Knocking (Knackningar)


What is real and what is not?

(2021) Suspense (LaskCecilia Milocco, Albin Grenholm, Ville Virtanen, Krister Kern, Alexander Salzberger, Charlotta Akerblom, Kristofer Kamiyasu, Christina Indrenius Zalewski, Naida Ragimova, Bengt Braskered, Karin Holmberg (voice), Tobias Almborg, Bill Hugg, Maria Norgren, Nilla Hansson, Karin de Frumerie, Emil Almén, Meliz Karige. Directed by Frida Kernoff

The mind is a powerful and mysterious instrument. It can pick up on the smallest clues, but it can make up things out of whole cloth. When it isn’t functioning properly, we cannot trust the sensory input we receive from it. What, then, does one do to distinguish what reality is?

Molly (Milocco) has suffered an awful tragedy. One moment she is napping on the beach, smiling at the whisper that her partner is going for a swim, the next her life has been completely upended. So much so that she has spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. Now, though, she is about to be released to try and resume a normal life. An apartment has been arranged for her in a high-rise on the edge of an unnamed city in Sweden. It is spacious, not particularly new but at least it has potential. There is a nice balcony with a view.

Molly settles in with what possessions she has and is urged to make of it a home. She tries gamely, looking for décor but seems a bit unsure as to what appeals to her. And there is a persistent knocking noise coming from one of the apartments above her. Maybe it’s someone hanging a picture, but the knocking is irregular and lasts too long. Maybe someone is dancing on their floor at night?

Molly goes upstairs to inquire of her upstairs neighbors – all men – as to what the source of the knocking is, but nobody else seems to hear it. There are also strange stains appearing in the ceiling. Molly begins to suspect that the rhythmic knocing could be morse code – someone might be trying to communicate with her. And the idea forms that there is someone being held captive – a woman. Other clues begin to arise – bloody clothes found in the dumpster, loud arguing, glimpses of abusive behavior by one of the men living above her. Molly calls the police, but they are less than helpful and given Molly’s history, fairly certain that what’s going on is all in Molly’s head. As the knocking becomes more insistent, Molly grows more desperate to find the source. She is absolutely convinced that there is a badly injured woman calling out for help the only way she can and Molly is just as certain that she’s the only hope the woman has of rescue.

Kernoff has some admirable instincts as a filmmaker. She creates an atmosphere that is slightly off-kilter, letting the viewer know that there’s something that’s not quite right. Is it Molly? Is it something sinister? We’re never really sure until the end and that’s some masterful filmmaking. Kernoff also makes magnificent use of light and shadow. Early on much of the light is reflected off of other surfaces – mirrors, windows, floors. Molly often tries to hide within shadows; behind the curtains of her apartment which are generally drawn, always in a kind of half-light that visually illustrates Molly’s fragile mental state.

She is aided by an extremely strong performance by Milocco who is on-camera virtually every moment, most of the time by herself. She carries the movie with confidence; the more certain Molly grows, the less certain the audience is. That’s in part good writing but also Milocco’s instincts that help create that dichotomy.

One of the underlying messages is the way women are marginalized by men. That’s not to say this is anti-man; Molly is generally treated like a well-meaning but foolish child who is given a pat on the head and reassurances that her concerns will be looked into – sometimes by other women as well. Our patriarchal society in general tends to believe women less often than men. It is why so many women are hesitant to report instances of sexual assault; often they are disbelieved, even asked if they might have misinterpreted what happened to them. To an extent, olly is treated as an unreliable witness in the film not only by the various men in the movie but also by Kernoff herself; we all have that kernel of doubt in our heads right up until the very last moments of the movie when that doubt is resolved.

Molly, like most victims of trauma, lives partially in those moments of trauma. Throughout the film, Molly returns again and again to that day in her head when tragedy befell her. We never see the event actually take place; we assume what has happened. It is as if Molly can’t bring herself to face the actual event. We hear a scream and we surmise. It’s very effective and from a psychological standpoint, quite an accurate representation of what trauma and tragedy does to the hyman psyche.

The movie is not without flaws. Although at a compact 78 minutes it doesn’t ask for an unreasonable investment of time, the pacing is kind of jerky; it does build to a climax but there are also some moments that seem inert compared to others that passed before it. During a freak-out near the end of the film by Molly, a GoPro is placed on Molly facing her so as she moves in almost a whirl of angry, frustrated movement – a tarantella of ranting – we are treated to Milocco’s facial expressions as she rages at the upstairs neighbors, insisting that there is something terrible going on – but the camera movement becomes dizzying and a bit intrusive. Molly’s world is spiraling around her, I get the visual representation but the end result is that I had to look away from the screen until the scene was done, missing the nuances of Milocco’s performance.

Although the movie does contain some horror tropes – the knocking itself sounds like it’s coming straight out of a haunted house movie – this isn’t a horror movie at all. It’s more of a psychological thriller. Given the strength of Milocco’s performance, the nuances of the film’s message and the overall unsettling tone, this is a worthwhile film to seek out. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the major indies picked this one up for release in the fall or winter. If you’re not already watching the Sundance festival virtually (where it premiered), this is one to keep an eye out for on your own local festival or when it eventually gets a national theatrical/VOD release, which I’m pretty certain it will.

REASONS TO SEE: Kernoff does a fine job of setting an unsettling mood. Milocco gives a bravura performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing is a bit uneven.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel by Johannes Theorins.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gaslight
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Night

Everything Must Go


Everything Must Go

Will Ferrell takes a break from big budget comedies.

(2010) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Laura Dern, Michael Pena, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Stephen Root, Glenn Howerton, Rosalie Michaels, Todd Bryant, Dave LaBrucherie, Daniel D. Halleck. Directed by Dan Rush

There are times in our lives when we are hit by a storm of crises. Major life-changing events – almost always negative – seem to batter us one after the other. Sometimes, the storms are of our own making but how we react to them, whatever the cause, is often a major component of what defines us for the rest of our lives.

Nick Halsey (Ferrell) is having a really bad day. He is fired from his job after an incident on a business trip revealed him to have fallen off the wagon yet again. The company has been patient with his alcoholism recovery, his boss (Howerton) tells him as he informs him of his impending unemployed state, but this last straw was too much. Because Nick is a regional vice president and had been with the company for sixteen years, he’s given a pocketknife with his name engraved on it as a parting gift. Rule number one for employers giving gifts to employees who are being let go – never give them weapons. Nick thoughtfully slashes his boss’ tire with the pocketknife before being forced to flee, leaving the pocket knife in the tire.

He drops by a local convenience store to get a 12-pack of beer and a Slurpee. A couple of teens ask him if they can buy the beer off of him. When Nick refuses, one of them knocks his Slurpee over in a fit of pique. No frozen treat for Nick. When he gets home, he arrives to find all of his stuff on the front lawn, all the locks changed and a note from his wife telling him that she’s left him, advising him not to call. Thoughtfully, she freezes their joint account ensuring that Nick has no place to go and no way of having his stuff put in storage. His company car gets repossessed. Nick is reduced to sleeping in a recliner on his front lawn, only to be awakened by the automatic sprinkler the next morning.

Nick takes refuge in a constant stream of beer drinking. However, there are those in his neighborhood who are a bit uneasy with his living situation and the cops are called. However, Nick has a friend on the force – his AA sponsor Det. Frank Garcia (Pena). Frank keeps him out of jail, but informs him that he can keep his stuff out there if he has a yard sale. This buys him three additional days out on the lawn.

Nick meets young Kenny Loftus (Wallace), a lonely young boy whose obesity has made him an object of ridicule. Nick hires Kenny to watch his stuff and help him prepare for the sale, teaching him how to play baseball in exchange (along with hourly wages and a cut from the proceeds of the sale). Nick also meets his comely new neighbor Samantha (Hall) who has just moved out from New York in advance of her husband whose arrival in Arizona is repeatedly delayed.

Nick also seeks out Delilah (Dern), who once wrote a very sweet Yearbook entry for him in High School, although they never formally went out. She’s a single mom now whose dream of being an actress never materialized. She recounts an incident from high school that Nick doesn’t even remember but made an indelible impression on her.

Still, Nick can’t help but be his own worst enemy despite his good heart. He is frustrated, and the alcohol has taken a renewed hold on him. Has Nick hit bottom yet or will he sabotage what momentum upward he might have established?

This is based on a short story by Raymond Carver and to be honest, I’m not all that familiar with Carver’s work firsthand so I can’t really say how accurately this reflects the spirit of the original. I’m advised however that the movie indeed captures Carver nicely, so I’ll go with that – I’ll leave fans of the author to judge for themselves.

This is a role that in many ways is very well suited for Ferrell – but in many ways not. Ferrell doesn’t do many dramatic roles and while Nick has a few comedic moments (most of which are captured in the trailer), they’re rarely over-the-top and are for the most part, overshadowed by Ferrell’s depiction of his addiction. To Ferrell’s credit, he doesn’t play Nick as an out-of-control boozer, but a quiet drunk, chain-guzzling Pabst Blue Ribbons (probably the best beer he could afford on what limited cash he had) and at times letting his inner demons get control.

The scene with Dern is one of the best in the movie. Most reviews I’ve read of the film have said something along the lines of “Dern makes a rare but welcome appearance” which I whole-heartedly agree with. Dern, whose sunny persona illuminated such films as Jurassic Park and October Skies, is one of the most underused actresses in Hollywood whether by design or not. She does so well as Delilah that you almost want to follow her story after she leaves the screen after a brief 10 minute appearance. She’s likable and meshes well with Ferrell.

Rebecca Hall also does a nice job as the sweet but sad Samantha. Hall is beginning to build a reputation, getting cast in a number of projects both high profile and indie; like Dern, she’s very likable and capable as an actress. She holds her own in her scenes with Ferrell which is saying something – Ferrell has a surfeit of personality that can overwhelm a partner from time to time. However, Hall does just enough to be memorable.

In fact, the whole movie can be characterized that way. It’s very likable throughout, but exceedingly low-key. The performances are good but not great. I know that’s damning with faint praise, but it really is a movie that I can recommend – it’s just not going to blow your socks off. However, I can commend it on its realism; there are no pat answers here and the ending lets you know that Nick is far from out of the woods, but there is a sense of a chapter coming to an end. I can honestly say I like the tone here, but I would have liked a little more passion.

REASONS TO GO: A good change of pace for Ferrell. Quirky but never intrusively so.

REASONS TO STAY: A pleasant film that never really rises above that.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of bad language and some sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Christopher Jordan Wallace is the son of the late rapper Notorious BIG.

HOME OR THEATER: An intimate film that is going to be difficult to find in theaters; you’re all right if you check it out on home video though.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: 300

I Saw the Devil (Akmareul Boatda)


I Saw the Devil

Going on a date with Min-sik Choi is a drag.

(2010) Suspense (Magnet) Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, Gook-hwan Jeon, Ho-jin Jeon, San-ha Oh, Yoon-seo Kim, San-ha Oh. Directed by Jee-woon Kim

There is justice; then there is vengeance. Often when in deep grief, the difference between the two gets blurred and indistinct. Sometimes that line disappears completely.

Ju-yeon (Oh) is driving on a rural snowy road one night when she gets a flat tire. She gets on the phone with her fiancée, an elite secret police agent Soo-hyeon Kim (Lee). Suddenly there’s a knock on her window – a Samaritan offers to take a look at her tire but she politely refuses – a tow truck is on the way and she’s a little concerned with letting a stranger get access to her car while she’s alone on a dark lonely road. She has good reason to be concerned; the stranger picks up a tire iron and smashes in her window and rapes her in the car, pummeling her with the iron.

After that, he drags her to an industrial building. He chains the bloody and battered semi-conscious woman to a pole while she begs for her life. Then he somewhat calmly dismembers her while she’s still alive.

Ju-yeon is also the daughter of the section chief (Ho-jin Jeon); the discovery of her dismembered body (including her head, floating serenely with a stark and disturbing beauty in a nearby pond) simply destroys the chief and his future son-in-law Soo-hyeon.

Soo-hyeon determines to find the killer himself and give him not so much a hint of justice but the ultimate vengeance. He vows to make the killer suffer as much as his fiancée did in the final moments of her life. His prospective father-in-law is all for it and gives him complicit consent and assistance, providing the police files of the investigation.

After plowing through several suspects (hurting them so badly in the interrogation that they turn themselves into the police) he finds one, Kyung-Chul (Choi, from Oldboy) who turns out to be the one he’s looking for. He has the opportunity to capture the man – and in fact does – but chooses to release him in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, allowing the officer of the law to inflict as much torture as humanly possible on the man who destroyed his future.

Revenge is a theme that seems to resonate with the Koreans; some of their best movies have had it as a subject matter. Here Kim (The Good The Bad The Weird) ratchets it up to a new level of violence and extreme. While the film is unrated here, I would guess it would certainly get an R at the very least and an NC-17 at worst. The gore is extreme, the violence is extreme and the images can be pretty brutal. There are also several rapes that take place, although none of them are really that graphic.

Min-sik Choi, who was the victim in Oldboy, plays a much different role here. He is the demented killer and one gets a sense of diabolical cleverness from him, not to mention the horrible sense that he may explode into violence at any given moment. While he doesn’t have matinee idol looks, he is a consummate actor who would be getting Oscar potential roles were he here in the States.

Byung-hun Lee has a good deal of screen presence and matinee idol looks. His dogged determination is evident; he even gets emotional at times but for the most part he’s icy cool. He could potentially be a major action star over here; I would love to see a few studios take a chance on him.

There are some standard action movie elements but all of them are turned on their ear. The movie has been labeled by some as misogynistic and torture porn. As to the former, I didn’t see it. Yes, there was violence done to women, but that was the nature of the killer – a rapist-murderer. Sometimes, serial killers are not equal opportunity maniacs. As to torture porn while there were elements of that, the plot was much more defined and intricate to relegate to that particular genre – this isn’t a Saw movie gang – but it’s got that kind of brutality and in some cases, even more extreme.

I have said it before, I’m saying it now and I’m going to say it again – this isn’t a movie for the squeamish or the sensitive. It is, however, a movie for those who like extreme movies that are well acted, decently plotted and unafraid to go there, wherever there is.

REASONS TO GO: Insanely over-the-top violence occasionally lightened by a sense of sly humor. Choi makes a wonderful serial killer and Lee is a fine hero.

REASONS TO STAY: Too violent for some. Sometimes things get so insane you’re not exactly sure what’s happening.

FAMILY VALUES: If you bring your kids to this one, someone is going to call child protective services. This is ultra-violent, sadistic, and chock full of scenes of violence, torture, rape and peppered with bad words just to make things interesting.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ironically the movie is so violent the Korean Media Rating Board made Kim recut the movie or face a Restricted rating which would have prevented the film being released in its native land. The version available in the United States has never been seen in Korea and unlikely that she ever will.

HOME OR THEATER: I saw this on a big screen and while I can honestly say that seeing it at home is perfectly acceptable, nonetheless I’m recommending the theater just for the visceral effects.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Red Riding Hood

No One Knows About Persian Cats


No One Knows About Persian Cats

Even in Iran, rockers know how to pose.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Negar Shaghaghi, Ashkan Koshanejad, Hamed Behdad, Hichkas, Hamed Seyyed Javadi. Directed by Bahman Ghobadi

What if you lived in a place where expressing your deepest feelings could get you arrested? Where making the kind of music you loved was illegal? Sadly, there are a lot of places like that.

Iran is one such place. Negar (Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Koshanejad) are a pair of alternative-type musicians who have just been released from and Iranian jail. Their crime? Performing forbidden music – without a permit. Hardened criminals, these two are.

They have gotten an invitation to play in London and they mean to take it but first they have to put together a full band. And they have to get a permit to leave the country, for which they require the services of a manager, who they find in Nader (Behdad). Nader links them up with a couple of shady businessman who will forge the papers they need.

However, Negar and particularly Ashkan are dead set on performing a final concert in Teheran before they go. That is going to produce some problems of its own – the police in Teheran aren’t particularly forgiving of young people expressing themselves, particularly in a proscribed manner.

Iran is a heavily regulated country with an extremely radical and conservative clergy calling the shots. Even house pets must remain behind closed doors (which is where the title comes from). Women, of course, are second class citizens, forbidden from studying, holding certain kinds of jobs and even of showing their face in public.

That kind of repression is bound to provoke some pushback, and a thriving independent rock scene has flourished in Teheran and other Iranian cities – there are supposedly more than 2,000 bands operating in Iran currently that play music that is against the law.

That the story takes such conditions so matter-of-factly is part of what makes the movie interesting. While they all hope for more freedom, it’s the world they all live in and they just try to get by the best way that they can. That part of the movie is fascinating. There is also a certain amount of charm, particularly in the music community which is extremely tight knit, crossing genre lines (which would never happen in the States or at least to the degree depicted here) in a kind of gallows cameraderie that would have to develop in a situation such as theirs.

What is even more thrilling is that the music in the movie is uniformly good. The band that the lead characters create (and by the way, the screenplay is based on the experiences of Negar and Ashkan, who are actual musicians) makes music that wouldn’t sound out of place in the hippest clubs in San Francisco, Austin or Seattle. The other bands play a variety of styles from rap metal to acoustic anti-folk to grunge, but all of it is uniformly good. For some of them, the film is going to be the only record of their creativity available to them, because recording music is prohibitively difficult in Iran.

With most of the actors being amateurs (Behdad is a notable exception and he is one of the bright spots in the movie), the acting can be a bit on the unrefined side. That does give the movie a greater sense of realism; it’s not quite a documentary in that sense but it’s as close as you come without capturing actual events.

There are some stark images in the film that are balanced out by a gentle sense of humor that shows up in unexpected places. I have to admit, I was captured by the movie’s charm and you can ride that an awfully long way. It doesn’t quite rocket the movie into instant classic territory but it is certainly worth checking out as an alternative to what you usually watch.

WHY RENT THIS: A look into a culture that has received almost no coverage in Western media and none at all in their own homeland. Great music and some gentle humor round out a nice film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is a little bit on the raw side and the production values are a little dicey.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of language and some smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the bands seen in the movie are actual bands (or were) operating on the Iranian underground scene.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $879,937 on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Rango

Let Me In


Let Me In
Owen demonstrates the proper way to mess up a Rubik’s Cube to Abby.

(Overture) Chloe Moretz, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas, Cara Buono, Sasha Barrese, Dylan Kenin, Chris Browning, Richie Coster, Dylan Minnette, Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak, Nicolai Dorian, Rebekah Wiggins, Seth Adkins, Brett DelBuono.  Directed by Matt Reeves

As children, we dread the monsters, the ones that emerge from our nightmares and hide in the shadows of our room. As we grow older, we learn there are no monsters, but some children know better. There are all sorts of monsters.

Owen (Smit-McPhee) is a young boy growing up in New Mexico in 1983. He’s 12, small for his age, living in a run-down apartment because his parents are in the middle of a bitter divorce, which has led his mother (Buono) to alcoholism. As many emotionally traumatized boys are, he is fragile, aloof and a little weird. He is bullied at school by Kenny (Minnette), a boy much bigger than he.

To combat his loneliness, he binges on candy (particularly Now and Laters, his favorite) and hides the wrappers in the snow. He hangs out in the deserted playground of the apartment and watches the inhabitants through a telescope; a young fitness freak, a romantic couple. He has a small knife that he sometimes whispers threats to his tormenters with – never face to face. He is alone and terrified.

One night, he sees a young girl and her father move in to the apartment next door. The next day, the windows are all covered with cardboard, which seems a bit unusual but with many daysleepers in the complex, not that unusual. One night, the little girl comes out to visit with him on the playground. Her name is Abby (Moretz) and she can’t be his friend. This she announces in a sad but firm voice.

However, they do become friends. Abby has a thing for puzzles and Owen has a doozy – the Rubik’s cube. A very strong bond develops between the two of them, despite the warning of Abby’s father (Richard Jenkins) to stay away from him. Soon, Owen is finding the strength to stand up to those who are bullying him.

However, Abby is not what she seems. As they grow closer and a series of unexplained murders bring the police in the form of a single, unnamed dogged detective (Koteas), Abby eventually reveals the truth – she needs blood to survive. Yes, that would make her a vampire.

This is based on the acclaimed Swedish film Let the Right One In which in turn was based on a novel of the same name. Many who saw the first film cringed at the idea of a Hollywood version. Cringe no more; this is nearly as good as the original. Reeves captures the feeling of despair and hopelessness that was the backdrop to the first movie, and adds the dread and sense of something really terrible about to happen that was the original’s spice.

It helps that he has two strong juvenile leads to carry the movie. Moretz has made a name for herself with astonishing turns in Kick-Ass and (500) Days of Summer. She is clearly an actress of immense talent and should have a satisfying career ahead of her. Smit-McPhee, who was also in The Road, captures the innocence and sadness of his character very nicely, retaining the kid aspect in a role that lesser actors would have tried to make more precocious.

The adult actors tend to be moved off to the side, but Jenkins does a noble job in a thankless part, while Koteas continues his strong work of late. However, it is not so much the actors but the atmosphere that will get your attention. The movie is set in the dead of winter and the bleak landscapes and frigid temperatures contribute to the overall mood, which I will admit starts to get to you after awhile.

Still, it’s a great setting for a horror movie and this is a particularly well-written one. There is just enough gore and horrifying violence to satisfy the horror fan, and enough character development to satisfy the cinephile. I happen to fall into both camps, so this movie was like catnip to me. It’s not quite as good as the Swedish version, but it’s so close that the differences are negligible. It’s well worth your Halloween dollar.

REASONS TO GO: A vampire movie that will give Twilight-haters a reason to rejoice. Strong performances from all of the leads.

REASONS TO STAY: The dismal atmosphere can get overly oppressive.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some violent, disturbing scenes and a fair amount of foul language. In addition, there’s an unexpected sexual situation; this is very much for older teens and above only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The word “vampire” only is spoken once in the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the moody forest scenes benefit from the big screen, overall I’d say the movie is just as effective on your own television or computer screen.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Day Two of Six Days of Darkness