Movie Reviews

  • Comfortably Naked: Dave Franco and Alison Brie on Somebody I Used to Know
    by Matt Fagerholm on February 8, 2023 at 2:47 PM

    Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a new romantic comedy is premiering this Friday, February 10th, on Prime Video, and it is an utter delight. “Somebody I Used to Know” marks the second directorial feature effort of Dave Franco (his first being the 2020 thriller, “The Rental”), who wrote the script with his wife, Alison Brie, star of the hit shows “Community” and “GLOW.” Brie plays Ally, a television producer shaken by the abrupt cancellation of her reality series with the laughable yet all too probable title of “Dessert Island.” Upon heading back to her hometown of Leavenworth, Washington, Ally runs into her ex, Sean (Jay Ellis), with whom she spends an overtly flirtatious day.  All nostalgic romantic fantasies are upended, however, when Ally learns that he is engaged to be married to a singer, Cassidy (Kiersey Clemons), whose character proves to be refreshingly three-dimensional in her own right. Practically walking away with the picture is Haley Joel Osment as Sean’s brother, Jeremy, whose very first line—involving an out-of-left-field Brendan Fraser reference—had me laughing out loud. Yet it is Franco and Brie’s rich understanding of character that gives this bittersweet gem a distinctively human touch. During their recent stop in Chicago, Franco and Brie took time to speak with RogerEbert.com about their love of collaborating with one another, their euphoric experience of shooting at a nudist club and how they went about infusing the script with their shared sense of humor.  I’m curious about what films you would cite as your favorite romantic comedies, and how you both wanted to approach the genre on your own terms. Alison Brie (AB): Part of our process while we were writing together consisted of rewatching a lot of our favorite classic rom-coms from the ’90s. We looked at the major ones like “When Harry Met Sally”… Dave Franco (DF): “Pretty Woman”… AB: “Sleepless in Seattle,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “While You Were Sleeping”… DF: And the newer ones that we love, such as “Palm Springs,” “Fire Island,” “The Big Sick,” “Sleeping with Other People” that Alison’s in, “Enough Said” with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini… AB: Oh we love “Enough Said”! But I have been watching those ones from the ’90s for what feels like my whole life. I go back to them all the time and will watch them again and again. We wanted to tap into that nostalgic feeling of those older rom-coms and one of the first things we noticed about them is that they are shot like dramas, they are acted like dramas, and they are actually very dramatic. We watched “Pretty Woman” and we were like, “This is more of a ‘rom-drom.’” [laughs] I feel like that became a guiding force as we were making this film. We really just wanted to tap into the relationships and complex emotions that these characters are going through, and that’s at the heart of it. That is part of what makes this film so special in that the humor doesn’t feel imposed on the story but rather spawns organically from it.  DF: That’s very nice of you to say. I think that comes from Alison and my natural sensibilities. Our aim is to create interesting characters, put them in bizarre scenarios and play it as real and as grounded as possible while letting the humor come from that as opposed to throwing out a bunch of one-liners. That’s kind of how we approached the comedy in the movie. AB: Because we were writing this together, the whole movie is sort of in the tone of us and our personal sense of humor, so you start to realize when you are writing dialogue that all of the characters kind of sound like you. I mean, we tried to differentiate between the characters, but the way that everybody jokes with each other is similar to how we joke with one another, and the kind of comedic vocabulary that we have. DF: All that said, we didn’t want to be afraid of going deeper than people might expect when things get more dramatic. It was important for us to not shy away from some confrontational moments where there may be an inclination for us to ask ourselves whether we should infuse a dramatic scene with a couple of jokes. Our answer to that was, “No, this deserves to be its own thing. Let’s allow the emotion to really land.” I’ve interviewed Joe Swanberg—who co-wrote your previous film, “The Rental”—and his ex-wife Kris Rey many times over the years, and they spoke with me about how they wanted to normalize nudity in their early work, particularly Swanberg’s directorial debut, “Kissing on the Mouth.” I felt a similar power in “Somebody I Used to Know,” specifically in its final scene. AB: Well, a lot of the film’s nudist storyline is pulled from my own life and my streaking, particularly during my nudist days in college. While working on “GLOW,” we did a lot of non-sexual nudity, and it sounds so strange to say this, but it really felt like that’s a big part of who I am. I am a comfortably naked person. I love representations of nudity in film that are not over-sexualized, and in this movie, it also made a lot of sense to incorporate it. Somehow nudity was the perfect metaphor for Ally’s journey in going from being a very self-serious person to finding herself in need of reconnecting to her essence. It just made sense that this is where it would all land. DF: It is a literal metaphor in that Alison’s character is extremely buttoned up at the very beginning of the film.  AB: Could I be wearing any more clothes? [laughs] DF: And then by the end… AB: What you see in that final scene is so real. We shot it at the Serenity Mountain Retreat. DF: It is the oldest nudist club west of the Mississippi, and we actually scouted it during one of their biggest days of the year. They were holding a big festival, so there were more nudists in attendance than there generally are there. When you first walk into that kind of situation, there’s a little bit of trepidation in not being sure how to conduct oneself, but almost immediately, we felt so at ease. It’s just such a warm, welcoming environment, to the point where the festival went on through the weekend and we had crew members going back just to hang out and be a part of the good vibes! AB: The people at this nudist club are the most joyful people I have ever met in my life. They are so comfortable with themselves in who they are, and it was a great spirit with which to infuse our whole movie. DF: Yes, and it is shown through that character Ally interviews at the end, who is very much inspired by us just visiting the actual retreat. I could watch a whole movie about the dynamic between Alison’s character and her mother, played hilariously here by Julie Hagerty, who has starred in so many of the all-time greatest comedies. Did you write the role of the mother specifically for her? DF: Essentially yes. AB: We wrote the role with her in mind. It’s always helpful to have people in your mind when you are writing just to give yourself a sense of who that person is, and we one hundred percent wrote that with Julie Hagerty in mind. DF: There are certain actors whom you just watch while thinking to yourself, “That’s my mom.” We both felt that about Julie Hagerty at different points. AB: And now we feel that even more. I do feel like she is my mom now. DF: Her character, aside from her sexual proclivities, is somewhat based on my mom, just in terms of her essence, her quirkiness and the fact that she is just very funny in a way that escapes her own awareness, which is very warmhearted. AB: Julie is so good at toeing the line between comedic gold and true heartfelt emotionality, and that’s what you want from that character and her bond with Ally. What I hope comes across is that even though Ally has a lot going on and is obviously very dismissive of her mom early on in the film, that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love her or they don’t have a great bond. If anything, they have such a strong bond that Ally is like, “I know she’s going to see the deeper issues that I’m struggling with.” DF: I don’t know if it’s just me or if it’s a universal thing, but sometimes you find yourself not being as nice to the people that you are closest with just because you are so comfortable and you’re so at ease with them. We wanted to tap into that here. AB: Yes, and that feeling of going back to your parents’ house, where you find yourself kind of reverting back to how you were when you were a teenager. Suddenly you find yourself groaning, “Mom, I’m on the phone!” [laughs] It’s that vibe. Many of the biggest laughs in the film are the result of small details, such as the note Hagerty leaves for Ally to assure her that there is “no cheese in the cookies.”  AB: [laughs] That was so sweet. DF: That’s an example of a moment where we really tried to toe the line and find moments that are so genuinely warm and sweet, but you’re also laughing. I think that final scene at the nudist retreat also serves a similar purpose. It’s a really genuine moment, but you’re kind of laughing along with it for various reasons, such as the way everybody else in the scene shows their support. AB: It’s fun and funny, but we’re not making fun of anyone. It’s more about joy. DF: From a distance, the situation is very comical, but we’re playing it so earnestly. AB: And that actress whom I share the scene with is just incredible. You have one of my longtime acting heroes, Haley Joel Osment, in this film, and he steals every one of his scenes.  AB: Absolutely. We wrote that role with him in mind as well! I worked with Haley eleven years ago on a very small indie movie called “The Misadventures of the Dunderheads,” where he and I played brother and sister, and Olympia Dukakis was our grandmother. It was a zany road trip movie, and I’ve known him since then. We have loosely stayed in touch, and I don’t know specifically why he came into our minds for this role, though he has been doing a lot of funny stuff. DF: He was in an episode of “What We Do in the Shadows,” and was so funny and memorable in it. The character he plays in our film is probably the most “comedic” role on the page, and I think in the wrong hands, there’s a danger in leaning a little too hard into the jokes because what he’s saying is very ridiculous. We just wanted a great actor who understood comedy and could simply inhabit that character by playing it very straight and very earnestly. AB: He became like a good luck charm and was very helpful for us in the editing room. Anytime we needed a button for a scene, we’d be like, “Go back to the Haley footage! Let’s have more Haley.” DF: Even when we were onset, if Haley was nearby, we’d be like, “Okay, what can we do with Haley?”  Do you have any interest in directing a feature yourself, Alison? AB: Yes, I absolutely have an interest in directing, but I am also well aware of what an undertaking that is. For me, it’s so much about finding the right thing, and I’m not sure if it would be something that I would write or we would write together or it would just be something that I would find. DF: She directed an episode of “GLOW,” which was amazing. AB: I also directed an episode of “Marvel 616” for Disney, so I love it, but in the interim and the meantime, Dave and I definitely want to write more stuff together. We already have some ideas that we’re kind of kicking around.  DF: There are also practical reasons for these collaborations. When one of us is away doing a job, it is hard to be apart for months at a time. With a film like “Somebody I Used to Know,” it feels like we cracked into something where we can build these projects from the ground up, travel to wherever we need to go with our two cats and we’ve got the whole family with us! [laughs]  "Somebody I Used to Know" will be available on Prime Video on February 10th. 

  • Bill Russell: Legend
    by Brian Tallerico on February 8, 2023 at 2:47 PM

    Netflix has become a home for top-notch sports documentaries, and this week brings the streaming service one of its most prestigious, a two-part film from Sam Pollard, the brilliant director behind “MLK/FBI” and co-director of “Mr. Soul!" The historian turns his eye to one of the most important sports figures of the 20th century, a man who changed the game of basketball forever and created a dominant winning culture in Boston that still gives the Celtics legendary status. Bill Russell is often considered on the Mount Rushmore of NBA players, but “Bill Russell: Legend” also celebrates his importance as a civil rights icon. The two-part film details the racism he faced even as he was winning championships and how important equality was to the man who stood alongside Muhammad Ali as he protested the war and aligned with Colin Kaepernick when he took a knee. "Bill Russell: Legend" runs almost 200 minutes in total, which can be a lot for non-fans, but it feels like Pollard knew that one feature-length doc wouldn’t be enough for a man who was as big as Bill Russell, and I don’t just mean his height. Pollard knows how to assemble a project like “Bill Russell: Legend,” seamlessly flowing from how Russell performed on the court to stories of his life off of it with passages from his memoirs read by Jeffrey Wright. (The entire project is also narrated by Corey Stoll.) Russell, who passed just last year, became an outspoken activist over his life, but it’s startling how groundbreaking he was for a sport that was still almost entirely white when he transformed it. I was fascinated by stories of a young Russell trying to memorize Michelangelo paintings in library books and then recreating them when he got home, as his gameplay revealed an obsession with body angles. He knew where someone was going with the ball before they did because of what his opponent’s body told him. Pollard’s film includes a ton of archival game footage, and it’s stunning to see Russell look like he's playing a different game than everyone around him. And yet he couldn’t get the credit he deserved as he was destroying all expectations because of the era in which he joined the game. Despite taking the San Francisco Dons to two consecutive NCAA championships, his white colleagues always got the credit. Even during an insane run in which the Celtics won 11 NBA championships over Russell’s 13-year career—a streak that will never happen again—Boston sports press never seemed to give Russell enough credit. He was the first Black superstar NBA player, and he never forgot what that meant. Of course, the gentlemen who followed in his wake are interviewed in “Bill Russell: Legend,” including Steph Curry, Isaiah Thomas, Jalen Rose, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Chris Paul, and more. Shaquille O’Neal jokes that part of every big man’s salary should go to Russell because of how much they owe him. There are times when “Bill Russell: Legend” is a little thin with NBA analysis, but the material about Russell’s life off the court really captivates. Pollard not only got an interview with Russell himself before his death but also with his daughter and colleagues from those Boston years, who speak to “Russell the man” instead of “Russell the legend.” As much as Bill Russell carried his teammates, he felt a responsibility to do so for his people too. “He was aware of the racial weight on his shoulders,” says someone in the doc, and it adds to his legacy to consider how much he had to overcome. He marched with MLK when he wasn’t dunking on his opponent. What I took away from “Bill Russell: Legend” was how one descriptive word doesn’t capture this very complicated sports figure. He was an athlete, for sure, but he was also a thinker, a pioneer, and sometimes even a difficult teammate. The best documentaries don’t reduce their subject to the public impression of them but unpack what even fans didn’t know to make them more three-dimensional than a highlight reel. I respected what Bill Russell meant to the NBA before this project. Now I respect what he meant to history.  On Netflix today.

  • 52nd Annual Rotterdam International Film Festival Highlights
    by Barbara Scharres on February 7, 2023 at 2:37 PM

    Emerging from the Covid era of virtual festivals with a seeming new resolve to top itself in what it does best, the 52nd Annual Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR) opened an all in-person festival on January 25, for a run through February 5, with a broad slate of 455 films, including 242 features, 97 of them world premieres. Behind the scenes, virtual access to high-profile sections of the festival and press conferences was enabled for selected international press, which made my coverage from afar possible. An on-site friend and her cell phone camera provided me with a virtual front-row seat for events including the opening ceremony. Festival director Vanja Kaludjercic welcomed the opening night audience in De Doelan, Rotterdam’s vast concert and conference venue, expressing relief at IFFR’s full return to the communal experience after a three-year wait. Kaludjercic went on to aptly capsulize the festival’s legacy and mission as “to look where others don’t look, and to go where others don’t go,” confronting audiences with “images, sounds, and words that rip the rug from under our feet.” “We are quite good at doing that,” she declared, underlining IFFR’s well-known gravitation to a cinema that is relentlessly adventurous and experimental in all its international manifestations. Nowhere are IFFR’s rug-ripping intentions more clearly expressed than in the festival’s signature Tiger Competition, which celebrates emerging global filmmakers. Sixteen features, all world-premieres, ranging from the poetic Albanian feminist documentary “Three Sparks” by Naomi Uman to the slow-burning Ukrainian policier “La Palisiada” competed for a 40,000 Euro award. The five-member jury, which included acclaimed American independent producer Christine Vachon and Filipino writer/director Lav Diaz, selected “The Specter of Boko Haram,” by Cyrielle Raingou of Cameroon as the winner. This evenly paced yet deeply disturbing documentary features neither histrionics nor significant action beyond child’s play but is distinguished by its dispassionate cinema verité view of the milieu of terror seen through children’s eyes. “The Spectre of Boko Haram” begins with the image of flames from a campfire as the reedy voice of a child calmly relates the murder of his father. Director Raingou focuses on three children, brothers Mohamed and Ibrahim, lively little boys given to bouts of giggling and wrestling, and a pre-teen girl named Falta. The brothers had previously been kidnapped into a Boko Haram camp but escaped. Now, they are in search of their missing parents. All three children live in a village on the Nigerian border in the north of Cameroon, which is under heavy military occupation to protect the residents. “I aim at the enemy and he falls,” chant the kids as they play a game. A boy casually entertains his friends by describing how he saw hostages executed with an ax to the head. The village teacher reminds his students that no war imagery is acceptable when they discuss what to make with their modeling clay. Nevertheless, the final products include childish renderings of tanks and guns made of clay. The schoolhouse windows look out on a line of soldiers fitted out in full combat gear and carrying assault rifles, the sight of everyday life. The film’s acute sense of place and knack for intimate portraiture gives it a look that characterizes many an ethnographic documentary, but with the essential difference that life in all its aspects is skewed by uncertainty and the sharp awareness of the unseen threat that lies in wait somewhere in the distance. In a press conference, director Raingou revealed that she had initially set out to develop a film centered on adults but found that she was increasingly drawn to the children. The more time she spent with the children, the less the adults took notice, regarding her as a kind of handy babysitter keeping the kids entertained with her camera. The resulting freedom to work unhindered provided a unique window on horrific unfiltered childhood.   New Strains “New Strains,” by married American co-directors Artemis Shaw and Prashanth Kamalakanthan, was named winner of one of the Tiger Competition’s two special jury prizes of 10,000 Euros. A quasi-romantic comedy, it’s set in a New York City apartment during the lengthy lockdown for an unnamed and highly contagious pandemic. The directors play a version of themselves as Rom and Kalya. When isolation in an apartment borrowed from her well-to-do uncle challenges their tolerance for togetherness, their courtship phase dissolves into dissonance and a no-holds-barred dissection of their foibles. As Rom and Kalya explore the confines of their new temporary home, panic, jealousy, and tedium are illustrated in goofy vignettes that involve horseplay and probing word games. There are also absurd arguments over precautions, including hand-cleansing, signaling that “New Strains” is taking flight into the realm of satire. The filmmakers relieve the visual constriction of the environment with silly touches, including jaunty musical cutaways to the uncle’s collection of nautical-themed paintings.   At a press conference, Kamalakanthan remarked that one of the catalysts for the project, filmed entirely and authentically under the couple’s early Covid lockdown, was the discovery of Shaw’s childhood Hi8 camera in a closet. The low-tech look of the now-obsolete format, along with the camera’s 240X zoom capacity, enabled them to give the film a handmade visual aspect that matches the homely personal quality of the narrative, which according to Kamalakanthan, takes place “in the disjuncture between the world ending, and being extremely bored while it ends.” Numb Standing out in the Tiger Competition for its intricately crafted subtlety, the Iranian film “Numb” by Amir Toodehroosta plays bait and switch with viewer expectations. “Numb” is set in a kindergarten, the only educational level in Iran where boys and girls are not yet segregated into gender-specific classes. In the opening minutes, the film appears to be a classroom documentary in the vein of Nicolas Philibert’s 2002 international hit “To Be and to Have,” or the 2016 Dutch documentary “Miss Kiet’s Children.” Cute antics prevail, up to a point, with contrariness often hilariously confounding the teachers' intentions. A teacher warns one little five-year-old to adjust her scarf to completely cover her hair. As soon as the adult is out of sight, the child slyly slides it halfway back on her head. As the children rehearse for an upcoming show for the parents, a boy is prompted to dance. He turns his back to the class and launches into a provocative butt-wriggling performance that gets him quickly yanked back to his seat by the teachers. In one session, the mullah providing moral instruction to the children is thrown by the off-the-wall question, “Where do babies come from,” eliciting a sanctimonious “praying for them,” answer. The setup is disarming and funny, suggesting that Toodehroosta’s goal is to demonstrate that curious young minds inherently resist indoctrination. However, it soon develops that his calculated air of kids-say-the-darndest-things is a subterfuge. Almost imperceptibly, this unthreatening-seeming milieu turns weirder and darker and is unmasked as a tightly scripted drama rather than a documentary. The “Where do babies come from” question is a turning point. Suggestions of sex and sexuality are gradually insinuated into the most unexpected situations. Brief and yet jarring incidents upset the status quo of childhood innocence. A boy’s curiosity about his mother’s pregnancy leads to a distinctly unchildish plot by the boy and his little friends. A classroom crush involving Rana and her male classmates Roham and Azad outpaces its cute factor in developments that mirror adult rivalries worthy of a steamy soap opera. Bit by startling bit, Toodehroosta suggests a society in which pedophilia, domestic abuse, family dysfunction, adultery, abandonment, and more lie just beneath the surface. IFFR’s Big Screen Competition encompassed a wide range of international work, from the more mainstream-friendly “Endless Borders,” also from Iran, to the more challenging Mexican three-character chamber drama “Before the Buzzards Arrive.”  Before We Collapse “Before We Collapse,” co-directed by French novelist Alice Zeniter and Benoit Volais, brought comic touches, pathos, and a political slant to the tale of one man’s inadvertent brush with fatherhood. Tristan, a callow political campaign manager who juggles an active string of hookups in his private life, is brought up short by receiving a positive pregnancy test anonymously through the mail. His situation is complicated because a fatal hereditary disease runs in his family, but he has refused to be tested for the gene. Fear fuels his pursuit of past paramours in an attempt to find the prospective mother. Zeniter’s script takes Tristan on a nostalgic tour through various lifestyles and ideologies representing the women of his past and includes a visit to a communal farm where urban revolution vs. grassroots activism is dinner table talk. Before it ends, “Before We Collapse” wittily evokes a bit of early Godard, the talky political affinities of Alain Tanner, and the romantic complications typical of Philippe Garrel. The Iranian/Czech/German co-production “Endless Borders,” by Abbas Amini, was ultimately announced as the winner of IFFR’s Big Screen Competition, an award that guarantees that the film will play for a run in Dutch cinemas. Although relatively conventional in its form, the film has a currency that meshes with IFFR’s implied global concerns. A drama overt in its political implications, “Endless Borders” highlights hot-button issues that include the plight of Afghan refugees attempting to escape to the West and the Iranian regime’s persecution of intellectuals.   Endless Borders Vaezi is the sole schoolteacher in a tiny remote village on the Afghan border. The barren landscape, with its white-sand flatlands and formidable cliffs, projects loneliness and isolation. He is not there by choice but as a result of being sentenced to exile for an unspecified crime of a political nature. His wife Niloofar, also a teacher, is serving a sentence in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for the same crime, which in her case, appears to be guilt by association. When a bedraggled clutch of Afghan refugees heading for the Turkish border turns up near the village, Vaezi leaves his classroom unattended and attempts to render what humanitarian aid is possible given his meager circumstances. In one family group, a dying old man is in dire need of medication. The teen girl, who appears to be his daughter, seems strangely unconcerned. Not everyone in this family is who they seem. Village rivalries and ethnic animosity are stirred up by the arrival of the needy strangers, and the teacher’s good intentions threaten to sabotage his freedom and future when he is unwittingly entangled in a web that involves attempted murder and illicit love.

  • #451 February 7, 2023
    by Matt Fagerholm on February 7, 2023 at 6:01 AM

    Matt writes: It always lifts my spirits to see a brand new movie theater open in my sweet home of Chicago, and that is precisely what happened on January 27th, when Alamo Drafthouse Wrigleyville welcomed its first customers at 3519 North Clark Street. Dedicated to John Hughes, whose work is honored with a special display replicating the famous climax from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (pictured below), the venue also contains a video rental store and cocktail bar in the lobby. You can read my full report on the theater here, and find a quote below from Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League, upon being asked by RogerEbert.com publisher Chaz Ebert about how he's been able to expand his theater chain when so many others have been nearly derailed by the ongoing pandemic. "All theaters during Covid had a really hard time," answered League. "We went through a chapter eleven restructuring process, and we came out of that stronger and leaner. We learned a few things about how to be lean, and now we're ready to keep marching. It's funny, the press that you sometimes hear is that cinema is dead and that it's all streaming from here. Pardon my French, but I think that's utter bullshit. The idea that you have a kitchen in your house but yet you still continue to go to restaurants, that's been proven tried and true. So it's the obligation of cinemas to have an incredible experience and compel you to come out of the home. Great directors want their movies to be seen with great presentation in this setting, not on a laptop while you're in bed multitasking and checking email. The industry is strong and it's coming back. We actually had a great year last year and this year is going to be even stronger, and so yeah, we got close to death during Covid. Regal, which is currently closing their theaters, is going through that same sort of restructuring process right now, so it's not like Regal is going to die. They're going to shed a few theaters, and maybe we'll pick up a couple of those theaters. We're ready to march, we're ready to expand and 2023 is going to be a great year for exhibition." Trailers Moving On (2023). Written and directed by Paul Weitz. Starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Malcolm McDowell. Synopsis: Two old friends reconnect at a funeral and decide to revenge on the widower who messed with them decades before. Debuts in US theaters on March 17th, 2023. My Happy Ending (2023). Directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon. Written by Rona Tamir (based on the play by Anat Gov). Starring Andie MacDowell, Miriam Margolyes, Tom Cullen. Synopsis: Follows a famous star who finds herself in a British hospital room with three other women who help her. Debuts in the US on February 24th, 2023. The Five Devils (2023). Directed by Léa Mysius. Written by Léa Mysius and Paul Guilhaume. Starring Adèle Exarchopoulos, Swala Emati, Sally Dramé. Synopsis: Vicky lives with her mother Joanne and father Jimmie, a man struggling to find his place. When Vicky's aunt Julia arrives after being released from prison, her presence brings back the past in a violent, magical way. US release date is TBA. The Lost King (2023). Directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (based on the book by Philippa Langley). Starring Sally Hawkins, Shonagh Price, Helen Katamba. Synopsis: An amateur historian defies the stodgy academic establishment in her efforts to find King Richard III's remains, which were lost for over 500 years. US release date is TBA. The Boogeyman (2023). Directed by Rob Savage. Written by Scott Beck, Bryan Woods and Mark Heyman (based on the short story by Stephen King). Starring Marin Ireland, Chris Messina, Sophie Thatcher. Synopsis: Yet another film adaptation of a story by the king of modern literary horror. Debuts in the US on June 2nd, 2023. Big George Foreman (2023). Directed by George Tillman Jr.. Written by George Tillman Jr., Frank Baldwin and Dan Gordon. Starring Khris Davis, Forest Whitaker, John Magaro. Synopsis: A biopic on the life and boxing career of George Foreman. Debuts in the US on April 28th, 2023. The Covenant (2023). Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Guy Ritchie, Marn Davies and Ivan Atkinson.Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Alexander Ludwig, Antony Starr. Synopsis: Follows Sergeant John, who on his last tour of duty in Afghanistan is teamed with local interpreter Ahmed, who risks his own life to carry an injured John across miles of grueling terrain to safety. Debuts in the US on April 21st, 2023. Huesera: The Bone Woman (2023). Directed by Michelle Garza Cervera. Written by Michelle Garza Cervera and Abia Castillo. Starring Alfonso Dosal, Mayra Batalla, Natalia Solián. Synopsis: Valeria has long dreamed about becoming a mother. After learning that she's pregnant, she expects to feel happy, yet something's off. Debuts in the US on February 10th, 2023. Bill Russell: Legend (2023). Directed by Sam Pollard. Synopsis: Features interviews and personal archives from the life and career of NBA legend Bill Russell. Debuts on Netflix on February 8th, 2023. Marc Maron: From Bleak to Dark (2023). Directed by Steven Feinartz. Synopsis: Follows the funny and fearless Marc Maron over the course of an exhilarating and deeply personal hour, exploring universal topics such as old age, antisemitism, faith. Debuts on HBO on February 11th, 2023. A Little White Lie (2023). Written and directed by Michael Maren. Starring Michael Shannon, Kate Hudson, Peyton List. Synopsis: When a handyman living in New York City is mistaken for a famous and famously reclusive writer, he's brought to a university where he is to deliver a keynote address to save the school's literary festival. Debuts in the US on April 13th, 2023. La Montaña (2023). Directed by Diego Enrique Osorno. Synopsis: Chronicles the journey of Squad 421 of the Zapatista Army Of Liberation Nacional as they seek allies during the COVID-19 pandemic. US release date is TBA. 65 (2023). Written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. Starring Adam Driver, Ariana Greenblatt, Chloe Coleman. Synopsis: An astronaut crash lands on a mysterious planet only to discover he's not alone. Debuts in the US on March 10th, 2023. Bruiser (2023). Directed by Miles Warren. Written by Miles Warren and Ben Medina. Starring Jalyn Hall, Trevante Rhodes, Shamier Anderson. Synopsis: A 14-year-old boy turns to a charismatic loner for help after being beaten up, in director Miles Warren's searing feature debut about fathers, families, and the effects of fighting. Debuts on Hulu on February 24th, 2023. We Have a Ghost (2023). Written and directed by Christopher Landon (based on the story by Geoff Manaugh). Starring Anthony Mackie, David Harbour, Jennifer Coolidge. Synopsis: Finding a ghost named Ernest haunting their new home turns Kevin's family into overnight social media sensations. But when Kevin and Ernest investigate the mystery of Ernest's past, they become a target of the CIA. Debuts in the US on February 24th, 2023. Kill Boksoon (2023). Written and directed by Sung-hyun Byun. Starring Jeon Do-yeon, Hwang Jung-min, Fahim Fazli. Synopsis: A single mother who is a renowned hired killer finds it difficult to achieve a balance between her personal and work life. Debuts on Netflix on March 31st, 2023. Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023). Directed by David F. Sandberg. Written by Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan (based on the character created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck). Starring Zachary Levi, Grace Caroline Currey, Helen Mirren. Synopsis: The film continues the story of teenage Billy Batson who, upon reciting the magic word "SHAZAM!" is transformed into his adult Super Hero alter ego, Shazam. Debuts in the US on March 17th, 2023. Murder Mystery 2 (2023). Written and directed by Jeremy Garelick. Starring Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston, Mark Strong. Synopsis: Full-time detectives Nick and Audrey are struggling to get their private eye agency off the ground. They find themselves at the center of international abduction when their friend Maharaja, is kidnapped at his own lavish wedding. Debuts on Netflix on March 31st, 2023. Lukas Dhont on "Close" Matt writes: I had the enormous privilege of interviewing Belgian filmmaker Lukas Dhont about his Oscar-nominated masterwork, "Close," featuring brilliant performances from its young actors Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele. You can read our complete conversation here. Slamdance Film Festival 2023  Matt writes: Our Managing Editor Brian Tallerico spotlighted four enticing titles at this year's Slamdance Film Festival, including Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller's great documentary, "Sweetheart Deal," which I praised at last year's BendFilm Festival. You can read Brian's coverage here. Free Movies The Capture (1950). Directed by John Sturges. Written by Niven Busch. Starring Lew Ayres, Teresa Wright, Victor Jory. Synopsis: A badly injured fugitive explains to a priest how he came to be in his present predicament.  Watch "The Capture" Girl Gang (1954). Directed by Robert C. Dertano. Starring Joanne Arnold, Timothy Farrell, Harry Keaton. Synopsis: A sleazy gangster has a gang of young girls commit robberies and prostitution for him by getting them hooked on drugs.   Watch "Girl Gang" Hospitals: The White Mafia (1973). Directed by Luigi Zampa. Written by Dino Maiuri and Massimo De Rita. Starring Enrico Maria Salerno, Gabriele Ferzetti, Senta Berger. Synopsis: Portraits of a pushy surgeon and a nurse with many secrets, in a big city hospital. Watch "Hospitals: The White Mafia"

  • Waking Karma
    by Matt Zoller Seitz on February 6, 2023 at 5:33 PM

    "Waking Karma" is the kind of small movie you root for even when it fails to live up to its potential. There's a lot that doesn't quite work, but you can tell by the strong performances and the production's overall sincerity that everyone involved was hoping to create something memorable; the missteps are mainly about what the film decides to emphasize. Co-directed by Carlos Montaner and Liz Fania Werner (who also wrote the script), "Waking Karma" focuses on its title character, Karma (Hannah Christine Shetler), the daughter of a cult leader named Paul (Michael Madsen) who murdered 11 people. Karma's mother Sunny (Kimberly Alexander) escaped from Paul's compound years ago and has succeeded in creating a life apart from it, even though the trauma of that experience continues to affect her and her only child. They have to exist off-the-grid because they're afraid the cult will find them and drag them back to hell.  The setup has some superficial similarities to much better "fugitive family" thrillers like the classic "Running on Empty," in which the burden of living a secret life worsens adolescence, which is never a carefree period even for young people in a stable home. Karma and Sunny have thoughtful, sensitive exchanges in the first section, but then Paul shows up looking and acting like a dollar-store version of Robert Mitchum's preacher character in "Night of the Hunter," and Madsen starts doing his smirking, raspy voiced, Satanic lizard-man thing (which, while too familiar, is always effective, and is chill-inducing here). "Waking Karma" turns into an inevitable countdown to a confrontation in which mother or daughter (or both, or neither) will face off against Paul, and spark catharsis or tragedy. "Waking Karma" makes the most of its minimal budget by playing with viewer's perceptions of what's real, especially in the opening sequence, a flashback that shows how "normal" a homicidal cult can seem when you've been living in the middle of it, and in hallucinatory/nightmare scenes involving an insect mask worn by the cult's Chosen One. The entire cast is impressively committed and understated (except for Madsen, who—like Dennis Hopper back in the day—is mainly called upon to rattle cages and put on a show). Shetler in particular is quite a find. She has an impressive range covering everything she's asked to do here, from horror film histrionics to domestic drama-style confrontations with a hard truth to action heroine resourcefulness.  The biggest problem here is the filmmaking, which is rarely more than serviceable and sometimes less than that. Oddly, for a movie with such built-in potential for nightmarish beauty and unsettling atmosphere, the lighting and compositions are almost entirely unmemorable save for a few nightmare bits. And the editing is haphazard, to the point where you start to wonder if some of the actors performing in scenes built of alternating close-ups were ever in the same room at the same time. "Waking Karma" feels like a project that had to be rescued, though from what, an outsider can't say.   Now playing on VOD. 

  • Riveting Remake of Dead Space Brings Franchise Back to Life
    by Brian Tallerico on February 6, 2023 at 5:25 PM

    A decade ago, Electronic Arts and Visceral Games’ “Dead Space” seemed like one of the most creatively robust and successful franchises in the world. And then “Dead Space 3” disappointed me—I was one of the few fans of the game, even if it doesn’t compare to the first two in the series. Before you knew it, Isaac Clarke was adrift, a part of video game history instead of anything in development. Of course, in pop culture, nothing really dies. After the success of the remakes of “Resident Evil 2” and “Resident Evil 3,” and the acclaim for last year’s “The Last of Us, Part 1,” it made sense that EA would return to “Dead Space,” a breakthrough, influential game that has now been completely rebuilt from the top down with voice work (the first game initially had a silent protagonist), new mechanics, new environments, and even some new story twists. It’s not just a coat of paint. It’s a game that feels new. Sure, some of the structure is a bit dated—constantly looking for save spots instead of auto-saves, a clunky movement style for Clarke, an outdated inventory system, etc.—but what works about this game has not only been maintained but enhanced. It’s still a terrifying, riveting experience, a game that echoes films like “Alien” and “Event Horizon” while also feeling distinctly original at the same time. I hope this one is no one-off and that it’s successful enough to put the words “Dead Space 4” on a release schedule again. “Dead Space” unfolds in the 26th century, far from the safety of planet Earth. You step into the gravity boots of Isaac Clarke (voiced here by Gunner Wright, who voiced the character in “Dead Space 2” and “Dead Space 3”), a worker on the repair vessel USG Kellion (elements from “Alien” like its working-class crew emerge from the very beginning). The USG Ishimura, a massive mining ship above a planet called Aegis VII, has gone silent, and the Kellion is assigned to investigate. When they’re docking with the Ishimura, something goes horribly wrong, and Clarke has to board the mining vessel to fix the problem. He quickly walks into a nightmare. The Ishimura has been overrun by alien zombies. Named Necromorphs, they’re terrifying creatures with massive pointy arms and legs. One of the game’s brilliant approaches to combat in 2008 was to move from the traditional head-shot focus of the shooters of the day to strategic shooting. It’s wise to take the legs out of your enemies first to slow them down. And with the new graphics on the PS5, this aspect of “Dead Space” is incredibly rewarding. It’s just fun to dismember your enemy, leaving it crawling towards you before it’s finally dispatched. That’s if you have the ammo to do so. “Dead Space” feels even more like survival horror than I remembered. Ammunition is scarce enough that I had to literally just swing away and try and beat some enemies to death a few times because all my guns were empty. The combat customization remains remarkable because you have a steadily building arsenal that's upgraded through “nodes” found throughout the game. But everything is enhanced by something called Stasis, which can be used to slow your enemies and also to grab items from the environment and hurl them at the bad guys. The blend of different strategies makes for a game that never grows stale, and the way the game has been rebuilt for the PS5 controller is remarkable. Of course, the main thing players will notice about “Dead Space” in 2023 is that it doesn’t look like a game that came out in 2008. The details in the environment have been greatly enhanced, giving the entire experience aboard the Ishimura even more tension. You often only have the flashlight at the end of your gun to light your way through the infested corridors of the ship. And the cut down on load times intensifies the experience as Clarke can travel more seamlessly from one nightmare to another. The sound design was acclaimed in 2008, and it remains a marvel. Every time something clanged around a corner, or I heard the scream of an enemy, my pulse quickened a bit. The controls have been reworked slightly, too, including allowing Clarke to run with the click of a stick, and there are just more elements in the environment to play with and discover. Everything about the Ishimura feels denser as if it was a real vessel before it opened a portal to Hell. Once again, the lore of “Dead Space” often unfolds in audio and text logs, which allows serious fans to dig into the storytelling or casual ones to just ignore them. There are even a few brand-new side quests and a few notable changes to the main narrative. “Dead Space” remains one of the best survival horror games of all time. In an alternate universe, it never disappeared in 2013, leading to rich new installments that expanded on this fascinating franchise. Maybe it's not too late.  The publisher provided a review copy of this title.

  • Gina Rodriguez's Not Dead Yet Offers Pretty, Heartwarming Escapism
    by Cristina Escobar on February 6, 2023 at 3:36 PM

    Gina Rodriguez is back on your small screen after ending the wonderful and under-watched “Jane the Virgin” in 2019. In ABC’s “Not Dead Yet,” premiering February 8th, Rodriguez plays another charming writer at a personal crossroads.  But Nell is not the hyper-organized, overly romantic Jane. No, Nell declares herself a mess from the get-go, and “Not Dead Yet” does its best to prove that’s the case. The show opens with Nell back in Los Angeles after a failed engagement, living with a roommate (Rick Glassman) despite being nearly 40. She’s back at her old job at the local paper. There, she’s no longer a rising star but rather demoted to the seemingly dead-end obituary column (get it?). And because she's played by Rodriguez, she brims with warmth and charm, only occasionally displaying an edge to the show's principal conflict-- her relationship with herself. In each episode, a guest star, playing the ghost of whomever she’s writing an obit about, helps her heal her bruised psyche. The setup—Nell sees and hears the ghosts, but no one else does—allows Rodriguez to use her talent for physical humor. I was practically guffawing at one flashback sequence retold from an outsider’s perspective without the ghosts’ presence. Part of the fun of a show like this is seeing who they get to appear and “Not Dead Yet” doesn’t disappoint on that front. Martin Mull is the first to haunt Nell, and he gives a warm performance as a man whose professional success was the footnote rather than the full story of his life. In the five episodes provided to critics, each ghost is played with fervor by actors of various amounts of clout, all imparting an important lesson to Nell, whether they mean to or not.  “Not Dead Yet” also features a delightful cast of recurring characters, including “New Girl” alum Hannah Simone as Sam, who matches Rodriguez’s internal glow as Nell’s best friend. Lauren Ash has a lot of fun as the imperious and out-of-touch boss, while Jimmy Bellinger seems to have a great time as the unpaid intern and Nell’s presumptuous rival. Most of the workplace drama reads like a writer’s fantasy of what it is to work at a newspaper—there are the occasional lobster lunches for inspiration, for one. The good people putting together the SoCal Independent may worry about numbers, but no one gets laid off, everyone makes a living wage, and Nell appears to write just one column a week. Adding to the fantasy of it all, the characters inhabit a cheerful Los Angeles where Nell walks around her neighborhood; everyone she meets lives close by in a city famous for its spaced-out neighborhoods, and the general vibe is bright and airy. If that all sounds saccharine—well, it is sweet. But “Not Dead Yet” isn't striving for realism, so much as escapism. We are talking about a friendly ghost show here after all.  Thankfully, the lesson-of-the-week format doesn’t venture into after-school-special because the show takes its characters’ problems seriously, never condescending but rather approaching each person with empathy. It also helps that Nell’s issues are consequential but not insurmountable, existing on a relatable human scale. Yes, she’s recovering from a broken heart, but it’s more than that. She’s struggling with trauma I won’t give away, dealing with how her friends’ lives went on without her, and generally trying to find purpose after her life took a turn she didn’t account for. It’s all stuff any of us might go through, the regular drama of being alive. And that’s why the ghosts can help Nell—she just needs some more wisdom to figure out how to love herself better. This focus on the human condition is also why it’s so nice to visit the cheerful, accepting world of “Not Dead Yet.” Who wouldn’t want to spend half an hour a week in a place where newspapers are thriving, ghosts are here to help, and everyone’s life has a purpose?

  • Apple TV+'s New Weeper Dear Edward Is Hardly Good Grief
    by Clint Worthington on February 3, 2023 at 3:30 PM

    Sometimes, it’s nice to have a good cry. And some of the best artists recognize that; Lord knows Jason Katims, who spearheaded thoughtful TV weepies like “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights,” does. But his latest for Apple TV+, an adaptation of Ann Napolitano’s acclaimed novel Dear Edward, tips its hand more than a bit too far: it’s less a heartbreaking story in its own right than a perfectly-calibrated waterworks machine, one designed to trap its audience in ten hours of communal misery and grief. In the fields outside a small town in Colorado, a passenger plane crashes. Two hundred-plus lives aboard are lost, save for one: 12-year-old Edward (newcomer Colin O’Brien), who lost his entire family—including his older brother and best friend Jordan (Maxwell Jenkins)—in the crash. The shocked and traumatized child is quickly dubbed “Miracle Boy” by a press hungry for uplifting stories and sent to live with his bitter estranged Aunt Lacy (Taylor Schilling) and husband John (Carter Hudson), who’ve been trying successfully to have their own child for years.  Ostensibly, Eddie’s arrival should be a godsend for them after years of miscarriages. But life isn’t that easy; Plus, everyone’s got deep wounds in need of healing, some inflicted long before the crash.  One of the most interesting yet structurally damning changes Katims makes from the book is widening the narrative tapestry outside of Edward’s experience. After all, hundreds of others died on that flight, all with loved ones rummaging through their emotional wreckage. There’s Connie Britton’s brash New Jersey empty nester Dee Dee, Anna Uzele’s AOC-lite political hopeful Adriana, Amy Forsyth’s Linda, a pregnant teen whose boyfriend died in the crash. The list goes on and on, too voluminous to list here.  In the wake of the crash, they find community in the form of a corporate-sponsored support group, where their lives intersect in all the ways you’d expect of a maudlin melodrama such as this. Some end up sleeping together; others open up or resolve old family wounds. Still, others crumble under the secrets and lies left behind by spouses who aren’t around to guard them anymore. It’s a lot to take in, especially when stacked on top of each other; characters will disappear for entire episodes with little fanfare as if placed in storage until the next little chapter of their tragedy.  But what about Edward? Amongst all the sturm und drang of the grownups’ varying tribulations, little Eddie can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. It’s a shame, too; apart from him being, as Beanie Feldstein would say, the titular role, O’Brien’s wounded, withdrawn performance offers the most complete, multifaceted journey among the sprawling ensemble that surrounds him. His youth and innocence compound the tragedy that’s befallen him, an orphaned boy thrust both into a family situation that wasn’t prepared for him and a media landscape that makes him the repository of everything from well-intentioned love to oversharing to conspiracies and death threats. All he has to cling to is the memory of his brother and the guilt of knowing that a game of rock-paper-scissors over which seat they’d take sealed their respective fates.  Granted, it’s all performed with admirable grace and confidence thanks to a committed cast that, at the very least, keeps the thing aloft in each tearjerking moment. Apart from O’Brien, other standouts include Schilling, who infuses Lacy with relatably brittle neuroses, and Dario Ladani Sanchez’s Sam, for whom the loss of an old high school friend in the crash awakens latent conflicts about his sexuality—especially complicated given that he’s married with kids.  But it’s Britton who infuses the most life into the otherwise-dour cast; Dee Dee’s larger-than-life brashness and volatility offer a welcome respite from the downbeat bummers around her, whether she’s rage-eating sympathy cupcakes or telling well-meaning yoga neighbors to “shove [their] kombucha up [their] ass”. Where everyone else feels like a zombie shuffling through the ruins of their deteriorated lives, she demands to see life’s manager, and it’s delightful.  But when the show veers away from Dee Dee or Edward towards its bloated tertiary cast, it becomes hard to, as Lizzy McAlpine mewls through most of the show’s treacly, guitar-folk theme, “hold on” to your attention. There are so many threads to follow, several of whom cover virtually identical territory (married men navigating their sexuality, victims falling in love with family members of other victims), and it’s all weighed down with the same heavy blanket of weepy sincerity. Katims is downright aggressive in how he piles one sadness on top of another, trapping his characters in inescapable dilemmas with little respite. The repetition and the predictability of these lesser threads gets old fast, especially the longer they take away screentime from the more compelling (and complete) meditation on grief we see in Edward. Perhaps “Dear Sad Relatives of Crash Victims, feat. Edward” would have been a more apt title. Those looking for something to fill that “This Is Us”-shaped hole in their media diet will flock to “Dear Edward”; after all, both shows have all the airy, acoustic-guitar contemplation of a laundry detergent commercial. But as meditations on grief go, Katims seems more content to engineer contrived soap-opera agonies than fully exploring what it means to lose everything and do your best to dust yourself off and keep going. And it’s especially egregious considering the show’s clear bid for a second season in its closing moments, when the path Edward and his fellow survivors plan to take hardly seems more interesting than the one they already traveled.  Entire season was screened for review. "Dear Edward" is now playing on Apple TV+. 

  • Knock at the Cabin
    by Nick Allen on February 3, 2023 at 3:00 PM

    M. Night Shyamalan should probably just stay away from the apocalypse. Who could forget the baffling events of his global warming horror “The Happening,” aptly represented by a scene in which a character just lays down in front of a moving lawn mower? Or what about “After Earth,” which made a box office bomb out of a sci-fi movie starring Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith? There’s something about the end of the world that fascinates Shyamalan—as a sentimental moralist, an overzealous twister, and a button-pusher—there’s also something that always foils him. His latest, “Knock at the Cabin,” uses the question of human behavior during the threat of end times to create a morality study that progressively hollows itself out. It’s another minor work from a director whose films, especially after “After Earth,” have been mostly major.  It’s a shame that the story isn’t so good, because the film has a rich and earthy Kodak-shot presentation from co-cinematographers Jarin Blaschke (“The Lighthouse”) and Lowell A. Meyer (“Thunder Road”), who turn many scenes of characters standing in mostly the same living room into striking studies of pleading faces in close-up. It looks about as realized as a movie like this could be. And the performances have enough uniform intensity, even when the writing is only playing games. It’s a striking ensemble piece by design, and creates some promise early on, but Shyamalan’s larger intent doesn’t give “Knock at the Cabin” nearly enough resonance.  The standout performance comes from Dave Bautista, in his most tatted-up teddy bear mode possible, wearing glasses like he did in “Blade Runner 2049” to suggest the gentle boy inside his grizzly physique. For a movie about how humans choose to interact with one another, his acting is incredibly disarming here and sometimes moving in how he chooses to speak so gently while enacting a plan filled with the unthinkable. His character Leonard is a second-grade teacher from Chicago who has united with three other people (played by Rupert Grint, Abby Quinn, and Nikki Amuka-Bird) who have also had life-changing visions of the apocalypse. They approach a cabin in the woods with sharp weapons in hand, and they do not want to hurt the people inside. But they will enact the violence that they feel they must.  The targeted family is that of young Wen (Kristen Cui) and her two dads, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge). They do not know why they have been chosen, but it does not matter. Tied up in chairs before their weapon-wielding captors, they must decide to kill one of their family of three to stop an impending apocalypse. They cannot kill themselves, and if they reject their captors’ prospect, something awful will happen in the cabin, and a plague will be unleashed. The first time Eric and Andrew effusively say no, towering tsunamis are conjured, and deadly earthquakes ensue.  Are Leonard and his friends onto something, or is this all a coincidence? Is it manipulation? There may be no force more powerful on this earth than belief. It can be a tool that builds communities or a weapon that destroys lives; a movie like “Knock at the Cabin” needs to wriggle in that magnanimous uncertainty of belief, and instead, it only sits and admires it. It’s like presenting QAnon devotees and people who think the Earth is flat as possibly being right, for the sake of both sides-ism. Shyamalan isn't nudging about a divided people (like Jordan Peele's “Us,” which echoes through the woods of this movie), but lazily stirring the fear of conspiracy.  Cut back to us, well aware that our collective brains are broken, waiting for a larger point: we are stuck with a frustrating and self-serious movie that kneels before its zealousness but also continually emphasizes why Leonard and the others would sow skepticism. The script carefully doles out information about everyone to toy with coincidence and happenstance, but it's more stirring, less building. Shyamalan does not have the nuance to handle this idea, as confirmed when his expected twist comes minutes before the end.  Even with these sharp weapons, bizarre motivations, and that whole apocalypse thing, “Knock at the Cabin” lacks a key squeamish element. Not that the movie needs gore, but the threat of violence in this immediate scenario is specifically numbed by cutaways; for a story pitched in the human capacity to recognize another’s life value, there just isn’t the terror that could create some of its emotional stakes. The lack of it is deeply felt once it becomes apparent what monsters this movie is and isn’t dealing with, while showing how these people are driven by something that forces them to do awful things. Instead, “Knock at the Cabin” creates one anticlimax after another.  The script, co-written by Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, and Michael Sherman (adapting Paul Tremblay's book The Cabin at the End of the World), does better in making us worry for the targeted family. During this present-day stress, "Knock at the Cabin" cuts back and forth between the love story of Eric and Andrew, and their life with adopted daughter Wen. Groff and Aldridge are heartbreaking as they slowly become opposites: Aldridge embodies one’s tough exterior against a threatening world, while Groff gradually depicts the journey of seeing the light. Together, they show the pain of possibly making The Choice, and how Eric and Andrew don’t want to in part because of their deep love for each other. They also help provide more substance to the film’s representation of a same-sex married couple, which on one hand, more of this please, but on the other hand, still feels like major studio productions have a lot more work to do.  “Knock at the Cabin” has glimmers of interest as a parable about people trying to preserve all of humanity: not just the population, but the concept. The work of Leonard and co. is something like a promotion of empathy, though as is often said about faith: it's the messengers who need work. By trying to make a grand statement to a post-lockdown theatergoing audience about what they are willing to believe—but also about how far they are willing to go for others—Shyamalan trips over himself and neglects to give them much of a movie. Now playing in theaters. 

  • The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic
    by Monica Castillo on February 3, 2023 at 12:48 PM

    It’s a cheeky title for a serious movie. Teemu Nikki’s “The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic” is about a man in Finland named Jaakko (Petri Poikolainen), a movie fan and wheelchair user dealing with the aches and side effects of multiple sclerosis. Unable to move far without the help of an assistant or see because of blindness, Jaakko spends many of his days—joked about as Groundhog Days—at home calling his long-distance girlfriend Sirpa (Marjaana Maijala) for company. When her health turns for the worse, Jaakko decides to travel at once to cheer her up—even though the two have never met in person.  It’s a charming premise that then turns into a suspense movie as Jaakko decides not to wait for help but go off on his own to see Sirpa. Unfortunately, he meets strangers both helpful and unkind, some of whom take advantage of his blindness to rob and kidnap him. However serious things get, overall, his adventure is a tribute to the character’s determination and a crash course on how the able-bodied world remains hostile to people with his condition. In the film's earlier scenes, Jaakko is treated to the cruel thoughts of passing strangers who write him off first as a drug addict and then about how they would never want to live with his illness. It’s painful and uncomfortable to watch him take the comments in silence. Later, in his efforts to meet Sirpa, his trip reveals many of the shortcomings of modern-day travel for blind wheelchair users, like limited resources to provide assistance, that leave him vulnerable to thieves. Despite the difficulties and barriers, Jaakko’s determined to be there for someone he cares about, and that steadfast resolve drives the narrative.  Director, writer, and producer Nikki and cinematographer Sari Aaltonen film “The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic” entirely from Jaakko’s perspective, keeping him in focus and mostly in close-up while the world around him is a blur. His face takes up the majority of the screen for much of the film. We hear voices and noises sharply but we cannot see the faces of strangers or even Jaakko’s nurse, creating a sense of Jaakko’s experience and how he has to move through the world without physical context clues, like when someone untrustworthy is trying to take advantage of him, or simply know when and where to call for help. The opening credits are written in braille and read aloud by assistive technology, and both are incorporated into the film organically to show how Jaakko can call Sirpa, catch up on the news, order tickets over the phone, and place and win online bets. Centering the character’s experience is pivotal to making the movie so effective, but when it deviates from those visual guidelines, it feels like it loses a touch of its power.  As a trained actor with a camera on him throughout the entirety of the film, Poikolainen shoulders the task with a stoic grace and a sardonic wit. He brings his character to life, emotionally and physically, summoning the determination Jaakko needs to get to Sirpa but also the charm to flirt with her, crack wise about his nurse, lie to his dad, and make fun of his robber’s taste in music. He’s emotionally retrained to a point. But then occasionally, we see outbursts of joy, like the scene in the cab where he’s enjoying the wind in his hair. It’s a hard task to keep the camera engaged with the same person at such a close distance at all times, but Poikolainen and Nikki pull it off.  The title is about a man who would do anything for love, even watch a movie he’s avoided for decades. Jaakko is a film buff many of us know, with strong opinions about John Carpenter, and as the title suggests, James Cameron. In turn, “The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic” connects its audience with Jaakko’s experience, through both the frustrating and joyous moments, in hopes that we will never sound like the disapproving voices scowling at his existence.  Now playing in theaters.

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