Riders of Justice (Retfærdighedens ryttere)


This is a man you don’t want to mess with.

(2020) Action Comedy (Magnet) Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Andrea Heick Gadeberg, Lars Brygmann, Nicolas Bro, Gustav Lindh, Roland Møller, Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt, Anne Birgitte Lind, Omar Shargawi, Jacob Lohmann, Henrik Noël, Gustav Giese, Klaus Hjuler, Peder Holm Johansen, Christina Ibsen, Rikke Louise Andersson. Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen

 

A teenage girl’s bicycle is stolen. A mother’s car won’t start. A recently fired statistical analyst gives up his seat on a commuter train to a pregnant woman. Coincidences? Or part of a discernable pattern?

Markus (Mikkelsen) is inclined to believe the former. You see, his wife was the mother whose car wouldn’t start. She is also the pregnant woman who the statistical analyst gave up his seat for. When a freight train crashed into the commuter train, the analyst survived the crash. So did the teenage girl, Mathilde (Gadeberg), who is Markus’ daughter. Markus’ wife did not. Markus, a Danish soldier serving in Afghanistan, returns home to take care of his daughter, but the relationship between Markus and Mathilde was strained to begin with. Markus isn’t the most talkative guy, after all.

Then Otto (Kaas), the statistical analyst who owes his survival to his act of chivalry, shows up at his door along with his colleague Lennart (Brygmann). Otto is convinced that the crash was no accident; you see, he saw someone get off the train moments before the crash, throwing out a nearly full beverage and uneaten sandwich in the process. That seemed suspicious. However, one of the other victims of the crash was a man about to testify against a powerful biker gang, the Riders of Justice. Otto’s algorithm shows that the odds of the crash happening randomly is almost astronomical. The accident was almost certainly created, and the most likely suspect is the biker leader, and after the two analysts bring aboard computer hacker Emmenthaler (Bro) and his facial recognition software which connects the person who got off the train to the Riders of Justice, Markus has a new mission: vengeance.

A typical action revenge thriller would move in a specific direction from this point, with plenty of set action pieces, some brutality, maybe a bit of comic relief and a cathartic final confrontation. This is far from typical, however; for one thing, the comedy is a bit darker and more in the foreground. For another, there is some depth here as the three nerds try to get Markus to psychoanalyze himself, and in doing so, analyzing the machismo ethos that dominates action movies and to a certain extent, modern life.

Mikkelsen has become one of my favorite actors. He has absolutely perfect body language throughout; often a coiled spring waiting to release all sorts of rage-fueled energy, but dead-eyed right up until the point he explodes. Markus is a man of few words so much of what Mikkelsen has to get across is done through facial expression and body language.

Jensen, who also co-wrote the script with Nikolaj Arcel (the two also co-wrote the disappointing adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower), utilizes his musical score note-perfect, if you’ll forgive the pun. The writing is also really tight, well-plotted and logically laid out – when the analysts talk about probability and statistical analysis, it almost makes sense. Makes one wonder if such an algorithm might not someday be figured out by some similarly bright boy that might predict seemingly random events. Even better (and exceedingly rare for an action flick) the background characters are fairly well-developed, meaning the audience will care what happens to all of them. The final twist is a humdinger, too.

=This is not your average action movie but don’t let that put you off. The action sequences and fight sequences are well-staged. Markus may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but he’s a badass nonetheless. The comedy elements don’t distract from the action, but rather enhance it. Yeah, it’s a little bit different but not so much that it’s annoying and that difference actually makes the movie more enjoyable.

I imagine that there are action fans who will be turned off by the subtitles, but then most are willing to put up with them for great Hong Kong action movies and this one is certainly up there with some of the best of those. This played the recent Florida Film Festival and was my favorite film this year; it’s playing at the Enzian right now for those ready to make the trek into theatres. For those that aren’t, it should be on VOD fairly soon.

REASONS TO SEE: Really, really well-written. Mikkelsen seethes and simmers. Just off-beat enough to be interesting, but not enough to be annoying.
REASONS TO AVOID: Drags a little during the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth time that Mikkelsen and Kaas have appeared together in a film directed by Jensen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Very Bad Things
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Citizen Penn

Two Gods


A tisket, a tasket, I’ll teach you to make a casket.

(2020) Documentary (CNN) Hanif Muhammad, Furquan Maynard, Nazir Dowell, Rashed Reece, Joann Maynard, Keerah Davis, Barbara Campbell, Jayne Hodge, Khadija Samad, Tyler Hodge. Directed by Zeshawn Ali

 

Poverty and racial injustice make a wicked one-two punch. We have been watching in horror as thousands of young black men have fallen prey to it, destroyed by despair, drugs and crime. It is no easy feat to turn away from what appear to be easy – or sometimes, only – solutions.

But Hanif Muhammad did manage to break the cycle for himself. As a young man, he made plenty of wrong choices, and paid the price, ending up incarcerated. However, he found Islam and his new faith enabled him to turn down a righteous path. He got himself a trade, building caskets and conducting funeral rites for his fellow Muslims in the mean streets of Newark, New Jersey.

He hoped to show a couple of other kids from the neighborhood that life didn’t have to be an inevitable spiral into death. He took 12-year-old Furquan Maynard and 18-year-old Nazir Dowell under his wing, both boys without fathers, to give them an example of a better way.

But it isn’t easy. Farquan’s mom has a boyfriend who beats up both her and her son, and she seems unwilling or unable to do anything about it. Nazir has already had brushes with the law and if he can’t make some sort of correction is liable to wind up in one of Hanif’s caskets. It also must be said that Hanif’s grip on sobriety and stability is fragile at best; temptation bedevils him at every turn and he is one bad choice away from losing everything he’s built.

This searing black and white documentary is a stark slice of the streets, with all the positive and negative that it implies. We see the obstacles these young boys are up against, how so many of the men in the neighborhood have wound up dead too young or in jail too long. There aren’t a lot of talking heads here; this is mainly a stream of consciousness type documentary a la Erroll Morris, and while from time to time it feels that the Ali loses the focus of his story, for the most part his movie keeps viewers locked into a story that could be goingon anywhere in America that has neighborhoods that are under siege from that one-two punch.

Hanif is a flawed man, but he is charming in his own way, dancing to hip hop music as he works on his caskets in the shop he works in. His faith is undeniable, and one thing the movie might accomplish is to allow people to see Islam in a different light; all we ever tend to see is fanatics foaming at the mouth for a holy war, terrifyingly ignorant of the truth that there is nothing holy about war.

These aren’t those sorts. They are people, just like thee and me, who only want to live their life with dignity and perhaps, the potential to prosper. But these particular people have more obstacles to overcome than most, and it isn’t always sunshine and light. Some of this movie is grim indeed and I’m not talking about the images of dead bodies being prepared for burial. Ali has crafted a movie that is real and open and honest and informative. This is an outstanding work from a director who is someone to keep a sharp eye on for the future.

REASONS TO SEE: Hasif is an engaging subject. A real slice of the streets.
REASONS TO AVOID: Meanders a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as images of corpses being prepared for burial.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2020 edition of the Hot Docs festival in Toronto.
BEYOND THE THEATER:/span> Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Princess of the Row
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Djinn

Mandibles (Mandibules)


The No-Pest strip isn’t working.

(2020) Fantasy Comedy (Magnolia) Grégoire Ludig, David Marsais, Adéle Exarchopoulos, India Hair, Roméo Elvis, Coralie Russier, Bruno Lochet, Raphaél Quenard, Gaspard Augé, Thomas Blanchard, Philippe Dusseau, Olivier Blanc, Jean-Paul Solal, Dave Chapman, Marius Colucci, Jézebel Marques, Pablo Beugnet, Marie Narbonne. Directed by Quentin Dupieux

 

Anyone familiar with Dumb and Dumber and other idiot buddy comedies of the 90s knows that watching stupid people do stupid things can be entertaining, if only to make us feel better about ourselves. In a more woke era such as this, there may be those who might have an issue with people who are portrayed as “intellectually challenged” for laughs.

Screw those people. Manu (Ludig) is a bearded kinda-sorta-hippie stoner who is best friends with Jean-Gab (Marsais). They both have IQs somewhat below that of coral. When Manu gets a job to deliver a suitcase that will pay him 500 Euros, he doesn’t think too much that it might be illegal. It doesn’t even bother him that he doesn’t have a car. He just knows that he needs one, so he hotwires a disreputable-looking Mercedes and takes off with Jean-Gab.

While en route through the picturesque byways of the South of France, they hear an odd buzzing sound as well as thumps coming from the trunk. What have they gotten themselves into? Well, it turns out that there’s a fly in the trunk – one the size of an Alsatian.

Normal people would slam the trunk shut and run screaming in the other direction. Not Manu; he hits upon a get-rich-quick idea utilizing the fly as a kind of trained flying monkey to steal valuable items. He and Jean-Gab set out to train their new pet. In an odd case of mistaken identity, a beautiful rich gal (Hair) mistakes Manu for an ex-lover and invites him and Jean-Gab to a mansion for the weekend. The two bumbling lowlifes at least know enough to try and keep their fly secret, but the suspicious resident Agnes (Exarchopoulos) – who shouts everything she says and takes offense to everything due to a brain trauma caused by a skiing accident – knows the two are up to something.

Dupieux has carved a name for himself with absurdist comedies like Rubber and Deerskin. He takes oddball concepts that might be found in a horror spoof – killer tires, killer jackets, giant houseflies – and turns them into something quite different than you might imagine. I can’t say that I was a big fan of Rubber and I haven’t seen Deerskin but this is by all accounts his most accessible film yet, and I did find that it actually made me laugh.

Ludig and Marsais are a sketch comedy duo in France, so it’s no surprise that the chemistry between them is strong. You can believe they are BFFs and the witlessness of their characters makes for some pretty decent comedy (such as when they attempt to cook a simple meal on their own – they are literally a couple of guys who could try to boil water and burn it.

The character of Agnes is a little overdone and is a bit of a waste of the talents of Exarchopoulos, so good in Blue is the Warmest Color. Her constant shrieking gets on the nerves quickly and while she has some funny moments, it just feels like weirdness for its own sake, a problem Dupieux sometimes demonstrates.

Still, while this is certainly an acquired taste, it isn’t necessarily one most people can’t acquire. If you’re going to get into Dupieux, this is the movie that’s going to do it for you unless you have a preference for the truly off-beat. This is as mainstream as the French director has ever gotten; that doesn’t mean he won’t necessarily continue to head in that direction, but this may well be a one-off. I hope not.

REASONS TO SEE: Bizarre but entertaining nonetheless.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty much an acquired taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and strange situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fly puppet is operated by Dave Chapman, who performed similar duties in the Star Wars movies.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zombeaver
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts

Everything in the End


There are worse places to spend Earth’s final days than in Iceland.

(2021) Drama (Hello Charles) Hugo de Sousa, Bergdis Julia Johannsdottir, Lilja ɒorisdottir, Joi Johannsson, Elizabeth Austin, Gunnar Ragnarsson, Raul Portero, Reynir Ingvason, Kolbrun Erna Petursdottir, Ylfa Marie Haraldsdottir. Directed by Mylissa Fitzsimmons

 

I don’t know why it’s so hard to make a good movie about the end of the world. Very few have succeeded, possibly because the subject is so grim it’s hard to even contemplate. Facing our own mortality is never easy, but facing the end of any sort of future for the human race – unthinkable, but given how much we’ve abused this planet, it might be something that bears contemplation.

Young Paulo (de Sousa) is stranded in a small town in Iceland. He, like everybody else, is aware that the planet is about to fall victim to a cataclysm that is going to end all life in a few days. He is Portuguese but doesn’t seem particularly heartbroken about not being able to return home. Instead, he tries to form bonds with everyone else he meets, from a sweet English expat (Austin) to a terrified young single mother (Johannsdottir) to an innkeeper who seems resigned to the coming cataclysm (Ragnarsson).

That’s essentially it for the movie, other than stunning shots of Icelandic country side and endless, repetitive shots of the ocean crashing on the rugged shore. It feels like the filmmaker looked at this movie as an opportunity to spend some time in Iceland and forgot to bring a script with her. Everything seems so flat and without emotion. There is little hysteria (one person drowns themself) and most people seem to just go on with life even as the hours count down.

There should be some profound insight about the fragility and wonder of life, but I really didn’t see any. There are a lot of pretentious utterings and little emotional impact to the film, not enough to sustain anyone’s interest. One gets the sense of a party coming to an end and everyone headed home without much in the way of regret. I don’t know if it was because I saw this at home and not with an audience, but I just didn’t connect with this film at all; it just felt as lifeless and dull as what was awaiting the cast at the end of the movie. When the end finally came, it was more of an “oh well” than an “ah shit.” That seems to me to be a lame epitaph. This was one of the most disappointing films I’ve ever seen at the Florida Film Festival.

REASONS TO SEE: Some beautiful cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretentious as all get out. Barely over an hour long, it still felt padded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut narrative feature film for Fitzsimmons.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
The Paper Tigers

My Fiona


Gemma can smile, but it hides the tears.

(2021) Drama (The Art Factory) Jeanette Maus, Corbin Reid, Sara Amini, Elohim Nycalove, Travis Coles, John Ennis, Ryan W. Garcia, Camille Guaty, April Lang, Thomas A. Keith, Jess Riley, Courtney Hawkins, Sterling Sulieman, Elle Vernee, Ursula Taherian, Boston Beck, Naiia Ulrich, Rachel Zink. Directed by Kelly Walker

 

When someone dies, they leave an ineffable hole in the lives of those around them. Sometimes that hole becomes so overwhelmingly large, its gravitational pull threatens to suck us in completely.

When Fiona (Amini) excuses herself from the desk she shares with her start-up company’s co-founder (and sole other employee) Jane (Maus) with a cherrful “I’ll be right back,” there’s no sense that anything profound is about to happen, but it does. Moments later, Jane is screaming in horror as her best friend lies dying on the ground in front of the building, having hurled herself off the roof.

At the funeral, Jane is numb but there is rage simmering under the exterior. She goes back to the office, searching for a clue as to why her friend did what she did. She connects with Fiona’s wife, Gemma (Reid), offering to babysit their son Bailey (Nycalove) so that Gemma can get back to work. And slowly (but surely), Jane begins to become more a part of their lives, while her own sexuality – she had been straight – begins to come into question as she begins to develop feelings for Gemma. After all, the two women have something important in common – Fiona’s ghost, still looming in their lives as surely as if they’d erected a statue in her honor.

Walker’s first feature film is a self-assured affair that rarely makes missteps. Sure, there are some scenes that feel maudlin and the ending’s emotional payoff doesn’t quite feel earned, and maybe there are a few too many indie film tropes (sad indie music over a montage here, tonal shifts sharp enough to scratch diamonds and so forth) but overall, you have to admire Walker’s choices. She opts for real emotions and real reactions over manufactured ones in most cases and sometimes the rawness hits you in the face pretty sharply.

It helps that she’s assembled a crackerjack cast to realize her vision. Maus, an acting coach and veteran actress best-known for Your Sister’s Sister and Charm City Kings, has magma simmering under a cool exterior. She seems okay, but Jane is SO not okay. From time to time she explodes with powerful and often unexpected ferocity (as she does at the funeral), but there is unexpected tenderness, as in the way she deals with Bailey’s tantrums. Her chemistry with Reid is undeniable and speaking of Reid, Gemma’s grief is mainly less explosive than Jane’s but no less deeply felt. Reid carries Gemma with quiet dignity and increasing frustration as she sees this intrusion on her grief as welcome at first, confusing later and upsetting after that.

Even more impressive than the two women is Nycalove. Bailey is naturally devastated by the death of his mother, and his acting out is completely understandable, albeit uncomfortable to watch at times. It can’t have been an easy task for the young actor, nor for the director in coaxing out a show of emotion like this from a juvenile, but both Walker and Nycalove were up to the task. Kudos to both of them.

Cinematographer Laura Jansen does some impressive work, both with a swooping spiral shot that circles around the tops of actors before coming to rest, to keeping tight close-ups on the tightly-wound Jane’s face, to some beautiful images throughout the film. My Fiona is not always an easy film to watch and while the short runtime isn’t going to dissuade anyone from watching – in fact, I might have added a few more scenes to develop Fiona’s personality a little more – it does, in fact, bear watching.

REASONS TO SEE: Nycalove gives a realistic portrait of a child grieving and acting out.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Maus passed away on January 24, 2021 of colon cancer at age 39.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema (through May 2)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pieces of a Woman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Lady Buds

My Wonderful Wanda (Wanda, mein Wunder)


Not your typical family gathering.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Catch


Some towns are darker than others…

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cryptozoo


Giant snakes always make a movie better.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Together Together


A truly odd couple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lily Topples the World


Great art requires patience.

(2021) Documentary (Wheelhouse Creative) Lily Hevesh, Will Smith, Katy Perry, Lucy Belvin, Shane O’Brien, Mark Hevesh, Danny Lichtenfield, Aaron Kyro, Brian Cen, Yong Wa Kim, Lucas Dotson, Catherine Hevesh, Chris Wright, Nathan Heck, Jason Epnick, Tiffany Szeto. Directed by Jeremy Workman

 

In this era of social influencers and instant YouTube stars, one of the biggest is Lily Hevesh. With over three million subscribers and more than a billion views of her more than three hundred videos, she has become a YouTube celebrity. What does she do for this fame? She knocks down dominos.

Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that. She refers to it as “domino art” and even that sells it a bit short. She sets up dominos in complicated lines and structures, utilizing architectural and engineering skills as well as aesthetic ones. Putting these installations together takes a great deal of patience and a light touch. The dominos are not the standard black with dots kinds, but colored pieces that form figures and words and cause viewers to ooh and aah when they are knocked down.

You’ve probably seen some of her videos on social media without knowing it was her – she goes by the name of Hevesh5 online – and many of her peers who also create domino art were quite surprised to discover that she’s a young woman – the niche field is dominated by men. There is no doubt, however, that Lily is one of the very best at what she does, if not THE best.

The documentary picks up with her freshman year at Rensselaer Polytechnic University, where the freshman class is delighted to discover that they have a celebrity among them. Lily’s eventual roommate Lucy Belvin is shocked to discover that the celebrity is her roommate – Lucy was unfamiliar with her channel before she met Lily. We eventually discover that Lily was adopted at age one from a Chinese orphanage by a white couple in New Hampshire; Lily was raised in a largely Caucasian environment, to the point where she describes that she would do double takes when seeing Asian faces because they would be so rarely glimpsed when she was growing up.

She developed her fascination with dominos at a young age and started her YouTube channel at nine, where it steadily increased until it became the juggernaut it is today. Her one to three minute videos show a good eye for camera movement and an understanding of the physics of toppling, which unfortunately doesn’t translate so much to the documentary which often captures the dominos from the wrong angle, or the dominos pass out of frame. Also, Workman often puts music over the toppling dominos; Lily’s videos allow you to hear that lovely clicking of the falling dominos.

After a year at RPI, Lily came to the conclusion that college would not be the path to what she wanted to do, which was to further develop her YouTube channel and her brand, translating to her own line of competition toppling dominos. To do so, she attends a number of toy fairs hoping too hook up with manufacturers, most of whom pass because they see her dominos as more of a niche market. But her persistence and determination are inspiring.

Besides that, she’s just a charming subject, very genuine indeed. She truly appreciates her fans who in turn treat her with hero-worship, which she reacts with compassion. I would have liked to have gotten some insight as to her feelings about the recognition but that’s a question that’s never asked. In fact, a lot of questions don’t get asked here. Instead, we are treated to ten different large-format installations that get toppled from all over the world, including one on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and her many appearances at conventions for YouTube content creators. I didn’t think it would be possible to end up being bored with domino toppling, but that happens here. Even Lily would be the first to tell you why she keeps her videos at three minutes apiece.

I don’t think that Workman, who had previously done the excellent documentary The World Before Your Feet, intended to make this a documentary about domino toppling, but the insistence of putting so many installations into the 90 minute run time turns it into just that. The most interesting parts of the movie are those that center on Lily’s journey, her reams and ambitions and what makes her get out of bed every morning. I wish we could have seen more of that.

The movie is currently playing at the Florida Film Festival where Florida residents can view it virtually by going to the link below. Currently without a distributor, the movie will doubtlessly be making the estival rounds throughout the spring and summer but I think it likely it will find a home with some distributor and end up with either a limited theatrical run or maybe even a spot on PBS or Discovery Plus. In the meantime, you can view Lily’s YouTube channel here and subscribe to it if you wish.

REASONS TO SEE: As fascinating as the domino art is, Lily’s story about finding her identity and creating a brand for herself are much more so.
REASONS TO AVOID: Spent too much time on toppling dominos and not enough on Lily’s story.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lily was responsible for the domino toppling scene in the Will Smith movie Collateral Beauty.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Levitated Mass
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Moustache