Tag Archives: Chris Messina

Free as a Bird

The Aviary

by Hope Madden

The pandemic — as crushing and debilitating as it was for so many people — also showed us how resilient people could be. Nowhere is that clearer than with art and, in particular, filmmaking.

To continue to create, filmmakers had to get creative in ways they may not have in the past. They limited themselves to small casts, tight locations, small crews — nothing terribly new to low-budget indie filmmakers. Sometimes that sparked something excellent, like Roshan Sethi’s 7 Days.

But there’s no room for weakness when an audience’s attention is focused so narrowly. Here’s where Chris Cullardi and Jennifer Raite’s mindbender The Aviary comes up short.

Malin Akerman and Lorenza Izzo are two friends escaping Seth (Chris Messina) and Skylight, a cult in the New Mexican desert. Each woman comes at the journey and the decision to break from their confines a bit differently. As the escape grows more and more complicated and terrifying, those differences breed distrust.

Akerman’s solid if uninspired as the more rugged and world-wise Jillian, once a high-ranking member of the organization. She lured Blair (Izzo) into the fold and now feels responsible to get her safely away.

Izzo’s performance stands out a bit more, ranging from shellshock to paranoia to mania as the journey wears on.

At its high points, The Aviary becomes a potent allegory for toxic relationships. Messina is particularly effective, his take on the cult leader somehow more insidious for its sincerity and tenderness.

Cullari and Raite, who co-write and co-direct, don’t have anything especially fresh to say, though. Their writing is fine, never exceptional. Their ideas are solid enough, not innovative by any means. The direction works but never excites.

That obviously leads to a palatable if forgettable cinematic experience. Worse though, it draws attention to flaws because there’s not much else to focus on. The film’s twists feel lazy, illogical rather than surprising. The disappointing payoff turns a relatively bland journey into an unfortunate slog.

Teen Wolves

The True Adventures of Wolfboy

by George Wolf (no relation)

Have many Young Adult films carry a theme of self-acceptance? Plenty, but that’s not a problem.

It’s delivering that message via the same tired playbook that gets old, which is just one of the reasons The True Adventures of Wolfboy lands as a charming and completely captivating tale of a truly special teen.

And director Martin Krejci makes sure it feels like a tale in so many magical ways, starting with the beautifully ornate title cards separating each chapter in the journey of a lonely and self-loathing boy on his thirteenth birthday.

Paul (Jaeden Martell) suffers from hypertrichosis – an extremely rare affliction causing abnormal hair growth all over his face and body. He covers his face with a ski mask most of the time, but his father (Chris Messina) gently urges him to put the mask aside and accept the taunts of “dogboy!” with dignity.

Paul’s mother has been gone since he was born, but when a strange birthday gift delivers a map and a promise of explanations, Paul runs away to answer the invitation and get some answers from Mom (Chloe Sevigny).

Krejci crafts Paul’s journey from dog to wolf as an epic odyssey of self-discovery. From Pinnochio-like exploitation in a sideshow run by Mr. Silk (John Turturro, also a producer), to joining the eyepatch-wearing Rose (Eve Hewson) for a string of petty holdups, Paul’s world – and his world view – expands quickly.

But it is the effervescent teen Aristiana (transgender actress Sophie Giannamore) that most triggers Paul’s awakening. She hates the short “boy” haircut her mother insists on, while Paul is ashamed of how much hair he has. Her mother calls her Kevin, his mother doesn’t call at all.

Similarly, Martell delivers true tenderness and longing behind Mark Garbarino’s impressive makeup, while Giannamore is a heartwarming example of defiant positivity. Both actors and their characters bond quickly, and screenwriter Olivia Dufault (also transgender) finds a power that eludes so many YA dramas via the subtle genius of writing Aristiana as a secondary catalyst.

We already feel for Paul, so Aristiana’s effect on his self image is something we feel without being told. The point is made organically, with wit and wisdom, and much more resonance. What Paul finds at the end of his journey is sweet, but just gravy.

Wolfboy is the rare teen drama that speaks without condescension, and entertains without calculation.

That’s welcome, special even.

Secret Garden

The Secrets We Keep

by George Wolf

Anyone who saw the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo knows if you get on the wrong side of a score with Noomi Rapace, she’ll have no problem settling it.

As Maja in The Secrets We Keep, Rapace has a similar mindset. Settled into post-war Suburbia in an unnamed town, Maja and her physician husband Lewis (Chris Messina) run the local medical clinic while raising their young son, Patrick.

On one fateful afternoon, the Romanian-born Maja is shaken to her core by the sight of a man (Joel Kinnaman) she believes committed heinous war crimes against her and her family years before. After setting a successful trap, Maja kidnaps the man and holds him captive in her basement, finally detailing to Lewis the horrifying ordeal she has never spoken of.

Director and co-writer Yuval Adler sets an effective hook despite some forced visual cues (a literal bubble bursting, North by Northwest on a theater marquee). Rapace delivers the right mix of confused trauma, making Maja’s indecision between murder and interrogation ring true (much more so than the petite Rapace’s ability to maneuver the dead weight of Kinnaman).

Is the suburban hostage a Swiss immigrant named Thomas, as he claims, or is he the former Nazi Karl, whose war crimes haunt Maja’s dreams?

Adler seems to sense the need to distance the film from Death and the Maiden (and, to a lesser extent, Big Bad Wolves), but as events move further from the basement, an air of B-movie pulp emerges.

A visit from the neighborhood cop seems to exist only for contrived tension, while Maja’s burgeoning friendship with her captive’s wife (Amy Seimetz) and daughter can never quite move the shadow of secrets over the entirety of picket-fence Americana the way Adler intends.

And despite a terrific performance from Messina, Lewis lands as a frustrating and sometimes distracting presence. While Lewis’s struggle to believe Maja – even without a confession – is one of the film’s most resonant strengths, the bigger struggle concerns the film’s commitment to defining Maja on her own terms.

When it does commit, The Secrets We Keep rewards the investment. But when it cops out, there’s little here we haven’t already been told.

Amy and the Apocalypse

She Dies Tomorrow

by Hope Madden

I smell an intriguing trend in indie horror: embracing the apocalypse.

She Dies Tomorrow is a horror film that’s one part Coherence, one part The Beach House, one part The Signal (2007, not 2014) and yet somehow entirely its own. It helps that so few people have seen any of those other movies, but the truth is that writer/director Amy Seimetz (creator of The Girlfriend Experience) is simply braiding together themes that have quietly influenced SciFi horror hybrids of late. What she does with these themes is pretty remarkable.

Her film weaves in and out of the current moment, delivering a dreamlike structure that suits its trippy premise. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) believes she is going to die tomorrow. She knows it. She’s sure.

She calls her friend Jane (the always amazing Jane Adams), who senses that Amy is not OK but has this obligation to go to her sister-in-law’s party…whatever, she’ll stop over on her way.

By the time Jane gets to the party, she’s also quite certain she will die tomorrow. It isn’t long before the partygoers sense their own imminent deaths; meanwhile, Amy is spreading her perception contagion elsewhere.

Seimetz’s horror is really only existential, although like The Signal (and The Crazies before it), She Dies Tomorrow is more than slightly interested in what individuals do with this disheartening information. What a superb way to cut directly to character development.

This gives the film an episodic quality, allowing even characters in minor roles to express their individuality. Adams is characteristically wonderful, both logical and a bit batty, lonely and strangely optimistic. Chris Messina and Katie Aselton impress with a lived-in couplehood, and both Josh Lucas and Adam Wingard are used deftly to bring an almost melancholy comic relief to a couple scenes.

Sheil anchors the film. With the most time to get comfortable with her lot, Amy drifts through the stages of grief and fear, ending on a resigned kind of anticipation that feels comfortable with the tone Seimetz creates.

From beginning to end, the film transmits a quiet, creeping dread. Seimetz can’t entirely capitalize on the intoxicating world she’s created, but hers is a unique voice and beguiling vision.