The Macaluso Sisters (Le sorelle Macaluso)


Facing the future together.

(2020) Drama (Charades) Viola Pusatieri, Eleonora De Luca, Simona Malato, Susanna Piraino, Serena Barone, Maria Rosaria Alati, Anita Pomario, Donatella Finocchiario, Ileana Rigano, Alissa Maria Orlando, Laura Giordani, Rosalba Bologna, Bruno Di Chiara. Directed by Emma Dante

 

One of life’s few universal truths is that we all experience both joy and sadness; triumph and loss. Those things mold us, shape us into the people we become; some through the memory of golden moments, other through the bittersweet acrimony of what might have been.

The five Macaluso sisters live in a shabby but spacious top-floor apartment in Palermo, Sicily. They keep doves in what had once been a playroom long ago, doves that they rent out for parties, weddings, magic shows and so on. The doves return back to their nest once they’ve finished with whatever spectacle they’ve been rented to. The sisters have been orphaned but don’t seem terribly traumatized by it.

Maria (De Luca) is the oldest and most responsible; she handles the business and for the most part keeps the lights on and the pantry from being bare. Next is vain Pinuccia (Pomario) who is all about make-up and flirting with boys. Then there’s bookish Lia (Piraino) who squabbles endlessly wth Pinuccia. Plump Katia (Orlando) is next and the youngest is Antonella (Pusatieri), who although five is ready to be a big girl. She begs Pinuccia to dab some lipstick on her mouth, which Pinuccia does in an affecting scene – the first of many.

Once the business is done for the day, Maria gets the girls ready for a day at the beach. Not being very well-off, they mostly walk there, finding a field full of plaster dinosaurs to play in, and once they get to the beach which is fronted by an exclusive club to which they are not invited, they lead the bathers in an impromptu dance. But the day’s joy turns to tragedy.

The rest of the film is all about how the sisters deal with that tragedy, and is told in three acts; the first is the day at the beach, the second takes place about twenty years later as the girls are now adult women, at which an adult Maria (Malato) has some startling news, and an adult Katia (Giordani) tries to convince the stubborn adult Lia (Barone) – in whose name the apartment is – to sell the crumbling apartment so that each of the sisters might get something to help them out financially.

The third and final act is the shortest and takes place when the sisters are elderly women. Throughout the apartment remains, growing shabbier as time passes. The doves also remain, much to Katia’s annoyance. Dante (no relation to the American director Joe Dante) gives the movie a fairly sad, bittersweet tone which only increases as the film goes on. The younger Macaluso sisters get the most screen time as their section is essentially the film’s longest, as they show up in flashbacks throughout the film. The nature of the tragedy which essentially shapes the lives of the sisters is hinted at throughout the movie, but shown in full near the end in perhaps the only misstep of the film; I don’t think it was necessary to show it, to be honest. There is also a scene in the idle of Lia, who is apparently studying to be a veterinarian, dissecting a cow which might set off alarm bells for the squeamish.

Dante uses Erik Satie’s elegiac Gymnopédie No. 1 throughout, mostly sourced as the music for a clock that plays the well-known tune, and then in the piano version most of us are familiar with. The piece is often used in cinema as a metaphor for growing old, and its use here is fitting.

Although most of the action takes place in the apartment, the movie never feels claustrophobic. The first third is incredibly joyful which makes the second and third acts all the more poignant; Dante does a wonderful job using tone throughout the movie. And while the metaphor of the doves may be a bit overdone here, it isn’t so overdone as to become monotonous and quite frankly the relationships between the sisters at various times in their lives was absolutely compelling for me.

The movie, which premiered at Venice last year, is probably not on the radar of a lot of cinephiles since it isn’t getting distribution by one of the more noted arthouse labels, and that’s a shame because this is an absolute gift of a movie. It’s playing in New York and Los Angeles only at the moment, but there are plans to release it in select theaters around the United States throughout August. Hopefully, it will be playing in a theater near you but certainly keep an eye out for it on VOD when it becomes available there if not.

REASONS TO SEE: Intensely, powerfully emotional. A realistic examination of sisterhood.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally melodramatic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, nudity, sexual content, adult themes and an animal dissection.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a stage play, also written by Dante.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Little Sister
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Suicide Squad

Knocking (Knackningar)


What is real and what is not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Soul Collector (8) (2019)


Good men can still do bad things.

(2019) Horror (SHOUT! FactoryTshamano Sebe, Inge Beckmann, Keita Luna, Garth Breytenbach, Chris April, Luxolo Ndabedi, Owam Amey, Sindiwe Magona, Graham Clarke, Eve Maxagazo Andy Crawford, Jac Williams, Andres Brink. Directed by Harold Holscher

 

The South African film scene has been coming on lately, with several movies produced there getting international attention. The Soul Collector (which made the Festival rounds known as 8) is a horror movie with its roots in local traditions and mythology, certainly a heady and largely untapped source of inspiration for scare flicks.

William Ziel (Breytenbach) has been experiencing rough economic times, so he heads to the interior of South Africa to work his family farm after the death of his father (Clarke). He brings along his adopted daughter Mary (Luna), whose parents in addition to being William’s brother and sister-in-law are also dead, and his wife Sarah (Beckmann) who has demons of her own.

William knows next to nothing about farming, but help comes in the form of Lazarus (Sebe), a wise old black man who once worked the farm. However, local villagers, led by their one-eyed chief (April), are aware of the true nature of Lazarus; he collects souls for the demonic presence occupying his daughter’s (Amey) body. Lazarus, a good man driven to an act of madness by grief and desperation, has also befriended Mary, whom the demon is dead set on feeding upon.

First-time director Holscher has crafted a film that looks really nice; beautiful vistas of the rolling plains of South Africa, as well as in-camera effects that are as effective as any CGI. He also is given the richness of African legend to work from, but sadly, resorts to jump scares and horror tropes that end up taking his movie down a few notches.

That’s not to say that the movie is entirely without merit. There are some frank discussions on the intertwining of life and death (the figure 8 is used to denote the place where the mortal world and the next realm meet, which is where the living can communicate with the dead) and Sebe is an imposing presence; intimidating when he needs to be, but clearly conflicted over his fate and the bargain he made. It is hard not to feel for Lazarus and Sebe does a good job of making the character sympathetic.

The other characters are less so; William is stubborn, refusing to see any other reality but the one that he wants to see. He is going to make this farm work no matter what! For her part, Sarah is often bitchy and vindictive, mourning that she can’t have children of her own. As for Mary, she’s not the plucky heroine of most horror movies (which is refreshing) but she keeps silkworms in a music box that plays the “Swan Theme” from Swan Lake (which is used as a motif throughout the score, at times to distraction) and is in every sense, a little weird. Then again, she’s been through a lot.

I like seeing horror movies using the mythology of other cultures, be they Latin, Eastern European, or Asian; we so rarely get to see the rich folklore of Africa used cinematically that it’s refreshing when it happens. I just wish that the director had done a little more with it here.

REASONS TO SEE: Takes us to an environment not usually found in horror films.
REASONS TO AVOID: Plenty of horror tropes and jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity, some images of terror and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Not related to the movie of the 1999 movie of the same name.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews, Metacritic: 37/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Golem
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Exit Plan

After Parkland


This is what grief looks like. as Victoria Gonzalez remembers her boyfriend Joaquin Oliver.

(2019) Documentary (Kino-LorberVictoria Gonzalez, Sam Geif, Andrew Pollack, David Hogg, Rebecca Boldack, Manuel Oliver, Anthony Gonzalez, Dillon McCooty, Emma Gonzalez, Lauren Hogg, Brooke Harrison, Patricia Oliver. Directed by Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman

 

The massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day, 2018 has had a kind of staying power in the imagination. 17 students died that day, and 50 more were injured. Nearly every student and family of those students were affected in a real way by the crime.

While other school shootings have come and gone in the national consciousness – when did we become so blasé about them that they have become just another news story? – Parkland has lingered in the public eye, largely because the students, rather than grieving privately, decided to become activists to create sensible gun laws. They have taken on the NRA and the Republican Party and while they have made some slight inroads, their goals of banning military-style semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 have yet to materialize.

But even that isn’t necessarily what After Parkland is about. The movie which began as a Nightline assignment, is about how the survivors went about rebuilding their lives and carrying on as best they could. Senior David Hogg became one of the faces of the Parkland shooting for his outspoken criticism of the federal government for failing to act and helped create a foundation that organized events like March For Our Lives which many readers may have participated in. However, the film is more intimate, choosing to assume that we all understand the politics. We see how the shootings affected his younger sister Lauren, who lost four friends in the gunfire. We see his mother gruffly fending off the news media as David walks in from the parking lot to the first day of school two weeks after the shooting.

Much of the film revolves around Joaquin Oliver, a 17-year-old who was one of those who didn’t survive. We see his father Manuel, who fled the political turmoil of Venezuela only to lose his son to senseless violence in America, continuing to coach Joaquin’s basketball team in honor of his son’s memory. We see Joaquin’s best friend Dillon McCooty, who tries carrying on, wearing his uniform number in his memory and taking it upon himself to will his team to a championship. We also see his girlfriend Victoria Gonzalez hide her devastation; “I’m good at putting up a front,” she remarks offhandedly as people remark on how well she’s handling it. In a particularly touching sequence, McCooty takes her to the prom, trying to make it as special as possible for her. We get to know Joaquin through home movies and the testimony of his friends better than any of the victims.

We also meet Andrew Pollack, father of Meadow who also died in the tragedy. He testifies before such figures as President Trump and Education Secretary DeVos, Pollack’s rage at the government’s failure to protect his daughter in a school setting barely contained. He tells us that he used to have a great life, but now he can’t smile anymore. He almost dares the filmmakers to ask him anything; “If I can take the death of my daughter, I can take anything.” He sets out to build a park playground in his daughter’s honor. He also sidesteps politics, saying firmly but politely that school safety and not gun control is his central issue.

Some might disagree with his focus, but it’s really hard to given what he has lost. Filmmakers Taguchi and Lefferman admirably remain in the background, generally just following their subjects around or letting them vent to the camera. While the activism is certainly a part of the story – it feels to a large extent that it is a coping mechanism for some – this is a movie about people, not politics. This will likely elicit a few tears and much sympathy and even some empathy. I know that some of us try to avoid anything that reminds us of these sorts of tragedies which have continued to occur in the wake of Parkland. I can certainly understand wanting to turn away, but a part of me thinks that maybe we should face it and wallow in it. Maybe if the outrage reaches a sufficient level, change will be forced to occur. If that could happen, maybe the 17 lives snuffed out almost before they started might not have been lost in vain.

REASONS TO SEE: Raw and very powerful. Shows the immediate aftermath of the shooting and how it affected those who lost friends and family. Uses the survivor’s own words to tell the story.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a trigger for those who have been affected by a school shooting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, adult issues dealing with grief and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: More than 100 venues around the country, including the Enzian here in Orlando, are taking part in a one-night only special screening of the film. Various organizations will be participating, hoping to start a dialogue that will lead to meaningful change –  there will also be voter registration being conducted. For those who can’t make these special screenings, the movie will be available for streaming on Hulu starting February 19th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber on February 25th.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Song of Parkland
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Suspiria (2018)

Hereditary


Toni Collette practices her Oscar acceptance speech.

(2018) Horror (A24) Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Christy Summerhays, Morgan Lund, Mallory Bechtel, Jake Brown, Harrison Nell, Briann Rachele, Heidi Mendez, Moises Tovar, Jarrod Phillips, Ann Dowd, Brock McKinney, Zachary Arthur, David Stanley, Bus Riley, Austin Grant, Gabe Eckert, Jason Miyagi, Marilyn Miller, Rachelle Hardy, Georgia Puckett  Directed by Ari Aster

There are critics who shouldn’t be allowed to review some genres. Those who abhor emotional manipulation should not be allowed to review romantic comedies. Those who think movies exist only to illuminate and educate shouldn’t be allowed to review Hong Kong action films or superhero films for that matter. There are some who don’t have the patience for kid flicks. and there are plenty of critics who don’t get horror movies at all who should be kept away from horror movies with physical restraints – and I suspect some of them would be just fine with that. Me, I love horror movies so at least you won’t get genre snobbery below.

\Annie Graham (Collette) is burying her recently deceased mother. She is strangely ambivalent about it; her relationship with her mom was strained to say the least. In fact, the only member of the family who is sorry to see the old lady go is the youngest, daughter Charlie (Shapiro) who is as creepy a child as you’re likely to find on any movie screen, theatrical or home.

Annie has kind of a strange job; she’s an artist who builds miniature rooms with meticulous detail. These rooms are largely from her own past and present. Annie is already kind of a high strung sort much to the chagrin of her stoner teenage son Peter (Wolff) and grounded husband Steve (Byrne). When a second tragedy strikes the family, it threatens to send Annie over the edge.

Reluctantly, she attends a grief-counseling group where she runs into Joan (Dowd), a motherly sort who has lost her husband and son to a car accident. She confides in an increasingly depressed Annie that she has discovered a means of communicating with the dead. Given a straw to cling to, Annie seizes it with both hands but as anyone who knows anything about the horror genre knows, it’s never a good idea to contact the dead.

Now, the synopsis above makes this sound like a pretty run-of-the-mill horror concoction but I assure you that it is not. This is one of the most justifiably acclaimed horror movies of this year or maybe even any other year, both by critics who do get horror films and fans of the genre alike (not to mention film buffs and cinephiles). The movie is ingeniously crafted, a slow burn that builds to an absolutely twisted finale that will leave you terrified of turning out the lights for days.

One of the reasons to love this movie is Toni Collette. Horror films rarely generate Oscars for actors but this is one that truly deserves to. Collette’s depiction of Anne’s descent into paranoid madness is the stuff of horror rubbernecking – you simply can’t turn away. Collette has been nominated for Oscars before but this may well be her best performance. I can’t imagine anyone topping it. The rest of the performances are strong, particularly the always-reliable Byrne, the up-and-coming star Wolff and veteran character actor Dowd. Shapiro is also particularly strong but she doesn’t get as much screen time as the others.

Steve Newburn is credited with designing the miniatures; they are exquisite and add considerably to the creepy factor So too does the score which doesn’t take cheap shots with ersatz scares. When the really scary stuff starts to unfold, it’s honest and quite frankly, this movie is scary as fcuk. Seriously, if you are easily frightened or overly sensitive this movie may well be too much for you.

This is not the kind of movie that throws jump scares at you to keep you off-balance. This is a slow-building ticking time bomb that immerses you in an atmosphere that is both normal and not-quite-right. As things begin to go off the rails for Annie, we begin to understand she’s not the most reliable of narrators. Is it really happening? I say yes. Whether you’re on the same page as I am, this is certainly one of the most unforgettable horror movies of the past decade and if you didn’t see it during its brief run this past summer, you NEED to see it this Halloween.

REASONS TO GO: Collette delivers a career-defining performance. The ending sequence is terrifying. It’s very likely to become a horror classic. The dysfunctional family dynamic feels authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: This might actually be too scary for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of graphic violence and disturbing imagery, some drug use and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Wolff, Byrne and Shapiro knew each other from previous film work; Collette alone didn’t know any of the actors that played her family, contributing to her sense of isolation which comes out in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Day Four

Winchester


Sarah Winchester doesn’t get out much.

(2018) Horror (CBS) Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Emm Wiseman, Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, Tyler Coppin, Angus Sampson, Alice Chaston, Eamon Farren, Michael Carmen, Bruce Spence, Curtis Bock, Andy de Lore, Adam Bowes, Laura Brent, Amos Ciza, Red Horse Rivera, Tom Heath, Phoenix Suhrou-Dimarco, Laura Sutton. Directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig

 

In the face of multiple and intolerable tragedies the human psyche can react in a variety of ways. Sometimes, it gets stronger, allowing the person to become better, more charitable and closer to those they love. Sometimes, it builds a wall, shutting everyone out. Other times, it simply goes around the bend, preferring to explain those tragedies with some sort of preposterous explanation.

By all accounts Sarah Winchester (Mirren) took the latter course. The heiress to the massive fortune of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, following the untimely deaths of her husband and only son became convinced that her family was cursed due to all the deaths caused by the guns her family company had manufactured. She was convinced that the only thing appeasing the ghosts was 24 hour a day seven day a week construction on the mansion she inhabited in San Jose, California – then an orchard-filled backwater town south of San Francisco.

Alarmed at the prospect that the person running the company was a certified loon, the officers of the company set out to, well, certify her. They enlist the aid of San Francisco psychiatrist Eric Price (Clarke) who is slowly drugging himself to oblivion with laudanum, a potent combination of whiskey and opium, after the tragic death of his wife.

Dr. Price is given the rare opportunity to observe Winchester in the confines of her massive home and as time goes by, he discovers that the woman is far from the mentally frail old woman she is portrayed to be; she is, quite frankly, an imposing independent woman who is very clearly in charge of her own household. Yes, she is getting architectural instructions for her kooky mansion via séance but even given that she seems no less sane than you or I…which then leaves the unthinkable conclusion: that she is right about the curse.

I lived for more than a decade in the San Jose area and have been to the Winchester Mystery House; yes, it’s a real mansion and the story of Mrs. Winchester believing the family to be cursed is a true one. Pretty much there is where the similarity between fact and fiction ends. I will say that I have many fond memories of my visits to the mansion and that may color my review a bit. I can tell you that the interiors, built on a set in Australia, are reasonably close to the actual rooms in the mansion that are shown on the tour (the external shots were of the actual house).

Mirren is one of the finest actresses working today and to her credit she makes her portrayal of Sarah Winchester a memorable one, even if it isn’t anything like what the real woman’s personality was said to be – she was rarely seen publicly (only one photograph exists of her) and she was said to be shy and somewhat easily shaken up. The Sarah Winchester here is more of a warrior than a wimp. Clarke also delivers a strong performance here and holds his own against Mirren, no easy task indeed.

There are an awful lot of jump scares – too many for my taste – but when the Spierig brothers go for genuine atmosphere, they succeed. They also use a minimal amount of CGI, opting for more practical effects and dong so makes the movie feel a bit homier, if you get my drift. This is how they used to make them and given the setting, it makes a lot of sense that the Spierigs opted for that route.

This is a haunted house movie that delivers the goods for the most part. While there are some historical inaccuracies (there are references to victims of the Winchester rifle during the Civil War but the company wasn’t formed until 1866, the year after the Civil War ended), the final test of any good horror film is whether you come out the other side grinning ear to ear and so I did. This is complete nonsense but it’s wonderful nonsense.

REASONS TO GO: When it is at its best, the movie succeeds. Mirren is a force of nature here.
REASONS TO STAY: History is played with in a fast and loose manner.
FAMILY VALUES: There is supernatural (and natural) violence, disturbing images, some drug use and sexual allusions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Sarah Winchester was a mere 4’11” tall and walked with a distinctive gait due to her severe and debilitating arthritis. By comparison, Helen Mirren is 5’4” tall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious: The Last Key
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
War Machine

War for the Planet of the Apes


Caesar can be a little grumpy sometimes.

(2017) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karen Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Devyn Dalton, Aleks Paunovic, Alessandro Juliani, Max Lloyd-Jones, Timothy Webber, Lauro Chartrand, Shaun Omaid, Roger Cross, Mercedes de la Zerda. Directed by Matt Reeves

 

This past summer was largely disappointing when it came to quality blockbusters. Sure, there were the usual suspects; loud sci-fi action, crude comedies, big superhero epics and so on. Mostly all of the high expectations for some of these wannabe billion dollar franchises fizzled out of the gate with only a few exceptions.

War for the Planet of the Apes however was one of the best-reviewed films of the entire summer. That rarely translates to big box office bucks – it didn’t recoup its $150 million production budget at the domestic box office and it finished with under $500 million at the worldwide box office, a decent enough number but surely not to the expectations of the suits at Fox.

The movie was curiously light on action despite the title; what it turned out to be was an ape character study of Caesar (Serkis), leader of the intelligent apes and the Colonel (Harrelson), the militaristic dictator of the remnants of humankind. You see the virus that made the apes smart is making humans dumb as rocks. Few thinking, rational human beings remain. The Colonel thinks all of the apes should be wiped off the face of the Earth so that humans can survive; in his mind, Homo sapiens won’t go gently into that good night.

Serkis delivers the best performance of his diverse career. Caesar is extremely conflicted; he wants peace but there is no reasoning with a fanatic. When struck by a personal tragedy, Caesar feels despair and fury but he is still tempered by the basically decent simian that he is. Of course, he’s an inspiring leader of his tribe who look to him as their savior while to the Colonel he’s a different kind of symbol. Zahn provides comic relief (and pathos) as Bad Ape.

There is a subplot involving a mute human child that ties into the ape movies of the 60s and 70s which aficionados of those films will appreciate; I surely did. There aren’t a ton of action sequences but the ones there are Reeves pretty much nails.

The CGI is surprisingly substandard for a film of this importance; there are some sequences in which it is painfully obviously computer-generated. Good CGI is seamless and fits into “reality” like a glove. That doesn’t happen here and it takes the viewer right out of the film from time to time.

I wasn’t among the critics singing the praises of this film. To my eye, it isn’t as good as the first two films in the series. I’m not sure the studio initially had faith in it either as  the movie could easily end the franchise right here; however with a fourth film already approved by Fox and a strong overseas box office chances are the franchise will continue, hopefully with films better than this one. However it is still a better than average summer movie and despite its flaws one of the best to come out this past summer which isn’t saying much.

REASONS TO GO: Serkis does some of his best work ever here. The Nova subplot is truly captivating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is sadly uneven and isn’t up to the high standards of the franchise. Some of the CGI looked too much like CGI.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images, plenty of sci-fi violence and battle scenes as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Serkis in interviews promoting the film indicated that this won’t be the conclusion of the series which may come in the fourth or fifth film of the series; in fact, Fox has already greenlit a fourth film in the franchise.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mother, I Love You

Abundant Acreage Available


One look at Tracy’s face reminds us that farm life isn’t an easy life.

(2017) Drama (Gravitas) Amy Ryan, Terry Kinney, Max Gail, Steve Coulter, Francis Guinan. Directed by Angus MacLachlan

It is a fact that America’s heartland isn’t terribly well-served by Hollywood. Often those who live in Middle America, those that grow our food are portrayed as bumpkins, buffoons or obsessive. Those who have religion are ridiculed; even those who don’t are made to look like stubborn coots hanging on to a way of life that is dying. Thus is the state of the family farmer in the second decade of the 21st century.

Jesse (Kinney) and his adopted sister Tracy (Ryan) are burying their father, recently deceased from stomach cancer, in the field where he toiled for fifty years. Primarily a tobacco farmer, he also grew corn and sorghum. Now his children are struggling to figure out what the hell to do next.

That question is set aside when they find three elderly men camping in their fields in a tent. It turns out that the three men – Hans (Gail), Charles (Coulter) and Tom (Guinan) – are brothers and they have a connection to the farm; they lived on it before Tracy was born. It belonged to their father and he sold it to their recently deceased dad – “Missed him by a week,” the pragmatic Tom says disconsolately.

Jesse, a man of faith, found religion when his life was absolutely destroyed by a tragedy. He believes the arrival of the brothers is a sign, an opportunity to right a wrong. Jesse wants to give them the farm, which his father used the brothers’ dad’s misfortune to his own advantage to purchase. The brothers are aging and Tom, who recently suffered a stroke, is in failing health. He also has a habit of saying course sexual remarks to Tracy, who bears them with the grace of a polar bear. Tracy is adamant; this is her farm as much as it is Jesse’s and the two argue incessantly about it.

Charles has become just a little sweet on Tracy which has been noticed by everyone except for maybe Tracy herself. The brothers are interested in buying the land; Tom wants to be buried there when it’s his time to go; the three live in Orlando and they certainly don’t want to be buried there where they feel no connection other than to a ratty old couch. The land – now that’s something else. Even though they haven’t been back in 50 years, it’s still home. It still calls to them.

As I mentioned, the people portrayed here represent a segment of the American public that has been underserved by Hollywood and in many ways, looked down upon by the elites of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. These are the salt of the earth, those that tend the land and put food on our tables. Maybe they have been idealized a little bit here – unlike most family farms these days, Tracy and Jesse don’t seem to have any financial issues in keeping their farm afloat. We also don’t get a sense of the backbreaking work it takes to farm tobacco; most of this film takes place post-harvest during the late autumn and early winter months. The landscape is appropriately stark and yet rich at the same time.

Still, we get a sense of the people. Jesse, despite his rock-solid faith, is still suffering from the tragedy that befell him. He desperately wants to do the right thing and in a way, this is his way of atoning. Kinney doesn’t make Jesse too much of a martyr although he easily could; Jesse is complex and Kinney lets all his layers show.

Still, the performance of the film belongs to Amy Ryan. Tracy is almost crazed with grief in a lot of ways; Jesse wants to bury his father in consecrated ground but Tracy is insistent his ashes be buried where he toiled nearly all his life; the fields of tobacco and corn have been consecrated with his blood, his sweat and his love. Tracy sees that far more clearly than Jesse and Tracy is a bit more strident about it.

She’s not an easy character to like but we can at least relate to her and the longer the movie – which is only an hour and 16 minutes long – goes the more sympathetic she becomes. Tracy is pushing the half century mark and has spent most of her life taking care of her brother and her adopted father and things like marriage and family have passed her by. She doesn’t particularly love the farm but it’s the only home she’s ever known.

Cinematographer Andrew Reed lets us see the beauty in the stark fields, the decrepit farmhouse, the aging barn. We also see that behind the careworn lines on Tracy’s face there is a lovely woman behind them. Reed does as good a job as any cinematographer I’ve seen in making a middle aged woman beautiful without sacrificing her years; Tracy doesn’t look young for her age but she’s still beautiful.

Things move along slowly despite the brief length of the film; some might even opine that this would have made a better short film than a feature and they might have a point. Still, the movie captures a tone and a rhythm that belongs to those who toil on the land and there is a necessary beauty to that. Most Hollywood productions wouldn’t bother. I would have liked to see more of what drew these five people to the land other than the generations that lived and died there but the story being told here is a compelling one and there’s not a false note anywhere in the movie. This isn’t going to get distribution in a lot of areas but if it is playing near you I urge you to seek it out or if not, seek it out when it makes it to VOD. This is one of the best films of the year and you probably won’t see a lot of ink about it even so.

REASONS TO GO: The people and the ethics of America’s Heartland are nicely captured. This is a movie about the salt of the earth for people who relate to that feeling. The film is very well-written and very brief. Some truly lovely cinematography is here.
REASONS TO STAY: Despite the short length of the film the pace is glacial.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, including sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won the Best Screenplay award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The River
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Rape of Recy Taylor

The Commune (Kollektivet)


A communal meal isn’t always a peaceful one.

(2016) Drama (Magnolia) Ulrich Thomsen, Fares Fares, Trine Dyrholm, Lars Ranthe, Julie Agnete Vang, Helene Reingaard Newmann, Ole Dupont, Lise Koefoed, Magnus Millang, Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen, Mads Reuther, Anne Gay Henningsen, Jytte Kvinesdal, Morten Rose, Rasmus Lind Rubin, Adam Fischer, Ida Maria Vinterberg. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

When we think of the 70s, what comes to mind is recreational drug use, long hair, bell bottoms, anti-war protests and free love. Although communes still exist, they are more like co-ops these days rather than all of the inhabitants sleeping with each other, although there are some like that to be sure.

Erik (Thomsen) is a somewhat stuffy professor of architecture at a University in Copenhagen. His wife Anna (Dyrholm) is a beautiful news reader working for the national broadcast network. When Erik inherits what is essentially a mansion from his father in a rural suburb of Copenhagen, he initially wants to sell it; their daughter Freja (Hansen) wants to move into it but it is Anna who comes up with the idea they eventually adopt – to invite friends and strangers to move in and create their own commune.

You see, Anna has become somewhat bored in her marriage and wants variety, but as they say, be careful what you wish for. She and Erik invite friends at first like Ole (Ranthe) who has a bit of a temper but soon they are inviting fascinating strangers and before too long there are a dozen or so adults and children living in the commune.

Things go pretty well at first but things begin to lose cohesion. One of the children who has a heart condition (and quite the crush on Freja) is taken to the hospital, scaring the whole community on Christmas Eve. But to make matters worse, Erik falls in love with Emma (Newmann), one of his students and invites her to join the Commune. At first, Anna is pretty sanguine about the whole situation but she begins to crack and soon the tension in the Commune becomes nearly unbearable.

I’m not so sure this is an indictment of free love and the sexual politics of the 70s as it is more or less simply presenting the pros and cons. In all honesty most of the couples in the commune stay fairly faithful to one another with the exception of Erik – and it must be said that Anna paved the way for that in many ways. Judging Erik by standards that are 40 years after the period depicted here isn’t really fair but by our standards he’s quite the jerk.

The performances here are top-notch; most of the actors are not well-known in the U.S. with the exception of Fares and to a lesser extent Thomsen. The prize though goes to Dyrholm who goes from a strong and confident woman to an absolute mess by the end of the film. Badly shaken not so much by Erik’s infidelity – I think she could have handled an affair so long as Erik still loved her but once it became a case where Erik loved Emma and not Anna she was absolutely destroyed.

The director manages to get the era right between the colloquialisms, the products and the overall attitude. The cinematography is a little bit on the washed out side for exterior day shots (and underlit for night shots both inside and out) which also gives the film a look of a film made in that era.

Despite the pathos and drama (and there’s a lot of the latter) there is some comedy as well that comes up at unexpected times. The Danish have a very quirky sense of humor and it shows here when its needed. What’s not needed is some of the pretentious dialogue – and I realize back in that decade people tended to talk like walking manifestos – and especially the soap opera aspects of the film which are also many. That detracts from a film which most of the rest of the way is serious and fascinating.

Still, human relationships are tricky things whether you’re talking about the 70s or the 2010s. We are complicated little monkeys and we do things sometimes that make no logical sense. It is said that being alone is perfection – you make all your decisions and do as you please when you please. Two is a compromise and three is a disaster. The more people you put at the same table, the more complex things get.

Vinterberg has some really great films to his credit including one of my all time Florida Film Festival favorites The Hunt. This is another strong movie on his filmography and he continues to be a director who hasn’t yet really gotten the credit he deserves here in the States. Then again, he hasn’t done a lot of English language films yet and I’m not sure he needs to. Still, he’s one of those directors whose name on the credits means I’m instantly interested in seeing his film. There are not many about whom I can say that.

REASONS TO GO: The sexual politics are captured nicely. The film is very evocative of its era. Thought-provoking, the movie manages to get in a little bit of comedy as well. The performances are strong all around.
REASONS TO STAY: Pretentious in places, the movie sinks into soap opera a little too much.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you’ll find nudity, sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a play Vinterberg wrote about his own experiences as a child growing up in a commune.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Overnight
>FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Lady Macbeth

God Knows Where I Am


Some of the beautiful imagery used in the film.

(2016) Documentary (BOND360) Joan Bishop, Lori Singer (voice), Caitlin Murtagh, Kathy White, Brian Smith, Matthew Nelson, Doug Bixby, Lora Goss, Wayne DiGeronimo, Stephanie Savard, Judith E. Kolada, Paul Appelbaum, Kevin Carbone, James E. Duggan, Thomas Scarlato, E. Fuller Torrey, Jennie Duval. Directed by Jedd Wider and Todd Wider

 

In 2008, the decomposing body of a woman was discovered in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. Her shoes were neatly at her side. Nearby two notebooks full of journal entries told the tale of her stay in the farmhouse. She was identified as Linda Bishop, a woman diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder who had walked out of a New Hampshire mental hospital and walked to the farmhouse where she would die of starvation.

This film by veteran documentary producers Jedd and Todd Wider, a brother team best known for their work with Alex Gibney, utilized Bishop’s own words from her journals (spoken by actress Lori Singer) as well as interviews with her sister Joan, her daughter Caitlin, her close friend Kathy as well as psychiatric and medical professionals that treated her, the police officer and medical examiner working her case as well as the Judge who committed her.

The Wider brothers choose to build a story, slowly adding details that complete the picture. We meet Linda as a young woman, charismatic and full of life. We discover her love for the outdoors and nature, and discover that she’s smart, articulate and knowledgeable about the world around her. She gets married, has a daughter, gets divorced but is by all accounts a wonderful mother who is virtually inseparable from her daughter who adores her.

And then the mental illness begins to rear its ugly head. A job as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant is quit because she believes the Chinese mafia is out to get her. This prompts the first of several relocations with her puzzled daughter. Soon it becomes apparent that Linda is incapable of caring for herself, much less her daughter. Caitlin is sent to live with relatives and Linda alternates between lucidity and delusion, depending on how vigilant she is in taking her medication. The problem is that Linda doesn’t believe that she’s ill; as her paranoia deepens, she begins to believe that Joan, one of the last advocates that she has, is out to get her pittance of an inheritance left to her when her dad had passed away. For that reason, Linda refuses to allow Joan power of guardianship, a crucial event which essentially blocks Linda and the rest of the family from getting much of any information about Linda’s care and treatment at all. They aren’t even notified when she’s released. As a result, nobody notices she’s gone while she’s slowly wasting away on a diet mainly of apples she’s picked in the woods and rain water. By that time, Linda had alienated her daughter and her own friends. Only Joan still stood by her and one gets the sense that it was a burden for her.

The movie originated in a story in The New Yorker written by Rachel Aviv who is a producer on the documentary. It is a poignant tale and for the most part it is told well here. The filmmakers for some reason decide to leave some crucial information out – doubtlessly to make it more impactful when it is revealed near the very end of the movie – but I don’t think they’re successful in that matter. We mostly can guess who “Steve” is and his role in the story and as he s mentioned many, many times in Linda’s journal, it gets a bit frustrating.

The cinematography here is absolutely breathtaking. Gerardo Puglia fills the screen with bucolic farmhouses, still winter landscapes and beautifully lit apple trees at sunset. Singer who most will remember from the 1984 version of Footloose reads Bishop’s words with extraordinary depth and even the thick New England landscape does nothing to rob Bishop of her character.

The title is an ironic one; it is taken directly from Linda’s journals in which it is used as an expression of faith. Linda knows that God is aware of her; He knows where she is and will take care of her in the end. However, it can also be construed to be an expression of being lost and there are few souls who were more lost than Linda Bishop was.

The filmmakers very much believe that the mental health care system in this country is badly broken and in all honesty it’s hard to argue with them. In our zeal to protect the rights of the patient we sometimes forget that they often are unable to make informed decisions on their own. The tale of Linda Bishop is a sad one; even in her last days she had a sense of humor and a bluntness that is refreshing and one can only wonder what she would have been like had she continued to take her meds. There’s one certain thing she would have been had she done so – alive.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The story is truly heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The identity of Steve, who is mentioned throughout, is withheld until the very end which gets frustrating.
FAMILY VALUES: The theme, having to do with mental illness, is adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won a special jury award at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil and Daniel Johnston
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: For Here or to Go?