Polar


Portrait of a badass.

(2019) Action (Netflix) Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens, Katheryn Winnick, Fei Ren, Ruby O. Fee, Matt Lucas, Robert Maillet, Anthony Grant, Josh Cruddas, Lovina Yavan, Ayisha Issa, Pedro Miguel Arce, Anastasia Marinina, Martin Zolotarev, Richard Dreyfuss, Johnny Knoxville, Inga Cadranel, Jill Frappier, Nia Roam, Julian Richings, Roman Lebeau, Sofia Grossi. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund

 

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen Polar that it is based on a graphic novel. Everything about the movie screams “comic book,” from the color palette to the emphasis on feminine boot-ay and boobies, to the well-choreographed mayhem that takes place with a surfeit of blood and gore.

Duncan (Mikkelsen) works as an assassin-for-hire for the Damocles Corporation, where he is known as the Black Kaiser. He is nearing the mandatory retirement age of 50 and looks forward to receiving his pension and retiring to his remote Montana home. Unfortunately for him, the company’s corpulent owner Blut (Lucas) is looking to sell and needs to maximize its value. A clause in the contract says that if employees die without a will, the pension goes back to the company. Blut aims to kill all the veteran assassins who largely have had no relationships over the years and use the money to prop up the liquid cash holdings of the company. A true Republican move, that.

But Duncan isn’t so easy to kill and despite the parade of colorful killers sent his way, continues to survive much to the irritation of Blut. Duncan has also formed a relationship with Camille (Hudgens) who lives nearby (i.e. within 100 miles). If Duncan can live long enough to collect his pension, there are going to be an awful lot of openings at Damocles.

For action junkies, there is a whole lot of that and just the way you like it, too – long on gore and short on sense. There are a lot of backhanded compliments to other lone assassin stories, with John Wick chief among them, although the world of Polar is a lot less developed than the world of John Wick. There is also the subversive humor of the Neveldine brothers as well.

I have definitely got a man-crush on Mads Mikkelsen. The man never seems to make a bad acting decision. He is one of those guys who is never flashy, but always makes every movie he is cast in just that much better. He can do the taciturn loner about as well as anybody including Keanu Reeves – although not as well as Clint Eastwood in his heyday (sorry, Mads).

Critics have basically torn this film a new one, but I don’t know. I think of it as a guilty pleasure. It’s definitely a film for boys, though – not that women won’t or can’t enjoy it, but it certainly panders to that demographic.

REASONS TO SEE: Has the feel of a cinematic comic book. Mikkelsen is awesome, as always.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little bit self-repetitive near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of violence and gore, plenty of profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While there is an actress named Marsha Mason in the cast, it is not the same one that appeared with Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews, Metacritic: 19/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Atomic Blonde
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Feral

IO


Not the bright future we were hoping for.

(2018) Science Fiction (NetflixMargaret Qualley, Anthony Mackie, Danny Huston, Tom Payne (voice), Justin Andrew Jamieson, Teagan Johnson, Emma Fitzgerald (voice). Directed by Jonathan Helpert

 

In times such as these it isn’t hard to imagine the world as we know it coming to an end. In this Netflix sci-fi ecological apocalypse flick, something has turned the Earth’s atmosphere toxic; millions are dying and there doesn’t appear to be a way to reverse the process. The human race is leaving in droves, for a space station circling the Jovian moon of Io.

One of the few people remaining on earth is Sam Walden (Qualley), daughter of scientist Henry Walden (Huston). She lives on a high plateau which still has a breathable atmosphere, although it doesn’t seem likely that it will stay that way for long. She tends to a colony of bees that she hopes – as her dad did before her – will pollinate plants and kickstart the eco-system. She relays the results of her work to Elon (Payne), her boyfriend on the orbiting Io station.

Then out of the sky drops Micah (Mackie), out of a makeshift dirigible. He’s there to see Henry – except Henry’s not available. And that’s just the beginning. Both Micah and Sam are keeping secrets from each other, secrets that can have major ramifications. Meanwhile, time is ticking down before the last shuttle leaves Earth, stranding whoever is left behind there forever.

This is what’s called a “high-concept” science fiction film. It’s not that an ecological apocalypse has never been done on film before – Roland Emmerich made a living at those sorts of films in the last decade – but this one seems to be taking a more sober, science-based approach. At least, so it seems on the surface. The closer you look, the more the science doesn’t really bear scrutiny.

But the production design is nice, which I’ve been saying a lot more often about films lately, but we’ve seen some impressive leaps in that arena of film over the past half-decade. Sadly, though, there is zero chemistry between Qualley and Mackey, and quite frankly, Qualley emotes here like she’s making a YouTube film rather than a fairly major production.

There are some worthwhile moments here, but the movie is its own worst enemy, with stupefying dialogue and bizarre character choices. I found my attention wandering during the last half of the film, never a good sign. Fortunately, as this is only available on Netflix, you can always pause it to take a nap. It’s up to you, however, if you want to continue watching after you wake up.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating concept.
REASONS TO AVOID: A less-than-scintillating execution.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elle Fanning and Diego Luna were originally cast in the lead roles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews; Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Interstellar
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

Girl (2018)


Showers aren’t always the great equalizer.

(2018) Drama (NetflixVictor Polster, Arieh Wolthalter, Oliver Bodart, Tijmen Govaerts, Kateljine Damen, Valentijn Dhaenens, Megali Elali, Alice de Borqueville, Alain Honorez, Chris Thys, Angelo Tijssens, Marie-Louise Wilderijckx, Virginia Hendricksen, Daniel Nicodéme, Els Olaerts, Hélène Theunissen, Alexia Depicker, Steve Driesen, Ingrid Heiderscheidt. Directed by Lukas Dhont

 

Girl is a movie that had the best of intentions, but ends up pissing off a lot of people it was meant to honor. This first feature from Flemish director Dhont is about a young ballerina named Lara (Polster) who has just been provisionally accepted into a prestigious ballet school in Antwerp, necessitating a move there for her father (Wolthalter) and little brother (Bodart). But if undergoing the rigorous, demanding and often punishing training necessary to become a ballerina wasn’t enough, Lara is also transitioning from being a young boy into becoming the gender she knows herself to be.

Her father is incredibly supportive and her classmates seem to be (although there is a scene where they demand that she show her genitalia, which humiliates her) and she has the benefit of a really good counselor (Dhaenens) who repeatedly tells her not to put everything in life off until after she gets her surgery. “You also have to live now,” he wisely tells her.

But Lara, like most adolescents, doesn’t have a ton of patience. She wants to be rid of the male body that she was born with, checking for signs of growing breasts that are not yet apparent, and anxiously wondering if the hormones are working, although her doctors assure her that they are – it just takes time, time that Lara isn’t particularly willing to give. As the pressures mount and her need to be the woman that everyone says she already is, she commits an act of graphic self-harm that moved Netflix to take the unusual step of placing a warning title at the beginning of the film.

The movie has come under heavy criticism from the trans and LGBTQ community, first of all for casting a cis-gender male in the role of Lara, although that complaint isn’t as realistic as you might think; finding a trans actress of the right age who can handle the grueling dancing and training sequences is nearly impossible and it proved to be so for Dhont, who eventually found Polster while casting the background dancers.

And a lucky casting that was indeed. Polster has the grace and dancing chops to pull off the role, but also the facial expressions; Lara isn’t much of a talker and like many adolescents, isn’t able to articulate what’s bothering her. Polster does a good job of using non-verbal acting to convey Lara’s anguish.

The second issue that the LGBTQ community has brought up bears more scrutiny and it is the movie’s almost pornographic obsession with Lara’s crotch. Shot after shot after shot is centered there and we see enough of Polster’s genitalia to last a lifetime. Trans advocates rightly complain that the movie reduces Lara down to her genitalia, and like all people, trans people are much more than the equipment they have. Lara’s clear self-loathing for her body also sends a message to young transgenders that might not necessarily be the one that Dhont meant to send. Gender dysphoria is something that deserves to be explored seriously and Dhont attempts to do that, but at the end of the day, is unsuccessful in that regard.

=I do like that the approach that Dhont takes is almost documentary-like. There isn’t here that you might consider melodramatic beyond the usual melodrama generated by teens. There is a lot here that gives outsiders an idea of what trans folks in the process of transition have to go through and it is nice to see that it is presented in a supportive manner; that isn’t always the case in real life.

At the end of the day I give the film high marks for good intentions, but demerits for not executing them as well as they might have been. This could easily have been an extremely important film, even an essential one, instead of merely being very good.

REASONS TO SEE: Tackles a subject rarely handled seriously in the movies. Takes a documentary-like approach.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long and accentuates the most conspicuous aspects of gender dysphoria.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, sexuality, some nudity, adult issues and a shocking scene.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Inspired by the story of Nora Monsecour, a Belgian trans ballerina.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews, Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl, Interrupted
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Glass

The Last Laugh (2019)


As you get older, life can be a gas.

(2019) Comedy (NetflixChevy Chase, Richard Dreyfus, Andie MacDowell, Kate Micucci, Chris Parnell, George Wallace, Lewis Black, Richard Kind, Ron Clark, Kit Willesee, Chris Fleming, Allan Harvey, Jason Batchko, Alan Demovsky, James Galea, Rafael Villegas Jr., Carol Sutton, Belinda D’Pree, Sharon Martin, Jessie Payo, Robin Wesley, Khiry Armstead, Giovannie Cruz. Directed by Greg Pritikin

 

As someone who is going to hit the big six-oh this year, films about being old have more of a resonance with me lately than usual. At the same time, as I am writing this, I’m listening to the latest album by Hamerkop.  Age is, truly, just a number.

Don’t tell Hollywood that, though. Most comedies about elderly sorts have a pretty condescending attitude towards the AARP generation. We’ll get more into that in a minute, though; let me tell you a little bit about the plot of this one though. Al Hart (Chase) was once upon a time a talent manager for some of the most talented stand-up comics in the business, but now he’s retired and mourning his wife. His granddaughter Jeannie (Micucci) is concerned that Al has been doing a lot of falling down lately. She is anxious for him to move into a facility where he can be seen to; Al is against the idea but after a particularly nasty spill agrees reluctantly.

At the retirement village, Al discovers Buddy Green (Dreyfus) is a resident. Buddy was Al’s first client and had the makings of being a major star; Al had him booked on the Ed Sullivan show which would have established Buddy as a major star. Inexplicably, he never showed up and turned his back on comedy, instead choosing to raise a family and become a podiatrist. Talk about the shoe being on the other foot.

But the what-ifs have never really left Buddy and Al, seeing the parade of residents to the morgue figures that Buddy deserves a last shot to see if he had the stuff; he books Buddy on a cross-country tour, starting off in cruddy venues in Podunk towns gradually working up to bigger shows until the big one – the Stephen Colbert Late Show in the Ed Sullivan theater in New York. Along the way, the two bicker like an old couple, pick up a free-spirited artist in Kansas City (MacDowell) that Al becomes sweet on, and discover that it’s never too late to pursue a dream.

If that last sentence sounds a bit maudlin, it’s meant to. The movie plays it about as safe as a movie can be played, with the exception of a magic mushroom sequence in which Al trips, imagining a musical number and a carriage ride with Abe Lincoln at the reins. No, I don’t know why.

Remember I talked about Hollywood’s condescending attitude towards the aging? This is the kind of movie that portrays old folks doing shrooms and having sex as kind of “isn’t that cute.” Let’s do the math; people turning 70 this year were born in 1950; they were in their teens and 20s in the 60s and 70s when just about everyone was doing drugs and having sex. I think Hollywood sees the elderly still as the Leave it to Beaver generation, except that they were doing drugs and having sex back then too. Guess what, America? Your grandparents used to get high and fool around. Get over it.

Worse still, the humor is of the safe, don’t-offend-anyone variety, which makes me want to scream. I’m not the biggest Chevy Chase fan ever, but dammit, the man was an integral part of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, and played a major role in one of the most subversive comedies ever made – Caddyshack. Can we not accept that there are some great comedic minds hitting their 70s now and capable of making comedies that can be bigger game changers than some of the modern crop of comics are currently capable of making? Dreyfus – who is as good as he ever was in this movie – as well as Chase and MacDowell all deserve better than this mildly entertaining, eminently forgettable project.

REASONS TO SEE: Dreyfus is a gift.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unnecessarily maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good amount of profanity including plenty of sexual references, as well as some drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first leading role for Chase in a mainstream film since Snow Day in 2000.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews, Metacritic: 31/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sunshine Boys
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Glass

Lionheart (2018)


Genevieve Nnaji keeps a wary eye out for whatever could be standing in her way.

(2018) Comedy (Netflix) Genevieve Nnaji, Nkem Owoh, Pete Edochie Onyeka Onwenu, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Ngozi Ezeonu, Kalu Ikeagwu, Chibuzo “Phyno” Azubuike, Jemma Osunde, Sani MU’AZU, Yakubu Mohammed, Peter Okoye, Chika Okpala, Oramulu Peter, Clemson Agbogidi, Chudi Nwafo, Stan K. Amadi, Obi Jane Nkechi, Uzodinma Umeh, Okwesileze, Steve Eboh. Directed by Genevieve Nnaji

 

Africa is a diverse and beautiful continent. There is veldt and jungle, mountains and deserts, modern urban metropolises and dirt-poor villages. There is no pigeonholing a continent, and the more glimpses we get into the daily life in various African nations, the more we come to realize that we have a lot in common with them.

Nigeria has a film industry known as “Nollywood” that has made some headway under some pretty tough obstacles. Their economic struggles in the Eighties led to nearly every movie theater in the country being closed down. Their movies are largely distributed on tape and disc, and while streaming services are beginning to make headway there, the infrastructure makes Internet availability spotty particularly in the more rural areas of the country.

One of that country’s brightest stars is Genevieve Nnaji. She not only stars in the first Nigerian film to be distributed on Netflix, but she also directs and co-wrote the script. She plays Adaeze, a smart, ambitious woman working in her father’s (Edochie) transportation company. Even though she’s more able than most men, she is often met with derision and hostility; her ideas are often rejected out of hand and from time to time men in the male-dominated industry expect sexual favors from her in exchange for their cooperation. When her father takes ill, rather than pass on the leadership reins to his infinitely qualified daughter, he instead passes it on to his eccentric brother (Owoh) who has some interesting ideas about leadership.

Adaeze’s frustration further grows when she discovers that the company is in a precarious financial position. Her father, perhaps unwisely, took out several loans which the bank has called. They have 30 days to pay it back before they lose everything. She will have to figure out a way to team up with her uncle if they are able to save the company from predators both from without – and within.

Nnaji is an almost regal presence in the same way Angela Bassett is. Beautiful and elegant, she has a screen presence most American actresses would envy. She has a knack for the light comedy of the movie, and while she is no Kate McKinnon, she nonetheless knows what she’s doing in a comedic role. Owoh is definitely the comic presence here, however. Nnaji is essentially his “straight man.” The humor isn’t outrageous or over the top, but more a gentle ribbing of the foibles of life – a very African viewpoint, in other words.

The family dynamics of the Obiagu family are what make the movie really worthwhile. There is a good deal of bickering but there is also a good deal of love – in other words, just like families everywhere. Of course, it’s not exactly headline news that people are people everywhere you go, but it’s nice to see the people of a different culture share their similarities as well as the things that make their culture unique.

REASONS TO SEE: A glimpse at urban African life.
REASONS TO AVOID: A somewhat pedantic plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasionally rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was the official submission by Nigeria for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2019 Academy Awards but ended up being disqualified since it was determined that the bulk of the film was in English.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gods Must Be Crazy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Escape Room

A Twelve-Year Night (La noche de 12 anos)


The level of a society’s degree of civilization is measured by the contents of its prisons.

(2018) True Life Drama (Netflix) Antonio de la Torre, Chinese Darin, Alfonso Tort, Cesar Troncoso Soledad Villamil, Silvia Pérez Cruz, César Bordón, Mirella Pascual, Nidia Telles, Eduardo Recabarren, Sofia Gravina, Bianca Gravina, Ana Baltar Peretz, Ilay Kurelovic, Lisandro Fiks, Kornel Dornan, Gustavo Saffores, Juan José Caiella, Luciano Ciaglia, Luis Cao, Luis Mottola, Soledad Gilmet. Directed by Álvaro Brechner

 

The human spirit can withstand just about anything, so long as there is hope. The human spirit is also capable of cruelty that can be staggering in its depths, but even this can be endured – with hope.

In 1972, Uruguay was in the process of losing its democracy to a military junta. A left-wing group known as the Tupamaros were mounting increasingly violent protests against the government. The military chose to eradicate them in brutal fashion, capturing some, killing many.

Three of those captured (there were a total of nine involved but for the purposes of this film they are only concentrating on three) – Jose “Pepe” Mujica (de la Torre), Mauricio Rosencof (Darin) and Eleuterio Fernández Huldobro (Tort) – are put into solitary confinement, not allowed to speak to each other or to their guards. They are occasionally subjected to torture and are often moved around, being used as pawns in a political game. They would endure this situation for twelve years, denied even basic human interaction and often, sunlight. And to think we Americans are about ready to mount an armed revolt after only two months – at home.

This intense film has a difficult task set to it; making an interesting film about men confined to small cells with nothing to do. And damned if Brechner doesn’t do just that. We get a sense of the deprivations that the men lived under and the strength of character it took for them to emerge on the other side of their ordeal with all their marbles intact.

The movie kind of plunges us into the ordeal, starting with the prisoners being carted off to prison without so much as a trial. We don’t really get any sense of who these men were before they ere captured or of their personalities. We know that Mujica had a strong relationship with his mama (Cruz), that Rosencof was an outstanding writer (he became one of Uruguay’s leading poets and playwrights after his release which he remains to this day) and that Huldobro had a love for soccer. It isn’t until near the end of the two-hour film that we really have any sort of handle on these men and their personalities, so be prepared to exhibit a little patience when viewing this.

The movie’s conclusion is powerful and moving; I found myself hard-pressed to stem the flow of tears. It is doubly remarkable to consider that Mujica would go on to become President of Uruguay from 2010-2015. It is an inspiring story and one that is worth the trouble to seek out and take in.

REASONS TO SEE: Very much reminiscent of a Costa-Gavras political thriller. Extremely moving in places. Some of the scenes are remarkably intense.
REASONS TO AVOID: There really isn’t a lot of context as to the various lead characters, especially early on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is both violence and profanity as well as some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Uruguay’s official submission for the 2019 Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film award.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Papillon
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Mnemophrenia

Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski


The lion in winter.

(2018) Documentary (NetflixStanislav Szukalski, Glenn Bray, Robert Williams, Ernst Fuchs, George Di Caprio, Jose Israel Fernandez, Suzanne Williams, Ben Hecht, Karen Mortillaro, Pyotr Rypsin, Lena Zwalve, Adam Jones, Gabe Bartalos, James Kagel, Timothy Snyder, Marek Hapon, Adam Jones, Charles Schneider, Sandy Decker, Natalia Fabian, Rebecca Forstadt. Directed by Ireneusz Dobrowolski

 

It would be understandable if you hadn’t heard of Stanislav Szukalski. Even within the art world, his work is largely unknown these days, which is a shame – his talent and imagination are undeniable. However, the Polish-born artist’s case is not easy to contemplate.

Much of his work was destroyed during the Second World War; all that is left is conceptual drawings that he made. Following the war, he emigrated to the United States and lived in the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Granada Hills until he passed away in 1987. Late in life, underground comic artists like Glenn Bray, Robert Williams and R. Crumb discovered him; some of Szukalski’s drawings appeared in the latter’s Weirdo.

Bray, a collector of Szukalski’s art and a close personal friend (he ended up the executor of his will), taped hundreds of hours of interviews with the artist which remain the only recorded footage of him. It gives the portrait of a man who was often maddeningly arrogant, highly opinionated and occasionally sweet.

But there’s a dark side to Szukalski, one that was unearthed during the making of this documentary and one which even his closest friends weren’t aware of. The revelations change the nature of the documentary from a straightforward biography to something with a much more urgent issue that we continue to grapple with in the age of #MeToo – is an artist separate from his work? Can we love a Woody Allen movie and deplore his actions? Can we love Chinatown and censure Roman Polanski?

That’s what his friends have to come to terms with. Some, like Bray, remain loyal to the old man they knew; Bray contends that Szukalski was a changed man when he knew him and there is evidence that Szukalski was anxious to make amends. However, others such as Di Caprio are not so sure that some of the actions of the artist can be forgiven and we also have to consider the legacy of those actions; in his native Poland, Szukalski has been adopted as a figurehead by far-right extremists, even though Szukalski himself would point out that his work was meant to illustrate the common themes of mankind through his philosophy of Zermatism, which has come down to us thanks to the Church of the Sub-Genius which purloined some of the concepts as their own.

Szukalski used the art forms and mythologies of other cultures to help him explore Poland’s identity, and there’s no doubt that the art is powerful and expressive. But considering his state of mind when he created some of this work, can it be trusted? The filmmaker leaves it to you to answer that for yourself but I can’t help but wonder that if the art is an extension of the artist, then is the art also an extension of the darker elements of that artist? We may never adequately answer that one.

REASONS TO SEE: The artwork is incredible. Szukalski himself is fascinating although there are parts of his personality that are disturbing to say the least.
REASONS TO AVOID: Szukalski isn’t always an admirable guy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and depictions of anti-Semitism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Artist George di Caprio was friends with Szukalski late in his life; his son is the actor Leonardo. Both men are listed as producers on the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Afterimage
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
My Hindu Friend