More May 2021 capsule reviews: Crisis, Undine, Cruella, and A Quiet Place Part II

Crisis: B 

Nicholas Jarecki’s Crisis suffered the misfortune of being releases just weeks after some outrageously awful PR for co-star Armie Hammer (who is undeniably quite good here). That’s a shame, as this multi-layered exploration of the opioid crisis is a fine film, one written with empathy, acted with passion, and directed with efficiency. It is hard to escape the sense that we have seen variations of the three main stories before — an undercover DEA agent, a crusading medical researcher, a recovering addict mother whose life is torn apart by the illegal drug trade — and that keeps Crisis from greatness. However, the film deserves to be seen. The strongest story, by far, is centered on a drug researcher and college professor played by Gary Oldman. Upon finding that a soon-to-be-approved wonder drug is addictive, he faces a moral dilemma, one that could cost him his livelihood. There is a freshness to this particular tale; it is not often we’ve seen the ethics of big-money scientific research or the ambiguity of academic tenure onscreen. I could not help but think that Crisis could have made an appropriately sprawling streaming series, but as a two-hour film, it is still an admirable and passionate effort from the talented Jarecki.

Undine: A

The latest from the great Christian Petzold (Phoenix, Transit) is without question one of the most delightfully mysterious — and best — films of 2021. The hypnotic blend of fantasy and memory stars the splendid Paula Beer as a Berlin historian recovering from a breakup and the always reliable Franz Rogowski as a professional diver who falls for her. Playing with myth, Berlin history, and emotional trauma, Petzold crafts a film both unsettling and uniquely memorable. 

Cruella: B+

OK, here is one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. I held out little hope for Disney’s live-action Cruella De Vil origin story, and admittedly, it is hard to call the film necessary. Yet director Craig Gillespie and star Emma Stone have fashioned a wildly entertaining, enjoyable over-the-top success that managed to please my kids and me equally. Stone is marvelous, and equally strong are villainess Emma Thompson and the delightful duo of Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser. The setting — 1960s and 70s London — is part of the charm. But what makes Cruella really work is that Gillespie and company truly embrace the over-the-top plot and run with it. 

A Quiet Place Part II: B+

Another somewhat surprising success is John Krasinski’s sequel to A Quiet Place. Why is it surprising? While the first film was enjoyably suspenseful, the nature of the story seemed difficult to continue effectively. However, it is a more expansive tale that is full of surprises. Emily Blunt is as strong here as she was in the first film, as are Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe as her determined but ever-stressed children. The greatest addition here is Cillian Murphy as a neighbor who reluctantly assists the family in their quest to stay alive. Featuring some stupendous parallel editing and killer jolts, A Quiet Place Part II is a fine film to herald the full-scale return to cinemas. The ultra-sudden ending is a bit of a letdown — although it is no surprise, really — but seeing Western New York sights and people on-screen adds to the fun. 

May 2021 capsule reviews: Wrath, Mauritanian, Maud, and more

Clockwise, from top left: About Endlessness, Saint Maud, The Dry, Wrath of Man, Come True, and The Mauritanian.

Wrath of Man: Guy Ritchie’s latest is lean, mean, twisty, and violent. In other words, it’s ideal for a return to the movies. Jason Statham, reunited with Ritchie after the disappointing Revolver, brings just the right mix of stoicism and barely concealed rage to this vengeance-driven tale of cash truck heists. I was a fan of the director’s previous effort, The Gentlemen, but Wrath might be his most effective film since The Man From U.N.C.L.E. B+

The Mauritanian: Kevin Maconald’s film about a prisoner from Mauritania held in Guantanamo Boy is at times formulaic and predictable. However, the performances from Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster are revelatory. Rahim, especially, is stunningly powerful. He and foster lead a stand-out cast that also includes Benedict Cumberbatch and Shailene Woodley. It is a flawed film that certainly deserves to be seen, and I expect it will find a larger audience at home. (Now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.) B-

About Endlessness: A Roy Andersson film will never be mistaken for one by any other filmmaker. Quite frankly, his darkly comic takes on reality and fantasy are unmistakable. His latest, About Endlessness, is my favorite since Songs From the Second Floor. The sketches are a bit les surreal than some of his past works, but no less compelling and moving. The most memorable recurring character is the older man continually fixated on a former classmate who ignored his greeting. (Available to rent.) A-

The Djinn: This horror film centered on a mute boy recovering from family tragedy has style and atmosphere to spare. However, the story is ponderous and the frustrating. The lead performance from young Ezra Dewey is notable. The film, sadly, is not. (In cinemas and on-demand.) C-

The Dry: Eric Bana makes a welcome return to the big screen in a reasonably involving take on Jane Harper’s detective novel. Bana is fine as a federal agent who returns to his hometown to deal with the murder-suicide of a friend from his youth. The end twist was rather obvious, but The Dry is never boring, and packs a surprising punch. (In cinemas and on-demand.) B

Come True: Anthony Scott Burns’ psychological horror film scared the hell out of me — and ensured I’ll never participate in a sleep study. Julia Sarah Stone is heartbreaking as a troubled teen both desperate for — and haunted by — sleep. Come True deserves cult classic status, and I hope to see its rep grow over time. (Available to rent.) B+

Saint Maud: For months, there was growing buzz around Rose Glass’ British horror film, Saint Maud, and it continued unabated when A24 delayed its release. The wait was worth it, and the hype was completely warranted. We are unlikely to see a better performance in 2021 than that of Morfyyd Clark, whose devout nurse becomes increasingly unhinged. It builds to a fiery conclusion that is, in a word, unforgettable. (Now streaming on Hulu.) A

THE FAN CONNECTION: Buffalo Spree feature and capsule review

I had the opportunity to write about the Buffalo hockey fan documentary in the May issue of Buffalo Spree — see feature below — and found it to be an intimate, moving, and entertaining documentary exploring the special relationship that exists between the Buffalo Sabres and the team’s long-suffering—but ever-enthusiastic—fanbase. Director Mary Wall and producer Eric Wojtanik smartly found a unique, memorable group of Western New Yorkers to follow, and seeing their reactions as the Sabres fortunes rise and fall is genuinely involving. It’s a highly recommended film for Buffalonians, of course, yet any sports fan will relate. It more than earns a B+.

Here is my recent Spree piece:

As Buffalo News sports columnist Mike Harrington put it in on March 12, “In what might rate as the least surprising thing that’s happened to the Buffalo Sabres in recent weeks, season ticket holders did not snap up all the tickets for the March 20 game against the Boston Bruins, the first in KeyBank Center open to fans in more than a year.” Indeed, only a few hundred season ticket holders chose to claim tickets, significantly fewer than the 1,900 seats the team made available. 

It was a sadly telling sign of how far the Buffalo Sabres have fallen in the eyes of Western New Yorkers and in the standings. (To be fair, snagging tickets for the game also required a COVID-19 test, which could add to the cost.)

Though Sabres’ faithful are as devoted as any in professional sports, they need a reason to believe. The last time that was the case? Probably the tail-end of the 2011-12 season. That time period is covered in remarkably vivid detail in The Fan Connection, an intimate, moving, and entertaining documentary exploring the special relationship that exists between the Buffalo Sabres and the team’s long-suffering—but ever-enthusiastic—fanbase. 

The 2019 Buffalo International Film Festival selection made its virtual premiere in February 2021 through the Fredonia Opera House, giving more Western New Yorkers the chance to experience the film, and maybe even spot themselves. (Visit fanconnectionmovie.com/see-the-film for additional streaming news.)

For director Mary Wall and producer Eric Wojtanik, the journey from concept to getting the film before audiences has been long but rewarding. 

“An incredible sense of urgency”

Wall grew up outside of Buffalo, and, after stints as a teacher and environmental engineer, she moved to Los Angeles where she worked on NBC’s The Office and Parks and Recreation. She even earned a Writers Guild Awards nomination for writing an Office webisode. While on a hiatus from that job in 2006, she returned to Hamburg to spend time with her family.

“It happened to coincide with the incredible Sabres playoff run, ending in a loss to Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals,” Wall says. “Throughout the run, I was taken by the sense of community it brought to Buffalo and Western New York. Then, after the loss to Carolina, I remember seeing fans at the airport welcoming the team home and thanking them for the run. These were fans who had just been devastated by the loss and still found it in themselves to express gratitude to the players. That struck me as special, and I wanted to explore that idea.”

The idea for The Fan Connection took shape over the next five years. “In 2011, I was visiting just after Terry and Kim Pegula had purchased the team,” Wall says. “The Sabres came from the bottom of the league to make the playoffs. Everywhere I went, it seemed everyone was talking about winning the Stanley Cup in the next three years. It almost seemed like a given at that time. I felt an incredible sense of urgency.”

Wall felt that telling a story about Buffalo through the fans of its hockey team was ripe ground for a documentary: “This was a story about loyalty in the face of near-constant disappointment. It wouldn’t be the same if the Sabres had won a championship; it’s easy to cheer for a winner.”

Finding (and filming) fans

With a concept in place, casting sessions were held in August 2011. Over the course of five days, the filmmakers met with roughly 170 people and narrowed that list to thirty-plus. Wall met with each personally, and then picked thirteen to follow over the next four years. “While everyone ended up in the movie in some way, it was through several years of editing that we narrowed it down to the three stories in the final cut,” she says.  

In a happy coincidence, filming occurred during the Sabres’ 2012 playoff push. The team missed the playoffs, but Wall is unsure whether that made for a better or worse conclusion:

“What I like about the ending we have in the movie is the sense of possibility it provides. Even though a large part of the city’s and the individuals’ identities are centered around the Sabres, both the city and the individuals are able to experience their own growth even when the team loses. There’s something I really like about the realization that the power to make a better community or to better your own life lies within you.”

A challenging release

While making the film was a joy, getting it seen has been tricky. Producer Eric Wojtanik says the pandemic profoundly complicated distribution plans.

“We spent close to a year mapping out a plan, which was largely built around booking live, in-person screenings with independent theaters,” he says. “By mid-March 2020, everything changed. It took time, but toward the end of the year we pivoted to a new plan centered around virtual events and educational screenings for universities.”

Interestingly, he sees parallels between the process of bringing the film before audiences, and Buffalo’s lengthy road to rebirth and renaissance: “There are no silver-bullet solutions. A major distributor is not going to swoop in and acquire The Fan Connection, much like Bass Pro and big box development wasn’t the solution for improving Buffalo. In both cases, the only way to achieve real tangible success is through the hard work and dedication of those most invested. Also, in both cases, there’s a lot of work left to do.”

In addition to more screenings, the filmmakers are working to finish Fan Connection bonus features for a Kickstarter backers’ DVD. Wojtanik notes that they are also “trying to shape a story that utilizes some of the unused footage shot during the making of the film to examine Buffalo’s history and current situation through the lens of racial and social equity in urban development.”

As more audiences see the film beyond WNY, Wall says she is learning that the story of Buffalo fan passions is relatable to fans everywhere.   “We’ve had people reach out to say this reminds them of Nebraska Cornhuskers, New York Mets, New York Knicks, and Chicago Cubs fans,” she says. “That is pushing us to work to continue to get this story out there to more cities.”

Learn more about the film at fanconnectionmovie.com