The Painted Bird


If you thought Bergman was bleak…

(2019) Drama (IFC) Petr Kotlár, Nina Shunevych, All Sokolova, Stanislav Bilyi, Barry Pepper, Zdenek Pecha, Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Lech Dyblik, Jitka Cvancarová, Julian Sands, Marika Procházková, Marie Stripkova, Milan Simácek, Martin Naholká, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominik Weber, Per Jenista, Irena Måchovå. Directed by Václav Marhoul

 

Some films are made for their times; others seem to exist in no specific time period whatsoever. Then there are movies that are a product of their times and reflect a mindset or an aspect of an era. Given the times that we live in, seeing a movie like this one might not necessarily be something you’ll want to put yourself through – it’s brilliant, but brutal.

During World War II, a young Jewish Boy (Kotlár) – who is never named in the film – is sent to live in the countryside of an unnamed Eastern European country (in the press material, she is referred to as his aunt). She tries to keep him in their isolated farmhouse, but every time he ventures out village boys torment him and in a memorable scene, set fire to his pet mink which runs around, screaming as it is immolated. This is in the first five minutes of the film.

Shortly thereafter, the Boy discovers that his protector has died during the night. Startled by the sight of her corpse, he accidentally sets fire to the farmhouse and burns it to the ground. On his own now with nobody to protect him in an increasingly chaotic and desperate landscape, he meets a variety of people – some kind, some cruel – and witnesses an assortment of disturbing and venal acts, including but not limited to child abuse, spousal abuse, lynching, bestiality, rape, torture and anti-Semitism.

All of this serves to create a shell around the boy’s soul as he tries to survive the horrors he has witnessed, all the while searching for his family. But if he is to find them, will he return to them the same boy as he was when he left? Don’t count on it.

The film is based on Polish author Jerzy Kosinsky’s (Being There) first novel which became controversial when he claimed it was autobiographical, but it turned out to be not the case. Shot in lush, glorious, black and white, the cinematography helps the film feel timeless – the small, rural villages seem to be as much a part of the 15th century as they do the 20th, with superstitious villagers committing acts so barbarous that they can almost never be forgiven. That such things actually happened is almost of no consequence because the filmmakers give us almost no context on which to bolster the film, leaving us to feel like we just had a bath in raw sewage.

That’s not to say that every moment in this film is unredeemable – there are some characters in the film who aren’t out to rape and murder the Boy, such as a kind-hearted but misguided priest (Keitel), a gruff Russian sniper (Pepper) and a good-at-heart German soldier (Skarsgård) who spares the Boy after being ordered to kill him. Such moments, though, are few and decidedly far-between.

At just a touch under three hours long, this is a marathon and not a sprint. An early scene in which a jealous miller gouges out the eyes of a man who he thought was staring at his wife with the intention of fornicating with her (followed by the inevitable beating of said wife by the eye-gouging miller) which the miller’s cats then feasted on inspired literally dozens of patrons seeing the movie at its debut at the Venice Film Festival last year to walk out, or attempt to with increasing levels of desperation (less than half the original audience was left when the lights came back up).

There is some definite talent here and even if Marhoul attempts to stave off criticism by stating that he’s less interested in the truthfulness of the film’s subject matter but rather in the truths of human nature that they reveal. That’s the cop-out response of someone who believes his art (and therefore himself) are Above It All. Nyet to that, comrade.

This isn’t an easy watch and certainly those who are sensitive or squeamish should stay the hell away from this thing. There are some truths revealed here that remind us that we are not so far removed from being these Luddite villagers who feel it is their religious duty to execute the unholy among them, even if they are innocent children. The kind of ignorance and madness on display here seems eerily familiar – and disturbingly current.

REASONS TO SEE: Black and white photography makes the film timeless. Bears some warning in this ear of rampant nationalism.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unrelentingly bleak and brutal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of violence (much of it graphic), animal cruelty, disturbing images and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The language spoken in the film is not an actual language, but an amalgam of various Slavic languages and dialects. Marhoul didn’t want the film location associated with a specific nation, so he put together a fictional language in order to leave vague where the action takes place. In the original novel, the film takes place in Poland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Europa Europa
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
We Are the Radical Monarchs

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek


How quickly the paranoid turn on one another.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vanishing (Keepers)


Taking on all comers.

(2018) Mystery (SabanGerard Butler, Peter Mullan, Connor Swindells, Gary Lewis, Emma King, Ken Drury, Soren Malling, Ólafur Dari Ólafsson, Gary Kane, Roderick Gilkison, John Taylor. Directed by Kristoffer Nyholm

 

On or about December 15, 1900, three lighthouse keepers on the tiny island of Eilean Mor in the Flannan Islands about twenty miles West of the Outer Hebrides Islands in Scotland vanished without a trace. Their fates are unknown even to this day and are the subject of lively conversation locally.

Senior officer Thomas Marshall (Mullan), grizzled veteran James Ducat (Butler) and fresh-faced newcomer Donald MacArthur (Swindells) – known in the log book as “The Occasional” because he isn’t a full-fledged member of the crew yet – are set for a six-week shift watching the Flannan Islands Lighthouse. It is tedious, boring and lonely work but the three men get on pretty well, ribbing the newbie and heading off the cold with copious amounts of Scotch.

Then a rowboat shows up with an apparently dead body and a locked chest. Donald is sent down to investigate, and the dead body turns out to be not-quite-dead-yet. Donald ends up in a fight for his life and triumphs, but is sorely affected by what has transpired. You just know that whatever is in the chest that someone was willing to kill for is certainly going to have other people looking for it, and of course they eventually show up. That leads to further mayhem, guilt, paranoia and inevitable tragedy.

Nyholm does a good job of creating an eerie atmosphere. Certainly there have been paranormal explanations as to what happened to the keepers, but Nyholm and writers Celyn Jones and Joe Bone keep their feet planted firmly on terra firma, but Nyholm is not above making us think there is something otherworldly going on. It is only in the last half of the film that we’re pretty much told “Nope, nothing crazy going on here.”

The performances here are superb, particularly from Butler, who doesn’t get many opportunities to flex his acting muscles in the action movies he primarily makes these days, and Mullan, one of the finest character actors in the UK. The turn of the 20th century is replicated well here, although the lighthouse is equipped with a radio that I’m fairly certain wasn’t in general use for another decade at least.

Despite the title which intimates a spooky horror film, this is a pretty taut thriller with explosions of very personal, in-your-face violence. Well-acted with a nicely tense atmosphere of paranoia and maybe something else, this is an ideal viewing on a cold, windy night – or for that matter, a still summer day.

REASONS TO SEE: Very atmospheric with great period production design. Solid performances all around, particularly from Butler and Mullan.
REASONS TO AVOID: Devolves into a generic thriller towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence and grisly images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the lighthouse of Eilean Mor is still operational albeit slightly modernized, four other lighthouses were used in the production of the film due to the remoteness of Eilean Mor.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lighthouse
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
A Dog’s Way Home

M.O.M. (Mothers of Monsters)


Being a mom means knowing how to D.I.Y.

(2020) Suspense (Indie Rights) Melinda Page Hamilton, Bailey Edwards, Edward Asner, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Julian de la Celle. Directed by Tucia Lyman

 

Every mom thinks her child is an absolute angel, right? There’s that unbreakable bond between mother and son that is maybe one of the most beautiful relationships there are. But what happens when a mom begins to suspect that her little angel is in fact potentially a homicidal monster?

That’s the situation that Abbey (Hamilton) finds herself in. Throughout his childhood, young Jacob (Edwards) has had anger management issues and has acted out in troubling ways. Now that he’s a teen, Jacob’s rages have grown in scope and he has begun to take an unhealthy interest in guns and Nazi symbology. His acting out is getting increasingly violent. Abbey is calling out in the wilderness, to school officials who see a different side of Jacob, and a psychiatrist (Asner) who believes that Abbey is the one who’s losing it. And maybe he’s right; living in a constant state of terror is taking its toll.

This found footage film, mostly video confessionals, security cam footage, cell phone footage, laptop cam footage and home movies, is woven together by veteran TV showrunner and first-time feature director Lyman, perhaps not seamlessly but close enough.

She does a masterful job of building up the tension in the film, giving the viewer a feeling that they can’t look away even for a moment. It’s not exactly like a train wreck; it’s more like hearing noises outside your window and staring out to see if there’s something out there. You know there is and you’re just waiting for it to make its move.

The movie does move into a psychological horror mode in the last half which is a bit weaker than the first; the movie would have benefitted by exploring Abbey’s mental state a little bit more as well, because part of the movie’s strength is that you’re never quite certain whether Jacob is the monster his mommy thinks he is, or whether Abbey – herself traumatized by a childhood incident which is only revealed near the end of the film – is the one who is losing her mind. That question is sorta kinda settled in the shocking ending, but not really. You are left wondering which one of the two needed professional help. Maybe both of them.

The film benefits from strong lead performances by both Hamilton and Edwards. Edwards projects menace, occasionally staring at the camera with an utterly blank expression that screams “psychopath,” whereas Abbey seems to be growing more and more brittle as the film goes along, a tribute to Hamilton who manages to be both sympathetic and yet leaving room for the audience to question her own sanity. In that sense, the film is well-written.

The movie has a lot of resonance in an era where kids shoot up schools for no apparent reason other than that they can. I think a case could be made that we’re all suffering from PTSD given the national obsession with guns and how often we have a mass shooting dominating the headlines. Many parents of teens (or parents who survived their children’s teen years) will find some empathy for Abbey, while younger viewers may actually identify with Jacob, whose issues have him taking all sorts of meds and whose dad is not really in the picture, not to mention Abbey can be a bit on the controlling side at times.

Still, this is a powerful movie that flew under the radar but definitely has the chops to be worth your while. It’s not on a whole lot of streaming services at the moment, but that may change once people are clued in to how good this movie is. However, if you’re practicing social distancing with a teen in the house, you might want to think twice before watching this. You could end up with all sorts of paranoid nightmares.

REASONS TO SEE: Genuinely chilling. Leaves you feeling like you can’t look away for even a moment. Strong performances by Hamilton and Edwards.
REASONS TO AVOID: The middle third drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film for Lyman, whose background is in television..
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Need to Talk About Kevin
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Pacified

Exit 0


Is it paranoia when everyone is out to get you?

(2019) Suspense (Breaking GlassGabe Fazio, Augie Duke, Federico Castelluccio, Peter Greene, Kenneth McGregor, Daniel O’Shea, Ariel Eliaz, Boomer Tibbs, Ashley Jordan, Tara Rose Schreiber, Lindsey Axelsson, Kevin Ebner, Cash Kortum, Terry O’Brien, George Lind, Yara Mulder, Mary Anuzzi Voigt. Directed by E.B. Hughes

 

There is a fine line between madness and sanity. We all push the envelope of that line from time to time, whether it is obsession with a sports team, or the puzzling madness of doing the same thing time after time and expecting a different outcome. We all have some soft of insanity in our DNA.

Billy (Fazio) and his girlfriend of nearly a year Lisa (Duke) are heading up to the seaside town where Billy grew up for a weekend romantic getaway. We see that there are already cracks in the relationship; Lisa spends an inordinate time on our cellphone, Billy is paranoid as to who she’s texting. At a rest stop, Billy notices that there is a mysterious black car following them, but doesn’t think anything particularly sinister about it.

Once at the hotel, things really start to get creepy. While Lisa is taking a bath, Billy unpacks only to find a mysterious videotape. Being curious, he plays it and to his horror watches a young couple being stalked by a pair of men who rape and the wife and then murder the couple in the very hotel room in which he’s staying. Not wanting to freak out his girlfriend, Billy keeps the disturbing information to himself.

He does call the police, but when skeptical Det. Muller (Castelluccio) shows up the tape mysteriously disappears. Billy decides to spend the day doing touristy things with Lisa. While on a tour of the local lighthouse, tour guide Charlie (O’Shea) informs the couple that the inn in which they are staying is well-known as being haunted.

Then the videotape shows back up again, but this time it is blank. Muller begins to suspect that Billy has some mental issues and talks to Lisa about it. Meanwhile, Billy grows more and more paranoid. Are he and Lisa being stalked by the same people who murdered the couple? Is there a malevolent ghostly presence in the Inn? Or is Billy losing his mind?

There are a fair number of suspense movies that utilize the “is-it-or-is-it-not-paranormal” card, and for that kind of film, Exit 0 tends to follow the formula pretty dang closely. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it tends to rob the movie of any major surprises. We are then left to rely on the actors ability to inject some personality into the movie to make it unique and while the actors do try their best, at the end of the day they don’t quite pull it off.

I’m not sure where they filmed this but Hughes and company do a good job of creating a creepy environment. Still, it isn’t quite enough to overcome the somewhat tired script. It does come close, though.

REASONS TO SEE: The old hotel is suitably creepy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much on the formulaic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some sexuality, some violence and a scene of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film for Zonana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Strangers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
M.O.M. (Mothers of Monsters)

The Kill Team (2019)


In battle there is brotherhood.

(2019) War (A24Alexander Skarsgǻrd, Nat Wolff, Adam Long, Jonathan Whitesell, Brian Marc, Osy Ikhile, Rob Morrow, Anna Francolini, Oliver Ritchie, Edd Campbell Bird, Adam James, Elham Ehsas, Tunji Kasim, Ian Attard, Taz Skylar, Zackary Momoh, Luka Schardan, Julio Perillan, Edward J. Bentley, Andreas Karraas, Amani Zafdoe. Directed by Dan Krauss

 

War is far from simple, although it is sometimes characterized that way. There are those who see it as the ultimate expression of masculinity, the place where young men go to prove themselves men. Others see it as institutionalized murder. It does require those who go to war to kill or be killed, putting them in a constant state of high stress. It also asks of them to violate some of the most sacred precepts both from a societal standpoint as well as a moral one – thou shalt not kill.

18-year-old Andrew Briggman (Wolff) has enlisted following high school. He wants to make a difference, to protect his country from terrorists and perhaps to some extent, be all he can be. Earning the pride of his father (Morrow), he goes to Afghanistan with a young man’s expectations. He quickly learns that Afghanistan is nothing like what he expected. Fortunately, he has a sergeant (Ikhile) who is a hearts and minds kind of guy, trying to win over the Afghan people with kindness. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work out too well for him.

Enter Sergeant Deeks (Skarsgǻrd) who is of the “speak softly and carry a big gun” persuasion. He is far more interested in winning over the hearts and minds of his command than in those of the locals. To Deeks, everyone is a potential enemy and he has no trouble sorting out the good from the bad – they’re all bad in his view and treats them accordingly. He appeals to the machismo of his men, rewarding them for their more bloodthirsty tendencies.

At first, Briggman buys into it but as he sees his platoon fall further and further from decency to the point where they are executing locals for sport, he is horrified. When he tries to report what he’s seen, he discovers Deeks has friends in all sorts of places and with Deeks falsifying reports, it boils down to the word of a three-tour decorated veteran versus a young wet-behind-the-ears rookie.

Briggman realizes that out in the field he is at the mercy of his comrades who are all trained killers. Soldiers survive because they know their brothers-in-arms have their backs; when you go out into the field not only uncertain whether your platoon has your back or might just shoot you in yours, it is not a place to be, to say the least. Briggman finds himself at odds with his conscience as well as his survival instinct.

Krauss based this loosely on a documentary that he directed back in 2013 (Florida Film Festival attendees may recall it and for those whose memory needs a jog, you can read my review here). That was a bit more of a morality play, chronicling a family’s encounter with the military justice system as the young soldier fights for the truth with his supportive family behind him. This version is fictionalized and the names are all changed, and the focus here is more on what the soldier endured and how it affected him. None of the film depicts the fall-out from the soldier’s accusations.

The role of Deeks is tailor-made for Skarsgǻrd and he responds with an intense performance. The actor underplays the role, giving the character a whole lot of menace. He certainly holds our attention on-screen. Wolff gives his character the right amount of naivete and gung-ho machismo to make him very relatable. Unfortunately, none of the other characters get much development.

Krauss also proves himself to be adept at building suspense and creating an on-screen tension that will keep audience members on the edge of their seats (or couches, as the case may be). The action sequences are a bit on the low-key side but they are adequate – in a lot of ways, the movie has the feel of a lot of recent war movies dealing with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of the moments in the film are truly terrifying and really hit you in the gut. There are enough of these to give the film a solid recommendation, but be warned that not all of the movie is like that and there is an awful lot of SSDD when it comes to modern war films. The Kill Team has been available on DirecTV for about a month and is just now hitting a limited theatrical release as well as being available on most streaming platforms. It’s not a must-see but then again you won’t go too far wrong if you do take a chance on it.

REASONS TO SEE: Truly harrowing in places, building the tension up nicely. Skarsgǻrd is absolutely amazing.
REASONS TO AVOID: The violence is curiously understated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a cornucopia of profanity, war violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Skarsgǻrd and Ikhile were both in The Legend of Tarzan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Few Good Men
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness kicks off!

Swimming with Men


Rob Brydon is reaching for something.

(2018) Comedy (Sundance Selects)  Rob Brydon, Rupert Graves, Thomas Turgoose, Jane Horrocks, Adeel Akhtar, Jim Carter, Daniel Mays, Nathaniel Parker, Ronan Daly, Chris Jepson, Spike White, Robert Daws, Charlotte Riley, Aschlin Ditta, Harry Demmon, Andrew Knott, Christian Rubeck, Orlando Seale, Luca Ribezzo, Margot Przymierska, Denise Stephenson. Directed by Oliver Parker

 

We all need to blow off steam. Some do it by playing video games. Others do it with hobbies like cooking, gardening and so on. Some self-medicate while others go the sporting route. Some prefer physical exertions; running, working out or swimming.

Eric Scott (Brydon) is an accountant who is spiraling into crippling depression. His job is as boring as you might guess it is, his teenage son Billy (White) has little use for him (as teenage sons will do) and he suspects his wife Heather (Horrocks) who recently was elected to the borough council of having an affair with her obsequious boss (Daws).

Eric waits for six o’clock to check out of life for a little bit, heading down to the local municipal pool to swim laps and sometimes slip to the bottom to drown out the noise of his phone ringing endlessly, no pun intended. There he meets a group of seven men who get together to practice a sport men generally shy away from: synchronized swimming.

Yes, it’s an Olympic sport but only for the ladies. I think men are mainly confounded by the concept of working and moving in unison to create something beautiful. For the most part, the guys that Eric hooks up with – depressed Kurt (Akhtar), confidence lacking Luke (Graves), petty convict Tom (Turgoose), recently widowed Ted (Carter), non-talkative Silent Bob (Jepson), The New Guy (Daly) who refuses to give his name, even though he’s been part of the troupe for more than a year, and frustrated Colin (Mays).

Pool manager Susan (Riley) who knows something about synchronized swimming since she’s dating the captain of the Swedish team, sees something in these middle-aged, paunchy non-athletes. She endeavors to train them, thinking that they can represent Great Britain at the unofficial world championships (and yes, that’s really a thing) in Milan. The men other than Luke (who has a sweet on for the taken Susan) are a bit reluctant but they decide to go for it.

There’s nothing easy about it though and the men find themselves suspecting they are in over their heads. In the meantime, Eric’s marriage is continuing to crumble at an accelerating rate and work has gone from boring to irrelevant. Still, now he has something to believe in – if only his team can believe in each other.

Brydon is in many ways a poor man’s Hugh Grant; he’s a very handsome man who somehow manages to project an almost hangdog expression. He’s the anchor for the movie in more ways than one. I’ve enjoyed him as Steve Coogan’s second banana in the Trip movies but he’s not here doing impressions or wacky voices but relying on his charm and his comic ability and there’s more than enough here to carry the film. That’s a good thing because for most of the first part of the film Eric is quite the jerk.

The rest of the cast, mainly acclaimed British character actors and veterans of British television, acquit themselves well although their parts are mainly one-dimensional. It’s actually a little comforting that sort of thing happens in the UK as well as here. Anyway some of the characters could have done with a bit more depth.

Not all the comedy works and the end is more than a little bit predictable but this is a movie with a whole lot of heart and charm and while critics tend to grouse about movies like this being emotionally manipulative (which never fails to amaze me – all films are to some extent), this one found it a nicely made movie that gave me enough of the warm fuzzies to make it more than worthwhile.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is really nice. The ending is not a shocker but still heartwarming.
REASONS TO STAY: The supporting characters lack depth even though they are well-acted.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some brief nudity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Swedish men’s synchronized swimming team was played by the actual Swedish national swimming team. This film is loosely based on their story.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Man on the Dragon
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Snowflake

The Cloverfield Paradox


Houston, we have a problem.

(2018) Science Fiction (Netflix) Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, John Ortiz, Chris O’Dowd, Aksel Hennie, Ziyi Zhang, Elizabeth Debicki, Roger Davies, Clover Nee, Jordan Riviera, Michael Stokes III, Celeste Clark, Nathan Oliver, Donal Logue, Susan Cryer, Ken Olin (voice), Simon Pegg (voice), Greg Grunberg (voice),Judy Ho. Directed by Julius Onah

 

Sometimes movies are made with the best of intentions, utilizes a nifty premise and terrific cast. We get excited for the movie but watch as it’s release date suffers delay after delay. We see no trailers, no publicity materials just rumors that the studio is dissatisfied with the final result. When we finally get to see the movie, sometimes we find out the studio was justified in their fears. More often than not the movie’s problems stem from studio interference. I don’t get the sense that’s what happened here.

In 2028 Earth is caught in a massive energy crisis. Sober news anchors intone that the planet will run out of energy within five years. Racing against time, a multinational scientific team on a satellite orbiting the Earth works to solve the crisis with a particle accelerator which will do…something. We’re never quite sure what. Thankfully, The Cloverfield Paradox doesn’t way itself down with unnecessary explanations.

Test after test ends in failure and the crew – the American captain Kiel (Oyelowo), the also American communications officer Hamilton (Mbatha-Raw), the German engineer Schmidt (Brühl), the Chinese physicist  Tam (Zhang), the Russian something or another Volkov (Hennie), the Brazilian doctor Monk (Ortiz) and the Irish technician Mundy (O’Dowd) get into finger-pointing and tensions between the Americans and Russians back home don’t help matters any. Then a power surge during a test causes the experiment to actually work. Everyone is happy – until they look out the window and notice that Earth isn’t there. That’s when the going gets really weird.

The cast here is as first-rate as any for any movie this year let alone a direct-to-Netflix film and quite frankly, they earn their paychecks impressively. The trouble is, most of them are hamstrung by underdeveloped characters. Other than Hamilton who at least gets the semblance of a backstory, most of the characters are essentially defined by their functions to the plot; the red herring, the indecisive one, the suspicious one, the compassionate one and so on. As the comic relief, O’Dowd is the most impressive here although Brühl and Mbatha-Raw both come close. While it is laudable to make the leads persons of color, it would have been far more admirable to give them something to work with.

The other glaring problem here is that while the concept itself – involving parallel universes and alternate realities – is intriguing, the execution is lacking. It’s all exposition with characters constantly advancing the plot by explaining what’s happening. The movie is scene after scene of too much talking and as the movie gets further alone, the plot begins to go off the rails. While the ending is actually quite nice (and ties the film to previous Cloverfield films), it isn’t enough to save a film which while promising turns out to be not only disappointing but that most awful of cinematic sins – boring.

REASONS TO GO: The cast is pretty nifty. The ending is fun but not enough to save the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot gets more ludicrous as the film goes along. A decent premise is wasted with a poor execution.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled God Particle and was intended for theatrical release. After several release date delays, Netflix quietly purchased the film from Paramount and ran the trailer during the Super Bowl – the same day it would become available on the streaming service.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Legend of King Solomon

Blood Stripe


Kate Nowlin canoe, can you?

(2016) Drama (Tandem Pictures) Kate Nowlin, Rusty Schwimmer, Chris Sullivan, Rene Auberjonois, Ashlie Atkinson, Tom Lipinski, Taliesin Cox, Ken Marks, Greta Oglesby, Sunde Auberjonois, Mason Jennings, Jeremy Johnson, Louis Jenkins, Reed Sigmund, Emily Zimmer, David Clay, Scotty Nelson, Benson Ramsey, Kristen Gregerson. Directed by Remy Auberjonois

 

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing to slog on with no end in sight, Hollywood as well as independent filmmakers have seized upon the return home of combat veterans as a theme with varying degrees of quality. In all honesty, the question I ask myself when viewing one of these is “What, if anything, new does this film bring to the subject?”

A nameless Marine, referred to in the credits only as Our Sergeant (Nowlin) – I suppose in an attempt to make her something of an everywoman – returns home to Northern Minnesota. Picked up by an in-law from the airport, she receives a somewhat muted welcome home from her husband Rusty (Sullivan). It is clear from the get-go that she has got a lot of issues, from an overreaction when she gets an overenthusiastic hug from a drunken male guest at her welcome home party to her constant insistence that she’s fine when she clearly isn’t, she eats little, sleeps hardly at all and drinks heavily. She runs obsessively and mows her lawn in the middle of the night. When Rusty hesitantly asks if she shouldn’t see someone, she says tersely “There’s a wait.” As it turns out, there’s a 129 day wait at the local VA, a situation which has fallen off the radar of late.

She acquires a job working on a highway repair crew but is given little to do. One fine day, she just seems to snap; she stares off into the distance while a co-worker talks to her, a haunted expression on her face and without a word turns and walks off the job, climbs into her husband’s truck and just drives away.

Where she winds up driving to is a summer camp that she attended as a kid. It’s off-season now and the tranquil waters of the lake shore are quiet, the sounds of children vanished with the heat of the summer. The caretaker, Dot (Schwimmer) has a load of work to do and only an aging handyman with a bad back to help her. She takes on the Marine giving her room and board in exchange for her efforts lugging and lifting. When Dot compliments her on her work ethic, the Sergeant says “Nobody ever drowned from sweat,” attributing the quote to a drill sergeant.

The hard work and lovely scenery seems to bring some solace to the tortured soul of the Sergeant and when a small church group led by elderly pastor Art (Rene Auberjonois, the director’s father) she finds further solace with one of the younger parishioners (Lipinski) who acts as their fishing guide. He also has a troubled past of his own.

Still, she can’t outrun her demons; a pair of hunters who blare Metallica from their car stereo everywhere they go trigger a defensive reaction in her and she ends up reconnoitering their home to see what they might be up to. Attempts at intimacy with the fisherman end up disastrously and calls to her frantic husband range from cold to crisis. Can this woman ever find peace?

The movie, co-written by Remy Auberjonois and Nowlin (who are husband and wife in real life), doesn’t give us a lot of background into Our Sergeant which is both maddening and admirable. We don’t know what trauma caused her breakdown and there aren’t the obligatory flashbacks to show us definitively what put her into that state. We surmise that she was either tortured or sexually assaulted (or both) from the scars on her back and her general reaction to men but there are no absolute answers which lead us to make up our own narrative as to her past.

Nowlin is a real talent and she captures the bearing and posture of a Marine minus the swagger. We can absolutely believe she’s been to war and acquitted herself with honor. We can also believe that she’s been through hell and is haunted by demons that we civilians can’t even imagine. Her expression during the breakdown scenes tell us everything we need to know.

Cinematographer Radium Cheung also acquits himself well, giving us some beautiful vistas of the northern Minnesota lake country as well as some interesting shots during the final third of the movie that help us see inside the protagonist’s head. This is a lovely movie to see visually.

The subplot about the Metallica boys seemed unnecessary and contrived; the writers had already established that Our Sergeant had a touch of paranoia about her. It seems to inject elements of a thriller into what was already a fine drama; they should have left it with the drama which seemed to be much more in their wheelhouse.

The character of Our Sergeant is central to the film in any case and she’s a fascinating if enigmatic character indeed. Schwimmer and the elder Auberjonois both deliver solid supporting performances as does Lipinski even though the romantic chemistry seems a bit forced and again feels like it was a tangent that the filmmakers should have avoided. What we’re more interested in is Nowlin’s character and whenever the focus came off of her the movie suffered.

This was an award-winning entry at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival and only last month did it get a brief theatrical release. It will likely show up on some streaming service or another at some point; it is worth seeking out when it does because movies like this one which fly even a little bit out of the box should always be supported and in any case there is enough quality here to recommend it.

REASONS TO GO: There is some lovely cinematography. Nowlin does a bang-up job.
REASONS TO STAY: I’m not sure the metal-head hunters’ subplot was absolutely necessary. The romance doesn’t work very well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, some violence, disturbing adult themes and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blood Stripe refers to the red stripe on the trouser leg of the dress uniform of the United States Marine Corps.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lucky Ones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
All Eyez on Me

God Knows Where I Am


Some of the beautiful imagery used in the film.

(2016) Documentary (BOND360) Joan Bishop, Lori Singer (voice), Caitlin Murtagh, Kathy White, Brian Smith, Matthew Nelson, Doug Bixby, Lora Goss, Wayne DiGeronimo, Stephanie Savard, Judith E. Kolada, Paul Appelbaum, Kevin Carbone, James E. Duggan, Thomas Scarlato, E. Fuller Torrey, Jennie Duval. Directed by Jedd Wider and Todd Wider

 

In 2008, the decomposing body of a woman was discovered in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. Her shoes were neatly at her side. Nearby two notebooks full of journal entries told the tale of her stay in the farmhouse. She was identified as Linda Bishop, a woman diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder who had walked out of a New Hampshire mental hospital and walked to the farmhouse where she would die of starvation.

This film by veteran documentary producers Jedd and Todd Wider, a brother team best known for their work with Alex Gibney, utilized Bishop’s own words from her journals (spoken by actress Lori Singer) as well as interviews with her sister Joan, her daughter Caitlin, her close friend Kathy as well as psychiatric and medical professionals that treated her, the police officer and medical examiner working her case as well as the Judge who committed her.

The Wider brothers choose to build a story, slowly adding details that complete the picture. We meet Linda as a young woman, charismatic and full of life. We discover her love for the outdoors and nature, and discover that she’s smart, articulate and knowledgeable about the world around her. She gets married, has a daughter, gets divorced but is by all accounts a wonderful mother who is virtually inseparable from her daughter who adores her.

And then the mental illness begins to rear its ugly head. A job as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant is quit because she believes the Chinese mafia is out to get her. This prompts the first of several relocations with her puzzled daughter. Soon it becomes apparent that Linda is incapable of caring for herself, much less her daughter. Caitlin is sent to live with relatives and Linda alternates between lucidity and delusion, depending on how vigilant she is in taking her medication. The problem is that Linda doesn’t believe that she’s ill; as her paranoia deepens, she begins to believe that Joan, one of the last advocates that she has, is out to get her pittance of an inheritance left to her when her dad had passed away. For that reason, Linda refuses to allow Joan power of guardianship, a crucial event which essentially blocks Linda and the rest of the family from getting much of any information about Linda’s care and treatment at all. They aren’t even notified when she’s released. As a result, nobody notices she’s gone while she’s slowly wasting away on a diet mainly of apples she’s picked in the woods and rain water. By that time, Linda had alienated her daughter and her own friends. Only Joan still stood by her and one gets the sense that it was a burden for her.

The movie originated in a story in The New Yorker written by Rachel Aviv who is a producer on the documentary. It is a poignant tale and for the most part it is told well here. The filmmakers for some reason decide to leave some crucial information out – doubtlessly to make it more impactful when it is revealed near the very end of the movie – but I don’t think they’re successful in that matter. We mostly can guess who “Steve” is and his role in the story and as he s mentioned many, many times in Linda’s journal, it gets a bit frustrating.

The cinematography here is absolutely breathtaking. Gerardo Puglia fills the screen with bucolic farmhouses, still winter landscapes and beautifully lit apple trees at sunset. Singer who most will remember from the 1984 version of Footloose reads Bishop’s words with extraordinary depth and even the thick New England landscape does nothing to rob Bishop of her character.

The title is an ironic one; it is taken directly from Linda’s journals in which it is used as an expression of faith. Linda knows that God is aware of her; He knows where she is and will take care of her in the end. However, it can also be construed to be an expression of being lost and there are few souls who were more lost than Linda Bishop was.

The filmmakers very much believe that the mental health care system in this country is badly broken and in all honesty it’s hard to argue with them. In our zeal to protect the rights of the patient we sometimes forget that they often are unable to make informed decisions on their own. The tale of Linda Bishop is a sad one; even in her last days she had a sense of humor and a bluntness that is refreshing and one can only wonder what she would have been like had she continued to take her meds. There’s one certain thing she would have been had she done so – alive.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The story is truly heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The identity of Steve, who is mentioned throughout, is withheld until the very end which gets frustrating.
FAMILY VALUES: The theme, having to do with mental illness, is adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won a special jury award at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil and Daniel Johnston
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: For Here or to Go?