Category Archives: Uncategorized

Inconvenient Truth

Remember This

by Hope Madden

“What can we do that we are not already doing? Do we have a duty, a responsibility as individuals, to do something? Anything? And how do we know what to do?”

These words from Jan Karski, reluctant World War II hero and Holocaust witness, transcend the specific horrors Karski struggled with. They mean as much today as they did decades ago, and that’s just one reason Derek Goldman and Jeff Hutchens’s film Remember This strikes such a chord.

The other reason is David Strathairn. In a stirring performance, Strathairn brings Karski to life and he does it essentially on his own. Remember This is a one-man-show, a filmed stage play written by Goldman and colleague Clark Young, but co-directed by longtime cinematographer Hutchens (who also serves as DP). The combination brings a cinematic quality to the intimacy of the stage. But again, all of this is just support work, helping Strathairn compel your undivided, often teary attention for the full runtime.

The writing here is crisp and urgent and Strathairn delivers it beautifully. There’s nothing showy in his performance, and the unassuming delivery often lands harder than it would have with more drama.

Remembering attending mass and doing as his mother told him as a boy, “I was a good boy.” Recalling his pride to serve Poland and his befuddlement at the blitzkrieg: “Poland lost the war in 20 minutes.”

The poignant understatement serves an important purpose, because there’s no hint of exaggeration or drama or self-indulgence as the actor shares Karski’s recollections of the war, of the death camp, of his inability to persuade the leaders of the Allied forces that their immediate intervention was the only thing standing between Polish Jews and complete annihilation.

“Governments have no soul.”

Hutchens’s camera is subtle but its fluidity in orchestration with lighting, Roc Lee’s sound design, and Strathairn’s movement keep the film from ever feeling stagnant or stage bound. The final result is surprisingly unsentimental, Lee’s subtle score never overwhelming the delicate performance.

Strathairn talks, a broken figure filmed in stark, lovely black and white, and we learn what apathy and inaction can cause. It’s a heartbreaking lesson worth remembering.

“My faith tells me that the second original sin has been committed by humanity through commission or omission or self-imposed ignorance or insensitivity, self-interest, hypocrisy, heartless rationalization, or outright denial. This sin will haunt humanity to the end of time. It haunts me now. And I want it to be so.”

Or Don’t

Maybe I Do

by Hope Madden

Writer/director Michael Jacobs is best known for producing TV shows that speak to teens: My Two Dads, Boy Meets World, and Girl Meets World. But just seconds after what feels like the longest pre-film credits in the history of cinema, his feature film Maybe I Do makes certain we know this is not that.

The romantic dramedy enlists four truly great veteran talents to take a peek at romance, love, and existential angst in your sixties.

Grace (Diane Keaton, who executive produces) can’t help but notice Sam (William H. Macy), who’s sobbing at a foreign film as he dumps M&Ms into his popcorn tub. She reaches out to him because he “seems distressed.” He assumes that, as she is also alone at a movie, she, too, is distressed.

She admits she is, but honestly, there’s nothing wrong with going alone to the movies. I’m saying that, not Diane.

Anyway, they bond. Meanwhile, Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon quietly out-hot each other. And across town, young Michelle (Emma Roberts) questions an uncertain future with Allen (Luke Bracey).

So, the film offers three different vignettes of couples talking, arguing, and ruminating about love until worlds collide in the most obvious and contrived way possible. The sheer volume of cliches at work here could drown out almost anything of value, but how do you dismiss a film starring Macy, Keaton, Sarandon and Gere? Even the tritest dollops of wisdom sound charming and/or wizened coming from one of these four.

Gere and Macy together are a particularly tender treat, and while I applaud the actors and the opportunity the film allows, this scene best articulates the movie’s most nagging weakness. The whole film is sad for successful men who are dissatisfied with how their lives turned out. No one on earth is less pitiable than a successful middle-aged white man and his angst over what he hasn’t accomplished. But Gere and Macy almost make it work.

The second biggest problem is that the film hits traditional romance so hard. The act that has Michelle rethinking her relationship with Allen should be a red flag, an end to the relationship. Instead, it becomes a “marry me or it’s over” ultimatum. No. No! And then the whole film, one brimming with wildly unhappy marrieds, intends to prove to us all that you just have to go ahead and take the leap with someone who publically humiliated you to make sure they didn’t have to commit to you.

No.

Maybe I Do is unabashedly romantic, deeply traditional, well-meaning and tired. So tired. But at least you get to see four tremendous actors riff off each other for 90 minutes.

Werewolves of Berlin

Burial

by Hope Madden

If you’re hoping that Nazi werewolves are a kind of new villain, like the Nazi zombies that have been popular for the last decade, you may be disappointed in Burial. Rather than a horror tale of the supernatural sort, writer/director Ben Parker spins a WWII thriller more interested in the cancerous effect of a cult of personality.

So, less fun but probably more relevant.

It’s Christmas Day, London, 1991 and Anna Marshall (Harriet Walter) is watching Mikhail Gorbachev announce his resignation as President of USSR. Suddenly, she faces a home invader. The shaven headed thug (David Alexander) has come in search of information (and probably blood and terror). He believes she can confirm his deepest, most sacred belief: Hitler did not commit suicide but survived WWII.

Why would Anna know? Because she’s really Brana Vasilyeva (Charlotte Vega), and during the war she was a Soviet intelligence officer.

Quickly, we’re whisked to the spring of 1945. Brana and a small platoon of Russians are tasked with bringing Hitler’s body directly to Stalin because “Russians like to look their enemy in the eye.” That’s all fine and good until the platoon runs afoul of the “werewolves” — Nazis trained in guerilla warfare, who were unsuccessful as soldiers but pretty effective as terrorists.

The two groups come to a head just outside a small Polish village, where local Lukasz (Tom Felton) chooses between two villainous sides, deciding to help Brana and team in a standoff.

Parker’s film is never showy or lurid in the way you might expect from a movie carting Hitler’s carcass around. It’s an understated effort more interested in kicking around how toxic hateful leaders can be once they strike a chord with like-minded populations willing—eager, even—to dominate and victimize to prove how special they are.

Brana wants less to show Stalin the corpse than to end Hitler’s legacy. Given her holiday guest, that didn’t work.

There’s a lovely mixture of melancholy and fire that inform both Walter and Vega’s performances. Barry Ward, playing Russian soldier Tor, adds depth to the group but all performances are solid.

The language — English throughout with random bits of Russian, German and Polish — pulls you out of the cinematic fantasy. But Parker’s spare use of violence ensures that it makes an impression when it does show up.

The story frame works less well. Plus, I wanted real werewolves. But still, Burial is an effective piece of historical fiction.

Finding Pieces

Missing (Sagasu)

by Hope Madden

Shinzô Katayama learned from the best, filling the role of Second Unit Director on Bong Joon Ho’s startling Mother. He applies much of that film’s family drama/murder mystery theme for his own thriller, Missing.

Kaede (Aoi Itô) is a little fed up looking after her father, Harada (Jirô Satô). His depression and debt have only worsened since her mother’s suicide. She’s tired of being the grown-up. So tired of it that she dismisses his plot to track down the serial killer “No Name” for the reward money. When he disappears, she wishes she’d taken him more seriously.

Missing plays in parts, and Part 1 takes on the frustration and fear of Kaede’s story. Itô convinces as the child maneuvering in an adult world, complete with the frustrations, condescension and outbursts that involves. The performance never leans toward sentiment, never asks for our sympathy, and is the more fascinating for it.

Veteran Satô has no trouble finding an empathetic approach to a character in over his head. Satô complicates this questionable but lovable father figure. Harada is never an outright simpleton, always a loving family man. But he’s very, very flawed.

We get Harada’s side of the story, too, but between the two we see a bit from the perspective of No Name (Hiroya Shimizu). After establishing a layered, tense drama, Katayama, who co-writes with Kazuhisa Kotera and Ryô Takada, pulls the tale back toward horror.

Shimizu’s oily performance glides from apathy to curiosity to insincerity to sadism with unsettling ease. You root for the separated daughter and father, clearly out of their depth, but Katayama’s vision is more complicated than that.

Katayama allows moral ambiguity to enrich the film, knocking you off balance and unsure of your alliances. Three strong performances keep you intrigued and guessing, but the filmmaker surrounds them with an assortment of oddities. No character in the film is truly flat, everyone is a surprise.

Buried in this heady mystery is a thread about justice in the face of self-interest and the surprising joy of ping pong. It’s an engrossing feature debut from a director who knows how to play you.

Dangerous Method

Devil’s Workshop

by Hope Madden

I hate to admit this, but my first thought upon screening Devil’s Workshop was that we don’t need another low budget exorcism movie – or worse yet, another ghost hunter demonologist movie. I am pleased to report that writer/director Chris von Hoffmann’s latest horror offering is not “just another” anything.

The premise seems garden variety enough. Struggling actor Clayton (Timothy Granaderos, Who Invited Them) auditions for the part of a demonologist in a new low-budget indie. His competition, Donald (Emile Hirsch), is a social climbing douche who gets whatever he wants. To sharpen his edge for the callback, Clayton hires a real demonologist to train him for the performance.

That demonologist is played by Radha Mitchell, who’s both wonderful and evidence that von Hoffman has something unusual up his sleeve.

The filmmaker cuts between earnest, insecure Clayton undertaking his eerily authentic preparation, and narcissist Donald, preparing in his own way. As von Hoffman does this, he comments on the main theme of his film: a knowing, sly analogy of the process of acting, from ridiculous to pretentious to dangerous.

What emerges is a cheeky, cynical but not hateful application of the mantras and exercises meant to break an actor down and open them up to the demons that will create a better performance.

Two things are necessary for Devil’s Workshop to pull this off: stellar acting (or the metaphor falls apart) and genuine horror (or the metaphor overwhelms the story).

The acting is stellar, beginning with Mitchell. Her giggles and offhanded terms of endearment, hand gestures and facial expressions create an elusive character. Granaderos, so impressive as the sinister partygoer in Who Invited Them, adopts a wide-eyed insecurity that suits von Hoffman’s style.

Rather than drawing our eye to the speaker, von Hoffman’s camera lingers on the listener. The choice captures Clayton’s discomfort, sometimes for a troubling length of time, creating unease.

The horror does well enough for nearly long enough. A couple of times it’s effective, but it never rises to true scares. Worse still, the payoff doesn’t land. In the end, von Hoffman’s insiders-view of the dangers in submitting entirely to a part falls just short of success.

Girl Walks NOLA Alone at Night

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon

by Hope Madden

In 2014, filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour made her magnificence known with the lonesome, hip, bloody black and white treasure A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. She followed that up in 2016 with the heady dystopian nightmare The Bad Batch.

Both films busy themselves with the survival and camaraderie of outcasts. They have this in common with Amirpour’s latest, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon.

On the surface, it may appear that the vampire fable, post-apocalyptic yarn and Big Easy thriller lack any other unifying thread. Untrue. Each is about a singular female making surprising choices across an imaginative – if sometimes bloody – adventure.

Though eventually awash in NOLA neon, Blood Moon’s opening glides hypnotically through bayou waters, the night sky reflected so perfectly in the water you can’t tell up from down.

Jeon Jong-seo (Burning) is Mona Lisa Lee. For at least a decade she’s been nonresponsive in a facility for adolescents. (Is that so? Why the straight jacket, then?) But on this very night, as the moon rises red and round over the bayou, Mona taps into a strange power and the first of many flavors emerge in this strange gumbo. It appears we’ve stumbled into the origin story of some superhero – or super villain?

Whichever, don’t get too comfortable because soon enough Amirpour’s aesthetic weaves together influences and notions from a broad and colorful menu. The next thing you know, you’re witnessing a side of Kate Hudson you wish more filmmakers had unveiled.

Mona stumbles upon the Bourbon Street stripper in a late-night hamburger joint. One quick look at Mona’s talent and Bonnie Belle has dollar signs in her eyes. It’s a performance so brash and human that it grounds an otherwise fantasy tale in the stinky glitter of New Orleans.

A welcome Craig Robinson gives the film the feel of a noir-ish mystery, while the delightful Ed Skrein steals scenes and hearts as dealer/dj Fuzz.

Once Mona befriends Bonnie’s latchkey son (Evan Whitten), sentimentality becomes a worry. No need! Amirpour offsets every sweet moment with a surprise of brutality, every bloodletting with a bit of tenderness, all of it bathed in neon and EDM. It’s a dizzying mix, but that makes three for three for this filmmaker.

Unhappy Homemaker

Don’t Worry Darling

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

There’s drama, scandal, ghosting, possible spitting – Don’t Worry Darling is known for it all. And none of it’s even in the movie!

So, if you separate Olivia Wilde’s sophomore effort behind the camera from its pre-launch baggage, what do you have? An absolutely gorgeous if somewhat superficial critique of how little progress women – especially married women ­­– have made in terms of agency and control.

Its main recommendation is Florence Pugh, which should surprise no one. Her performances are always fiercely intimate and human; Alice is no different. Lovely wife of Jack Chambers (Harry Styles), Alice cocktails with the ladies, hums while she cleans, prepares a mean roast, and enjoys a healthy sex life with her devoted Jack.

Jack, that’s a manly name. You know what else is? Frank. And manly Frank (Chris Pine) is the force behind the town of Victory. He’s the visionary, the gatekeeper, the Great and Powerful Oz – and Pine relishes every scene-chewing moment on the screen. He is particularly effective when sparring with and menacing Pugh. Their spark is so strong it only makes the rest of the cast appear dimmer.

But we know something is amiss in Victory because nothing screams “something is amiss” to viewers as quickly as a colorfully wholesome late 50s vibe. But man, does Wilde and her production designer Katie Bryon nail that vibe. It’s like Mad Men meets Better Homes and Gardens with cool cars and fabulous costumes to boot, all of it choreographed to flow like the synchronized dance numbers forever punctuating the narrative.

What Wilde shows us is slick, stylish and well-constructed. What she’s telling us is fine, too, it’s just that none of it is as profound as Wilde and screenwriters Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke seem to think it is.

They make salient points about testosterone-laden rabbit holes and the inequalities that many demand of a “great” America, but their hand is rarely subtle. And when it comes, even the Twilight Zone moment lands with more shaky logic than well-earned resonance.

But Don’t Worry Darling isn’t worthy of gossip column dismissal, either. There is talent spread throughout the community here, just nothing in the collective effort that’s truly memorable. And like those hot new developments built on remnants of old ones, the film ultimately feels like a shiny new makeover of familiar ideas.

Far Away Eyes

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.

by Hope Madden

Honk. It’s such an inelegant word. Not that beep or toot are much more graceful, but honk?

That’s what makes it such a perfect choice for writer/director Adamma Ebo’s look at commercial spirituality, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.

First Lady Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall, amazing as always) is launching a comeback. Her husband, Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (the incomparable Sterling K. Brown), had a little run in with morality and scandal five years ago. Since then, their mega church, Wander to Greater Paths—which once boasted more than 10,000 congregants—has been shuttered.

Well, no more! That scandal is almost behind them (there’s the issue of one hold out in the settlement…) and this dynamic duo is ready. And they want people to know, which is why Lee-Curtis agreed to let a documentary crew follow them as they prepare for their upcoming Easter Sunday resurrection.

What follows is a mockumentary of sorts, although Ebo’s point of view is not exclusively that of the documentarian (that elusive Anita). And while the world seems most interested in the pastor and his past transgressions, that sly Anita seems more drawn to the first lady.

To call this a satire, or really even a mockumentary, is to be a bit off the mark. Though it’s often funny, it’s not exactly a comedy, either. Brown’s damaged, shamed pastor is so pathologically single-minded as to be villainous outright. But Brown seems incapable of creating a character whose flaws don’t make him all the more human, and therefore tender, however irredeemable.

Likewise, Hall, whose performance is more decidedly comedic, mines Trinitie for deep conflict between submission to spirituality or to patriarchal bullshit. Her profound unhappiness partnered with her pride make the character a preaching contradiction in a church hat.

Solid support work bolsters the comedy (Nicole Beharie, in particular) and the tragedy (the late introduction of Austin Crute’s Khalil is powerful).

What starts off as a bit of fun at commodified religion’s expense turns into a surprisingly layered and cynical investigation into the damage organized religion of any kind can have, especially on those who believe.

Gone Fishing

I Love My Dad

by Brandon Thomas

We live in an era where cringe-comedy reigns supreme. From HBO’s Eastbound and Down to the American remake of The Office (so many cringe-inducing episodes), modern comedy seems hellbent on making us uncomfortable. While these two examples and many others only tend to dabble in discomfort, the new film I Love My Dad uses it to full effect while going places many movies could only dream of.

Chuck (Patton Oswalt of Ratatouille and Young Adult) has a terrible relationship with his son, Franklin (I Love My Dad writer/director James Morosini). Chuck was an absentee father who missed birthdays, made empty promises, and disappointed his son every chance he could. After Franklin blocks his dad on social media and won’t take his calls, Chuck decides to “borrow” the online identity of Becca, a waitress at a local diner, to catfish his way back into his son’s life. 

The premise of I Love My Dad is enough to make most people go, “Wait, what?” 

The execution though? 

Well, that’s something even more anxiety-riddled. 

Morosini knows exactly what he’s doing with this subject matter and carries it out through the entire running time. I Love My Dad is like a cinematic car accident you can’t help looking at as you drive by. However, in this case, the car accident is a very well-made movie.

Morosini cleverly brings to life the text conversations between Franklin and “Becca” by using the real actress (Claudia Sulewski) to act them out alongside him. It’s an impressive way to show how connected Franklin feels toward Becca and only helps ratchet up the tension. By the time the inevitable truth is revealed, even the audience feels invested in this fraudulent relationship that Chuck has conjured between him and his son.

So much of the success of I Love My Dad hinges on the casting of Chuck. Make no mistake, Chuck is a scumbag of the highest order, but having someone as likable as Patton Oswalt play him sets up certain expectations. Even as Chuck digs himself deeper and deeper, it’s difficult to completely root against him. Oswalt’s naturally affable demeanor is hard to get past even when the character he’s playing is so deplorable. It’s perfect casting that makes you think, “Well if HE’S the bad guy, what else can happen?”

The supporting cast is peppered with some fun faces. Lil Rel Howery (Get Out) shows up as Chuck’s work friend who gives him the catfishing idea. And the always-on-fire Rachel Dratch (Saturday Night Live) nearly walks away with the entire movie as Chuck’s very horny girlfriend. 

I Love My Dad explores some dark and taboo territory but still manages to wring out a lot of laughs along the way. Maybe don’t watch it with your parents, though.

The Deglammed Spy and Love Ties

Diary of a Spy

by Isaiah Merritt

The big screen has become oh so littered with the glamorous life of the fearless spy and their sonic-speed cars, fancy attire, and femme fatale sidekicks – all gorgeously accessorized by striking visuals, epic shots, and glittering cinematography. As entertaining as this style of filmmaking can be, there has been a lack of any opposing forces in the genre. 

Where’s the grit? Where’s the darkness? Where’s the reality? Where’s the BEEF?!!

Diary of A Spy, written and directed by Adam Christian Clark, offers a dark and hardy perspective through the lens of a traumatized woman who has dedicated her life to a cause that may destroy her.

Anna, played with stellar precision by Tamara Taylor, must somehow find a new foundation while she manages a high-stakes assignment that causes her to mix business with pleasure in this slow-burn thriller. When the lines between assignment and romance begin to blur, the plot thickens, ushering in a much-earned climax. 

From shot to shot and scene to scene, Clark displays a very clear voice as an auteur. The direction, writing, editing, and cinematography create a cohesive world rich with the rawness of life. 

The consistency of performances solidifies the strength of the film and gives the piece heart. Leads Taylor and Reece Noi are in no small part responsible for the success of the film. Especially in the closing scene, Noi proves he is a force to be reckoned with – a quiet storm of awkward realism. 

Meanwhile, Paulina Leija offers a scene-stealing performance in a supporting role.

This is a film that takes some time to gain momentum. However, with clear direction, a cohesive vision, and good performances to match, Diary of a Spy is a refreshing take — a spy film soaked in realism.