Bullets of Justice


One of these mustachioed warriors is a girl.

(2020) Action Comedy (The Horror CollectiveDanny Trejo, Timur Turisbekov, Doroteya Toleva, Yana Marinova, Semir Alkadi, Nell Andonova, Dessy Slanova, Daniel Zlatkov, Askar Turisbekov, Svetlio Chernev, Geigana Arolska, Dumisani Karamanski, Alexander Ralfietta, Vei Fan Li, Dara Kandi, Emanuela Toleva, Ester Chardaklieva. Directed by Valeri Malev

 

Some movies are meant to make sense. Others deliberately skew their film so that making sense of it requires some work. Others are so unhinged that they left sense in the rearview about 500 miles back.

Rob Justice (T. Turisbekov) is a bounty hunter living in a post-Apocalyptic wasteland following a third world war that devastated the planet. In the ruins lives a resistance – who are they resisting, you might ask? Muzzles, a human and pig mixtures who were created in a lab and meant to be super soldiers, but instead have taken over, hunting down humans to use as food. The Earth has become their own giant Piggly Wiggly, as it were.

They’d best get to eating while they can; the human race has become sterile, and should be gone in a single generation but they won’t go gently into that good night. They – and by they I mean Rob – means to find the Pig Mother, an enormous queen Muzzle who is the source of all new piggies. Rob means to find the Pig Mother and put a bullet – or more like a whole lotta bullets – into her skull and end the Muzzle threat forever.

Assisting him in this venture is his sister Raksha (Toleva) who, inexplicably, has a full moustache on her upper lip, and with whom he enjoys a semi-incestuous relationship – you see they aren’t really full-blooded relatives. Sort of. Kind of. Don’t think about it too much or your head will explode.

Oh, and Danny Trejo shows up as a gravedigger who raised Rob and Raksha until he was murdered by Muzzles. That’s the source of Rob’s genocidal rage. Or maybe it’s that the Muzzles communicate by farting. Yeah, farting.

This is one of those movies that just when you think “Oh no, they can’t go there,” there is precisely where they go, unerringly and with as much gusto as they can muster. Here you’ll witness death by teabagging, human genitalia used as a gunsight, and more pig dookie than you can shake a slab of bacon at.

It’s just entertaining enough that you may (or may not) notice the absolute rock bottom production values. However, you almost certainly will notice that the acting is just a step above a bunch of your drunk friends getting together and doing a table reading of Pulp Fiction. One gets the sense that the filmmakers blew their budget on Trejo and a sequence with a jetpack early on in the film. They probably got the pig masks for cost from somebody’s Uncle.

This is not a film that pushes boundaries; the filmmakers simply don’t care about them. This is the kind of movie that you watch when you’re drunk enough to soil yourself (preferably with both number one and number two). I’m going to go out on a limb and say this isn’t going to be for everyone; you’ll either get it or you won’t. You’ll either love it or you’ll feel like bathing in battery acid afterwards to get the stench out of your skin. There won’t be a whole lot of in-between on this one. It’s so willfully deranged, so unapologetically cracked, so joyfully whacko that it could only have come from the land of Putin.

REASONS TO SEE: Completely deranged; off-the-scale when it comes to pure sheer insanity.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting and effects are shoddy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is gore, violence, profanity, sex, nudity, drug use….basically anything you don’t want your kids to see is present in this film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to starring in the film, Timr Turisbekov also co-wrote it.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo,  YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Taste
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Where She Lies

Resisterhood


The resistance will be televised – and feminine.

(2020) Documentary (The Content FarmJohanna Lohman, Nancy Lohman, Steve Lohman, Luis Gutierrez, Jean Gearon, Margaret Johnson Morrison, Kate Houston Gearon, Suraida Gutierrez, Dallas Chisolm, Adrienne Chisolm, Mimi Hassanein, Jessica Gutierrez, Hedda Hassanein. Directed by Cheryl Jacobs Crim

 

Almost from the day that Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, concerned women all over the country took to the streets. Their March on Washington, organized by women concerned about the future of reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights, and the rise of misogyny from a man who bragged on tape that he could grab the genitalia of a woman without permission and get away with it.

The movie begins with that Women’s March and continues until the 2018 midterms that saw the most racially, ethnically and gender-diverse Congress in U.S. history get elected. It follows six activists – professional soccer player Jennifer Lohman, one of the heroines of the U.S. Women’s team’s run to World Cup wins and proud possessor of the “Jo-Hawk” hairstyle, an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ youth; Representative Luis Gutierrez from Chicago, convinced by his wife to skip the inauguration and march – and afterwards, continuing to fight for Dreamers and immigrants while helping his daughter out in her own bid for an alderman’s spot in the Windy City; Mimi Hassanein, an Egyptian immigrant with 15 grandchildren who is inspired to run for a local city position; 82-year-old Margaret Johnson Morrison who marched with John Lewis and Martin Luther King in Selma who makes a point of attending modern marches despite her advanced age – she is passionate about educating the young on the power of citizen activism; and Dr. Jean Gearon, who turned her six-person book club into a political activist organization numbering more than 400 and growing.

Veteran documentary filmmaker Crim organizes the stories nicely, and make no mistake, this is meant to be inspiration of the highest order. We’re meant to take hope from the simple act of ordinary people making the decision to make a difference. All of these people do make a difference in their own way, with ripples that range from small to mighty. It’s hard to argue with Morrison who stands up at a KLAN rally; that’s the kind of bravery that most of us only dream of possessing.

Crim shows how the seeds of change come from fields of despair as those who see the Trump presidency as a call to responsibility – the responsibility to stand against one of the most venal political figures in history. It is inspiring to watch how political activism translates to the ballot box and as we sit as I publish this awaiting for word from battleground states that may finally end this presidency following the biggest turnout of American registered voters in more than a century, and reminds us that all of us must do our part because even if the election goes the way we hope it does, the work is far from over. This is by far one of the most inspiring films I’ve seen all year. Amazon Prime members can watch this for free at publication time; it can also be purchased there by non-members.

REASONS TO SEE: Truly inspirational. Thoughtfully assembled. Shows the direct connection between activism and ballot box. Illustrates the power of citizen participation
REASONS TO AVOID: Trump followers won’t like this much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jean Gearon’s great-grandmother was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement that brought the vote to women in America.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Are Many
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Kindred

Resistance (2020)


The path of least resistance.

(2020) Biographical Drama (IFCJesse Eisenberg, Ed Harris, Edgar Ramirez, Clémence Poésy, Matthias Schweighöfer, Bella Ramsey, Géza Röhrig, Karl Marcovics, Félix Moati, Alicia von Rittberg, Vica Kerekes, Tobias Gareth Elman, Kue Lawrence, Christian Clarke, Aurélie Bancilhon, Karina Beuthe Orr, Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey, Ryan Hadaller, Phillip Lenkowsky, Louise Morell. Directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz

 

Marcel Marceau is a name that likely many Americans under the age of 40 are unfamiliar with, other than perhaps in broad, general terms. He is considered perhaps the greatest mime who ever lived; certainly, the greatest of the 20th century. Few Americans – myself included – know much more than that. But did you know he was also a war hero?

Marcel (Eisenberg) is an aspiring actor working in a cabaret. His disapproving father (Marcovics) would prefer that his young son follow him in his trade – a Kosher butcher. However, both their plans are put into disarray with the Nazi invasion of France. Dad gets shipped off to Auschwitz while his son joins the French underground, mainly in order to protect a group of Jewish orphans but also to stay close to the comely Emma (Poésy), but also because the charismatic Georges (Röhrig) insists on it.

Opposing them will be Klaus Barbie (Schweighöfer), one of the most vicious and sadistic Nazis in history. Moving the orphans from occupied France to neutral Switzerland will take heroic measures – and the mime, who has heretofore not been too fond of children until recently and has served mainly as a forger, will find reserves of strength he didn’t know he had.

Eisenberg is kind of an odd choice to play Marceau, although his eternal boyish looks stood him in good stead when he was playing the 16-year-old Marcel. His French accent was kind of an on-again, off-again affair which was fairly annoying after a while. Still, Eisenberg manages to churn out perhaps his most likable characterization ever. He’s always played guys with a bit of a neurotic edge, but this is much more of a straightforward portrayal. Besides, I think the entire French nation would have risen up in protest had Eisenberg played him neurotic.

The last third is more in the suspense genre and Jakubowicz does a good job with maintaining a bit of an edge-of-the-seat tone, although to be honest since we know Marceau would go on to be an entertainer for another sixty years after the war, it is a bit anti-climactic – we know he’ll survive. Sadly, the movie is a good 20 minutes too long and terribly uneven; there are some good moments, as we’ve mentioned but there are nearly as many that don’t work. Jakubowicz makes some odd choices like having Ed Harris as General George S. Patton (!) show up in the beginning, and the end. While it’s true that Marceau did work as a liaison to Patton at the conclusion of the war, the insertion of the colorful general (who is subdued here) seemed a bit like name-dropping and didn’t particularly add anything to the story. Besides, even Harris would admit that nobody is ever going to equal George C. Scott’s performance as Patton.

This is a story that needed to be told, but it also needed to be told better. Marceau was undoubtedly a hero and few people outside of France are aware of it. The movie is sadly uneven and a bit self-indulgent but the heart is in the right place. Those willing to take a chance on it will be treated to a movie that’s worth the effort to seek out.

REASONS TO SEE: Eisenberg is at his most likable. The suspense elements work well.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit of a slow-moving jumble.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough violence to garner a restricted rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film takes place in Strasbourg, France, it was largely filmed in Prague.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews, Metacritic: 56/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hotel Terminus
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Clover

Pick of the Litter – March 2020


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Mulan

(Disney) Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Li Gong. Disney continues their series of live-action remakes of animated classics with an intriguing addition. While Mulan was never one of their biggest hits, this one might actually outpace the original as they reimagine the animated fantasy as a martial arts epic. Here, the daughter of an elderly man who is being conscripted into the army takes his place, hiding her identity as a girl. March 27

OTHER WIDE RELEASES TO WATCH FOR

Onward, March 6
The Way Back, March 6
Bloodshot, March 13
The Hunt, March 13
My Spy, March 13
A Quiet Place Part II, March 20
Saint Maud, March 27

INDEPENDENT PICKS

The Burnt Orange Heresy

(Sony Classics) Elizabeth Debicki, Claes Bang, Donald Sutherland, Mick Jagger. An ambitious young art dealer, aided by an alluring American, gets embroiled in an art heist from an enigmatic painter. Things being as they are, nothing is what it seems to be in this Giuseppe Capotondi erotic neo-noir thriller. March 6

Sorry We Missed You

(Zeitgeist/Kino-Lorber) Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor. Legendary English director Ken Loach looks at the economics of the English working class in the 21st century with this stark drama about a family, caught up in the gig economy, tries to make ends meet in an increasingly vicious marketplace. March 6

Spenser Confidential

(Netflix) Mark Wahlberg, Winston Duke, Alan Arkin, Iliza Shlesinger. Ex-cop and ex-con Spenser gets out of the slammer after being framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and with the aid of his roommate, the mercurial Hawk, aims to take down the corrupt cops and politicians who put him behind bars. This version of the Robert B. Parker character, formerly played by Robert Urich in Spencer: For Hire is the latest collaboration between Wahlberg and director Peter Berg. March 6

Swallow

(IFC) Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel. A newly pregnant housewife, frustrated by the control exerted on her life by her husband and his family, feels compelled to swallow dangerous objects. March 6

The Dog Doc

(Film Rise) Marty Goldstein, Jennifer Lenarz-Salcedo, Jacqueline Ruskin, Randie Shane. Veterinarian Dr. Marty Goldstein uses holistic healing methods that he practiced when battling cancer to use on dogs who have terminal conditions with astounding results. March 13;

Lost Girls

(Netflix) Amy Ryan, Gabriel Byrne, Dean Winters, Lola Kirke. Frustrated by police indifference when her daughter disappears, a mother does her own investigating and discovers that her daughter isn’t the only girl missing. Based on actual events. March 13

Human Nature

(Greenwich) Jennifer Doudna, Hank Greely, Dolores Sanchez, Emmanuelle Charpentier. One of the most amazing and controversial scientific discoveries of the early 21st century is CRISPR, which gives scientists the ability to manipulate genes. This could be used to eradicate certain diseases – and fundamentally change the human race from the DNA up. The ethical debate behind it may well determine the course of human evolution. March 13

The Roads Not Taken

(Bleecker Street) Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Laura Linney. A man floats through alternate lives he hasn’t led, while his daughter wrestles with her own future. The acclaimed Sally Potter (The Party) wrote and directed this. March 13

Deerskin

(Greenwich) Jean Dujardin, Adéle Haenel, Albert Delpy, Coralie Russier. A man who has been ignored and ridiculed buys himself a deerskin jacket which becomes an obsession. When he gets noticed, he attributes his change of fortune to the jacket and soon turns to a life of crime and murder. This one got a lot of attention at Fantastic Fest in Montreal last year. March 20

Dosed

(Golden Teacher) Adrianne, Paul Stamets, Nicholas Meyers, Tyler Chandler. A desperate and suicidal woman, addicted to opioids and homeless, uses illegal psychedelics to help cure her anxiety and desperation after prescription medication has failed. March 20

Military Wives

(Bleecker Street) Kristin Scott Thomas, Sharon Horgan, Jason Flemyng, Emma Lowndes. A group of military wives, whose husbands have deployed to the Middle East with the British Army, form a choir in order to give themselves something to do. They become media sensations and originators of a global movement. Inspired by true events. March 27

Resistance

(IFC) Jesse Eisenberg, Ed Harris, Edgar Ramirez, Clémence Poésy. Before he became the world’s most beloved mime, Marcel Marceau was a member of the French resistance who helped save the lives of ten thousand orphans, a story from the Second World War that few remember today. March 27

Fahrenheit 11/9


Trump supporters wearing their thoughts on their sleeves.

(2018) Documentary (Briarcliff/AnnapurnaMichael Moore, Donald J. Trump, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Hilary Clinton, Bill Maher, Bernie Sanders, Chris Matthews, George Stephanopoulos, Wendy Williams, Roger Ailes, Megyn Kelly, John Podesta, Roger Stone, Paul Ryan, Joe Scarborough, Larry King, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Ashleigh Banfield, April Cook-Hawkins, Brooke Baldwin. Directed by Michael Moore

 

During the 2016 Presidential election, one of the lone voices on the left predicting that Trump would win was gadfly and documentarian Michael Moore. The favored son of Flint, Michigan takes the time to illustrate just how this came to pass when virtually nobody thought it would – other than Trump and his followers.

This is perhaps Moore’s most serious documentary, with less of the stunts that characterize his other films (although he does attempt to make a citizen’s arrest of Michigan governor Rick Snyder and dares politicians to drink a glass of Flint water) and gives the movie a bit of a bleaker turn than most of his other work.

Moore doesn’t pull punches and he doesn’t always play fair with his facts; some of his commentary is a bit of a stretch and like that guy whose sense of humor isn’t always apparent, you’re never sure if he’s kidding or not.

Moore spends most of the movie illustrating how corporate America has essentially bought our democracy and has turned it into their own private ATM, making sure legislation favors the wealthy and the corporate at the expense of the working class and of course the poor – two classes that are virtually indistinguishable now. He does show glimmers of hope with the Parkland students rising up and leading a massive national march for gun control, and profiling politicians like Rashida Tlaib and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez who might just make a difference in years to come.

Those who lean to the right in their political thinking are not likely to see this, but then again, this movie isn’t really for them – it’s more of a call to arms for the left which Moore criticizes has become complacent and self-destructive. We must all stand together, he opines – or as the Founding fathers might have added, we will all hang separately.

REASONS TO SEE: Adequately explains what got us to this point. Smart and occasionally mind-blowing.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit scattershot and at the end of the day, probably doesn’t accomplish what it set out to.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film made its official world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Moore hosted a special premiere in his home town of Flint, Michigan (which figures heavily in the movie) four days later.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fahrenheit 9/11
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Life, Itself

Death Race 2050


Marci Miller makes her point to Manu Bennett.

(2016) Science Fiction (Universal) Manu Bennett, Malcolm McDowell, Marci Miller, Burt Grinstead, Folake Olowofoyeku, Anessa Ramsey, Yancy Butler, Charlie Farrell, Shanna Olson, D.C Douglas (voice), Sebastian Llosa, Emilio Montero, Mark Doran, Karl Muse, Alberto Osterling, Robert Slattery, Daniela Vargas, Jonathan Fisher, Helen Loris, Hailey Livingston. Directed by G.J. Echternkamp

 

In all the annals of filmdom there hasn’t been anyone quite like Roger Corman. His oeuvre of cheap special effects and low budget with a dash of social satire and a low-brow tone has been with him through a nearly six decade career. The original Death Race 2000, made in 1975, was one of his biggest hits, starring David Carradine and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. In many ways a live action version of the Saturday morning cartoon Wacky Races, it has been considered a cult classic for decades. In 2008, a remake entitled Death Race was made with Jason Statham starring. Eschewing the light-hearted satire of the original, it was a darker hued straight action movie that was successful enough to spawn three direct-to-home-video sequels, all without Statham.

This one, with Corman’s presence as a producer, is not so much a remake as a reboot. It returns to the slightly off-kilter feel of the original as well as the approximate plot. The Chairman (McDowell) of the United Corporations of America convenes the annual Death Race, the biggest sports event in the world. In it, five racers with souped up vehicles weaponized to the teeth race from Nuevo York to New Los Angeles. It’s not about who gets there first; it’s about who kills the most pedestrians along the way.

=You see, robots have replaced human workers in nearly every job and consequently there’s 99% unemployment and overpopulation. The Death Race thins the herd so to speak. To placate the masses, the Race also offers a Virtual Reality version in which viewers can be in the cockpit of the car of their favorite drivers through proxies who carry cameras and microphones, periodically interviewing their heroes.

The drivers are Minerva Jefferson (Olowofoyeku), a hip-hop artist; Tammy the Terrorist (Ramsey) whose name is self-explanatory; A.B.E., a robotic entry not unlike Knight Rider; Jed Perfectus (Grinstead), a buff sexually ambiguous genetically engineered athlete and the favorite, Frankenstein (Bennett) who is the reigning champion.

Curiously, fans of the drivers line up in an attempt to sacrifice themselves for their favorite drivers. And drivers steal these easy group kills from one another. As they make their way across the country big rivalries develop between Minerva and Tammy and especially between Perfectus and Frankenstein.

There is also a resistance out there who aim to disrupt and destroy the Death Race by any means necessary. They are led by former network executive Alexis Hamilton (Butler) who has a mole; Frankenstein’s proxy, Annie Sullivan (Miller). However the further they get into the race, the deeper the corruption becomes until Annie, whom Frankenstein appears ambivalent towards – he only wants to win – is unsure of what side she’s really on.

The humor here is dark and over the top as is the violence and gore. This is for sure a throwback to Corman’s heyday both in tone and in execution and for that the filmmakers are to be commended. I’m not sure how involved Corman himself was with this but his name is in the credits and in some cases on the title. I’m guessing that if he didn’t have his hands directly in it, they are there in spirit. Certainly the filmmakers understood his style.

The acting is about what you’d expect it to be, but a special shout-out has to go to Bennett. He proves that his work as the smoldering Slade Wilson in Arrow was no fluke. The man has a bright future ahead of him if he gets a few breaks and the right role. He’s got the presence.

The special effects and CGI are bargain basement and that can be an acquired taste. Modern audiences may not tolerate it when they are used to big budget effects. Admirers of classic B-movies will likely be more tolerant but these days that seems to be pretty much a niche group. I also found the soundtrack to be a bit overbearing. It became noticeable on quite a few occasions.

This isn’t for everybody but I suspect those who can appreciate the satire (the Chairman is certainly based on Donald Trump) and the humor, not to mention the gore will find this entertaining. The cheapness of the production which is an art in itself will further endear some. However – and I can’t stress this enough – those that don’t appreciate the art of B-movies will probably find this anachronistic and boring. Keep that in mind as you select it for streaming.

REASONS TO GO: The film is surprisingly satirical. It’s a throwback to Corman’s 70s and 80s films.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects may be too cheesy for some. The soundtrack is actually annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a butt load of violence and gore, some sexuality, some brief nudity and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sneakers Jed Perfectus wears are Converse All-Star Hi-Tops.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cannonball Run
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The LEGO Movie: Batman

Son of Saul (Saul fia)


Oscar-winning intensity.

Oscar-winning intensity.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Jerzy Walczak, Gergö Farkas, Balázs Farkas, Sándor Zsórér, Marcin Czarnik, Levente Orbán, Kamil Dobrowolski, Uwe Lauer, Christian Harting, Attila Fritz, Mihály Kormos, Márton Ȧgh, Amitai Kedar, István Pion, Juli Jakab. Directed by László Nemes

When we think of the Holocaust, it is truly hard to wrap our minds around it. The absolute ghastly nature of it; essentially Nazi Germany created death factories in which living people were brutally and efficiently processed into corpses, then those corpses disposed of. The horror of it fails to penetrate our skulls because we simply can’t conceive of it, even when we see pictures and newsreel footage. Our minds won’t let us.

But it did happen and perhaps one of the more astonishing things is that the Nazis had help in the orderly disposal of the Jews – from the Jews themselves. The sonderkommandos were tasked with cleaning the physical mess left behind by the dying, scrubbing the gas chambers to remove the bloodstains made from bloodied fists beating against the iron doors in vain trying to escape, as well as the excrete of a human body in extremis. They are the ones that process the clothes and take them for sorting, act as cowboys herding the masses of those getting off the train at Auschwitz into the waiting chambers. They are the ones who drag the corpses – now called pieces by the German guards – to the ovens, or out to mass graves. They dispose of the ashes when the ovens get full. And their service buys them only a few months before they are herded into chambers of their own.

Saul Auslander (Röhrig) is just such a man. He walks with a purpose, his visage grim and unsmiling, revealing nothing of what is occurring inside while he does his grim and grisly work. He cares for no-one and nothing; he aids the resistance somewhat, reluctantly agreeing to fight although he says very little about it. His life is a perpetual tunnel vision of task and survival, even if it is only for a few short weeks. Perhaps the war will end before the Nazis get a chance to kill him.

Then he sees a young boy who survives the chamber – barely. German doctors are called in to see the boy, still breathing, lying on a slab. Then they suffocate him. Something inside Saul snaps. He determines to see that this boy, who fought so valiantly to survive, gets a proper Jewish burial with the rites of kadish read by a rabbi. He even claims him as his son, which he may or may not be.

However, there aren’t many rabbis left and those that are aren’t likely to advertise their rabbinical status. Finding one in the hordes of the doomed coming in is highly unlikely. Hiding the body of the boy amid the chaos and paranoia of Nazis and prisoners alike, improbable. Getting both the body and the rabbi outside of the camp for the burial is nigh-on impossible.

The opening shot, shown from Saul’s point of view as chaos comes in and out of focus as he herds new arrivals towards the waiting gas chambers, shows that this is going to be a different and excellent film. Everything outside of what is immediate to Saul is blurred, as if seen through tunnel vision. The style reminds one strongly of the Dardennes brothers who employ a similar technique.

The entire film in fact is shot this way, which is a double edged sword. It allows us to see Saul’s perspective which is very much on immediate survival, and excludes anything beyond that narrow focus. Saul’s world is by necessity a small one, limited to the task at hand of the moment and of avoiding the indiscriminate wrath of Nazi soldiers who aren’t above executing him for a minor infraction.

However, as someone who is prone to vertigo, the whirling camera rapidly goes from being an innovation to an annoyance to being downright disruptive. I found myself unable to look at the screen because I was getting way too dizzy. That kind of defeats the purpose of a movie; how are we to make sense of the images when we can’t see them?

That’s not a minor quibble, but it really is the only one. Everything else about the movie is simply awe-inspiring, from the strong, internalized performance by Röhrig that reveals little about what’s inside of Saul as it in fact tells us everything we need to do. Who is this boy to Saul? Is it his son, as he claims? A representation of the son he lost? Or is he a symbol standing for all the Jews who the Holocaust has taken?

These questions are at the center of the film and they are not easily answered. Saul himself is an enigmatic character who defies us to get to know him even as he gives us nothing to hold onto. For Nemes, he orchestrates this narrative masterfully, telling us a grim and dark story from a brand new perspective, one which we as a cinematic audience have never experienced before. For that alone, the movie richly deserves the Oscar it won last month for Best Foreign Language Film.

This is, simply put, a must-see film. Some audience members, particularly Jewish ones who have family members who were victims of the Holocaust, are going to find this hard to watch. I did, although mainly because my vertigo made me look away more than the stark and often gruesome images. Still, it is worth us to remind us that the capacity of man’s inhumanity to man is nearly boundless, a lesson we still haven’t learned more than 70 years later.

REASONS TO GO: Searing and emotionally powerful material. Röhrig delivers an amazing performance. Innovative camera style.
REASONS TO STAY: Shaky cam caused legitimate dizziness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly gruesome violence and cruelty as well as a lot of graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is supposed to be from Saul’s perspective only; we never see anything that isn’t within his field of view or hear anything that isn’t within his range of hearing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Gods of Egypt

Pan


Hugh Jackman glares at his hair stylist.

Hugh Jackman glares at his hair stylist.

(2015) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Nonso Anozie, Adeel Akhtar, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Burke, Lewis MacDougall, Cara Delevingne, Tae-joo Na, Jack Charles, Bronson Webb, Mike Shepherd, Brian Bovell, Kurt Egyiawan, Jimmy Vee, Paul Hunter, Spencer Wilding, Dean Nolan, Giacomo Mancini, Ami Metcalf. Directed by Joe Wright

Most of us are familiar with the boy who never grew up, whether through the stage play or the Disney animation. Author J.M. Barrie who created Peter Pan was not terribly forthcoming when it came to his origins, other than what we all know – that he was an orphan who was kidnapped and brought to Neverland where he became leader of the Lost Boys and took on his nemesis, Captain James Hook. But how did he become leader? Where did Captain Hook come from? How did Peter get his sword? And what was he like before he became The Boy Who Never Grew Up?

In Blitz-scarred London during the Second World War, young Peter (Miller) has lived his entire life in an orphanage, run by the malevolent Mother Barnabas (Burke) whom Peter suspects of hoarding the war rations of the Orphanage. With his partner-in-crime Nibs (MacDougall) Peter is also highly suspicious of the rapid disappearance of the boys in the Orphanage; adopted, say the sisters; sent to the country for their own safety, say the sisters. Peter says bunk!

His suspicions soon prove to be correct as it turns out that the boys are being kidnapped by pirates, taken in a flying galleon (which engages in a thrilling battle with Spitfires that are already dealing with the Luftwaffe bombers) and brought to a strange island floating placidly above an ocean which sits in the heavens. This is Neverland and it is ruled with an iron fist by the famous pirate Blackbeard (Jackman) who uses the boys as slave labor in the mines who are digging not for gold but for Pixum, the concentrated remains of dead fairies which Blackbeard killed by the thousands. However, they have all fled to the Fairy Kingdom which Blackbeard cannot find and he is growing frantic; the Pixum preserves his youth and vitality and he will die without it. Peter, kidnapped by the pirates but saving his pal Nibs in the process, ends up in the mines with an adult – James Hook (Hedlund), who is friend to nobody but for some odd reason takes to Peter.

There is also a prophecy among the natives that a boy would come, a Pan warrior bearing the symbol of their tribe (pan pipes) that would kill their oppressor and lead them to freedom. When Peter discovers that he has the ability to fly, Hook sees a way out of the mines and enlists Peter and the overseer Sam Smiegel (Akhtar) – whom Hook addresses as Smee – they are successful but end up captured by the natives led by Princess Tiger Lily (Mara) whose father (Charles), the chief of the tribe, orders that Hook fight the tribe’s most valiant warrior. If he defeats their champion, the three of them go free. If not, the three will be put to death. Tough place, Neverland.

The fight is interrupted by Peter who is discovered to be wearing a chain bearing the tribe’s Pan symbol and Hook blabs about the boy’s ability to take flight. The trouble is, Peter isn’t confident that he can repeat his feat and Blackbeard is on his way to reclaim the boy, whom he sees as not just a threat but as a means to lead him to the fairy kingdom. A final battle will ensue and ’tis life or death. Will Peter become the warrior and leader he is destined to be?

Well, yeah. That’s the thing about prequels; you know essentially how things are going to turn out. Therefore it is important that the journey getting there is interesting. Certainly the visuals are amazing, with majestic flying pirate ships, skeletal prehistoric giant birds and native Neverlanders exploding into multicolored dust when the pirates kill them. Visually, this is a treat.

Story-wise, not so much. The movie plods along with virtually no energy. Peter Pan is meant to make our spirits soar, to allow us to recapture (or retain) our childhood. None of this is really uplifting or enjoyable. It feels like all the effort went into the visuals but the story itself got little more attention than being an excuse for some spectacular production design.

There’s also the odd propensity to use anachronisms, like the miners greeting Blackbeard with an a Capella performance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit” or the Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop.” They both take us out of the movie and remind us that we are watching a movie. The surest way for a filmmaker to sabotage his or her own film is to use pop songs inappropriately.

Jackman, as Blackbeard, alone appears to be having fun here. While he looks something like a demented Cavalier, he has a joie de vivre that is missing from the rest of the movie. Miller as the titular character isn’t bad but he isn’t memorable either. He has some potential I think but he is thrown into the cinematic fire, essentially being expected to carry much of the load of this film and it really is an awful lot to expect out of an inexperienced kid (this is his first feature film). That he acquits himself as well as he does is a minor miracle.

Hedlund for some odd reason chooses to play Hook as the love child of Indiana Jones and James Cagney. It isn’t an embarrassing performance but quite frankly his odd line delivery is distracting and I don’t think he got a lot of direction on how to play the character. The man who is to be the nemesis of Peter Pan should be much darker than this Hook is who comes off mainly as spoiled and scared. There’s no sign of the great pirate Captain Hook here which is a shame.

The movie has been getting roundly panned by critics (couldn’t resist) and has been a box office bomb. I don’t think it’s quite as bad as you’ve heard it is, but it isn’t very good either. I’d put it up there as mediocre mindless entertainment that might be too dark for the kids and too childish for their parents. Considering the amount of money spent on this, I have to say that the audience has much better uses for their time than on this early serving of turkey.

REASONS TO GO: Great production design. Jackman is clearly having fun with this.
REASONS TO STAY: Bloated and top-heavy. Doesn’t have the heart that Peter Pan films should have.
FAMILY VALUES: Some thematic material, some mild cursing and fantasy violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Javier Bardem was originally offered the role of Blackbeard but turned it down.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hook
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Death Valley

Daybreakers


Ethan Hawke tends bar.

Ethan Hawke tends bar.

(2009) Horror (Lionsgate) Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Vince Colosimo, Michael Dorman, Isabel Lucas, Claudia Karvan, Paul Sonkkila, Mungo McKay, Emma Randall, Charlotte Wilson, Christopher Kirby, John Gibson, Carl Rush, Tiffany Lamb, Robyn Moore, Michelle Atkinson, Glen Martin, Damien Garvey, Jay Laga’aia, Chris Brown, Kirsten Cameron, Candice Storey. Directed by Michael and Peter Speirig

Don’t we all just love those movie trailers that begin with the immortal words “In a world…”? This should have had a trailer like that (and maybe it did) but it might begin “In a world where 95% of the population are vampires.” Now wouldn’t that grab your attention?

Edward Dalton (Hawke) is a hematologist. No big deal to thee and me but in a world (there’s that phrase again) full of vampires it’s an important position, particularly in a world (and yet again) where humans are dying off, meaning the planet’s food supply is hitting critical mass, it’s an important job. Dalton has been tasked by the vampire equivalent of Big Pharma, a company called Bromley Marks, to develop a human blood substitute that vampires can subsist on. Easier said than done since vampires by their nature have rather delicate constitution; a test sample literally causes the subject’s head to explode. Yikes!

This does not make chairman Charles Bromley (Neill) a happy man needless to say and Edward’s day only gets worse on the drive home when he gets into a car accident. Worse still, the car is full of renegade humans. Edward, more of a reluctant vampire who has an aversion to human blood, protects them when the police arrive.

More bad news when he gets home. Edward’s brother Frankie (Dorman) pays him a surprise visit. The brothers have been estranged for some time; Frankie works as a soldier in the human-hunting vampire army and the two have shall we say severe philosophical differences. The two are attacked by a subsider, a bestial vampire who haven’t fed for some time who have lost their memories and identity and exist solely as a slave to their hunger for blood, doesn’t matter whose. The entire vampire race is in danger of becoming these subsiders if a new blood source isn’t found soon. In fact, Bromley candidly admits that Bromley Marks only has about a month’s supply left.

Audrey (Karvan), the leader of the humans that Edward had encountered the previous night, sends him a note to meet her in a desolate spot. There she introduces him to Elvis (Dafoe), a former vampire who has returned to human form again. Edward is excited at the prospect of regaining his humanity and once more venturing out into the sunlight, something vampires are unable to do. He agrees to help Elvis discover how to safely administer the cure.

In the meantime desperation has led to chaos in the vampire community and Edward becomes cognizant of the fact that those who stand to benefit from a blood shortage are the ones who would also benefit from a cure never reaching the vampire community. Games of politics and power are afoot and both the human and vampire species hang in the balance. Can Edward and his human allies get the cure out to the vampires before both species go extinct?

The brothers Speirig got this gig on the strength of Undead, their clever and innovative 2003 zombie movie. This isn’t quite up to those standards, although I will admit their vision of a vampire society ruling the globe is intelligently thought out. The vampire society is believable as an extension of our own, with similar values albeit a more cavalier attitude towards morality. Although not by much.

For those of us who love B-movies, there is plenty here to love – nasty creatures, plenty of gore and violence, a bit of sexiness and some over-the-top visuals. Everything to pander to the baser instinct of the moviegoer which is not in and of itself a bad thing. Sometimes we need the schlock entertainment of a good grindhouse movie. Quentin Tarantino recognizes that and more and more filmmakers have come to understand just how informed our society is by these movies.

The sense of humor here is quirky and a bit on the sick side, so if you like your jokes punctuated by exploding body parts, this will no doubt appeal to you. Most of the action sequences with a couple of exceptions are well-staged and exciting, although not what you would call game-changing. Nothing new here, but what is here is well-executed.

I wish I could say the same about the cinematography and visual effects. Due to their aversion to UV light, the vampires live their lives essentially indoors and in bunker-like conditions. This makes for murky atmospherics made worse when there seems to be a constant out-of-focus element to the photography. Now perhaps I got a poorly processed disc for home viewing but everything looked like it was filmed with bad fluorescent lighting, making everything look dreary. The CGI are likewise slapdash and could have used a bit of refinement.

Other than that this is solidly entertaining and Hawke, while not one of his better roles, at least makes a game effort for a genre he has admitted he’s not terribly fond of. Dafoe is, well, Dafoe and that should tell you all you need to know about his performance. Most of the rest of the cast are fairly unknown here in the States (this is an Australian production; the German-born brothers Speirig have lived there since boyhood) but are pretty competent. While this is more of an action film, I did miss the sensuality that most vampire films tend to have; it could have used a little more of it.

Still in an era where vampire movies have essentially lost their luster due to the Twilight/Vampire Chronicles generation, this is one of those rarities – a vampire movie that actually appeals to more than the preteen female audience. It is appealing in an ironic sort of way that the vampire protagonist here shares a first name with the romantic focus of Twilight. I for one am happy to champion these sorts of films if it means that we can get the nastier monsters of old that we used to love to fear.

WHY RENT THIS: B-Movie goodness. A sick sense of humor while not for everybody, was good for some intentional laughs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dark and murky cinematography. Cringe-worthy CGI.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly strong bloody violence, brief nudity and a fair amount of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After being filmed in 2007, the movie sat on the studio shelf for more than a year before being released overseas. It’s American release was on January 8, 2010 – nearly three years after filming had been completed.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a short film the Speirig brothers directed from 2000 that gives a good sense of their visual style, as well as a gallery showing the various lobby posters and marketing for the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $51.4M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stake Land
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Case 39

The Host (2013)


Diane Kruger and her cool ride.

Diane Kruger and her cool ride.

(2013) Science Fiction (Open Road) Saoirse Ronan, Max Irons, Jake Abel, Diane Kruger, William Hurt, Frances Fisher, Chandler Canterbury, Boyd Holbrook, Lee Hardee, Scott Lawrence, Mustafa Harris, Shawn Carter Peterson, Raeden Greer, Bokeem Woodbine, Rachel Roberts, Marcus Lyle Brown, Jhil McEntyre. Directed by Andrew Niccol   

No more war. No starvation. The contributing factors to climate change eradicated and the ecology restored back to balance. No lying, no violence and the world living in happiness and harmony. Sounds too good to be true, right?

Of course. You see, there’s a catch to living in a perfect world; an alien parasite, calling themselves Souls, have invaded the planet, taking over the bodies of humans and eradicating their memories and personalities. Although our bodies remain alive, that which makes us individuals is gone. In essence, this alien invasion is overwriting us and as a result, we’re slowly going extinct. You can always tell the infected bodies however by a strange glowing ring of light in the iris of the eye.

There are some stragglers however and infected humans, called Seekers, chase them down and bring them to the city to have their parasite inserted (through an incision in the back of the neck). The Souls look sort of like sparkly Sea Anemones with thin languorous tentacles with fiber optic cables; very pretty to the eye but not something you’d want inside you.

One of those stragglers, Melanie Stryder (Ronan) particularly doesn’t want those things inside her. She and her boyfriend Jared (Irons) and her little brother Jamie (Canterbury) are discovered by Seekers; she leads them away from her men but cornered, chooses to throw herself out of a window to the asphalt below rather than be taken.

Sadly, they take her anyway, heal her wounds and stick the Sea Anemone…er, Soul…into her neck. The Soul that inhabits her is named Wanderer and the Seeker (Kruger) who captured her wants to know about any other humans that Melanie might have known about. At first Wanderer is very co-operative but to the Soul’s surprise Melanie is still in there, putting up a fight and generally acting out. In fact from time to time Melanie can still exact enough control to make Wanderer’s body do what Melanie wants but those moments are few and far between.

But they are coming more often and Melanie’s memories are enacting a strange kind of sway over Wanderer. Melanie convinces Wanderer to escape the facility they’re being held in and eventually Melanie leads the Wanderer to the New Mexico desert where dehydrated and exhausted, she’s found by her grizzled Uncle Jeb (Hurt) who takes her to where he’s established a refuge for a group of uninfected humans; the inside of an extinct volcano and I really must admit, I like what he’s done with the place, planting a wheat field inside the caldera using banks of mirrors to reflect the sunlight into the cone. There are also thermal streams in the cave which not only provide drinking water but bathing opportunities. If only they had a monorail and sharks with frickin’ lasers on their fins.

Wanderer/Melanie’s presence isn’t greeted with joy; in fact, only Uncle Jeb thinks that Melanie is still in there. Jared, who along with Jamie has found his way to the volcano, is all for killing her right away as his friend Kyle (Holbrook) is inclined to do. Jamie is eventually convinced as is Ian (Abel) who eventually falls in love with Wanderer (who is re-christened Wanda) and soon Melanie’s entreaties that she is still there are believed although it makes things a bit awkward since double dating between Wanda and Ian and Melanie and Jared is problematic.

Still, the Seeker is furious at having lost her Soul so she goes after it with a vengeance and when an ambush goes terribly wrong, the Seeker kind of loses it and violates the codes of non-violence. Can the remaining humans continue to survive with a technologically advanced foe wanting to re-populate their bodies with Sea Anemones….I mean Souls?

It all sounds kind of preposterous really but actually the concept is intriguing. The Souls are actually pretty much benign and other than taking over our bodies are pretty nice sorts and it’s true that we’ve pretty much screwed up our planet and society left to our own devices. However this aspect isn’t really explored much; the direction is to pander to the young female audience that author Stephenie Meyer, who penned the novel this is based on (and is best known for being the creator of the Twilight saga), has cultivated.

The love triangle is a theme in her works to date (although her bibliography is admittedly pretty small). It is appealing to a young girl to have two hunky guys moon-eyed in love with her and Meyer and Niccol play up that aspect. Melanie is a plucky heroine who as played by Ronan is a bit stronger than Bella Swan and less reliant on those around her. However there isn’t much action here – a lot of dialogue takes place in Melanie’s head (or Wanderer’s head if you prefer) and that isn’t terribly cinematic no matter how you play it.

In fact there’s a hellacious amount of dialogue here, far too much to support this kind of movie and thus it gets a little bit boring to be honest. Even if they’d chosen to go cerebral and explore the whole “is freedom worth losing control for” which dovetails nicely into our post-911 paranoia, you’d expect there to be a lot less exposition in something like that.

The visuals are nice and the cave set is nifty. I also like the chrome-plated vehicles the Seekers use. The acting is solid if not exemplary, with the reliable Hurt making Jeb a salt of the earth sort that audiences tend to click with. Ronan is a terrific actress but comes off a bit petulant in places and there is soooo much kissing that it begins to get a bit old – and I like kissing.

This is one of those I wish movies. I wish it hadn’t been quite as long. I wish it had a bit more passion from the cast, although given that the Souls are written as emotionless creatures there’s at least an explanation for that. I wish it had given credit to its audience as having as much intellect as hormonal drive. I wish American culture would stop pandering to the lowest common denominator and start aiming higher. I wish I could have given it a higher rating but frankly, it just didn’t earn it. It’s not a bad movie although I’m sure some will think it so simply because they’re not part of the target audience – it’s just not as good a movie as it could have been.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice visuals. Consistently well-acted by its predominantly young cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Prefers to play to teen girl hormones than explore the potential genuinely interesting issues it raises. Oddly low-key.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few scenes of teen sexuality and some violence but nothing that you wouldn’t see on network television.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Before Diane Kruger accepted the role of the Seeker, Haley Atwell, Claire Danes and Eva Green all turned it down.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100; the critics ripped it a new one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twilight

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: On the Road