Unpacking Adjectives

C’mon C’mon

by Hope Madden

In looking back over the notes I took as I screened Mike Mills’s latest feature, I find more single words than helpful phrases or insights. I wrote down these words: intimate, vulnerable, hopeful, sincere, earnest.

In other words, C’mon C’mon is a Mike Mills film.

The filmmaker’s most memorable movies dig deep into one connection within a family to see how that tumult ripples out to the rest of our hero’s relationships. Beginners pitted a man’s evolving bond with his aging father (Christopher Plummer, who took home an Oscar for the role). Six years later, Mills digs into mother/son issues with the incandescent 20th Century Women. (Mills nabbed his first Oscar nomination for the screenplay.)

In C’mon C’mon, a man’s changing relationship with his young nephew mirrors his deepening bond with his estranged sister. That man, Johnny, is played by Joaquin Phoenix, who presumably does not need to be described as one of the greatest actors working today because everyone knows that by now.

Phoenix is particularly endearing in this film, hitting those earlier adjectives with such authenticity it would be very easy to believe he simply loved the little boy he was spending all this time with, regardless of the amount of energy a 9-year-old sucks from you, not to mention the frustration that comes with that territory.

Jesse, the 9-year-old, is played by quite an amazing actor himself. Woody Norman (love that name!) shoulders the responsibility of being precocious, frustrating, brilliant, adorable, tender and human. He soars, and his chemistry with Phoenix couldn’t be more charming or genuine.

So many adjectives!

Gaby Hoffmann deserves one, too, because she’s wonderful as well as Norman’s mom, Johnny’s sister Viv. Viv needs to look in on Jesse’s father, a bipolar musician who’s bitten off more than he can chew with his new job, new apartment and new dog. Johnny agrees to look after Jesse, eventually bringing the boy along with him to New York and then New Orleans where Johnny interviews kids for a radio program.

Johnny is finding out how the world looks to a child and realizing that it is genuinely terrifying.

Both sound design and cinematography also need to be acclaimed as adjective worthy as well, because this film looks and sounds amazing.

Mills blends the interviews (of non-actors whose responses are not scripted) with the fictional relationships among Johnny, Jesse and Viv. The blending of reality with fiction is seamless enough to buoy the sense of authenticity and heighten a mood of empathy.

As is true with Beginners and 20th Century Women, C’mon C’mon wraps the messy, awkward, disappointing realities of being human in a blanket of hope. As cloying as that sounds, the film is so sincere it’s hard to deny its warmth.

Family Matters

Encounter

by Hope Madden

Just two features in, filmmaker Michael Pearce is proving himself a master craftsman. His sly ability to shift tone is matched by storytelling instincts that leave you holding your breath against seemingly inevitable heartbreak.

Pearce’s 2017 film Beast (see it if you haven’t!) benefitted from Jessie Buckley’s raw, morally complicated performance. For his latest, Encounter, he can thank Riz Ahmed.

Fresh off his Oscar-nominated turn in Sound of Metal (see it if you haven’t!), Ahmed delivers another searing, searching turn, this time as Malik. A marine with 10 tours under his belt, Malik returns to the home his wife makes with another man. He arrives not to cause familial conflict, but to save his sons (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada, both as cute as they are talented) from a problem much bigger than mere marital discord.

Ahmed’s chemistry with the young actors brings a touching vulnerability to every scene, and as the boys’ road trip turns ever darker and wearier, Chauhan proves a formidable acting partner.

Rare missteps stand out specifically because of their rarity. When a line delivery rings false, over-the-top or melodramatic it screams its presence because this cast and this script deftly convey so much so honestly.

Octavia Spencer offers support in a role that feels out of step with the jarring authenticity the main cast brings to an otherwise wild, almost sci-fi storyline. Likewise, the police force Spencer’s parole officer Hattie rides along with — soft-spoken Shep (Rory Cochrane) and self-satisfied Lance (Shane McRae) — toe the line between character and cliché.

Otherwise, though, Pearce, Ahmed and gang uncover tensions and complications, picking at your worries for these sweet boys and their beautifully damaged father. Tone shifts gradually but decidedly, every moment building a queasying energy until the inevitable finale (a beautifully choreographed sequence that calls to mind the insect infestation imagery of Act 1 while articulating the nerve-frazzling tension).

The filmmaker and his game lead challenge expectations both in theme and in genre, and while their gamble doesn’t entirely pay off, it’s often riveting stuff.

Sheep’s Clothing

Wolf

by George Wolf

More metaphorical than Cuckoo’s Nest, more elusive than Girl, Interrupted, and with less satirical bite than The Lobster, Wolf brings a few other films to mind. But like many of her characters, writer/director Nathalie Biancheri is committed to her own different animal.

George MacKay is hypnotic as Jacob, a young man suffering from species dysphoria. He believes he is a wolf trapped in a human’s body, and when we first meet Jacob, his distraught parents are dropping him off for an extended stay at a treatment center promising a cure.

Once inside, Jacob meets others in similar circumstances: Parrot (Lola Petticrew), German Shepard (Fionn O’Shea), Duck (Senan Jennings), Horse (Elsa Fionuir) and Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp) – all patients under the domineering thumb of The Zookeeper (Paddy Considine).

Though enemies in the wild, Wolf and Wildcat become drawn to each other within the confines of the treatment center. She’s mysterious, with privileges the other patients don’t enjoy, which comes in mighty handy when Wolf starts resisting The Zookeeper’s increasingly harsh methods.

Biancheri’s metaphor for conversion therapy certainly isn’t hard to pick out, but on a wider scale, her film speaks not only to ignorance toward the LBGTQ+ community, but to a universal push for conformity across all lanes of society. To The Zookeeper, a happy and productive life comes only when you accept what is expected of you, and while Biancheri often juggles different tones within this theme, she is able to craft several moments of powerful humanity, including a structured lesson on laughing that will just about break your heart.

MacKay (1917, The True History of the Kelly Gang) is such a wonderful actor, and it’s no surprise that he’s able to uncover Jacob’s inner conflict with a touching, understated depth. But even beyond that, his command of the role’s animal physicality is powerful and striking.

As Wolf and Wildcat grow closer, MacKay and Depp (also impressive in a comparatively underwritten role) often seemed locked in to an acting school exercise on primal instincts that left the rest of the class in the dust.

There’s more than enough here – from the narrative core to the stellar ensemble to the clinical production design and beyond – for a compelling and thought provoking parable. But while Biancheri’s ambitions are bold and worthy, her second feature (after 2019’s Nocturnal) can’t quite settle on a species.

Such commitment to a unique identity is certainly thematically consistent, but a more streamlined focus may have made the finale feel less abrupt, and brought more clarity to Wolf‘s high concept vision.

The Story of My Life

Flee

by George Wolf

Like so many other headlines of numbing enormity that we regularly scroll past, stories of the worldwide refugee crisis rarely come with an intimacy that makes the stakes feel palpable. Flee brings an animated face to the discussion, using one man’s incredible story to re-frame the issue with soul-stirring humanity.

Director and co-writer Jonas Poher Rasmussen identifies the man as Amin Nawabi. Amin’s on the verge on marriage, a life change that seems to compel him to reveal the secrets of his life story for the very first time. Despite happy plans for the future, the fact that the name Amin Nawabi is a pseudonym comes as a bittersweet reminder of how the past continues to haunt this soul’s present.

Amin’s earliest memories are of his native Kabul in the early 1980s when the Mujahideen took charge in Afghanistan and the dangers began. Amin’s father was deemed a “threat” and arrested. While his older brother was able to escape the bloody battles with U.S. troops, Amin and the rest of his family begin years of attempts to flee the country.

But even under such a harrowing veil, Rasmussen finds a sweet innocence to propel Amin’s coming-of-age story. Bedroom posters of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris wink back at the young Amin, as his gentle adult voice recounts an ever-present realization that he was attracted to men, and that he had one more reason to always be on guard.

A successful cross into Russia only changes the specifics of oppression, leaving Amin under constant threat of discovery, deportation and corrupt police. (One incident where Amin manages to escape their greed leaves a lasting scar on him, and on us.)

The animated wartime recollections — punctuated with scattershot live action moments — do bring the Oscar-nominated Waltz with Bashir to mind, but Rasmussen may well have preferred a completely live action narrative if he did not have an identity to protect. Using Amin’s actual voice in their conversations adds startling depth to the reenacted memories, and as our childlike comfort with animated scenes clashes with the uncomfortable scenes depicted, Flee‘s bracing resonance only intensifies.

And after all that Amin endures, as the horrors in his story gradually diminish and we see his fiancé Kaspar gently nudging Amin to accept the peace in the next stage of their lives, the full weight of the struggle emerges.

We yearn for Amin to let go of the past even as we know it is what defines him. He lives each day as a testament to those whose sacrifices enabled him to finally find something that feels like home.

What’s left is a hope that giving voice to his burdens may finally set him free, and lead to a greater understanding of the many voices yet unheard.

Sister Act

Benedetta

by Hope Madden

In 17th Century Italy, a nun challenged the church as well as social and sexual norms, rallying a town around her. Was she a charlatan? Was she a saint? Regardless, she seems to be a fascinating image of early feminism. You’ll have to imagine that yourself, though, because her story has been brought to the screen by Paul Verhoeven, which means her story is now soft-core porn.

Who would have thought that the director behind Showgirls would eventually make a hot lesbian nun movie? I mean, besides everyone.

Verhoeven challenged preconceptions about himself as a filmmaker (mine, anyway) in 2012 when he released the most discombobulating rape-revenge thriller, Elle. A masterstroke of a performance by Isabelle Huppert certainly helped.

With Benedetta, Verhoeven takes another shot at ogling the female form inside a context that suggests that ogling is really empowering.

Benedetta (Virginie Efira) was dedicated to the Virgin Mary as a young child by her wealthy father and has been at the convent since she was 10. She’s content, a devoted disciple. As an adult, though, the sexual awakening triggered by new novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) coincides with ecstatic visions of both righteous and demonic leanings.

Is Benedetta crying out for attention and power, or is something supernatural truly afoot?

That right there — the question of the source of these visions, whether the result of a lust for power, true divine intervention, or undiagnosed schizophrenia — might have given Verhoeven’s film a cogent central conflict.

Naturally, his interest is in the sexual awakening.

Which is fine, if uninspired. You might be surprised by how many films you can find that depict shockingly attractive sisters engaging in nun-on-nun action. (I recommend Alucarda.)

At well over two hours, the film feels remarkably self-indulgent. There are the requisite nods toward the corruption of the church, but Verhoeven, who co-wrote an adaptation of Judith Brown’s book with David Birke, earns points for sidestepping the demonizing of the Mother Superior and the other nuns.

Instead, the always luminous Charlotte Rampling portrays Mother Superior as a wise, graceful and respectable businesswoman working within a profoundly misogynistic system. Scenes between Rampling and Lambert Wilson, as the ambitious and crooked head of the regional church, spark with wit and cynicism.

Still, the director cannot pass up the opportunity to fetishize an act of church-sanctioned torture. One step up, two steps back and all that.

If you’re longing for a film about women and the historical, hysterical afflictions they faced because they were women, but you really miss seeing these lessons from a leeringly male perspective, I have a hard time imagining a film that better suits your mood than Benedetta.

Everybody Be Cool, This Is a Robbery

Blonde. Purple

by Christie Robb

The story of a bank heist gone awry, writer/director Marcus Flemmings’ Blonde. Purple owes a great deal to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Both films share a nonlinear structure, include references to pop culture, have a dark sense of humor, include characters speaking in verbose monologues quoting Great Works of Literature, and have key scenes taking place in a little diner.

In the case of Blonde. Purple, there is more of an identifiable A storyline. Julian Moore-Cook’s bank robber has retreated into a mortgage lender’s office at the bank he was trying to rob after his partner was shot by the cops. In his attempt to flee, he left the cash behind but grabbed a 16-year-old girl as a hostage (Ellie Bindman).

Soon a police crisis manager calls him on the phone to try to negotiate next steps.

How the various elements came together to get both the robber and hostage to this point are covered in the other sequences preceded by intertitles.

Moore-Cook and Bindman are not particularly strong actors. Their banter is ok, but their more emotional moments tend to be somewhat over the top—more appropriate to the stage than the screen.

Adam J. Bernard does strand out as Nath, the partner who was shot. His performance in the flashbacks is more natural and a monologue he gives on the difference between films and movies citing Nicholas Cage projects is charming.

Overall though, the movie is weak with some scenes that seem included simply to give more actors parts to play rather than to contribute to the plot. Also somewhat jarring is the fact that about half of the actors speak with British accents. It gives the film a bit of a Guy Ritchie vibe but adds to a sense of confusion as to the setting.

If the fun of Pulp Fiction was its post-modern remix of pop culture tropes, Blonde. Purple feels like a copy of a copy of a copy, unfocused and messy. It lacks the sense of innovation and the style that made Tarantino’s work so groundbreaking in the 90s.

Hard Candy Christmas

The Advent Calendar

by Hope Madden

Who needs a new Christmas horror story?

I do. Y’all can have your Hallmark romances but give me a little yuletide carnage and I’m filled with holiday cheer.

This Christmas season, writer/director Patrick Ridremont comes through with the Belgian horror The Advent Calendar.

It’s been three years since the accident that put Eva (Eugénie Derouand) in a wheelchair, but it’s still sometimes tough for her to tolerate the ableism and ignorance of those around her. Luckily her bestie Sophie (Honorine Magnier) cheers her with a visit and a gift — an antique wooden advent calendar she picked up in Germany.

There are rules. There is candy. There will be blood. (But there is candy, so how bad can it be?)

The “be careful what you wish for” storyline is as vintage as the ornate and impressive prop, but cursed object horror can be powerful when done well. Ridremont does it well, allowing time for his ensemble to develop their characters. And though the film skirts cliché, Ridremont respects his audience’s ability to keep up. We’re not spoonfed.

Better still, Eva has depth enough as a character that when she finally moves willingly toward doing the wrong thing, you feel her resignation more than her selfishness.

Derouand portrays Eva’s bitterness and longing so clearly that the film never has to bow to montage or flashback. And when the time comes to get spooky, The Advent Calendar delivers.

There’s plenty of blood, but it’s the way it’s meted out that ramps up tensions. We start off with people we’re trained to want to see picked off, but viewer beware: there’s a beautiful mutt in danger here as the cursed object worms its way into Eva’s life.

The FX are not as impressive as the performances, unfortunately, but the creature itself is creepy as hell. Better still, his existence and the origin of the Advent Calendar are left a bit to the imagination. It’s a clever sleight of hand, Ridremont taking advantage of our familiarity with his subgenre when he needs to, while still leaving behind the tangy taste of mystery.

Fright Club: Best of Charles Band

Legendary indie horror filmmaker Charles Band joins Fright Club this week to talk about his new book Confessions of a Puppet Master, Marilyn Monroe, spotting talent, and VHS art. He even gives us some advice on our first feature film.

5. Trancers (1984)

Directed by Charles Band, the film follows a hard-boiled Blade Runner style mercenary into the past. Jack Death (Tim Thomerson) must stop a villain from killing off the ancestors of those who keep him from ruling the world. If they’re never born, he will be unstoppable, thanks to his army of zombielike Trancers.

The point is, Helen Hunt. To say that she makes the most of this material is an understatement. She’s adorable, charming, and she carves a memorable character out of less-than-stellar written material. The rest is fun, cheesy scifi.

4. Troll (1986)

The 1986 original Troll boasts a surprising hodgepodge of names in the ensemble: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Moriarty, June Lockhart (the mom from the Lost in Space TV show), Sonny Bono, as well as a who’s who of “Hey, I got to get out of here in time to be on that Love Boat episode” stardom. It’s a grab at the burgeoning genre Joe Dante created in 1984 with Gremlins, comic stuff about a troll king turning San Francisco apartment dwellers into plants.

The other thing that stands out in this 1986 flick is that the protagonist (and his father, come to think) is named Harry Potter. There’s a witch, too. Coincidence?

A good mash-up of humor and gore highlighted by the young Louis-Dreyfus in a small but funny role, it’s the kind of movie that epitomizes what producer Charles Band (who has a cameo) did best.

3. Rawhead Rex (1986)

Clive Barker penned this one. No, he did not like the film it turned out to be, but you might. Band produced this Irish horror that sees a wildly unhappy couple, their doomed children, and a small town on the Emerald Isle accosted by a reincarnated demon with a face that looks like raw meat.

Another memorable VHS cover made this one of those movies you immediately associate with video stores, and though the acting is hardly top quality, the creature design is hideous and fun.

2. Puppet Master (1989)

If any movie capitalized on the VHS box, it was Puppet Master. The tag Evil comes in all sizes looms large above a theatrical trunk, wedged open to show a group of hideous little puppets. And the film didn’t disappoint, because those little evildoers get themselves into all manner of bloody, slug-spewing trouble.

The point-of-view camerawork, fun cameos and inspired creature designs make up for a lot of script and acting weaknesses and the film easily carries that Charles Brand stamp: low budget, funny, campy, gory fun.

1. Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator boasts a good mix of comedy and horror, some highly subversive ideas, and one really outstanding villain. Band knew a movie worthy of distribution when he saw one, and this film became a surprising theatrical hit for him.

Jeffrey Combs, with his intense gaze and pout, his ability to mix comic timing with epic self-righteousness without turning to caricature, carries the film beginning to end. His Dr. Herbert West has developed a day-glo serum that reanimates dead tissue, but a minor foul-up with his experimentations – some might call it murder – sees him taking his studies to the New England medical school Miskatonic University. There he rents a room and basement laboratory from handsome med student Dan Caine (Bruce Abbott).

They’re not just evil scientists. They’re also really bad doctors.

The Impossible Dream

14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible

by George Wolf

Nirmal “Nims” Purja likes to keep a positive outlook.

“I’m not going to die today. Maybe tomorrow, but not today.”

And while tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us, Nims tends to tempt fate more than most. A mountaineer, adventurer and former member of the Special Forces in Nepal, Nims feels most alive when he’s dreaming big and living life on the edge.

Netflix’s 14 Peaks documents his biggest dream: summiting all 14 of the world’s 8,000 meter + peaks (26, 247 feet and above) in just 7 months. To put that in proper context, the previous record for achieving the feat was 7 years. And Reinhold Messner – one of the greatest legends in all of climbing – took 16 years to ascend all 14.

So the plan that Nims dubbed “Project Possible” was ambitious, to say the least, and Messner himself sets the stakes for us. To Messner, climbing these wonders of the world “is not fun.” It is a practice filled with pain, danger and death.

That said, Nims sure seems to be enjoying himself, and part of that is helping to document his own journey.

If you come to 14 Peaks only for the breathtaking visuals, you will not be disappointed, especially if you can view it on a wide screen. Director/co-writer Torquil Jones takes us above the clouds over and over again, utilizing sparkling, absolutely thrilling footage often taken by Nims himself (including his incredible shot of a 300-person Mt. Everest traffic jam that quickly went viral).

But Jones also mines tension through the attempts at fundraising for the project (where Nims admits “I sound like a lunatic’) and getting the clearance from the Chinese government to climb in Tibet. Intimacy comes from getting to know Nims himself, who turns out to be a fascinating and endearing subject. We see his preparations and the tests that reveal him to be genetically gifted for enduring high altitude/low oxygen environments, as well as Nim’s commitment to to helping fallen comrades on the mountain, and to getting recognition for the oft-nameless Sherpas who are invaluable to visiting climbers.

And, Jones lets us meet Nims’s family, establishing a touching contrast between his apparent lack of fear and the feeling of failure that comes from being away from his ailing mother as he climbs.

14 Peaks will help you discover both a man and a mission. Separately, they’re pretty compelling. Together, they’re a force of nature.