Brave New Jersey


Martians, Mexicans, it doesn’t matter: no illegal aliens!

(2016) Comedy (Gravitas) Anna Camp, Heather Burns, Tony Hale, Sam Jaeger, Erika Alexander, Evan Jonigkeit, Raymond J. Barry, Dan Bakkedahl, Grace Kaufman, Mel Rodriguez, Adina Galupa, Leonard Earl Howze, Noah Lomax, Matt Oberg, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Jack Landry, Bill Coelius, Blaque Fowler, Roy Hawkins Jr., Helen Ingebritsen, Harp Sandman. Directed by Jody Lambert

 

Older readers are probably familiar with the story of the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the World by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater ensemble on Halloween night, 1938. A precursor to found footage films of more recent times, the show was done in the style of a news broadcast of the time, leading many Americans to believe that Martians were really invading New Jersey.

In Lullaby, New Jersey – population 506 – life is pretty idyllic despite the Depression. Sure, there are many stores that are closed but it is a pleasant small town and most people take care of one another. The town may be in for a windfall as local entrepreneur Paul Davison (Jaeger) has invented the Rotolator, a machine that can automatically milk up to 15 cows simultaneously. It will revolutionize dairy farming and ground zero for this mechanical marvel will be Lullaby.

The town’s mayor, Clark Hill (Hale) is a sweet-natured, easy-going fellow who is taken for granted by his constituents and is a figure of some amusement. Nonetheless he gives much of his energy and passion to the town, although some of it is reserved for Lorraine (Burns), the wife of Paul Davison for whom Clark has had a secret crush on for years.

It’s Halloween and Lorraine’s daughter Ann (Kaufman) and adopted cousin Ziggy (Sandman) who fled Poland ahead of Hitler’s invasion (which wouldn’t take place until the following year for those following along at home) are dressed up as Greta Garbo and Abe Lincoln, respectively. Most of the townspeople are looking forward to the extravaganza unveiling the Rotolator which will be the highlight of Halloween, complete with fireworks. However, things are about to change.

People listening in on the radio are shocked to discover that there are reports of meteorites landing near Grover’s Mills – a town about a three hour drive from Lullaby. They are further shocked when Martians rise from the meteorites (which turned out to be spaceships) and turn their death rays on the good people of Grover’s Mills. As more and more spaceships land to their horror, it appears as if the human race is about to be wiped off the face of their own planet.

Former World War I soldier Ambrose Collins (Barry) takes command from the overwhelmed Sheriff (Rodriguez) and somewhat indecisive mayor and girds the town to arm itself to make a last stand. Going all gung-ho is schoolteacher Peg Prickett (Camp) who longs for a much more exciting life than being a small-town schoolteacher and is finally getting her opportunity much to the amazement of her fiancée Chardy Edwards (Oberg). Other members of the town turn to Reverend Ray Rogers (Bakkedahl) who hasn’t had his faith for a long time but finds it in this moment of crisis. Still, with lovers turning on one another and fathers leaving their family standing in the driveway as they drive away without them, can the town survive the invasion or it’s aftermath?

Apparently many of the individual incidents depicted in the film actually happened, although not all in the same town. I can’t speak to that personally; I do know that there was large-scale panic when the broadcast aired back in ’38. Some may have seen the 1975 TV movie The Night that Panicked America which presented a much more realistic version of what actually happened that night.

The cast is mainly veterans of television and indie films and they acquit themselves well. Hale, one of the stars of Veep acquits himself particularly well; the role of the somewhat taken for granted mayor. It seems to be right in his wheelhouse. In fact, most of the actors don’t seem to be stretching all that far which is in some ways a tribute to the casting director for picking the right people for the right roles. It’s also a double-edged sword as none of the actors seem particularly challenged but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What is necessarily a bad thing is that the movie is riddled with anachronisms and errors in logic. For example, Collins is depicted in his 70s – yet World War I ended just 19 years earlier. Chances are he’d be in his late 30s or 40s if he had actually fought in the Great War. Lambert would have been better off making him a veteran of the Indian Wars of the 1880s which would have made him about the right age if he wanted to use Berry for the role.

There is also the use of words like “data” and “hustle” which weren’t in general usage in the Depression, as well as a song that the mayor is writing which sounds more apropos to the Greenwich Village coffee house scene of the 60s than the Big Band era. I would have liked to see some of that cleaned up a bit.

The humor is mainly gentle and low-key; this isn’t a movie for belly laughs. It pokes fun at the absurdities of human nature and particular how gullible we can be. It does so without being particularly political which in this day and age is a welcome respite.

The movie which I would characterize as reasonably entertaining but flawed loses steam towards the end of the second act, leading to a set piece that concludes the action. There are no real surprises here but the movie is inoffensive and has enough going for it that I can at least give it a recommendation. Not a hidden gem so much as a hidden sweater that you can wrap yourself in for an hour and a half and feel cozy and warm.

REASONS TO GO: The film possesses a gentle and low-key sense of humor. This is a treatise on human gullibility.
REASONS TO STAY: There are far too many errors in logic and anachronisms. The humor is a little bit cornball.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the town exteriors were filmed in Maury City, TN – a very small town that has the look of a Depression-era town and with many of the stores on the main street long out of business, the feel of one too.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Chronically Metropolitan

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UFO: It Is Here (UFO: Es Ist Hier)


These German lasses just found out that Donald Trump COULD be elected U.S. President.

These German lasses just found out that Donald Trump COULD be elected U.S. President.

(2016) Horror (Daredo) Laura Berlin, Dennis Mojen, Olga von Luckwald, Leonard Hohm, Jan Walter, Hacky Rumpel, Andreas Ladwig, Fabio Cimpeanu, Nika Cimpeanu. Directed by Daniele Grieco

 

If you’re gonna be a film student, you might as well be ambitious. It’s all well and good to film a documentary at the local zoo, but when an object appears in the sky above your heads, causing the animals in the zoo to universally freak out, that’s a whole other matter. Abandoning your original project to search out a crashed meteorite might just be the ticket not only to getting an “A” but perhaps getting your name out there in the industry.

That’s exactly the situation that confronts Melissa Stein (Berlin), Leo Best (Mojen), Paula Idem (von Luckwald), Erik Greven (Hohm) and André Selke (Walter). Afterwards, they take a vote among themselves to drive to the Northwest and find the crash site of the meteorite and the vote passes, with only sensible Paula voting to finish their Zoo assignment.

Paula is however overruled and off they go in their van into the woods of Germany/Luxembourg/Belgium (where the movie was filmed by the way) and find what amounts to a needle in the haystack. Wouldn’t you know it but they do; a plume of smoke signals that they’ve found what they were searching for.

The crash site is covered with a haze of smoke and is nothing like they expected. There are metal fragments everywhere; scattered all over the ground among scorched trees and embedded in the trunks of trees as well. It is nearly dusk by the time they get there and worried that the authorities will have cordoned off the area before they can get the footage they need, they elect to remain there overnight with once again Paula voting for going home. They should have listened to Paula.

One of their number turns up missing the next morning and when they eventually make a grisly discovery, it becomes clear they are being hunted. Eventually they find a cave where they have an encounter with the thing that’s stalking them and it is like nothing seen before on this Earth, at least for as long as humans have been here.

This is a found footage film which may turn some off to it immediately; for awhile there it seemed like every other horror movie utilized the technique until it became pretty much overused. These days it has become decidedly less so, which makes reviewing it a bit easier. Still, it’s hard not to compare it to the granddaddy of all found footage films, The Blair Witch Project whose template is followed pretty closely by Grieco and to be fair if you’re going to follow a template, that’s a pretty good choice. There are also some nods to Alien, a movie Grieco professes much admiration for. The creature has some similarity to things encountered in the Ridley Scott film, although I think it’s more of an homage than a theft in this case.

Essentially what you have here is five good-looking young people making bad choices in the woods (and later, in a cave and even later in an abandoned farmhouse). That’s essentially the recipe for any horror film, but I was pleased that at least one of the characters seemed to be sensible; she just wasn’t listened to  There is a fair amount of gore here – it’s not for the squeamish by any standard – and mostly practical effects. The alien itself is pretty nifty, although I wouldn’t call it a state-of-the-art creation. We don’t see much of it except in one cave scene where one is found that appears to be in a slumber while digesting a recent meal. There is also plenty of shaky-cam going on which those who are sensitive to such things should be wary of.

I admit that for me to be wowed by a found footage film it has to be really innovative and bring something to the table that no other film in the genre has. This one does have a few things worth checking out but otherwise it really doesn’t add anything particularly new to the genre. It’s solidly made by a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few years down the line he starts to get some mention with the young lions of the horror genre.

REASONS TO GO: The creature effects are primitive but effective.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many found footage tropes here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of profanity, some disturbing images and plenty of horror violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second straight found footage film that Grieco has directed, having had a hit in her native Germany with The Presence in 2014.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Deepwater Horizon

Force Majeure (Turist)


There's no business like snow business.

There’s no business like snow business.

(2014) Dramedy (Magnolia) Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius, Brady Corbet, Jakob Granqvist, Franco Moscon, Malin Dahl. Directed by Ruben Östlund

We never know how we’ll react in any given situation. We imagine, we hope we’ll react with courage and compassion but the truth is there’s a good chance we’ll act to save our own skins rather than someone else’s when push comes to shove. It’s not necessarily a horrible thing but it can cause those around us to reconsider their image of who we are.

Tomas (Kuhnke) and Ebba (Kongsli) are taking a ski vacation in the French Alps with their adorable kids Harry (V. Wettergren) and Vera (C. Wettergren). It’s definitely a much-needed trip; Tomas is a bit of a workaholic whose ear seems permanently glued to his cell phone. This is a chance to let the cares and worries of day to day life melt away and for him to reconnect with his family. Thus far, everything seems to be working.

They’re eating lunch on the terrace of their ski resort one afternoon when an avalanche begins. At first, it’s no cause for alarm. After all, the resort has been purposely setting them off on a regular basis, the days and nights punctuated by soft explosions triggering downfalls of snow to relieve the pressures of an excessive snowfall on the trails. You’d think that they’d be used to it by now.

But the deadly avalanche continues to approach and Ebba begins to feel uneasy. Something is wrong. “Nonsense,” says Tomas full of masculine know-it-all-ness. They’re perfectly safe. Still it gets closer and closer and people begin to nervously rise to their feet. Then as it becomes apparent that it’s not going to stop, the panic begins. People begin to run off the terrace and Ebba goes to grab her children and carry them to safety except they’re too heavy, she can’t lift them and before anything can be done, the avalanche is upon them.

Everything is white. As things come back into focus, Ebba realizes that she and her children are all right. The avalanche must have petered out just before colliding with the resort. All they’d been hit by was the avalanche “smoke,” the fine powder that rises from the surface of the snow. Shaken, the family continues eating their meal, not knowing what else to do.

Everyone’s all right and that’s the important thing, right? But not to Ebba. Her husband abandoned her and her children, leaving them to save himself. He needs to come clean and admit it. Tomas, however, doesn’t see it that way. That’s not how it happened. He refuses to come clean. This becomes stuck in Ebba’s craw. She needs him to own up. She needs to hear him admit that he panicked. She picks at him like a scab.

On the other end, he can’t admit it. It’s just not possible. To do so would be to admit that everything he is as a man is lacking. That he failed to protect his family, one of the most basic instincts that there is in the masculine ego. It’s unthinkable. So the immovable object collides with the unstoppable force and the marriage of Tomas and Ebba suddenly becomes vulnerable.

This is Sweden’s entry into the foreign language film category of the Oscars and quite frankly, it’s a good one. I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t end up on the short list when the announcements come out next month. This isn’t a movie you can standardize in a single category. It’s essentially the story of an unraveling marriage depicted in the style of a thriller. As an audience, you’ll feel like you were at a couple’s party and you walked in on them having a vicious argument in the bedroom. If there were Oscars given for the use of awkward silences, this would win hands down.

Kuhnke and Kongsli play their roles with an easy familiarity that mimics that which exists in real couples who have been together for years and now know each other better than they know themselves. There are few surprises in the routines of everyday life and while Ebba feels more than a little neglected, Tomas is completely oblivious that there’s a problem. His ego won’t let him admit to it.

Not that Ebba is a saint. She is a bit of a nag and can be cold and critical. She has a streak of self-centeredness all her own. Her need to validate her point that her husband failed her becomes consuming; looking at the relationship from afar it is clear that both characters would benefit from letting go of the incident but neither one is built that way. As friends get pulled into their escalating competition, it certainly looks like one of them is going to break.

The avalanche sequence is handled with some CGI but mostly practical effects and is one of the film’s highlights. Can’t say the same thing about the ending which is confusing and seems tacked on and unnecessary. In fact, the movie seems a bit long and might have benefitted from more time looking at the family and less at their friends, who are drawn into an argument over how they’d react in a similar situation which leads to bad feelings between them as well. Those darn Swedes.

While the situation is an extraordinary one, kudos to Östlund for keeping the characters real. They react in ways that aren’t necessarily shining examples of forbearance and in doing so channel every one of us. If you can’t relate to Tomas and/or Ebba, you haven’t been alive long enough to appreciate the subtleties of long-term committed relationships or the fallibility of human beings.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling plot handled in a realistic manner. Some fine performances by the leads. Avalanche sequence is nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. Ending is unsatisfying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief nudity as well as sexual situations and some occasional foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The children of Tomas and Ebba in the film are played by a real life brother and sister.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Outdoors
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Wild

Contagion


Contagion

How is it that Marion Cotillard can still look so hot while trying to appear concerned?

(2011) Medical Drama (Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Demitri Martin, Brian J. O’Connor, Chin Han. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

From time to time, the human population of this planet has been culled from everything from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu. It has been almost a century since our last plague; we’re about due for the next.

It takes just one person to start a plague. In this case, it’s Beth Emhoff (Paltrow). She has just returned home to Minneapolis after a trip to Hong Kong with a case of the flu. At first it’s just chalked up to jet lag, but she suddenly has a violent seizure and is rushed to the hospital. Within hours she is dead. On his way home from the hospital, her husband Mitch (Damon) is told his son is having a seizure. By the time he gets home, his son is already gone.

In the meantime, cases of the disease are sprouting up all over the place, from a bus in Tokyo to a small village in China to a home in Chicago. It seems that a pandemic is about to break out.

The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, personified by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) are mobilizing their forces, sending Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet) to Minneapolis to co-ordinate with Minnesota health officials while the World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Cotillard) to Hong Kong which is apparently ground zero. Both women soon find themselves in unexpected situations with potentially deadly consequences.

As more and more people get sick, things begin to break down. There is looting and riots as people demand answers and a cure. Doctors Ally Hextall (Ehle), David Eisenberg (Martin) and Ian Sussman (Gould) work feverishly to find the cure for this insidious disease which is so far resisting all known treatment. Meanwhile blogger Alan Krumwiede (Law) seeks to manipulate the crisis to his own advantage, fueling the panic that is already just below the surface. Mitch Emhoff is holed up in his home with his daughter Jory (Jacoby-Heron), watching supplies dwindle and terrified that he will lose his only surviving family member to the disease as her persistent boyfriend Andrew (O’Connor) repeatedly tries to get together with her physically. Will a cure be found before civilization completely collapses?

Soderbergh has shown a deft hand with ensemble casts in the Oceans trilogy but here he winds up with too many characters. Too many plotlines to really keep straight, so some his stars (not all of whom survive the movie by the way) are given extremely short shrift while other plotlines seem to go nowhere.

What he does do well is capture the realism of the situation. The movie was made with the co-operation of the CDC and while I’m not sure what, if any, of the film was actually filmed in CDC facilities, you get the sense that if they weren’t the filmmakers at least were granted access so they could find reasonable facsimiles.

You also get a sense that this is the way things would really go down, with lots of conflicting information going out, political in-fighting and finger-pointing as well as heroics by front line personnel who are trying to care for the sick and protect the healthy, not to mention a shady few who stand to profit by the misery of millions (I’m sure insurance companies will make out like bandits and the right will blame it all on Obamacare).

The stars deliver for the most part, particularly Damon who has to run through a gauntlet of emotions from disbelief to grief to anger to fear throughout the course of this movie. He rarely gets the kudos he deserves, but he’s a much better actor than he is often given credit for and for those who need proof of that, they need go no farther than his performance here.

Cotillard is given little to do but look concerned and beautiful and does both beautifully. Winslet does well in her role as a field representative of the CDC who is well and truly over her head to a crazy extent. Law is nefarious and snake-smooth as the blogger with ulterior motives.

The plot here follows standard medical thriller format; the difference here is that there is more emphasis placed on the procedures than on the patients. That’s a double-edged sword in that it gives us a unique viewpoint, but we rarely get to connect to the suffering of those affected by the disease in one way or another.

The scenes that show the rapid breakdown of society are the ones that held my attention the most. Sure, the scenes of scientific research had their fascination as well but I tend to swing my attention more towards the human than the technological or the bureaucratic. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many of those sorts of scenes as I would have liked so the movie scored fewer points than it might have, but still plenty to recommend it to most audiences.

REASONS TO GO: All-star cast and a good sense of realism. Fascinating look at the breakdown of society as social services become impossible.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters and not enough plot.

FAMILY VALUES: The content is rather disturbing and there are a few choice words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Damon, Paltrow and Law last worked in the same film together in 1999 for The Talented Mr. Ripley. Law has no scenes with either Damon or Paltrow this time, however.

HOME OR THEATER: You’ll want to see this at home; trust me, once you see this you won’t want to be within miles of another human being.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: I Don’t Know How She Does It