Tag Archives: movie reviews

Screening Room: The Edge of War, The King’s Daughter, The Pink Cloud, Salt in My Soul & More

The Truth Shall Set You Free

Unsilenced

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.

Royal Scam

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….”

Like Red But Not Quite

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.

A Life Divided

Passing

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.

Two Sides, Same Coin

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

Pick A Side

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.

Maternal Instinct

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.

Screening Room: Scream, Drive My Car, Woodlands Dark & Days Bewitched and More

And Scream Again

Scream

by Hope Madden

A quarter-century ago, horror master Wes Craven reinvented his genre of choice—again—with a savvy, funny, scary murder mystery. Scream was an inside-out spoof of the genre, a clever dissection of the tropes and cliches wrapped up in a celebration of those same elements.

It was not our first meta-movie, but it was the first movie to refer to itself as such.

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (Ready or Not) return to Woodsboro for the franchise’s fifth installment. This go-round comments blisteringly (and entertainingly) not just on horror, but on the post-internet realities of cinema in general.

They really have a good time with that.

Tara Carpenter (the first of maybe 300 horror name drops), played by a remarkable Jenna Ortega, is home alone when she receives a threatening phone call. She doesn’t want to talk about slashers, though. She’d rather discuss “elevated horror.”

That’s an in-joke, one of dozens, each landing but none taking away from the larger story. In that one, Tara’s older sister Sam (Melissa Barrera, In the Heights) returns to Woodsboro upon hearing of Tara’s attack. She follows advice from someone who would know and assembles Tara’s close-knit ring of friends to suss out suspects.

But to really anchor these newfangled reboot/sequels (or, in the parlance of another inside gag, “requels”), Gillett and Bettinelli-Olpin will need some familiar faces. Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette are three excellent reasons to see the new Scream, a film that is both a fan of the franchise and a cynic of fandom.

The young cast excels as well—Dylan Minnette and Jasmin Savoy Brown, in particular. In fact, Barrera in the central role is the only real weak spot. As was the case in In the Heights, she poses more than acts, a flaw that’s never more obvious than when she shares the screen with the noticeably more talented Ortega.

The filmmakers, along with writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, fill scenes with nostalgia too cheeky to be simple fan service. Their clear affection for the franchise (a surprisingly strong set of films, as horror series go) is evident and infectious.

You do not have to know the 1996 original or any of its sequels to enjoy Scream. It’s a standalone blast. But if you grew up on these movies, this film is like a bloody message of love for you.