlberg. This is right in his wheelhouse.

Efron has shown in the two Neighbors films that nobody does snarky like he does. He plays one of those characters here that you can’t stand from the beginning but who deep down isn’t a bad guy. Eventually you just know he’s going to turn it around and he does; Efron has to make the change believable and he also does.

This is in many ways the ultimate summer movie; light, mindless, amusing and utterly forgettable. You can smell the sun screen, feel the rays warming your skin and hear the gulls squawking above the surf hours after the movie is over. If you’re looking for a movie that is going to push the boundaries of cinema, this isn’t it. This was never going to be it. If however you’re looking for something that is going to take your mind off of things for a couple of hours, keep you entertained and maybe even get you to laugh out loud a couple of times, you’ve found what you are looking for and as the fall and winter begin to turn temperatures colder, some of you are going to need this movie to keep you going until the next summer rolls around.

REASONS TO GO: It was funnier than I expected it to be.
REASONS TO STAY: Its welcome is worn out quickly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including crude sexual humor and innuendo as well as brief but graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnson and Daddario previously worked together on San Andreas.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lifeguard
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Crown Heights

Everything, Everything


Young love is a heady thing.

(2017) Young Adult Romance (Warner Brothers) Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, Ana de la Reguera, Taylor Hickson, Danube R. Hermosillo, Dan Payne, Fiona Loewi, Sage Brocklebank, Robert Lawrenson, Peter Benson, Françoise Yip, Farryn VanHumbeck, Marion Eisman, Allison Riley, Valareen Friday. Directed by Stella Meghie

 

There is something about young love that is intoxicating, not only for those experiencing it but for those around them. We all remember those first throes of our first real love, the high highs, the low lows, the amazing mood swings. Our hormones sizzle our bodies like steaks on a grill and we have no clue how to handle the intensity of our emotions. It’s sweet and horrible and wonderful and bitter all at once.

The movies and television often celebrate this particular event which is common to nearly everyone, but there are some movies that give us a twist on that; the dying teenager finds love sub genre. The tragic element tends to put young girls hormones into overdrive, either in maternal sympathy for the beautiful young boy who is dying or identifying with the beautiful young girl who is dying.

In this case, it’s the latter. Maddy (Stenberg) lives in a hermetically sealed house with filtered air and a sterile environment. She suffers from severe combined immunodeficiency disorder, or SCID. Simply taking a stroll outside could kill her, so for the past 17 years of her 18 years of life she has lived here, watching the world go by through big glass windows.

She wants to be an architect and has designed a diner and a home that she sometimes imagines herself inhabiting. She often feels like an astronaut adrift in space, unable to touch down back on Earth and in her imagination she often sees an astronaut in her creations.

Maddy’s mom Pauline (Rose) is a mother hen, protecting her daughter with almost drill sergeant-like ardor. She’s a doctor who specializes in immune system disorders and she’s responsible for a lot of Maddy’s care. The only two people who ever interact with Maddy besides her mom is the housekeeper Carla (de la Reguera) and Carla’s daughter Rosa (Hermosilla) who undergo a pretty thorough sterilization procedure every time they come in.

Maddy dreams of going to the beach but that seems an unlikely reality until Maddy’s reality is turned upside down by literally the boy next door. Olly (Robinson) moves in and soon the two are trading soulful glasses through the window and then it’s phone numbers. They begin to text and call like well, a couple of teenagers. The two fall head over heels. Carla tries to foster this relationship but Pauline finds out about it and soon, no more Carla.

Soon Maddy and Olly decide that their only alternative is a trip to Hawaii – it turns out that Olly’s dad (Payne) is abusive. Olly is a little reluctant but Maddy is willing to risk everything for a single perfect teenage day at the beach – including her life.

This is based on the young adult romance novel of the same name by Nicola Yoon. I haven’t read it but I’m wondering how similar the plot is to the movie because quite frankly, this feels like too many movies I’ve seen before from Romeo and Juliet to The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to dozens of young adult-aimed movies over the past few years.

One of the things that bothers me is that Olly is literally too good to be true; despite having to deal with his father’s physical abuse, he almost never acts out in ways that most abused kids do. I don’t know Yoon or screenwriter J. Mills Goodloe have spent much time around abused kids but given their tone-deaf portrayal of Olly I’d say the answer is no.

The movie is definitely aimed at a tween/teen crowd, especially young girls. Olly is dreamy/handsome and Maddy is a prototypical spunky teen heroine with a tragic disease.. Oh, and the plot is preposterous, the teen characters are all smart and terrific and the adult characters are all jerks. Not to mention that rules and common sense don’t mean squat when you’re doing what you want to do instead of what you should do. There’s a time and a place for being rebellious but not when it puts your life at risk but I suppose that feels pretty noble and everything.

There’s not a lot of realism here and the big twist is so completely unbelievable that it would have ruined a much better movie than this. As it is I just sat there watching and nodding to myself, muttering “Yup. Of course that’s where they went.”

I wish that Hollywood would stop treating tweens and teens and kids as underage morons. They are capable of figuring things out and I’m convinced that, just like adults, they want good movies and not crappy ones. The fact that they pretty much stayed away from this in droves bears me out. I think that there are better versions of this type of story to be made (and likely a few that have already been made). Teens deserve better than this.

REASONS TO GO: There is some decent cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie suffers from too-good-to-be-true boyfriend syndrome. The plot is predictable and goes completely off the rails once the action shifts to Hawaii.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the book, Olly has a shaved head. In the movie version, Pauline (Maddy’s mom) tells him he needs a haircut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Camera Obscura

Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu)


A family portrait on the beach.

(2016) Drama (Film Movement) Mariko Tsutsui, Tadanobu Asano, Kanji Furutachi, Momone Shinokawa, Kana Mahiro, Taiga, Takahiro Miura. Directed by Kôji Fukada

Family dynamics are ever changing, evolving things. What appears to be on the outside may not necessarily be what circumstances are behind closed doors. The whole thing about happy families is that they are in reality a myth for the most part – they are even rarer than a unicorn.

On the surface, Toshio (Furutachi) has a good life. He and his family live quietly in apartments above the machine shop he runs and inherited from his father. If he seems a bit distracted at the breakfast table, he nonetheless provides for his family as best he can. His wife Akie (Tsutsui) is a good Christian woman and a doting mother on their daughter Hotaru (Shinokawa). She is sweet and high-spirited in the way of some children; she is also learning to play the harmonium with indifferent success.

Into the mix comes Yasaka (Asano), an old friend of Toshio. It is apparent he has just been released from prison and Toshio offers him a job and a place to live on the spot. This surprises Akie who knows that the business is struggling but being the polite Japanese wife that she is she says nothing. As the days go by she gets to know Yasaka a little better and her initial reservations seem to be abating and when he shares with her details of his crime she does not recoil. Rather, she is turned on or at least isn’t turned off by the idea of having an affair with him. When they do get physical it’s difficult to know who’s seducing who.

But a tragedy occurs that devastates the family and Yasaka disappears. Eight years later the family is still recovering, if you can call it that. Akie has lost much of her faith and Toshio has become fixated on finding Yasaka, the architect of his sorrow. A new worker joins the family – Takashi (Taiga) – who is eager to help the family heal, but when karma comes to roost it may completely destroy what little unity the family has left.

The movie is presented in two distinct sections; the first is dominated by Yasaka who is like a time bomb waiting to explode; the second is the aftermath eight years later in which the parents are trying to pick up the pieces and cope. It’s quite a bit harder to watch the second half as the emotions in it are so raw and almost overwhelming. What goes on in the first is more of a prelude, a dance around the underlying issues. The second is the after-effect, when the bomb has exploded on the dance floor.

The performances are very measured in the first part. Yasaka is stiff as a board and generally clad in white; Toshio always seems distracted and lost in his own world. Akie has the smile and the charm that she shows to the world but when she is at home she knows her marriage has crumbled into ashes and she tastes the bitterness of them in her mouth.

In the second half Akie and Toshio are still closed off to an extent but the pretenses are gone. Toshio smolders with a desire for vengeance; Akie is protective of what’s left of her family and feels her own share of guilt as to what happened. I won’t say the performances are night and day because they are not – what they are is what you’d expect how people would react to a life-changing tragedy eight years afterwards.

Fukada is one of Japan’s most promising directorial talents and this is the kind of film that shows why many think he may eventually revolutionize Japanese cinema. He has a reputation for being an outside-the-box kind of guy and while it might be difficult for those of us watching with Western eyes, he is truly turning Japanese culture inside out in this film. In its own way it is much like Luis Brunel slicing open an eyeball in Un Chien Andalou.

This is a  truly strong effort that is going to be riding the festival circuit for a short time until it gets a limited release in June (as of this writing). It would be worth seeking out at your local art house, film festival or eventually on whatever streaming service this winds up on. This is a look at changing family dynamics in Japan and what lies beneath the surface of even the happiest of families. It’s absolutely unforgettable and even if it is a little bit on the long side (particularly during the first portion of the film) you won’t be sorry you sought it out.

REASONS TO GO: There is an underlying tension that starts off quietly and slowly builds to a crescendo. The end mirrors the beginning in an unsettling way.
REASONS TO STAY: Another movie that’s too long for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sensuality as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the Jury Prize winner at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Guest
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Are We Not Cats?

Swiss Army Man


Just another day at the beach.

Just another day at the beach.

(2016) Fantasy (A24) Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Antonia Ribero, Timothy Eulich, Richard Gross, Marika Casteel, Andy Hull, Aaron Marshall, Shane Caruth. Directed by Daniels

 

Look, some movies simply aren’t meant for everybody. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; in an era where Hollywood is constantly trying to create franchise films that are all things to all people, it’s refreshing once in awhile to happen upon a movie that is meant to appeal only to a narrow few and if you’re one of that narrow few, it’s like getting a private message from someone who shares your own particular interests.

On a deserted tropical island, a bearded and bedraggled Hank (Dano) is standing on a cooler with a noose around his neck, ready to step off and have an end to everything. How he got to this island is unimportant; the salient fact is that he’s totally alone – and sharp-eyed viewers will recognize that as a metaphor that drives the film.

However, his loneliness ends with the site of a man washed ashore on the beach. Forgetting his precarious position, Hank steps off…and fortunately for him, the rope snaps, allowing him to rescue the man…who is sadly, quite dead. The corpse, whom Hank names Manny (Radcliffe), is full of the gasses of decomposition and farts constantly. If you are the sort who is offended by flatulence, read no further and skip this movie altogether. You will not find a movie anywhere ever that revels in the act of breaking wind as this one does.

It turns out that Manny’s gasses can be used in a variety of ways, including as a propulsion system turning Manny into a kind of stinky Jet Ski that transports Hank from the desert island to a location of forest and ocean. The prospects are much better for survival here, and Hank builds…well, a recreation of his life for Manny because Manny is able to talk to Hank. Hank gives Manny tips on how to pick up girls and other assorted facts of life. As he does, we begin to learn that Hank is a deeply wounded and possibly deeply disturbed young man and that not everything he says can be trusted.

Which, once again, is a metaphor for this film. Not everything that the filmmakers show you can be trusted and as the story unfolds, our point of view is changed somewhat – more than somewhat, in fact. It is a bit of a carnie trick, a game of Three Card Monty that the filmmakers – a pair of young auteurs who got their start in the music video game and who are known collectively as Daniels – play on their audience. Some are going to feel a bit cheated and others will be delighted, as is usually the case in cinematic con games.

The movie is largely Radcliffe and Dano, with Winstead showing up mainly in the last reel as the object of obsession for both of the main characters, the living one and the farting corpse. There are other characters here as well but again, they show up late and have little impact on the story except to help bring it to an unexpected although not unsurprising conclusion given on what we witnessed in the rest of the movie. Dano has become known for parts like this and he performs it with gusto; this well may become one of his signature roles. Radcliffe continues to take chances while distancing himself from a certain boy wizard, and we are rewarded by a character who is sweet and funny and charming. I don’t know that Radcliffe will necessarily want to be remembered for being a flatulent cadaver but he seems to have promoted the role with a good sense of humor and a ton of enthusiasm.

There are some scenes that are heart-achingly beautiful here, as well as others that are downright crude. It is a literal mix of the profane and the sublime. I will say that this may well be the most imaginative movie of the year; certainly you won’t be seeing anything like it in the multiplex or at your local film festival. You may find yourself smirking at fart jokes, that lowest common denominator of all humor, but you will also find yourself thinking about the human condition. If the movie has a flaw, it is that the filmmakers seem to be completely aware that they have a high cinematic IQ and at times the movie feels a little condescending, a little hipper-than-thou.

Mostly though, this is an artistic endeavor that tickles the funny bone as well as the brain stem. I can’t say that every reader is going to fall for this the way I did. For that reason, I’ve given the movie a lower rating than it deserves; I can’t in good conscience say “everybody should go see this.” Everybody should not go see this. If your tastes run towards the adventurous, if you’re not easily offended by the scatological and if you are willing to allow yourself be taken in by the wonder, this is the movie for you.

REASONS TO GO: An imaginative exercise different than anything you’ve ever seen. It’s genuinely funny at times. This is truly movie magic on a budget.
REASONS TO STAY: This is most definitely an acquired taste. It may be a little bit too full of itself.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of gruesome images, some violence and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the songs in the movie are sung a cappella, mainly by Andy Hull of the Manchester Orchestra (who also cameos as a cameraman near the end of the movie) and Robert Powell.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adaptation
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Fundamentals of Caring

Meet Me in Montenegro


Taking that leap of faith.

Taking that leap of faith.

(2014) Romance (The Orchard) Alex Holdridge, Linnea Saasen, Rupert Friend, Jennifer Ulrich, Stuart Manashil, Mia Jacob, Ben Braun, Lena Ehlers, Kate Mackeson, Mathieu van den Berk, Deborah Ann Woll, Rod Ben Zeev, Ty Hodges, Reza Sixo Safai, Wayne Nickel, Victoria Johnston, Tomoko Nakasato, Max Pierangeli, Natalie Gelman, Brent Florence, Jules Amana, Twink Caplan. Directed by Alex Holdridge and Linnea Saasen

Romance in the age of social media is no easy proposition. Millennials have something of a cocoon around them; the anonymity of the Internet, the constant presence of electronic connection via cell phones and tablets, the somewhat impersonal mode of online dating – it’s a wonder that anyone hooks up at all.

Anderson (Holdridge) is an American screenwriter who has seen through the facade of traditional courtship and has declared that romance is dead, and from his own perspective he’s not wrong. He continues to obsess about Lina (Saasen), a Norwegian dancer he met on a trip to the Balkans with whom he had a torrid love affair, only to have her leave him a note “Let’s leave on a high note” on the beach without further explanation and thus she pirouettes out of his life.

Racking his brain as to what he might have done wrong to drive her away from him like that, his budding film career has stalled and he’s deep in credit card debt. He’s taking one last shot, this time making a science fiction film called Supercollider (an excellent name for a film by the way) and is meeting with an actor in Berlin who might be able to give him the cache needed to get the project made. He’s staying with friends Stephen (Friend), an English ex-pat whose attempt to start up a coffee shop ended up in failure, and his girlfriend Friederike (Ulrich) who is growing frustrated at Stephen’s chronic unemployment. Still, Stephen’s offhand suggestion that the two of them go to a sex club and have a four-some with another couple hasn’t fallen on deaf ears; to his horror, Friederike has called his bluff and is planning to take him up on the offer that very weekend, leaving an awkward shopping trip for Stephen and Anderson to find proper sexy attire for Stephen for the club.

While in Berlin, Anderson bumps into Lina who has been dancing in Berlin since the two broke up. He’s only there for a few days and she’s leaving herself to take up an artist residency in Budapest. They decide to spend some time together and in doing so, some of the old sparks begin to resurface. Anderson has a streak of self-sabotage in him and delivers one of the most unusual script pitches ever seen on film to the astonished actor; the rest of the weekend in Berlin would be a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. Will Anderson be able to rescue himself from crushing credit card debt and resurrect his career? More importantly, will his romance with Lina work out or is romance truly dead?

This isn’t your typical romance, which is definitely a good thing. Holdridge and Saasen have a natural chemistry together which makes their onscreen romance believable, job one for any romance, comedy or otherwise. I hesitated to label this a romantic comedy; while there are definitely some funny moments, this is more of a romantic dramedy slice of life thing, a glimpse into the inner workings of a relationship without getting either too cloying or too clinical. This is real love folks, circa 2015.

Holdridge has got the anti-romantic sad-sack writer role down pat. His smile is a bit wistful, revealing some of his inner torment and uncertainty; yet confronted with the perpetrator of his self-doubt he is perfectly willing to take the plunge once again (literally). At the opening of the film, we see him doing a cliff dive into the Baltic in the title town as he narrates “This was the last time I felt truly alive.” That’s some powerful motivation right there and it feels pretty natural as romance films go.

Berlin plays a central role in the film and it is a different side of the city that we get to see. Mostly we here in the States only see Berlin in spy thrillers; we’re used to the alleyways and abandoned buildings but this is a city where people actually live and we get a chance to peek in on their lives as well. Robert Murphy delivers some gorgeous cinematography, giving the city character but also the film as well; he’s a talent to keep an eye on definitely.

The movie’s ending is a bit cheesy, which is a shame because the rest of the story is actually mature as hell, a refreshing change from normal Hollywood romances in which the emotional range is somewhat limited and the story contrived. For most of the movie, this feels like lives truly lived in and that gives us more insight into the relationship than those that feel manufactured. Even certain indie romances suffer from an over-abundance of twee cliches but thankfully that’s not the case here.

I jotted down in my notebook that this is a bit of an anti-romance in many ways. There is some speechifyin’ about the nature of romance and the philosophy of love which gives what is in essence a rather simple and charming movie an occasionally unwelcome gloss. However, the good news is that this is a solid movie that occasionally rises above the tropes of its predecessors and gives us more real insight into modern love than many other movies with bigger budgets and better-known faces. If you’re looking for a nice romantic evening with that certain indie-loving someone, this might just be a meeting you’ll want to take.

REASONS TO GO: Holdridge has the sad-sack romantic down pat. Gorgeous cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Ending a bit hokey. Some pretentious pontificating.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild language and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Holdridge and Saasen not only co-starred and co-directed the film but also co-wrote it based on their own experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Copenhagen
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Terminator: Genisys

The Lie (2011)


Your sins will find you out.

Your sins will find you out.

(2011) Drama (Screen Media) Joshua Leonard, Jess Wexler, Mark Webber, Alia Shawkat, Kelli Garner, James Ransone, Jane Adams, Kirk Baltz, Gerry Bednob, Matthew Newton, Holly Woodlawn, Tipper Newton, Kandice Melonakos, Germaine Mozel Sims, Michael McColl, Gwyn Fawcett. Directed by Joshua Leonard

I was once told as a young man by a mentor that being young was easy; everything is simple – black or white, right or wrong, bad or good. There is no middle ground in youth, he told me, no grey areas. Accountability and responsibility are notions that don’t apply to the young. Sooner or later however, we all have to grow up whether we want to or not.

Lonnie (Leonard) is reaching a crossroads in his life. He and his wife Clover (Wexler) have just had a baby and their life of activism and living by their own rules has been turned on its ear as their idealism collides with the realities of raising a baby – particularly in regards to the expense. Clover is considering a job at a pharmaceutical company that as far as Lonnie is concerned is the anti-Christ but whose benefits will make the job of raising their new addition feasible.

But Lonnie, stuck in a job he hates, isn’t on board with this. He’s a hippie in an age of consumerism and in a different age would have found a commune to hang out in with his family. Lonnie is in a crisis and he needs a day off to clear his head, so he just tells his overbearing boss (Bednob) that his baby is sick. Lonnie, now free of any responsibility, gets hammered with his best friend Tank (Webber), smokes a lot of weed and records some really bad rock and roll in Tank’s trailer.

It turns out so well that Lonnie takes another day and another day and another – until he can’t use that fib anymore so in a fit of panic he blurts out that the baby died. Suddenly the little white lie isn’t so white and isn’t so little anymore. This is one he can’t walk away from and one that sooner or later he’ll have to face the consequences for.

Based on a short story by T.C. Boyle, the movie ostensibly debates the question of whether it is okay to compromise one’s principles in order to survive, although that really isn’t it at all. It’s a question of whether one’s responsibility to family outweighs a lifestyle choice.

Leonard, whom most will remember from The Blair Witch Project, is generally a fairly charming onscreen personality and there are elements of that here too, but one wonders about the underlying story going on with the character. Lonnie talks a good game about discovering who he is, but from his actions he appears to be a stoner and a slacker who just wants to get wasted and do whatever makes him feel good. In other words, a selfish prick.

Wexler, who was so delightful in Free Samples, is the polar opposite. She has a baby to consider and the realities of life in Southern California staring her in the face. She realizes that it is time to grow up and make sacrifices, which is why she considers a job at the Big Pharma company. Her moments to shine come towards the end of the movie when the truth inevitably comes out, but sadly, her character (who may go down in cinematic history as the most understanding woman ever) reacts in a way that is counterintuitive to who she seems to be all along.

Webber, as the stoner best friend, provides a lot of the comic relief but also a lot of the film’s center strangely enough. “Dude,” he tells Lonnie in a kind of ironic coda, “You’ve got to stop running away from shit.” Which is, of course, precisely what Lonnie does and the filmmakers seem to embrace that as a viable alternative to, you know, life.

I was once the age that Lonnie is and I will grant him that things are different now than they were then but FFS you’re a dad, you’ve got to man up and grow a pair. One of the things that disturbs me about what I see in the current generation is that there seems to be an unwillingness to sacrifice for the greater good – that self-gratification is the be all and end all of existence. Now I am willing to concede that much of that is simply the flaw of youth and that it’s possible that experience and wisdom will counteract it but I don’t recall ever seeing this self-centeredness to this degree in any generation before. Wow, I sound like my own Dad, don’t I?

The point is that the movie seems to take the point of view that it is more important to be true to one’s own needs whether they are selfish or not than to be responsible for the life that one brings into this world and I simply can’t agree with that point of view – which is why I hate the ending so much because it hints that is precisely what the filmmakers think. Perhaps it is old-fashioned of me but I can’t recommend a movie that condones self-interest over responsibility. If you’re comfortable with that, you are more than welcome to seek this movie out and draw your own conclusions.

WHY RENT THIS: Examines the age old question of freedom vs. responsibility. Wexler and Webber are magnificent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Can’t get behind a film that preaches accountability and celebrates that its lead character has none. The ending is absolutely mind-numbing.

FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s official website gives visitors an opportunity to confess about a lie they’ve told which has been taken up by a number of people including at least one cast member.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3,000 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Be Good

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Good Heart