The Outpost


With their backs against the wall came their finest hour.

(2020) True War Drama (Screen Media Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones, Orlando Bloom, Milo Gibson, Bobby Lockwood, Celina Sinden, Jacob Scipio, Jack Kesy, Taylor John Smith, James Jagger, Alexander Arnold, Cory Hardrict, Will Attenborough, Scott Alda Coffey, Kwame Patterson, Fahim Fazli, Jonathan Yunger, Jack DeVos, Alfie Stewart. Directed by Rod Lurie

 

The War in Afghanistan has gone on longer than any armed conflict in U.S. History. In some ways, it has been a war of attrition with few pitched battles. One such was the Battle of Kamdesh on October 3, 2009 when 53 American soldiers in the remote Combat Outpost Keating in a valley surrounded by three mountains – not an idal defensible position, as any student of combat will tell you – were attacked by more than 400 Taliban fighters.

That war has come to the forefront of our consciousness lately – no easy task, given the circus of news that continually grabs our attention whether we  want it to or not – when the New York Times reported that intelligence sources revealed that the Russian GRU – their military intelligence arm – was bribing Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers.

The film is based on a non-fiction book co-authore by CNN anchor Jake Tapper. Director Rod Lurie – himself a veteran of the Army and a West Point graduate – understands the mind of the soldier, and clearly shows an affinity for them, getting the banter down pretty much pitch-perfect. We are basically flies on the wall at the camp for the first hour of the film, observing the regular attacks by Taliban sharpshooters, and getting a sense that the men are making the best of things, but are aware of the danger they are in; one analyst dubbed the camp “Camp Custer” because he thought it likely to be the site of a massacre down the line.

We meet some of the soldiers stationed there, from competent base commander Benjamin Keating (Bloom) to Ty Carter (Jones), who is not well-liked and doesn’t really take things all that seriously, or Clint Romesha (Eastwood), who has reservations about what they’re doing there and occasionally voices them to superior officers with varying amounts of acceptance, and Broward (Patterson), the rigid officer whose strict adherence to the book might just get them all killed.

The trouble is that we don’t really get to know most of the characters here, so when the attack comes during the second half of the film, it is hard to keep track of who’s who, who has survived and why we should care. It robs the movie of some of its effectiveness because of it.

But that’s not to say that this isn’t an effective movie – it is very much that. I honestly believe that this is the best depiction of combat since Saving Private Ryan despite having a budget that likely wouldn’t have even paid for the pyrotechnics on the Spielberg film.

Lurie and cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore utilize hand-held cameras to good effect here; they capture the chaos of the battle really nicely The movie, which was supposed to bow at SXSW earlier this year, instead gets a limited release in a handful of select theaters and a VOD release (see below for platforms). That’s heartbreaking in a way; this is a movie meant to be an immersive experience, with a fabulous sound system, a ridiculously big screen and a minimum of distractions. Reviewing it on less ideal circumstances takes away from the film’s impact. Hopefully, once the pandemic begins to ease off a bit, we will get to experience this film the way it was meant to be – in a theater with a huge screen, a sound system that will blow your cloths off, a dark room and a bucket of popcorn in your lap.

Beyond that though, we are at a critical juncture in American history. We are weary of the politics, the pandemic, the economy, all the ills that make our futures both individually and collectively less certain. We need heroes, and this film provides some real-life ones – this was the first battle in more than 50 years that produced more than one Medal of Honor winner. Incidentally, the movie doesn’t end with the battle; it features a coda in which one of the survivors faces his grief and his guilt. It’s as powerful a moment as you’re likely to see in the movies this year and has earned this movie a spot as one of the best films of the year so far.

REASONS TO SEE: The best depiction of combat since Saving Private Ryan. The ending is incredibly powerful. Look no further to see an account of what heroism looks like.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s not a lot of character development here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of war violence with some grisly images, a staggering amount of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several of the men who took part in the battle appear in variously important roles in the film, including Medal of Honor winner Ty Carter (played in the film by Caleb Landry Jones) and Daniel Rodriguez, who plays himself.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Prince (El principe)

Exit Plan (Selvmordsturisten)


A cold and clinical beauty.

(2019) Suspense (Screen MediaNikolaj Coster-Waldau, Tuva Novotny, Robert Aramayo, Jan Bijvoet, Sonja Richter, Solbjørg Højfeldt, Slimane Dazi, Lorraine Hilton, Kaya Wilkins, Johanna Wokalek, Peder Thomas Pedersen, Mette Lysdahl, Vibeke Hastrup, Anders Mossling, Per Egil Aske, Kate Ashfield, Christine Albeck Børge. Directed by Jonas Alexander Arnby

 

Sometimes, just coincidentally, more than one movie gets released at about the same time with a similar theme or subject matter, like Armageddon and Deep Impact. This week, there are two movies dealing with assisted suicide, or Death with Dignity (the previously reviewed Here Awhile is the other one). This is the second.

But whereas Here Awhile dealt with the subject as a straightforward drama, examining how the intention of ending one’s life affected those around them, this is something else. Max (Coster-Waldau) is an insurance investigator, although judging from his personality he might have been better suited to be an insurance company accountant. He has a pair of glasses and a moustache, and you think that a hunk like Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) would rock that look. Think Stephen Root in Office Space and you’ll understand nobody could rock this look.

A client of his company, Alice Dinesen (Richter) who most definitely did not have a farm in Africa, wants to collect the life insurance from her husband Arthur (Mossling), who has been missing for more than a year. The only evidence she has that he’s gone is a video that was mailed to her by the Hotel Aurora in which her husband announced that he was taking his own life and that by the time she receives the video he will be dead. Alas, there is no body so the company is not willing to pay – no corpse, no cash, as they like to say in the life insurance biz.

Max is only too happy to look into the hotel, because he has some thoughts in that direction as well. You see, Max has an inoperable brain tumor that is growing larger by the day and soon he will be looking at a loss of identity and dignity. After overhearing his significant other (Novotny) tell a friend that she doesn’t know how much longer she can put up with Max (she’s unaware of his medical condition), he decides he will take advantage of the hotel’s services.

At first, it seems like he’s made a good choice. The hotel is absolutely spectacular, nestled in the mountains of Scandinavia, a modern steel and glass beauty with comfortable Danish design. There are hot tubs for soaking, massage therapists, gourmet meals in a restaurant with a spectacular view, tea laced with opium – all the amenities of a five-star hotel. They offer a passing away experience that is painless (or painful, if that’s what he wants) in the environment of his choice. Sounds like a killer deal.

But Max is beginning to have second thoughts and things turn sinister. He is told “You can leave, but you cannot escape” which sounds to me like writer Rasmus Birch was listening to The Eagles’ “Hotel California” on an endless loop when he wrote this. He begins to see things that may or may not be there – or is that his tumor asserting itself? Or something else?

The writer and director made some odd choices for this film. For one, they take the charismatic Coster-Waldau, a handsome man with a charismatic screen presence, and reduce him to a milquetoast. Fans of Jamie Lannister are going to be throwing things at the screen, although to be fair I’m sure the fact that this role is as far from Jamie as it’s possible to get was part of the appeal for Coster-Waldau.

It’s also got terrific set and production design; the hotel is cold, clinical with odd warm accents but there is no feeling of humanity here. The hotel staff are largely smiling automatons who make the adjective “pleasant” a pejorative. The natural beauty around the hotel is nice as well, but the whole screen tone has a wintry feel, which I do believe is on purpose.

The movie has some high aspirations to examine the relationship between life and death, and the morality thereof. There are some hints of paranormal elements, but they never really come to fruition unless you decide that the fairly ambiguous ending means something along those lines (I’m being purposely vague here as not to spoil things) but if you take into account that a man with a brain tumor might not be the most reliable narrator, well, you do the math.

I have to say that although there were things I liked about the film, I do believe that in the end its reach exceeded its grasp. I don’t think the movie was a failure per se, but suffice to say that I don’t think that it was successful in what I believe it was aiming for. They swung for the fences but ended up legging out an infield single, in other words.

REASONS TO SEE: Possessed of a cold, sterile beauty.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too clinical.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coster-Waldau and Aramayo were both members of the sprawling Game of Thrones cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews, Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark City
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Velvet Buzzsaw

Blood and Money


The Great White North (almost).

(2020) Thriller (Screen MediaTom Berenger, Kristen Hager, Paul Ben-Victor, Bates Wilder, Erica McDermott, Mark Sivertsen, Brian Duffy, Melissa McMeekin, Jimmy LeBlanc, Catherine Portu, Gary Tanguay, Ryan Hornchick, Ace Gibson, David J. Curtis, Lisa Lynch. Directed by John Barr

 

We all have actors who we are fans of even as they fly under the radar of everybody else. For me, that’s Tom Berenger, who has been a terrific if underused actor for decades, resonating in films like The Big Chill, Platoon, Major League and Sniper. He’s also been in his share of B-movies, including this indie thriller.

Jim Reed (Berenger) is an ex-marine, living in a dilapidated custom-camper. Once upon a time he had a family, but that all comes to an end when his daughter dies in a drunk driving incident when he was at the wheel. His wife and son were never able to forgive him for that; Hell, he’s never been able to forgive himself for that.

He lives in the North of Maine and its deer hunting season and he’s particularly anxious to bag himself a buck. You see, Jim is vomiting blood and passing out; he knows he’s sick but he’s loathe to do anything about it. He mainly wants to be left alone, coming in to town to load up on supplies and hang out with Debra (Hager), a waitress who reminds him of his late daughter. She’s in a marriage to an alcoholic husband (LeBlanc) and wants to get out.

The talk of the town is a recent violent casino robbery in which five thieves got away with over a million dollars in cash. There’s a manhunt going on for them, but that’s of no mind to Jim, who basically is all about getting back to hunting.

Back out in the wilderness, he thinks he’s bagged his buck but it turns out to be a woman. Jim is absolutely distraught about the situation but when she dies, he flees the scene. He later finds out she as one of the gang that robbed the casino. So, Jim returns to the scene of the shooting and takes the big duffel bag full of money. Of course, it goes without saying that the surviving members of the gang want their ill-gotten gains back.

Berenger will be 71 at the end of the month and while he moves gingerly like a 71-year-old man, he still has the presence he did when he was younger. Berenger plays the silent type as well as anybody, and he gives Jim Reed a world-weary patina that just screams “Get off of my lawn.” He look utterly at home in the snowy wilderness of the north woods of Maine, and the cold temperatures match the cold demeanor of Reed.

Barr, in addition to directing, also co-wrote and shot the film as director of photography, and as a writer he makes a great cinematographer. The snowy vistas are harsh and beautiful, setting the tone for the thriller nicely. However, the plot is pure bargain bin; we’ve seen this movie before and done better, despite the best efforts of Berenger.

All in all, it adds up to a fairly pedestrian thriller that won’t give you any surprises or shocks, but is worth looking into for the beautiful pictures as well as for the performance of the lead.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful scenery.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kind of a typical plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is both violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Barr’s feature-length debut as a director. He’s been a cinematographer on 20 other projects.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews, Metacritic: 37/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cliffhanger
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music

Hope Gap


She strolls while he snores by the seashore.

(2019) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Screen Media) Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Alysha Hart, Kadrolsha Ona Carole, Nicholas Burns, Rose Keegan, Ryan McKen, Nicholas Blane, Ninette Finch, Derren Litten, Sally Rogers, Steven Pacey, Joel MacCormack, Jason Lines, Finn Bennett, Anne Bryson, Tim Wildman, Susan Tune, Joe Citro, Dannielle Woodward. Directed by William Nicholson

 

Not every marriage is eternal. Some come to an end prematurely; some after a short amount of time as the couple discovers that marriage was a terrible idea for the two of them, while others occur after years of marriage.

Grace (Bening) and Edward (Nighy) are days away from their 29th anniversary. Outwardly, they seem as comfortable together as two old shoes, but there are cracks showing. Edward is distracted, almost shut down; he barely acknowledges Grace. She badgers him, trying to get some sort of reaction from him. She senses something is wrong, but can’t fathom what it is.

Edward manages to coax their adult son Jamie (O’Connor) to their seaside home in Sussex from London. However, he has an ulterior motive; he tells Jamie that he has fallen in love with another woman and is leaving Grace. At first, Jamie is dumbstruck; he can’t believe it. But eventually he is convinced that Edward means to go through with it. And so Edward does.

Grace still loves Edward and is sure that this is just a phase, and that he will soon come to his senses and come home, but it becomes apparent that Edward is gone for good. She gets alternately despondent, angry and bitter. Jamie is caught in the middle, serving as mediator and messenger, soon realizing that he is slowly developing the same malaise that overtook his father, while as he gets to see his mother as a person rather than just a parent, understands that he never really knew her at all.

Movies about divorce are not uncommon, and often prove to be fodder for some compelling films (i.e. Kramer vs. Kramer, An Unmarried Woman, last year’s Marriage Story). Some critics have complained that there isn’t a lot here that’s original, which I suppose has some merit until you realize that this is based on the divorce of writer/director Nicholson’s parents. I imagine it seemed terribly original to him.

What the rest of us are left with are a quest for insight; how would we handle this? Would we ever do something like this to our partner? Could someone who seemingly have the perfect marriage just watch it collapse around them? For this kind of movie to work it has to be relatable; it has to have a frame of reference that makes it compelling to the viewer. I don’t know that the insights raised here are going to resonate deeply with everyone.

That’s where some wonderful performances come in. In Bening and Nighy, we have two often underrated pros who are both about as good as anyone in the business. Nighy plays Edward as the very definition of “doddering,” he seems lost in his own home, a schoolteacher who is obsessed with historic events that happened over two centuries ago (Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow) and seems to be more in tune with the past than he is present.

I often forget how good Bening is until I see her latest film, and then I fall in love with her (as an actress) all over again. Despite a kind of dodgy British accent, she nonetheless nails her role here, giving Grace depth and edge. Often, she is almost intolerable to be around; she is confrontational, occasionally bitchy and uncompromising but it becomes clear that she is as lost in her own way as Edward is. Bening can convey more with a single glance than most actors can with pages of dialogue.

On top of the terrific performances there is some lovely cinematography of windswept beaches and the charming coastal village of Seaford where this was filmed. American audiences, though, may find it ponderous and slow-moving, the curse of the short-attention-span-afflicted Yank. In our defense, we watched too many music videos and video games growing up to accumulate the patience to, say, read a book, let alone watch a movie that requires some concentration as well as some commitment. But, sad for us Americans, the best films almost always require both.

REASONS TO SEE: Bening and Nighy are both masters of their craft.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow and ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on and expanded upon Nicholson’s play The Retreat from Moscow which in turn is based on his parents’ own divorce.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mentor

The Jesus Rolls


Nobody rolls a ball like Jesus.

 (2019) Dramedy (Screen Media) John Turturro, Bobby Cannavale, Audrey Tautou, Susan Sarandon, Pete Davidson, Christopher Walken, Jon Hamm, J.B. Smoove, Sable Boykin, Tim Blake Nelson, Margaret Reed, Michael Badalucco, Sonia Braga, Gloria Reuben, Nicolas Reyes, Ken Murach, George Sheanshang, Tonino Ballardo, Matt Lake, Kathryn Kates, Rosa Gilmore. Directed by John Turturro

The Dude abides, but Jesus saves, or so some would have it. The Big Lebowski was a 1998 Coen Brothers cult hit that may have had the most interesting characters in a single cast, so much so that more than 20 years after it was released it is getting its first spin-off. Don’t count on many more happening.

Jesus Quintana (Turturro) is released from Sing Sing on a sex charge that is, to put it mildly, suspicious. The warden (Walken) sends Jesus on his way, Jesus having led the intramural team to the state bowling championship (in one of the film’s most amusing moments, he is literally played out by the Gipsy Kings, who are also behind bars). He is picked up by Petey (Cannavale), his best friend and also an ex-con.

The two promptly go on a spree of petty crime, with temperamental French hairdresser Marie (Tautou) in tow. On a kind of misdemeanor-laden road trip, they go forth to look for America. Along the way they meet a hairdresser with a gun (Hamm), another ex-con (Sarandon), a black market doctor (Nelson), an overzealous convenience store security guard (Badalucco) and Jesus’ sex worker mom (Braga).

And that’s pretty much it, as far as plot goes. The movie is somewhat based on the French director Bertrand Blier 1974 comedy Going Places with Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere as a couple of sex-addicted lowlifes on the run, but with the Jesus character from The Big Lebowski in the main roll. Known in the earlier film for licking the ball before he bowls, that scene opens the way for a bowling session with Jesus in which he most definitely licks the ball. Take from that whatever you will.

This is one of those movies where a lot of decent actors make cameo appearances for a few moments and then we move on to another Merry Prankster bit with Turturro and Cannavale, whose character gets shot in the huts by a vengeful hairdresser who cares more for his vintage Duster than for his employee. The movie is mostly a series of stolen vehicles and chases with interludes of sex and not just what the beautiful Tautou either.

The movie suffers from a noticeable lack of the Coen brothers; they are masters at characterization and snappy dialogue. Here, the movie seems forced, rushed and poorly planned out, a very disturbing issue indeed. It’s not nearly as funny as it could have been, or should have been. Turturro is a fine actor, but as a writer he’s no Coen.

Turturro has evidently been thinking about bringing this character back to the screen for some time; I don’t know if anyone was clamoring for a Jesus Quintana spin-off other than Turturro but I suppose if you wait long enough, everything comes back into style.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s John Effin’ Turturro.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as funny as it could be.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a ton of profanity, plenty of sexual content, some nudity, and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Turturro has been trying to get a spin-off film about the Jesus Quintana character made since 2005; after several aborted tries he came up with a script that everyone was satisfied with.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic:  44/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes

Robert the Bruce


The once and future King.

(2019) Historical Drama (Screen Media)  Angus Macfadyen, Anna Hutchison, Zach McGowan, Gabriel Bateman, Talitha Bateman, Brandon Lessard, Diarmaid Murtagh, Emma Kenney, Patrick Fugit, Melora Walters, Shane Coffey, Daniel Portman, Seoras Wallace, Kevin McNally, Jared Harris, Nick Farnell, Gianni Capaldi, Mhairi Calvey.  Directed by Richard Gray

 

In Scotland Robert the Bruce is a national hero, able to do what William Wallace could not – give the Scots their freedom from English rule – but it didn’t come easy.

Some ten years after the execution of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce (Macfadyen) is King of Scotland, but uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. That’s because other Scottish nobles, particularly the clan of John Comyn (Harris), also are claimants to the throne of Scotland. After an ambush at Greyfriars’s Church leads to the death of Comyn, Scotland is in chaos. The English, with whom Comyn had allied, have put a price on Robert’s head of 50 gold pieces. The unceasing wars against the English have led to a divided country; some support their King who is promising freedom, other weary of war that has claimed so many husbands, sons and brothers.

Pretty Morag (Hutchison) has lost a husband to the wars and a brother as well. Raising her own son Scot (Bateman) as well as her nephew Carney (Lessard) and niece Iver (Bateman), they live on a remote farm in the mountains. Robert, hounded by foes on every side, is ready to give up. He dismisses his few loyal remaining men, including his best warrior James Douglas (Murtagh) who thinks it is folly for Robert to be without protection. He is soon proven right as Robert is attacked by three of his own men, including treacherous Will (Fugit) and badly wounded. Scot finds him in the woods and the family of Morag bring him to their farmhouse to tend to him, much to the displeasure of Scot who blames Robert for his father’s death.

They know they are risking death and their uncle Brandubh (McGowan) is sniffing around the farm – he is looking for Robert, who he has discovered is in the vicinity, but he is also hoping to woo Morag who had married his brother. Even as Robert gets better, the king knows he is in dire peril and dragging this good family in with him. Can he escape and take the family who saved his life to safety?

In all honesty, I don’t know how apocryphal the story is. It could be pure fiction, or based on folk tales, or based on fact. I honestly couldn’t tell you, but I do know Macfadyen – who played the role memorably in Braveheart previous to this and co-wrote the script – has been trying to get this movie made for more than a decade. The 56-year-old actor is playing the King in a period when he was in his mid-30s; this Robert is more world-weary than the one he played in Braveheart and less fiery-eyed. There are moments, particularly near the end of the film, where we see the old Robert the Bruce and thse moments are welcome.

The elephant in the room is Mel Gibson, and I’m sure he wouldn’t be too pleased to be called an elephant. One of the things that made Braveheart such a classic, beloved film was the presence of Gibson, who was at the time at the top of his game and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and possessed of enormous charisma before later events derailed his career. Macfadyen is a terrific actor and he has plenty of screen presence, but I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you he’s no Mel Gibson and the movie feels the lack of that kind of star power.

It also feels a lack of Scotland in it. The movie was largely filmed in Montana which is a beautiful state, but it doesn’t have the same look as the Scottish Highlands. The largely American cast also has difficulty with the hard-to-master Scottish accent. Either it’s laid on too thick or not thick enough. Mostly, though, actors drop in and out of it willy-nilly.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments in this film that are worth waiting for. There isn’t a ton of action here in the two-hour film, and American audiences may have a hard time with that. It is not a fast-paced film either and American audiences will REALLY have a hard time with that. Still, if you are patient, there are some scenes that come close to recapturing the magic of the Oscar-winning Braveheart but it never quite does. This isn’t a sequel so much as a spin-off and it doesn’t have the budget to recapture the battle sequences of that film, so Robert the Bruce doesn’t have the epic scope of the previous movie. Still, the character is a big part of Scottish history and proud Scots will not want to miss this, nor will those who love that craggy land.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some moments that are pure magic.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too slow-paced for this type of movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and mayhem.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mhairi Calvey, who played the wife of Robert the Bruce here, played a young Murron, the eventual wife of William Wallace, in Braveheart.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Braveheart
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
True History of the Kelly Gang

The Sonata


Candlelight can be romantic – or terrifying.

(2018) Horror (Screen Media) Freya Tingley, Simon Abkarian, James Faulkner, Rutger Hauer, Catherine Schaub-Abkarian, Matt Barber, Christopher Brand, James Kermack, Myster Jo, Aurélija Pronina, Andrejs Zikovs, Maija Cipste, Artürs Ghoss, Laine Ligere Stegrévica, Janis Libietis, Jurijs Krüze, Atis Afréds Brasmanis, Olga Svecova, Aleksandrs Mihailovs, Alina Vasiljeva. Directed by Andrew Desmond

Music has an almost mystical hold on our imaginations. We define ourselves by it, link it to memories both dark and lovely, use it to buoy our spirits or help us carry out repetitive or boring tasks. We arrange ourselves into tribes according to the kind of music we like. Music is essential to who we are.

Rose Fisher (Tingley) is a concert violinist who may have a brilliant career ahead of her. She has yet to achieve her full potential which has led to a rift between her and her manager Charles (Abkarian), who is a recovering alcoholic. When the news that Rose’s estranged father has died, she fields the news with the same frosty demeanor that you’d adopt if you were told that you’re short change for the bus.

Charles is surprised to discover that Rose’s pa is none other than Richard Marlowe (Hauer), once a composer who was poised to remake classical music with his brilliant compositions – until he essentially withdrew from public life to a run-down French chateau. His name had sunk into obscurity – those who even knew who he was had assumed he had been dead for years. However, Marlowe had been busy in the last years of his life, creating a violin sonata that apparently was written with Rose in mind and might be his most brilliant work yet.

He also left Rose the aforementioned chateau with the obligatory nosy housekeeper (Schaub-Abkarian) which Rose doesn’t really want; she is much more interested in selling the Gothic abomination. However, when she discovers the new sonata, she also discovers a mystery; the sonata is dotted with strange symbols and appears only half-completed. As Rose looks into the piece, she discovers to her dismay that the symbols are Satanic in origin and as she begins to have horrific nightmares and unexplained occurrences make her waking hours no picnic either, she realizes that dear old dad had a much more sinister purpose with his piece than just tormenting his daughter with it.

The chateau makes for an excellent supernatural horror film setting, with plenty of sinister cherubic statues, appropriately foggy woods, and dark corners for apparitions to leap out of. Desmond gives us a concept that has all sorts of fascinating connotations; using music as a conduit to other realms. It makes sense if you understand how a really great musician is transported when in the midst of playing, and transports us along with them. There is power in that, a kind of power that sadly goes largely unexplored here.

Tingley, best known for TV series Hemlock Grove and Once Upon a Time, isn’t given a whole lot to work with. Rose is at various turns arrogant, cold, obsessive and vulnerable. She’s not really a damsel in distress, but she’s not really a terribly strong woman either. When we first meet her, she is informed of her father’s death and has a reaction that is guaranteed to be the very opposite of endearing. To make matters worse, Tingley gives us a rather stiff performance, making me theorize that she was uncomfortable with the role. That’s just conjecture, of course.

This is one of the great Rutger Hauer’s final performances and it is a brief one; he mostly appears in brief snatches – pointing to the woods, glimpsed in mirrors and around corners, and has no dialogue other than during a vintage interview. It really is rather a waste because he has more presence than anyone else in the film. I wish the filmmakers had utilized him better.

A film about music needs a good score and fortunately this film has one. Composer Alexis Mangaud makes a suitably creepy tone but also makes the music lovely for the most part – some of it is atonal and dissonant but by the film’s end it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the music, even if you’re not a classical music aficionado.

The film suffers from some rookie mistakes; an over-reliance on jump scares, plot points that lead nowhere, and generally unlikable characters who have little depth to them. Still, there’s enough here to make this a fairly solid horror opus perfect for rainy nights, autumn afternoons as the sun is dying in the sky, or just to creep you out when you’re alone in the house. Sometimes, that’s all a movie really needs to be.

REASONS TO SEE: A truly fascinating idea.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tingley gives a fairly stiff performance.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some unsettling adult themes, gruesome images, terror, profanity, and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Desmond’s feature film debut; it is also the second-to-last film from the late Rutger Hauer to see the light of day (there’s one more coming out later this year).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Papillon (2018)

Grand Isle


Nicolas Cage, after reading the script to his next movie.

(2019) Thriller (Screen MediaNicolas Cage, Luke Benward, KaDee Strickland, Kelsey Grammer, Beatrice Hernandez, Emily Marie Palmer, Zulay Henao, Duncan Casey, Oliver Trevena, Haley Milsap, Isabella Grace Roark. Directed by Stephen Campanelli

 

Nobody freaks out in the movies better than Nicolas Cage and I mean that as a compliment. Sure, Conan O’Brien once suggested the Department of Homeland Security use clips from his films to demarcate the various terrorist threat levels (not a bad idea, actually) but nonetheless Cage knows how to lose his shit onscreen better than anybody.

In this film he plays Walter, a Vietnam vet slowly drinking himself to death in a small Southern town. It’s one of those delta locales where the steam seems to rise from the skin and even the flies find it too humid to buzz. Campanelli does a good job of establishing the locale (you can almost smell the sweat) although his actors for the most part overdo the Southern accent.

Walter hires a fellow vet (albeit much younger) named Buddy (Benward) to fix a section of picket fence just as a hurricane is arriving in town. As Buddy’s long-suffering wife Fancy (Strickland) observes, it takes some kind of idiot to repair a fence before a hurricane but I suppose it makes sense to the bourbon-soused.

Buddy has been chronically unemployed, putting massive strain on his relationship with his wife Lisa (Palmer) who is coping not only with Buddy’s lack of income but with the health problems of their infant daughter as well. It goes without saying that he’s happy to take any sort of work, even if the job makes him feel uneasy. Much of that uneasiness stems from Fancy (Strickland), the oversexed wife of Walter.  Her husband is, shall we say, less than a stellar performer in the bedroom and she’s plenty frustrated over it.

Of course, Buddy gets caught in the hurricane and is forced to hunker down with Walter and Fancy. And of course, the tension between the three starts to edge over the boiling point. And of course, Walter and Fancy are hiding a dirty secret in that basement which has been locked in such a way as to guarantee curiosity if not outright suspicion.

There are elements of both Southern Gothic and film noir, two genres that usually compliment each other well and to be fair to the filmmakers they manage to strike a fine balance here. However, there is also a lot of disquieting elements to the film. For starters, the actors chew the scenery with so much gusto one would question whether or not they had just been liberated from a prison camp.

Cage is usually the actor I look to when it comes to commanding attention, but he’s much more low-key than usual here which I suppose has to do with the southern demeanor. Naturally, it came as a bit of a surprise that it was Strickland who really made an impression on me, in this case as a Southern femme fatale. She is as seductive as a siren, as acerbic as a pundit and as merciless as a snake.

The script kind of falls apart in the last third. The clichés and tropes begin to pile up and all plausibility goes right out the window. The saving grace here is the entertainment factor; if you don’t think about this one too much you might find yourself enjoying it in spite of itself.

This is the sixth film starring Cage to be released in 2019 (with at least four more scheduled for 2020), almost all of them action thrillers and none of them released wide. Not a great standard for an Oscar-winning actor but hey, you take work where you can get it.

REASONS TO SEE: Southern gothic meets film noir.
REASONS TO AVOID: Southern-fried clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some sexual situations
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Walter is supposed to be an ex-Marine, the uniform he wears in the penultimate scene carries Army insignias and medals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 29/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Key Largo
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Noelle

A Reindeer’s Journey (Aïlo: Une odyssée en Laponie)


They don’t get much cuter than baby reindeer.

(2018) Nature Documentary (Screen MediaDonald Sutherland (narrator). Directed by Guillaume Maidatchevsky

 

After viewing the watershed nature documentary March of the Penguins, a colleague of mine opined that what she took out of the film most of all was “it sucks to be a penguin.” Well, when she sees this one she’s going to add reindeer to that list.

Reindeer are native to Lapland, a region above the Arctic Circle straddling Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia. The climate is harsh in winter and they have a fair share of predators that cause them difficulties. Climate change has only made the weather worse and worse still, has played havoc with their traditional migration routes – as have loggers who have displaced wolves from their habitat, sending them into places where reindeer once were relatively safe.

This film captures the first year of life for Aȉlo. Donald Sutherland intones that Laplanders have a saying that reindeer get five minutes to learn to stand, five more minutes to learn to walk, then five minutes to learn to run and swim. That’s how dangerous the climate and predator situation is in Lapland.

Like many nature documentaries, Aȉlo is anthropomorphized to a large extent. Sutherland – who does excellent work here, lending much needed gravitas – imbuing him with human qualities and human thought processes. Chances are, Aȉlo and others of his species don’t spend a lot of time ruminating on how tough life is in the Arctic Circle. Most animals function primarily on instinct and experience.

That isn’t to say there aren’t moments that are captivating, such as when Aȉlo mimics a rabbit and later on, a stoat. There’s no doubt that Aȉlo is insanely adorable and kids are going to be absolutely enchanted with him (and a lot of adults too). To add to the plus column, the cinematography is absolutely breathtaking – even the scenes of winter are refined with varying shades of white and blue, all filmed in the low light of perpetual Arctic twilight.

To a large extent, this isn’t as educational as it could be although Sutherland does his best. Labeling lemmings the “chicken nuggets of the North” is kind of amusing, but it oversimplifies their place in the food chain. I do give the filmmakers points for not shying away from the effects that climate change is having on these animals.

All in all, this is a solid although not remarkable documentary. Those of you who have children who really love animals and are captivated by the DisneyNature series of documentaries will no doubt find this right in their wheelhouse. The film doesn’t turn away either from the grim reality of life in a harsh environment (reindeer die, although never on-camera). While the movie is making a brief theatrical run in New York City, it is available on VOD on basically every major streaming service and likely a few of the minor ones as well. It also is or will be available on DVD/Blu-Ray just in time for the holidays and makes an awesome stocking stuffer for the animal lover in your family.

REASONS TO SEE: Aȉlo is insanely cute.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fairly standard nature doc.
FAMILY VALUES: This is extremely kid-friendly.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a French/Finnish co-production.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu,
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frozen Planet
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Shock and Awe

Crown Vic


I guess that’s why they call it the blues…

(2019) Cop Drama (Screen MediaThomas Jane, Luke Kleintank, Josh Hopkins, David Krumholtz, Bridget Moynihan, Devon Workheiser, Scottie Thompson, Emma Ishta, James Andrew O’Connor, Shiloh Verrico, Alex Morf, Gregg Bello, Bernard David Jones, Hannah McKechnie, Chris Jarrell, Bruce R. Leader, Kathryn Schneider, Ginger Graham, Elizabeth Oddy, Marilyn Toro. Directed by Joel Souza

 

Since the days of Dragnet and “Just the facts, ma’am,” the way we view cops have changed. Once upon a time, they were our knights in blue, friendly neighborhood protectors who made sure that “To serve and protect” wasn’t just a motto. These days, cops are often viewed with suspicion, particularly by minorities and with some justification. Cops have become fallible and human; and not always admirable. We see the sensational failures rather than the neighborhood heroes. Both views are extreme. Neither is wrong.

Ray Mandel (Jane) is a 25-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department as a patrol officer. He has been given the task of being FTO (Field Training Officer) to a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, Nick Holland (Kleintank). Nick is idealistic, just out of the academy, newly married with a baby on the way. His somewhat hysterical wife calls him at regular intervals, terrified that something will happen to her baby daddy out there on the mean streets of Los Angeles.

In the course of a single night, the grizzled veteran will impart the wisdom of cops since time immemorial to his young protégé – “Trust in your equipment,” “If someone looks guilty, watch ‘em. If someone looks innocent, watch ‘em closely!!” The rookie soaks it all in but quickly discovers that things aren’t so cut and dried out on the streets. He may be riding in a black and white, but things certainly aren’t that way out there (see what I did there?) in the neighborhoods of El Lay, particularly with a trigger-happy pair of robbers on the loose as well as a detective whose ‘roid rage is about to explode into something much worse, as well as personal matters that will keep both the men in 20-Lincoln-14 on their toes.

Those who have been mesmerized by cop procedurals on TV (going back to the aforementioned Dragnet and up through such classics as Adam 12 and Starsky and Hutch up through more modern iterations which have been largely the province of the movies like Colors and End of Shift) will find familiar territory here. The film is set up as a series of vignettes that range from brutal and violent to dark comedy. Generally, Ray and Nick react pretty much the same way to each situation; Ray tells Nick to stay in the car, or behind the protection of the squad car’s door, and Nick essentially doing as he’s told.

The opening sequence depicting the robbers violent escape from a bank is shot creatively from the inside (and the side mirror) of the getaway car. It’s kinetic and works really nicely; sadly, the rest of the film isn’t quite as innovative. In fact, there’s a good deal of cliché going on here. It isn’t a terribly realistic depiction of the day-to-day life of patrol cops – but then again, it’s not meant to be – and at times credibility is stretched to the breaking point.

Much of what makes the movie a worthy rental (or viewing if it’s playing anywhere near you) is the performance of Jane as the world-weary Ray. Ray has nothing left but the job but he hasn’t lost all hope just yet. He still believes that he is making a difference, and that’s what sustains him. Jane is one of the steadiest actors around today; you won’t go wrong seeing one of his films.

This isn’t a breakthrough film by any stretch of the imagination. It ploughs familiar territory and doesn’t really do much beyond the opening sequence to make any sort of mark. Still, those who like cop films are going to be satisfied with this. It’s well-acted, well-plotted and keeps the viewer’s interest going throughout. A lot of much more heralded films can’t necessarily say the same.

REASONS TO SEE: The audience interest is kept up nicely. Jane does a solid job as the mentor cop.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the cliché side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexual references, scenes of gory violence, brief full nudity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Crown Victoria was discontinued as a model in 2011. It has been replaced on most police forces by the Dodge Charger, Ford Taurus and/or Chevrolet Caprice.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Training Day
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
I’m gonna make you love me