Black Water: Abyss


This big reptile is a croc.

(2020) Horror (Screen MediaJessica McNamee, Luke Mitchell, Amali Golden, Benjamin Hoetjes, Anthony J. Sharpe, Louis Toshio Okada, Rumi Kikuchi, Stu Kirk, Damien Blewett, J’ Ma, Jarod Woods, Rhys Ward, Isabella Sheehan, Glenn Adams, Julie Selis-Muscat, Vicky Wanless, Lincoln Callaghan, Troy Black, Mary Jane, Adam Lacey, Phillip Davy, Isabelle Rickards, Lynne Rose. Directed by Andrew Traucki

 

Sometimes, you’re not after a movie that’s going to involve you in the lives of its characters. Every now and then, you want a movie that just smacks you in the face with a stupid stick, fills the screen with improbable action and just lets you revel in your baser instincts. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

A pair of Type-A Aussie couples – well, at least that’s half-true – are headed to do some spelunking in the cave systems of Northern Australia. Alpha male Eric (Mitchell) and his wife Jennifer (McNamee) – who would much rather be getting room service in a five star hotel – has taken cancer survivor Vitor (Hoetjes) and his newly pregnant wife Yolanda (Golden) along with cave explorer and Eric’s buddy Cash (Sharpe) to a cave that only recently was discovered when a sinkhole opened up. Do they tell anyone where they are going? NO, THEY DO NOT! Have these assclowns not seen a horror movie ever?

Well, if you think that’s irresponsible, they also choose to ignore an approaching storm. The result? They are trapped in the cave with rapidly rising waters, but that’s really the least of their problems. You see, there’s a very hungry and singularly-minded crocodile swimming around and these five numbskulls have effectively just rung the dinner bell.

There are stabs at plot development, but they just don’t work. When you’re in a survival situation, generally speaking that’s not the time to work out marital issues, but of course, when you’re being stalked by a giant killer croc, what else is there to do? One of the dim-witted croc snacks even expresses shock that they can’t get a cell signal two hundred feet below the ground in the middle of a swamp. No, really? REALLY?!?

Predictably, as the crock picks them off one by one, they race for a way out before the water rises above their safe little ledge. With one of their number badly injured and another pregnant, what chance to these guys have to outwit the croc in its own element?

This is a sequel to the minor 2007 hit Black Water only in the loosest terms in that it’s set in Australia, there’s a crocodile and one of the young people being stalked is pregnant. If you didn’t see it, it won’t affect your enjoyment of this one (or lack thereof). And while I’ve been harsh up to now, there are some elements here that aren’t too bad – the cinematography is lush, whether in the caves or out in the swamps.

We don’t get to see much of the crock, as it mostly swims around in murky waters, but what we do see is pretty impressive. However, the actual deaths are not easy to see, given that the cave environment is so dark, the water is murky and roiling with a thrashing crocodile and an equally thrashing victim. The sounds of the kills might be what get to you, though, if you tend to be faint of heart. In some ways, that makes the death scenes more gruesome than they actually are.

Essentially, this is pretty typical survival horror with a big, mad predator. There are no surprises here, hardly any character development other than one of the girls remarking that her relationship with her fella has been rocky, until near the end when we find out….well, you’ll see. And if you’re not planning on seeing this, I’m still not going to tell you. In any case, if you’re looking for something new to rent, this fits the bill. It isn’t horrible but it isn’t great. It’s just kind of there, like an Appleby’s.

REASONS TO SEE: Some lovely jungle and cave cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stock characters being picked off one by one.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a sequel to the 2007 film Black Water which Traucki co-wrote and co-directed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews, Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crawl
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Perfect Candidate

Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth


A daddy’s baby bump.

(2019) Documentary (1091Freddie McConnell, Esme McConnell, CJ. Directed by Jeanie Finlay

 

Timing can be everything. For Freddie McConnell, he is fixing to turn 30 and he is anxious to start a family of his own. He wants to have a baby, but he is a trans male, transitioning from being born female who has had surgery above the waist but not yet below. What he wants is not unheard of, but not easy. It means having to interrupt his journey to the gender he is supposed to be; it will mean telling family and friends what he has chosen, knowing that not all of them will be supportive. It will mean never-ending second guessing, wondering if he is doing the right thing for the right reasons. They are legitimate questions and there are no easy answers.

I have often heard women comment that men would be different creatures entirely if they could give birth; most women agree that no man who can be completely bedridden by the man-flu could tolerate even a few days of being pregnant, let alone the pain of giving birth. Generally in cinematic terms, men giving birth has been a comedic function. Finlay wisely gives the whole process respect and never descends to the kind of low-brow humor that a film like Junior, for example, descended to.

Freddie is, as he puts it, the only trans in the small seaside town of Deal in Kent. His desire to have a baby of his own is so overwhelming that adoption just isn’t an option; he wants to put his testosterone injections on hold, and carry a child to term while he still can. The process isn’t an easy one and Finlay follows Freddie through all of it. We go along with him to the doctor’s appointments, talking with sometimes it feels like every licensed member of the National Health Service (surely it must have felt that way to Freddie at least) as he takes this difficult path.

By his side every step of the way is his redoubtable mum Esme and his step-dad Gary. His father, who it is clear never really accepted him, is most definitely not on board. Even CJ, his romantic partner, eventually succumbs and their relationship dissolves. Freddie himself has plenty of self-doubt and does an awful lot of crying when he is alone in bed.

The movie’s coverage of the emotional aspects of the pregnancy and its ramifications are really where the film shines. Freddie often wonders if all of what he is sacrificing, which to a certain extent includes his own identity will be worth it in the end – it’s not really a spoiler to say that it is. In the end, the movie raises the point that life isn’t about doing what is expected of you; it’s about doing what makes you happy, no matter how difficult and demanding that may be. At the end of the day, we can only be true to ourselves and Freddie, although he questions it, ends up being exactly that.

The film, produced by the BBC, takes us through the birth and while we mostly hear it and see Freddie from the waist up, that and scenes of him injecting himself may be a bit much for those who are sensitive to such things. However, all that aside, Freddie is so likable and engaging, and his mother such a supportive and loving soul that you can’t help but root for them.

And when it comes to timing, I think it is notable to report that the movie made its American VOD debut four days after the Trump administration rolled back healthcare protection for trans patients during a pandemic, no less – further illustrating the struggle for acceptance that this community continues to wage. This film makes that struggle so much more human and should be part of the conversation of the cost of decisions like the one the Trump administration has made.

REASONS TO SEE: Freddie is an engaging and fearless subject. The emotional aspects of the story are even more fascinating than the practical.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the scenes are not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is profanity, adult issues and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film title refers to the seahorse, a species in which the male carries and spawns its own young.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Trans List
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Pollinators

Creed II


The obligatory staredown.

(2018) Sports Drama (MGM/Warner BrothersMichael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Florian Munteanu, Dolph Lundgren, Phylicia Rashad, Russell Hornsby, Wood Harris, Milo Ventimiglia, Robbie Johns, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nelson, Patrice Harris, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, Ana Gerena, Christopher Mann, Robert Douglas, Zack Beyer, Chrisdine King. Directed by Steven Caple Jr.

The Rocky franchise may be the ultimate American movie franchise; it has tackled everything from the triumph of the underdog to Cold War politics to father-son alienation over the years. With the 70-something Stallone more than long in the tooth to get back in the ring, it was decided (after a misfire featuring Milo Ventimiglia as Rocky’s son, who also cameos here in the same role) to pass the torch to Michael B. Jordan as Adonis, son of Apollo Creed and in the 2015 movie Creed director Ryan Coogler managed to put together a movie that garnered a lot of awards season attention.

With a new director, the writers (including Stallone) looked back at the storied history of the franchise, remembering that Daddy Creed died in the ring at the hands of Ivan Drago (Lundgren). Now, with Viktor Drago (Munteanu) having turned into an unstoppable behemoth like his old man, Adonis wants payback and despite the concerns of Rocky (Stallone), Adonis’ wife Bianca (Thompson) who is losing her hearing, and mom Mary Anne (Rashad), Adonis looks to show Drago and Son who really is The Man. Of course, things don’t go as planned, a rematch is set and nobody thinks Adonis can win.

The plot takes almost all of its cues from Rocky IV nearly note for note; if you haven’t seen that film (some say the best in the franchise), you’re basically watching it here. The newer Creed misses the sure hand of Coogler at the helm but Caple does a pretty capable job in the relief role. While this film doesn’t measure up well to Creed (or Rocky IV for that matter) it has enough going for it to make it worth your while looking it up; it’s pretty much available everywhere at the moment so it’s not that hard to find. Just like Stallone.

REASONS TO SEE: Jordan is one of the best actors working today.
REASONS TO AVOID: Formulaic throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of boxing violence, some profanity and a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two turtles, Cuff and Link, are appearing for the fifth time in the franchise. They are also Stallone’s real-life pets and they have been with him for more than 50 years at the time of filming.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews, Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocky IV
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)


Love in flames.

(2019) Romance (NEON) Noémie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luána Bajrami, Valeria Golino, Christel Baras, Armande Boulanger, Guy Delamarche, Clément Bouyssou, Cécile Morel, Michéle Clément. Directed by Céline Sciamma

 

The Darkwave band Black Tape for a Blue Girl did a song “A Love That Dare Not Be” which is heartbreaking in nearly every respect; the music itself creates a melancholic mood and there’s the realization that few people have ever heard the song and it so deserves to be heard.

In fact, their Ashes in the Brittle Air album dovetails nicely with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the latest from French writer-director Sciamma and her most exciting work to date. It is a period piece, set in the mid-to-late 18th century in an isolated chateau on the seacoast of Brittany.

Marianne (Merlant) has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Hélöise (Haenel), the daughter of the countess (Golino) who lives there. Hélöise has just been yanked out of the convent to take the place of her sister in a marriage to a Milanese nobleman; the portrait is to be used to pique interest in the girl as potential marriage material. However, Hélöise is wise to the game and refused to sit for a portrait with the previous painter, who grew frustrated at her obstinance and quit.

Marianne is there in the guise of a companion to accompany Hélöise on walks around the chateau. The countess is concerned that Hélöise might suffer the same fate as her sister, who fell from the cliffs. The house’s sole servant, Sophie (Bajrami) believes it was suicide because the girl didn’t utter a sound on the way to her death.

Marianne is meant to paint surreptitiously in the evening hours. Her canvas and painting supplies are hidden behind privacy partitions. During the day the two women hang out and soon develop a friendship. Marianne is forced by circumstances to notice the details of Hélöise; the curve of her neck, the cartilage of her ears, the elegance of her fingers. Before long, the friendship develops into something deeper – the proverbial love that dare not speak its name.

This is one of the most beautifully shot movies I’ve seen in a while and I’ve seen some good ones. The composition is exquisite, done with a painter’s eye. Whether it is Hélöise standing alone in front of crashing waves on the shore, or Hélöise, Marianne and Sophia cresting a hill at dusk in the wild light of sunset, or Marianne alone before the fire, naked and puffing on a pipe contemplatively, each shot has purpose, each shot conveys emotion.

The emotions are at the center of the performances of Haenel and Merlant. Both are up for Best Actress awards at the César awards that are being presented this coming Friday – the French Oscars. Either performance is award-worthy, although I don’t know how you would choose between the two. Haenel is more reserved, somewhat more melancholy. Merlant has the advantage of being the narrator and setting the tone in that sense. The chemistry between them is natural and believable.

\Throughout the film there are references to the legend of Orpheus – he’s the bard whose love Eurydice died young, so he made the perilous journey into the underworld to beg Lord Hades for him to release her back to the world. Hades, moved by Orpheus’ artistry, grants the request with the caveat that Orpheus must lead the way and not turn back until both of them have left the Underworld; if he obeys, they will live whatever time they have left. If not, Eurydice goes right back into the afterlife, not passing go nor collecting $200. Human nature being what it is, Orpheus looks back as the end is in sight and loses his girl forever.

Hélöise, Marianne and Sophie discuss the meanings of the myth but there are also some other references; appearances of paintings based on the myth and near the end of the movie, as Marianne is leaving the chateau with her Hélöise promised to another, she hears the admonition to turn around and beholds Hélöise in a white wedding-like dress behind her. As Marianne shuts the door, Hélöise disappears from view.

There is a lot of depth here, too much to get into in one article but enough that you’ll be talking about it with your film buff friends for a long time to come. The two-hour movie takes a bit of time to get going, but once it hits its stride it holds your attention firmly. This had a one-day theatrical preview event back in December but is just now hitting a general release. Their distributor, which is still in a celebratory mood after one of their films won the Best Picture Oscar, can start celebrating again; this is another amazing film for their library and one which could very well be part of next year’s Oscar conversation.

REASONS TO SEE: A master class on camera composition. A haunting choral piece really heightens the mood. Wonderful use of the Orpheus myth.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too long; it drags a bit in the beginning.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and sexuality including one brief scene of graphic sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the festival scene, the women sing a choral version of Non Possunt Fugere which is Latin for “They Cannot Escape.” The song is repeated during the closing credits.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes:98% positive reviews: Metacritic: 95/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Breathe In
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again


They’re with the band.

(2018) Musical (UniversalLily James, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Andy Garcia, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgǻrd, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Cher, Alexa Davies, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Meryl Streep, Josh Dylan, Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, Omid Djalili, Anastasia Hille, Anna Antoniades, Maria Vacratsis, Naoko Mori. Directed by Ol Parker

 

I have to confess that I’ve always had a soft spot for the music of ABBA, the Swedish pop group that lit up the charts in the 70s and 80s. Mamma Mia, the musical that utilized the band’s extensive catalogue of hits to celebrate a young girl’s wedding as she tries to figure out which of three possibilities is her biological father. It was a major hit – in 2008. Ten years almost to the day, the sequel arrives.

In it, Sophie (Seyfried), the bride from the first film, is trying to renovate her mother’s Greek Island hotel. Her mamma Donna (Streep) has passed away and poor Sophie is trying to balance mourning for her mom, getting the hotel ready for opening night and dealing with a rocky relationship (she’s separated from husband Sky (Cooper) although she is pregnant). With nearly everyone from the first film returning, along with Cher as Donna’s estranged mom and Andy Garcia as the hotel’s manager, there is a familiarity about the terrain. There are also flashbacks showing Donna’s shenanigans leading to her coming to the Greek islands and getting involved with three different men. The luminescent Lily James plays the younger Donna and she does a terrific job, but she’s no Meryl Streep and the film feels her absence keenly. Streep does return for the most haunting scene in the film as a benevolent ghost observing her granddaughter’s christening.

The plot is essentially an excuse for the musical numbers which I suppose could be said for some classic musicals as well, but here it seems especially glaring. Part of the reason is that the bulk of ABBA’s better-known hits were used in the first film and much of the soundtrack here is made up of album tracks and B-sides so the movie loses much of the familiarity factor that made the first film charming.

Streep’s scene and Cher’s two musical numbers are both the showstoppers here; most of the other numbers are forgettable and kind of repetitive. Also, the beautiful Greek island location of the first film has been swapped out for Croatia in the second; not quite the same. I just didn’t get the same warm fuzzies I got from the first film, more’s the pity. There’s definitely a market for this and I know my wife and son thoroughly enjoyed this way more than I did; however, I found it to be only minimally entertaining at best.

REASONS TO SEE: Streep and Cher are big highlights
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is terribly flimsy. Streep’s absence is keenly felt throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mildly sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep is distantly related to both Cher (15th cousin) who plays her mother, and James (9th cousin) who plays her younger self.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Movies Anywhere Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jersey Boys
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Little Monsters

Firstborn (Pirmdzimtais)


Even in Latvia, a stroll in the dark could end up costing you dearly.

(2017) Thriller (ArtsploitationKaspars Znotins, Maija Dovelka, Dainis Grube, Kaspars Zale. Directed by Aik Karapetian

What does it mean to be a man? In this era of #MeToo and renewed focus on rape culture and patriarchy, the book is being rewritten on the subject. Once upon a time, men were required to be providers and protectors, to rid the house of any creepy crawly spotted by the wife and to repair anything that requires it in the house. These days, on top of all of that, they are also required to not know where anything is in the house, to never ever ask for directions no matter what the cost and be able to anticipate whatever mood our mate is happening to experience at that particular moment.

All kidding aside, the nature of masculinity is changing and while that is on the surface a very good thing, what does that do to expectations? Francis (Znotins) is not, by any measure, a very masculine man. An architect, he is the very definition of a man who wouldn’t hurt a fly – possibly because he’s terrified the fly might turn around and beat the crap out of him.

As introverted as Francis is, his wife Katrina (Dovelka) is the polar opposite. Pretty much feminine by every standard, she is outgoing – the life of the party – and a beauty in any beholder’s eyes whereas Francis is a skinny and slight man who has a face that can only be described as ordinary. It is hard to figure out what she sees in him and by appearances she’s beginning to wonder too.

The two have been trying to get pregnant for some time without success. They go to a small party with friends who have a pretty amazing kid and Katrina is beginning to feel like her opportunity to have one of her own is rapidly passing her by. She has a little too much to drink and as the couple walk home, a passing motorcyclist (Zale) reaches out and tries to grab her purse unsuccessfully. She yells at him, prompting him to come back. He assaults both Francis (taking him out with a single punch) and Katrina, violating her with a tire iron. Humiliated and traumatized, she gives her assailant the purse.

Her relationship with Francis goes from barely cordial to much worse. It is clear she feels like he didn’t protect her when he was required to and to be honest, he doesn’t disagree. When he sees her getting chummy with the police detective assigned to the case (who happens to be an old flame of Katrina’s) he decides to find the mugger himself, and force him to return the bag and apologize to his girl. You can imagine that this is going to go all sorts of bad and it does but not in the way you’d think.

There is really not a lot of subtlety here; Karapetian makes no bones about what his interest is here. Francis undergoes something of a transformation from a meek, mousy sort to one full of toxic masculinity who begins to take out his insecurities on Katrina, even after he finds out she’s finally pregnant. There follow a lot of twists and turns, some of which any regular viewer of thrillers will be able to suss out in advance.

Karapetian is actually quite brilliant behind the camera particularly in terms of his shot composition and his framing. Whether filming in dimly lit apartments (one has to wonder if Francis and Katrina are paying their electric bill) or in remote snowy landscapes, the look of the film is distinctive. It doesn’t hurt that both Dovelka and Znotins deliver strong, believable performances. During the initial encounter with the motorcycle-riding thug, the danger is palpable and the scene is terrifying in a realistic way that directors of Hollywood thrillers often get wrong. This one feels like it could have happened exactly as depicted.

The film does take its time in getting to its denouement and maybe some American viewers will find this a bit too long for their tastes. There are some scenes in the middle the movie didn’t need to be honest. Still, as thrillers go this one is top notch and it is likely to get thinking audiences doing just that; it certainly will make for some interesting discussion. I’m not sure I agree with Karapetian’s point of view completely but I give him props for having one.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot and framed.
REASONS TO AVOID: Runs a little too long and moves a little too slow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (some of it brutal), sexual situations, profanity, nudity and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Karapetian was born in Armenia but raised in Latvia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Straw Dogs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Captain Black

Bird Box


Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.

(2018) Horror (Netflix) Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver, Trevante Rhodes, Rosa Salazar, Danielle Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, Colson Baker, BD Wong, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Vivien Lyra Blair, Julian Edwards, Parminder Nagra, Rebecca Pidgeon, Amy Gumenick, Taylor Handley, Happy Anderson, Kyle Beatty, Ashley A. Alvarado. Directed by Susanne Bier

 

The secret to a great horror movie is to never reveal the monster too early. What we can’t see is often the scariest creature of them all.

Civilization has collapsed but it’s not a plague of zombies that has done it; rather, an unseen monster that when it establishes eye contact causes the viewer to commit suicide. Essentially, nobody can go out of their house because once you see the monster, you’re toast within moments. In the early scenes of the movie we see precisely how quickly things devolve into chaos as people ram their cars into immovable objects, stab themselves to death and calmly open the door of a burning car and sitting down in the passenger scene, immolating themselves.

Malorie (Bullock) is a take-charge kind of woman who finds herself in this environment. Pregnant, she is on her way from a routine doctor appointment when things go to Hell in a handbasket. She takes refuge in the home of a curmudgeonly novelist who watches his wife kill herself after she beckons Malorie and other stranded motorists into her fortress-like home. Her husband Douglas (Malkovich) is none too pleased about the new guests but admits grudgingly that they bring special skills to the table, including ex-military construction crew chief (Rhodes) who develops a relationship with Malorie, grandmotherly Sheryl (Weaver), conspiracy theorist and grocery clerk Charlie (Howery) and a few others who come and go, some with less-than-noble intentions.

This culminates in a harrowing journey Malorie takes with her children (identified only as Boy (Edwards) and Girl (Blair) five years after the fact in which she rows a canoe down a river while blindfolded, hoping to make it to a rumored sanctuary in Northern California which is mostly shown in flash-forwards.

Bullock is brilliant here in a rare appearance in a horror film for the actress (she doesn’t like horror movies and generally doesn’t take roles in them – her last horror movie was more than 20 years previously). Malkovich chews the scenery here in typical fashion while Weaver is competent as is Paulson. Sadly, the two juveniles playing Boy and Girl are as bland as their names would suggest; they spend most of the film trying to act rather than trying to project themselves into their characters. This is a problem for many juvenile actors and actresses which tend to lead to stiff performances which we get here.

We never see the creatures responsible although we see the carnage they cause. It is a good thing that we don’t; they are far more terrifying that way. Bier is a respected director having done most of her work in her native Denmark; this is her first genre film and she attacks it as she would any drama, allowing the emotions of the characters set the tone, making the movie more interesting than the average creature feature.

This was one of the most popular films released by Netflix last year; it even inspired another stupid dangerous internet phenomenon known as “the bird box challenge” in which people try to navigate a distance (indoors and/or outside) while blindfolding leading to a raft of injuries, some of which required visits to the Emergency Room. While the tension Bier builds is unbelievable, the story is just the opposite. While this isn’t the kind of horror film that uses creature effects to set it’s gory tone, although there is some gore. This is the kind of horror movies that even those who aren’t fond of the genre can see.

REASONS TO SEE: The tension is unrelenting. Another great concept, even if it is a little bit derivative. Some very smart decisions made by the director.
REASONS TO AVOID: The juvenile actors are a liability.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and gore, profanity, adult themes and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bullock is actually blindfolded during the scenes in which her character is (which makes up about half the film) and refused to allow eye holes to be cut, causing her to bump into the camera more than once during shooting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Quiet Place
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Spy Behind Home Plate

ROMA


Cleo enjoys the view from the rooftops of suburban Mexico City.

(2018) Drama (Netflix) Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Damesa, Nancy Garcia Garcia, Verónica Garcia, Andy Cortės, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Josė Manuel Guerrero Mendoza, Latin Lover, Zarela Lizbeth Chinolla Arellano, Jose Luis López Gómez, Edwin Mendoza Ramirez, Clementina Guadarrama. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

 

Some movies assault our senses frontally; others wash over us like a wave. Roma, the Oscar-nominated Netflix opus from acclaimed Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, is one of the latter types of films.

Set in the upscale Roma neighborhood during the turbulent 1970s and loosely based on the director’s own childhood. Cleo (Aparicio) is the maid and nanny for an upper middle class family, including Sra. Sofia (de Tavira) and the father (Grediaga), a medical doctor. On the surface, life is good for the family; they have a lovely home and enjoy evenings of watching TV together as a family with the maid and the other servant Adela (N. G. Garcia) taking care of the family’s every need.

But when the doctor leaves for a conference in Canada which turns out to be a euphemism for leaving his family for his mistress, things turn upside down for the family. Sofia becomes withdrawn, angry; she relies on Cleo more than ever to run the house. The children begin to act out. In the meantime, Cleo gets pregnant courtesy of her jerk of a boyfriend Fermin (Guerrero) and she goes into labor just as the notorious Corpus Christi massacre of 1971 is underway. The family begins to disintegrate from within.

In many ways the movie feels more Italian than Mexican; the slice of life aspect that sees the dual deterioration of Sofia and Cleo has the fatalistic yet dreamlike – albeit strangely realistic – quality that marks the films of some of the great Italian directors of the 70s through the 80s. Cuarón shoots the film essentially in medium shots nearly exclusively, making u feel like flies on the wall but oddly detached. We are not so much part of the family but spies within. All that’s needed to complete the effect is a gigantic tape recorder.

Shooting in black and white usually produces either a retro or documentary feel but again there is that feeling that we are voyeurs in the household. In fact, I would venture to say that this is reality television in the sense that movies once fulfilled that role. It is at once mundane and beautiful.

While Cuarón is specifically examining his own background in a specific time and place, this movie is equally applicable to virtually any time and place. Not all of us grow up with servants but nearly all of us grow up with challenges in our family, whether it be the sudden loss of a parent, alcohol or drug abuse or simply that the times they are a’changin’, we all know heartache in our lives.

This may be too slow-moving for some. The story unfolds like a rose even though there is more rot than rose to it. Parts of the movie are difficult to follow although Cuarón does tie everything nicely by movie’s end, I suspect that there aren’t a lot of Americans who will be patient enough for the two hours plus running time. Also, most of us are going to see this on television or computer screens at home or in some other distraction-heavy environment. If ever there was a movie that was meant to be experienced in a movie theater, it’s this one. Here in Central Florida, the movie was only available in The Villages which is a real shame. That’s partly due to the onerous rental terms that Netflix set for the film, making it nearly impossible for a theater to turn any sort of profit for running the movie. Maybe at some point kinder heads will prevail at Netflix and they will make the film available for a more reasonable theatrical release. I think the goodwill that such an action would generate among their subscribers (and potential subscribers) would be worth far more what they are profiting from the film currently.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the most beautifully composed shots you’ll see this year. Aparicio is a major find. The cinematography is compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is slow moving and occasionally disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, graphic nudity and adult themes throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie from a streaming service to be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinema Paradiso
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Point Man

Choosing Signs


An American tree-hugger teaches an Irish lad the joys of natural energy.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Random) Jessica Lancaster, Owen Dara, Betsy Douds, Jeremy Ocanas, Stephen Wyley, Cora Fenton, Alan Riordan, Claire Bermingham. Directed by Owen Dara

 

The universe is a great big place. Some folks believe that our lives are guided by it if you just notice the signs that the universe is sending you. Personally I think the universe has way too much to do to bother with individuals but that’s just me and I’m a heathen.

Jennifer (Lancaster) believes it though. When she has tried to make decisions on her own, they’ve been utter catastrophe. She figures that allowing the universe through flipped coins, throwing dice – i.e. random chance – probably couldn’t end up worse. This has brought Jennifer from the shores of the United States to Cork, Ireland along with her mentally ill brother Matty (Ocanas) whose institutionalization has been paid for by Marc (Wyley), with whom Jennifer is living. Matty is obsessed with cars and building one out of found items. Marc has an obsession of his own – building low cost housing for immigrants during an Irish economic boom known as the Irish Tiger – and Jennifer is kind of drifting through the world that has been laid out for her through the signs.

Eamon is the nurse for Matty at the institution. Matty likes him; the easy-going Eamon treats him like he’s not crazy. Matty is also fully aware that Eamon has it bad for his sister and seems to be okay with the idea. Jennifer is a bit of a new age nut – she’s a big believer in things like shakras, auras and the like – so at first the match with the down-to-earth Eamon looks doomed. The charming Irishman is persistent though and not even the knowledge that she’s living with another fella dampens his spirits much but when the inevitable happens, Jennifer finds herself left with a decision that she simply can’t leave to chance.

This is a movie with a ton of heart which can excuse a lot of sins. It is also an ultra-low budget affair (Dara made the movie for about $25K) which can excuse a lot of other sins. However, there are some issues here that one should bear in mind when choosing to watch this or not. The soundtrack, composed by Dara as well as all his other duties, is mainly made up of acoustic folk songs written by Dara and sung by Dara and Virginia Williams. Dara has a pleasant voice as does Williams but the songs are noticeably too similar and after awhile it really gets on one’s nerves. It should be said that getting the rights to songs to be included on a soundtrack can be prohibitively expensive even for performers who aren’t well-known so unless you happen to have friends in the local music community who are willing to contribute songs for nothing which is actually a loss if you count recording costs, then chances are the music will have to be DIY.

Dara is an engaging performer, using his Irish charm to full advantage. He seems to be a very strange mix for the flighty Jennifer but then, Lancaster and Dara are a couple in real life so assuming this isn’t autobiographical (which I’m told it isn’t) there’s probably much more in common between the two in real life than there is in reel life.

One thing you can say about the movie – it isn’t a typical rom-com. All four of the main characters have some sort of burden or mental issue and Marc’s Ukrainian housekeeper Svetlana (Douds) whose blunt tell-it-like-it-is style forces all of them sooner or later to take a good hard look at themselves. Even Matty gets a dose of Svetlana’s forthright tongue. In many ways, Svetlana is the most compelling character and despite being a supporting character who gets little screen time eventually becomes the one you’d want to spend time with in real life.

Not everyone will latch onto this. It is by-the-seat-of-the-pants filmmaking and at times the low budget is very evident. What remains with me after having seen this yesterday is that charm, heart and conviction can go a long way in indie filmmaking and Choosing Signs has plenty of all three. If you’re willing to overlook the fact that there are no stars, no Hollywood glitz and the fact that all of the characters are damaged in some way – even Eamon as we discover late in the film – then you might just fall under the sway of this charming Irish production.

REASONS TO GO: Dara gives the film a great deal of charm.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack has too many similar-sounding folk songs and needs way more variety.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to producing, writing, directing and starring in the movie, Dara also composed all the songs for the soundtrack and edited the film as well. He may also have swept the floor of the theater after the show.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Roosevelt
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Public Image is Rotten

Minding the Gap


Skating can be more than just a passion.

(2018) Documentary (Hulu/Magnolia) Zach Milligan, Keire Johnson, Nina Bowgren, Kent Abernathy, Bing Liu, Mingyue Bolen, Roberta Johnson, Rory Mulligan, Kyle, Eric, Vickie. Directed by Bing Liu

 

Sometimes a film presents itself in such a way that you expect one thing (and those expectations are might low) but are delivered another which is so much more than you thought it might be. Those are the moments of discovery when you realize that you have seen a movie that isn’t just entertaining or enlightening but life-changing.

The movie begins as a suburban skateboarding documentary and to be honest, I’ve seen enough of those. The main protagonists are shredding around Rockford, Illinois and during interviews talk about how they just want to skate, they’re not interested in being a traditional part of society and that they don’t want to be put into any sort of box. These are all things about skate culture that I found repelling, a kind of entitlement that is unearned. As it turned out I was wrong.

We see the last three years of the lives of these skaters, essentially, as Zach – the leader of this group of friends, wrestles with fatherhood as his girlfriend Nina gives birth. Keire, the lone African-American member of the group, feels a sense of belonging with his friends that he doesn’t have with his family and Asian-American Liu – who initially was planning to only be behind the camera – begins to realize that documenting his friends’ lives is opening up some of the rougher parts of his own.

All three of these boys (and Nina as well) are on the cusp of adulthood and they are being dragged into it kicking and screaming. They don’t always act responsibly and they don’t always say or do the right thing. In other words, they are just like all of us at that age. Some of the things they do are destructive, some of the things they do are sweet but in every instance there is a sense of being unsure that they are doing the right thing. Like all of us as we move from childhood to adulthood, they are flailing around in the dark and hoping that they’ll find something to hold onto.

The relationship between Zach and Nina begins to deteriorate. They fight all the time, leading to a screaming match in which Nina threatens to kill Zach. We sympathize with Zach as he seems to be doing his best – working long hours as a roofer – but then we hear Nina’s side of things. Zach, as it turns out, is not the guy we thought he was.

All three of the boys have issues with fatherhood – in the cases of Keire and Bing dealing with abusive fathers. As Keire wryly says early on, “Back then it was called discipline but what it’s called now is child abuse.” Their moms are interviewed as we see the toll that abusive fathers took on them as well and as the movie goes on, how the dysfunctional relationship between Zach and Nina takes a toll on her as well. Everyone in this movie undergoes big changes in maturity as the movie goes on; some for the better, others not so much.

There are a lot of scenes of the guys skateboarding, maybe a few too many but one thing you begin to realize is that skateboarding is not a hobby or even a passion; it’s a release for them. It’s a way for them to deal with their pain and it’s as necessary to their well-being as eating and breathing. The issues I had with skater culture suddenly evaporated as I watched this. Their need for non-conformity made sense now to me. I can’t always condone someone who believes that their way of living is superior to anyone else’s, but I can see why the lifestyle is chosen. In a lot of ways, surfer culture is similar.

This is a movie you should see. You might think “oh, another skateboarding film” but it’s not that. It’s a coming of age film, not in the traditional Hollywood state of mind but as it really happens to all of us. Nobody looks forward to responsibility and stress but nevertheless we want the opportunity to make our own decisions and live life on our own terms. That’s not always possible; circumstances often dictate what our actions must be, but that need for autonomy and to be ourselves remains with us even when you’re as old as I am.

REASONS TO GO: The film goes from being a skate kid doc to an unexpected treasure. I ended up getting a better understanding of skate culture. It’s very powerful in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit on the raw side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some brief drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liu has been filming his friends since they were all teenagers (and in Keire Johnson’s case, 11 years old) and has incorporated some of that home footage into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Street Kids
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Mute