Past Life


The sleuth sisters.

(2016) Thriller (Goldwyn/Orion) Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavory, Evgenia Dodina, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman, Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Gilat Ankon, Oma Rotenberg, Lenny Cohen, Avi Kornick, Keren Tzur, Aryeh Cherner, Nitzan Rotschild, Aliza Ben-Moha, Yannai A. Gonczarowski, Tamir Shinshoni. Directed by Avi Nesher

 

For those of a certain generation the question “What did you do in the war Daddy?” was neither a frivolous nor easily answered inquiry. For some, particularly in Axis nations, the answers weren’t particularly savory or honorable. There is no shame in survival, but let’s face it; survival can come at an extraordinarily high cost.

Sephi Milch (Rieger) is a young musician and singer who yearns to be a composer. As part of a tour that the choral group at her Israeli arts academy is undertaking in Europe in 1977, she takes part in a performance in West Germany. In the audience is acclaimed composer Thomas Zielinski (Stachowiak) and his mother Agnieszka (Gniewkowska). The older woman grows more and more agitated, unable to stop staring at the photo of Sephi in the program.

At a reception following the concert while her son is receiving an invitation from the choral master to come to Jerusalem and fill the artist in residency program, the mother accosts Sephi and accuses her of being the daughter of a murderer. Thomas is forced to physically drag his mother out of the room. Sephi is quite naturally disturbed by this but rather than tell her father Baruch (Tavory), a well-respected gynecologist in Israel, she confides in her sister Nana (Tagar) whose relationship with her father is strained to say the least.

Nana works with her husband Jeremy (Avni) on a publication that publishes opinion pieces highly critical of the Israeli government as well as nude photo layouts of Israeli models. She has a temper and often argues loudly with her husband in front of co-workers. When Nana hears about the incident from Sephi, she determines to launch an investigation into her own father’s wartime activities. When Baruch gets wind of it, he decides to read his wartime diary to his daughters – he doesn’t have the diary but claims to remember it word for word.

Now the focus turns to the diary and whether Baruch’s memory is as sharp as he claims. That will bring Sephi back to Berlin and to Poland as she attempts to uncover the events of a horrifying night – and discover if her father is the man she thought she was.

This is reportedly to be the first in a planned trilogy of similarly themed stories from Nesher and it is based on the memoirs of the actual Baruch Milch (although it is a fictionalized version). Now, I will grant you that movies with Holocaust themes are many and there aren’t many more ways to explore it without essentially repeating themselves but this is quite different. For one thing, it implies that for the sake of living through the ordeal some Holocaust survivors did things that were terrible, which they undoubtedly did. It also looks at how these terrible acts can affect the lives of not only those who committed them but their families as well.

Rieger and Tagar are believable as sisters. Often in films the tendency is to give sisters very similar personalities; anyone who knows a pair of sisters knows that’s rarely the case. Often sisters have wildly divergent personalities and that is the case here; Sephi is quiet and a bit mousy while Nana is loud, abrasive and self-confident. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a closeness between them; it just means that the two react differently to the same stimulations and while there are those differences between them, they are more alike than even they realize.

The performances here are sterling throughout which helps keep the movie from settling into cliché; the people in the movie all feel real, whether it’s from the stressed out mother (Dodina) to the angry and stubborn Agnieszka. Thomas is a bit of a romantic foil for Sephi but there isn’t a lot of romance in the movie other than between the two sisters who learn to respect and relate to each other through their shared experience. Tavory also gives a fearless performance as Baruch, making him a most unpleasant man much of the time (you can see why Nana despises him) whose daughters grew up being physically assaulted by their father. Baruch does love his daughters as best as he can but he is extremely damaged by what happened during the war and he’s not inclined to share that with his girls until they finally corner him.

The choral music featured in the film is strikingly beautiful. Nesher also captures the era of the 70s well and while there are some missteps when it comes to pacing – the movie takes a long while to unfold which may cause problems for some younger Americans – he does allow the story to unfold very nicely. Like the espionage movies of the era in which this is set, nobody’s motives are above reproach and the audience is left feeling slightly off-balance in a good way.

The family dynamic is what elevates this movie above other movies that have themes involving the Holocaust. I can get why people are a little weary of movies with that theme but this one is definitely one worth taking note of. It’s difficult for those of us who didn’t live through the Holocaust to really understand what survivors endured and had to live with. This movie will at the very least give you an idea of that and maybe a little understanding at how far the damage went beyond those that didn’t survive the war.

REASONS TO GO: The film is brilliantly directed by Nesher. You’re never sure of anyone’s motives which heightens the suspense. The choral music is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story that Nana tells about urinating on her sister was something that the actress that plays her, Nelly Tagar, actually did. She told the story to director Avi Nesher and he liked it so much he put it in the script.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Debt
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Hero

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The Belko Experiment


Things are getting a little heated back at the office.

(2016) Horror (BH Tilt/High Top/Orion) John Gallagher Jr., Adria Arjona, Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Owain Yeoman, Sean Gunn, Brent Sexton, Josh Brener, David Dastmalchian, David Del Rio, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, Rusty Schwimmer, Gail Bean, James Earl, Abraham Benrubi, Valentine Miele, Steven Blackehart, Benjamin Byron Davis, Silvia de Dios. Directed by Greg McLean

 

There’s no doubt that the corporate environment in 2017 is as cutthroat as it’s ever been. Ambitious office drones plot their way to promotions that bring them out of the environment of living paycheck to paycheck and into management where they can make some real money; others plot to preserve their place in the pecking order. Either way, the office is no place for the faint of heart.

Belko Corporation is described as a non-profit that helps large companies recruit American workers to South American locations. They have a large tower located outside of Bogota, Colombia – well outside of Bogota. Mike Milch (Gallagher) is a fairly humdrum middle management type who is involved in a clandestine romance with co-worker Leandra Florez (Arjona) as that sort of thing is discouraged by Belko, who somewhat appropriately incorporate the figure of an eye into their corporate logo. It is not stretching things to say that most of the people who work in the building have no clue what they do for the company.

One unremarkable morning Mike drives into work to discover an increased security presence and that all the local Colombian workers are being turned away from work. He thinks nothing of it – until a disembodied voice comes on the PA system to announce that the 80 or so workers remaining in the building must select two among their number to murder – or else double that number would be selected at random. Everyone thinks it’s a practical joke in poor taste – until the heads of four people suddenly explode.

At first believing the carnage to be the work of a random sniper, there is panic as people try to get under cover. That’s when large blowtorch-proof metal doors and shutters encase the building in a steel cocoon. There is no leaving and as the voice informs them that they’ll need to find 20 workers to dispatch to the choir invisible or once again double that number would be random victims.

Quickly the social order begins to devolve. The company’s COO Barry Norris (Goldwyn) tries to preach calm and order until he becomes convinced that the only way to buy time is to do what the voice commands, especially when it becomes apparent that every move they make is being observed (remember the eye?) by the disembodied voice. Joining him are a number of management types who want to maintain control of the situation, including Wendell Dukes (McGinley), the kind of manager nobody ever wants to work under. Mike is trying to keep from having anyone die but his voice is not getting heard in the increasing panic. Before too long things fall completely apart and everyone starts looking out for their own ass if they are to survive the worst workday ever.

The movie was penned by current fan favorite James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) as a bit of a passion project but it has languished on the shelf while Gunn has been shepherding the two Marvel space operas to money-printing status. He left the property however in the capable hands of Aussie director McLean (Wolf Creek) who does a yeoman job bringing the script to life.

Most of the actors are better known by face than by name and while there is a black comedy element to the proceedings it never gets to the point of silliness which often happens with horror comedies. Of course, this is as allegorical as it gets to what corporate culture has become in terms of treating employees as disposable resources in which salary and benefits are necessary evils and when the need for those workers dissipates, so do the workers.

Rooker, who has become one of Gunn’s go-to guys, excels as a building engineer as does Goldwyn as a boss who is friendly and supportive on the outside but loses any semblance of concern for his employees when the rubber hits the road. Gallagher and Arjona are okay in the lead roles but aren’t particularly memorable. James’ brother Sean is memorable as a stoner and Schwimmer as the office mother hen is strong.

There are a lot of heads exploding here (having to do with a tracking chip that American workers receive in countries where kidnappings are common) and many gruesome deaths by axe to the face or stapler to the skull. I might have wished for a little more variety to the murders – I would imagine in an office environment there would be plenty of supplies that could do some real damage. A little more imagination in this department would have been welcome. It also should be said that those sensitive to gore and carnage will likely have a rough time with The Belko Experiment.

The movie loses momentum in the second half which is basically a survivalist epic and the denouement is a bit disappointing although there are some pop culture references of the blink and you’ll miss them variety that add some richness to the last moments of the movie. I was hoping for a little bit more from the film but to be honest it is solidly entertaining and horror fans looking for something a little bit different could do a lot worse than to look in this direction.

REASONS TO GO: The film is clever, particularly in the first half. Some fine actors turn in strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The gore might be a little bit too extreme for some. The film loses steam in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: Oh my, there’s plenty of gore and violence, profanity, some drug use and brief sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Gunn was originally set to direct this from his own screenplay but felt that the violence was not what he needed in his life as he was going through a painful divorce, plus he was also hard at work on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle Royale
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: New Chefs on the Block

Buddymoon (Honey Buddies)


David Giuntoli and Flula Borg strike a pose.

David Giuntoli and Flula Borg strike a pose.

(2016) Comedy (Orion/Gravitas) David Giuntoli, Flula Borg, Claire Coffee, Brian T. Finney, Jeanne Syquia, Hutch Harris. Directed by Alex Simmons

Florida Film Festival 2016

Sometimes you just have to make the best of a bad situation. When bad things happen, our first instinct is generally to go into defensive mode; shut the world out and try to deal with it on our own. That isn’t always the best solution.

Former child actor David (Giuntoli) has had a bad week and it should have been his best week ever. Frankie (Syquia), the girl of his dreams, was supposed to marry him. She and he were then going to go hiking in the Oregon woods and end up in this fantastic lodge. It was going to be a week he’d remember for the rest of his life.

Instead, she’d dumped him a couple of days before the ceremony without any explanation. Now he’s wallowing, drinking up the wine they’d bought for the reception, stuffing his face with junk food and generally feeling sorry for himself – although if there is a situation better suited to feeling sorry for oneself, I can’t think of one.

His erstwhile best man Flula (Borg), a DJ from Germany, is determined not to let David wallow. He gives David the idea of taking the hiking vacation anyway only with Flula instead of Frankie. Even though Frankie had been more of the outdoorsy type which the two men are not, David decides to give Flula’s idea a whirl.

Flula’s endless optimism begins to erode David’s foul mood, and the beautiful scenery is inspiring. David, who is up for a major comeback role as William Clark in a motion picture about the explorers Lewis and Clark, reads from Clark’s journal and finds some parallels to his own journey. They meet up with a group of hikers that do the campfire song thing, and whose comely female hiker Polly (Coffee) takes a shine to David, although he is a bit embarrassed about his history as Robot Boy.

Even with all the positives, it is a grueling hike and soon Flula and David begin to get on each other’s nerves. Eventually the two separate to complete the hike alone. Only one thing could reunite them – the unexpected appearance of Frankie.

Giuntoli, who co-wrote the film along with Borg and Simmons (the three of them have been friends for years), is best known as the grim slayer of fantastical creatures in TV’s Grimm. This is a much different role for him. He definitely has big-screen potential, and he handles the comic actor role like a boss. This is an actor who has some pretty solid range, which bodes well for a future in movies if TV doesn’t keep him occupied until then.

Borg has good chemistry with Giuntoli and has excellent comic timing, something you just can’t teach. His fractured English syntax and malapropisms are occasionally a little uncomfortable, but generally the humor seems pretty light-hearted, poking fun at European stereotypes.

In fact, the movie isn’t above poking fun at itself. Both David and Flula are far from what you’d call intrepid outdoorsmen and in a lot of ways these aren’t the he-men hunks you usually find on movies about hiking in the woods (although I’m sure the ladies find Giuntoli plenty hunky). The two of them are at least early on pretty inept at trail life. That they get decent at it is a bit Hollywood-ish but at least they never get good at it. They’re able to hold their own.

The cinematography is spectacular at times; the Pacific Northwest offers some pretty amazing vistas for the cameraman to devour. It’s beautiful enough to encourage people on the fence about visiting the area to take the plunge. Occasionally the scenery does overwhelm the comedy, but wisely Simmons makes sure that the two generally work in harmony.

This is essentially a road movie on foot, and Borg and Giuntoli in many ways are Hope and Crosby. While the movie is short, it feels by trail’s end to be running a bit out of steam. Nonetheless, this is a very entertaining film that hopefully will move up the careers of all involved a notch. Definitely one of the better things I saw at this year’s Florida Film Festival.

REASONS TO GO: Giuntoli has big screen potential. Borg is a funny guy. Beautiful scenery is photographed lushly.
REASONS TO STAY: Runs out of steam near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of adult language, some sexual situations and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Claire Coffee has also appeared on Giuntoli’s hit TV show Grimm.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Walk in the Woods
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Diablo


Scott Eastwood is smoking hot.

Scott Eastwood is smoking hot.

(2015) Western (Orion/Momentum) Scott Eastwood, Walton Goggins, Camilla Belle, Samuel Marty, Danny Glover, Adam Beach, Roberto Franco, Diego Diablo Del Mar, Nesta Cooper, William Belleau, Morris Birdyellowhead, Tzi Ma, Greg Lawson, Yaniv Bercowitz, Rohan Campbell, Joaquim De Almeida, José Zuñiga. Directed by Lawrence Roeck

There isn’t anything a man won’t do when one of his loved ones are threatened. He’ll find them if he has to go to the ends of the earth to do it. He’ll take on any odds; do whatever it takes to bring them home safe and sound, even if it means doing things that may damn his soul.

Jackson (Eastwood) emerges from a burning home and barn to discover that his wife Alexsandra (Belle) has been taken by a group of desperadoes who speak Spanish. Once he rescues his horse from the barn, he takes off through the wilderness to find her. While in the mountains he meets up with Ezra (Goggins), an outlaw who takes great pleasure in killing indiscriminately. He also has an encounter with Ishani, a young Native (Marty) who fires a couple of arrows at him, but when Jackson realizes he’s just a boy spares his life.

The trail is hard and with the relentless Ezra stalking him, Jackson eventually ends up injured and cared for by Ishani’s tribe particularly his father Nakoma (Beach). However, not everyone in the tribe thinks that Jackson is necessarily the good man he seems to be and it is urged that he be given peyote and put into the sweat lodge. There, Jackson has a vision of his younger brother with whom he went to the Civil War to seven years earlier and it certainly seems that Jackson may have a few skeletons in his closet after all.

There are elements of classic Westerns in this movie, particularly in the first two thirds of it although there are elements of the Westerns of Peckinpah and Leone as well. I think the movie is going for an overall gritty feel, which isn’t a bad thing but it feels like Roeck is forcing it a little bit. There is lots of violence (some of it gruesome) and some pretty rough customers here traveling the byways of the West (mostly filmed in beautiful Alberta). Veteran cinematographer Dean Cundey outdoes himself here, giving us beautiful Rocky Mountain vistas that are absolutely dazzling, truly one of the highlights of the movie.

Goggins, who has been getting more high profile roles lately, does sterling work as the amoral Ezra. The costume helps a lot as he looks a bit like an undertaker but there is a cheerful malevolence to him that is scarier than a Snidely Whiplash type of villain. He is becoming quite a capable character actor; while the jury is out on whether he has lead role screen presence, I think it’s quite likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of him in the near future. Eastwood’s career is also picking up; he has some high profile features on the horizon, but here although his physical resemblance to his father is significant, his screen presence isn’t as developed as his old man’s.

The movie has a serious drawback and it involves the plot twist. It’s not a bad one – don’t get me wrong on that point – but they reveal it way too early and it changes the entire nature of the movie. I can kind of see why they did it that way, but frankly it doesn’t work. It’s the kind of thing that would have best been revealed during the climactic scene.

Westerns have been making something of a comeback lately; there have been some very high quality ones that have been released in the last few months, but this isn’t one of them. That’s too bad because it has some very good individual elements, but it doesn’t add up to a cohesive whole. There’s enough here to make it worth a look, particularly for those who love Westerns and those who love Clint Eastwood in particular, but even those worthies may be well-advised to play one of Clint’s classic on the home video player instead.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Goggins makes a malevolent villain.
REASONS TO STAY: The twist is revealed too early. Tries too hard to be gritty.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, most of it in the style of the Old West, and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eastwood has purposely avoided Westerns to avoid comparisons to his father even though he receives by his count more than 50 scripts every month; this is the first one he has actually agreed to do.
BEYOND THE THEATER: iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, M-Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pale Rider
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The 5th Wave