The Midnight Sky


George Clooney confirms that Santa Clause has left the pole.

(2020) Science Fiction (Netflix) George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Caoilinn Springall, Kyle Chandler, Demiån Bichir, Tiffany Boone, Sophie Rundle, Ethan Peck, Tim Russ, Miriam Shor, Lilja Nott Karlsdottir, Ątli Oskar Fjalarsson, Eden Hayhurst, Jamie Schneider, Eysis Clarken, Sam Bond, Tia Bannon, Olivia Noyce, Kishore Bhatt, Natasha Jenssen, Sarah Guerin. Directed by George Clooney

 

Hope is a double-edged sword. Sometimes it’s all that keeps us going in the face of terrible odds; but as it can motivate us to greater things, it can destroy us when it is crushed inside us.

Augustine (Clooney) is an astronomer who is the last remaining researcher at a polar observatory. The rest of the crew were evacuated back home, where an unspecified disaster overtook them and the rest of the human race. Augustine himself didn’t leave because he essentially has nowhere else to go, and besides, he has a serious illness which he is self-treating with periodic transfusions which he administers himself.

He makes a couple of discoveries; one, a NASA spaceship – the Aether – is returning from an exploratory mission to Jupiter’s moons to see if a newly discovered Jovian moon is potentially habitable by humans. Thee good news is that the answer is YES) but the bad news is that they have no idea what has happened back home and should they attempt to land, the crew will all fall victim to the same thing that decimated the population of their home.

The other thing Augustine discovers is that a little girl, whom he names Iris (Springall) – after a drawing of the selfsame flower that she gives him – has apparently been left behind after the evacuation. She seems to be mute, but perhaps that’s just as well. Augustine knows that she is now his responsibility, as he can’t very well send her into the death zone and there’s nobody else there. However, he has to warn off the Aether and in order to do that, he has to get a bigger antenna (oh, save your jokes people – this is a family site) and in order to do that, he has to hike to a different site through a winter storm. Meanwhile, the Aether has problems of its own; the Commander’s (Oyelowo) girlfriend (Jones) is pregnant, and they are about to head through an uncharted meteor debris field with their communications array and radar equipment in need of repair which will require a dangerous spacewalk.

Clooney, who up to now has steered clear of effects-heavy films, actually proves to have a pretty good eye for them. The asteroid sequence is pretty thrilling and while the Aether has been accurately described elsewhere as a “baroque Christmas ornament filmed by Stanley Kubrick” (thanks, Variety) the space sequences are fairly realistic.

One of the problems with the film is that there are some holes in logic; for example, we have developed the technology to send a manned mission to Jupiter and equip it with an impressive VR technology, but back on good ol’ earth the technology doesn’t look much evolved beyond what we already have. Does. Not. Compute.

Still, Clooney tackles a role that he doesn’t often take on and he does a great job with it, particularly in the pathos-filled climax. There are three ongoing stories being told here; what’s going on with Augustine, what’s going on aboard the Aether and flashbacks to the past. Clooney as a director has the skill to weave them all together and tie everything up in a neat little bow by movie’s end.

The problem is that there aren’t any really fresh ideas here in terms of the story. It feels like the movie was assembled Frankenstein-style from the parts of a lot of other movies – some better than this one, some not so much. The movie lacks something fresh to it that sci-fi fans tend to crave, although an interesting watch party game could be concocted with a bingo card made up of different sci-fi movies that one checks off when something from that movie shows up onscreen in this one. Make sure you have Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar all on your game card if you decide to play.

Although this was always meant to be a Netflix film, this might well have been a Holiday tentpole in gentler times. It’s a shame some of the effects won’t have the advantage of being shown on a theater screen, maybe even a premium IMAX or equivalent screen (worth the admission alone for the asteroid sequence). For home entertainment purposes, it is a bit slow-moving and has some Deep Ideas to its credit, but still makes for interesting viewing if you’re of a mind to Netflix and chill and you are into some cerebral science fiction.

REASONS TO SEE: Clooney gives a strong performance. The special effects are pretty good.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels cobbled together from a lot of other sci-fi films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie that Augustine is watching is On the Beach, which stars Gregory Peck whose grandson Ethan plays a younger Augustine.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: IO
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Some Kind of Heaven

Kaali Khuhi


Above all, family.

(2020) Horror (NetflixRiva Arora, Sanjeeda Sheikh, Shabana Amzi, Satyadeep Misra, Leela Samson, Jatinder Kaur, Hetvi Bhanushall, Rose Rathod, Sukhwinder Virk, Pooja Sharma, Samuel John, Amita Sharma, Dishika Verma, Inder Bajwa, Nirmal Jeet Kaur, Pritpal Singh, Tejinder Kour, Seema Agarwal, Kashmir Singh, Anil Kumar, Chand Rani, Pallavi Kumari. Directed by Terrie Samundra

Our past has a tendency to catch up to us. Da Queen was known to tell our son when he sought to hide misdeeds he had done from us “Your sins will find you out.” Sometimes, though, it takes a generation or two for them to get there.

In this direct-to-Netflix horror film from India, a family returns to the village of a young father, whose own mother is very sick. His wife is not happy at being dragged along, but then again, she seems to be unhappy with just about everything, including (and especially) daughter Shivangi (Arora) who is a frequent target of her wrath.

But it turns out it isn’t just the grandmother of Shivangi who has been affected with this mysterious illness; others are getting sick as well, and as it turns out, much of this has to do with cruelty perpetrated by villagers years ago, leading to vengeful spirits stalking the living. It will be up to Shivangi to stand up to the supernatural elements if she is to protect those she loves from a gruesome demise.

The plot is slow-moving and a bit convoluted, at least compared to American horror films. While this one seems to be influenced by American-style horror, this is definitely not one of those. Nor is it a Bollywood film; nobody is going to burst into a song and dance routine. Not every Indian film is like that, you know.

Where Samundra is successful is in creating a creepy atmosphere, where things lurk in the shadows and fog hides other nasty surprises. A village well is shot with such sinister glee, it’s hard to believe that there wouldn’t be supernatural goings-on there.

The acting here is a little weak, at least in the way that Americans look at performing on-camera. The cinematography is occasionally splendid particularly in capturing the rural Indian countryside, but it can get murky from time to time. There are some really effective scares here, and when the movie gets going, it really gets going, but the final climax is a bit of a disappointment. Still, there’s tons of atmosphere and as horror films go, this one isn’t too bad, but I am not sure a lot of American horror fans will have the patience to wade through the subtitles.

REASONS TO SEE: Very atmospheric.
REASONS TO AVOID: The climax is eminently forgettable.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some mild profanity, some violence and scary, terrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature for Samundra, who has worked on several short films previous to this.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/1820: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Village of the Damned
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Calendar Girl

American Murder: The Family Next Door


The smiling faces of the brutally murdered.

(2020) True Crime Documentary (NetflixShanann Watts, Chris Watts, Sandi Rzucek, Frank Rzucek, Celeste Watts, Bella Watts, Mark Jamieson, Ronnie Watts, Cindy Watts, Frankie Rzucek, Nickole Atkinson, Nichol Kessinger, Michael Rourke, Luke Epple, Jim Benemann, Marcelo Kopcow, Tom Mustin, Theresa Marchetta, Karen Leigh. Directed by Jenny Popplewell

 

The Watts family of Frederick, Colorado seemed to be as normal as they come. Chris Watts worked for an oil company; his wife Shanann – 15 weeks pregnant – worked for a marketing company. She had arrived home from a business trip early at nearly 2am on August 13, 2018, dropped off by her friend and colleague Nickole Atkinson. Later that day, when Shanann missed an OB-GYN appointment and after Nickole texted her friend without getting a response, Atkinson called Chris to let her know she was worried about Shanann.

At the Watts residence, it turned out that Shanann and both of their daughters – four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste – were all missing. The police were called. Chris addressed the media and pleaded for the safe return of his family, but as the investigation continued, the picture of a perfect family began to unravel and it turns out that the couple was having intimacy issues, despite the fact that Shanann was pregnant.

Eventually, the truth came out and it would send shock waves throughout the community that the family lived in, but also through the families of both Chris and Shanann. Those who have any sort of interest in true crime can guess where the investigation led.

British filmmaker Popplewell takes a unique spin on the events of a case that was fairly well-known at the tail end of 2018 (he would be convicted in November of that year, a mere four months after the crimes were committed which is lightning fast by judicial standards). Rather than using tried-and-true true crime tropes like dramatic recreations, talking-head interviews with the family and friends of those involved as well as the investigators, and expert testimony, she tells the story entirely through social media posts by the victim, text messages from the victim to her husband and to Atkinson, and police surveillance footage of both the polygraph, the confession as well as body-cam footage of the initial response to the victim’s home.

I give Popplewell full marks on this unique spin on the true crime documentary. You won’t see another film quite like it, and you get a bit of a sense of who the victim was as well as her husband. This serves to give the story an immediacy that sometimes lacks from other true crime documentaries, but it also lacks the emotional impact. We see things from a distance; for the most part, the family was depicted as happy and normal but when the computer was turned off, reality was a different story. For those who routinely watch true crime shows like Dateline: NBC and 48 Hours, this will feel familiar; it will also feel like you know what happened even before the police get their confession, even if you aren’t familiar with the details of the case as Da Queen was not, yet she accurately predicted who the killer would be, basically from the moment that they were reported missing.

Fredrick is the kind of suburban neighborhood that is movie-perfect; manicured lawns and beautiful homes, kids playing in the streets, everybody knows everybody else. Spielberg couldn’t have painted a more comforting picture, but yet a brutal crime took place here nevertheless which should give the viewer pause. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique presentation of a true crime documentary.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really very surprising for even casual followers of true crime.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The crime was also depicted in a 20/20 episode as well as on episodes of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. The murder was also the subject of Lifetime movie Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer which the family of Shanann Watts was not consulted about and spoke out against
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Any number of shows on the Discovery ID channel.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Herb Alpert Is…

The Social Dilemma


The digital trap.

(2020) Documentary (NetflixTristan Harris, Jeff Seibert, Bailey Richardson, Joe Toscano, Sandy Parakilas, Guillaume Chaslot, Lynn Fox, Aza Raskin, Alex Roetter, Tim Kendall, Justin Rosenstein, Randy Fernando, Jason Lanier, Roger McNamee, Shoshana Zuboff, Anna Lembke, James Lembke, Mary Lembke, Jonathan Haidt, Cathy O’Neil, Rashida Richardson, Renee DiResta, Cynthia Wong. Directed by Jeff Orlowski

Like it or not, the Internet has become a part of the basic fabric of our lives. You are reading this on a computer or net-enabled device; there is no paper version of Cinema365 unless you happen to print out a copy of this review (and why would you want to do that?) so this is the only way to read what you’re reading. How’s that for meta?

But as much as we like to think that social media is a means of connection, it is also a means of division. This devastating documentary by the guy who brought us Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral shows us another way that our humanity is crumbling. It is ironic that much of this message will be contributed through the same social media platforms that have caused the issue in the first place.

Orlowski brings us interviews with former executives from such social media platforms as Facebook, Instagram, Google and Twitter as they discuss how what they thought was a force for good had a flip side. The monetization of the social media platforms led to the aphorism that “if the service is free, then you are the product” as algorithms determined what your interests are and tailored your experience to them. Certainly, that led to a kind of marketplace mentality – spend, spend, spend! – but also to something much darker as we began to build our own bubbles in which we are being fed misinformation designed to reinforce that bubble, leading us to the situation we are in now – so divided upon ideological lines that the results of the next election are likely to bring bloodshed regardless of who wins.

Illustrating this, we are shown a fictional family with three young children; a college-age daughter who has begun to reject what social media represents, a middle school age daughter who has become obsessed with getting likes for her posts, and a teenage boy who has begun to be influenced into extremist beliefs. It’s chilling how easily it can happen and so many of us have seen it happen within our own extended families.

The main interview subject here is Tristan Harris, the former design ethicist for Google who has emerged to become “the closest thing to a conscience for Silicon Valley.” He admits to being naïve about the possible consequences of his work for big tech, and as a result advocates now for regulating social media in the same way that broadcast and print media is regulated, or once was.

In fact, most of the experts interviewed here are for regulation and feel that a libertarian self-regulation solution isn’t practical. What is really telling is that when asked about letting their middle school-aged children having smart phones, every single expert said they would not allow it.

Social media has given us an increase in depression and suicide among teens, a rise in bullying (of the online variety) and most distressing, a rise in extremist hate groups emboldened to come out of the shadows and create an online presence that influences both the left and the right.

None of the information here isn’t available elsewhere, but I can’t think of another source that has put this information in a more digestible, logically laid-out manner. The whimsical “inside the kid’s mind” sequences showing how the algorithms work felt a little out of step with the rest of the documentary which does drag a little bit in the middle, but the last 15 minutes definitely pack a powerful punch. Every parent should see this and everyone who spends more than an hour a day on social media should as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Thought-provoking and eye-opening. Presented in a very logical manner. An inside look at how social media molds policy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets bogged down a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, suggestive material and some adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “like” feature on Facebook was designed to provoke a release of endorphins, which contributes to the addictive nature of social media.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Web Junkie
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

At the Video Store


When VHS was king.

(2019) Documentary (ArgotBill Hader, John Waters, Nicole Holofcener, Alex Ross Perry, Thelma Schoonmaker, Gus Van Sant, Penelope Spheeris, Ondi Timoner, Todd Haynes, Lance Bangs, Ehren McGhehey, Charles Mudede, Danny Peary, Milos Stehlik, Ted Hope, John Sloss, Aaron Hillis, Marty Arno, Zach Clark, Dana Harris, Catherine Tchen. Directed by James Westby

Film critics and film bloggers are also inherently film geeks; we love all things cinematic, whether it be genre films, foreign films, art house mainstays, classic movies, big mindless blockbusters or niche films. For many of us, that love begn in the video store.

Those of a certain age group will remember trips to the video store in the 80s and 90s, which started out largely as mom and pop operations until megachains such as Hollywood Video or, more to the point, Blockbuster Video, took over and put a stranglehold on the industry. Ironically speaking, there is but one Blockbuster store left; there are many more mom and pop stores that remain. That’s what karma is all about.

This documentary is a love letter to those mom and pop stores, where the clerks knew the tastes of their customers well enough that they could confidently recommend esoteric or rare movies. They were places where friendships (and sometimes romances) formed, lively debates ensued (“Was Godard better than Truffaut? Discuss!”) and memories were made.

The movie has lots of talking heads, from those who owned the stores that are fondly remembered or better yet, still in business, to those who went on to make an impact in the film industry themselves. There is a bit of the bittersweet in the overall attitude of the movie as Westby engenders a wistful quality to his nostalgia. They were simpler days indeed, before streaming (and to a lesser extent, Redbox) took over. Not that there is anything wrong with streaming, mind you – it’s the next logical step in home video evolution, but it lacks the personal touch of a video store. A computer recommendation isn’t the same as one coming from a teen kid in a Herschell Gordon Lewis t-shirt who knows the difference between Bloodsucking Freaks and Blood Feast and will tell you that the remake of 2,000 Maniacs is crap. An algorithm can only look at your rental habits and make a recommendation based on subject matter; it doesn’t distinguish between a hidden gem and a piece of trash.

The movie does tend to ramble a bit, and there are some curious choices; a musical interlude, for example. There are some original songs that nicely capture the feel for the old video stores, but they do get distracting after a while. Still, everyone who has ever debated the merits of Todd Solondz versus Paul Thomas Anderson will likely find this delightful. Those who could care less about those sorts of movies will likely feel like they are at a party where they don’t know anybody.

REASONS TO SEE: A must-see for film nerds.
REASONS TO AVOID: The musical number was unnecessary and the music was intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: Some references to sex and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film took six years to make; several of the stores depicted went out of business in the meantime.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Surviving Supercon
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Apocalypse ’45

Shine Your Eyes (Cidade Pássaro)


Sao Paolo – a white person’s city?

(2020) Drama (NetflixO.C. Ukeje, Chukwudi Iwujie, Indira Nascimento, Paulo André, Ike Barry, Yasmin Thin Qi. Directed by Matias Mariani

 

Some movies are more densely packed than others. This Netflix excursion tackles familial responsibilities, tribal myths, quantum physics (!), alternate realities, reincarnation, missing persons, Nigerian music, mental illness and the immigrant experience. This isn’t a film for the faint of heart.

Amadi (Ukeje), a Nigerian musician who was raised a part of the Igbo people, has journeyed across the Atlantic to Sao Paolo, Brazil’s most populous city, to find his older brother Ikenna (Iwuji). Ikenna, his mother’s favorite, is by all accounts a brilliant man and was pursuing a career in academics, a math professor at a technical university in the Brazilian city.

Except that the university he purports to teach at doesn’t exist, and while Amadi gets tempting glances of his brother from time to time (so he knows he is at least in the city), for all intents and purposes Ikenna has fallen off the map. In a city roughly the size of New York, finding one person who may not necessarily want to be found is not only nearly impossible but almost fiendishly cruel, but Amadi feels that this is how he wins the love and respect of his mother, who clearly prefers Ikenna, who has largely forsaken his family.

As Amadi delves deeper into the mystery, utilizing clues that might have stumped Sherlock Holmes, we discover that while not employed as a math professor per se, Ikenna was working on a physics issue that could revolutionize how we perceive reality – assuming that the Universe isn’t just a hologram, which is what Ikenna has come to believe.

The search for a missing person concept is a very cinematic one; it can be both thriller and character study. Through the search for the missing, we get to know them in ways we might not ever have had we just spoken to them. In this case, it’s doubly true; everything that Ikenna told his family back home is a lie, but everything he tells his friends in Brazil is also a lie. We begin to suspect that Ikenna is not the genius everyone thinks he is, but a con man who is playing both sides of the fence. Then again, he might have discovered a way to bridge two alternate realities (and maybe more); ot, he could be losing his mind.

We also get a sense of the exclusionary feelings that an immigrant feels in a city they don’t know and perhaps don’t understand. At one point (in fact, in the very scene depicted in the picture above), Amadi’s uncle (Igujie) refers to Sao Paolo as “a white person’s city” which may come to a shock to Americans who look as Brazilians as brown. Again, perceptions can differ depending on where you come from.

The visuals here are stimulating, from the cityscape of Sao Paolo with its sea of high rises, to the quantum representations of the mathematics that Ikenna was working on. It can be a hard slog at times – I don’t begin to pretend I understand game theory and quantum mathematics but at least I don’t feel talked down to.

A fellow critic compared this to the work of Darren Aronofsky and in some ways, that’s correct in that Aronofsky has a tendency to burn rubber where angels fear to tread. This is not a movie you can put on as background noise. It demands attention and focus and a willingness to let it transport you places you never thought you’d go. I like that despite all the fairly lofty ideas being bandied about here, I never felt talked down to and I never felt that I was drowning in concepts that were so far over my head that they aren’t even in the same solar system.

=That said, this isn’t going to be a movie everyone is going to want or even need to see. There are those who are absolutely opposed to movies that make you think, and would prefer movies that appeal to the emotional aspect of our humanity. While there are some scenes that are emotional in nature here, this is very much an intellectual film and those looking for light entertainment or mindless fun need to keep on scrolling past this in the Netflix menu. Those who appreciate a good intellectual challenge, however, can rejoice.

REASONS TO SEE: Ukeje has star potential. Glossy cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the mathematics content is a bit esoteric.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes, while not offensive, certainly are geared towards adults; kids will likely not have the patience for this.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film has seven credited writers including Mariani; the others contributed expertise in mathematics, quantum theory, Igbo culture, and other aspects of the film; although these experts wrote no dialogue nor story, Mariani felt that they deserved credit and so all were given co-writing screen mentions.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100’% positive reviews, Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Billie

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind


Happy happy joy joy.

 (2019) Biographical Drama (NetflixChiwetel Ejiofor, Maxwell Simba, Felix Lemburo, Robert Agengo, Fiskan Makawa, Lily Banda, Aissa Maiga, Fredrick Lukhere, Hestingzi Phiri, Rophium Banda, Philbert Falakeza, Samson Kambalu, Raymond Ofula, Noma Dumezweni, Lemogang Tsipa, Joseph Marcell, Martin Githinji, Melvin Alusa, Amos Chimpokoser, Edwin Chonde, Hilda Phiri. Directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor

 

We Americans often romanticize Africa as a place of glorious vistas and wonderful animals. Or, we demonize it as a place of corrupt governments and tribal genocide. Both of those viewpoints are incomplete; Africa is so much more. It is modern cities, but it is also small villages of subsistence farmers that are literally like living in another century.

This true story is based on the life of William Kamkwamba (Simba), a young boy with a knack for mechanical things who lives in a rural village in Malawi in abject poverty. His father Trywell (Ejiofor) faces drought and flooding, brought on when a neighboring farm sells to a tobacco company who promptly cut down all the trees whose roots held back flooding in the village with predictable results. The family was already living on the edge; now with most of their food supply destroyed and with no income from selling what they didn’t consume, things get desperate – William’s intelligent sister (Banda) is forced to withdraw from college and face a life of marriage and child-rearing, a life her mom (Maiga) knew would be a waste of her daughter’s potential. They also can’t afford the tuition at William’s school; however, he arranges with a teacher – blackmails, more like – to get access to the school library.

But William has an idea – a windmill to draw water from the village well to irrigate their farms. William has little to work with and his father, beaten down by all the obstacles he has failed to overcome, has little confidence that William’s idea will work and is unwilling to give up the bicycle chain that is crucial to the success of the windmill. The stakes couldn’t be higher for William and his family; could his knowledge of science and engineering overcome his father’s prejudices?

This is the first feature as a writer and director for Ejiofor and it’s a pretty good one. He captures all the tribulations faced by tribal villages in Africa, from political turmoil to environmental challenges to their own superstitions and traditions. That the real William Kamkwamba was able to overcome these things as a middle school-aged boy is nothing short of miraculous (today he is in his early 30s as this is written and a college graduate who has appeared on The Daily Show as well as given TED talks). Ejiofor takes great care to develop the story, but at times is a bit too workmanlike; a good director knows the shorthand needed to keep their film from bogging down. Ejiofor will acquire this skill through practice, no doubt. There’s a lot good about the movie, and it is worth checking out if for no other reason for an educational standpoint but be aware that the film has some noticeable flaws.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures the honesty of African village life.
REASONS TO AVOID: Although the payoff is inspiring, the lead-up is frustratingly over-developed.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some thematic concerns regarding poverty and starvation, but otherwise perfectly suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ejiofor filmed on location in Malawi; as he did not speak the native Chichewa language, he had to learn to speak it for his character.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: William and the Windmill
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Nose to Tail

The Photographer at Mauthausen (El photógrafo de Mauthausen)


Sometimes a picture is worth a heck of a lot more than a thousand words.

(2018) Biographical Drama (NetflixMario Casas, Richard von Weyden, Alain Hernandez, Adriá Salazar, Eduard Buch, Stefan Weinert, Nikola Stojanovic, Rubén Yuste, Frank Feys, Marc Rodriguez, Albert Mora, Joan Negrié, Luka Peros, Rainer Reiners, Toni Gomila, Macarena Gómez, Emilio Gavira, Soma Zámbron, Erik Gyarmati, Marta Holler. Directed by Mar Targarona

 

Most movies about the Holocaust concentrate on the Jewish victims, which is as it should be. However, they weren’t the only victims. Early in the war, as Nazi Germany overran France, Spanish Republicans who had fled the victorious forces of Franco, were declared “stateless” by the Spanish government, allowing the Nazis to round them up and stick them in concentration camps, which they largely helped build – such as the one called Mauthausen in Austria.

Francesc Boix (Casas) was a member of the Spanish communist party sent to Mauthausen. A Catalan by birth (a region of Spain of which Barcelona is the capital), he managed to get attached to the photography unit under Ricken (von Weyden), one of those German officers obsessed with documenting everything, including the horrors.

At first, Boix uses his position to help switch the identification numbers of dead men with living men, in order to save the living, but as he is called upon to witness summary executions, mass graves, torture, forced prostitution and all manner of depravity, he is sickened. As word begins to reach the prisoners that the tide of the war has turned, Boix realizes that the evidence so meticulously gathered by the Germans would doubtlessly be destroyed – and those who had perpetrated these horrors would therefore get away with their crimes. He was determined to not let that happen.

Most concentration camp movies tend to be set in the more notorious camps in Eastern Europe. Most Americans are unfamiliar with Mauthausen, although the Spanish people know it well. In a lot of ways, this is a pretty standard Holocaust movie with gut-wrenching depictions of inhumanity and some instances of extraordinary heroism. Targarona uses the actual photographs taken by Boix and Ricken to choreograph his scenes, which we come to realize as the actual photographs are shown at the end of the film.

Like most Holocaust films, there are moments that will hit you like a punch to the gut. It isn’t always an easy film to watch, again like most Holocaust films. But particularly now with the rise of authoritarian leaders all over the globe, it is particularly necessary that we remind ourselves how easily we can fall into the same morass that the German people did in 1937. “Never again” doesn’t seem like such a sure thing in 2020.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some pretty powerful moments. Shows a side of the Nazi occupation of Western Europe that hasn’t been seen often.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much like other films depicting life in concentration camps.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, nudity, violence, disturbing images and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, Lejias can’t speak German. In reality, the actor who played him (Joan Negrié) speaks fluent German, the only Spanish actor in the cast to do so.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Rental

The Wandering Earth (Liu dang di qiu)


I wann go to cool places with you.

(2018) Science Fiction (CMC/NetflixJing Wu, Chuxiao Qu, Guangjie Li, Man-Tat Ng, Jin Mai Jaho, Mike Kai Sui, Hongchen Li, Jingjing Qu, Yichi Zhang, Haoyu Yang, Zhigang Jiang, Huan Zhang, Jiayin Lei, Arkadiy Sharogradskiy, Hao Ning, Yi Yang, Hexuan Guo, Zhonzhao Li, Zixian Zhang, Zachary Alexander Rice, Marvin Bouvet, Luoyi Tao. Directed by Frant Gwo

 

It is not a matter of much debate that the greatest cinematic epics come from Hollywood. However, it is also true that Hollywood isn’t the only game in town any longer, and bustling film industries in India, China, Japan and Thailand are showing signs of giving the U.S. of A. a run for its money.

And I mean that in a literal sense. The Wandering Earth, based on a short story by Hugo-winning author Cixin Liu, posits a near-future when the sun is discovered to be changing into a Red Giant much sooner than anyone expected. In less than a century, the solar system is going to be vaporized by the expanding star that once gave us life. A hastily convened consortium of world governments decide that rather than leaving the planet behind and finding a new one, we would attach ginormous engines to the equator to stop the spin and then blast us away from our current place in the universe and using Jupiter as a slingshot, head us out towards Alpha Centauri and a new life…arriving in about 2,500 years.

The problem with this scenario is that without the sun’s warming rays, which we would lose the further out towards deep space we got, things are going to get mighty cold. What’s left of humanity is going to be sheltered deep underground; the surface has become a frozen wasteland a la The Day After Tomorrow and lantern-jawed heroes crew a multi-national space station that acts as kind of a tugboat for the planet. I’m not really sure on that point; a lot of the plot is a bit murky and difficult to follow. Im not sure if it was a translation issue, or if crucial scenes got left on the cutting room floor.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Alpha Centauri – we got caught by Jupiter’s gravitational well and are headed for a not-so-pleasant Jovian encounter. It looks like even after all the careful planning the human race is going to die after all – unless someone saves the day.

The film, if you haven’t already guessed, is a product of the People’s Republic of China and so it is the Chinese who are the heroes in the movie. That’s okay by me – after all, when Hollywood makes global catastrophe films the heroes are generally American, right? However, the characters are either bland and unmemorable, or are archetypes rather than characters; the badass military hero, the brilliant computer nerd, the obnoxious little sister, the bitter and rebellious son – all are given almost no background here. It’s hard to be invested in anyone that comes on the screen.

Also being a Chinese film, the movie espouses Chinese values – that it is required of the individual to sacrifice for the good of the State – which will run counter to a lot of American individualist types. Also, it is true at this moment of time the Chinese aren’t in favor particularly with the conservative side of the aisle, so American audiences have not flocked to stream this puppy on Netflix, which is the only place you can see it currently in the States.

The special effects dominate everything here and some of them are spectacular – and why wouldn’t they be when a consortium of effects houses including WETA of New Zealand are pitching in to help – but it gets to the point that all the visual eye candy begins to overwhelm the senses.

My main gripe here is the logic and the science. Supposedly vetted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I kept going back to the amount of power it would take for the Earth to escape the gravitational pull of the Sun and what that kind of force would do to the Earth’s crust. Not to mention that the atmosphere would eventually freeze solid once it passes a certain point in the solar system, and what that might due to underground cities in terms of pressures on the crust. A lot of the plot hinges around things happening because the script said so. I felt that the suspension of disbelief became too much to handle.

But if you’re in the mood for a special effects-laden sci-fi extravaganza that you haven’t seen yet, there is something to recommend it in that regard. After all, this is the second-highest grossing Chinese film of all time (as of publication) and that’s saying something. Also to be fair, the plot is no dumber than any you’ll find in a typical Hollywood sci-fi epic, but the too-large ensemble cast and the humongous amount of sci-fi tropes that appear here makes this the kind of movie that might have been better-suited to SyFy than Netflix.

REASONS TO SEE: Big dumb fun with some occasionally breathtaking effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is just too ludicrous to ignore.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, sci-fi action and kids in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional and Franz isn’t real, the facts about Freud’s last days in Vienna are largely as shown.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Space: 1999
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Easy Does It

Velvet Buzzsaw


Things that make you go “hmmm”.

(2019) Horror Satire (Netflix) Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, John Malkovich, Billy Magnussen, Toni Collette, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Alan Mandell, Mig Macario, Nitya Vidyasagar, Sedale Threatt Jr., Keith Bogart, Sofia Toufa, Kassandra Voyagis, Mark Leslie Ford, Amy Tsang, Mark Steger, Andrea Marcovicci, Pisay Pao, Ian Alda, Valentina Gordon. Directed by Dan Gilroy

 

I have said many a time that there is a difference between art and Art and it largely depends on how seriously the artist takes him/herself. Art is pretentious and arrogant whereas art is inspiring and insightful. Director Dan Gilroy, acclaimed for his work on Nightcrawlers, knows the difference.

In this horror-laced satire about the contemporary commercial art world, he reunites with two of the stars of Nightcrawlers. Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) is the self-important art critic whose words can triple the price that a painting will get, or destroy a budding artist’s career entirely. Art dealer Rhodora Haze (Russo) shares a symbiotic relationship with him. Morf, who is bisexual, has a thing for Rhodora’s assistant Josephina (Ashton).

Josephina wants more than to be someone’s coffee-fetcher and when an elderly man in her apartment building dies literally in front of her door, she discovers her chance – his apartment is filled with haunting, vaguely unsettling art work. She knows instantly that it’s the Real Deal and enters into a partnership with Rhodora to sell it, even though the man expressly wanted his art destroyed and not sold. Nevertheless, sold it is and as a number of characters in the art world – up and coming agent Jon Dondon (Sturridge), gallery curator Gretchen (Collette) who looks to make her own mark (and fortune), to name a couple – jockey for position to get a piece of the pie. Then, they start to turn up dead in horrible, gruesome ways.

The film relies heavily on smart, snappy dialogue and Gyllenhaal gives one of his best performances to date as Morf, whose evolution during the film is presaged by the homonym of his first name. In fact, the entire cast, which incidentally is a pretty nifty one, does a bang-up job with particular kudos to Dyer as one of the few sympathetic characters in the film.

The movie doesn’t go easy on the gore which is likely to delight horror fans, although they might not know what to make of the satire that makes up the first third of the movie. Regardless, this is wildly entertaining and one of the better movies under the Netflix banner.

REASONS TO SEE: Gyllenhaal is delightful. Entertaining in a smarmy way. Lampoons the artificiality and pretentiousness of the commercial art world.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit too ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and gore, as well as a surfeit of profanity, some sexuality, brief nudity and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gilroy, who also wrote the film, stated in an interview that the unusual character names were inspired by Charles Dickens
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bucket Full of Blood
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Sometimes Always Never