Film Review: “Them That Follow”

  • THEM THAT FOLLOW
  • Starring: Alice Englert, Walton Goggins
  • Directed by: Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 38 mins
  • 1091 Media 

If you are anything like Indiana Jones, then the Appalachian-set drama “Them That Follow” will at the very least make you squirm in your seat. The feature film directorial debut by co-directors/writers Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, “Them That Follow” is an interesting yet not too in-depth look into a branch of the Pentecostal faith that believes handling venomous snakes will prove their devotion to God. With a pace that flows like the mountain streams in the film, this relatively short drama contains a standout supporting performance by Academy Award-winning actress Olivia Coleman, but nothing else much is all that memorable. 

A teenage boy named Augie (Thomas Mann, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) is led into the woods by the girl of his affections, Mara Childs (Alice Englert, “Beautiful Creatures”), to a den of poisonous rattle snakes. It is perhaps not the greatest way to spend a date, but it quickly gives us an idea of what the people of an isolated mountain community are like. Snakes or no snakes, troubled times are brewing when we watch Mara steal a pregnancy test from a local convenience store run by Augie’s sour mother, Hope (Coleman). 

This leads into a brief depiction of a church service led by old school pastor, Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins, “The Hateful Eight”), Mara’s father. Lemuel inspires his small, yet devoted congregation to uplift their arms and wail as he dances about with a rattlesnake in his hands preaching that serpents will not hurt them if they truly believe in God. It all serves to heighten the pressure that Mara feels as she prays for the stain on her soul to be removed thanks to her test turning positive. And while Augie may be the baby’s father, she is squeezed in a vice when she is pressured to marry Garret (Lewis Pullman, “Bad Times at the El Royale”), another local boy infatuated with her but with a seemingly stronger devotion to her father’s church. 

A pregnancy is obviously a difficult thing to hide for long and as such the stakes are raised when Hope discovers her secret as well as her blabber-mouth-of-a-best-friend, Dilly Picket (Kaitlyn Dever, “Booksmart”). The film falters with this storyline to be as tense as it could have been. It feels more like an after-school special on TV with the snakes being more dramatic than most of the actors. Goggins starts off well enough with his performance but his character is soon revealed as merely one dimensional. What could have energized the entire film, and is only barely alluded to, is the cultural struggle between the Pentecosts and the outsiders, especially law enforcement who seems to hound them. 

Colman, fresh off her win for “The Favourite,” is a shining light as she burns up the screen each moment she is in a scene. Her performance ranges from stoic to deeply emotional. Every actor around her is overshadowed by her presence, which is not hard to do as the rest of the cast delivers mundane performances. Overall, “Them That Follow” is predictable fair with nothing to keep our memory of watching it alive for too long.

Film Review: “Shadow”

  • SHADOW
  • Starring: Chao Deng, Li Sun
  • Directed by: Zhang Yimou
  • Rated: Not Rated
  • Running Time: 1 hr 55 mins
  • Well Go USA 

The Chinese action/drama “Shadow” is one the most unique-looking films you will ever see, yet underneath its beautiful veneer is a fairly unremarkable story with a “surprising” climax that is not all that surprising. Directed by Yimou Zhang (“House of Flying Daggers,” “Hero”), “Shadow” contains almost nothing but black-and-white imagery as all of its costumes and set designs are colorless. The only exceptions are skin pigment, blood (a lot of it) and muted greens. While there is a plethora of wonderfully choreographed fight sequences, albeit nothing we haven’t seen before, it is the story that proves to be what is truly colorless.

 We are told in the beginning that for decades, the fortified city of Jingzhou was at the center of a back-and-forth conflict between the kingdoms of Yang and Pei. The latter lost Jingzhou after its Commander Ziyu (Chao Deng) lost a three-round duel to the former’s commander. A peace has settled it, but it is now threatening to unravel because the stoic Commander Ziyu, who longs for Jingzhou to be under Pei control, has agreed to a rematch. This is much to the consternation of Pei’s juvenile-acting and cowardly king, Pei Liang (Ryan Zheng, “The Great Wall”) who wails like a baby when Ziyu calmly tells him that his odds of winning are three out of ten. 

What no one realizes, except for Ziyu’s wife, Xiao Ai (Li Sun, “Fearless”) is that Ziyu has been forced to live in a cave for many years because a wound he received during his duel has taken its toll on his health. To keep up appearances, he has been using his body double named Jing (Deng) to be his proxy or shadow in the king’s court. Through the self-doubting Jing, Ziyu plans to win back Jingzhou and even claim the Pei throne for himself. However, King Pei Laing is so desperate to avoid war that he agrees to a proposal that would make his own sister a concubine for the son of Yang’s commander and thus insure peace. It ends up becoming a well-choreographed game of chess as members of the court try to maneuver themselves into a winning strategy. 

Again, visually there isn’t anything not to like about “Shadow” as it is nothing short of being a beautiful work of art worthy of hanging in a museum. The dialogue, though, is less than remarkable and the acting in its entirety is at times campy and others is just as gray as the background. Chao has the difficult task of playing two parts at the same time, but he only pulls it off a little better than Jean Claude van Damme once did. Many critics have praised the fight sequences in “Shadow,” yet there isn’t anything here that hasn’t been done a million times before since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which remains a far superior film, both visually and content-wise.

 “Shadow” could have redeemed itself with some sort of jaw dropping ending with an explosive climax. Unfortunately, it fails with this also as the supposed twist can be seen coming from a mile away, therefore causing it to explode with a thud rather than a bang.

Film Review: “Ophelia”

  • OPHELIA
  • Starring: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts
  • Directed by: Claire McCarthy
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Running Time: 1 hr 54 mind
  • IFC 

There is nothing more spectacular, and scary than taking an epic work of theater, by Shakespeare no less, and turning it on its head by retelling it from a different perspective. This is the case with “Ophelia,” the doomed love interest of the equally doomed Danish prince, Hamlet. With a more modernesque musical score and friendly dialogue that lacks the thous and thees you would expect from Shakespeare, director Claire McCarthy (“The Waiting City”) takes us on a journey with an unexpected destination. 

As she floats with an eternal peace across face, our heroine Ophelia asks us in a voiceover if we know her story. Tired of no one knowing who she is, Ophelia tells us it is time we finally understand her. As such, she takes us back to when she was a dirty faced, rebellious little girl in Elsinore Castle who draws the fateful attention of Danish Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts). Turned into a lady-in-waiting, a grownup Ophelia (Daisy Ridley, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) enjoys the queen’s favor, but she is hen pecked mercilessly by the other ladies who all hold the distinction of being noble by birth. 

When Prince Hamlet (George MacKay, ’Where Hands Touch”) returns from school as a man, he is instantly smitten with Ophelia. However, “Ophelia” is still a Shakespearean tale despite the rewrite and the budding romance is complicated by the sudden death of King Hamlet and the subsequent quick marriage of Queen Gertrude and suspect number one, the deceased king’s brother, Claudius (Clive Owen) who ascends to Denmark’s throne. It proves to be too much for Prince Hamlet to bear and his wits begin to deteriorate. 

At the same time, Prince Hamlet becomes obsessed with Ophelia and the idea of marrying her, which comes to fruition but in secret. Secrets though are no stranger to her, who learns many from the witch Mechtild (Watts), Gertrude’s sister. Claudius comes to view Ophelia as dangerous while Prince Hamlet falls deeper into madness. And while it’s to be expected for people to die in droves, this enjoyable retelling of Shakespeare contains some delightful twists that makes it fresh and surprising. 

Based upon the 2008 novel of the same name by American author Lisa Klein (“Lady Macbeth’s Daughter”), “Ophelia” is a breath of fresh air. It’s daring. It’s imaginative. It doesn’t require Ridley to hold a light saber as she is given a chance to shine on the screen. While the depth of her emotional output is found wanting, she more than holds her own against a terrific dual performance by Watts. Owen is adequate as the diabolical Claudius and MacKay is just wide-eyed and stammers a lot with spittle spewing from his mouth. 

In the end, “Ophelia” is a definite must-see for anyone who loves Shakespeare or good theater in general.

Film Review: “The Dead Don’t Die”

  • THE DEAD DON’T DIE
  • Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver
  • Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 44 mins
  • Focus Features 

Zombie movies have been a part of the cinema landscape since the 1930s with Victor Halperin’s “White Zombie” in 1932 among the first. George A. Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead” is regarded as a cult classic with its depiction of cannibalistic zombies. Since then there have been dozens and dozens of zombie flicks, often of low budget origins, featuring the undead scaring the life out of the living. Director Jim Jarmusch (“Paterson,” “Broken Flowers,” “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”) has thrown his hat into the zombie arena with his comical horror/fantasy “The Dead Don’t Die,” which features an all-star cast that’s sure to make anyone alive look twice. While it may have some clever laughs and some dry one-liners that only star Bill Murray can deliver, Jarmusch’s effort is about as mundane as watching Selena Gomez act.

 After responding to a complaint by racist Farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi) that his chickens are being killed by the disheveled eccentric Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), Centerville police Chief Cliff Robertson (Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) notice something odd is going on. Animals are disappearing, cell phones no longer work, and its daylight way into the night. All of this is blamed on polar fracking, which is denied in news reports by the companies who are doing the fracking. With the poles shifting their positions, it has altered Earth’s rotation, which of course means that the dead begin to rise from their graves.

 The town is littered with other recognizable faces including Danny Glover, Chloe Sevigny, Gomez, and Tilda Swinton as, you might guess it, an off-kilter character. I know it’s shocking, but who else could play a Scottish accented, samurai sword wielding, funeral home director? With so many different faces it only makes sense there are several little side stories as the townspeople struggle to avoid having their intestines eaten. They often fail as they are typically slower than the undead and even slower than the film’s pacing, which is often excruciating to sit through.

 Besides some great interaction between Murray and Driver, who talk in character about Jarmusch’s script and the repetitive-to-the-point-of-annoying theme song by Sturgill Simpson, the only bright spot of entertainment is Swinton’s performance. Otherwise, the plot is looser than someone who has drank a bottle of Metamucil in one setting. Characters vanish and unidentified objects appear for no reason. The acting is bland, punctuated by Gomez who seems to have no idea what she is doing and would have probably been better off just playing herself. Lastly, the nonsense becomes ridiculous when Jarmusch’s script turns political when he has Wait’s character go on socialist, metaphoric ramblings about consumerism, among other things. If I wanted that then I could have stayed at home and watched a documentary on PBS.

Film Review: “I Am Mother”

  • I AM MOTHER
  • Starring: Rose Byrne, Clara Rugaard
  • Directed by: Grant Sputore
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Running Time: 113 minutes
  • Netflix 

With the same gusto that Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark used to declare, “I am Iron Man,” I am hereby announcing that “I Am Mother,” currently on Netflix, is the best work of science fiction to grace the cinema universe since 2014’s bold “Ex Machina.” Brimming with a Stanley Kubrick vibe, “I Am Mother” holds your attention with ferocious vigor from beginning to end without ever skipping a beat. It captures the horrors of artificial intelligence gone wrong, something the late Stephen Hawking warned humanity about, with an engrossing cerebral script, solid acting, and a vision of the future that should make anyone shudder. This film should also make us question what is cinema?

 “I Am Mother,” which debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, begins with dark, foreboding music as we are taken to an underground repopulation center. A red counter on the screen tells us that just one day has elapsed since an “extinction event;” that there are 65,000 human embryos being stored here; and that there are no human beings currently alive in the complex. The extinction event is kept a mystery to us, but in the meantime, we watch a solitary droid, known simply as Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne, “X-Men: Apocalypse”), begin the task of restarting humanity by incubating an embryo. When that child eventually asks why it’s the only one, the kind Mother cryptically says that she needs practice to become a good parent.

 Flash forward to 15,867 days after the extinction event to when a teenage girl, Daughter (Clara Rugaard, “Teen Spirit”), is prepping for a test involving moral and ethical conundrums. It’s at this point our suspicions of Mother grow deeper since Daughter is still the only child in the facility, and roughly 40 years have passed since the first embryo was grown into a walking, talking human being. The situation becomes complicated because of Daughter’s own curiosity and the arrival of Woman (Hilary Swank) at the front door. The appearance of Woman, who has been shot, further contradicts Mother who repeatedly warns Daughter that the outside world is unhabitable for humans. Woman, who is less than truthful herself, paints a picture of human annihilation by A.I.-controlled droids.

 A brilliant first feature-length directorial effort by Grant Sputore, “I Am Mother” has influences on it that range from “Terminator” to “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Ex Machina” itself. There is a great feeling of suspense that builds and builds until it reaches a crescendo that will leave you analyzing what you saw for hours after the final credits leave the TV screen. Rugaard is a joy to watch as she delivers a breakout performance that rivals Alicia Vikander’s in “Ex Machina.” Byrne gives us a new HAL 9000 and Swank is raw and powerful as a lone survivor.

 Despite its greatness, is “I Am Mother” not cinema in the truest sense of the word because it is a Netflix endeavor and did not have, for example, a 3,000-screen release across the United States with an international debut of even more? And if it is classified in the same way as say a new “Terminator” would be, without gracing a silver screen, does that mean it would hypothetically be eligible for an Oscar? “I Am Mother” and others like it are a sign of changing times and perhaps a redefinition of what cinema is.

Film Review “Tolkien”

 
TOLKIEN
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins
Directed by: Dome Karukoski
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr 52 mins
Fox Searchlight
 
He was arguably the greatest fantasy writer of all time and certainly the godfather of modern fantasy literature. British author J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (1937) and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (1954-55) have endured the test of time while inspiring countless other works of the same genre, not to mention a modern-day film franchise that grossed nearly two billion dollars domestically. What many may not know is who Tolkien was during his formative years and what inspired him to create such a diverse world. Finnish director Dome Karukoski (“Tom of Finland”) helms a modestly successful attempt to shed light on the complicated young life of the writer, poet, philologist, academic and World War I veteran.
 
When we first meet John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), he is being forced, along with his younger brother, to move from their family cottage in the English countryside, which is painted as grossly idyllic, to the overly dark and sinister heart of an industrial city by his widowed mother. (The family patriarch died in South Africa when Ronald was three years old.) Thanks to the efforts of the stern, yet caring Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney, “Layer Cake”), the Tolkiens avoid complete destitution, but things go from bad to worse in 1904 when Ronald’s mother suddenly dies. Father Francis does not abandon them, though, and helps the lads find a home at a boarding house, and ensures their continued education based upon the family’s reputation.
 
Although brilliant and already well-educated, Ronald initially does not fit in well with his fellow classmates, preferring the company of books over people. However, thanks to a scuffle on the rugby field, Ronald develops a close fellowship with three other lads as they form their own, semi-secret society. Even into their teens, Ronald (Nicholas Hoult, “Mad Max: Fury Road”), Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle, “The Lost City of Z”), Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney, “Dunkirk”) and Robert Q. Gilson (Patrick Gibson, “The OA” tv series) continue their pledge to change the world through artistic endeavors. Their most difficult challenge, though, arrives when they all volunteer to serve in the war to end all wars.
 
The hallmark of a good movie is how long does it stay in your train of thought. Some are gone so fast that you might as well file an insurance claim for amnesia. A few manage to linger on forever like the taste of apple pie that grandma made for you twenty years ago. While “Tolkien’s” romantic elements are full of innocent sweetness and the four lads’ friendship is nice, none of it is all that remarkable. The only exception might be how Ronald’s imagination, even at a young age, began to create the fundamental building blocks that would become Middle Earth. What does stay with you are the horrific battle sequences. War is hell, as Sherman once said, and it’s depicted as such in “Tolkien.” Karukoski doesn’t shy away from also delving into what’s nothing less than PTSD for the survivors of the Great War. Hoult is at his best when he portrays the evolution of the author from naïve linguist to a leader of men suffering from trench fever to a grown man struggling with his inner demons. Karukoski does a marvelous job throughout with the use of symbolic imagery to put us into the head of Ronald as he continues to put together Middle Earth. It greatly helps to overcome some of the sluggishness that exists during the more mundane aspects of Ronald’s life, which is left a little vague in a spiritual sense as Tolkien was a devout Catholic, something that’s barely alluded to in the story.

Overall, “Tolkien” should satisfy all but probably the most die-hard Middle Earth enthusiasts who may strive to pick apart every, last embellishment. It’s a fairly satisfying film that should wet your appetite for a “Hobbit”/”Lord of the Rings” movie marathon.
 

Film Review: “The Chaperone”

THE CHAPERONE

Starring: Haley Lu Richardson, Elizabeth McGovern

Directed by: Michael Engler

Rated: Not Rated

Running Time: 1 hr 43 mins

PBS Distribution 

Period drama “The Chaperone” is a delightful little film that’s as much about a married woman seeking out who she is as it is a study about the early life of iconic dancer/actress/writer Louise Brooks (1906-85). A native of Cherryvale, Kansas, Brooks moved to Wichita in 1919 where she began a dance career that would lead her to the legendary Denishawn School in New York City. It’s during that transitionary period that we meet her as well as the older woman who chaperones the then 16-year-old on her journey.

Based upon the 2012 novel of the same name by American author Laura Moriarty, “The Chaperone” takes us back to a time when modern dance was still establishing itself. This newfangled artform is alien to the folks of Wichita who have difficulty appreciating its artistry. That is except for Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern), the clearly unhappy wife of prominent lawyer Alan Carlisle (Campbell Scott) and the adopted daughter of a Kansas farm family who claimed her when she arrived aboard an orphan train from New York City.

Norma may be straight-laced, but she is more cosmopolitan in 1922 than her neighbors, some of whom casually talk about joining the KKK at dance recital to maintain purity. Revolted by such sentiment and looking for an adventure, Norma jumps at the chance to chaperone Louise (Haley Lu Richardson, “Five Feet Apart,” “Split”) to New York City, where Norma hopes to learn who her birth mother was. Her traditional values and quiet nature are a stark contrast to Louise who struts around like she is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Louise becomes a fast-rising star at Denishawn, which only feeds her free-spirited, sometimes petulant attitude, played with unmistakable charm by Richardson. Director Michael Engler, who has helmed episodes of “Empire” and “Downton Abbey,” insures Louise doesn’t become too unlikable by harnessing the tangible chemistry between McGovern and Richardson to reveal to us just how damaged the young dancer was. McGovern’s infuses her character with subtle bravery and humility, making Norma that much more admirable as she becomes a source of encouragement for Louise, not to mention an inspiration as she tracks down her past and finds new love. Famous for her bob haircut, Brooks, whose actual first name was Mary, is resurrected on the silver screen with wonderful flair as Richardson not only captures the look of the famous Kansan, but also her sexual complexities even at such an early age.

Although filled with marvelous period costumes, “The Chaperone” does fail to go into real depth about the social conditions and inequalities of the era, and is therefore a missed opportunity by the filmmaker. Still, “The Chaperone” provides a nice change of pace from commercial epics involving caped heroes and purple-skinned villains.

Film Review: “The Aftermath”

THE AFTERMATH
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke
Directed by: James Kent
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
Fox Searchlight

I can still vividly recall the first art-house film I reviewed professionally – the 2000 British drama/comedy “Topsy-Turvy” at the Tivoli Cinemas in the Westport area of Kansas City, MO. Sadly, the Tivoli, an arthouse institution in our fair city for nearly 40 years, has permanently closed its doors. So, it was poetic that the last film I reviewed there would be another period British drama, “The Aftermath.” While it has its share of flaws, “The Aftermath” proved to be a decent swan song before the proverbial final curtain came down at the Tivoli.

Directed by James Kent (“Testament of Youth”) and based upon the 2013 novel of the same name by Welsh author Rhidian Brook, “The Aftermath” is set in Germany just months after the end of World War II. With the ruins of Hamburg as a backdrop, where an estimated 40,000 civilians died in a firestorm created by ten days of heavy Allied bombardment, Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives at a train station to meet her husband, British Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke). It’s a subdued meeting at best and we can instantly tell that something is amiss between the two.

Colonel Morgan has been assigned to command British forces in Hamburg who are tasked with keeping the peace and helping to rebuild the city. Similar to how the British Empire forced American colonists to house their soldiers, Colonel Morgan and Rachael commandeer the home of widower Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgrd), a former German architect with no love lost for the defeated Nazis. However, the British see all Germans as the enemy just as much as Stephen’s teenage daughter sees all Brits as villains. Colonel Morgan, much to the dismay of Rachael, invites the Luberts to remain in the upper story of their home to avoid sending them to a tent camp in the middle of winter.

Rachael is desperate to have her husband again, but he remains mostly stoic despite the pain he carries with him. In addition to his emotional distance, Colonel Morgan is often called away to deal with Germans protesting over how little there is to eat and increasing guerrilla warfare violence carried by the SS’s, young Germans still devoted to Hitler’s cause. Increasingly starved for affection, the two wounded souls belonging to Rachael and Stephen become drawn to one another despite their differences. The question then becomes can Colonel Morgan save his marriage before Rachael runs away with Stephen.

In a partially successful effort to create suspense, and to give Colonel Morgan something to do besides having awkward conversations with Rachael, the script presents the aforementioned side story of young German men, presumably former members of the Hitler Youth, brandishing the number 88 burned into their arms. “The Aftermath” never goes too in-depth about it, but these 88s are an allusion to a real-life military organization the Nazi hierarchy tried to create towards the end of World War II with a program called “Werewolf.” While the goal was for trained soldiers to commit acts of sabotage behind Allied lines during the war, and to keep up the fight even after it was over, the Werewolf never amounted to anything more than just a lot of propaganda. The members of Werewolf were improperly supplied and more importantly, had little stomach to continue fighting once Nazi Germany had officially surrendered.

The dramatic presentation of the SS in “The Aftermath” murdering British soldiers in a last-ditch effort of defiance is a fallacy. While films do sometimes have to take dramatic license to make a story more entertaining for the masses, the mis-telling of history often leads to misperceptions of actual events and therefore can cause ignorance on a broad scale. I would make the argument that filmmakers who choose to play fast and loose with historical facts in order to liven up a story should state at the end of their creation that what the audience has seen is historical fiction. At least it would be more honest than giving lip service that it has been “inspired by/based upon true events.”

The overall performances are entertaining and there is solid chemistry between Knightley and Clarke. The latter delivers the most powerful scenes of the film playing a man sick of death and destruction. Kent’s pacing is a little choppy at times, but it all leads to a conclusion the audience can savor. “The Aftermath” deserves praise for at least exploring a time frame rarely done before as war movies are usually all about blood, guns and guts. For a refreshing change, we get a tale involving what happens in the aftermath.

Thank you, Tivoli Cinemas. It was a pleasure seeing art-house films there for the past 18+ years. Hopefully the aftermath of your ending won’t be as despairing.

Film Review: “The Mustang”


THE MUSTANG
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruce Dern
Directed by: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1 hr 36 mins
Focus Features
 
Robert Redford is no stranger to being involved with projects that explore the American West (“The Horse Whisperer,” “Jeremiah Johnson”) or the hardships of prison life (“Brubaker,” “The Last Castle”). It’s no wonder then that the Hollywood icon, under the title of “executive producer,” is prominently featured for the new prison drama, “The Mustang.” It makes perfect sense as a means to market the film, but this occasionally emotional story proves to have legs strong enough, thanks to its lead actor, to not need Redford’s name as a carrot.
 
In a powerful, career-defining performance, Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts (“Far from the Madding Crowd”) plays Roman Coleman, a convict in a rural Nevada prison who prefers solitary confinement over being with the general population. Roman admittedly does not play well with others as his inner rage often gets the best of him. A caring psychologist (a drastically underused Connie Britton) sees him as a challenge and decides to give him a second chance, whether he likes it or not, by providing him a rare opportunity to rehabilitate.
 
Roman finds himself thrust into a program in which wild mustangs are saddle broke and then sold, something that’s currently done in real life at several prisons throughout the West. A grizzled horse trainer named Myles (“shockingly” played with grit by Bruce Dern) offers Roman a deal to move up from being a manure shoveler to a trainer. The catch is that Roman must stay in the ring with a mustang that’s as seemingly untamable as Roman. It’s a tall order yet the outcome is predictable.
 
Despite guidance from a veteran, horse training prisoner (Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”), Roman’s achievement is short-lived as his temper rears its ugly head and he treats his mustang as a punching bag. Back to solitary Roman goes while at the same time his estranged, pregnant daughter is trying to get him to sign over some property so she can use it to start a new life. A storm as fierce as Roman and his mustang unexpectedly rolls in, giving Roman a second chance at redemption, but as expected, nothing comes easy in this tale.
 
As the first, feature-length film by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (“Rabbit”), “The Mustang” captures the essence of the Western landscape and the power, and even grace of the wild horses who populate it. It also presents an all-too brief glimpse at a prison system that in general has no intention of rehabilitating criminals. It’s only rare exceptions like the mustang program that a chance is given, but those seem to be skating on thin ice as they are poorly funded and snickered at.
 
Schoenaerts is a revelation. His performance is fueled with tangible fury against the world and himself. It covers a pain he gradually comes to face and Schoenaerts fleshes it out with nothing short of perfection. However, Clermont-Tonnerre beats us over the head with the whole, Roman-and-the-horse-are-reflections-of-each-other thing. Events within the story are also often foreseeable so don’t expect any genuine surprises or originality where that’s concerned.
 
In the end, “The Mustang” is worth the ride because of Schoenaerts’s performance alone.

Film Review: “Birds of Passage”

 
BIRDS OF PASSAGE
Starring: Carmiña Martinez, José Acosta
Directed by: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 125 minutes
The Orchard
 

Operating with dangerous impunity from roughly 1976-93, the infamous Medellín Cartel of Colombia was once among the most powerful and notorious drug trafficking organizations in the Western Hemisphere. While it is hard to tell how much is fact, or fiction, the Colombian entry in this year’s Academy Awards, “Birds of Passage,” which did not make the final cut of five, does take us back to the humble origins of the drug trade in the years just prior to the Medellín Cartel’s savage rise. From the late 1960s to the late 1970s, “Birds of Passage” paints an intriguing, although uninspired picture of the native Wayuu people and how a desire to pay for a dowry turned into a bloodbath heated by blind revenge.

If you have never heard of them, the Wayuu are a Native American people from the Guajira Peninsula, straddling northern Columbia and northwestern Venezuela. Unlike many other native groups, the Wayuu were never fully conquered by the Spanish thanks in large part to their adaptation of using guns and horses. Their indomitable spirit is still reflected in the matrilineal society we are introduced to in the late 1960s when Zaida (Natalia Reyes, who is set to co-star in “Terminator: Dark Fate”), the daughter of protective clan leader Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), is ceremoniously presented as being ready for marriage.

Rapayet (José Acosta) is a single man who announces his desire to marry Zaida through a “word messenger.” However, the dowry is steep. While contemplating his quandary, the unemotional Rapayet and his friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez) encounter some American Peace Corps members who are looking to score weed to take back to the United States. Rapayet seizes the opportunity and convinces his older cousin Aníbal (Juan Bautista Martínez) to harvest some whacky weed for the gringos. Not only do the profits allow him to pay the dowry, much to the chagrin of Úrsula who disapproves of Rapayet, but they also provide everyone involved a way to become filthy rich.

Greed begets power and power begets violence as Rapayet’s influence grows, but a pivotal moment involving the hot-headed Moisés has vicious repercussions for years to come. Additionally, the ancient traditions of Úrsula’s clan come under increasing attack from the new times they live in. It all comes to a bloody head that is reminiscent of something straight out of “The Godfather,” “Scarface,” or virtually any other organized crime-type of drama. And that’s a major problem with the film.

Directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, who previously worked together on the 2015 drama “Embrace of the Serpent,” “Birds of Passage” does contain a terrific, Shakespearean tragedy at its core. It is saddening to witness the meteoric rise and epic downfall of both a family and an ancient culture all at the hands of the illegal drug trade. However, it’s boringly predictable and the characters are stereotypes. Furthermore, the acting varies between being wooden and over-the-top with pacing that is sluggish at times. Take a pass on “Birds of Passage.”

Film Review: “Arctic”


ARCTIC
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen
Directed by: Joe Penna
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr 38 mins
Bleecker Street
 
Every once in a blue moon a film comes along that reminds us how truly spectacular cinema can be and replenishes our passion for the artform. The stark Danish adventure/drama “Arctic” happens to be such a film. With a gripping man-versus-nature story that makes “Cast Away” and “All Is Lost” look like cocktail parties, “Arctic” is as impressive as the unyielding icy bleakness which constantly threatens to overwhelm the lone survivor of a plane crash somewhere in the Arctic Circle.
 
Shot entirely in Iceland, “Arctic” does not waste time with a lot of background exposition to its story, co-written by Brazilian director Joe Penna whose previous directorial work includes the 2015 shorts “Turning Point” and “Beyond.” Instead it thrusts us into an already precarious, ongoing struggle for survival by a man named Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen). He survives each day by sticking to a strict routine that includes maintaining a giant SOS carved into the snow, generating enough electricity with a hand crank to operate a distress signal, and catching fish through ice holes.
 
We don’t know if he is the pilot of the intact, yet charred plane he uses for shelter, but we do know that whoever was with him died in the crash. Despite all his hardships, Overgård preserves a steely resolve to stay alive and an unyielding belief that help will come. His hard work appears to pay off when his distress signal is picked up by a rescue helicopter. However, Mother Nature denies his victory with a vicious storm that causes his would-be saviors to crash nose first into the unforgiving ice below. Overgård stabilizes the helicopter’s badly injured co-pilot, but the new situation pushes his abilities to keep them alive to the limits. Ultimately, he is faced with a terrible choice of whether to stay put or risk traveling across the Arctic wasteland to find salvation.
 
Whether it’s playing the nemesis of a Marvel wizard in “Doctor Strange” or being a falsely accused teacher in “The Hunt,” Mikkelsen has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to delve into any role thrown at him. One of the most underrated actors in cinema today, Mikkelsen is a force of nature himself in “Arctic.” He attains a level of intensity that Tom Hanks and Robert Redford were never able to achieve in their respective films as he musters emotions as raw as the fish his character eats. Our hearts beat as his does with jubilation when it appears that he is going to be saved and they sink to the depths when he bottoms out in despair. It’s all done with pure emotional power performed flawlessly by Mikkelsen.
 
For his first attempt at directing a feature-length motion picture, Penna does his craft proud with a fluid story that offers a few nice twists and plenty of dramatic suspense. Overall, “Arctic” is a must-see that any cinema lover should put on their to-do list even if the film’s setting makes us feel like winter is never going to end.

Film Review: “Alita: Battle Angel”


ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL
Starring: Rosa Salazar and Christoph Waltz
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2hrs 2 mins
20th Century Fox

 BREAKING NEWS: James Cameron movies are generally more about style over substance. As a screenwriter, his simplistic scripts often play second fiddle to grandiose special effects. A bright, shining example would be 2009’s “Avatar,” which was a fantastic 3D experience that sugar-coated a “Dances with Wolves” meets “Braveheart” storyline. (I can hear someone shouting, “Aren’t you forgetting ‘Titanic?’” Sorry, 14 Oscar nominations but none for screenplay.) Apparently, you can’t teach an old screenwriter any new techniques because Cameron’s latest producer/writing endeavor, “Alita: Battle Angel” is all about shock and awe but lacks a soul. 

The story is set in the year 2563 where a dystopian society exists after a mysterious war called “The Fall” has wiped out much of Earth’s population. All we know that is left is a trash heap of a town known as Iron City, which sits directly below Earth’s last floating city – Zalem. Iron City is literally the junk yard for the wealthy Zalem and it is there where mild-mannered Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Bastards,” “Django Unchained”) finds a disembodied female cyborg with a living brain still intact. 

How this cyborg ended up in the trash is a mystery, but nevertheless Dr. Ido rebuilds the cyborg and names her Alita (Rosa Salazar, “Maze Runner”) after his deceased daughter. Alita, a bright-eyed child with no memory of her past, soon befriends Hugo (Keean Johnson, “Nashville”), a teenage street hustler with dreams of getting enough money to buy his way into Zalem. It is through him that Alita is introduced to the violent sport of Motorball, which resembles a souped-up version of 2002’s “Rollerball.” 

Thanks to Dr. Ido’s side job as a Hunter-Warrior, which is a fancy title for bounty hunter, Alita becomes exposed to a part of Iron City that leads her on a path to realizing her full potential, which involves a United Republics of Mars berserker battle suit. We are given scant background information about all of this except that there was a whole lot of fighting and some guy named Nova sees all atop his perch in Zalem, which sounds like an over-the-counter sleep medication. Of course, everything leads to a resounding conclusion as the unknown underdog attempts to overcome all odds. How original! 

Directed by Robert Rodgriguez (“Sin City,” “Spy Kids”), someone else who is often more about style over substance, “Alita” stylistically is pleasing to watch and there is plenty of action to fill your plate. It doesn’t hurt that the cast contains three Academy Award winners including Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, who plays Dr. Ido’s estranged wife, and Mahershala Ali as Alita’s primary nemesis. They all give a level of gravitas that would have otherwise sunk the film faster than if it was struck by an iceberg in the north Atlantic. While their lines are often unimaginative and cliched, the cast delivers them with such polish that you almost forget how blasé it is. 

For pure popcorn flare, “Alita: Battle Angel” does provide some fun for your time at the theater thanks to its talented cast and visual effects. Don’t expect a satisfying climax though as it sets itself up for a sequel, which may not happen if it cannot at least recuperate its massive production costs. Don’t worry though, you will get to see more James Cameron epics as more “Avatars” are set to be released.


 

Film Review – “Cold War”

COLD WAR
Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot
Directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 HR 29 mins
Amazon Studios 


Nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography), “Cold War” is an engaging yet tragic period drama that is much deserving of all its accolades.
Shot entirely in black-and-white with English subtitles,
writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski (“Ida”) deftly captures the
brutal essence of communist-controlled Eastern Europe while putting us
on a complicated, 15-year odyssey of obsession.
 
The story begins in 1949 Poland where the scars of a world war
are still fresh. A soft-spoken music director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, “Gods”)
is tapped to co-helm a school that’s intended to create a group of
talented young people to stage traditional, Polish folk dances. It is during
auditions at the bullet-ridden school that a crafty blonde singer named
Zula (Joanna Kulig, “Pitbull: Tough Women”) catches his eye.  Despite a warning about her troubled past, Wiktor and Zula develop a
secret, passionate love affair.
 
Two years later they have an opportunity to escape their communist
oppressors by crossing into West Berlin, but Zula chickens out while
the brooding Wiktor leaves her behind anyway to go carve out a life as
a jazz pianist in Paris. Even though lovers come and go as the years
pass by, Wiktor still regards Zula as the love of his life. His devotion to
her is so strong that he even risks being sent to a Polish prison when he
travels to Yugoslavia to watch Zula perform.
 
They only reunite when Zula marries an Italian man so she can get out
from behind the Iron Curtain to be with Wiktor. A successful singing
career begins to take shape with Wiktor accompanying her on piano.
However, her jealousy towards other women and her desire to be the
center of attention, especially Wiktor’s, leads Zula to run back to
communist Poland. Wiktor is desperate to follow her but he knows he
will be arrested if he does. It proves to be a fateful test of his devotion to
her.
 
Pawlikowski’s endeavor has all the feel of a film straight out of 1957 as
he channels the bleak repression the peoples of Eastern Europe faced
under Soviet dominance. There is a paranoid sense that there are eyes
everywhere, and in some instances its true. It’s this omnipresent fear he
generates with his script that gives Zula and Wiktor’s relationship a
palpable edginess. Their romance is so much like a careening roller
coaster that it makes it difficult to accurately predict its outcome.
 
Kulig is brilliant as she infuses a sense of instability into Zula. In a
way, you want to yell out in vain to Wiktor to stay away from her,
but his devotion runs so deep that he is beyond help. This obsession is
played with expert subtlety by Kot and skillful direction by Pawlikowski
who keeps the pacing brisk with a short running time. Never mind the
critical darling that is “Roma.” Instead, go see “Cold War.” Trust me,
there’s nothing cold about it.

Film Review – “On the Basis of Sex”



ON THE BASIS OF SEX
Starring:  Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer
Directed by: Mimi Leder
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hrs
Focus Features

In the era of the Me Too movement, the biographical drama “On the Basis of Sex” has the appearance of fitting in with the times as it highlights the early struggles against oppressive sexism by current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While it contains all the necessary components of a story that you know will be uplifting in the end, it often feels like it should come with shiny wrapping paper and big red bow. While the story makes it clear how difficult it was for Ginsburg to launch her legal career simply because of her gender, the film is too generic for its own good. Inspiring? Yes. Different from a myriad of other inspirational, biographical dramas? Not so much. 

It’s 1956 and director Mimi Leder (“Deep Impact,” “The Peacemaker”) does a great job with the first shot of the film by having a sidewalk crammed with emotionless male law students and professors walking to class clad in drab suits. In the middle of it all there is a singular woman in a blue dress standing out from the nameless crowd. The talented Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”) generates a sense of wide-eyed excitement as Ruth, but she also manages to show us there is a determined confidence within the aspiring attorney. 

Ruth not only has to force reluctant Harvard professors to pay her any serious attention, embodied by a law dean (Sam Waterston) with a paternalistic attitude towards his few female students, but she also has to balance being newly married to aspiring tax attorney Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) and being a new mother. Further complications arise when Martin is given a grim diagnosis of testicular cancer with less than a 10% chance to survive. Ruth’s resolve is such that she attends Martin’s classes as well as her own as he battles his illness. 

Ultimately, Martin recovers and becomes a rising star at a law firm while Ruth is unable to get any jobs because of her gender. She relents her pursuit and by 1970 has established herself as a law professor at Rutgers University. Her life and career are forever changed, though, when Martin presents her a gender-based tax case involving a bachelor who was denied a tax deduction based upon the fact he never married. The Ginsburgs see it as an opportunity to start breaking down every law in the country that discriminates against gender, but first they must win their case, which proves to be more daunting than Ruth could have ever imagined. It all sets up a dramatic courtroom climax that we have seen in some variation or form many times before. 

“On the Basis of Sex” is an inspiring film with nice performances and a nice story. However, there isn’t a wow factor to it or anything that leaves a lasting impression afterwards, with a possible exception of Jones’ solid performance. Ginsburg’s impressive legal career is already well-documented, yet we don’t see enough of what her private life was like, much less what she was like while growing up. There is an emotional connection we are not able to quite establish with her because of this void, albeit there is one brief story Martin relates to their teen daughter about Ruth’s relationship with her mother. 

The story flows easily but it fails to get down and dirty considering the offensiveness of the situation women of the times faced then, and still face today. And to be fair, where is the inspirational movie about the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court – Sandra Day O’Connor? Shouldn’t her tale of sacrifice and ceilings shattered be told as well? “On the Basis of Sex” is a decent film that’s enjoyable but not impactful.

Film Review: “Green Book”

GREEN BOOK
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali
Directed by: Peter Farrelly
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hrs 10 mins
Universal

 Nominated by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in five categories at the upcoming 2019 Golden Globes, including Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, “Green Book” is one of the most acclaimed films of 2018 with 49 nominations from various cinema-related organizations. Inspired by a true story, this period drama is a surprisingly complex, emotional work considering its director, Peter Farrelly, is best known for comedic fare like “Shallow Hal” and “Dumb & Dumber.” With “Green Book,” Farrelly captures the stark racial divide of 1962 America with an exploration of the relationship between Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as they travel across the Midwest and Deep South. 

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Tony Lip is a man you don’t want to mess with as he is the kind of tough guy who will hit you when you get out of line and will hit you harder if you strike back. Tony is thus the right fit as a bouncer at a New York City nightclub that’s frequented by wise guys from the Italian mob. However, despite their efforts to lure him to their line of business, Tony stays on the straight and narrow, sort of, as he is more than happy with being a devoted family man. Now while that’s all well and good, Tony has a set of racist attitudes towards people of color, exemplified when he tosses two water glasses into the trash after two black handymen drink from them in his house. When the nightclub he works at is shut down for remodeling, Tony Lip resorts to all sorts of ways to earn money for his family, including his participation in an impromptu eating contest that gets him fifty dollars. Thanks to his reputation as a man who can get things done, Tony Lip is called in to interview for a job as a driver for famed classical pianist Don Shirley.

It doesn’t go well at first because while Tony Lip is about as uneducated and uncultured as they come, Don holds multiple degrees and can speak several languages. Ultimately, Don hires Tony Lip because he needs someone who can protect him during a two-month concert tour that will take them through the heart of the segregated Deep South. As the two men learn more about each other, the more their divides begin to melt away to be replaced with curiosity and even friendship. This is helped by the conditions they witness as Don experiences for the first time the true pain of segregation and Tony Lip has his eyes opened to the injustice of it all.

Farrelly’s creation, with its terrific music selection, costumes and lingo, puts us in a time machine that takes us back to an America that had yet to lose its so-called innocence to assassinations and the Vietnam War. “Green Book” reminds us that that innocence was tainted with bigotry and hatred. It also reminds us how ignorance can be overcome with unity. In addition to its smartly written script and solid direction, “Green Book” contains a pair of dare I say Oscar nomination worthy performances. Mortensen dazzles with his knack to bring to life every subtle nuance of the characters he plays. This role is no exception as he helps make Tony Lip someone we can truly care about even though in the beginning it’s a little tough to do. Ali, a 2017 Oscar winner for “Moonlight,” gives Don a vulnerable sophistication while also breathing out a certain degree of naivete without seeming to break a sweat. It all adds up to “Green Book” being the type of rare movie where everyone can feel a little bit happier about the world when the lights go back on.