A Banquet


Food for thought.

(2021) Psychological Horror (IFC Midnight) Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Ruby Stokes, Lindsay Duncan, Kaine Zajaz, Richard Keep, Deka Walmsley, Rina Mahoney, Jonathan Nyati, Walter van Dyk, Andrew Steele, Adam Abbou, Finn Bennett, Dylan Clout, Selena Thompson, Kevin Marshall, Hannah Zoé Ankrah, Suzie Voce, Kharlis Ubiaro, Leon Finnan, Charlie Roberts, Polly Turner. Directed by Ruth Paxton

 

=Mother-daughter relationships are often complicated, layered things, particularly when the daughter is in her difficult teen years. When the behavior of the daughter becomes disquieting, maybe even self-destructive, the question has to be raised if the impetus is psychological, or a cry for attention – or something far worse.

Holly (Guillory) has a lot to cope with, having two teenage daughters. She has been through the wringer; after nursing her terminally ill husband, she is rewarded with witnessing (along with her older daughter Betsey (Alexander)) his grisly suicide. Such a traumatic event is bound to leave some scars; for Holly, it has led to her drawing inward, isolating her family in a dark, cave-like home. For Betsey, it is becoming somewhat nihilistic, or at least fatalistic, and adopting the accoutrements of goth. Only younger daughter Isabelle (Stokes) seems relatively unaffected.

But at a party one night, Betsey – who has gone outside to get some air – is lured into the nearby woods by a mesmerizing blood-red moon and by sibilant whispers. When she returns home, she has changed; the sight of food makes her deeply nauseous, causes bouts of violent resistance and makes her skin tingle. At first, Holly attributes her daughter’s behavior to a severe hangover, but when the condition persists over several days with Betsey refusing to take even so much as a single pea in sustenance, Holly begins to suspect that something deeper is at play. When medical doctors write it off to “something viral,” and psychiatrists make little headway, Betsey begins to insist that she witnessed something in the woods; a vision of something coming. She now believes her body belongs to a higher power and shouldn’t be desecrated with food.

Into this equation comes June (Duncan), Holly’s mom who is understandably skeptical of Betsey’s condition, thinking it as an attempt to get attention. June has her own demons, having had to raise a mentally ill daughter (not Holly), and as Holly begins to believe that maybe something supernatural is going on, particularly when it is discovered that Betsey hasn’t lost so much as a pound since this whole thing began. June and Holly begin to butt heads. Betsey, in the meantime, has attained a kind of serenity. Is the apocalypse really coming?

This is the kind of horror movie that doesn’t have any “gotcha” scares, nor does it really provide anything that terrifies other than the general situation. The horror is psychological in nature and revolves around the relationships between the four women in the family. This is not a movie that you can watch passively; it requires that you pay attention and the filmmakers expect you to work at least as hard as they did making the film, not an unreasonable request, but for a lot of movie buffs, it may be more than they are willing to give.

This is particularly true in the first half, which moves at a very slow pace. Things to pick up in the second half, as the tone gets weirder and weirder, and some very strong performances (particularly by Duncan, a veteran actress who has been known to steal a scene or two during a distinguished career) and some very deeply layered characters and storylines.

With a production setting that actually parallels the themes of the film, it is clear that a great deal of thought went into the making of this film. Paxton is a brilliant new voice, whose next project I’m eager to see. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but anyone who has ever had a contentious relationship with a parent, or loved (or been) a teenage girl, there is a lot to unpack here – and like the conclusion of any trip, is sometimes more satisfying to ponder it afterwards than it is to actually be on the journey.

REASONS TO SEE: The second half of the film is truly gripping…
REASONS TO AVOID: …But the first half of the film is terribly slow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sensuality, drug use and some disturbing images (including an on-screen suicide).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for Bull, who has a passel of award-winning shorts to her credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saint Maud
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Brighton 4th

Halloween Kills


For Michael Myers, Hell is home.

(2021) Horror (Blumhouse) Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Airon Armstrong, Will Patton, Thomas Mann, Jim Cummings, Dylan Arnold, Robert Longstreet, Anthony Michael Hall, Charles Cyphers, Scott MacArthur, Michael McDonald, Ross Bacon, Kyle Richards, Nancy Stephens, Diva Tyler. Directed by David Gordon Green

 

Of the iconic screen horror slashers, only Leatherface predates Michael Myers, who made his first appearance in the 1978 classic Halloween. Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Chucky and Jigsaw all followed in his bootsteps. But forty years have elapsed since his first appearance and Michael is getting a bit long in the tooth, right?

The movie picks up immediately where 2018’s acclaimed reboot left off. Michael (Courtney) has been left to die in the basement of a burning house. Laurie Strode (Curtis), his sister and the babysitter he went after back in 1978, is being rushed to the hospital with abdominal stab wounds. Officer Hawkins (Patton) is on his way there, bleeding from a stab wound in the neck.

But as firefighters battle the blaze, they discover the one cardinal rule of any horror franchise; the killer isn’t quite dead yet. Michael emerges from the flames and immediately takes out a fire brigade, then exits stage left to commit more mayhem, ostensibly to people both random and convenient. He does have a bit of a plan – to go to his old house, currently occupied by gay couple Big John (MacArthur) and Little John (McDonald) who have tastefully decorated the old homestead which means they are due to be shish kabobbed.

At a Haddonfield bar, Tommy Doyle (Hall) shares his recollections of that fateful night. He was the boy Laurie was babysitting, and the night has left him scarred for life. So he doesn’t react well when the news arrives that Michael is still on the loose. Tommy organizes a lynch mob and leads them into the streets to find Michael, chanting ‘Evil dies tonight,” which makes a mighty fine tagline for a movie poster. It turns out to be the most incompetent mob in history, although I do wonder if there’s any such thing as a “competent mob.”

While Laurie’s daughter Karen (Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Matichak) fret over telling Laurie that the boogeyman still lives, they both grieve for the departed in their own way (Greer has a particularly poignant scene early on in which she washes blood from her hands, scrubbing around her wedding ring). In the meantime, the body count grows and the mob howls for blood (although they occasionally seem to be pointed at the wrong Michael Myers), will a united mob be able to finally put Michael down…or will this Halloween continue unabated?

Well, considering there’s another sequel in the works for next October, I think you can do the math. This is clearly the middle chapter in a trilogy and it has a feel of non-resolution to it. The ending is supposed to be a bit of a shocker (and it is), but what precedes it is a series of kill scenes that really don’t show a ton of originality or flair, with few exceptions (one of the firemen gets eviscerated by his own saw). While Green’s 2018 reboot showed how the 1978 murders affected Strode and her family, the sequel expands to show how it affected all of Haddonfield. That’s admirable, and I think it provides a little social commentary at how deeply stressed out the country has become, but I don’t think that the mob is supposed to be a stand-in for the Capitol insurrection mob. That seems to be a bit of a stretch to me.

The problem with Halloween Kills is a lack of imagination. Forty-odd years on after John Carpenter yelled “action,” slasher movies have run their course and there isn’t a lot of ways to slice and dice a human body. It becomes predictable – and that’s the last thing you want a horror movie to be. Sure, there are plenty of kids who may be new to the genre who might be impressed, but I would be surprised if they hadn’t already seen the classic slasher films by this point and to be fair, this doesn’t compete well with them. It does have its moments, and Jamie Lee Curtis is always a welcome name on a marquee, but she really doesn’t get to do very much, leaving Greer, Patton, Matichak and Hall to do most of the heavy lifting and they do it with varying degrees of success.

So the long and the short of it is that Halloween Kills doesn’t measure up even to the 2018 predecessor. That’s a shame because I can see what the filmmakers were going for; they just didn’t quite get there.

REASONS TO SEE: A respectable attempt to provide some social commentary on the state of things, 2021.
REASONS TO AVOID: A real letdown after the 2018 reboot.
FAMILY VALUES: As you would expect, there’s a ton of violence (much of it gory), some grisly images, a fair amount of profanity and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With her appearance here as Laurie Strode (her sixth), Jamie Lee Curtis passes Donald Pleasance for the most appearances in the franchise as the same character – he appeared five times as Dr. Loomis. The Dr. Loomis who appears in the flashback sequences here is played by Tom Jones Jr., with the voice supplied by Colin Mahan. Pleasance passed away in 1995.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Peacock
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews; Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness, the Sequel!

Those Who Wish Me Dead


Angelina Jolie is hotter than ever.

(2021) Action (New Line) Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Jon Bernthal, Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, Jake Weber, Medina Senghore, Tyler Perry, Boots Southerland, Tory Kittles, James Jordan, Lora Martinez-Cunningham, Howard Ferguson Jr., Ryan Jason Cook, Laura Niemi, Dylan Kenin, Faith Lynch, Alexander Wagerman, Mason Howell, Calvin Olson, Sofia Embid. Directed by Taylor Sheridan

 
I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of kids in peril movies. Too often Hollywood films that put children in the path of evil adults portray the kids unrealistically, either as much smarter than the adults that are after them, much braver than the adults around them, or much cooler than anyone in a similar situation would be. While kids do come in all shapes and sizes – and personality types, including heroic – Hollywood tends to idealize them in one way or another which can make an entire film ring false.

Forensic investigator Owen (Weber) discovers that the district attorney he works for has been killed in a freak gas explosion. He doesn’t believe it for a moment – after all, Owen discovered some disturbing information about some very powerful people. Realizing that the death was no accident, he gathers up his son Connor (Little) and makes a run for Montana, where his brother-in-law, Deputy Sheriff Ethan (Bernthal) might be able to help.

But there are a pair of vicious hired hitmen on their trail, Jack (Gillen) and Patrick (Hoult) and when they ambush and kill Owen, Connor gets away into the Montana woods. There he meets up with Hannah (Jolie), a smokejumper who is currently working in a fire tower after a mistake on her part led to the deaths of her crew, including several children they were in the process of rescuing. She has been covering up her pain with a surfeit of drinking and one-of-the-boys behaviors that have led to her being sent somewhere where she can get her head together. A fire tower is certainly a place where there isn’t much to distract you.

Unless it’s the sudden appearance of a young, terrified boy on the run from ruthless assassins who have set a raging out-of-control forest fire to literally smoke the boy out and keep the local law enforcement busy while they complete their nefarious task. Can Hannah’s survival skills help her protect Connor from the men who wish him dead?

In all honesty, I have to admit that while these types of pictures tend to not thrill me much, Little actually does a pretty fair job of playing the kid realistically; numb and terrified. However, he is overshadowed by the main stars – Jolie, in a return to the front of the camera (she has spent the last few years concentrating on her directorial efforts) reminds us that her star quality has never left. She continues to be absolute money in the bank when it comes to these sorts of physically demanding action roles. Few other actresses handle physically demanding roles as ably as she does.

And lest we forget Bernthal, the one-time Walking Dead baddie who has been on the cusp of being a big star for awhile. This role won’t push him over the edge in either direction, but he continues to be impressive. I’m hopeful that Marvel makes a new Punisher movie at some point with this guy; he deserves the kind of career push that kind of movie would give him.

The action sequences here tend to be pretty big and well-choreographed. That’s not the problem. The problem here is that the plot is just oh-so-predictable and while the characters are given some backstory, they feel kind of shoehorned into cookie cutter cliches of psychologically wounded leads 101. The roles never really feel authentic and the story never takes an unexpected turn. I’m not saying that moviemakers have to reinvent the wheel with every film – that’s simply not a realistic expectation – but this one is a bit too by-the-numbers for me to give it anything but a mild thumbs up.

The movie was one of those released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max; it is still out in some theaters but is no longer available on the streaming service at the present. It will be made available on most VOD services starting July 2nd and will be on HBO (and by extension, HBO Max) sometime later this year.

REASONS TO SEE: Jolie retains her star power and Bernthal continues to get better with every role.
REASONS TO AVOID: An utterly pedestrian plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sometimes brutal violence and profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicolas Cage was at one time considered for a role as one of the hitmen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now (effective July 2)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Professional
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer

Welcome Matt


Life is a beach.

(2021) Dramedy (Gravitas) Tahj Mowry, G.G. Townson, Jazsmin Lewis, Deon Cole, Adriyan Rae, Aaron Grady, Malik S, Phil Biedron, Andria B. Langston, Janelle Marie, Derrick A. King, Dorien Wilson, Johnny Marques, Bentley Kyle Evans, Ocean Glapion, Leon Pierce Jr., Kenry Hutchinson, Melvin Jackson Jr., David Beeks, Merlin White, Kristen Hurt, Rosetta Tate. Directed by Leon Pierce Jr.

 

During the pandemic, we have all had to face being cooped up inside. For some, that has translated into a fear of going back outside into the world, but as the vaccination process brings us closer to normalcy, it feels hard for many of us to walk out that door and resume our lives.

In Matt’s (Mowry) case, he has an extra built-in reason to stay inside; he’s agoraphobic. He is a young African-American filmmaker who found success with his first film, Life’s a Beach. However, a trauma that took place shortly after his film was released has put him in the throes of the phobia that has rendered him all but dysfunctional. Matt is busy trying to make a film in his apartment, but nobody is buying it. His girlfriend, Samantha (Rae), has grown tired of being home night after night – you can only Netflix and chill so much – and has begun fooling around with another man. Cedric (Grady), Matt’s production partner, has got an offer from the studio to do a sequel to their first film together, but Matt is in no shape to make

Angela (Lewis), his mom, is busy travelling around the world but she wants to see her son get healthy, so she arranges for a therapist to visit him at home. That therapist, Lisa (Townson), has issues of her own – she gets too emotionally involved easily – but she is willing to give it a a try, and while Matt is affable, he isn’t willing to talk about the things that really are bothering him, even though his life is falling to pieces – his girlfriend is gone, his landlord is threatening to foreclose and all anyone wants to see is a sequel to his last film. When he auditions actors for his in-apartment passion project, one of them (Biedron) threatens him with physical harm. No wonder he doesn’t want to go out into the big world.

There are the basics for a good movie here, starting with the lead. Mowry is an extremely likable actor who reminded me of a young Good Morning, Vietnam-era Forest Whitaker with Will Smith’s sly wink that lets the audience know that he’s in on the joke too. He’s very much the best thing about the movie, which is a good thing because he’s in every moment of it. Deon Cole is also impressive as a washed up standup comic who accidentally stumbles into Matt’s apartment and ends up writing his next movie and becoming a source of tough love.

There are a couple of drawbacks here. The humor doesn’t always connect; at times, the jokes feel kind of forced. That would be a lot more glaring if this were strictly a comedy, but the edge is blunted a bit because of the dramatic elements introduced by Matt’s mental illness. However, the agoraphobia isn’t treated realistically which left a bad taste in my mouth, particularly near the end of the movie when Matt finally gets around to discussing with Lisa the nature of the trauma that has kept him a virtual prisoner in his apartment – having panic attacks even when he has to take his trash out to the garbage can. That trauma is mentioned in an almost casual, offhand manner with almost no detail – and just like that, Matt is cured. It really doesn’t work that way – what Matt does is merely the first step in getting better, and the movie does a disservice in portraying Matt’s triumph over his own fear that way.

Still, if you can get past those things, the movie has a lot of charm, much of it due to Mowry, and was a bit of a pleasant surprise for me. It’s not getting a lot of coverage, so you might want to take a chance on this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Mowry is genuinely likable.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor is hit and miss.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual references and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director McCarthy makes a cameo appearance as a pizza delivery guy early in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fear, Love and Agoraphobia
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
City of Ali

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

Welcome to Marwen


A bunch of living dolls.

(2018) Drama (DreamWorks/Universal) Steve Carrell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Merritt Weaver, Janelle Monáe, Elza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Zemeckis, Falk Hentschel, Matt O’Leary, Nikolai Witschl, Patrick Roccas, Alexander Lowe, Stefanie von Pfetten, Neil Jackson, Samantha Hum, Siobhan Williams, Eric Keenlyside, Clay St. Thomas, Kate Gajdosik, Veena Sood. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

Welcome to Marwen is a dramatic version of the acclaimed 2010 documentary Marwencol (which if you haven’t seen, stop right now and see it) which is the story of artist Mark Hogancamp, who was viciously beaten outside of a bar in 2005 by a bunch of guys who objected to the fact that he likes to wear women’s shoes. The men got off lightly; all of them had been released by the time the documentary came out.

Here, Hogancamp (Carrell) has no memory of his life before the attack (as was the case for the real Hogancamp) and used a fictional Belgian village populated by action figures, mostly modeled after women that Hogancamp knows – from his physical therapist (Monáe) to the clerk at the hobby shop where he buys his supplies (Weaver) – and Hogancamp himself (an idealized heroic version of himself he calls Captain Hogie) set during World War II. Mark’s lawyer is trying to get the reclusive artist to appear at the sentencing hearing of his attackers but Mark is very reluctant; anything that reminds him of that night sends him into severe panic attacks.

Helping matters is the appearance of a new neighbor, Nicol (Mann) who is compassionate and kind, and whom Mark develops an instant crush on. She could be his way out to normalcy or a reminder of past traumas that will send him spiraling hopelessly back into near-catatonia.

Critics tended to hate the film (see below) which I can understand; it’s not an easy story to get across and quite frankly, Zemeckis was not an awe-inspiring choice to make it. His sentimentality tends to rub critics the wrong way, but I found it affecting here, and there are some scenes when Carrell, who is absolutely wonderful at times, just breaks your heart. The romance between Marc and Nicol is absolutely realistic as well.

The movie ends on a bit of a predictable note and might turn people off – the dolls can look a little bit creepy. Some find men playing with primarily female dolls to be un-woke, but in the context of a man badly traumatized trying to deal the best way he can, I think it’s forgivable. Not the greatest movie Zemeckis has done, but it is entertaining and heartwarming enough to be enjoyable.

REASONS TO SEE: Carrell does a good job. Nice special effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is predictable. A bit creepy in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, some of it bloody. There are also disturbing images, some brief sexual references and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real life doll village Marwen is based on is called Marwencol, which is a combination of Mark, Wendy and Colleen. The Nicol character is based on Colleen, but her name was dropped from the town’s name.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic:  40/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marwencol
FINAL RATING: 6,5/10
NEXT:
The Wretched

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)

Synonyms (Synonymes)


Dance like nobody’s watching.

(2019) Dramedy (Kino-LorberTom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevilllotte, Urla Hayik, Olivier Loustau, Yehuda Almagor, Gaya Von Schwarze, Gal Amitai, Idan Ashkenazi, Dolev Ohana, Liron Baranes, Erwan Ribard, Yawen Ribard, Iman Amara-Korba, Sébastien Robinet, Damien Carlet, Ron Bitterman, Christophe Paou, Valentine Carette, Catherine Denecy, Léa Drucker. Directed by Nadav Lapid

 

People relocate for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, employment dictates location. In other instances, it is to move closer to family or loved ones. Sometimes, though, it’s to get away from something.

Yoav (Mercier) falls into the latter category. Traumatized by a stint in the Israeli Defense Force, he leaves Israel forever and emigrates to Paris, so bitter at the country of his birth that he refuses to speak Hebrew, even to fellow expats. The thing is, his French is a bit incomplete so in order to help him learn the language he buys himself a French-Hebrew dictionary that he obsessively reads synonyms from in order to increase the depth of his ability to communicate.

When he arrives in Paris, he finds himself in an apartment that is utterly devoid of furniture; it is a beautiful and cavernous apartment but lacks amenities. He gets into the bathtub fully naked intending to enjoy some private time rubbing one out but his efforts are disturbed by noises coming from the other room. Completely naked, he bolts out to find that all his possessions – including all of his clothes – are gone. Naked, he screams for help but nobody is apparently home. He gets into the bathtub and falls asleep, chilled to the bone.

His neighbors Emile (Dolmaire) and Caroline (Chevillotte) find him and take them to their apartment and warm him up. Emile, though much smaller than Yoav, gives him clothes that miraculously fit. They end up serving as tour guides and mentors and both of them are sexually attracted to him. In the meantime, Yoav finds work as a security guard at the Israeli embassy and goes through a series of incidents ranging from the surreal to the odd.

Lapid has a good grasp of the absurd and he utilizes it nicely, such as Yoav’s boss (Loustau) telling him about a regular event in which Jews are matched up in underground fights with neo-Nazis, or the war tales that Yoav spins for the ever-fascinated Emile. Lapid borrows heavily from New Wave cinema, particularly from Godard and some of what he borrows are things he should have left alone. The kinetic camera movement is nice but the ultra-close-ups and whip pans get annoying after a while. It is a definite case of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome.

Mercier is a revelation. A fairly new actor, he is an enormous presence and the longer the film goes on, the more engaged the audience becomes with his story. Certainly, there’s an element of the surreal to his story, but it doesn’t warp reality overly much and Mercier in a fish out of water role that could easily devolve into clichés and tropes gives the character a freshness that is engaging. I also liked Chevillotte a good deal and her chemistry with Mercier is palpable but I wish the character had been fleshed out a bit more.

The movie ends on a high note – the final shot is a doozy – so hang in there with the movie which despite it’s excesses actually makes some poignant points about cultural identity and finding yourself in a strange land. This is a solid winner that cinema buffs should keep an eye out for.

REASONS TO SEE: Very literate and intelligently written. Mercier has a ton of presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Look ma, I’m directing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic nudity, some mild violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is loosely based on Lapid’s own experiences emigrating to Paris.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: 84/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cairo Time
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The First Purge

Song of Parkland


A chorus line of inspiration.

(2019) Documentary (HBO) Melody Herzfeld, Ally Richard, Alex Wind, Ashley Paseltine, Alex Athanasiou, Jared Block, Sawyer Garrity, Emma Gonzalez, Dylan Redshaw, David Hogg, Heather Hart, Emma Summers, Cameron Casky, Molly Reichard, Kelly Mathesie, Ariel Braunstein. Directed by Amy Schatz

 

I’ll be honest with you; I don’t normally review short films. In fact, this is the first one I’ve ever published on this site. Then again, the tragedy at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2008 – less than a week from the one-year anniversary of the event as I write this – resonates with me in a way that few events can. For one thing, it happened in Florida where I live. For another, this was in many ways the straw that broke the camel’s back as teens who were tired of this same old story being repeated over and over and over again with “thoughts and prayers” being the only political response that came of any of these massacres.

On that terrible day drama teacher Melody Herzfeld sheltered her 65 drama students in a store room for two hours until police came to escort them out. Only then did the students – and their teacher – discover that 17 of their peers had died in the tragedy and another 17 were injured. And the survivors needed to find a way to cope with that. How can a 14-17 year old find the strength to deal when most adults can’t?

For Herzfeld, the answer was to finish what the kids had started. They had been working on the children’s musical Yo, Vikings and were in rehearsal the day of the shootings. The drama department puts on an annual kid’s play and it is one of the highlights of their season. The show must go on and so it does and we get to watch it unfold but it isn’t without cost. The kids are hurting deep inside and it comes out, sometimes in unexpected ways. Two of the young people write songs about their feelings, helping them to process what they are going through (we get to hear both songs during the course of the film). And yes, the students go under a media microscope as several of them (including some in the drama class) choose to become advocates of gun control and become the faces of change for a generation. Admired by some, demonized by others, these young people say what you will about them at least made an effort to make change for the better although of course that will depend on your definition of “better.”

Schatz relies heavily on talking head interviews with the kids, interspersed with news reports and occasional cell phone footage. This isn’t about the shootings themselves – we don’t see that aspect of it – but about how the kids adjusted to unthinkable trauma. When the students are interacting with each other, goofing around, being themselves – those are the best moments in the film. Even the real heart-tugging moments – the Tony Awards performance of “Seasons of Love” from Rent, for example – is less compelling.

I would have actually liked to have seen a full-length feature made here and spend more time with say, the parents of the drama students, other teachers besides Herzfeld, that sort of thing. We definitely get a very limited perspective and while it is most valid to concentrate on the students themselves, ranging a bit further opinion for perspective would have brought a little more clarity.

I got the sense that this was an act of catharsis, not only for the filmmakers but for the students themselves. I’m sure that in the days that followed the tragedy they became used to describing their feelings and the events as they saw them must have gotten to be old hat but there feels like there was a lot of genuine emotional healing going on here. It’s gratifying to see but also heartbreaking that it was necessary. This is by no means the perfect documentary but it is, in it’s brief 28-minute run time unforgettable.

REASONS TO GO: The students express themselves well through song. The film is powerful, timely and heartbreaking. One gets the sense that it was cathartic for all involved just making this documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is overly reliant on talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: While none of the violence is depicted, the themes of grieving and feeling of insecurity at school may be difficult for impressionable children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Schatz won an Emmy for her work on the documentary Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parkland: Inside Building 12
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel

Trauma (2017)


Evil can be transcendent.

(2017) Horror (Artsploitation) Catalina Martin, Macarena Carrere, Ximena del Solar, Dominga Bofill, Daniel Antivilo, Eduardo Paxeco, Felipe Rios, Claudio Riveros, Florencia Heredia, Alejandro Trejo, Claudia Aravena, Mauricio Rojas, Max Torres, Felipe Eluti, Catalina Bianchi, Nicolas Rojas, Jose Calderon, Cristian Ramos, Nicolas Platovsky, Faby Zamora. Directed by Lucio A. Rojas

I’m not one to post warnings before I start my review, but this movie demands one. It is absolutely not for everybody. There are graphic depictions of rape, torture and worse. Those who are sensitive to such things should definitely NOT view this movie under any circumstances whatsoever. In fact, you probably shouldn’t read the rest of the review either. Those who think they can manage, read on…

During the height of the reign of Chilean despot Augustin Pinochet, a woman watches her husband be executed in front of her – this after she has been brutally raped by her interrogators. Then, her son (Torres) is brought in. She screams and cries and begs her son to be calm. The lead interrogator injects the boy with some kind of rudimentary Viagra and then the boy is forced to rape his own mother. He continues to rut with her even after she’s been shot dead by the interrogator, who then raises the boy as her own.

In present day Chile, four friends in metropolitan Santiago  – Andrea (Martin), her sister Camila (Carrere), their cousin Magdalena (Bofill) and Magdalena’s girlfriend Julia (del Solar) head out into the country for a girl’s weekend. They end up getting lost and find a bar in the small village which turns out to be a very unfriendly place, but a local named Juan (Antivilo) defuses the situation and gives the girls directions to the hacienda they are renting.

Later on that night, Juan appears at their rental with his son Pedro (Rios) and the two locals beat and rape the girls savagely. In the morning, the two leave but only after one last act of violence. The police soon arrive and the girls are able to describe their attackers. When the cops go to arrest Juan and his son, they are ambushed and only one cop survives. Knowing that there is no getting out except through the sadistic Juan, the women decide to join forces with the cops and beat Juan and Pedro at their own game.

Yes, Juan is the grown-up young boy from the opening scene and much of what Trauma is about is the cycle of violence perpetuated by abuse. This can be applied not only to the brutal abuse of a tyrannical regime but also domestic abuse, although the filmmakers don’t come out and say so. However, the trail markers are very much evident.

Antivilo is magnificent here. His smug smile and sadistic ways make him one of the most memorable movie villains I’ve seen this year Even though he doesn’t snap his finger and make half the population of the universe disappear (although one suspects he would if he could), he clearly enjoys his work so much that he can’t hide his glee at his awfulness. If this were an American film, he’d be getting comparisons to Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear.

The violence here is graphic and unapologetic. Reportedly based on an actual incident, the movie pulls no punches including during the rapes. The actresses reportedly told Rojas that they wanted the actors to be as brutal as possible and the sense of savagery that courses through the scene seems genuine enough. While there are a few digital effects, for the main the effects here are practical.

The movie is a bit long; the build-up to the attack is slow-moving and there are scenes, such as when the four women are dancing in what they think is the privacy of their rented hacienda, that should have been trimmed severely. Also towards the end the movie essentially becomes a standard revenge film; no points for that.

But again, this is a movie that is likely to trigger women who have survived sexual assault and those who are sensitive to such depictions. The rape scenes are hard to watch even if you aren’t triggered. Although the women are beautiful and the nudity is graphic, there is nothing sexy about what happens to these women. The rape scenes can be juxtaposed with scenes of consensual sex which are shot in softer focus and are beautiful to watch; the rape scenes by comparison are in sharper focus and the soundtrack is absent of music during the scene. It’s very stark and effective in that regard.

The question to ask is whether the extreme violence here justifies the message of the movie. There will be some who will call it gratuitous and exploitative and I can’t deny there is a point there. I don’t know if I have an answer to that question; I suppose it will depend on the individual. For myself, I would not think of censoring this nor denying the film’s right to exist. I also think the point could have been made without resorting to the level of depravity the film stoops to. At a certain point, one gets numb to the horrors shown on-screen – but maybe that’s what Rojas intended all along. Maybe that’s ultimately his point.

REASONS TO GO: There is certainly a political point being made here and a valid one at that. Daniel Antivilo is one of the best movie villains this year.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence is brutal and trigger opportunities abound. Some scenes could have used some trimming.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of graphic violence, much of it of a sexual nature. There are also portrayals of rape, torture, and various sex acts with plenty of nudity and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Artsploitation reportedly didn’t submit the film to be distributed by iTunes because they were concerned that all their films might end up being banned from the site.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Spit on Your Grave
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Day Five