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Fine Movie Options, No Mask Necessary

George Wolf George Wolf Fine Movie Options, No Mask NecessaryPhoto via IMDb
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Should you? Shouldn’t you? You definitely should, but there’s no need to worry about it if you just stay home. While this week boasts fewer big names than last week, there are several excellent movie options for home viewing.

First Cow

by Hope Madden

Kelly Reichardt films tell a story, but not in the traditional Hollywood sense. She draws you into an alien environment, unveils universal humanity and shows you something about yourself, about us. There’s usually a story buried in there somewhere. In this case, it’s about two outsiders in 19th Century Oregon who find friendship.

And a cow.

Cookie (John Magaro) is a gentle soul, not properly built for the fur trade. (You saw The Revenant, right?) He’s a baker at heart, not that he gets to do much baking on a trapping expedition with hungry, volatile, hunt-weary men.

He holds no value for these men, and has nothing in common with them. But somehow he sees a kinship with the naked Chinese man he stumbles upon as he forages for mushrooms in the woods.

It’s sweet and sad the way Cookie and King-Lu (Orion Lee) fall into a relationship. King-Lu has ambitions. He opens Cookie’s eyes to opportunities he’d never had the courage to consider. Through these characters Reichardt demonstrates how fragile, lovely and heartbreaking hope can be.

Working again with regular collaborator Jonathan Raymond, whose novel the two adapted, Reichardt keeps you pulling for her heroes. The narrative lulls you with understated conversations and observations while the meticulously captured natural beauty onscreen beguiles. Within that, we see the potential of a young country through the eyes of Americans determining the dream.

Reichardt explores loneliness in all her films, the sense that we are each simply and inevitably alone, though we struggle against it regardless. This exploration isn’t hurried. It breathes. She emphasizes the longing for connection in every quiet moment with her characteristic use of lighting, the way she frames nature and the naturalistic performances she draws from Lee and Magaro.

William Tyler’s lonesome score offers something both mournful and tender, which is fitting. Although these men’s very existence in this place testifies to hardy ambition, Reichardt lingers on moments of gentle camaraderie.

When Kelly Reichardt tells a story, she breaks your heart. She does it slowly and quietly, but it’s broken nonetheless.

Grade: A-

Father Soldier Son

Streaming on Netflix.

by George Wolf

If Boyhood showed us how deeply affecting it can be to watch actors age with their character arcs, Father Soldier Son keeps it even more real.

In what amounts to a condensed version of Michael Apted’s Up documentary series, directors Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn follow a military family over a nearly ten year period of pain, hope and personal growth.

We first meet 13 year-old Isaac Eisch and his 8 year-old brother Joey waiting for their father Brian – a third generation soldier – to come home from Afghanistan in 2011. The boys are staying with their Uncle during Brian’s tour, but are eagerly awaiting Dad’s two-week return to their Wisconsin home.

Three years later, things have changed.

Brian has lost his lower left leg to a battle wound but has gained Maria, an endlessly supportive and understanding girlfriend. As Brian deals with his anger and feelings of inadequacy, his boys are watching. Despite an earlier vow to remain unchanged by war, he has changed, and his sons are changing, too.

On the surface, this is an immersive and highly effective documentary on the commitment and sacrifice of military families. But the inescapable and important thread underneath is the complex bond of masculinity passed between fathers and sons.

Davis and Einhorn, in their feature debut, give us incredibly revealing moments with the Eisch family. From the simple joys and sweet affection to the missed opportunities and immeasurable pain, the film’s view is clear-eyed but without judgement, often speaking to themes of manhood and patriotism with a sobering honesty.

The point is a purpose in life, and how hard it can be not only to find it, but to feel like you’ve found it. We ache with this family and cheer for them, even when their choices might disappoint us.

Grade: A-

The Painted Bird

by Cat McAlpine

If you paint the wings of a sparrow (or stitch a star to his jacket) the rest of the flock will no longer recognize him. The other birds will swarm and peck him until he plummets back to the earth. This is just one of the horrific lessons a young boy learns as he desperately searches for anywhere or anyone safe in war-torn Eastern Europe.

The Painted Bird is a nearly three hour long misery epic that follows this young boy, unnamed until the final shot of the film, looking for home during World War II. His parents have left him in the care of an elderly woman as they flee the Germans. But his banishment to the countryside cannot spare him from the horrors of the holocaust.

This film is hard to get through. Forty viewers walked out of its 2019 Toronto Film Festival showing. I would’ve walked out too, given the chance. The opening scene finds the young boy (Petr Kotlár) being chased through the woods. Another group of boys catch him. They rip away the small pet gripped in his arms, so quickly that it’s hard to identify, and they set it on fire. As he is beaten, the boy turns his head and watches his pet run in screaming circles until it dies. And then it gets worse.

What follows is a brutal parade of the worst humanity has to offer. Domestic abuse, graphic violence, multiple instances of animal abuse and death, rape, child abuse and rape, and more. Then the war crimes start around hour three.

The tale is an adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński ‘s 1965 novel of the same name, which made one of Time’s 100 Best Novels lists. Though lauded, the book is no less controversial, and is just as riddled with cruelty.

Directed and adapted by Václav Marhoul, the final product is beautifully shot in black and white. But the lack of color doesn’t make the rotten core of The Painted Bird any less pungent. Without color, Marhoul creates gut wrenching scenes all the more visceral by adding textures like wet eyeballs on a dusty floor or the violent placement of a bottle that made me retch.

I won’t let it go unmentioned that while violence and depravity are the overarching themes, women have some of the worst characterizations in The Painted Bird. They are either mothers or depraved sexual deviants, or mothers of dead children who have since become sexual deviants. A few are witches.

Everyone is painted darkly, but with more male characters there are more opportunities for men to be shown in shades of gray.

The real conflict at the center of The Painted Bird is understanding how we use art to honestly bear witness to our cultural horrors. I cannot and would not recommend this film to anyone, it was too awful to watch. But you could argue that this is precisely why it must be seen.

The Painted Bird is a well-shot, well performed, and incredibly moving piece of cinema. You simply have to be willing to go where it wants to take you. And all of those places are dark.

Grade: B+

Ghosts of War

by Hope Madden

Here’s the thing about horror movies in 2020: they have to one up 2020. This year itself is such a horror show, it’s hard for cinema to keep up.

Writer/director Eric Bress (The Butterfly Effect) does what he can with the supernatural war tale, Ghosts of War.

Five World War II soldiers are ordered to hold tight in a French mansion circa 1944. It’s an isolated estate, once a Nazi stronghold. Terrible things happened there, and even though the surroundings suggest luxury, the mission may be the most dangerous the platoon has ever faced.

It reminds me of that time earlier this year when COVID trapped a Bolivian orchestra inside a haunted German castle surrounded by wolves.

So the film has that to compete with. Of course, the other thing Ghosts of War has going against it is the surprisingly engaging and unfortunately underseen Overlord, a World War II horror show that drops us alongside a handful of soldiers into war-torn France just in time to find zombies.

Very little is more fun than Nazi zombies.

But Bress isn’t interested in zombies. Instead, he explores the madness that weighs on men who’ve done the unthinkable by trapping them in a situation where they must face their demons.

Kyle Gallner delivers an appropriately haunted performance as one of the soldiers—each of whom Bress characterizes with quick, shorthand ideas: the nut job (Gallner), the smartypants (Pitch Perfect’s Skylar Astin), the hero (Theo Rossi), the big talker (Alan Ritchson), the leader who’s in over his head (Brenton Thwaites).

Gallner and Astin are the only cast members given the opportunity to differentiate themselves from the pack as the platoon stumbles upon evidence of the haunting. Bress and his ensemble stumble here, rarely developing any real dread, infrequently even delivering the jumps their quick cut scares attempt.

Ghosts of War makes an effort to say something meaningful. That message is waylaid by confused second act plotting and a third act reveal that feels far more lurid and opportunistic than it does resonant or haunting.

Bress tries to take advantage of the audience’s preconceived notions in order to subvert expectations, but he doesn’t have as much to say as he thinks.

Grade: B-

In Bright Axiom

by Seth Troyer

A startup takes on a mysterious name: The Latitude Society. They have decided to use their money to give people an “experience” by making art installations sprinkled with cultish undertones. Eventually, when they begin asking for money to fund these happenings, the public says,“that was fun, but, no thank you.” In the aftermath, Latitude decides to use money that they apparently had all along to film a documentary about themselves.

Rather than making a truthful 20-minute documentary, Latitude created a documentary that attempts to fuse the stories and rumors they perpetuate with their apparently true experiences. It’s essentially a game where the audience’s goal is to discern fact from fiction, and this detective work is enjoyable for the first thirty minutes. However, once you get the hang of separating their truths from their very obvious lies, it all becomes increasingly uninteresting.

For the remainder of the runtime I waited for a twist, for it to maybe turn humorous like This Is Spinal Tap, or perhaps horrific like The Blair Witch Project. I won’t give too much away, but unfortunately, it continues to play the same games from start to finish.

We are given reenactments and interviews with folks involved, speaking of “you just had to be there” moments that may or may not have occurred. Even if they did happen, the stories are soon lost in the shuffle, getting mixed in with so much fiction that they become rather meaningless.

It’s sweet of these hippies to want to give us something memorable, but just because they continually tell us we’re having “an experience” doesn’t mean it’s an enjoyable one.

The real value here comes from seeing it all as a test: how long does it take to spot trickery, to smell time, money and energy being wasted? How long does it take you to leave the room?

If this was filmmaker Spencer McCall’s intent, then he has indeed made something in the spirit of actual anti-establishment, psychonauts like Robert Anton Wilson (whose quote at the beginning of this film adds a half star to this review). Sadly, this does not seem to be the case. Maybe McCall could have spent more time actually reading Wilson’s books and less time on these enlightenment role playing games.

Grade: C-

Lake of Death

Streaming on Shudder.

by George Wolf

If your experience with Norwegian horror has you expecting Lake of Death to bring on the blondes and the folklore – you’re halfway there. The coifs check out, but writer/director Nini Bull Robsahm trades some homeland roots for flashes of decidedly American inspiration.

It’s a bit curious, since Robsahm (Amnesia) is updating the 1942 novel (and 1958 film) De dødes tjern– which is credited with kickstarting Norway’s interest in the horror genre. Clearly, a cabin in the woods can be creepy in any language.

A distracted Lillian (Iben Akerlie) brings a group of friends and one dog to a remote lakeside cabin for one more getaway before the place is sold. Her gang is ready for a good time, but Lillian is still haunted by the memory of her twin brother Bjorn, who disappeared one year earlier after taking a walk in these very same woods!

One of Lillian’s friends hosts a paranormal podcast, which is Robsahm’s device for filling everyone in on the local legend of the lake. You can get lost in its serene beauty, they say, lose touch with reality, and maybe even get the urge to kill.

Mysterious happenings, paranoia and suspicion ensue, but Robsahm sets the brew on a very slow boil, taking a full hour before we get one well developed visual fright. Lillian’s sleepwalking, hallucinations, and frequent nightmares lay down an overly familiar framework that’s peppered with music stabs and repeated name-dropping of horror classics from Evil Dead to Misery.

As an attempt to bridge generational horror, it’s all very commendable but little more than workmanlike. Robsahm has better success with her commitment to the lake’s spellbinding beauty, and with her repeated trust in cinematographer Axel Mustad.

Shooting in wonderfully earthy 35mm, Mustad creates a gorgeous tableau of woods and water, evoking the dreamy atmosphere required to cash the check written by the lake’s urban legend.

There may be little that surprises you in Lake of Death, but a sterling partnership between director and cameraman makes sure you have a fine souvenir from the visit.

Grade: B-

Read more from Hope and George at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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