Meander (Meandre)


Not for the claustrophobic.

(2021) Sci-Fi Horror (Gravitas) Gaia Weiss, Peter Franzen, Romane Libert, Frédéric Franchitti, Corneliu Draomirescu, Eva Niewdanski, Cari Laforét, Henri Benard, Fabien Houssaye, Olympe Turi. Directed by Matthieu Turi

 

Great loss can leave us in such pain that life itself becomes wearisome. Our reason for living seems as tenuous and inconsequential as the mist; we stare off into the deep blue something and wait to die.

Lisa (Weiss), a French ex-pat working as a waitress somewhere in the West, knows that pain all too well. Her daughter (Libert) passed away and today would have been her ninth birthday. Lisa is alone lying on a lonely road, hoping for someone to come along and put her out of her misery. And someone does; Adam (Franzen), a night watchman who works nights because “I hate people,” He doesn’t run Lisa over but he offers her a ride in his truck which, after some hesitation, she accepts. They chat and he does get Lisa to open up somewhat. “I don’t want to die,” she informs Adam, “I just want to see my daughter again.”

Just about then a news report comes on the truck radio warning about a serial killer who can be recognized by a cross tattoo on the killer’s wrist. And damn if Adam doesn’t have such a tattoo on his wrist…for Lisa, it’s fade to black.

When she wakes up, she’s in a bizarre high tech tunnel. She’s wearing a neoprene jumpsuit and a wrist bracelet with a bright glowing light and a timer counting down from eleven minutes. She soon figures out that she has to navigate each section of the tunnels – which turn out to be a maze – in those eleven minutes or face a particularly nasty death, whether being fricasseed by flamethrowers, drowned in a murky pool, dissolved in an acid bath, or mauled by an alien creature that stalks the maze. There’s also a skull-like creature with a mechanical eye that seems sympathetic, repairing her injuries. There are also a few grisly corpses to remind her about the penalty of failure.

At first, the movie seems to be unrelenting, pointless torture of an attractive female character and I have to admit, I was thinking “Here we go again.” But strangely, and happily, Turi soon begins feeding us clues as to what’s really going on, and it isn’t what you think.

The production design here is impressive and the film suitably claustrophobic. Lisa is forced to crawl through most of the maze, often barely able to fit through the tight spaces. Turi gives us a sense of that closed in space without being defined by it; you feel Lisa’s pain and fear and frustration largely because Weiss gives us a strong performance as the heroine. She is deeply wounded, missing her little girl and wanting nothing more than to be reunited with her again. And that possibility does come up, in maybe one of the more emotional moments you’ll ever see in a horror film.

The movie doesn’t always sustain the level of tension that it needs to, and there is a bit of sameness to some of the traps, but overall this is an impressive and imaginative film that genre fans might find intriguing.

REASONS TO SEE: Nifty production design. A claustrophobic thriller.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times seems to be pointlessly cruel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, gore, some disturbing images and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The walls all display the dots and dashes of Morse code and each wall says something in French; for example, the first room code spells Vite, which means “quickly.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cube
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Enemies of the State (2021)

Till Death


Some men see women as little more than ornaments.

(2021) Thriller (Screen Media) Megan Fox, Eoin Macken, Callan Mulvey, Jack Roth, Ami Ameen, Stefanie Rozhko, Julian Belahurov, Lili Rich, Teodora Djuric. Directed by S.K. Dale

 

We all know the traditional wedding vows; to love and cherish, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, till death do us part. With a 50% divorce rate (or thereabouts), the final part isn’t so much of a factor anymore but for some it still holds true.

You would think Emma (Fox) has The Life. Married to a handsome, wealthy and connected lawyer named Mark (Macken), she was a photographer who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and became collateral damage in a botched robbery attempt. Mark was the lawyer who represented her, and eventually the two married. Bad idea.

It turns out Mark was far from the white knight Emma thought he was. He is a control freak of the highest order, and sees his wife as a reflection of his own manhood and power. He wants her to look a certain way, act a certain way. It’s no wonder that she has taken part in an extramarital affair with Tom (Ameen), a colleague of her husband’s. However, she decides to call things off with Tom, using the fact that its her wedding anniversary as a reason.

Mark appears to be completely ignorant of the affair, showering Emma with gifts and a surprise; blindfolding her and driving her out to their lake house, even though it is the middle of winter. After a night of romance and wine, she wakes up to a cold house and handcuffed to her husband. Then comes a shocking event – and everything in her world has suddenly become a life-or-death survival situation. And to make matters worse, Mark has invited a few other guests to the party.

The plot doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but then again, it is at least kept pretty simple. The real surprise is Fox. She has always been known more for her beauty than her acting ability, but slap my britches and call me Sally, she actually does a commendable job here. While her performance here is occasionally erratic (as in line delivery mainly), for the most part she does a great job as a woman who has been intimidated and emotionally abused into numbness, who is then placed into a situation where she must fight or die.

It was less believable that Emma, wearing a flimsy nightie and no shoes, seemed to not be that affected by the cold, even when out in the snow and on the frozen lake. You would think that she might shiver, a little. But that might just be chalked up to Hollywood shorthand; Emma is strong enough to stand up to Mark and the two hit men (Mulvey, Roth) he’s sent out to finish her off, a little chill isn’t going to bother her much.

In fact it’s when the two hit men (who have a connection to the story that’s a little far-fetched) arrive in the movie that things really begin to take off and the movie really hits its stride. Dale shows a deft hand with some of these sequels and might well have a future in bigger budget action/thriller films down the line. As far as now goes, however, he’s brewed up a nifty little film that you might keep an eye out for – even if you’re not particularly fond of Megan Fox, as I was not. This might just change your mind about her.

REASONS TO SEE: Fox shows some range.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stretches believability to the breaking point.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, gruesome violence and some grisly images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Dale’s feature film debut; previously he has only directed short films.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gerald’s Game
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Meander

Settlers


Is this what a Martian will look like?

(2021) Science Fiction (IFC Midnight) Sofia Boutella, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Brooklynn Prince, Nell Tiger Free, Jonny Lee Miller, Matthew Van Leeve, Natalie Walsh. Directed by Wyatt Rockefeller

 

The pioneers of the American west learned brutal self-sufficiency out of necessity. There was nobody close by to help if they got into trouble; they had to learn to do for themselves. So it was then; so it will be when the time comes to colonize Mars.

Reza (Miller) and Ilsa (Boutella) are eking out a life on a desolate Martian plane. Earth, as Reza explains to their young daughter Remmy (Prince), is not what it used to be. In the meantime, they go on feeding their pigs, raising what vegetables they can in a small hydroponic garden. They entertain themselves with word games and singalongs. It isn’t much of a life, but it’s a life.

Then one morning they awake to the pigs squealing in terror. On one of their windows the word “LEAVE” is written in bold red paint. Remmy’s reports that there were strangers nearby, which her mom and dad had discounted, suddenly seems much more likely. Then comes Jerry (Cordova), a soldier who claims that the land was his and that Reza and Ilsa are squatters living in the home that is rightfully his. The couple are ready to defend their home with knives and guns; it doesn’t end well for them as Jerry kills Reza in a shoot-out.

Reza moves in, allowing Ilsa and Remmy to stay and at first it seems that he is trying to make a better life for them, much to Remmy’s anger. Ilsa seems more inclined to accept the presence of Jerry than her daughter, although at first, she is just as wary. But as Remmy grows into becoming a young woman (Free), Jerry begins to look at her much differently.

This is a different kind of sci-fi movies. There is an elegiac feel here, a feeling that humanity is on its last legs, but there is also a sense of realism; these are the obstacles that colonists on the Red Planet would face; this is what a Martian farm would look like. The production design, Noam Piper, does a bang-up job here.

Rockefeller does a credible job here, but the story is a bit long-winded and the movie a touch too long. One gets the sense that Rockefeller is trying to make a point about colonialism, but I’m not sure if he’s successful on that front. Mostly, this is a movie about relationships, about loneliness, about doing what one has to in order to survive. Jerry seems to genuinely trying his best to be fair and kind, but he’s no saint and towards the end of the movie a darker side is revealed.

The problem here is that the pacing is very turgid, to the point where it seems like nothing of note goes on for ten, fifteen minutes at a time. Living on a Martian colony is, no doubt, hard. Watching a movie about it shouldn’t be. However, Rockefeller gets points for trying to do something a little bit different, and while we watch billionaires like Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos heading off into space to promote their own commercial ventures there, it reminds us that when actual colonization comes, it won’t be the wealthy feeding their own egos that will accomplish the feat; it will be ordinary men and women who will give everything, to struggle and die far away from out ancestral home, who will make our first footholds on other planets actually stick.

REASONS TO SEE: Impressive production values.
REASONS TO AVOID: Well-intentioned, but ultimately dull.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in South Africa’s Namaqualand desert, subbing for Mars.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews; Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Martian
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Joe Bell

Luca


Where’s Aquaman?

(2021) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Saiverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Marco Barricelli, Jim Gaffigan, Peter Sohn, Lorenzo Crisci, Marina Massironi, Gino La Monica, Sandy Martin, Giacomo Gianniotti, Elisa Gabrielli, Mimi Maynard, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jonathan Nichols, Francesca Fanti. Directed by Enrico Casarosa

 
Different scares us. Different makes us suspicious. Human beings don’t handle “different” very well. We never have.

They don’t get much more different than Luca (Tremblay). You see, Luca is actually a sea monster, living in the Mediterranean just off the coast of Italy. But he’s not exactly thrilled about it; he finds life under the sea repetitive and boring (I’m sure most human kids his age would snort “join the club”). He longs for a different kind of existence and when he asks where boats come from, his overprotective Mom (Rudolph) and Dad (Gaffigan) try to deflect his interest in another direction.

But like most boys, Luca has a curiosity that just won’t take no for an answer. When he meets fellow sea monster Alberto (Grazer), a much more free-spirited sort than Luca, he learns that once their kind leaves the water they magically transform into human beings. It’s only when they become wet that their true nature is revealed.

At Alberto’s urging, the two boys decide to investigate the coastal fishing village of Portorosso (Miyazaki fans will appreciate the reference) where they meet Giulia (Berman), a young girl who is also high-spirited, and dreams of winning an annual competition in which a *gasp* Vespa is the top prize, but local bully Ercole (Raimondo) who has a shiny Vespa of his own stands in her way. She dreams of winning the Vespa and the boys know that the iconic Italian scooter is their ticket to exploring this great big new world they’ve discovered. However, they have to be very careful not to reveal their secret to the townspeople who are superstitious and frightened of the “monsters” and would be very happy to put a harpoon into the both of them if they ever found out the truth.

This is another movie that was meant to be released theatrically but the privations of the pandemic exiled it to a streaming service instead, and in some ways that’s a shame because the animation here is absolutely gorgeous and would look OUTSTANDING on a big theater screen.

The problem is that the story really feels like it’s been done before – and to be honest, it has. Honestly, I could hear Ariel bursting into “Part of Their World” at various times during the movie. That’s not the only thing that brings a sense of Déjà vu though; the characters look a bit like the stop-motion characters in Aardman films (except for Massimo who’s a dead ringer for the Dad in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs), and the detailed background art? Pure Miyazaki.

I can see the anti-Italian defamation league (assuming there is one) getting hot under the collar here; almost all of the male Italian characters have some sort of bushy moustache (not unlike a cartoon pizzeria owner) including the cat Machiavelli. The villagers or Porto Rossi subsist on a diet of pasta, gelato and perhaps fish. All they were missing was a Mafia turf war.

That’s not to say there isn’t some worthwhile stuff here; the movie has a few genuine moments here and there and if the humor is a bit infantile, I get the sense the movie was also meant for a younger audience than other Pixar classics. Still in all, this was a Pixar effort that didn’t quite hit all the notes that they usually do. It’s not quite as bad as anthropomorphic automobiles, but it’s not one of their prouder moments either

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful animation, as we have come to expect from Pixar.
REASONS TO AVOID: A pedestrian story and characters who are overly familiar.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor, mild profanity, some cartoon violence and mature themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Portorosso is based on Cinque Terre, where director Enrico Casarosa spent his summers as a boy.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Little Mermaid
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Settlers

Fin


Which is the predator and which is the prey?

(2021) Nature Documentary (Discovery Plus) Eli Roth, Boris Worm, Regina Domingo, Neil Hammerschlag, Gary Stokes, Alison Kock, Chue Lam, Ocean Ramsey, Peter Hammerstadt, Guy Medan, Lashanti Jupp, Michael Muller, Alex Hofford. Directed by Eli Roth

Like millions of others, Eli Roth saw Jaws in his formative years and was scared spitless. He developed a pathological fear of sharks that haunted him whenever he went to the beach. His fears would go on to lead him to become a director of horror films that include Hostel and The Green Inferno.

But he never got over his fear of sharks – that is, until he began to realize that far from the killing machines they were portrayed as in the movies, sharks actually attack humans extremely rarely and generally when they do, they break off the attack immediately when they realize that the human isn’t food. In fact, humans are far more dangerous to sharks than vice versa, to the tune of nearly a billion sharks estimated to have been illegally fished in the last decade alone.

It is one of the largest massacres of a single species in history. There are several reasons for it. Sharks often get caught in gill nets that are meant for other species of fish (they are illegal in most countries); shark liver oil is also used extensively in skin care products, including lotions, sunscreen, lip balm, lip gloss and lipstick – despite the availability of plant-based alternatives. However, one of the largest reasons is the popularity of shark fin soup, a delicacy in parts of Asia. Sharks are often butchered just for their fins, which command a high price. Hong Kong, by itself, processes 17,000 tons of shark fins every year. Often the fins are left to dry on street curbs, sitting in discarded cigarette butts, dog poop and swarms of flies. It’s enough to put you off eating for a week.

You would think that removing sharks from the ecological equation would be a boon for the food chain (or those below sharks anyway) but it is actually not. Areas in which sharks have been all but eradicated shortly become barren of all life. That’s because sharks help maintain ecological balance, acting as marine cops – keeping certain species away from where they don’t belong.

Roth, channeling his newfound respect – and even love – for sharks, decided to make a documentary and with the aid of actor/activists Leonardo di Caprio and Nina Dobrev (acting as executive producers), he traveled the world to see the slaughter in action, partnering with organizations like OceansAsia and Sea Shepherd to find solutions for the problem. He boards a notorious illegal fishing vessel with Sea Shepherd, showing without flinching the horrifying reality of the shark slaughter. The images are pretty graphic and should be viewed with discretion.

Roth has the passion of the convert, and that enthusiasm comes through in every word he utters. At times, the director who has portrayed scenes of people being disemboweled and eaten alive exclaims “That is the worst thing I’ve ever seen” when a shark is clubbed to death in front of him. But already his film is paying dividends; one of the largest shark fishing competitions in the United States was canceled this year, likely due to pressure put on from the film, and Congress is considering legislation that would make the sale of shark fins illegal in the United States.

There are woke reviewers who are criticizing the messenger and throwing out the message because of Roth’s history as a horror director. One sniffed, “He widely condemns women who wear cosmetics which can be made with shark liver oil. These words – coming from a director who helped coin “torture porn” and whose fiction work consistently and degradingly compares makeup-caked bombshells to animals – feel disingenuous at best.” For the record, Roth condemns makeup manufacturers, not the women who wear their products. He urges them to buy shark-free products. And incidentally, his movies tend to be just as degrading to men as well.

If there are some actual knocks for the film it could be that much of the information shared here can be seen in other documentaries, notably the two Sharkwater docs from the late conservationist Rob Stewart, but the footage of the industrial fishing vessels is unforgettable, and Roth’s earnest passion make this a worthy successor to Blackfish.

REASONS TO SEE: Roth is an engaging host. Sobering and sad.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be troubling for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over 100 million sharks are killed in the wild every year (estimated).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sharkwater Extinction
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Luca

Girl Next


Some fates are worse than death.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Woman in the Window


Amy Adams peers out into a frightening world.

(2021) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Amy Adams, Fred Hechinger, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry, Jeanine Serralles, Anthony Mackie, Mariah Bozeman, Daymien Valentino, Anna Cameron (voice), Myers Bartlett (voice), Haven Burton (voice), Ben Davis (voice), Blake Morris (voice), Liza Colón-Zayas, Tracy Letts, Gigi Jones. Directed by Joe Wright

 

Some movies are so completely original you go through every scene realizing you are watching something fresh and new. Others are so derivative that you carry with you a sense of déjà vu throughout the film, whether you want to or not.

In this adaptation of a bestselling thriller by A.J. Finn (the nom de plume of Dan Mallory, who has had a checkered past as detailed in this article in The New Yorker), Dr. Anna Fox (Adams) is suffering from severe agoraphobia. She spends most of her day in a tony New York brownstone washing down her meds with generous portions of wine. She peers out of her window at the brownstone across the street and through her observations becomes acquainted with the Russell family. Son Ethan (Hechinger) comes over to introduce himself and is awkwardly sweet; his mother Jane (Moore) comes over and commiserates over even more wine with Anna. The only member of the family she doesn’t like is the bullying father (Oldman) who would just as soon she had no interaction with his family.

When she witnesses Jane apparently getting murdered, she is horrified and calls the police, only to discover that Jane isn’t dead – but Jane isn’t Jane either. Instead, another woman (Leigh) shows up and is introduced as Jane. The kindly but disbelieving police detective (Henry) is understanding, given that Dr. Fox has psychological problems; is she really going mad, or is there something terrible afoot?

This movie has been cobbled together from elements of other far better movies, including Rear Window (a clip from which they brazenly show early on in the film), Gaslight and Gone Girl to certain extents. The plot twists, when they come, aren’t particularly jaw-dropping. Most of them are fairly easy to spot.

And that’s a shame because there is an awful lot of talent here both in front of and behind the camera. While Adams acquits herself reasonably well (as does Henry), actors the caliber of Moore, Leigh, Oldman and Anthony Mackie (in a role as Anna’s ex-husband) are largely wasted. Given the convoluted plot, the preposterous eye-rolling plot twists and a director in Joe Wright who should know better, having directed some pretty stellar, Oscar-worthy pictures in the past, there really isn’t much to recommend this film other than morbid curiosity, given the movie’s production issues which led to reshoots that delayed the film for two years before it was pawned off on Netflix finally.

REASONS TO SEE: Adams tackles a different kind of role for her and ends up doing a respectable job.
REASONS TO AVOID: An uninteresting derivation of Hitchcock.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film by screenwriter Tracy Letts that is an adaptation of another work (in this case, a novel by A.J. Finn); Letts also appears in the film as Dr. Landy. Incidentally, this is also the final movie to be made by the Fox 2000 imprint; Disney shuttered the production studio following their merger with 20th Century Fox.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Girl Next

An Unknown Compelling Force


This camera holds the last images of a doomed expedition.

(2021) Documentary (1091) Liam Le Guillou, Svetlana Oss, Yuri Kuntsevich, Ken Holmes, Mick Fennerty, Oleg Demyanenko, Natalia Sakharova, Vladimir Askinadzi, Vladislav Karelin, Alexey Slepuhin, Aleksie Kutsevalov, Evgeniy Zinovyev, Tarzin Arkadevich, Andrey Picuzo, Valery Anyamov, Kharbina Aleksandrovna, Boris Bychkov, Alexander Fedotov, Anna Andreeva. Directed by Liam Le Guillou

 

On the night of February 1, 1959, a group of experienced hikers from Ural Polytechnic Institute had camped out in a pass near what locals call “Death Mountain” in the Ural mountain range. Sometime before the following the morning, the nine hikers fled their tent wearing only their sleeping clothes and no boots and ran into the subzero temperatures of the pass. After they didn’t report back when they were supposed to, a search party was organized. Their bodies were found in the snow, dead from exposure but with mysterious and grotesque injuries on their body. Their tent was found shredded, most likely by the panicked hikers who cut their way out of the tent and fled, according to the official report, “an unknown compelling force.”

Even back then, few bought it. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the investigative report was made public which led to further questions. A camera had been found near one of the bodies; the film had been developed and while most were pictures of smiling campers interacting with local villagers or trekking through the snow, one showed a mysterious figure standing on two legs. The very last picture on the roll, taken on the night the campers died, showed what appeared to be mysterious lights in the sky.

All sorts of theories have sprung up surrounding the incident, from a government cover-up after the hikers witnessed a weapon test they weren’t supposed to see, an attack by a Russian yeti (based on the photo of the bipedal figure), and even an attack by aliens (inspired by the last photo). As a result of the rampant speculation, the Russian government reopened the investigation, but closed it once again, citing an avalanche which led to the panic of the hikers.

To former photojournalist and current documentary filmmaker Liam Le Guillou, this seemed implausible. The British citizen found the story of the Dyatlov Pass incident (the pass now named after the leader of the ill-fated expedition) incredibly compelling and he came to be, he admits, obsessed by it. He contacted the head of a group dedicated to further investigation into the incident and was told to come to Russia if he wanted to find out the real story, so he did.

Along with an intrepid cameraman, Le Guillou proposed to investigate the incident himself using Russian sources, interviewing surviving members of the rescue team, criminologists and journalists along with American forensic and crime experts, reviewing the post-mortem photos (which are shown here, somewhat censored but still gruesome) and forensic evidence which still survives. He also decided to retrace the same journey taken by the Dyatlov party, using guide Kunitsevich, to see for himself where the tragedy took place.

The footage in the Urals is nothing short of majestic, albeit desolate. Snow-covered peaks and wintry vistas of bare trees and frozen rivers show the forbidding, unforgiving nature of the area, and gives viewers at least an inkling of what drew the young college students (although one of their number was actually much older than the rest of the group) to such a lonely spot.

Le Guillou also uses the diaries of the students to give them personalities as well as photos. It is eerie; they are so young and carefree, completely without any foreknowledge that they would never return from this trip and that their young lives would be cut short in a brutal manner.

And brutal it was indeed. One of the students had his skull nearly caved in; two others had serious chest wound, one of which was so severe that it bent part of the ribcage to puncture the victim’s heart; one hiker was missing her tongue and her eyes. Nearly all of them had some sort of defensive wounds All of the forensic investigators agreed that these were not wounds consistent with the avalanche story, but made by a brutal attack by humans.

Le Guillou also delves into the culture of the local tribes, who came under fire from some quarters as being complicit in the crime, or maybe even responsible for it. The argument goes that the hikers inadvertently stumbled into a sacred place or took a sacred object and were set upon by the tribespeople in retaliation. Le Guillou takes nearly all of the theories that have been advanced and dissected them; advancing some, disproving most.

The big problem here is Le Guillou himself. Not that he isn’t a thorough investigative reporter – he is – but he inserts himself a bit too much into the film, commenting over and over again how perilous the trek he is taking is, or how mindful he is that if something should happen there would be no help forthcoming. A good documentary concentrates on the subject because it is their story that is being told, not the filmmaker’s. Their story is far more compelling than that of Le Guillou.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is compelling and largely unknown in the West. The feeling throughout is eerie.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly dramatic narration that inserts Le Guillou into the story far too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some postmortem images of the bodies of the hikers.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally, ten hikers set out but Yuri Yudin was forced to turn back several days before his friends died by a bad back. He spent the rest of his days mourning their loss and after his own death in 2013, was added to the hiker’s memorial in the Urals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Staircase
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Woman in the Window

Chasing Comets


Friday night lights Aussie-style.

(2018) Sports Comedy (Gravitas) Dan Ewing, Isabel Lucas, George Houvardas, Kat Hoyos, Peter Phelps, Bjorn Stewart, Deborah Galanos, Laurence Brewer, John Batchelor, Stan Walker, Gary Eck, Justin Melvey, Rhys Muldoon, Alistair Bates, Tony Chu, Lance Bonza, Kate McNamara, Sarah Furnari, Kirsty Lee Allan, David Thacker, Katrina Rieteska, Daniel Needs, Courtney Powell. Directed by Jason Perini

 

Some movies are made by slick professionals and every frame reflects it. Others are made by less experienced crews and show THAT. Once in awhile, the latter category of movies have just enough heart in them to overcome acting, directing, technical or script deficiencies.

Chase Daylight (Ewing) has the kind of name that probably requires him to be a sports star. In the small Australian town of Wagga Wagga (“so nice they named it twice”), that means rugby. A parade of stars has come from there. The town is indeed a nice one; most of the divisiveness in the town comes from which league you support. Chase was largely brought up by his mum (Galanos) after his womanizing dad walked out on them. She supported his dream to become a “footie” star, buying him jerseys when she really couldn’t afford it. Childhood friend Harry (Phelps) has been his manager, trying to get him that elusive big league contract.

But Chase has inherited his father’s penchant for drink and skirt-chasing, encouraged by his mate Rhys (Walker) who plays for the rival Tigers, a much more successful side than Chase’s Comets who have finished at the bottom of the league the past two seasons running. Still, Chase is considered a blue chip prospect, although perhaps not by his girlfriend Brooke (Lucas) who has endured his drinking and philandering and is at her breaking point.

With another dismal season in the offing and Brooke having given up on him, Chase hits bottom when his Coach (Batchelor) benches him. His career seems to be circling the drain, and at last Chase, looking for answers, finds them in church where his spiritual advisor Rev (Houvardas) preaches, aided by his perky daughter Dee (Hoyos). Chase decides to make some changes; give up drinking and fooling around, and take up celibacy and attending church. At first, it doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference, but better days must be ahead, right?

Right. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that this follows underdog sports team tropes to the letter. The script, by star Aussie rugby player Jason Stevens, also has elements of a romantic comedy and faith-based drama. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t exactly hit you over the head with Christian principles (not as much as other films in the genre do, at any rate) although there is there is some sermonizing in the middle third of the film.

The comedic elements are more problematic. There really aren’t a lot of laughs here, although Stevens does try hard and the opening credits have a few chuckles in them. The movie also engages in some overt sentimentality that it doesn’t always earn. The saving grace here is that the characters have some endearing qualities to them and while the movie is very flawed, it nonetheless has a whole lot of heart. The movie is just good-natured enough to give viewers something to latch onto, although familiarity with Australian culture is extremely helpful here.

REASONS TO SEE: Just enough heart to be engaging.
REASONS TO AVOID: Flat and maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sports action and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Star “footie” player Jason Stevens wrote the screenplay based loosely on his own life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Slap Shot
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
An Unknown Compelling Force

Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin


An historic but unlikely friendship.

(2020) Documentary (Abramorama) Menachem Begin, Daniel Gordis, Ron Dormer, Arye Naor, Herzl Makov, Hart N. Hasten, Bruria Ben Senior, Lahav Harkov, Anita Shapira, Ghaith Al-Omari, Yoske Nachmios, Dan Meridor, Lee Phung, Yossi Klein Halevi, Joseph Lieberman, Yechiel Kadishai, Yona Klinovitski, Meir Y. Soloweichik, Stuart Eizenstat, Daniel Limor, Michael Oren, Caroline Glick. Directed by Jonathan Gruber

 

Menachem Begin, the sixth prime minister of Israel, remains a controversial figure. For some, he is beloved, the “best Prime Minister Israel ever had” as a man on the street puts it. Others see him as the architect for the misery that continues for the Palestinian people. One thing is certain; he was a complicated man who went his own way.

Gruber, who previously directed a doc feature on Yoni Netanyahu, brother to recently former Prime Minister Benjamin and leader of the raid on Entebbe Airport, takes a look at Begin, from his days as a Zionist in present-day Belarus (which was then a part of the Soviet Union) through his days as the leader of Irgun, labeled a terrorist group by the British and who hastened the British withdrawal from Palestine by bombing the King David Hotel in Jerusalem where the British military was headquartered, and founded Likud, the right-wing party which was the opposition party to the Labor party which ran Israel for the first thirty years of its existence.

We see his turbulent years as Prime Minister, including his desire to make Israel a haven for all Jews, regardless of nationality. He did welcome the African Jews when previously they were discriminated against, and even allowed the Vietnamese boat people safe harbor when no other Western nation would accept them. He is still revered in the small Vietnamese colony that thrives in Israel. We also see his lifelong devotion to his wife Aliza whose death in 1982 would throw him into a deep depression, directly leading to his resignation from his post a year later. Oddly, we don’t hear from any of his three children who are still alive today. Of course, though, his signature achievement was the peace treaty with Egypt that he negotiated with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat at Camp David in 1978, which was mediated by American President Jimmy Carter.

I wouldn’t quite label the documentary as hagiographic; Gruber does interview Jordan-born scholar Ghaith al-Omari regarding Begin’s reputation with the Palestinians. There is also coverage of his disastrous war on Lebanon which led to the massacre at Sabra and Shantila, two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon which were attacked by a right-wing Lebanese Christian militia while Israel troops did nothing to prevent it, an incident which would stain Begin’s legacy and bring calls for his resignation at home. He also is largely responsible for the settlement policy that is now at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and continues to be the root of violence in that part of the world.

In Gruber’s favor though is the density of information here and it is delivered at a pretty fast pace. We do get a good sense of Israel’s early years, of Begin’s feud with original prime minister David Ben-Gurion, and of how tenuous their position was in the beginning. Begin, who survived the Holocaust largely because he had been imprisoned by the Soviets for his Zionist beliefs, was helpless as much of his family died in concentration camps. He grew to believe that Jews had no allies and needed to learn to handle their own defense, which would require a Jewish homeland, a country of their own. Although Begin was initially often in conflict with the Israeli government, he is certainly a reason that there is one now.

REASONS TO SEE: Quick-paced and informative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the talking heads are a little dry.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of concentration camps and Middle East violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Begin, along with Anwar Sadat, received the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gaza
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Chasing Comets