Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project


Worshiping at the video altar.

(2019) Documentary (Zeitgeist/Kino-LorberMelvin Metelits, Richard Stevens, Frank Heilman, Anna Lofton, Michael Metelits, Maurice Borger, Mizzy Stokes, Anthony Massimini, Anne Stokes-Hochberg, Roger McDonald, Marion Stokes. Directed by Matt Wolf

 

There is a very fine line between obsession and compulsion. We can take a hobby or something that we enjoy doing and allow it to take over our lives to the exclusion of all else. Sometimes, good things may come of it. Most often, however, it takes a toll on our relationships and the state of our own minds.

Marion Stokes was by all accounts a brilliant woman, an African-American Philadelphia librarian who leaned towards socialism, but after marrying Michael Metelits, became involved with the Communist Party of America, which she eventually grew to disdain for its lack of action. She and Metelits at one time wished to emigrate to Cuba but was denied an entry visa by the Cuban government.

Disillusioned, she returned home to Philadelphia where her marriage quickly crumbled. She eventually became involved with a television show on a CBS affiliate in Philly called Input, a Sunday morning talk show hosted by John Stokes, who as a contractor had become well-to-do and eventually, she and Stokes fell in love and were married.

The Iran hostage crisis fascinated Marion. She intuited that the way news was being presented to the masses was changing. Wanting to document that change with a librarian’s zeal for preservation and organization, she started recording news broadcasts. With the advent of CNN a year later, the project became much more of a life.

Marion and John became virtual recluses and Marion, whose personality had a strident tone to it, became very possessive of her husband’s time. Their children were virtually shut out from their lives (although they never had children together, they each had children from previous marriages) and Marion took complete control of John’s life. Meanwhile the taping went on, several VCRs taping anywhere from three to eight channels at any given time, with assistants changing tapes (on those rare occasions when Marion went out for any length of time, her limo driver Richard Stevens would be sent home just to change the tapes on the VCR.

Time passed, and so did John. Marion lived in virtual seclusion, with a nurse and an assistant providing companionship, as well as assistance with her project. The momentous events of the end of the 20th century (and the beginning of the 21st) were captured on Marion’s videotapes; the fall of the Berlin Wall, the royal wedding of Charles and Diana and her death years later, 9/11, the election of Barack Obama (which had special resonance for Marion) and also the minutiae – a local woman who decided to be buried in her Cadillac – and was, for example. Stories that captivated for a time and were quickly forgotten, all preserved.

When she died in 2012, she left behind more than 70,000 videotapes even though towards the end finding blank videotapes to record on had become increasingly difficult. Many of them were identified only with Post-It notes and all of them were on a type of medium that wasn’t meant to last forever. As we speak, her collection is being digitized and cataloged, something the librarian in her would no doubt approve of. One day, her incredible project will be available for everyone to peruse.

The big elephant in the room (or on the film) was Marion’s mental state. There was no doubt a bit of a hoarding mentality to her; at her death she had collected not only the videotapes but more than 50,000 books (she was a voracious reader), furniture she never used and an uncountable number of newspapers. She had gone from a single apartment in the swanky Barclay building in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia to seven, all full of her collections. Although her personality was generally prickly – she didn’t take to being disagreed with at all – one gets the sense that beneath that disagreeable facade there was a genuinely caring heart. We see that mostly through her son, who was estranged from his mother for a good number of years but managed to reconcile with her shortly before she passed.

While I wouldn’t say this is an essential documentary, it is a fascinating one and it’s told in simple fashion without a whole lot of bells and whistles. Fans of docs in general are going to like this; it’s the kind of film you find at your local film festival and leave deciding that if you’re going to find films like this there, you’ll have to come back the following year for more.

REASONS TO SEE: Stokes is not always likable but one has to admire her intelligence. The dizzying array of news stories she recorded is mind-boggling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The score gets a little bit annoying in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stokes was a lifelong admirer of Steve Jobs and to support him bought a massive amount of Apple stock at $7 per share. Already moderately wealthy at the time, this elevated her to a different level of rich.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grey Gardens
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Mission: Impossible – Fallout

The Irishman


I heard he paints houses.

(2019) Gangster (NetflixRobert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jack Huston, Katherine Narducci, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Gary Basaraba, Marin Ireland, Lucy Gallina, Jonathan Morris, Jim Norton, Aleksa Paladino. Directed by Martin Scorsese

 

Much of the American fascination with the mob can be traced to Coppola’s The Godfather saga and the films of Martin Scorsese. If you take Mean Streets, GoodFellas, Casino and The Departed as part of the same franchise, The Irishman may well be the concluding episode in the saga.

This film, which has been winning the kind of effusive praise from critics normally reserved for pictures of their grandkids, follows the story of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who went from being a war hero during the Second World War to a refrigerated truck driver, to a thug in the Philadelphia mob run by Russell Buffalino (Pesci)  to the bodyguard and right hand man of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). We see Sheeran transverse the glory days of the mob, covering the late 40s all the way up until the mid-70s. While there are references to watershed moments in the history of American organized crime, this isn’t really a primer on the subject; rather, it is the point of view of an insider, one whose claims as to the disappearance of Hoffa – still considered unsolved to this day – are perhaps self-aggrandizing but there is at least some evidence that says it might have happened the way it’s depicted here.

I am being purposely vague as to the plot points because this is an intensely long movie – right around three and a half hours. While as of this writing it is still in certain select theaters around the country, and in all honesty, it should be seen on a big ass screen with a big ass booming sound system, the length makes this kind of prohibitive. Those who have short attention spans won’t be able to tolerate this and those of us who have mobility issues might find it preferable to watch this at home on Netflix, where it just debuted Thanksgiving eve.

Scorsese doesn’t skimp on the cast, with De Niro and Pacino as powerful as they have ever been in the film. Pacino, in fact, may count this alongside Michael Corleone and Tony Montana as the roles that will mark the absolute apex of his distinguished and memorable career. His fans will be delighted to watch this; those who can take or leave him can watch this and understand why others consider him one of the most gifted actors of his generation.

Not that Pesci and De Niro are slouches by any means. Pesci was lured out of retirement (he hadn’t made an onscreen appearance since 2010) which is a godsend; I truly missed the man as an actor, with his charming sense of humor and occasional fits of rage. Here he is much more subdued and plays Buffalino as a more reserved and restrained Don who is smart enough to keep a low profile but ruthless enough to do whatever is necessary to keep his empire humming along. De Niro, for his part, is De Niro here – explosive and vulnerable in equal parts.

There is a fourth Oscar winner in the cast – Anna Paquin, who plays the adult version of Sheeran’s daughter who adores her Uncle Jimmy Hoffa and takes a wary dislike to Russell, whom her father feels closer to. When Hoffa disappears, she understands that her father was involved in some way and refuses to speak to him again for the rest of his life, which apparently mirrored real life. Paquin only gets a couple of lines but her venomous looks, delighted smiles and eventually sad eyes remind me why she is an Oscar winner and makes me wonder why we don’t see more of her in the movies.

Scorsese utilizes technology in a very un-Scorsese-like manner, using computers to de-age the actors for flashback scenes (all three of the leads are well into their 70s). The technology has advanced to the point where it is actually effective here; the men look truly younger, even more so than Will Smith in Gemini Man. With technology like this, it is bound to alter how movies are made. If you have a role for a 20-something that calls for the kind of emotional depth and acting experience a 20-something actor won’t have, why not cast a veteran actor and de-age them for the role? I can see a lot of drawbacks to this, not the least of which that it will be tougher for young actors to get the kind of experience that propels younger actors into becoming great ones. Still, with the dizzying amount of product out there to fill all of the streaming services and their needs, that point may end up being moot.

Some critics are waxing rhapsodic about The Irishman and proclaim it the best film of the year (it isn’t) and among the best that Scorsese has ever done (it isn’t). There is a bittersweet feel to the movie, particularly in the last 20 minutes as if this is the end of an era, which it likely is. At 77, Scorsese doesn’t show any signs of slowing down; he has already directed one other movie released on Netflix earlier this year, a Bob Dylan documentary with at least another documentary on the music of the 70s in the pipeline. Still, getting the universe to align to get this kind of cast together and to get this kind of film made for the kind of budget it took to get it made isn’t likely to happen again, plus after this I really don’t know if there is much more Scorsese can say about the mob, although I will be the first to temper that with a never say never warning; if there is a story out there to be told, Scorsese can find a way to tell it.

The big problem I have with the film is its aforementioned length. I can understand why Scorsese let it run so long – he may never have the chance to direct something like this with this cast again – but as much as I respect him as perhaps the greatest American director ever, the movie is repetitive in places and quite frankly we could have done without about an hour of it. Watching this is no spring; it’s an endurance contest and you’d best enter into watching it prepared for that. Hydrate regularly, watch from a comfortable seated position and take a few breaks to walk around and get your blood flowing. The magic of Netflix is that you are allowed to do that whenever you like.

In the end, I think this is one of Scorsese’s best movies, but not with the triumvirate that make up his absolute best films – Taxi Driver, GoodFellas and Casino. This is more along the level of Raging Bull, The Departed. Mean Streets and The Wolf of Wall Street. I think most cinephiles are going to see this anyway but if you’re on the fence, I think you should pull the trigger and see what all the fuss is about. After all, if you don’t like it, you can always turn it off and start binging The Rick and Morty Show.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the greatest casts this decade. Scorsese is still Scorsese. A plausible explanation of the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity as well as its fair share of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the longest feature film Scorsese has ever directed and the longest overall to be commercially released in more than 20 years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 94//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: GoodFellas
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Brittany Runs a Marathon


You can’t move forward if you’re just standing still.

(2019) Dramedy (AmazonJillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howley, Micah Stock, Alice Lee, Jennifer Dundas, Patch Darragh, Erica Hernandez, Adam Sietz, Dan Bittner, Mikey Day, Kate Arrington, Beth Malone, Esteban Benito, Nadia Quinn, Juri Henley-Cohn, Peter Vack, Gene Gabriel, Sarah Bolt, Ian Unterman, Frances Eve. Directed by Paul Downs Collaizo

 

We have become more aware of our health than perhaps ever before. Here in America, despite the epidemic of obesity and its attendant health issues, we have become more aware of what we eat, how we exercise and generally what kind of shape we’re in.

Brittany (Bell) does none of those things. She works taking tickets at an off-Broadway theater and spends her nights drinking, hanging out with her friends and essentially being the fat best friend, to use a movie cliché. She goes to see a doctor (based on his Yelp rating) hoping to get him to prescribe Adderall; instead, he gives her a wake-up call. Her blood pressure and cholesterol are dangerously high as is her Body Mass Index. Her liver is beginning to get enough fatty deposits to be worrisome. In short, her doc (Darragh) advises her to lose 50 pounds pronto and make some serious life style changes.

That’s not necessarily an easy task for Brittany, who is used to making fun of people who exercise. Going to the gym is out of the question; she can’t afford even the most basic gym membership. However, as she notes to an obsequious gym owner, running outside is still free so Brittany digs out a ratty old sports bra and a pair of sneakers that have seen better days and prepares to make a quick run down the block.

She makes friends with fellow runners Catherine (Watkins) who is undergoing an ugly divorce and runs to take her mind off of things, and Seth (Stock), a married gay man who wants to get more fit so he can keep up with his kids. Brittany begins to take to running and gets it into her head that she wants to run the New York City Marathon. She convinces Seth and Catherine to train for it with her.

Brittany begins to transform. She loses weight and feels better physically. She stands up to her former roommate Gretchen (Lee), a bitchy judgmental Instagram influencer who constantly demeans Brittany and moves into the mansion of the couple whom she is dog-sitting for while they are away on an extended vacation. Already moved in is Jern (Ambudkar) – yes you read the name right – a feckless Millennial with all the ambition of a potato and not even of the couch variety. Jern is interested in a maybe romantic relationship but Brittany is not so sure.

As the pounds melt off, something odd happens – all the self-loathing and self-doubt that she has felt most of her life haven’t melted away with it. She resents anyone who wants to help her, distrusting their motivations. Brittany may not be Olympic material as a runner, but she is world-class when it comes to pushing people away. Soon enough she ends up living with her older sister (Arrington) in Philadelphia along with her brother-in-law (Howley) who is more of a father figure to her. Brittany’s dreams of running the New York marathon look to be in jeopardy.

This is most definitely a female empowerment film, although not the usual kind. For one thing, Brittany’s physical changes don’t necessarily coincide with attitude adjustments; she still has all the insecurities she’s always had and her sense of humor can be occasionally cruel. Brittany isn’t always a likable person, but thanks to Bell’s charismatic performance you still end up rooting for her to succeed. As kind of an odd aside, I found myself distracted by Bell’s resemblance to actress Cameron Diaz. I ended up chiding myself for being so shallow when it comes to reviewing a movie which is about inner beauty more than outer but it is noticeable enough that I had to mention it.

Writer-director Collaizo based the story on his experiences with his own best friend who underwent a similar transformation. I don’t know what the real Brittany thought of the movie – it isn’t always flattering to her – but she does end up kind of heroic and inspirational in spite of that. You can sense the affection Collaizo holds for the real Brittany throughout. He also wisely keeps the audience guessing as to where the movie is going to go up until the end, but sadly finishes with a pure Hollywood ending that is disappointing but not enough to affect the rating too much.

Brittany’s journey isn’t always an easy one and thus neither is it always for the audience either. Still, the movie has an abundance of charm going for it, a star performance by Bell and some nice skewering of our self-indulgent, self-centered society. There’s definitely some meat on the bones here, but with enough entertainment value to make for a pleasant meal.

REASONS TO SEE: Was never sure where this was going to lead us. You wind up rooting for Brittany despite her occasional bitchiness.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit on the Hollywood side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some drug content and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bell lost 40 pounds during the course of filming the movie, just as her character does in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Run, Fatboy, Run
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Chained For Life

The Church (2018)


Not every church is a sanctuary.

(2018) Horror (Hard Floor) Bill Moseley, Matthew Nadu, Daniel Wyland, Ashley C Williams, Clint Howard, Kenneth McGregor, Keith Stallworth, Lisa Wilcox, Deltra Leak, Holly Zuelle, Meghan Strange, Shaun Paul Costello, Michelle Romano, Vito LoGrasso, Victoria Gates, Scott Lehman, Jack Hoffman, Michael Connolly, Marcia C. Myers, Marie A. Garton, Belinda M. Wlson. Directed by Dom Frank

 

We tend to have a bit of a fixation on religion and the paranormal. From The Exorcist on down, we stand in awe of cathedrals and the rites of the church. Some churches though are less holy places than others.

The First Corinthians Baptist Church in downtown Philadelphia was once a magnificent edifice, a tribute to the glory of God. Of late it has fallen on hard times however. The membership has dwindled as the neighborhood has become less affluent and nearby mega-churches has enticed others away. Pastor James (Moseley) whose family has been at the church for generations is at a crossroads; gentrification is beginning to creep into the neighborhood and developers want the valuable property to tear down the aging and decrepit church and put in a new multi-use facility; they’re even willing to build a brand spanking new mega-church for the pastor to preach in, much to the delight of his ambitious wife Loretta (Romano).

The pastor is reluctant to give up on the building that is in many ways his family’s legacy but the developer in the person of Ronald Lawson (Nadu) is persuasive and at last the pastor gives in. However the subject has to be approved by the church’s various boards and with Loretta working diligently behind the scenes, the measure squeaks by.

When Lawson comes to the church several nights later for the signing of the papers that will mean the end of the grand old lady, he brings with him the secretary he’s having an affair with (Williams), the Romanian financier that is his partner (Wyland), a local community leader who has also partnered with him (Stallworth) and his bodyguard (LoGrasso). Pastor James has with him his wife, the head of the board of Deacons (McGregor), the church secretary (Wilcox) and a board member (Zuelle). It’s literally a dark and stormy night but all who are in the church don’t realize that the building is not at all happy at the prospect of being torn down and isn’t going to let them go to carry out the deed.

First of all, the First Corinthians Baptist Church is a real one and it is absolutely a beautiful building. It is the perfect location for this kind of a movie; nearly 200 years old and full of the kind of architectural detail that modern churches last. It feels like a place of worship which makes the haunted goings-on therein all the more shocking. Kudos to Frank for taking full advantage of his location filming.

There aren’t a lot of digital effects here and the production could have sorely used them but one can’t get picky when you’re on a budget. The big problem is the script is a bit inconsistent; various characters are “taken” by the church to be pulled into a purgatory-like dimension in a puff of black smoke. Some of them seem to burn (at least there are flames superimposed on the actors) while others don’t. We don’t get enough backstory to the various characters to understand why some get the flames and others don’t. As to why this is happening, there really isn’t much of an explanation; the Romanian mutters about old Romanian myths about holy places that sit in judgment of those who are evil but again, everybody seems to be victimized without a lot of rhyme or reason other than maybe being part of the plan to knock down the building.

The acting is a bit on the wooden side for the most part and the presence of horror cult favorite Moseley excepted, the biggest name actor (Howard) is essentially unrecognizable as a bearded monk who appears as an apparition in a couple of scenes and has no lines. That seems a bit of a waste to me.

This has been described as a faith-based horror film and in my notes I wrote down that it gets a little preachy at times but for the life of me I can’t remember any such occasions. I do remember the ending which is abrupt, unsatisfying and seems to exist to set up a sequel which the filmmaker has already stated is going to happen. All in all, Frank got the atmosphere right but needed to flesh out his script with a bit more information about the various characters and the history of the church – we see a brief headline from an old newspaper about a wicked family being punished by the church but it’s so quick we never get any details.

With so many new movies to choose from for your Halloween horror movie fix this year it’s hard to recommend this one but there are definitely some plusses to consider. The scares are a bit weak but given that Frank didn’t have a whole lot of cash to work with I think he did the best he could. Hopefully for the sequel he’ll give us a more fleshed out story and maybe a bit more of a budget to work with.

REASONS TO GO: The filming location is awesome.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit abrupt and disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, profanity, spooky images and light sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in downtown Philadelphia’s First Corinthian Baptist Church which Frank’s family has been attending for decades.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Borderlands
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Samuel Project

Unsane


Claire Foy still manages to get her running in on the set.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Amy Irving, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Sarah Stiles, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Polly McKie, Raul Castillo, Gibson Frazier, Lydia Mauze, Colin Woodell, Zach Cherry, Mike Mihm, Robert Kelly, Erin Wilhelmi, Sol M. Crespo, Natalie Gold, Emily Happe, Will Brill, Steven Maier, Matt Damon, Erika Rolfsrud, Aimee Mullins. Directed by Stephen Soderbergh

 

Most people don’t think they’re crazy. Even when they are, the thought that they are insane is ludicrous to them; it is the rest of the world that’s bonkers. We are all normal at least within ourselves.

The interestingly-named Sawyer Valentini (Foy) seems on the surface to have her stuff together. She works as a financial analyst and is brutally honest with her clients, a trait that gets her noticed by management. However, there are cracks in the facade. She really doesn’t have many social skills and her brutal honesty at work doesn’t translate well to her personal life. To be honest though that’s the way she likes it. When she uses her dating app, she tells the man who wants to date her that she can guarantee that he will get lucky that evening just as long as he understands that she’s not interested in romance or any further relationship beyond a roll in the hay. Most guys are going to leap into that with both feet.

However, Sawyer is bothered by dreams and occasional visions of a man who stalked her back when she lived in Boston. The stalking had eventually driven her to move to Philadelphia and start anew. She goes to the Highland Creek Mental Health Hospital to talk to someone about her fears. She is given some “routine paperwork” to fill out.

It turns out that the owners of Highland Creek aren’t nearly as altruistic as they sound; Sawyer has just signed papers consenting to a 24-hour voluntary commitment for which her insurance will duly be billed. When Sawyer loses it, those 24 hours become 72, then a full week when she slugs an orderly. Sawyer has a real issue with commitment apparently.

On her ward is Nate (Pharoah), an easy going chemical dependency patient, and Violet (Temple) who is pretty much aggressive and a bit psychotic. But one of the orderlies is a dead ringer for David Strine (Leonard) who stalked her in Boston. In fact, Sawyer is certain that he’s David Strine, come to finally claim her. Of course, nobody believes her and why should they? On the surface, it sounds crazy especially in light that she’s admitted to occasionally seeing him when he’s clearly not there. But is this a part of her delusion, or is she legitimately in danger?

Much has been made of the fact that Soderbergh shot the entire movie on an iPhone 7 plus and for the record it looks a hell of a lot better than it would if you or I shot it on our iPhones. There isn’t the jerky motion that comes from shooting on a handheld device; I have to wonder if Soderbergh some sort of Steadicam-like device to keep the motion of the camera smooth. The depth of field is also comparative to most professionally shot productions. However, the issues that iPhones have with lighting are definitely present here; some of the scenes are so poorly lit that it’s hard to see what’s happening onscreen.

Da Queen had a big problem with the plot in that the “is she or isn’t she crazy” question is resolved way too early leaving the movie with kind of anti-climactic tone. However, Soderbergh has tended to avoid making straightforward films. My gut tells me that he was trying to make a point. As part of the #MeToo era, I think Soderbergh was trying to make a point. He was trying to teach us what it’s like to not be believed – to be thought hysterical and untruthful which is clearly where Sawyer is coming from. There is definitely a message here and that message is “Sometimes you just have to take it on faith that the woman is actually a victim who is telling the truth about what is happening/happened to her. If so, it’s a powerful message that a lot of men need to receive. A lot of women too for that matter.

Foy, best known for the Netflix/BBC series The Crown is making a mark as an outstanding actress with excellent range. She delivers most of her lines in a flat, nasal delivery that sounds at home in New England. On top of that, she gives the impression of being fragile and brittle, far from the self-assured Queen Elizabeth II that she plays in her Netflix series. She’s very much like a lifelong smoker who has quit cold turkey; you can feel her nerves jangling from miles away.

Leonard makes a suitably sinister stalker. He’s not physically intimidating but there is an undercurrent of violence that threatens to erupt in several places; when it finally comes forward he proves to be vicious and unsympathetic. Leonard is himself a versatile performer who hasn’t yet gotten a role that is going to move him up the Hollywood ladder. Maybe one will come based on his work here.

This is a woman’s ultimate nightmare; to be trapped in a place she can’t escape from with a man who has been giving her unwanted sexual attention. I would imagine the very concept is going to make some women squeamish before they even start munching on their popcorn. It’s a movie that is genuinely creepy and reminds us that Soderbergh is the type of director who can work in just about any genre – action, comedy, drama, thriller, science fiction – and make a movie that is interesting and different. This isn’t likely to pull in big bucks at the box office but it could be one of those alternate choices for movie watching either in the theaters if you don’t want to see the big-budget films that are currently populating the multiplex or later on if you’re looking for something to watch at home once it becomes available. Either way, this is definitely one to take a chance on.

REASONS TO GO: Foy continues to be more and more impressive with each performance. This is a super creepy movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes are so dimly lit it’s hard to follow what’s actually happening. A major plot point is resolved way too early which gives the movie an anti-climactic tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing behavior, graphic violence, profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hospital scenes were filmed at Summit Park Hospital in Pomona, New York. The hospital had closed on December 31, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: John Carpenter’s The Ward
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Death of Stalin

The Ottoman Lieutenant


If wishes were horses

(2016) Historical Romance (Paladin) Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley, Haluk Bilginer, Affif Ben Badra, Paul Barrett, Jessica Turner, Peter Hosking, Selʕuk Yöntem, Eliska Slansky, Hasan Say, Deniz Kilic Flak, Aysen Sümercan, Murat Seven, Bree Welch, Brian Caspe, Joe Weintraub, Ephraim Goldin, Tzvi Shmilovich, Frederick Preston, Begum Burian. Directed by Joseph Ruben

 

One of the oldest cinematic tropes in Hollywood history is the star-crossed lovers in wartime. Of course, that was a literary trope far earlier than that but still, two people separated by war but connected by passion – what could get the heart beating faster than that?

Lillie Rowe (Hilmar) is a feisty, high-spirited nurse in Philadelphia somewhere around 1915. She is horrified when a brutally injured man is denied treatment at the hospital in which she works simply due to the color of his skin. Being the child of wealthy but devout Philadelphians, her evening entertainment consists of listening to the noble Dr. Jude Gresham (Hartnett) at a missionary hospital in Eastern Anatolia plea for funds in an isolated mountainous region that is the only medical facility for hundreds of miles. He is proud that nobody is turned away from their doors when they require medical attention; be they Turks, in whose Ottoman Empire the hospital resides, or Armenian in whose ancient land the hospital is.

Lillie is inspired and offers her late brother’s truck to the hospital in lieu of cash but when the doctor ruefully asks how could the truck be delivered to the hospital when there are no roads in the vicinity, Lillie impulsively volunteers to deliver it herself. Of course, her parents are aghast but Lillie – remember she is high-spirited – is determined to see this through. The Ottoman government, not wanting to antagonize the United States government by having one of its daughters murdered by Armenian brigands on their watch, assigns Lt. Ismail Veli (Huisman) to escort Lillie to the hospital’s doorstep. The Ottoman Lieutenant (yes, isn’t that clever?) is not enthusiastic about the assignment since he feels he has more to offer his country in a very crucial period in their history than playing nursemaid to a spoiled American heiress but being a good soldier accepts the mission with some grace. He even plays tour guide with the girl, taking her to one of Constantinople’s most beautiful mosques and showing her some beautifully desolate landscapes.

There she also meets the hospital’s founder, Dr. Woodruff (Kingsley) who is all about not taking sides in the coming conflict but his own Dr. Gresham is secretly supplying arms to the Armenians who turn out to be quite adept at using them. When civil war finally does break out however, the hospital is going to be caught literally in the middle of the crossfire.

I actually looked forward to seeing this movie initially; that area of the world scarcely gets much notice from Hollywood and that particularly turbulent time seemed like the perfect setting for a movie but unfortunately what we got was a painfully poorly written hodgepodge of clichés and tropes that essentially take all the inertia from the film and turn it into something that even the Lifetime cable channel might have thought twice about airing.

Armenians have been justifiably outraged that the film ignores the Armenian genocide which was going on at the time and makes it look as if the Armenians were the aggressors and worse yet that they deserved what they had coming. The Turks have denied that the genocide ever took place and the movie does have some financing from Turkish sources so that has to be taken with a grain of salt; I don’t know that this whitewashes history so much as chooses to ignore it.

And maybe if there was a really great story here that particular sin could have been, if not forgiven, at least rendered less egregious but there simply isn’t. The plot is predictable and contrived and even though Huisman does his best as the dashing title character, at the end of the day Ismail has about as much depth as the cover of the average romance novel. Had they gotten Fabio to play the role they wouldn’t have been far off the mark. Huisman is a fine actor who deserves much better than this.

Hilmar is curiously lifeless here. Her voice is nearly flat and toneless and the camera captures little sparkle in her character. With the wide-brimmed hat she wears she looks a lot like a dime store hipster affecting a free spirited look but with nothing that would really inspire any sort of passion in anyone. Two men fall in love with Lillie and I’m hard-pressed to tell you why.

However, the movie isn’t without its charms. The score by Geoff Zanelli is epic and recalls some of the best work of John Barry. The cinematography by Daniel Aranyó is stirring, with the beautiful mosque interiors and the dramatic sweep of the Anatolian plains. The movie is gorgeous visually and audibly.

Unfortunately even though the actors try their best they simply can’t overcome the stilted dialogue and the hoary plot points. This turns out not to be the kind of indie film that gives credibility to a filmography but rather smacks of being a paycheck and little more. That’s doubly disappointing considering if they’d been able to come up with a script that had a little bit more meat on its bones this could have been absolutely enchanting instead of being what it is: ho-hum.

REASONS TO GO: The score is haunting and beautiful. Some of the cinematography is lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film is poorly written. Hilmar lacks the presence to pull off the kind of character that was needed to make this work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence as well as war sequences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kingsley and Hartnett both appeared together in Lucky Number Slevin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Water Diviner
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: El Amparo

Split


James McAvoy is having a ball.

James McAvoy is having a ball.

(2016) Thriller (Blumhouse/Universal) James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Izzie Leigh Coffey, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Neal Huff, Ukee Washington, Ann Wood, Robert Michael Kelly, M. Night Shyamalan, Rosemary Howard, Jerome Gallman, Lyne Renee, Kate Jacoby, Peter Patrikios, Kash Goins, Julie Potter. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

 

The human mind is a marvelous thing but also a dangerous thing. When you scratch the veneer, you never know what you’re going to find. Sometimes what you find can be absolutely horrifying.

Three young girls – haughty Claire (Richardson), sycophantic Marcia (Sula) and outsider Casey (Taylor-Joy) – are kidnapped in broad daylight from a birthday party at a mall in suburban Philadelphia. They are rendered unconscious with a kind of spray chloroform and brought to a dungeon by Kevin (McAvoy), a seemingly mild-mannered young man.

Except it’s not just Kevin; there are a lot of different personalities jockeying for position “in the light” (i.e. the dominant personality allowed to show their face to the light) including prim and proper Miss Patricia, scheming manipulative Dennis, foppish Bradley, and 9-year-old child Hedwig. All are completely unique and some are more dangerous than others.

Kevin is under the care of a psychiatrist (Buckley) who specializes in Dissociative Identity Disorder, what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder or good ol’ schizophrenia. Kevin has 23 such personalities rummaging around his head and a 24th getting ready to emerge with the ominous name of The Beast who has special plans for the young girls.

There have been some who have called for a boycott of the movie for it’s portrayal of DID patients which is, to say the least, far from realistic. I find that kind of disingenuous since nobody in their right mind would think of this movie as a scientifically accurate portrayal of a very real psychiatric issue – it certainly isn’t meant to be that any more than The Incredible Hulk is meant to be a realistic presentation of radiation poisoning. It’s a case of agenda-pushing politically correct sorts with sticks lodged firmly and deeply up their anal cavities trying to inflict their world view on the rest of us. Sometimes a movie is only after being a good time; lighten the hell up already.

Shyamalan who started out as a golden boy after his first couple of movies fell out of favor with both critics and fans alike and after a couple of really awful movies (I’m talking about you, After Earth and The Last Airbender) rebounded in 2015 with The Visit which was the highest-grossing horror film of that year. Judging on its performance so far, Split has a good shot at equaling that accomplishment.

One of Shyamalan’s strengths has always been his ability to tell a story well. It is when he drifts away from that strength and tries to be either too complicated or too cute that he gets into trouble. His last two movies have been more economical not only in terms of budget but also in terms of story; there is little or no fat on the bones of either film and as a result the movies feel more taut and involving.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have an actor deliver an exceptional performance and McAvoy does as Kevin. It’s hard to imagine but Joaquin Phoenix was originally cast in the role but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts; I don’t think the movie lost a thing for the change. In fact, I think Phoenix might have been less effective in the role, as good an actor as he is. McAvoy doesn’t oversell the various personalities and uses a lot of subtle facial expressions to convey his characters. There is a little CGI help, particularly near the end of the movie (which is not coincidentally the weakest part of the movie) but otherwise it’s all McAvoy and hopefully it will help him garner some meatier roles in the future.

The supporting performances are adequate but frankly the three captives have little depth to them (which is more a function of the writing than the performances) although Taylor-Joy continues to develop as one of the most exciting up-and-coming actresses in Hollywood right now. Buckley hams it up a little bit as the scientist too blinded by her research to see the real danger that is developing right in front of her very eyes. Like McAvoy, she seems to be having a grand old time making the film and it shows. In fact, I get the sense that Shyamalan himself seemed more confident and while he did express that this was one of his most challenging shoots ever, there is an element of fun throughout with some appropriately placed humor.

Some are calling this his comeback film but I am still a bit on the fence about that. Certainly he is on the right path but this doesn’t compare with his best two films, both made at the beginning of his career. While the post-credits scene absolutely floored me and left me leaving the theater with a huge grin on my face (and sets up a sequel that is sure to happen), the movie drags a bit particularly in the middle and the final sequence when The Beast makes his appearance is a bit of a letdown in many ways.

Still this is in the upper echelon of Shyamalan’s filmography and that’s a good thing. While he has been disappointing of late, his last two movies are showing a return to form and leaves me hopeful that we will soon be seeing movies on the level of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Now that would be truly a Hollywood miracle.

REASONS TO GO: The tone is nicely taut and suspenseful. McAvoy gives a very strong performance. The twist in the post-credits scene is absolutely wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The girls are in general pretty much without personality. The film drags a bit in the middle. The Beast is a little bit of a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, thematic content that may be squirm-inducing for some, a bit of foul language and some behavior that is suggestive of pedophilia.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth film directed by Shyamalan to gross more than $100 million at the box office.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Psycho
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Book of Love