The Mad Women’s Ball (Le bal des folles)


Talking to yourself makes for better conversation.

(2020) Drama (Amazon) Mélanie Laurent, Lou de Laáge, Emanuelle Bercot, Benjamin Voisin, Cédric Kahn, Lomane de Dietrich, Christophe Montenez, Coralie Russier, Alice Barnole, Lauréna Thellier, Martine Schambacher, Martine Chevallier, André Marcon, Valérie Stroh, Grégoire Bonnet, Pierre-Antoine Deborde, Morgan Perez, Pierre Renverseau, Laura Balasuriya. Directed by Mélanie Laurent

 

With the draconian abortion law enacted by Texas (and eyed eagerly by other Red States), the assault on the bodily autonomy of women continues unabated by a vicious patriarchy intent on turning women into Stepford Wives, barefoot and pregnant, mindless and opinion-free whose only role is to squeeze out more white males to perpetuate the patriarchy. These are the headlines of the 21st century.

They aren’t anything new. In the 19th century, women were expected to conform to societal norms and France was no different than anywhere else. Women who were “difficult” (read as “having opinions of their own”) who longed to enjoy the same rights as men were often diagnosed with some sort of mental illness. In Paris, they’d be sent to the notorious Salpêriére asylum where they were subjected to abominable “treatments” that were little more than legalized torture.

Young Eugénie (de Laáge) is the daughter of a wealthy, controlling man (Kahn) who is at his wit’s end with his daughter who often says and does things that scandalize the family. She wants nothing more than to hang out in Bohemian Montmartre, smoking cigarettes and reading poetry – what the chic set does. She keeps her brother Theophile’s (Voisin) homosexuality a secret in return to being smuggled to the cafes she so loves.

But Eugénie has a bit of a problem; she is able to communicate with the dead. Contact with them puts her into a convulsive-like state, although she is learning to master the situation. However, it only adds to her already tenuous reputation and when her father finds out about it, he commits her to Salpêriére. There, she will be under the treatment of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (Bonnet) whose methods are brutal, to say the least; he forces women to sit in ice baths for hours, locks them up in solitary confinement in darkness, conducts examinations with medieval-looking instruments.

Eugénie however manages to befriend head nurse Geneviéve (Laurent) particularly after telling her that her deceased sister is aware of the hundreds of letters that the nurse has written her after her death. Despite falling afoul of nurse Jeanne (Bercot), Eugénie is able to against the odds maintain her spirit, but how long can it survive in a place like this? The upcoming ball in which the madwomen of the asylum are permitted to socialize with the citizens of Paris may provide her that opportunity.

This is the sixth film Laurent has directed in the last ten years (in addition to a busy acting schedule), and her confidence and assuredness is obvious. As an actress herself, she is able to coax some amazing performances from her charges and de Laáge, who previously worked with Laurent in Breathe, is the beneficiary. Her large doe-like eyes glisten with excitement and intelligence, as she is eager to experience all the wonders of life in 1880s Paris for herself. Watching that fire slowly being leeched out of her eyes is a master class in cinematic performance.

But de Laáge isn’t alone as the cast is uniformly strong in their performances. This is Laurent’s first period piece as a director, but you’d never know it; she captures the misogyny and brutality of the era quite well. And despite the fact that the action takes place nearly 140 years ago, its relevance to our own era seems quite clear.

The movie does move at it’s own pace which some American audiences will find slow; it is also not a short, easy viewing. It will require some attention from the viewer and that’s not always easy to supply when watching at home where the distractions are often overwhelming when watching movies in your bedroom or living room.

There are definitely some scenes that are hard to watch, but as The Wrap’s Marya Gates put it, this is a love letter to the power of women. The resilience of Eugénie in the face of hardship, abandoned by those who should have loved and protected her, is inspiring. It reminds me of what some of the activists in the Pro-Choice movement in Texas are accomplishing, fighting the ongoing battle against aging white men who do not have their best interests at heart.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong acting performances all around. A look at 19th century feminism and misogyny and relates it to modern times.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-paced and a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity and sexuality, some brief profanity, violence and a rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel by Victoria Mas, a 34-year-old Sorbonne graduate who has lived in the United States for the past eight years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hysteria
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Heval

Girl Next


Some fates are worse than death.

(2021) Horror (Gravitas) Lacey Cofran, Marcus Jean Pirae, Paula Marcenaro Solinger, Rachel Alig, Larry Wade Carrell, Steve Joseph, Sammy Abdalla, Merry Dawn, Melissa Arras, Sarah Lingle, Kristen Marie Perry. Directed by Larry Wade Carrell

 

There is no doubt that sex trafficking is a worldwide problem. Young women are kidnapped on a regular basis and sold as sex slaves, forced to give up whatever hopes and dreams they might have had, ripped away from families who love them, to live a life as an object, nothing more. An entire existence to satisfy the animal lust of men who can afford the price.

Lorian West (Cofran) seems to have a good life going. Beautiful, well-educated, living near the top of her social ladder locally, she has driven her Mercedes to the grocery store to do some shopping when she is grabbed by some thugs in a white van who drag her out of the parking lot, screaming and struggling.

She is taken to the remote estate of Heinrich (Pirae), who has perfected a method of turning women from free-thinking independent-minded people into docile sex robots known only by their model name – Sophie, in this case, little more than dolls. He and his wife Misha (Solinger) use a variety of drugs, mental conditioning and physical torture to gain the desired state of compliance from the girls. Those who don’t take to the conditioning die somewhat horribly.

They are aided and abetted by the local sheriff (Carrell) who is also the contact of the people who actually conduct the sale. Heinrich feels that Lorian has the potential to start a brand new model type which would mean higher prices, but Lorian proves to be unusually stubborn and when the sheriff tries to take a little taste of her wares, is injured by the feisty captive. To make matters worse, Henrich is becoming somewhat psychotic, caused largely by the drugs he is taking. Lorian also receives aid from an unexpected place – Charlotte (Alig), who may or may not be the daughter or Heinrich and Misha, who teaches her how to break the training. But what is Charlotte’s angle? Can there be any escape from this nightmare?

I have said before and it bears repeating here; there’s a thin line between making a movie exploring self trafficking and aking a movie exploiting it I’m sad to say that this film falls into the latter category. While Lorian shows some inner strength, women here are either victims or they are crazy. There are no in-between characters. Also, the sexual abuse is shown on-screen which is at best uncomfortable and at worst can be triggering to some. Keep that in mind before renting this puppy.

The performances are mostly overwrought and ham-handed, while the special effects (essentially used to portray Heinrich’s mental deterioration) are largely unspectacular. While some of the images that Carrell conjures up are fascinating, the plot is so rote as to be something that could easily have been cribbed from a number of other films, from the corrupt small-town law enforcement to the characters who appear to be at least potential hallucinations, and then there’s the necrobilly (Joseph) who more or less has come in from a whole other movie.

When you strip all the extraneous elements out, this more or less becomes torture porn, and the rape scenes are almost more the latter. There is little redeeming about this movie and while I tend to not want to ascribe motives to the director and writer of this film, it is hard to miss the stench of misogyny that permeates the project.

REASONS TO SEE: There are occasionally some interesting visuals.
REASONS TO AVOID: Over-the-top and misogynistic. By-the-numbers direction and score.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexual violence, rape, nudity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If Carrell looks intimidating onscreen, it’s because he is 6’5” tall.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Women
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Summertime

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It


Rita Moreno is not above publicizing her own documentary.

(2021) Documentary (Roadside Attractions) Rita Moreno, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Morgan Freeman, George Chakiris, Whoopi Goldberg, Hector Elizondo, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado, Mitzi Gaynor, Norman Lear, Sonia Sotomayor, Frances Negron-Montaner, Gloria Estefan, Tony Taccone, Fernanda Gordon Fisher, John Ferguson, Jackie Speier, Tom Fontana, Terence McNally, Chita Rivera. Directed by Mariem Perez Riera

 

When most people think of Rita Moreno, the first thing that comes to mind is her Oscar-winning part as the sizzling, seductive Anita in West Side Story. That isn’t so surprising, but she has had a nearly 70 year career in entertainment, and is the first (and so far only) Latina actress to win the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards in their career. That’s an accomplishment that is exceedingly rare few actors can make the same claim.

Moreno grew up in poverty in Puerto Rico, but remembers her childhood as idyllic. That came to an end when her parents divorced and her mother moved her to New York City. She developed an affinity for dancing and dropped out of school at 16 to become the family’s sole breadwinner. She did get noticed, though and was eventually signed to a contract at MGM by Louis B. Mayer.

The documentary, at a snug 89 minutes, covers most of the highlights of her career; the any reinventions, such as her time on the seminal children’s PBS program The Electric Company and her dramatic role as a nun-prison psychologist in Oz and more recently her starring role in the reboot of One Day at a Time (sadly canceled) and up to her forthcoming appearance in Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story which she executive produced.

There are also some of the struggles she underwent; the typecasting as an ethnic actress, often requiring her to wear skin-darkening makeup to play Asian, Pacific Islander and Hispanic roles. There is also the misogyny, as when Columbia co-founder Harry Cohn told her point blank at a cocktail party that he wanted to have sex with her (in much cruder terms) which as a fairly sheltered teen from Puerto Rico was quite a shock.

Through much of the film, Moreno is seen watching the Christine Blasey Ford testimony at the Neil Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. These seem to resonate with her in particular; she then talks about her own sexual assault at the hands of an agent. She then says that she still kept him on as her agent, as he was the only one willing to believe in her “so-called career” as few agents would represent anyone of Latin origin as they tended to be typecast in a narrow variety of roles.

Although much of this can be found in Moreno’s 2013 memoir, it might come as new information for those who haven’t read it – including myself. For instance, I’d forgotten that early in her career she’d appeared in both The King and I and Singing in the Rain (in one of her rare non-ethnic appearances). What is more telling is the effect her career has had on those of the Latin performers who followed her and speak about her with reverence, including her One Day at a Time co-star Machado and Broadway emperor Lin-Manuel Miranda. America Ferraro is also seen giving a heartfelt speech at an awards ceremony honoring Moreno. It is a touch hagiographic, but I can’t help but think that if anyone deserves that kind of hero-worship, it’s Moreno.

REASONS TO SEE: A squidge better than the average Hollywood biodoc. Moreno is an engaging storyteller.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times on the hagiographic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual content and a description of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moreno was the first actor of Puerto Rican descent to win an Oscar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews; Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Olympia
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
It’s Not a Burden

To Your Lasts Death


Someone give this guy a hand.

(2020) Animated Feature (Quiver) Starring the voices of Morena Baccarin, Ray Wise, William Shatner, Bill Moseley, Dani Lennon, Damien C. Haas, Benjamin Siemon, Bill Millsap, Florence Hartigan, Tom Lommel, Steve Geiger, Tanya C. Klein, Jim Cirile, Ruairi Douglas, Charles Wyman, Jason Axinn, Paige Barnett. Directed by Jason Axinn

 

Animated features tend to be fantasy or science-fiction oriented. There are dramas and comedies, to be sure (particularly from Europe), but for the most part there are elements of either one of those genres involved. It makes sense that the horror genre would also be fertile ground for animation, but surprisingly, very few animated features have gone that route.

In this opus, Miriam DeKalb (Lennon) has survived an unthinkable ordeal that has seen all of her siblings killed. Suspected of involvement in the grisly demise of her family, Miriam has been held in the prison wing of the hospital as interrogations by the police have illustrated their disbelief in her story. Then, she is visited by the Gamemaster (Baccarin), an alien being who is able to control time and puts on entertainments in which high-end clients bet on the outcomes. Miriam is given the opportunity to go back 24 hours, armed with the foreknowledge of what is going to happen, and attempt to save her sister and brothers. Should she choose not to, it is likely she will never know freedom again.

24 hours earlier, her father Cyrus (Wise) had gathered them together – sister Kelsey (Hartigan), and brothers Ethan (Haas) and Collin (Siemon) to inform them that he is dying. But rather than using the opportunity to draw the family closer together, their deranged old man – a wealthy arms manufacturer whose run for vice-president of the United States was torpedoed by his children when they informed the press of his many moral failings – chooses to take his revenge for that indiscretion and kill all his children. Sounds kind of medieval (or at least Biblical) to me.

He has locked up the office building and staffed it full of gunmen and set up lethal traps tailored to the weaknesses of each of his children. Miriam tries desperately to tell her siblings what is coming, but that only makes them suspicious that she’s in collusion with Cyrus. To make matters worse, the Gamemaster is changing the rules by changing events from how Miriam remembers them. There are no guarantees that she herself will survive, let alone save her brothers and sister from the maniacal machinations of their father.

Axinn spares no bloodshed and why should he? It’s not like he has to pay for additional fake blood. The problem here is that the various scenarios for each sibling comes off as kind of a lame retread of the Saw series, only much more heavy-handed. Considering that the sky is the limit when it comes to animation, it’s a bit of a drag that Axinn didn’t go more over-the-top here. It feels like a failure of the imagination.

Shatner guest stars as the narrator here and his dialogue is truly cringeworthy. You may be forgiven if you give in to the urge to fast-forward through his narration. It’s not Shatner’s fault; it’s just florid writing. Even Meryl Streep would have a tough time making the narration sound any better than Shatner does.

There’s still plenty of gore to delight the most exacting of horror lovers, and certainly if on the one hand one wishes for a little more originality, the execution of the various torture porn scenes are right on the money and at least as well done as any in that genre. I suspect that most hardcore horror fans and Adult Swim fans are going to find this delightful. It certainly is an idea whose time has come. I just wish the writers would have taken a little more care to utilize the medium to their advantage better.

REASONS TO SEE: Gloriously violent and gory.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story lacks ingenuity.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of bloody violence and gore, rape, nudity and more profanity than you know what to do with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation was hand-drawn and took five years to complete. The filmmakers used Archer and Metaloccalypse as inspirations for the animation style.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hoopla, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saw Franchise
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Estate

Girl (2020)


Axe her no questions…

(2020) Thriller (Screen MediaBella Thorne, Mickey Rourke, Chad Faust, Lanette Ware, Glen Gould, Elizabeth Saunders, Michael Lipka, Tia Lavallee, Paolo Mancini, John Clifford Talbot, Rasneet Kaur, Emma-Leigh Cullum. Directed by Chad Faust

 

There’s a famous saying that when you go out for revenge, first dig two graves. That is particularly true when your vengeance is aimed at a blood elative.

This Bella Thorne-starring vehicle by Chad Faust seems to be intentionally vague. The characters are not given names – Thorne, in the lead, is only known as Girl – which seems to be fitting given the lack of depth in developing the story, which is a bit strange because it seems like a good deal of the dialogue is spent on exposition, which makes it feel like the characters are explaining things to us.

And we need the explanation. Girl heads back to the Pacific Northwestern town she was born in, but left along with her Mama (Saunders) after her abusive father (Talbot) kicked them both to the curb – in Mama’s case, quite literally, as a vicious beating left her with severe back injuries that have rendered her barely able to walk. Dear old dad has failed to provide any child support over the years and Mama, who desperately needs the money, has written him requesting that he pay his share.

Dad has written back, apparently telling Mama where to stick her child support but also proclaiming a desire to kill both mother and daughter. So Bella is on her way to Golden, a town that has seen prosperity pass it by, to do unto Daddy before he does unto her.

Except that someone has beaten her to it. Her father has been viciously beaten to death. You would think that Girl, given that her dirty work has been done for her, would turn around and head back home, but she is curious and angry; who would rob her of her vengeance? What was her dad mixed up in that led to such a brutal end?

As with many small towns in the Pacific Northwest (at least as Hollywood paints it), oddball characters of varying degrees of sinisterness walk the streets. There’s the aptly named Charmer (Faust), a flirtatious sort who meets Girl in a laundromat; there’s the hooker with a heart of gold (Ware), the bartender who may or may not be helpful (Gould) and of course, the town sheriff (Rourke) who just upon sight looks like the sort of guy you’d not want to go to when you need help. And your first impressions would be correct.

Faust seems to be going for a kind of Southern gothic vibe set in the Pacific Northwest – think of it as Twin Peaks had it been written by Shirley Jackson (and if that combination appeals to you, you’re my kind of people). Faust casts the movie well and in particular the title role. Thorne, who cut her teeth on Disney Channel family fare, has long since moved into adult roles, but this is by far her most compelling performance, not unlike that of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. She captures the barely suppressed rage of the character, while expressing a kind of dangerous side like a coiled rattlesnake (Girl is handy with an ax, as it turns out). Thorne is particularly outstanding in her scenes with Rourke and Saunders at the end of the film.

Other than the climax which is well-done, the movie devolves into standard thriller clichés in the last half. Worse still, the film score is intrusive and more than a little obnoxious; if ever a score sabotaged its film, it is this one.

There’s a lot going for the film, mainly in the performances and particularly Bella Thorne’s. Faust, who also wrote the film, needs to work on his dialogue a bit and focus on developing his ideas, which are strong but he doesn’t seem to trust them and ends up taking the easy way out. Still, this is fairly strong B-Movie fare and if you like yourself a good revenge film, this might be what you’re looking for.

REASONS TO SEE: Thorne gives a career-changing performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The score is obnoxious and intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some violence and an attempted rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth film Thorne has appeared in so far this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ravage
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
To Your Last Death

Ravage


This is one shutterbug you really shouldn’t mess with.

(2019) Action (BrainstormAnnabelle Dexter-Jones, Bruce Dern, Eric Nelsen, Robert Longstreet, Joshua Brady, Ross Partridge, Chris Pinkalla, Drake Shannon, Michael Weaver. Directed by Teddy Grennan

 

One of the mainstays of grindhouse cinema in the 70s and 80s was the plotline that involved a young woman getting wronged (generally involving rape) by one or a bunch of redneck-types and then goes out to kick the ever-loving deplorable out of ‘em. Those movies fell out of favor, mainly because films depicting rape are frowned upon these days (which is a good thing). But, the kick-ass woman archetype has been passed down through the years in horror films and in revenge thrillers like this one.

Harper Sykes (Dexter-Jones) is a renowned nature photographer who has been acclaimed for going to remote and sometimes dangerous areas to get her shots and it has paid off; she has photographed two species that were thought to be extinct. Now she’s closer to home, in the (fictional) Watchatoomy Valley where, it is whispered, there are homicidal Catholics and cannibalistic Chinese living in the dense woods.

As she looks for a specific species of bird in the wilderness, she stumbles across something she’s not meant to see; a group of good ole boys feeding a man to their dogs. Sickened, she takes pictures of the perpetrators and high-tails it to the local police. Before she can show the sympathetic sheriff (Partridge) her pictures, she is abducted by the bad guys and taken to their leader, Ravener (Longstreet).

She is beaten and raped, but manages to escape, leading the men on a deadly chase where she turns out to be surprisingly vicious herself. On the way back, she runs into a nice old man (Dern) and winds up making it back to town, where a not-so-pleasant surprise waits for her.

This is as brutal a film as you’re going to see this year; it has elements of torture porn and the aforementioned grindhouse fare, but there is a bit of a modern vibe to it as well, so it never feels like a rehash of something that has come before. One of the reasons the movie works so well is the performance of Dexter-Jones, who is vulnerable at times, but hard as nails when the chips are down. She has all the makings of both an excellent action hero and a fine scream queen. She definitely has the confidence and charisma to carry a movie as she does here as she’s in almost every scene.

Most of the gore here is implied and for those who are concerned that the rape will trigger sensitive sorts, it is never actually shown onscreen but alluded to in dialogue. The ending is a wild one; you may be blown away or you may be disgusted. Either way, you won’t look the same way at dairy farms again.

There are a few problems here; most of the film is told in the form of a flashback, so we know in advance that the heroine is going to survive, even though she is bandaged head to toe in her interrogation scenes with a skeptical state detective (Weaver), which leads to another issue here – some cringe-inducing plot points. Why would a detective assume that a world-renowned photographer (as Harper is set up to be) is a demented meth-head? Why doesn’t she utilize the motorbikes that are available to her several times during the course of the film instead of trying to hike out on foot? And why does someone as methodical and as obviously well-trained as Harper is end up trusting someone who she doesn’t know, especially after she’s been burned before more than once?

Other than those sorts of things, this is a movie that grabs you by the throat and shakes you like a rabid dog with a piece of diseased flyblown meat in its maw. There isn’t anything terribly redeeming and considering the abuse that Harper takes, no triumphant feminist message; it’s just bad things happening to a good person who may have looked like a fairly vulnerable girl but turned out to be an ass-kicker of the first order. I enjoyed just about every minute of it.

REASONS TO SEE: A lot better than you think it’s going to be. Dexter-Jones proves to be an excellent action hero.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little far-fetched in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a fair amount of profanity, and some sexual/rape references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed in Virginia near Somerset.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mother’s Day (1980)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Train to Busan Presents Peninsula

The Painted Bird


If you thought Bergman was bleak…

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Beale Street Could Talk


Love conquers all; even social injustice.

(2018) Drama (AnnapurnaKiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Paris, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Finn Wittrock, Brian Tyree Henry, Dave Franco, Michael Beach, Aurora Collado, Kaden Byrd, Ethan Barrett, Milanni Mines, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Carl Parker, Shabazz Ray, Bobby Conte Thornton, Marcia Jean Kurtz. Directed by Barry Jenkins

 

James Baldwin is one of the greatest American authors of the 20th century, or of any other century for that matter; few authors captured the African-American experience with as much outrage, wit, joy, fury and dispassionate observation as he did. He was passionate and compassionate at once, writing prose that could easily have been poetry; of all the authors I’ve read in my life, only Shakespeare fares as well when read aloud as Baldwin does. He had a command of language that is rare and the fact that few of his books have been adapted for the big screen have almost as much to do with his lyrical prose as it does to the fact that his views were and are incendiary and perhaps unlikely to be embraced by white American audiences.

In this classic film, a pair of lovers – artist Fonny (James) and 19-year-old Tish (Layne) are stepping up their long-time relationship to the next level; they plan to get married. But when Tish discovers she is pregnant, the couple have already been separated – Fonny has been accused of rape by a Puerto Rican woman (Rios) who was manipulated into selecting Fonny out of a line-up by a malicious cop (Skrein) who had a bone to pick with Fonny. As is often the case with African-American men, he gets only the representation he can afford and ends up imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

Barry Jenkins, fresh off his Oscar-winning Moonlight, tells the story in a non-linear fashion, flashing back from the incarceration of Fonny to their developing relationship as children. Jenkins is becoming known as an actor’s director; if nothing else, he is a genius at extracting the best performances from his actors. Witness here, Regina King, playing Tish’s loving mother; when Tish informs her that she’s in a family way and not yet married, King – who with this movie rightfully took her place as one of the best actresses working today – displays maternal love and support with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of gesture. She’s the mom everyone wishes they had, even those who have a mom like her.

That scene contrasts with Fonny’s hyper-religious mom (Ellis) being formed of her son’s girlfriend’s condition. The acid tongue comes out as she lashes out at the girl her son loves, growing in vitriol until her aghast husband (Beach) abruptly hits her, shocking Tish and her parents, who absolutely can’t believe what they’re seeing. The families are in complete contrast; one loving and supportive, the other judgmental and cold although the dad does his best.

The movie is supported by a stunning soundtrack that highlights the emotional landscapes that Baldwin and Jenkins paint. The result is a powerful portrait that is as timely now as it was then – which I’m sure wouldn’t surprise Baldwin at all, but would undoubtedly sadden him, as it should any thinking, compassionate person.

REASONS TO SEE: A impressive literate and intelligent script. King and Layne deliver high-powered performances. The soundtrack is really terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: The non-linear storytelling is a bit tricky but it does pay off.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first trailer for the film was released on the 94th birthday of author James Baldwin, who wrote the original novel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Hulu, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brian Banks
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
15 Years

Tape (2020)


In 2020, vengeance requires surveillance.

(2020) Drama (Full Moon Films) Annarosa Mudd, Isabelle Fuhrman, Tarek Bishara, Isabella Pisacane, Eve Austin, Allison Winn, Kana Hatakeyama, Hye Yun Park, Brian Cade, German Alexander, Alexanna Brier, And Palladino, Celine Justice, Lollie Jensen, Mimi Jefferson, Ryan Matt, Sophia Oppenheim, Arisleyda Dilone.  Directed by Deborah Kampmeier

 

What men don’t understand about rape is that it’s not just a physical crime, although of course there are those elements that are part of it, the injuries that come with the violation. Rape is not just an attack on the physical body, it is an attack on the very essence of that person. It is, with all the ironic fury this implies, the gift that keeps on giving.

In the past few years, women have been standing up, speaking out and confronting those who have abused them – done so to this misogynistic society as a whole. Director Deborah Kampmeier – long before there was a #MeToo movement – was a crusader against rape culture, shining a light into the dark, foul recesses of misogyny. This is her most aggressive film yet.

We meet Rosa (Mud) in her dingy New York apartment as she essentially shaves her head to a buzzcut. She gives herself a homemade tongue piercing and then cuts her wrists just enough to bleed but not enough to be life-threatening. She attaches hidden cameras and microphones to her body, dons a pair of sunglasses with yet another hidden camera built in. She completes the look with black lipstick (to hide the blood on her lip) and a black trenchcoat that gives her a kind of Rose Byrne look if Byrne had been cast in The Matrix.

She heads to an audition, but she’s not auditioning. The casting call is being handled by Lux (Bishara), a slick producer. He takes a liking to Pearl (Fuhrman), a naive and eager-to-please aspiring actress who as we discover is struggling with bulimia. She’s just the kind of vulnerable sort that predators latch onto and Lux is a predator – Rosa should know because he raped her.

She is out to build a case against him, to catch him in the act. She tries to warn Pearl who is having none of it, and watches helplessly through artfully placed hidden cameras the same exact scenario playing out that happened to her earlier. This time, she’s going to catch the whole thing on tape and bring the bastard down.

There is a lot of rage in this film, and that’s okay – this is a topic that requires it. “Casting couch” has always been a cutesy phrase but this is a movie that shows the horrific reality behind it. The movie is buttressed by some powerful performances, by veteran child star Fuhrman who has turned into an accomplished actress, up-and-coming star Bishara who plays Lux with tons of charm and an abundance of aphorisms, like “Take your power” and “Own the room,” all the while setting the impressionable girl for the unthinkable. Best of all is Mudd, a screen newcomer (but a decorated off-Broadway performer) who mixes equal parts rage, creepiness, pain and heroism.

The failure in this film is behind the camera. The hidden cameras constantly move in and out of focus which I imagine is some sort of allegory but she uses it so much particularly during the first half of the film that it actually gets annoying, even to the point that I began to actually get a headache from it. The movie also is about twenty minutes too long, which blunts the powerful ending.

This is a story that needs to be told, but the problem here is not the story itself, but the way it is told. It’s a shame, really, because this should be an extremely important film and because Kampmeier decides to go uptown with it, it just comes off as more self-indulgent than it needed to be. Sometimes, when faced with a story of this importance, a wise director makes the film less about his or her skills as a director and more about the significance of a story that impacts a staggering, depressing percentage of our population.

REASONS TO SEE: An essential film for the MeToo era.
REASONS TO AVOID: This overly long film suffers from a bit too much avant garde.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, sexual situations, nudity and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The experiences depicted in the film are based on those of co-star/producer Annarosa Mudd, who was raped on-camera by an unscrupulous casting director after hours of coercion during the casting process.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Swan
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blow the Man Down

The Sleepwalkers (Los sonambulos)


Country living isn’t all its cracked up to be.

(2019) Drama (MeikinCineErica Rivas, Ornella D’Elia, Luis Ziembrowski, Rafael Federman, Daniel Hendler, Marilu Marini, Valeria Lois, Gloria Demassi. Directed by Paula Hernández

Family dynamics are often a fragile thing. They may appear solid and strong on the surface, but cracks may run just beneath the surface, ready to make themselves known at a moment’s notice.

Luisa (Rivas) isn’t looking forward to spending the New Year’s break at her mother-in-law’s country home. While Meme (Marini) is congenial, she is definitely in charge of the purse strings and lets everyone know it. Luisa’s husband Emilio (Ziembrowski) insists and like a dutiful Argentine wife, she acquiesces. Her daughter Ana (D’Elia) is too busy being 14 years old to care, although not too busy to display angst and attitude at every available opportunity.

Also staying at the house is Sergio (Hendler), Emilio’s brother; and Ines (Lois), Emilio’s sister who is nursing a newborn. There is definite tension within the family; Meme is thinking of selling the house which Sergio is all for and Emilio is not. Into the mix comes Alejo (Federman), Sergio’s son and the obvious black sheep of the family. Young, manipulative, seductive, and brutally handsome, his arrival makes a tense situation even worse. Ana becomes interested in the confident, flirtatious Alejo, bringing further discord between mother and daughter. Neither one of them, however, are prepared for what comes next.

Hernandez/ fifth feature might well be her best. This is all about family dynamics and how people within families fall into familiar roles and not always healthy ones. On the surface it appears like a fun get-together where everyone is glad to see each other, but there is much tension hidden from view and it all comes out eventually. Even the stoutest pressure cooker must eventually let off steam.

The ensemble does some pretty good work here, with Rivas showing some real fire as Luisa who is extremely stressed with her relationships with both her husband and her daughter in very precarious positions and her job being threatened. D’Elia manages to perform on the same level; she’s got the petulant teenage daughter thing down to a science. She’s also amazingly beautiful; she is like a Raphael painting of cherubim come to life. Ziembrowski is also solid as the husband trying to understand his wife’s misery and failing spectacularly at it because…well, that’s what husbands do for the most part.

The pace is as slow as a summer afternoon on a particularly hot day; languid, in other words. At times it feels like not much of the story line is getting advanced but when the climax comes it’s pretty explosive and it is definitely worth all the buildup. The title refers to a condition that runs in the family, particularly with Ana who opens the movie by sleepwalking. It can also describe the pace as well.

This is not for those who look at Marvel movies as the height of cinematic achievement (although to be fair there are plenty of people who love Marvel movies that will get into movies like this one) but more for the cinephile, particularly those who are eager to sample movies from other countries and cultures. As much as I complained about the pacing, I kind of liked the way it moved slowly; it allowed me to savor the performances and the relationships that much more.

REASONS TO SEE: The family dynamics here are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very slow-moving and lethargic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, nudity, sexuality and a scene of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival last year and has been shown at prestigious film festivals ever since.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Christmas Tale
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bacurau