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Lot of Movie Choices, Good and Bad

Hope Madden Hope Madden Lot of Movie Choices, Good and BadA Glitch in the Matrix - Photo via IMDb
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Loads of options this week, most of them unusual, some of them awful, a couple pretty great and one Golden Globe nomination. Here’s the skinny.

Two of Us (Deux)

On VOD

by George Wolf

The plan was to sell each of their neighboring French flats and move to Rome. After decades of living in secret, Nina and Madeleine (“Mado”) would enjoy their twilight years loving each other without hiding.

But after promising to finally come out to her grown son and daughter, Mado (Martine Chevallier) hesitates. Nina (Barbara Sukowa) is furious, and the entire plan is up in the air when fate intervenes.

A sudden stroke leaves Mado unable to speak, which makes Nina an outsider in the world of her longtime love.

The debut feature from director/co-writer Filippo Meneghetti, Two of Us cuts deep with its quiet, well-constructed observations. As Mado’s family and a hired caregiver populate Mado’s apartment, Meneghetti returns often to a tiny peephole in the door, silently amplifying the distance separating the lovers, along with Nina’s yearning to conquer it.

The two leads – no doubt relishing the chance to craft complex, aging females – are simply wonderful. When we meet them, Nina is the proud free spirit, and Mado the reserved, closeted mother and grandmother. The stroke reverses their roles, giving each actor room to redefine their characters, and deepen our connection to them.

Though restrained by silence, you can practically hear Mado screaming for Nina, and Meneghetti’s frequent tight shots give Chevallier to chance to break our hearts without saying a word.

Sukowa’s arc is even better, and she makes Nina’s desperation not only palpable, but the understandable product of a love that is simply part of her very being. It is Nina who now must learn to lie, as her only hope for getting close to Mado becomes making up stories that might placate Mado’s slightly suspicious daughter (Léa Drucker).

One of those schemes runs Nina afoul of the caregiver’s adult son, leading to a well-worn and utterly predictable plot device that brings a surprise dent to Meneghetti’s gentle tone.

But by the time Nina and Mado are framed in the sweetest of final shots, all is forgiven. More than a welcome reminder that love is love at any age, Two of Us is a touching testament to how much stronger togetherness can make us.

Grade: A-

A Glitch in the Matrix

Via Gateway Film Center Virtual Screening and on VOD

by Hope Madden

Nobody makes documentaries quite like Rodney Ascher.

You can see the 2010 short that first got him the attention of the Sundance Film Festival, S from Hell, in its entirety on YouTube right now. I think you should. It gives you just a taste of the mixture of absurd, earnest, terrifying and funny that inform his nonfiction recipes.

His 2012 documentary feature debut, Room 237, gave us a glimpse of his own fascination with personal obsessions. Ascher’s interest in the opinions and voices of his subjects clearly allows them to feel the safety necessary to share deeply held and seemingly ludicrous ideas. It also gives the film a sense of exploration rather than judgment. You are truly invited to wonder what if?

His most potent and terrifying invitation, The Nightmare, is so sincere in its sleuthing it may convince you that the film itself has infected you with a debilitating condition. So it’s no surprise that any new effort from Ascher draws awed anticipation from weirdos and cinephiles alike (not that there’s a big difference between the two).

Plus a ton of utterly fascinating footage of Philip K. Dick speaking.

A Glitch in the Matrix, premiering earlier this week at Sundance and opening digitally (appropriately enough) this weekend, explores Simulation Theory. You know, that zany notion that we’re not real, we’re all living in a simulating played by beings of a higher intelligence.

Nutty, right?   

Once again, Ascher’s meticulously built doc feels simultaneously playful and dark—two adjectives that suit the topic brilliantly. We’re reminded of Descartes attempts to prove that he exists, and before that, of Plato’s musings that we may be simply witnessing some form of life facsimile and not participating in reality at all.

So, it’s not a new idea. Perhaps the most intriguing notion the film brings up is that, when aquaducts were the height of technology, the world believed our bodies were at the mercy of our own humors. Once the telegraph became top tech, suddenly our bodies were run by electrical currents. And later, we “understood” that our brains were like computers.

It’s no surprise, then that in a virtual world, we lean toward the notion that reality is its own form of virtual reality. But Ascher digs much deeper, drawing images of a culture and personality type compelled by these ideas, and the hard potential consequences of a Matrix in the hands of someone less noble than Neo.

A Glitch in the Matrix becomes Ascher’s most complicated and poignant film.

Grade: A-

Son of the South

In theaters and on VOD

by George Wolf

Midway through Son of the South, Bob Zellner – a privileged white college student from 1960s Alabama – is quick to stand up to a young Black man who doesn’t think Bob’s interest in the Civil Rights movement is genuine.

Not far away, another young Black man is preparing for upcoming Alabama protests by trying to remain passive while his friends subject him to some of the verbal and physical abuse that is soon to come.

Director/co-writer Barry Alexander Brown’s juxtaposition is earnest, unmistakable, and surface-layer effective – ultimately a perfect snapshot of the entire film.

Zellner’s story, adapted from his own autobiography, is of one white man shaking off the ugly bigotry of his upbringing and family history to march alongside historical icons such as Rosa Parks and John Lewis.

But more than that, the film is an easily digestible message to well-meaning white America that good intentions mean nothing if they’re left on the sidelines.

We meet Zellner (Lucas Till, TV’s new MacGyver and Havoc from X-Men) when he’s “free, white and 21” in the early 60s, a student at Huntington College with a pretty fiancé (Lucy Hale) and plans for Ivy League grad school.

But writing a paper on race relations leads Bob to attend service at a Black church, where he meets Parks (Sharrone Lanier), Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Cedric the Entertainer) and a townfull of racists who don’t take kindly to fraternizing. One of those is Zellner’s own Grandfather (Brian Dennehy), a proud KKK member who does not sugar coat the stakes.

There isn’t much nuance anywhere in the film, and though that makes for a less riveting narrative, it ends up feeling appropriate. Brown, who has often edited films for Spike Lee (an executive producer here), wisely doesn’t try to mimic Lee’s challenging genius.

Brown seems to be aiming for the crowd that’s still inspired by The Blind Side. Lightening the mood with moments of sly humor (Zellner reading Ebony and Jet) and budding romance, Brown avoids lionizing Zellner while finding an entertaining avenue for making his choices a more universal call to end white silence.

You could call that playing it safe, but you can’t call it dumb.

Grade: B-

First Blush

On VOD

by Rachel Willis

When Nena (Rachel Alig) meets Olivia (Kate Beecroft), there’s an instant spark. So even though Nena is married to Drew (Ryan Caraway), that doesn’t stop her from pursuing Olivia. In writer/director Victor Neumark’s first film, First Blush, an unconventional relationship forms as a duo becomes a trio in an exploration of a polyamorous relationship.

The best part of First Blush is that the characters seem like normal people. Save Olivia’s background as a Parisian model, the rest of the people we meet feel a lot like people we know. There were several moments that nailed the transition from single (or dating) twenty-somethings into married thirty-somethings – anxious Nena particularly reminded me of quite a few people (myself included).

Overall, these are characters who struggle with happiness, with what it means to be grown up, and with how to be brave. Nena’s resolve to say ‘yes’ more often is what leads her to pursue Olivia. While at first Drew seems simply along for the ride, Neumark makes sure to insert him (no pun intended) into the relationship as more than a bystander but an equal part.

The predictable ménage à trois montage, when it comes, is light on the sex, and more interested in illustrating the fun the three have as they fall into a relationship. The movie never stoops to voyeurism, instead it plays out as one would expect of any romantic dramedy – not to say it entirely follows a pattern, but by following a semi-predictable model, the film means to normalize the polyamorous lifestyle as a valid choice.

But the third act flounders. Following the film’s unnecessary time jump, Neumark isn’t as skillful at navigating the complications that arise within the trio. Unlike the naturalistic first and second acts, the third relies on things we’ve been told rather than shown. It would have been more interesting to see the interim time between the second and third acts, to give us a chance to watch as the tensions arise between the characters.

However, the movie never fails to engage emotionally. We’re invested in this relationship, we want to know how it will work, where it will go. While it might not be a relationship style most of us will experience, that doesn’t mean we can’t understand the appeal. You want the characters to be happy, in whatever relationship style that works best for them.

Grade: B+

Happy Times

On VOD

by Cat McAlpine

Tensions at a Shabbat dinner party turn dangerous when a group of Israeli-American friends, family, and business partners boil over before coffee and dessert. Dangerous egos, backstabbing, cheating in love and money, and a struggle for social power all contribute to a brutal and increasingly absurd crescendo of blood and water.

You know, Happy Times.

Michael Mayer’s unique view as director and writer, with co-writer Guy Ayal, keeps the horror comedy from falling too flat. The stereotypes Mayer introduces don’t just create a thrilling sequence of clashes, but also bring out fun performances from the cast as a whole. A conceited struggling actor is moments away from losing it. A young man’s lust for a married woman is bound to get him in trouble. A shady business deal fails to get off the ground and clogs the works.

The characters in Happy Times are vibrant, and though largely unlikeable, you can’t stop watching their descent into chaos. Michael Aloni bristles with ego and rage as Michael. Liraz Chamami is captivating as Sigal, constantly trying to recorrect the course of the evening with hilarious timing and a casual brutality. Stéfi Celma is a lovely straight man to the madness that unfolds around her as the cultural outsider, Aliyah. The full ensemble brings a delightful sin and indulgence to the scene.

As Happy Times continues it starts to lose the plot a bit, with a snowballing bloodlust carrying the final third of the film. But the absurdity is baked in by the final moments. I was left shaking my head and thinking, “Sure. Why not?”

Though it is missing some sparkle at the end, there can’t always be a winner in a social situation as messy as this one. The slow burn of Happy Times perfectly builds the necessary tensions to support its later rampage.

The true success of this film is in the characters it creates, and those characters are what carry genuine laughter and shock. Whether you love or hate your family, Happy Times is a cathartic release of tensions anyone will recognize.

Grade: B

The Wanting Mare

On VOD

by Hope Madden

Light on plot, heavy on atmosphere, Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s feature debut drops us in a distant post-apocalypse. Here, those trapped on a sparsely populated island of dust and heat dream of boarding the once-yearly barge that transports the island’s wild horses to a wintry mainland.

Poetic and dreamy, Bateman’s tale plays out before us without allowing us to truly penetrate it. Moira (Jordan Monaghan) has one wish only: passage across. She’s plagued by nightmares of a fiery past—maybe the event that brought about the now-times, nightmares passed down to her from her own mother.

She saves a man. He promises her a ticket. But how good is a man’s word in a society like this?

Bateman’s vision is often transportive. There are leaps in timeline and in logic that you’ll forgive by virtue of the lyrical nature of his story. This is a fable, not a drama. The Wanting Mare has a fantasy for you, if you have the patience for it.

You will need patience, though. The 90-minute runtime feels much longer, partly because Bateman’s storytelling intentionally keeps you at arm’s length from his characters. Without any skin in the game, the game becomes tiresome.

It’s never less than beautiful, but it’s definitely less than compelling. There are brief scenes in the second act that almost offer excitement, plot twists, some genuine call for redemption. These are the only scenes in the film that Bateman rushes.

Performances are necessarily stilted and can’t be criticized for that. We are not meant to feel close to these characters, although Bateman himself does personalize his character. His own acting style is far more accessible and intimate than that of his co-stars.

The benefit: act two feels more emotionally compelling than the rest of the film. The drawback: the film’s point of view becomes muddy. We travel through time along with Moira and her offspring, but because we identify with Bateman’s nameless man, these women become even more distant and peripheral. They are idealized reasons for the film to be rather than a driving force or voice in the film itself.

And that’s what the film is missing. It’s a gorgeous effort, poetic and somber and dreamlike. But it lacks a central voice, and without that, any real connection with the audience.

Grade: B-

Earwig and the Witch

In theaters and on HBO Max

by Hope Madden

More than 30 years ago, the great Hayao Miyazaki released a charming animated adventure that shadowed a little witch-in-training and her talking cat. Kiki’s Delivery Service is more interested in children finding their way in an adult world than in magic. The film is magical nonetheless, thanks to Miyazaki’s gorgeous art.

This weekend, Studio Gibli—the house that Hayao built—releases Earwig and the Witch. It’s the same movie, really, just not nearly as good.

Earwig is left as an infant at a proud English orphanage, where she stays for years tucked in among friends who do whatever she wants and staff who do much the same. But she’s adopted one day by a witch and a demon and she’s quite harrumphy about it all.

Director Gorō Miyazaki, Hayao’s son, keeps his focus on this willful little girl who intends to be a witch-in-training no matter what her new guardians expect.

Fans of the genre will immediately take umbrage at the animation style. It’s definitely not his dad’s. Don’t expect the little (or sometimes enormous) creatures that populate the fringes of classics like Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro.

That’s hardly where the dissimilarities end. Earwig tosses aside the sublime 2D look of traditional Gibli for a CG animation more in keeping with Pixar’s output. But there’s no nuance, no beauty or humanity in the rendering.

Anime fans may balk, but will children care?

Probably not, which means the film would be fine if only the younger Miyazaki had his father’s (or Pixar’s) grasp on basic storytelling. While Earwig conjures specific story details from Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, it fails to deliver on any of its plot suggestions. There’s a dungeonlike workroom brimming in equal measure with magical potential and filth, a mysterious redhead, a rock band, a shrouded heritage…all of which amounts to absolutely nothing.

Nothing ties together, and by the final scene’s reveal you feel like you’re watching the cliffhanger for an episodic series that you probably won’t commit to.

Grade: C

The Mimic

On VOD

by Matt Weiner

You can’t say Thomas F. Mazziotti didn’t warn you: his new comedy The Mimic starts with a shaggy dog, and delivers on the format and then some.

Thomas Sadoski stars as the Narrator, a screenwriter who finds himself being shadowed by an overly agreeable new neighbor—who, by the way, might be a violent sociopath. The neighbor goes only by the Kid, and actor Jake Robinson plays up the “is he or isn’t he” thing to delightful effect by holding the same unnerving rictus for the entire movie.

As the two men become more and more wound up in each other’s lives, the Narrator starts a determined quest to find out what might be lurking below the Kid’s clingy surface. But not before turning the Kid into part frenemy, part sounding board. It becomes clear that the Kid isn’t the only one with emotional issues in need of exorcising.

Where the film’s breezy comedy takes flight is in the brief encounters the Narrator has along the way. These interactions bring in everyone from a newspaper editor (Jessica Walter) to an unlucky driver (Austin Pendleton) to M. Emmet Walsh in some always welcome scene stealing.

If anything, the rotating guest cast cuts against the film. It’s a minor tragedy to get the likes of Walter, Walsh and Gina Gershon, and then barely get to see them work their comic chops before the story reverts back to the claustrophobic tug-of-war between the Narrator and the Kid.

For The Mimic to succeed as a comedy, there’s a lot riding on the dynamic between Sadoski and Robinson. Mazziotti keeps their philosophical banter both light and fast enough to make us almost forget those fleeting moments when Robinson lets some of the menace come out from behind his smile.

The two actors play well off one another, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that you’re trapped with them as much as they are with each other. They’ve mastered the cadence of a classic comedy couple, but their meandering dialogue varies wildly in just how much substance backs up their conversations from scene to scene.

That might be the point, but a little goes a long way. The cast manages to pull off some genuinely funny moments, but when you peel away all the winking direction and screwball zingers it’s hard to shake the feeling that, as comedy, The Mimic gets by on doing an off-kilter impression of the real thing.

Grade: C

The Reckoning

On VOD

by Hope Madden

It’s been nearly 20 years since Neil Marshall first caught our attention with his remarkable military/lycanthropic standoff, Dog Soldiers. Just three years later, the writer/director offered his genre masterpiece, The Descent, and suddenly anticipation was high for a filmmaker who knew how to scare us.

A couple of disappointments later and the Englishman began to rebuild his reputation doing one-off TV episodes and horror shorts until possibly sinking his career forever in 2019 with the Big Box Office Bomb that was Hellboy.

The Reckoning won’t help things.

Marshall’s latest, co-written with Edward Evers-Swindell (Dark Signal) and star Charlotte Kirk, takes us back to the Dark Ages. The black plague is wiping out the English countryside, but witch hunters are a close second in terms of death toll.

Striking images are everywhere in this film—a home burning, a horse rearing, misty moors and the like. But the first sight that will really make you scratch your head is that of Grace (Kirk), humble-but-loving wife in full, never-to-be-flawed makeup. It’s so jarring given the plague-ridden scenes surrounding her that you cannot help but notice it.

And for the next hour 50 (at least 30 minutes longer than necessary), Kirk poses. She stands firm. She yearns. She dotes. She hesitates. She resolves. Yes, I believe that runs the full gamut of Kirk’s poses.

It doesn’t help matters that The Reckoning brings so little new to the historical witch torture genre. Grace’s ordeals, once her lascivious landlord brings her up on charges of witchcraft for spurning him, lead to increasingly gratuitous and sexualized torture.

And still, that nude lip liner never smudges.

Around Kirk’s showy performance is a wide variety of talent. Sean Pertwee and Steven Waddington offer fine, villainous turns, for instance.

The writing is not a real strength, as most of the plotting and dialog serve only to create new opportunities to pose. It’s hard to call The Reckoning a wasted opportunity because, aside from some solid framing and cinematography, there’s nothing here to even exploit. It’s a superficial ripoff of a worn out genre, built entirely around a laughable performance.  

Grade: D

Sacrifice

On VOD

by Brandon Thomas

If we’ve learned anything from horror cinema over the decades, it’s that Europe is a scary place and to avoid it at all costs. Werewolves on the moors, rage zombies, predatory hostels – just go to Myrtle Beach again and try your luck with the drunk rednecks. And now, with Sacrifice, co-writers/co-directors Andy Collier and Toor Mian give us a taste of the unsavory side of Norway.

Isaac (Ludovic Hughes) and Emma (Sophie Stevens) return to Isaac’s birthplace on a remote Norwegian island to claim his inheritance. Unknown family truths bubble to the surface as Isaac confronts a dark legacy and Emma fears not only for her husband’s sanity but for the life of her unborn child. 

Sacrifice is a frustrating film from the start. The basic “fish out of water” premise is one we’ve seen time and time again, and Sacrifice offers nothing new to this subgenre. The opening credits promise a story built around the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but the closest we get to Lovecraft is unsubtle nods to Cthulhu.

Subtlety in horror certainly has its place. There are countless horror movies that take a more methodical approach to dole out the scares. These movies eventually pay off, though. Sacrifice is a film that tries to build tension and atmosphere, but whiffs at every opportunity. Semi-odd behavior from backwoods Norwegian folk isn’t exactly edge-of-your-seat material. And I would be ashamed of myself if I didn’t mention how the film uses the tried and true “character wakes up from a nightmare that seemed real” device a grand total of four times. 

At this point, I was hoping the movie was a dream.

So much of the films’s tension is built around the unraveling of Isaac and Emma’s relationship. The problem with this is that the characters toggle between unlikable and uninteresting from the get-go. Isaac’s descent into madness never once borders on tragedy. Instead, this turn feels like the filmmaker’s checking off a box on their genre bingo card. 

Even the illustrious Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond) doesn’t come out unscathed. It’s a role that asks her to do little more than be a suspicious local and deliver an uneven Norwegian accent. 

The film does get a lot out of the location shooting in Norway. The lush green fjords with their raging waterfalls inject a strong sense of place. These scenic establishing shots help set an “otherness” to the island, even if the remainder of the film does a poor job of maintaining the eerie mood. 

Sacrifice tries to set itself alongside Europe-centric horror movies like The Wicker Man and Midsommar, but instead comes off as a watered-down, and quite lazy, copy of better movies. 

Grade: D+

A Nightmare Wakes

On Shudder

by Hope Madden

It’s hard not to be fascinated by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who, at 18, wrote arguably the most iconic piece of Gothic horror or science fiction—or both in one—ever to be penned.

Writer/director Nora Unkel takes us back to that rainy summer night when young Mary, her lover Percy Shelley (Guillian Yao Gioiello) and his friend Lord Byron (Philippe Bowgen, over the top) participated in a challenge to write a ghost story.

We all remember what Mary came up with, right?

Alix Wilton Regan plays the young scribe. It’s an adequate performance in a fairly lifeless film that suggests writing and madness go hand in hand but plays it safe when it comes to what really haunts Mary.

As Mary Shelley suffers through indignities at the hands of a lover she believed to be a better man than he is, she escapes through writing. Aside from one particularly difficult scene, though, Percy’s behavior is largely sanitized or quarantined to offscreen antics we can only guess at.

Wilton Regan offers a needy heroine more likely to lash out at her sister (who may or may not deserve it, Unkel never really clarifies) than to stand up for herself. The performance might have delivered an intriguing central figure—unlikeable and almost impossible to root for.

It seems like a conscious creative decision between Unkel and Wilton Regan, given some of Mary’s behaviors. Creating an unlikeable female to anchor a film is an endlessly intriguing, brave and chancy decision, but the film you hang around her has to turn her performance into something worthy of the attention. Unkel can’t manage it.

Still, Mary descends into a kind of madness and soon enough, her creation takes on a life of its own.

Unkel is not the first filmmaker to conflate the writer’s life with the writer’s product. Just a few years back, Haiffa Al-Mansour’s biopic Mary Shelley convincingly drew Frankenstein as a near autobiography. That film didn’t quite deliver on its promise, either.

In Al-Mansour’s case, hero worship led to a superficial character (played soundly by Elle Fanning) with few faults and a lot of frowning. Unkel’s version is close to the opposite, but both filmmakers set out to depict what it was Mary Shelley was really trying to say when she wrote Frankenstein.

It’s a laudable goal. The problem may just be that Mary Shelley said it so much better.

Grade: C

Follow Hope and George on twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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