It Will Be Chaos


Some journeys are more desperate than others.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) William L. Ewing, Manuel Barosa, Aregai Mehari, Giusi Nicolini, Cecilia Malmstrom, Enrico Letta, Cecile Kyenge, Wael Orfali, Bensalem Khaled, Domenico Lucano, Domenica Colapinto, Rafaelle Colapinto, Doha Orfali, Ribal Orfali, Leen Tayem, Baoul Tayem, Othman Tayem, Giovanni Costanzo, Biniam Bereked. Directed by Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo

 

The movie opens up with the grim image of coffins being offloaded onto the Italian island of Lamperdusa. A ship carrying immigrants from Libya to Italy had capsized, and 360 refugees mostly from the Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia had drowned. One of the survivors, an ex-soldier from Eritrea named Aregai Mehari, lost two cousins in the tragedy. He shows their pictures on his cell phone, and at the trial of the inept captain calmly discusses the chaos of that night.

The mayor of Lamperdusa, Giusi Nicolini, is in a horrible position. The town is suffering from a stagnant economy and simply can’t handle the influx of people coming from Africa and the Middle East. She still manages to retain her compassion, correcting reporters “They are not illegal immigrants. They are refugees. Words matter.” She wants to help but is essentially powerless to do much more than providing limited assistance and sympathy.

We follow Aregai as he makes his way into Greece where the situation isn’t much better and might be, frankly, worse as he flees from drought and intense poverty in his native country. We also follow Wael Orfali and his young family as they flee the Syrian genocide, whose home was bombed into rubble just two weeks after they fled. He is stuck in Istanbul trying to get to family in Germany where he and his family might begin again. He is impatient almost to the point of hysteria, purchasing life jackets for his family  for a trip with a smuggler that may or may not happen and when relatives urge him to delay his departure because of rough weather in the Mediterranean bellows “I don’t care if we die. I just need to leave!”

The movie is one in a long line of documentaries about the current refugee crisis which is buffeting Europe and to an extent the United States as well. Most of these movies follow the travails of a specific refugee as they navigate an often frustrating and dehumanizing system that essentially passes them from one place to another with limited resources, no way to get work and left to dangle in the wind. Often the refugees, fleeing forces beyond their control, I can understand the anti-immigrant side to a certain extent; a nation can only support so many people with resources, jobs and property. There is a finite amount of money, goods and infrastructure to go around. However, the answer is not to demonize refugees and suspect that every refugee is a potential terrorist, rapist or criminal; most refugees simply want a better life and safety for their children. We can’t assume every refugee is legitimate; we also can’t assume that every refugee is not.

The problem I have with this movie is that it really doesn’t add anything to the conversation that I haven’t seen in several other documentaries. The points that they make that the bureaucracy handling the staggering influx of people is ill-equipped to handle it, that politicians are often unsympathetic and that refugees often face outright racism and are painted as scapegoats by an increasingly hostile European (and American) population.

Political bloviating on my part aside, the refugee crisis isn’t going away anytime soon and the situation isn’t as uncomplicated as it is sometimes made out to be. The movie exposes some of that if in a somewhat choppy manner. From a purely technical aspect, the editing between the two stories often is jarring and feels somewhat arbitrary. The filmmakers have their heart in the right place but in all honesty what we need more than a film that follows the refugees is one that shows us why it is so difficult for this situation to be managed. This movie shows some of that (and it’s generally the best moments in the film) but not enough to really make it a must-see.

REASONS TO GO: The story is heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t really add anything to the examination of the refugee crisis.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival before debuting on HBO.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Before I Wake

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Woodpeckers (Carpinteros)


Julian is on the inside looking out.

(2017) Drama (Outsider) Jean Jean, Judith Rodriguez Perez, Ramón Emilio Candelario, Mario Nunez, Aleja Johnson, Manuel Raposo, Carlota Carrelero, Toussaint Merionne, Orestes Amador, Fernando De Jesús Mejia, Cape Ramirez, Gilberto Hernández, Jose Cruz, Keunis Alvarez, Karina Valdez. Directed by José Maria Cabral

Incarceration is no joke; going to prison is not a preferable situation for anyone, anywhere in the world. In the Dominican Republican, prisons suffer from brutal punishment, terrible overcrowding and crumbling living conditions that come from having too many dangerous men in close proximity to one another. Of course, once someone is convicted most of society doesn’t really give a hoot what happens to them.

Julian Sosa (Jean) is a petty thief who gets arrested for stealing a motorcycle. As is the custom in the Dominican Republic where he lives, he is jailed in the notorious Najayo Prison outside of Santo Domingo. Prison conditions are inhuman with overcrowding, a lack of basic human facilities, brutal discipline enacted by brutal guards and of course surrounded by hard, violent prisoners.

Julian, who is of Haitian descent (which is not a very pleasant place to be in Santo Domingo) initially wants to keep to himself and just do his time but he finds that increasingly impossible. Eventually he falls in with Manaury (Candelario) who like Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption is the kind of guy who can get things for you. Unlike Mr. Freeman, Manaury has a hair-trigger temper and is borderline psychotic.

He introduces Julian to woodpecking, a detailed sign language that the prisoners use to communicate with the female inmates who are housed a mere 400 feet away across a yard. Through woodpecking, romances bloom and prisoners fall in love with one another. Manaury has a “girlfriend” named Yanelly (Perez) who is a bit temperamental herself. When Manaury gets in a fracas and gets sent to solitary, he prevails upon Julian to communicate with Yanelly via woodpecking.

The problem is that Yanelly had discovered that Manaury had been woodpecking with another girl in while she was in solitary herself. As she “talks” to Julian she begins to fall for him and he for her. By the time the suspicious and paranoid Manaury gets released back into the general population, Yanelly and Julian are deeply in love. He has even managed to wrangle a work detail in the women’s prison so that the two of them can exchange a quick and furtive kiss. She arranges to smuggle her own panties to him which leads to Manaury finding out that his paranoia was justified…and for him to plot brutal revenge against Julian.

This movie played the Miami Film Festival earlier this year and is the Dominican Republic’s official Oscar Foreign Language Film submission for the upcoming Academy Awards. The movie is gritty and realistic which you know it had to be, considering the filming location and extras (only the leads were professional actors). You get a sense of the overcrowding and volatile conditions.

The movie spins around the relationship between Yanelly and Julian and if that doesn’t work, neither does the film. Fortunately despite being something of an odd couple – Yanelly is volatile and passionate, Julian introspective and quiet – the love aspect works and one ends up rooting for the couple. Both Perez and Jean do strong jobs here, particularly the former. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Candelario who seems to be screaming at the top of his lungs most of the time. It’s an over-the-top performance that makes his character more of a caricature.

Unfortunately the filmmakers can’t sustain the momentum the movie builds early on and during the last third, after both Julian and Manaury are transferred to the even more brutal La Victoria prison and a prison riot breaks out. It does lead to a final shot that is compelling and almost redeems the rest of that plot point – but not quite. Still this is a superior movie that made the rounds on the festival circuit (and continues to do so) and even had a brief New York run. It’s a little hard to find at the moment but no doubt it will get some streaming service or another to pick it up and once it does you should give it a chance. This is a fine movie from a filmmaker who has enormous potential.

REASONS TO GO: A gritty and realistic depiction of prison life in the Dominican. The love story is believable and fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses momentum during the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, some nudity and sexuality as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed inside a Dominican prison utilizing actual prisoners in small roles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crown Heights
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Te Ata

Bad Genius (Chalat Kem Kong)


Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that someone isn’t following you.

(2017) Thriller (GDH 559) Chutimon Cheungcharoensukying, Elsaya Hosuwan, Teeradon Supapunpinyo, Chanon Santinatornkul, Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Sarinrat Thomas, Ego Mikitas, Pasin Kuansataporn, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Kanjana Vinaipanid, Yuthapong Varanukrohchoke, Nopawat Likitwong, David Gray, Laluna Nitze. Directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya

It is easy to admire smart people; it is also easy to distrust them. After all, knowledge is power and we all know what power does – it corrupts.

Lynn (Cheungcharoensukying) is a brilliant girl whose teacher father (Warakulnukroh) is trying to get her into one of Bangkok’s most exclusive private schools. It appears that her divorced dad won’t be able to afford the prestigious school’s fees and tuition but after Lynn accurately reads the headmistress’s (Thomas) greed, she uses math-based analysis to talk her way into a full ride scholarship.

Brilliant but socially awkward (the two often go hand in hand), she is befriended by Grace (Hosuwan), an aspiring actress who helps Lynn “look her best.” The two become fast friends and when Grace confesses to her much smarter companion that she’s worried about an upcoming math test, Lynn offers to tutor her for the test. However, Grace proves to be even dimmer than Lynn could account for and when she forgets everything she was supposed to have memorized for the test, Lynn writes the answers down on an eraser and ingeniously delivers them to Grace by a process that can only be called “shoe-mail.”

Grace’s wealthy boyfriend Pat (Supapunpinyo) sees a gold mine in test cheats and organizes a bit of a racket that the wealthy students of the school are only too happy to pay for if only to get their achievement-fixated parents off their backs. The fact that the school is charging her father exorbitant “maintenance fees” on what was supposed to be a free ride sways the formerly naïve Lynn and turns her cynical. She comes up with a brilliant idea utilizing codes tapped out on the desk like a piano etude. The plan works too – until another impoverished genius, Bank (Santinatornkul) blows the whistle on them. Lynn ends up getting her scholarship pulled.

Determined to right what Lynn sees as an inequity in that wealthier students who can afford it can bribe teacher for test answers in advance, she decides to go after the holy grail of test cheats – the Standardized Test for International Colleges or STIC, a fictional version of the SAT – with a bold and brilliant plan. Grace and Pat will help but she will need Bank and his photographic memory to pull it off. However, getting the test answers to students willing to pay for it isn’t going to be easy

The movie starts out as something of a social justice allegory with the hoity toity private school standing in for Thai society in general (and not far off from our own these days). It ends up as a slick heist thriller that wouldn’t be out of place on the resumes of Steven Soderburgh and Harmony Korine. Poonpiriya proves to be a director with formidable talent, melding the two disparate types of film into a singular whole that is entertaining as well as having something to say.

Cheungcharoensukying needs to carry the film and she does; considering that her background is in modeling and that this is her first feature film is absolutely astounding. The lady has plenty of screen presence and is able to handle Lynn in both her shy and socially awkward phase and in her cynical and criminal phase without making either look cliché. They are both Lynn but there are differences between the Lynn at the beginning of the film and the Lynn at the end.

The movie does take awhile to develop but once it gets going it’s like a runaway freight train. There’s also a sense of humor that is a bit sly and subversive; American audiences may not necessarily take to it but I’ve been wrong on that score before. While this is based on an actual issue that is scandalizing Asia at the moment (but not on a specific incident) it doesn’t let up on the fun either. This has a good shot at being remade by Hollywood according to the trades but I think discerning audiences would seek the original out if some distribution could be found. Certainly this is one to keep an eye out for; hopefully at the very least it will be a presence on the Festival circuit for the time being.

REASONS TO GO: Hollywood-slick, the film is as good a thriller that has come out this year. Chutimon is an actress with a future. The sense of humor here is subversive and fun.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit slow to develop.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of violence and peril, not to mention some mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing Lynn’s father (Warakulnukroh) also starred in Pop Aye which played at the Florida Film Festival earlier this year and is set to be released by Kino-Lorber later this month.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bling Ring
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: KFC

The Tail Job


Nicholas pleads with Stacy as Trevor looks on.

Nicholas pleads with Stacy as Trevor looks on.

(2016) Comedy (Moses Millar) Craig Anderson, Blair Dwyer, Kellie Clark, Laura Hughes, Dorje Swallow, Georgina Symes, Daniel James Millar, Stephen Anderton, Dave Eastgate, Grant Dodwell, Rakesh Dasgupta, Gary Waddell, Troy Russell, William Ryan, Ralph Moses, Dave Williams, David Attrill, Claudia Barrie, Ursula Mills, Lauren Orrell, Jessica Saras. Directed by Bryan Moses and Daniel James Millar

Slamdance

There is no doubt love breeds jealousy. The simplest of acts can be misinterpreted to be sinister – a phone call taken in another room, a vague identification of the caller as “just a friend,” a mysterious rendezvous that you’re not invited to – all can point to infidelity to the jealous mind. And let’s face it; the jealous mind is capable of some pretty imaginative stuff.

Nicholas (Dwyer) is in just such a situation. He believes his beautiful fiancée Mona (Hughes) is having an affair with a man named Sio Bohan. Hurt and stung, when she says she’s off to a girl’s night out in downtown Sydney, he hires a taxi with the idea of following her and taking photos of her caught in the act. Unfortunately, the cab he hires is driven by Trevor (Anderson).

Trevor is one of those “G’day mate” Aussies who means well and is a solid citizen, but Trevor is also one of those guys who can’t catch a break. When he hears of Nicholas’ plight, he is all in to help the cuckold tail his girl. Unfortunately, an encounter with a psycho driver (Millar) with terminal road rage leads them to lose their quarry. Nicholas (whom Trevor repeatedly calls Nick, much to his annoyance) first chats up Stacy (Clark), a friend of Mona’s, to see if she has any idea where Mona is going that night and who clearly has a thing for Nicholas.

After consulting a phone hacker (Anderton) friend of Stacy’s as well as finding out from the cabbie (Dodwell) who drove Mona downtown where he dropped her off, the duo turn out to be miserable detectives, misinterpreting one clue after another and running afoul of the real Sio Bohan (Swallow) who turns out to be a vicious gangster. Nicholas is determined to get the evidence that will end his relationship with Mona, who is actually on an innocent girls night out with her mate Siobhan (Mills), but to rescue her first from the clutches of a dangerous man. Trevor turns out to be far more loyal than you’d expect a cabbie to be, but can the two crack the case and bring Mona back to Nicholas?

Millar and Moses have been filmmakers for a decade but this is their first feature. Made on a shoestring budget shooting mostly at night and on weekends in Sydney, they utilize local actors and Aussie celebrities who make cameo appearances, all of which will fly right over the heads of American audiences unless they’ve spent some serious time in Oz. And that’s okay because it won’t diminish the film any if you don’t get the references, but I’m sure that Australian audiences will get more of a kick out of the film than we Americans will.

The plot isn’t particularly praiseworthy; there are some lapses of logic that give me the sense that certain plot points exist mainly to send poor Nicholas into a death spiral of jealousy, but the thing is that the Nicholas character doesn’t seem to be unduly emotional or prone to going off half-cocked. He seems like a pretty reasonable guy. Then again, as I said earlier jealousy can manufacture crazy ideas in the brain.

The movie is a comedy and has some genuinely funny moments, like the second road rage encounter and Trevor’s attempts to get into a posh club that end up with him asking a prostitute (Symes) to be his date. There are also some moments of pathos, as when Nicholas finds a photo of Trevor’s family in the glove box and realizes the deep wounds in Trevor’s soul may be what is motivating him.

At times this feels a bit too much like a sitcom for comfort; as I alluded earlier, some of the plot points feel contrived and the movie relies far too much on magic coincidences. However, it also has an immense amount of charm and plenty of heart at its center and those are things you can’t fake. That tells me that these are filmmakers who love what they do and have some truly marvelous films in them. That’s something you can feel in the film and it makes it so much more enjoyable for the viewer.

This is one of those movies who as the late Roger Ebert pointed out wouldn’t exist if the lead characters had a two minute conversation. Then again, divorce probably wouldn’t exist if couples would have more two-minute conversations but that might be a bit of a stretch. Certainly one wonders what sort of chance the relationship between Nicholas and Mona has if they can’t even communicate over a night out with a friend.

The Tail Job isn’t perfect but it is solid entertainment. While Americans might find the Australian sense of humor a trifle broad, the film definitely has its heart in the right place. After making its world premiere at Slamdance this past weekend, it is likely to play the festival circuit and hopefully pick up some distribution. There’s always room for a movie like this and it would be a shame if a wider audience didn’t get to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Has plenty of heart and charm. A cut above similar American films.
REASONS TO STAY: Has a bit of a sitcom feel. Loses its steam towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language, some violence and sexuality and brief frontal nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moses and Millar based their movie on a friend of theirs who actually believed his fiancée at the time was cheating on him with a man named Sio Bohan; the two thought that would make a good movie if they took it to the next level.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Other Guys
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Boy

Kingsman: The Secret Service


Accessories are important for the true gentleman.

Accessories are important for the true gentleman.

(2015) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella, Mark Hamill, Jack Davenport, Geoff Bell, Samantha Womack, Jordan Long, Tobi Bakare, Nicholas Banks, Edward Holcroft, Morgan Watkins, Jack Cutmore-Scott, Hanna Alstrom, Fiona Hampton, Lily Travers. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

The spy movies of the late 60s and onward have a certain place in the cultural psyche. They represent a particular era, sure, but they also represent the fight between good and evil, our fascination with technology and a certain sense of humor about life in the modern age. Our attitudes towards women, patriotism, freedom and what constitutes a gentleman have been largely shaped by these films.

Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Egerton) is growing up aimlessly in a working class London neighborhood. His dad died when he was a baby and his mom (Womack) has taken up with a local thug (Bell) named Dean. Dean abuses his mom but Gary isn’t strong enough to stand up for her or for himself. Dean despises him and ridicules him for it.

But Eggsy has a good heart to go along with his Cockney accent and when he gets arrested for stealing the car of one of Dean’s underlings and leading the police on a merry chase, he knows he can’t call home. Therefore, he calls the number on the back of an amulet once given to his mother by a gentlemen who came to inform her of the death of Eggsy’s father, remembering that if he called that number and read a certain phrase, help of whatever nature was needed would be forthcoming.

It comes in the form of Harry Hart (Firth), a debonair and well-dressed gentleman who tells Eggsy that in fact, his father once saved Harry’s life and that Harry wanted to repay that debt by offering his son the opportunity to try out for a position in the same super secret organization that his father served in and that Harry in fact serves in now – the Kingsmen. No, not the “Louie, Louie” bunch.

The Kingsmen are a secret, non-government affiliated group of highly trained, highly skilled gentlemen. They aren’t spies particularly; what they do is prevent bad things from happening. They have a seemingly unlimited budget and there are only a set number of them; when one dies they are replaced. This is the group that Eggsy is about to join – if he can survive the process of selecting the winning applicant, that is and it is a brutal one, focusing on teamwork, thinking on one’s feet and assessing dangerous situations. Most of the applicants are upper class snobs, although Eggsy befriends Roxy (Cookson), a female applicant (who gets her share of grief from the snobs, as does Eggsy) and Merlin (Strong), the tech wizard of the Kingsmen and the right hand of Arthur (Caine), head of the organization.

In the meantime, a tech billionaire named Valentine has big, bad plans. See, he’s a little bit concerned about climate change. Okay, he’s a lot concerned about climate change. He’s given up on the government doing anything about it and has decided that to make humankind’s carbon footprint smaller he needs to make the population smaller. His plan is to use a special cell phone signal through special SIM cards in free cell phones he’s given away to nearly everyone trigger a violent, murderous rage in those who hear it. Only those wealthy, beautiful few who he’s personally approached and implanted a microchip that cancels out the signal in their heads will be immune to the carnage, especially after they all are safely ensconced in bunkers around the world.

It’s a mad plan, certainly but Valentine is deadly serious about it. He’s even hired himself a mercenary army and constructed a lair within a mountain. You know he’s got to be a villain with a mountain lair. In any case, with Valentine’s powerful connections, getting to him won’t be easy and preventing an anarchic Armageddon even less so but that’s what the Kingsmen are there for, after all – to save the day.

Vaughn has made films based on Mark Millar comic series before (as this film is) and the collaborations between the two have been fruitful, producing the fine superhero film Kick-Ass for example. Vaughn has become one of my favorite directors of late with some excellent genre films to his credit. He knows how to make a film visually spectacular and hit all the right buttons in the fanboy psyche while not taking the movies so seriously that they become ponderous. His movies are almost always deeply entertaining.

And this one is no exception. Colin Firth as an action hero seems like a pretty unlikely casting, but it works here. Firth actually performed a surprising amount of his own stunts, but handles the role well, keeping a Bond-like facade of cool while kicking the butts of a group of Dean’s thugs, or some of Valentine’s flunkies, or a church full of homicidal fundamentalists.

Samuel L. Jackson makes a fine villain. Given several personality quirks (he gets violently ill at the sight of blood for example) by the writers, Jackson gives the character a lisp that makes him all the more memorable which is in the grand tradition of Bond villains. While the lisp does occasionally fall off, Jackson gives the character the right amount of menace to make for a formidable foe but enough goofiness to give the film a lighter tone. He also gets a nifty assassin in Gazelle (Boutella), who has no legs but on her Pistorius-like artificial limbs is fast, graceful and deadly as she is able to unfold sword blades from those artificial legs while in mid-air. Tres cool.

There are a lot of asides to the spy movies and television series of history; a reference to the Get Smart! shoe phone for example, or the glasses worn by super-spy Harry Palmer in films like The Billion Dollar Baby and The Ipcress Files. Clearly there are several Bond references although many are turned on their ear; Valentine at one point has a speech in which he says “This is the part where I reveal to you all my plans, and then come up with a slow and convoluted way for you to die, and you come up with a convoluted way to escape and stop me. Except this isn’t that kind of movie” at which point he shoots his nemesis in the head, much like Indiana Jones once shot a swordsman making fancy moves before he could attack.

Egerton shows a lot of potential, although I can’t say he’s a slam-dunk future star. He’s got charisma but he wasn’t really asked to carry this movie (as well he shouldn’t have been) and so I’m not certain he can rise above the gimmicks and gadgets, of which there are plenty here. The jury is out on him for me, although I can see him eventually ascending to a leading man status.

The humor here is mostly dry although there are some broad physical jokes here from time to time. Those who find the English wit not to their liking may consider this not their cup of tea, although I enjoyed this a great deal. In fact, this is the most entertaining movie I’ve seen thus far this year (which isn’t saying much) and one of the most entertaining I’ve seen in the first quarter of any year (which is saying a lot) ever. For those looking for a fun time at the movies, this is your best bet at least until some of the more anticipated movies of the spring start appearing next month. I certainly wouldn’t complain if this became the start of a new Fox franchise.

REASONS TO GO: Highly entertaining. Great action sequences. Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies a bit on gimmickry and gadgetry. May be too droll for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and mayhem, some pretty crude language and some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The menswear shop on Savile Row which is the entrance to the Kingsman headquarters is based on Huntsman, a real store in the area. Because shooting in the actual shop would have been impractical, a set was built copying many of the characteristics of the original although production designer Paul Kirby added his own touches to give the set its own personality.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Means War
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Hot Tub Time Machine 2

Force Majeure (Turist)


There's no business like snow business.

There’s no business like snow business.

(2014) Dramedy (Magnolia) Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius, Brady Corbet, Jakob Granqvist, Franco Moscon, Malin Dahl. Directed by Ruben Östlund

We never know how we’ll react in any given situation. We imagine, we hope we’ll react with courage and compassion but the truth is there’s a good chance we’ll act to save our own skins rather than someone else’s when push comes to shove. It’s not necessarily a horrible thing but it can cause those around us to reconsider their image of who we are.

Tomas (Kuhnke) and Ebba (Kongsli) are taking a ski vacation in the French Alps with their adorable kids Harry (V. Wettergren) and Vera (C. Wettergren). It’s definitely a much-needed trip; Tomas is a bit of a workaholic whose ear seems permanently glued to his cell phone. This is a chance to let the cares and worries of day to day life melt away and for him to reconnect with his family. Thus far, everything seems to be working.

They’re eating lunch on the terrace of their ski resort one afternoon when an avalanche begins. At first, it’s no cause for alarm. After all, the resort has been purposely setting them off on a regular basis, the days and nights punctuated by soft explosions triggering downfalls of snow to relieve the pressures of an excessive snowfall on the trails. You’d think that they’d be used to it by now.

But the deadly avalanche continues to approach and Ebba begins to feel uneasy. Something is wrong. “Nonsense,” says Tomas full of masculine know-it-all-ness. They’re perfectly safe. Still it gets closer and closer and people begin to nervously rise to their feet. Then as it becomes apparent that it’s not going to stop, the panic begins. People begin to run off the terrace and Ebba goes to grab her children and carry them to safety except they’re too heavy, she can’t lift them and before anything can be done, the avalanche is upon them.

Everything is white. As things come back into focus, Ebba realizes that she and her children are all right. The avalanche must have petered out just before colliding with the resort. All they’d been hit by was the avalanche “smoke,” the fine powder that rises from the surface of the snow. Shaken, the family continues eating their meal, not knowing what else to do.

Everyone’s all right and that’s the important thing, right? But not to Ebba. Her husband abandoned her and her children, leaving them to save himself. He needs to come clean and admit it. Tomas, however, doesn’t see it that way. That’s not how it happened. He refuses to come clean. This becomes stuck in Ebba’s craw. She needs him to own up. She needs to hear him admit that he panicked. She picks at him like a scab.

On the other end, he can’t admit it. It’s just not possible. To do so would be to admit that everything he is as a man is lacking. That he failed to protect his family, one of the most basic instincts that there is in the masculine ego. It’s unthinkable. So the immovable object collides with the unstoppable force and the marriage of Tomas and Ebba suddenly becomes vulnerable.

This is Sweden’s entry into the foreign language film category of the Oscars and quite frankly, it’s a good one. I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t end up on the short list when the announcements come out next month. This isn’t a movie you can standardize in a single category. It’s essentially the story of an unraveling marriage depicted in the style of a thriller. As an audience, you’ll feel like you were at a couple’s party and you walked in on them having a vicious argument in the bedroom. If there were Oscars given for the use of awkward silences, this would win hands down.

Kuhnke and Kongsli play their roles with an easy familiarity that mimics that which exists in real couples who have been together for years and now know each other better than they know themselves. There are few surprises in the routines of everyday life and while Ebba feels more than a little neglected, Tomas is completely oblivious that there’s a problem. His ego won’t let him admit to it.

Not that Ebba is a saint. She is a bit of a nag and can be cold and critical. She has a streak of self-centeredness all her own. Her need to validate her point that her husband failed her becomes consuming; looking at the relationship from afar it is clear that both characters would benefit from letting go of the incident but neither one is built that way. As friends get pulled into their escalating competition, it certainly looks like one of them is going to break.

The avalanche sequence is handled with some CGI but mostly practical effects and is one of the film’s highlights. Can’t say the same thing about the ending which is confusing and seems tacked on and unnecessary. In fact, the movie seems a bit long and might have benefitted from more time looking at the family and less at their friends, who are drawn into an argument over how they’d react in a similar situation which leads to bad feelings between them as well. Those darn Swedes.

While the situation is an extraordinary one, kudos to Östlund for keeping the characters real. They react in ways that aren’t necessarily shining examples of forbearance and in doing so channel every one of us. If you can’t relate to Tomas and/or Ebba, you haven’t been alive long enough to appreciate the subtleties of long-term committed relationships or the fallibility of human beings.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling plot handled in a realistic manner. Some fine performances by the leads. Avalanche sequence is nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. Ending is unsatisfying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief nudity as well as sexual situations and some occasional foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The children of Tomas and Ebba in the film are played by a real life brother and sister.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Outdoors
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Wild

Deck the Halls


A Christmas guilty pleasure.

A Christmas guilty pleasure.

(2006) Holiday Comedy (20th Century Fox) Danny DeVito, Matthew Broderick, Kristin Davis, Kristin Chenoweth, Alia Shawkat, Dylan Blue, Kelly Aldridge, Sabrina Aldridge, Jorge Garcia, Fred Armisen, Gillian Vigman, Ryan Devlin, Sean O’Bryan, SuChin Pak, Jackie Burroughs, Garry Chalk, Nicola Peltz, Zak Santiago, Jill Morrison, Brenda M. Crichlow, Eliza Norbury. Directed by John Whitesell

The Holly and the Quill

There comes a time in all our lives when we laugh at something we know we shouldn’t laugh at. We know it’s wrong, we know we shouldn’t do it but we still do it anyway. When it happens in a movie, we call it a “guilty pleasure.”

Dr. Steve Finch (Broderick) is a mild-mannered optometrist in one of those picture postcard perfect Massachusetts towns that looks like it sprung fully formed from a Currier and Ives print. He’s also the Christmas guy around town, the one who decorates his home tastefully but noticeably, the guy who’s in charge of the Christmas pageant, the one who buys his family matching ugly Christmas sweaters. His children Madison (Shawkat) and Carter (Blue) are somewhat disinterested in their father’s regimented, traditional Christmas that allows no deviation from the norm. Although his wife Kelly (Davis) wishes that her husband was less rigid, she tolerates the situation because being obsessed with Christmas is way better than being obsessed with Internet porn, right?

Then across the street moves in used car salesman Buddy Hall (DeVito) with his…ummmm, statuesque wife Tia (Chenoweth)  and his buxom blonde twin daughters Ashley (K. Aldridge) and Emily (S. Aldridge). Buddy is going through an epic midlife crisis. He has never really attained any sort of real success and is living in a house he really can’t afford. The neighborly Finches invite his family over for dinner and Buddy’s inferiority complex is deepened when he discovers that the satellite locating website MyEarth (which is Google Earth without paying Google the big bucks for using their name) shows his neighbor’s house just fine but his is too small to be seen from space. Then it hits him – what if he put up a Christmas display so bright that it can be seen from space?

This puts Buddy in a frenzy of light buying and Christmas pageantry which doesn’t sit well with Dr. Steve who is threatened by a usurper for his title of the Christmas guy around town. He sets off to sabotage Buddy’s efforts which he sees as garish and lurid. The two begin a series of escalating pranks on one another, culminating in both their wives taking their children out of the house and staying elsewhere, leaving the two obsessed Christmas porn lovers to duke it out between themselves. Will Buddy win and get his wish to be noticed, to accomplish something monumental? Or will Steve win and get his wish for a traditional Christmas?

Critics savaged the movie when it came out and in a lot of ways I can’t really blame them. The humor often falls flat and is generally crude, the script preposterous, the plot outlandish and the acting mainly phoned in. Broderick, whose character is covered at one point with camel spit and sheep doo-doo from a living nativity that Buddy throws up, was heard to mutter on the set “I’ve hit rock bottom” on a regular basis and DeVito literally flew in on the days he was scheduled to shoot, acted his scenes and left without interacting with any of the cast. Supposedly everyone on set was fully aware they were cooking up a turkey.

And yet…and yet…I still find myself strangely drawn to the movie. In some demented way, it appeals to me. I think deep down it is supposed to be a commentary on how we’ve warped Christmas in this country with rampant consumerism and a terminally competitive attitude towards showing how much Christmas spirit we have (We’ve got spirit – yes we do! We’ve got spirit – how ’bout YOU?!?) particularly in decorating our homes. Not that saying we’ve lost our way in terms of the season is anything new or earth-shattering – Miracle on 34th Street was making the same point 59 years earlier – but it’s a point that bears repeating.

Chenoweth, one of Broadway’s brightest stars and who always impresses when she gets a movie to work on, is one of the highlights. She’s the blonde bimbo who turns out to be a bit smarter than anyone gives her credit for, seeing her husband for what he is and loving him anyway although when his excesses threaten the family stability, she exhibits a lot more strength than you’d imagine she has. Maybe I have a critic-crush on the woman, but she’d make reading the phone book an interesting movie.

I mentioned the humor earlier but I neglected to mention how mean-spirited it is. For example, Buddy and Steve are watching the Christmas pageant and a trio of scantily dressed young women come out and do a provocative dance. Both men cheer and call out “Who’s your daddy?!” repeatedly until the girls turn around – and it’s their daughters. They run to the nearest Catholic church and wash out their eyes with Holy Water. That doesn’t sound like it should be appealing but remember how I mentioned laughing at things you shouldn’t? There ya go.

Sure, the ending is a bit treacly and has that timeless Christmas movie trope of healing all wounds with the singing of carols but somehow those things still work even though you know they’re coming. I guess I’m just a sucker for Christmas spirit, neighbors looking out for each other and Currier and Ives New England villages. Here in Florida, Christmas is a whole different thing where we get milder weather (although we can get heatwaves from time to time) and almost never see any snowfall. My wife longs for a White Christmas which is something I haven’t experienced since I was a little boy in Connecticut which was so long ago that dinosaurs roamed the Earth back then. Okay, not really but you get the (snow) drift.

This might not be your cup of cocoa and I respect that but if you’re looking for guilty pleasure Christmas entertainment, you can do much worse (Santa Claus vs. the Martians anyone?) and you might, like I did, get suckered in by the sticky sweet ending. Christmas can do funny things to a person.

WHY RENT THIS: A primer in tacky Christmas displays. Chenoweth is always a pleasure.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Disagreeable leads. Mean-spirited.
FAMILY VALUES: Some crude humor and brief bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production used LED lights on the house that allowed programmable effects and was installed by Color Kinetics of Boston. The nodes used just 7,150 watts of energy or the equivalent of four hair-dryers, and 126 amps which is the average for 1 1/3 homes.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a blooper reel as well as interviews with young actor Dylan Blue. Featurettes on filming a Christmas movie in July, the design of Buddy’s Christmas light display and the building of the house sets are also included.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.2M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (streaming only), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (streaming only), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jingle All the Way
FINAL RATING: 6/10 (Talk about a Christmas gift…)
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill concludes