by Brandon Thomas
Based on real events, Unsilenced follows a group of students as they navigate the political turmoil around the 1999 Chinese ban of religious movement Falun Gong.
As the crackdown against Falun Gong practitioners intensifies, the students find themselves in the crosshairs of the Chinese government through their refusal to adhere to the ban. American journalist Daniel Davis (Sam Trammell of True Blood) begins to dig into the torture and suppression surrounding the Falun Gong ban when the students go into hiding. When their paths meet, both the students and Daniel have to make a choice about how important the truth is.
Hard-hitting political movies aren’t a new phenomenon here in America. From All the President’s Men to JFK and Selma, movies depicting real-life political events and movements are a part of our cinematic DNA. The same can’t be said for places such as China, which is now one of the top movie-going countries in the world. Films challenging China’s political history never come out of the country itself, and even those foreign-made films face increased scrutiny and push-back from the Communist nation.
Despite the potential “touchiness” of the subject matter, director Leon Lee has made a film that is almost devoid of subtlety. The direct messaging feels purposeful, as Lee crafts a film much more interested in delivering a message than telling a strong story. The story still resonates, but through a guise of a TV movie-of-the-week with on-the-nose performances and flat photography.
Even with the narrative clumsiness, Unsilenced manages to have some thrilling moments. The segments featuring Trammell as the American reporter work the best as they threaten to take the story into more of a political thriller than a drama. The shoe-horning in of a Western white guy isn’t the best of looks these days, but it’s interesting how Lee’s focus as a director narrows during these scenes.
Although Unsilenced suffers somewhat from that lack of subtlety, the message being conveyed comes through a lens of genuine caring. Lee’s entire filmmaking career to this point has focused on human rights. While most of that work has been through documentary film, Lee’s few segues into narrative features have kept the spotlight on the issues that are important to him as an artist. Even if the final product isn’t a home run, it’s impressive to see a filmmaker tackle an issue over and over with the same fiery passion.
The King’s Daughter
by George Wolf
If The King’s Daughter seems like an uninspired title, keep it mind it does roll off the tongue a bit better than “Just Release It in January and Get It Off the Books Already!”
Because after nearly seven years in limbo, the film’s arrival has the distinct smell of rushed opportunism in a very quiet week of openers.
Vonda McIntyre’s source novel “The Moon and the Sun” beat out George R.R. Martin’s “A Games of Thrones” for the Nebula Award (best science fiction/fantasy novel) in 1997, and a film adaptation was set to begin two years later. But years of studio and cast changes pushed filming to 2014, only to have the planned 2015 release pulled at the last minute for vague reasons about more time for special effects work.
Well, whoever’s been working on these effects for the last several years should be arrested for stealing, right alongside those responsible for turning a thoughtful sci-fi allegory into a weak-sauced YA reimagining of The Princess Diaries.
Yes, that is the voice of Julie Andrews, narrating the picture book introduction to the story of young Marie-Josephe (Kaya Scodelario), a talented musician who’s living in a convent unaware that she’s really the daughter of King Louis XIV of France (Pierce Brosnan).
Then, under the guise of needing a new royal composer, Dad summons Marie to where there’s a makeover waiting, along with the promise of an arranged marriage to a man Marie doesn’t love (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), adventure with a swashbuckling sailor she does (Benjamin Walker), and a heartless plan to cut the life force from a captured mermaid (Bingbing Fan under some terrible CGI) so it can make the king immortal.
Director Sean McNamara (Soul Surfer) and veteran screenwriter Ronald Bass (Rain Man, The Joy Luck Club, Waiting to Exhale) paint it all with the broadest of brushes and an impatient, illogical pace that begs you not to think much at all.
Scodelario is a charismatic presence, both Brosnan and William Hurt (as the Court’s High Priest) seem to enjoy elevating the material, and some of the interior set pieces are lovely and lavishly presented. So what gives with the outdoors? What action there is boasts all the authenticity of a live-action theme park show and some not-nearly-ready-for-prime-time underwater effects.
But hey, Scodelario and Walker met while filming, and now they’re married with two kids! So take it away legendary Julie Andrews:
“And they live happily ever after….”
The Pink Cloud
by George Wolf
Want to know tomorrow’s lottery numbers today? Check in with filmmaker Iuli Gerbase, because if The Pink Cloud (A Nuvem Rosa) is any indication, she’s got a window to the future.
And the first of many fascinating aspects in the film comes right up front, when a disclaimer lets you know that Gerbase wrote the script for her debut feature in 2017, filming it two years later.
The timeline may not seem like much at first, but soon you’re wondering how your perception of the film might change if that disclaimer was placed at the end, or perhaps not even placed at all.
Giovana (Renata de Lélis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonça) are a Brazilian couple waking up on a terrace after what appears to be a one-night stand when a government warning orders them inside. There’s a strange pink cloud in the sky, and it’s lethal after just ten seconds of exposure.
Welcome to a new world of quarantine.
Except in 2022 that premise is anything but new, which instantly gives the film an ironic prescience that’s just as likely to attract an audience as it is to repel it.
As the days of lockdown turn to weeks and then to years, Gerbase crafts a quietly unsettling clash of the complex intimacies seen in The Woman in the Dunes and Room with a more universal rumination on how the seams of a population react to forced isolation.
And while our shared experience the last two years will reveal some of Gerbase’s internal logic to be a bit unsteady, she hits an eerie amount of bulls-eyes, including one bit of dialog that lands as much more of a reveal than Gerbase could have possibly imagined.
On a video chat with Giovana, a desperate friend tearfully pleads for any salvation from the crippling loneliness, leading the film to a Twilight Zone moment that dramatically re-frames the arrogance driving one of today’s biggest flashpoint issues.
Lélis and Mendonça both deliver wonderfully insightful performances, as their characters try their best to make a go of a relationship never meant to be long term. The cloud works on Giovana and Yago in different ways, leading to some extreme measures as they drift away from each other and then slowly back again.
Disclaimers aside, The Pink Cloud is an absorbing peek inside the delusions that hide our frailties. But viewing it through the lens of our recent history reveals a filmmaker finely tuned to human nature who should command more attention in the future.
by Hope Madden
Making her feature debut behind the camera, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about women unable to find a place to truly belong. The film is Passing, and Hall mines Larsen’s insight and longing to produce a visually stunning, melancholy period piece.
Filmed appropriately and gorgeously in black and white, Passing transports us to the Harlem Renaissance. Irene (Tessa Thompson), wealthy wife of a doctor, pulls her fashionable hat down a little over her eyes and shops in upscale, very white boutiques looking for the book her son must have for his birthday.
She then cautiously risks an afternoon tea in a high-rent bistro, intrigued but terrified of being discovered as she passes for white. A familiar laugh rings through the room and Irene is recognized, not by angry white faces, but by an almost unfamiliar blonde — high school friend Clare (Ruth Negga), whose entire life is built on the falsehood Irene only flirts with for an afternoon.
What follows is a relationship fraught with anxiety, envy and yearning as two people consider what might have been and what might still be, depending on how they position themselves in the divided racial culture of 1920s NYC.
The languid beauty and comment on class play like a more delicate take on Gatsby, Hall subtly drawing attention not only to the racial divide but to the socioeconomic divide within Irene’s own home and life. Never showy, never heavy-handed, the film’s themes prick at the audience just as they slowly, cumulatively wound Irene.
Thompson delivers an introspective performance unlike anything thus far in her impressive career. A great deal of Irene’s arc plays across Thompson’s face, but an early, cynical burst of laughter and other small gestures speak volumes as Irene’s satisfaction with life drains away.
Negga is superb, just incandescent and haunting as a damaged, elegant survivor. For all her glitter and glamour, Clare haunts the screen. The tenderness between the two characters haunts, as well, delivering a sorrowful tone at odds and yet in keeping with the glorious, snow-globe-esque set design.
Hall might seem an unusual talent to deliver such a richly textured examination of the Black experience in America, but she took inspiration from her own grandfather, a Black man who passed for white. Whatever the background, the result is a meticulously crafted, deeply felt gem of a film.
Nocturna Side A & B
Argentinian filmmaker Gonzalo Calzada has been thinking pretty hard about time, sin and redemption. This week he invites you to two sides of the same story. Side A — The Great Old Man’s Night shadows ninetysomething Ulises (a heartbreaking Pepe Soriano) on his last night on this earth.
Like a surreal take on Michael Haneke’s Amour, the film puts you in the shoes (likely slippers) of a man who’s never sure what’s real and not real, someone struggling to do what’s right and yet terrified that everything he’s doing is wrong.
Soriano’s befuddled, valiant performance never feels less than authentic. As grief and regret call up memories that blur with a reality that’s already smeary from dementia, Soriano keeps you as off-balance as his character. The performance aches with tenderness for this man, and it’s that tenderness that gives Calzada’s film its haunting poignancy.
Set inside a once-elegant, now crumbling Buenos Aires apartment, The Great Old Man’s Night becomes a kind of haunted house tale, the building itself an image of the ravages of time. But where the set feels of decay, Soriano finds the bridge between age-related confusion and the wistful wonder of childhood.
Calzada returns to the same Buenos Aires apartment building for Side B – Where Elephants Go to Die. Essentially the same film told from a different perspective, Side B is no Rashomon trick.
For this track, the filmmaker sees regret, loneliness and time as a loop. And once this loop is recorded, it becomes a trap. For that reason, Side B becomes an outright ghost story and horror film.
Calzada’s themes are the same, as are his characters and setting. The approach is different, though. More experimental in nature, at barely an hour, Side B is also more tedious.
Rather than any kind of traditional narrative, the film strings together hauntingly poetic images narrated with voiceover soliloquies. This may have worked far better in Calzado’s native tongue, but the length of these monologues makes reading English subtitles difficult. Reading and also paying attention to the images dancing across the screen is frequently impossible.
Stylized treatment and herky-jerky editing do give the film an unnerving time loop quality, but scenes mainly feel stale. The imagery lacks a traditional storyline, which means that sequences need to hint at a story that wants to be unearthed. On the whole, these vignettes feel like stories you’ve already heard, usually more than once.
Side B is best digested as a tandem piece to Side A, an appendix of sorts. But the real treat is watching a film that values an old man, sees his humanity and contribution through his last breaths. For that reason among others, Side A is the novel and impressive work.
Nocturna Side A – The Great Old Man’s Night
Nocturna Side B – Where Elephants Go to Die
A Shot Through the Wall
by Rachel Willis
“It’s important … that I understand your side of the story.”
Writer and director Aimee Long tackles a big topic with her debut feature, A Shot Through the Wall. Focusing on the aftermath of the shooting of a Black man shot by a police officer, Long tries to present the issue in shades of gray rather than the black and white portrayal often warring in the news or across social media.
When two police officers stop a group of Black teenagers on the street, a chase leads to an accidental shooting.
In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, Officer Michael Tan (Kenny Leu) draws his weapon in the pursuit of one of the teenagers and his gun discharges. Whether the result of a misfire or a jumpy trigger finger is never made clear, but that’s not Long’s point. From Tan’s perspective -and his is the one on which we’re focused – it’s an accident.
This is one of the more troubling aspects of Long’s film. While it’s made clear from the beginning that Tan never meant to hurt anyone, we’re not given the alternative perspective of what the killing of a Black man at police hands means for the family or the community.
A moment in the film’s first act allows us a chance to see the anger and the demand for justice, but this is depicted as a blanket response. No one takes the time to show us how the hole in the wall of an apartment rips a hole in so many lives. Be it accidental or intentional, the result is more victims of an unjust system.
The only chance we get to understand the victim’s side comes in the form of Tan’s fiancée, a Black woman. Portrayed by Ciara Renée, Candace is the strongest character as her dual role in the conflict gives us a little more insight.
However, that’s not to say the other actors don’t inhabit their roles. Each one brings depth that makes up for the film’s storytelling weaknesses.
A few tough questions are raised in the film. Is Tan’s race a factor in his indictment? Would a white cop face the same legal persecution?
There is strength in the film’s second act, as we get a chance to know Tan, but it falls apart at the end. The idea that violence begets violence leads to a (forgive the pun) cop out.
There is no real justice to find here. Only more of the same in a society where oppression and injustice are too often the norm.
A Mouthful of Air
by Hope Madden
Writer Amy Koppelman does not fear the murky, unpopular waters of an unredeemed female protagonist. She challenges you to face that character and recognize your own discomfort, your own desire to either wag your finger or to pity, but not to understand.
Her novel I Smile Back gave Sarah Silverman fodder for a blistering, unforgettable lead role in Adam Salky’s uneven 2015 film adaptation. What Silverman ran with was the notion that depression and trauma create selfishness, necessarily, and audiences hate to see selfishness in women.
It’s that tension that makes A Mouthful of Air so devastating. Directing her adaptation of her own novel, Koppelman taps Amanda Seyfried to play Julie Davis, a children’s book author and struggling new mom.
Seyfried’s performance aches with tenderness and raw emotion, but she never caves in, never makes Julie more sympathetic than she should be. Once again, the tension in the film is the reality that your own personal demons demand as much from those who love you as they demand from you.
A Mouthful of Air is not entirely forgiving of all those who orbit Julie — the sister-in-law (Jennifer Carpenter) who’s protective of her brother, the mother (Amy Irving) whose love and lived-in dysfunction play such a role, the father (Michael Gaston). Neither does it condemn. Instead, Koppelman attempts to show the human complexities at work in relationships weighed down with trauma.
Finn Wittrock excels at finding a human center — tender, desperate, angry, compassionate – in an underwritten, heroic character. The great Paul Giamatti lends his considerable talent to a small but important role.
As was the case with I Smile Back, A Mouthful of Air prefers to hint at past trauma co-mingling with chronic depression without spelling anything out. The result is both appealing in the way it avoids easy answers and problematic in its vagueness.
That vagueness is part and parcel of a script that, even with its bravery in depicting an honest truth about motherhood that most films avoid or deny outright, still feels superficial.
There’s power here, especially in Seyfried’s raw performance. For all its flaws, A Mouthful of Air is a film you’ll be thinking about long after the credits roll.
Addiction is its own horror story, which may explain why so many filmmakers use monstrous imagery as metaphor for addiction. We count down the best horror films that use addiction to freak you out.
5. Enter the Void (2009)
Gaspar Noe films from the point of view of Oscar, an American who deals drugs in Tokyo. When Oscar is shot in a police raid, the camera follows his subconscious as Noe tries to illustrate a nightmarish link between drugs and death.
Noe’s trademarks – jarring opening credits, roller coaster camerawork, extended takes – are all here, and the result is a nearly two-and-a-half hour barrage of extreme violence, graphic sex, drug-fueled hallucinations and an often hypnotizing gloom that may leave you feeling physically beaten. It’s an experience. But like most of Noe’s work, it’s also hard to turn away from, even if you want to.
4. Habit (1995)
Writer/director/star Larry Fessenden explores alcoholism via vampire symbolism in this NY indie. Fessenden plays Sam, a longtime drunk bohemian type in the city. He’s recently lost his father, his longtime girlfriend finally cut bait, and he runs into a woman who is undoubtedly out of his league at a party.
And then he wakes up naked and bleeding in a park.
The whole film works beautifully as an analogy for alcoholism without crumbling under the weight of metaphor. Fessenden crafts a wise, sad vampiric tale here and also shines as its lead.
3. The Addiction (1995)
Like most of director Abel Ferrara’s work, the film is an overtly stylish, rhythmically urban tale of brutal violence, sin and redemption (maybe). Expect drug use, weighty speeches and blood in this tale of a doctoral candidate in philosophy (Lili Taylor) over-thinking her transformation from student to predator.
Taylor cuts an interesting figure as Kathleen, a very grunge-era vampire in her jeans, Doc Martens and oversized, thrift store blazer. She’s joined by an altogether awesome cast—Annabella Sciorra, Edie Falco and Christopher Walken among them.
Ferrara parallels Kathleen’s need for blood to drug addiction, but uses her philosophy jibberish to plumb humanity’s historical bloodlust.
2. Evil Dead (2013)
With the helpful pen of Oscar winner Diablo Cody (uncredited), Fede Alvarez turns all the particulars of the Evil Dead franchise on end. You can tick off so many familiar characters, moments and bits of dialog, but you can’t predict what will happen.
One of the best revisions is the character of Mia: the first to go and yet the sole survivor. An addict secluded in this cabin in the woods with her brother and friend specifically to detox, she’s the damaged one, and the female who’s there without a male counterpart, which means (by horror standards), she’s the one most likely to be a number in the body count, but because of what she has endured in her life she’s able to make seriously tough decisions to survive – like tearing off her own damn arm. Nice!
Plus, it rains blood! How awesome is that?!
1. Resolution (2012)
Michael (Chris Cilella) is lured to a remote cabin, hoping to save his friend Chris (Vinny Curan) from himself. Chris will detox whether he wants to or not, then Michael will wash his hands of this situation and start again with his wife and unborn baby.
But Michael is in for more than he bargained, and not only because Chris has no interest in detoxing. Directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (working from Benson’s screenplay) begin with a fascinating and bizarre group of characters and a solid story, layering on bizarre notions of time, horror and storytelling in ways that are simultaneously familiar and wildly unique. The result is funny, tense, and terrifying.