Off the Rails


A European vacation that has absolutely nothing to do with National Lampoon.

(2021) Dramedy (Screen Media) Jenny Seagrove, Sally Phillips, Kelly Preston, Andrea Corr, Judi Dench, Elizabeth Dormer-Phillips, Ben Miller, Ledwin Vega Paez, Alessio Pecorari, Catalina Florit Llinas, Pedro Victory Ramos, Franco Nero, Martin Shaw, Peter Bowles, Ismael Calvillo Millán, Eva González Corpas, Alex Tejedor Andersen, Jordan Waller, Uve Barker. Directed by Jules Williamson

 

]At a certain age, we begin to reflect more on what came before than where we are headed. We examine the roads not taken, the paths we did take and the reasons we are where we are. These examinations tend to be melancholy and bittersweet, because humans almost universally tend to focus on regrets ahead of the things we did right.

]Three 50-something women – control freak Kate (Seagrove), uber-mom Liz (Phillips) and wise-cracking actress Cassie (Preston) have been hit by bad news; their close friend Anna has passed away. At her funeral, Anna’s mom (Dench) plops three Interrail passes in their hands and commands them to take Anna’s teenage daughter Maddie (Dormer-Phillips) along for the ride, retracing their steps on a holiday taken thirty years earlier, culminating in an appearance at the Cathedral in Parma, Italy, where twice a year the light hits the stained glass just so, creating an effect known as “God’s Disco Ball,” a spectacle they missed the first time around and which is due to appear five days hence.

]This would be a good occasion to reflect on their friendship, the things that have separated (including the fact that one of them slept with the husband of another) them, and the things that draw them closer together. Of course, no holiday ever goes exactly the way its planned, but given the penchant these women have for getting into mischief, it’s a given that getting to Parma on the day indicated is no certain thing.

We’ve seen these sorts of movies before, where the death of a good friend causes those that survived to reconnect and become stronger and closer than ever, but this isn’t quite like that. It’s equal parts road movie and reflection, all held together by a soundtrack of Blondie music – essentially every song Blondie ever recorded appears at one point or another on the soundtrack, some more than once. It actually becomes distracting and gimmicky, and this coming from someone who might just love Blondie’s music as much as these characters supposedly do. File it under “too much of a good thing.”

]The thing about a movie like this is that in order to see any character growth, you have to get to know who the characters are and we never really do, beyond two-dimensional personality quirks. I don’t have an objection to watching middle-aged women act like hormonal teens (heaven knows we’ve seen enough movies with middle-aged men acting like hormonal teens) but this doesn’t serve to empower the women in the film, but rather just makes them less admirable. I would rather have seen these middle-aged women act like middle-aged women. It’s rare enough we see films with women of that particular age group as the focus; why can’t we just let them be themselves? *end rant*

]Dench, in a cameo appearance, just about steals the movie as she is capable of doing every time she steps in front of the camera. Preston, in her final screen appearance, acquits herself the most notably. I’m not sure she realized how sick she was at the time, but it seems ironic that her final role was about saying goodbye; one wonders if she knew that was exactly what she was doing herself.

I really hoped this movie would be better than it is, but too many cliches spoil the plot, and the lack of character development and the surfeit of Blondie music doom it. Something tells me when the filmmakers reach the point that they are looking back at their regrets, this movie will be among them.

REASONS TO SEE: Focuses on a demographic often ignored by the movies.
REASONS TO AVOID: A cliché plot with no memorable characters to rescue it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the last movie Preston made before her untimely death from breast cancer in 2020. The movie is dedicated to her memory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews; Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crossroads
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Triple Frontier

Dangerous (2021)


Generic tough guy wanted.

(2021) Action (Lionsgate) Scott Eastwood, Kevin Durand, Brenda Bazinet, Mel Gibson, Famke Janssen, Tyrese Gibson, Brock Morgan, Ryan Robbins, Chad Rook, Jayce Barreiro, Emmanuel Addo, Leanne Lapp, Al Miro, Destiny Millns, Atlee Smallman, Brendan Fletcher, Matthew Che’z, Jack Mitchel, Matt Brown (voice), Grant Vlahovic, Alvin Tam. Directed by David Hackl

In general, the apple rarely falls far from the tree. For people with famous parents, that’s less of a blessing and more of a curse as they seek to distance themselves from their progenitors and carve a niche of their own. Once in a while, though, exceptions come along.

Dylan Forrester (Eastwood) – and you’ll call him “D” if you know what’s good for you – has been paroled from jail. A remorseless, emotionless killer, he’s an ex-Navy SEAL who has done some very bad things. Word comes that his brother Sean (Che’z) has unexpectedly passed away. He decides to head to Guardian Island off the coast of Washington State, where Sean was opening a bed and breakfast on the site of an old Naval base, to attend the funeral. But before he can do that, he finds a stranger in his apartment which generally is a pretty unhealthy situation, particularly for the stranger. FBI agent Shaughnessy (Janssen) – who caught D the first time around – arrives to find the bloodied stranger tied up in a bathroom but to her puzzlement, still alive. D was not known for leaving people alive.

She heads off to the coast to get herself to Guardian, but he’s got a serious head start on her. But D arrives to find he’s not welcome, particularly by his mother (Bazinet) who refers to her surviving son as “that thing” and makes it clear she’d much rather that her good son, a former history professor, and D had switched places.

But the happy reunion (oh, how I snark!) is interrupted by the arrival of a band of mercenaries under the command of Cole (Durand), for whom D used to ply his trade (you can tell Cole is the chief bad guy by his really awful haircut). And while his crew poses and preens in generic tough guy poses, Cole is after one thing – a treasure that Sean had discovered on the island – the legendary Yamashita gold trove.

In the meantime, D is on the phone to his hard-drinking therapist Dr. Alderwood (M. Gibson) who assures him that he needs to continue taking his meds (enough lithium to keep the entire city of Seattle singing the Mister Rogers songbook for a week) and doing his exercises so tht he is no longer a cold-blooded killer. That is, until the good doctor figures out that there are bad guys involved, at which time he lets loose the dogs.

The action sequences are pretty generic; executed competently, but not particularly creative and nothing, in the end, to write home about. Eastwood come closest here than any other movie I’ve ever seen him in to channeling his father, down to the Dirty Harry growl and snarl, even including the quips – after stabbing a baddie in the leg, he grunts “Femoral artery. You’ll want to keep pressure on that.” And when said baddie expires a moment later in a pool of blood, he adds “Too late.”

The casting of Mel Gibson is marvelous, considering he basically invented the good guy with serious mental problems in the Lethal Weapon franchise. There’s another Gibson in the cast – Tyrese, of the Fast and Furious franchise, but he is only on screen briefly and is gone a little too soon for my liking.

This is just a cut above mere entertaining and the interplay between Eastwood and Mel Gibson makes it that way. There are an awful lot of B-level action movies out there, and most are pretty forgettable, but this one is just a bit better. Don’t be afraid to give this one a shot.

REASONS TO SEE: Eastwood channels his dad more than in any other movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty standard by-the-numbers low-budget action film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity in fairly large measures.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Yamashita gold is an actual urban legend, about gold supposedly stolen by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War and hidden in caves, tunnels and/or underground complexes in cities around the world.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews; Metacritic: 30/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assault on Precinct 13
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
One Shot

Son of Monarchs


We all yearn thttps://sonofmonarchs.com/o emerge from childhood as a beautiful butterfly.

(2021) Drama (Warner Media/150) Tenoch Huerta, Alexia Rasmussen, Lázaro Gabino Rodriguez, Noé Hernández, Paulina Gaitán, William Mapother, Juan Ugarte, Electra Avellán, Angelina Peláez, Emily Keefe, Jay Potter, Jarod Lindsey, Wendy Heagy, Daniel Fuentes Lobo, Gadi Rubin, Rich Miglio, Gisell Rodriguez, Maia Vogel, Fernanda Rivera, Maria Luiza Ceglia. Directed by Alexis Gambis

 

Butterflies are creatures of intense beauty and fragility. Their colorful wings delight us, and their migratory patterns can astound us. Butterflies have always been used as a metaphor, a desire that we harbor to emerge from our chrysalis – whatever it may be – as a beautiful, bejeweled butterfly and (hopefully) not as a dull, drab moth.

The parents of Mendel (Huerta) must have had great expectations for their son, naming him for a Czech scientist, but they didn’t live to see it happen, dying senselessly during a flood. This left Mendel and his older brother Simon (Hernández) orphaned, to be raised by their grandmother (Peláez) and a assortment of uncles. Mendel eventually left the tiny village nestled in the mountains of Michoacán where millions of monarch butterflies spend the winter to study the butterflies as a biologist for a lab in New York. Simon stayed to work in the mines and raise a family; Simon hasn’t forgiven Mendel for leaving Mexico and leaving Simon alone to cope with the grief.

But Mendel returns for the funeral of his grandmother to find that while most of his family is overjoyed to see him, particularly his niece Lucia (Avellan) who wants very much for her uncle to return for her wedding later in the year. Her father, Simon, is less happy to see Mendel and can barely keep a civil tongue in his head when his brother is around.

Back in New York, Mendel is introduced to Sarah (Rasmussen) who works for a non-profit and is a recreational trapeze artist (is that really a thing?) and the two begin to spend a lot of time together. Mendel can’t get over the ease with which Sarah flies through the air; this must be what it’s like to be a human butterfly. He also begins to experience vivid flashbacks of the horrible day in which his parents perished.

Although Mendel is reluctant to return to Michoacán, he eventually decides to do so, knowing that he and his brother must confront the things separating them that keep them from soaring through the winds like the brightly colored insects they both love.

Gambis, who is not only a filmmaker but also holds a PhD in biology, has a lyrical bent that is shown at various times in the film, as when a young Mendel is covered in a sea of orange and brown monarchs, or showing the beauty of the landscape surrounded by desolation wrought by the greed of men.

His script has some interesting points, but has a tendency to get bogged down on minutiae, so there isn’t the kind of flow you would like to see in a film like this. He is constantly throwing in dream sequences and flashbacks which also disrupt a film that needed a gentle rhythm. Finally, the whole use of butterflies as a metaphor is overused to the point of dreariness.

And these are large issues indeed, but not insurmountable ones and in fact the movie more than makes up for them with compelling performances by Huerta and Hernández, whose chemistry as two brothers, once close but now wary of each other and unsure not only how they got to this point but whether they can get back to what they once were at all. The two have a confrontation near the end of the film that is absolutely riveting and highly emotional; it is the highlight of the film and the centerpiece for it in many ways.

Cinematographer Alejandro Mejia fills the screen with bright butterfly-like colors, while Cristóbal Maryán contributes a score that is delicate and beautiful. The simplicity of life in the village is alluring when contrasted with the hectic pace of life in the Big Apple, although some may find that more to their liking. I found myself succumbing to the charms of the film despite its flaws, and perhaps even because of them. This is a very impressive first film for Gambis.

The movie is in the midst of a brief limited run in New York, Los Angeles and a handful of other cities. It will arrive on HBO Max on November 2nd.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot, beautifully scored. The heat between Huerta and Hernández is realistic and powerful. The sequences of village life are lovely. A wonderful examination of the difficulties for even legal immigrants in America.
REASONS TO AVOID: Leans a little bit too much on flashbacks, butterfly metaphors and dream sequences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is given annually to the festival entry that focuses on science as a central theme or scientists as central characters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (starting November 2nd)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Identifying Features
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters

Godavari


Nishikant is so angry even the masks are amused.

(2021) Drama (Blue Drop) Jitendra Joshi, Vikendra Gokhale, Neena Kulkarni, Gauri Nalawade, Priyadarshan Jadhav, Sanjay Mone, Saniya Bhandare, Mohit Takalkar. Directed by Nikhil Mahajan

 

Rivers can feel timeless; moving majestically in their way, they can be a comfort. But rivers can be soiled, made filthy. Rivers can be dammed and forced into different pathways. Thus can the will of man overpower the inexorable flow.

Nishikant (Joshi) would love to exert his will over the Godavari River that flows alongside his home in Nashik, a city about 98 miles northeast of Mumbai. He is a landlord, the son of a well-off family with a pleasant home overlooking the river, but he chooses not to live there even though he is welcome. He spends his time collecting rent from the many tenants in his buildings. He responds to them with scorn and annoyance, which is pretty much how he responds to everybody, including his mother (Kulkarni), his bedridden and dementia-ridden grandfather (Mone) and even his devoted wife (Nalawade). He seems to only show tenderness towards his young daughter (Bhandare) who alone shines joy in his life. He somewhat tolerates his friend Kasaav (Jadhav). His father (Gokhale) he doesn’t even tolerate and the two don’t speak.

Nishikant has a pair of life-changing events staring him in the face. One, I will not reveal here. The second is an offer from a developer to buy some of his riverside property, which would involve the eviction of a number of tenants but would fetch the family a tidy profit. His mother is against the idea but Nishikant is resolute.

This is unusual for Indian films in that it is more of a character study. Most Indian films that make it to the States (and Canada) are either Bollywood musicals with bright colors and much spontaneous street dancing, or rip-roaring action movies with tough guy heroes and many explosions. Nishikant seems to be something of a sourpuss from the beginning and one wonders what on earth he has to be so enraged about, but it is rage he feels. Rage at the river that is so polluted that its waters are unsafe to drink; rage at his station in life that hems him in to a job he can’t stand; rage at his family which seems to be caught in an inertia-free existence. At times it feels like that rage is going to break free and Nishikant is going to just snap.

Joshi does a pretty credible job in humanizing a character that is hard to like. He chain-smokes, often in the privacy of the small apartment he has exiled himself to. He likes to spend time by the river, despite all of his vitriol directed against it and those tend to be some of the more quietly effective scenes in the film. He has good chemistry with Jadhav whose Kasaav, while remaining a peripheral character, nonetheless seems to understand Nishikant the most clearly.

The soundtrack is also somewhat unusual for an Indian film in that composer Av Prafullachandra has written a score that seems to blend Western hard rock (or more accurately, classic rock) with traditional Indian melodies and instrumentation. The mash-up isn’t as jarring as you might think.

My one issue with the film is that Mahajan at times seems to be more intent on bringing in visual metaphors rather than sticking to the story. The pacing is slow (again, unusual for Indian films which tend to move along at breakneck speed) but Mahajan does a terrific job of developing his characters, particularly that of Nishikant.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch and it does require some patience, but for those who are willing to invest the time and attention, the movie is a rewarding one. Unusual can also be good.

The movie is making it’s world premiere tomorrow at the Vancouver International Film Festival, although it is currently available online at the Festival website in Canada only through October 11. It is set to debut in India in December and may possibly hit North American theaters around the same time.

REASONS TO SEE: Like India herself, there is a mixture of beauty and filth.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times seems to go for visual symbolism at the expense of story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Making its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival.BEYOND THE THEATERS: VIFF online site (Canada only – through October 11)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ikiro
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Be Still

The Macaluso Sisters (Le sorelle Macaluso)


Facing the future together.

(2020) Drama (Charades) Viola Pusatieri, Eleonora De Luca, Simona Malato, Susanna Piraino, Serena Barone, Maria Rosaria Alati, Anita Pomario, Donatella Finocchiario, Ileana Rigano, Alissa Maria Orlando, Laura Giordani, Rosalba Bologna, Bruno Di Chiara. Directed by Emma Dante

 

One of life’s few universal truths is that we all experience both joy and sadness; triumph and loss. Those things mold us, shape us into the people we become; some through the memory of golden moments, other through the bittersweet acrimony of what might have been.

The five Macaluso sisters live in a shabby but spacious top-floor apartment in Palermo, Sicily. They keep doves in what had once been a playroom long ago, doves that they rent out for parties, weddings, magic shows and so on. The doves return back to their nest once they’ve finished with whatever spectacle they’ve been rented to. The sisters have been orphaned but don’t seem terribly traumatized by it.

Maria (De Luca) is the oldest and most responsible; she handles the business and for the most part keeps the lights on and the pantry from being bare. Next is vain Pinuccia (Pomario) who is all about make-up and flirting with boys. Then there’s bookish Lia (Piraino) who squabbles endlessly wth Pinuccia. Plump Katia (Orlando) is next and the youngest is Antonella (Pusatieri), who although five is ready to be a big girl. She begs Pinuccia to dab some lipstick on her mouth, which Pinuccia does in an affecting scene – the first of many.

Once the business is done for the day, Maria gets the girls ready for a day at the beach. Not being very well-off, they mostly walk there, finding a field full of plaster dinosaurs to play in, and once they get to the beach which is fronted by an exclusive club to which they are not invited, they lead the bathers in an impromptu dance. But the day’s joy turns to tragedy.

The rest of the film is all about how the sisters deal with that tragedy, and is told in three acts; the first is the day at the beach, the second takes place about twenty years later as the girls are now adult women, at which an adult Maria (Malato) has some startling news, and an adult Katia (Giordani) tries to convince the stubborn adult Lia (Barone) – in whose name the apartment is – to sell the crumbling apartment so that each of the sisters might get something to help them out financially.

The third and final act is the shortest and takes place when the sisters are elderly women. Throughout the apartment remains, growing shabbier as time passes. The doves also remain, much to Katia’s annoyance. Dante (no relation to the American director Joe Dante) gives the movie a fairly sad, bittersweet tone which only increases as the film goes on. The younger Macaluso sisters get the most screen time as their section is essentially the film’s longest, as they show up in flashbacks throughout the film. The nature of the tragedy which essentially shapes the lives of the sisters is hinted at throughout the movie, but shown in full near the end in perhaps the only misstep of the film; I don’t think it was necessary to show it, to be honest. There is also a scene in the idle of Lia, who is apparently studying to be a veterinarian, dissecting a cow which might set off alarm bells for the squeamish.

Dante uses Erik Satie’s elegiac Gymnopédie No. 1 throughout, mostly sourced as the music for a clock that plays the well-known tune, and then in the piano version most of us are familiar with. The piece is often used in cinema as a metaphor for growing old, and its use here is fitting.

Although most of the action takes place in the apartment, the movie never feels claustrophobic. The first third is incredibly joyful which makes the second and third acts all the more poignant; Dante does a wonderful job using tone throughout the movie. And while the metaphor of the doves may be a bit overdone here, it isn’t so overdone as to become monotonous and quite frankly the relationships between the sisters at various times in their lives was absolutely compelling for me.

The movie, which premiered at Venice last year, is probably not on the radar of a lot of cinephiles since it isn’t getting distribution by one of the more noted arthouse labels, and that’s a shame because this is an absolute gift of a movie. It’s playing in New York and Los Angeles only at the moment, but there are plans to release it in select theaters around the United States throughout August. Hopefully, it will be playing in a theater near you but certainly keep an eye out for it on VOD when it becomes available there if not.

REASONS TO SEE: Intensely, powerfully emotional. A realistic examination of sisterhood.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally melodramatic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, nudity, sexual content, adult themes and an animal dissection.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a stage play, also written by Dante.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Little Sister
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Suicide Squad

City of Ali


The Greatest takes his last ride through his beloved Louisville.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton, Evander Holyfield, Rasheda Ali, Bill Plaschko, Dick Cavett, Lawrence Montgomery, Asaad Ali, Greg Fischer, Hannah Drake, Allen Houston, Rev. Charles Elliott, Greg Fisher, Atallah Shabazz, Chief Sydney Hall, Lonnie Ali, John Ramsey, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alice Houston, Rahman Ali, Natasha Mundkur, Ahmed Edmund, Hannah Storm. Directed by Graham Shelby

 

Muhammad Ali was one of the most popular figures in the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. He was also polarizing in a lot of ways – his cocky demeanor was described as “uppity” by a certain segment of the American South, who took umbrage when he chose to refuse to enlist in the Army during the Vietnam war, explaining that the Viet Cong weren’t oppressing his people, weren’t lynching them. He had no beef with them. He promptly had his title stripped from him and spent three of what should have been the most productive of his career on the sidelines.

He changed his name from Cassius Clay Jr., which he called “a slave name,” and embraced the teachings of Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslims. He was often infuriating with his boasts, mainly because he could back them up in the ring. He was outspoken, but he was also a humanitarian, giving of himself to all sorts of causes, and giving of himself in ways that most celebrities of his stature would never even consider. A Louisville sportswriter recalls attending a boxing match with the Champ at the 2000 Olympics, and after congratulating the winner of he match, going into he locker room to find the boxer who lost the match and spending time giving him a pep talk, sparring with him and in general, giving the young man the thrill of his life.

Mayor Greg Fischer diplomatically puts it that Ali had a complicated relationship with Louisville. There was no doubt that he loved the neighborhood he grew up in and the people he grew up with, but at the same time, like most cities in the American South, it was heavily segregated and there were places he could go, things he couldn’t do and he certainly would have experienced racism firsthand.

When he died at age 74, he had already ben planning his funeral. He and his family knew that there would be an outpouring of grief, and there was. The Ciiy of Louisville assisted with the logistics, assigning traffic control. The Muhammad Ali Center, which housed the museum of Ali’s career and artifacts, threw open its doors so that anyone could visit. One woman covered the roadway leading to the cemetary with rose petals so the funeral procession drove over them, creating a perfume as it went. They also somewhat spontaneously drove the casket from the ceremony through a 20 mile route that took it through the neighborhood Ali grew up in.

There is a bit of kumbaya vibe here, as most involved with the funeral proclaim that the city came together as one for the funeral. It is worth mentioning that only four years later, the same Louisville police force killed Breonna Taylor during a no-knock raid, an act that was largely swept under the rug initially. One of the men who took still photographs at the funeral that are used here would die during the protests that followed.

There are a lot of good stories about Ali, some background about how the funeral came together and a quick summary of Ali’s life, particularly his years in Louisville. There are a lot of talking heads, but considering some of the stories that are coming out of them, it is forgivable. The co-operation of Ali’s surviving family is evident, although his most famous child – Laila – is conspicuous by her absence. That they would want the funeral to be meaningful and triumphant is understandable, but sadly, the same problems that have beset the nation in his formative years in Louisville are largely with us – in a different form, yes, but not completely gone. Not even the Greatest that ever was could solve those problems on his own.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the anecdotes are truly wonderful.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries a bit too hard to make the event more unifying than it turned out to be.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some boxing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ali passed away on June 3, 2016. Normally, Muslim law requires bodies to be buried within 24 hours of death. An exception was made in Ali’s case due to his passing in Phoenix, and his wish to be buried in his hometown of Louisville and of course his enormous worldwide popularity gave dignitaries time to make arrangements to attend the funeral.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Women

State Funeral


Pomp and circumstance for a despot.

(2019) Documentary (MUBI) Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrenti Beria, Vyacheslav Molotov, Gregori Malenkov, Enlai Zhou, Valko Chervenov, Yumyaagiin Tsedenbal, Dolores Ibárruri. Directed by Sergey Loznitsa

 

In the pantheon of 20th century monsters it is clear that Josef Stalin stands right up there with Adolph Hitler and Chairman Mao. These three men were responsible for the death of hundreds of millions of people through genocide, war, starvation, and political assassination. These men had an agenda which was mainly about holding on to absolute power. All three were authoritarians. They remain, to this day, cautionary tales.

When Stalin died in 1953, it created something of a crisis in the old Soviet Union. He was the glue that held together the USSR after Lenin died; the glue was brutality and fear, but it was glue nonetheless. The pressing thought when he died was What will become of us? which was a legitimate question although one that couldn’t be expressed openly. Papa Joe, which he was somewhat ironically nicknamed, had projected an image of paternal caring and love, even though people were dreadfully afraid of the NKVD (which became he KGB) and of Lavrenti Beria’s network of informants who ferreted out any dissent and brought dissenters to horrifying ends.

So for the occasion of Stalin’s funeral, the remaining central committee members wanted a show of epic pageantry that would on the one hand allow the country to mourn and to also reassure the people that the business of government would continue as it had been. A lavish spectacle was planned, with the dictator lying in state in the Hall of the Unions in Moscow before a massive funeral in Red Square. All of it would be captured for posterity by hundreds of cameras documenting not only the main festivities in Moscow but also local and regional memorials from all over the vast Soviet Union.

Belarus-born documentary filmmaker Sergey Loznitsa (who is currently based in Germany) went through more than forty hours of footage and narrowed it down to two and a half hours. The footage has been digitally enhanced, looking as clean and crisp as the day it was shot. As a historical document, it is priceless; as a cultural document, it is fascinating, giving a rare glimpse inside the USSR which we largely didn’t see much of in the West other than propaganda. Well, of course, this is largely meant to be propaganda (I’ll get into that in a moment) but it has been skillfully edited to present much more of an objective picture.

Loznitsa eschews conventional narration, utilizing instead what was broadcast over the ubiquitous loudspeakers throughout the Soviet Union – glorifications of the Communist movement, glorifications of the Soviet Union and of course glorifications the dear departed, reinforcing his public image as a paternal figure. The soundtrack is enhanced with sounds of shuffling feet, wails of lamentation, and other ambient sounds. It is the images of the people filing past the coffin that will stay with me though; the working class, ordinary folk whose faces look numb. Is it grief? Or is it relief that perhaps things will get better with Stalin gone? If it was the latter, there’s no way to ever know – even were interviews to be conducted back then, nobody would admit to it for fear of ending up in one of Beria’s prisons, or with a gun pressed to their temples.

We have the benefit of viewing this film, like any other historical document, with hindsight. Even though most American audiences will not recognize most of the people in the film, they were the most powerful Soviets of their day, as well as high-ranking communists from all over the globe. I suspect a good many of them won’t be recognized even in Russia, nor would the irony of a massive funeral celebrating a man who murdered tens of millions of his countrymen be recognized in a land presided over by Putin, who has borrowed some of Stalin’s tactics.

It might be hard on some to sit through endless shots of people filing past a coffin – and that takes up an awful lot of the film, but trust me, this isn’t a boring or repetitive film in the least. As a country that is battling some tendencies towards authoritarianism ourselves, this is a cautionary tale to say the least. A cult of personality can thrive here. We’ve seen it done. If we want to see the aftermath of one, we can do worse than to look at this film…and remember it.

REASONS TO SEE: The Soviet propaganda machine in full flower. The images are surprisingly crisp and clean and often breathtaking in scope. The numb expressions of the common people is very telling. Makes terrific use of sound.
REASONS TO AVOID: A very long time to watch a funeral.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of Stalin’s corpse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stalin died on March 5, 1953 from complications arising from a massive stroke suffered two days earlier.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Death of Stalin
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Welcome Matt

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
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Monday

Guest of Honour


This party is about to be toast.

(2019) Drama (Kino-LorberDavid Thewlis, Luke Wilson, Laysla De Oliveira, Rossif Sutherland, Tennille Read, Tamara Podemski, Gage Munroe, Alexandre Bourgeois, Gage Munro, Arsinée Khanijian, John Bourgeois, Sugith Varughese, Hrant Alianak, Seamus Patterson, Isabelle Franca, Joyce Rivera, Juan Carlos Velis, Alexander Marsh, Sima Fisher, Sochi Fried. Directed by Atom Egoyan

 

Atom Egoyan is well-known among cinematic connoisseurs and hoity-toity critics alike. During the 90s, he turned out several wonderful movies that bespoke a talent for layering dense plots and exploring the inner pain of characters in imaginative ways. Over the past few years, however, his films have lost their sharp edge, and while he’s maintained his reputation, critics continue to view his new films with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.

Like many of his films, his recent movie was spotlighted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, something he has done so often he might well be known as “Mister TIFF.” Here, we meet Veronica (De Oliveira), a comely high school music teacher, discussing the funeral of her father with a patient priest (Wilson). As she tells Father Greg about her dad, it turns into a therapeutic ride into the past for her.

Her Dad, Jim (Thewlis), wasn’t the easiest man to get to know. “He made a lot of odd choices,” she confesses and so he did. A man who dreamed of owning a restaurant but ending up as a health inspector instead, he combs the restaurants around Hamilton, Ontario, looking for code violations, measuring the temperature of meat, combing the out-of-the-way spaces looking for vermin droppings and spoiled food. He seems to be a nice enough guy, though – he even took care of Veronica’s pet bunny Benjamin while she was in jail (cue vinyl record scratching sound).

It turns out Veronica had been in jail for abusing her authority as a teacher with a minor, despite the fact that she didn’t do the crime – and everyone knew she didn’t do the crime. She insisted, however, that she be jailed for it and serve the most stringent sentence available. Why would she do something like that? What secrets in her pasts and in her father’s compelled her to such a stand?

It all gets explained and as with many Egoyan projects, it takes a number of unexpected twists and turns, involving a high school boyfriend of Veronica’s, a music teacher, a skeezy bus driver, fried rabbit ears (apparently that’s a thing), a dead mom and dreams that didn’t work out the way they planned. This plays a little bit like a whodunit, only we all know who did it. Like all of Egoyan’s work, this film doesn’t lack for things going on.

Sometimes it feels that way, however, with endless montages of Jim investigating restaurants and Veronica conducting band performances. It feels like in trying to tell a complex story, Egoyan got caught up in the minutiae and eventually became lost within it. There are flashbacks a-plenty, and even flashbacks within flashbacks for good measure. At times, it becomes difficult to manage just what time period is being examined, as the story takes place (more or less) over a 15-year period.

The performances are good, with De Oliveira playing the guilt-ravaged Veronica with a kind of resigned world-weariness, Thewlis as rock solid as ever and Alexander Bourgeois channeling a young Leonardo di Caprio as the object of Veronica’s guilt, or, at least, apparently so. Not everything is as it seems, which is usually a good thing.

But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. In the hour and forty-odd minute run time there’s an awful lot stuffed into the mix, and after awhile the average viewer might feel like their heads are going to explode, but still Egoyan is a good enough director not to let it get completely out of hand. He benefits from some nifty cinematography from Paul Sarossy, although the Philip Glass-influenced score by Mychael Danna is often intrusive.

The movie is currently available in Virtual Cinematic form, benefiting independent theaters across the country. For Florida readers, the theaters that are currently running the virtual screenings include the Enzian Theater in Orlando, the Tampa Theater in Tampa, the MDC Tower Theater in Miami, the Corazon Café in St. Augustine, the Coral Gables Art Cinema in Coral Gables, and the Pensacola Cinema Art in Pensacola. Click on the theater name to go to the Kino Marquee link for that theater; for those readers outside of Florida, click on the Virtual Cinematic Experience link for a list of theaters elsewhere.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully autumnal.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets bogged down in minutiae.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some sexual situations and a small amount of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Khanijian  who plays the Armenian restaurant co-owner, is married to Egoyan in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sweet Hereafter
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Fighting With the Family

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek


How quickly the paranoid turn on one another.

(2018) Drama (RLJE) James Badge Dale, Chris Mulkey, Brian Geraghty, Robert Aramayo, Patrick Fischler, Happy Anderson, Gene Jones, Cotter Smith, Bret Eric Porter, Nichole Abshire, James Healey Jr., Max Konz, David Adams, Marcellus Anthony, Danny Augustus, Brian Bethel, Stephen Bouldin, Michael W. Bunch, Arlene Cavazos, Karia Barbelotto. Directed by Henry Dunham

 

In a time when heavily armed angry white men go to a state capital with semi-automatic weapons clearly at the ready to protest being quarantined during a pandemic, this movie, which takes a look at what goes on in a civilian militia when driven to a crisis point, seems all the more relevant.

Ex-cop Gannon (Dale) is out hunting when he hears the distant pop of automatic weapons fire as well as several explosions. He quickly heads home with his buck, knowing that he’s about to get a call, and so he does; from Ford (Mulkey), the leader of the militia group that Gannon has joined. They are to meet up at the warehouse that serves as an armory for the group.

The group assembles, including mute Keating (Aramayo), young Noah (Geraghty), laconic Hubbel (Jones), nervous Beckman (Fischler), and ex-Aryan Morris (Anderson) to compare notes. Gradually, they learn that there was an attack on a funeral – a cop’s funeral – which took down many of the dead officer’s brethren. It was believed to be the work of a militia. Ford knows that there will be some angry law enforcement looking warily at every militia group locally, and so he decides to button down the armory and make sure everyone has an alibi. Then, they discover one of their automatic weapons is missing, along with some grenades and a set of Kevlar body armor. The attacker was one of their own.

Ford realizes that if they are to survive the night, they must discover who went rogue and deliver that person up to the police. In the meantime, other militia groups have taken the attack as a sign and are mounting attacks against police officers all over the country. Gannon is assigned to do the interrogating of the likeliest subject, as he probes each man’s reasons for being there and discovers that some of the men harbor dangerous secrets.

Dunham does a commendable job of setting up an atmosphere of tension and paranoia, and he does so with a group of character actors whose faces may well be familiar to reasonably knowledgeable moviegoers. Dunham keeps that level of tension rising throughout until it boils over in a climactic scene that is staged with precision and artistic grace. While the dialogue can be a bit on the chest-thumping side, the real issue with the movie is that it is chronically underlit. I understand that Dunham wants to convey that groups like these operate in the shadows, but it doesn’t have to be literal for us to get the point. Still, this is a mighty fine film that flew under the radar. It’s worth checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: Keeps the tension building. The final confrontation is masterfully staged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Chronically underlit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Uruguay’s official submission for the 2019 Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film award.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews, Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Betrayed
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Abe