Capsule reviews: The Nest, Martin Eden, 12 Hour Shift, and Alone

While much of my viewing and writing in recent weeks has centered around the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival (more to come on the latter soon), I did have time to watch a few new releases. Here are four recommended films to watch at home.

The Nest

Opening in theaters (outside of Buffalo) on September 18 and VOD November 17 (more info)

Is marital drama The Nest a downer? Some will make that argument, but that is a surface-level look at a film that deserves a much deeper exploration. I found it to be darkly fascinating, always involving, and anchored by two powerhouse performances, from Jude Law and Carrie Coon. They play a 1980s-era married couple who move to England for his job, leasing a mammoth country house. Soon, their marriage is failing, their kids are floundering, and don’t even ask about the horses. The Nest is the latest from Martha Marcy May Marlene director Sean Durkin, and it shares that film’s somber, mysterious power. It is one of the year’s best films. [A-]

Martin Eden

Available on virtual cinema (trailer)

The Platform program at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival featured a number of very well-reviewed films, among them Sound of Metal, Proxima, Rocks, and Anne at 13,000 Ft. But the film that took home the Platform Prize was Martin Eden, a Jack London adaptation from director Pietro Marcello. It is not hard to see why, as the Naples-set reimagining of the novel is a swoon-worthy visual stunner. The impressive Luca Marinelli stars as Eden, who attempts to attain fame as a writer in order to woo a woman far beyond his station. Key moments here seem to lack the dramatic strength that would move Eden from good to great, yet it remains an intriguing film. Its final tragic moments feel inevitable — if a tad predictable. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful, often stirring drama [B] 

12 Hour Shift

Available through the North Park Theatre and on-demand (more info)

Brea Grant’s 12 Hour Shift ranks among the wildest and most deliciously nasty releases of recent months. And perhaps the time is right for such a thing. Angela Bettis plays a nurse caught up in organ trafficking whose night takes an even-rougher-than-usual turn when a convict is brought to the hospital. Grant also wrote the film, and deserves major kudos for making subject matter this dark feel hilarious and genuinely entertaining. The final moments, especially, are note-perfect. [B+]

Alone

Available through the North Park Theatre and on-demand (more info)

The first half hour of Alone, a new thriller from director John Hyams, has a positively Duel vibe — and that’s a good thing. The film eventually pivots from the Spielberg-esque mysterious follower motif, and becomes less interesting. Yet there is still plenty to recommend about the film, which stars Jules Wilcox as a woman traveling alone and being followed by a Ned Flanders-ish creep. Wilcox is phenomenal here, proving herself a star-in-the-making. It is imperfect, to be sure, but Alone is a solid, sturdy thriller. [B-]

Brandon Cronenberg’s startling ‘Possessor’ highlights a Dark Alley double bill

Courtesy of Neon

The pop-up cinema known as Dark Alley Drive-In has been one of the few positive developments for local movie fans during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the latest double feature scheduled for the former K-Mart parking lot at 1001 Hertel Avenue might be the most enticing yet. 

This “Cronenberg Double Feature” starting at 8 p.m. consists of David Cronenberg’s 1981 classic, “Scanners,” followed by “Possessor: Uncut,” the second feature from the Canadian filmmaker’s son, Brandon.

While “Scanners,” the iconic story of people with telepathic (and head-exploding) powers  is a welcome view any time, the real draw here is “Possessor.” 

For he eagerly anticipated follow-up to his sharp debut, “Antiviral,” Brandon Cronenberg assembled a stellar — Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Sean Bean, Jennifer Jason Leigh — and a deeply disturbing story of assassins who inhabit (or possess) other people’s bodies. 

The result is an extraordinary sci-fi/horror film that poses complex questions about identity and spiritual theft, while also succeeding at crafting genuinely horrific imagery. (The film’s poster gives a good indication of what’s to come.)

Its ending is even darker than the rest of the film. It also upends the narrative in a way that is both confounding and delightful. “Possessor” is the kind of film that requires a post-watch analysis — as well as a deep-dive on the internet. 

The casting of Riseborough and, especially, Abbott is spot-on. The latter is carving out a fascinating career as a tense, solemn character actor, and his performance in “Possessor” rivals his work in “James White” and First Man.” And Riseborough finds the right mix of intelligence, fragility and outright fear. 

An ability to create feelings of unsettling exhilaration is what truly links Brandon Cronenberg with his father. Yes, there are thematic and aesthetic connections. But the greatest similarity in their work is in their talents at surprising and to provoking the audience. That makes for engaging cinema, and there is no better example than “Possessor.”

It is more than a worthy follow-up to “Antiviral.” It is, in fact, one of the most startling and involving genre films of 2020.

Rating: B+

Post-festival grades for thirty (virtual) TIFF20 entries (for BuffaloSpree.com)

Film stills, clockwise from left: Nomadland, No Ordinary Man, Quo Vadis, Aida?, The Father, Shiva Baby, and David Byrne’s American Utopia.
COURTESY OF TIFF

The 2020 Toronto International Film Festival came to a close on September 20. And while this year’s hybrid model was atypical, the fest itself featured a mostly impressive lineup. I outlined some of the more buzzed-about titles and under-the-radar picks in past buffalospree.com columns, but now that it’s all over, I’m sharing my grades for the thirty entries I caught virtually this year. 

*This piece originally ran on BuffaloSpree.com.

David Byrne’s American Utopia: A-

TIFF’s opening night selection was this Spike Lee-directed document of the former Talking Heads frontman’s Broadway show. It did not disappoint. Utopia might be the greatest concert film since Stop Making Sense — electrifying, funny, and genuinely moving. 

Shiva Baby: A-

From my review for The Film Stage: “Shiva is a viewing experience that is at once hilarious, awkward, uncomfortable, and unforgettable. Writer-director Emma Seligman demonstrates that there is no greater dramatic minefield than that of the family get-together.”

Quo Vadis, Aida?: A-

Strong word-of-mouth caused me to watch Aida, a harrowing drama set during the Bosnian genocide. I am so glad I did. It was one of the festival’s most resonant selections. 

No Ordinary Man: A-

TIFF’s documentary game was particularly strong in 2020, and No Ordinary Man ranks at the top. It is a breathtaking look at trans representation centered around the unforgettable story of late jazz musician Billy Tipton. 

Nomadland: B+

Zhao’s extraordinary Nomadland, a sadly current, ripped-from-the-headlines study of nomad life starring Frances McDormand, was an audience and critical favorite. It deserved the praise, and should fare well come awards time. 

The Father: B+

The Father, a stunning exploration of dementia, features award-worthy turns from Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. Anyone who has watched as a loved one has faded away will find this a difficult but memorable watch. 

Limbo: B+

Ben Sharrock’s warm-hearted yet somber portrait of a Syrian refugee in Scotland was, like Aida, a word-of-mouth sensation at the festival. The ending is particularly moving. 

Another Round: B+

I caught the latest collaboration between director Thomas Vinterberg and star Mads Mikkelsen (following The Hunt) near the end of the fest, and it left me hoping for a re-watch very soon. It’s a sharp, very funny look at maturity, marriage, and heavy drinking. 

New Order: B+

I find myself still wrestling with New Order, a morally complex, chaotic tale of rich-vs.-poor violence in Mexico. I found its sheer power to be almost overwhelming, and unquestionably involving. Yet I cannot argue with the concerns some critics have voiced regarding its view of Mexico’s indigenous people. I look forward to seeing this unsettling film from Michel Franco again, and having the chance to spend more time contemplating its message. 

Wolfwalkers: B+

Wolfwalkers is the latest magical animated treat from the team behind The Secret of Kelis. It is set in seventeenth century Ireland, and features animation that can only be described as gorgeous.

Akilla’s Escape: B+

From my review for The Film Stage: “What it lacks in surprises, Akilla more than makes up for with visual flare, thematic energy, and a major performance from Saul Williams.”

Spring Blossom: B

From my review for The Film Stage: “Suzanne Lindon directed, wrote, and stars in this remarkably assured story of a 16-year-old Parisian who falls for an older man. Though Blossom is a bit slight at just 73 minutes and sometimes prone to posing too many questions, this TIFF entry heralds the arrival of a major international talent.”

One Night in Miami: B

While I was impressed with many elements of Regina King’s feature directorial debut, I was not quite as high on One Night as some of my colleagues. The first half hour was, to me, slow-moving and uninvolving. But once King brings together Malcom X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke together in a Miami hotel room, the film takes off. The final stretch is particularly wonderful.

The Ties: B

Like New Order, I hope to see this Italian drama about a dissolving marriage again at some point. I found it occasionally tiresome but also insightful, with a surprising conclusion that proved very effective.

Under the Open Sky: B

From my review for The Film Stage: “Writer-director Miwa Nishikawa’s film about a recently released former yakuza member is a rich character study that fumbles its landing but remains compelling.”

Apples: B

Filmmaker Christos Nikou has worked as an assistant director for Yorgos Lanthimos, and it shows; Apples is a tonal cousin of films like Dogtooth. It is a beguiling, not entirely satisfying account of an amnesia pandemic.

Beans: B

An important film that shines a light on the 1990 standoff between Quebec’s Mohawk communities and government, Beans is powerful when it focuses on this key moment in Canadian history, less so when stuck in coming-of-age drama mode. 

Memory House: B

The hardest film to watch at TIFF may have been João Paulo Miranda Maria’s imaginative study of an indigenous man who suffers near-constant abuse. Viewers who can stick with it are well-rewarded. 

Violation: B

Violation is an upsetting, altogether fascinating non-linear revenge thriller. Like Memory House, it is difficult to watch but pays off. Co-director Madeleine Sims-Fewer gave one of the festival’s finest performances. 

Like a House on Fire: B-

Jesse Noah Klein’s story of a woman’s struggle to reconnect with her daughter is unremarkable but heartfelt. The rather rote story is saved by fine acting and a strong emotional pull. 

The Best Is Yet to Come: B-

From my review for The Film Stage: “The timely, China-set investigative drama is compelling and important, to be sure. But there are numerous missteps that lessen the impact and slow down the dramatic energy.”

Good Joe Bell: B-

Many critics were unkind to Bell, and it’s not hard to see why. Mark Wahlberg is atypically cast as a father who walks across the country to raise awareness of the impact of bullying, while the script takes some wildly emotional sudden turns. But Wahlberg gives a fine performance, and even better is Reid Miller as a teenager facing homophobic bullies. It is certainly imperfect, but also a worthy exploration of a tough topic..  

Wildfire: C+

Cathy Brady’s film about two Irish sisters recovering from a tragedy is well-acted by leads Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noone, but never as fresh or inventive as it should be. 

True Mothers: C+

Writer-director Naomi Kawase earned praise for her story of motherhood and adoption, but it never connected for me. 

Night of the Kings: C

An African prison drama from Philippe Lacôte, Kings is unbearably intense. That intensity left me feeling exhausted, not exhilarated.

Concrete Cowboy: C

From my review for The Film Stage: “Cowboy is watchable, well-acted, and occasionally moving. It’s also overly predictable and never transcends the tropes of the standard coming-of-age drama.” It features an exceptional turn from Stranger Things star Caleb McLaughlin and sturdy support from Idris Elba. 

Summer of 85: C

From my review for The Film Stage: “Summer of 85 is in-between the sublime and the absurd, drama and thriller, compelling and monotonous. It is utterly so-so, but it is also, undeniably, so-Ozon.” That’s a reference to Swimming Pool director François Ozon.

Pieces of a Woman: C-

Vanessa Kirby is extraordinary and award-worthy as a mother trying to recover from tragedy in the uncomfortably harrowing, manipulative Pieces of a Woman. The opening stretch is undeniably gripping, but the rest feels utterly hollow. 

Shadow in the Cloud: C-

Chloë Grace Moretz energizes (but cannot save) this absurdly silly World War II thriller. It may have been more fun with an in-person Midnight Madness crowd.

Passion Simple: D+

Based on a French bestseller, this story of an obsessive affair was the most forgettable film I saw at TIFF, despite a game performance from star Laetitia Dosch.

In addition to the reviews linked above, I was happy to be one of the 127 critics to contribute to a post-festival survey for Indiewire and one of fifteen critics to contribute to a survey for a favorite site of mine, Seventh Row

And … that’s that. While TIFF20 is in the books, watch for my post-festival feature in the November issue of Buffalo Spree. I’ll also soon be sharing some coverage of the 2020 New York Film Festival, as well. See you next year, Toronto! Hopefully, in person …

A Zoom Interview with ‘Ravage’ Writer/Director Teddy Grennan (by Alycia Ripley)

Ravage writer/director Teddy Grennan, with star Annabelle Dexter-Jones.

Writer Alycia Ripley speaks with Teddy Grennan, writer/director of Ravage about his new film: motivation, influences, the trials of shooting on location, film funding, his casting process, Ravage‘s inventive third act, and the film festival he founded (Sun Valley Film Fest). An engaging and down-to-earth creative force, Grennan shares the kind of tidbits aspiring writer/directors can build upon in their own work and sheds humor on the challenges of the film industry. (Check out Alycia’s review of the film here.)

Capsule reviews: Helmut Newton, John Lewis, Relic, The Beach House, and Fisherman’s Friends

Helmut Newton, ARENA, MIAMI
IMAGES FROM HELMUT NEWTON: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL — PHOTOS BY HELMUT NEWTON, COURTESY OF THE HELMUT NEWTON FOUNDATION.STILLS FROM THE BEACH HOUSE COURTESY OF EXILE PR.

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Available through the North Park Theatre

The documentary Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful might not be as provocative as the work of the photographer, but it is nevertheless a wildly entertaining, conversation-starting study of a master artist. The late Newton was known for his nudity-filled photos of women for magazines like Vogue, and the work still packs a punch. The Bad and the Beautiful is appropriately celebratory but also explores the controversies of Newton’s work. A TV exchange with Susan Sontag is particularly compelling. Featuring interviews with an array of fascinating figures — among them, Anna Wintour, Grace Jones, Marianne Faithfull, Isabella Rossellini, and Charlotte Rampling — and interview footage of Newton himself, Bad is as colorful as its subject. 

John Lewis: Good Trouble

Available through Dipson Theatres and the North Park Theatre, and VOD

Congressman John Lewis passed away on July 17 after a lifetime of advocacy and service. That life is chronicled in detail in the documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble, a must-see film — now more than ever. The sight of Lewis as the film begins, walking slowly but with great purpose through Washington, D.C., is tremendously powerful. So is the film, which explores his important role in the fight for civil rights and his continued efforts for the greater good. Good Trouble is a fitting tribute to a legendary figure. 

Relic

Available on VOD

Relic, the debut film from writer-director Natalie Erika James, is a haunting story of an elderly woman’s strange disappearance and even stranger reappearance. The woman’s daughter (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) come to help, but both are soon drawn into the mystery of the family home. It culminates in a genuinely moving finale, one that might not thrill all horror fans but, with contemplation, feels remarkably bold.

The Beach House

Available on VOD

The Beach House, the feature directorial debut of Jeffrey A. Brown, is just as gripping as Relic. The story involves a young couple visiting a seaside home, the sudden appearance of an older couple, and an icky contagion. Just wait until you see what happens to the foot of the protagonist, nicely played by Liana Liberato. With a dash of Cronenberg and a touch of COVID paranoia, The Beach House is a legitimately strong horror film.

Fisherman’s Friends

Available through the North Park Theatre and on VOD

British comedy Fisherman’s Friends is the kind of audience-pleaser Miramax Films and Fox Searchlight once excelled at — consider the likes of Brassed Off and The Full Monty. While Friends is not as memorable as those 1990s favorites, it’s a sweet, enjoyable effort about a London music exec who — as a joke — signs a group of sea shanty-singing fishermen in a small town. 

‘Ravage’: Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (Guest Review by Alycia Ripley)

Very excited to have Alycia Ripley back on the site with a review of Ravage. -C.S.

Several things stay with you long after watching Teddy Grennan’s Ravage, but one is for sure — you’ll never look at a cow the same way again. 

Ravage is a thrill-ride plucked from the grindhouse era of the 1970s, infused with its paranoia and wilderness foes, but topped with 2020 feminism. Even its title card refers back to days of gritty revenge thrillers. Although gruesome in plot, the filmmakers maintain a rare sense of restraint that elevates the material and engages the viewer. The nastiness remains mostly off-screen and out of focus but we deal with its ramifications alongside our heroine. Regardless of Ravage‘s visual subtleties, your manicure may remain in serious jeopardy. The 84-minute runtime is a nonstop, full-throttle charge that’ll have you biting your nails and jangling your legs. 

Harper Sykes is a nature photographer comfortable in the wilderness. Whether her survival skills are learned on the job or taught by family isn’t shared — when you’re chased by a group of killers after witnessing a brutal murder, there’s little time for backstory. Ravage may not re-invent the wheel but it presents its woman-in-peril story from a very different perspective. Visiting a remote valley to photograph a rare stag, Harper is in touch with only her editor and boyfriend. Unlike films in which the heroine struggles with opening a can yet progresses to expert handling of automatic weapons, we’re confident in Harper’s abilities from the get-go. We see her shark through the water in a canoe, scurry through ravines, and make smart decisions that would’ve delivered her to freedom had she not found herself in a horror movie. For the first time since 1984’s The Terminator, the local police station holds no sense of comfort or safety. It’s surreal and still and as in Ravage‘s ancestral grandfather, Deliverance, we’re unsure of who can be trusted. Harper is soon captured and brought to a nearby farm. Led by an excellent Robert Longstreet, the killers exhibit banal evil and delusional motivation. After an initial brawl-call to exhibit her might and a mercifully off-screen rape, Longstreet’s group ties Harper up and leaves her alone to complete an errand. Bad move. She uses materials at her disposal to escape and plan against her enemies. Revenge fantasy though it is, Harper is focused on survival. The valley wilderness is vast and boasts exit points the killers know well. To get out, it’ll be through rather than over them. 

Calm, capable, and brave, Harper elicits our admiration and sympathy and Annabelle Dexter-Jones plays her with relatable real-girl sensibility. But lest you forget, she’s a real girl who apparently paid extra attention in Girl Scouts and 4H. We follow Harper through harrowing locations beautifully shot by Christopher Walters, and Jacques Brautbar’s cacophonous score indicates Harper’s inner state. A key moment, sure to be an audience favorite, is Harper’s interaction with an older man living in a beautiful, remote home, in need of frequent, self-administered medication. He’s played by the inimitable Bruce Dern with hypnotic ambiguity. Their entire scene plays across Dexter-Jones’ face like a light-meter. Between Dern’s words and set decoration riddled with foreshadowing, Harper recognizes that the complicated chess game she’s now in has many players and a long, long history. 

Although I’ll never understand the need for film heroes to expose their knowledge and plans to the villains, our girl makes up for it with inventive elimination strategies. Opening in several cities for a drive-in experience, followed by a VOD release the following week, Ravage nails the point home that in Harper’s situation, many of us would be more up the creek, no pun intended, than we’d like to admit. Watching this smart, resourceful woman utilize her environment to her favor allows us to experience survivalism from the comforts of our cars or homes. 

Ravage‘s opening audio and first glimpse of Harper walking, shotgun in tow, across a sunset landscape carries a retro aesthetic of 70s grindhouse cinema. Both then and now, women hold a certain resilience under pressure. You won’t be sure of much in Ravage—the film holds many surprises — but very little, including a cow (hold tight for the pure insanity of the third act) can keep Harper down. Some people refuse surrender with a little more force. Survival is more prescient a concept to some. Harper doesn’t just push back — she pushes over, under, and through. Stay through the entire credit sequence. The main theme is there, immortalized in its very last shot. 

Girl power isn’t a catchphrase — it’s what lies in the heart of a woman who refuses to be tossed aside, digested, and forgotten by those who feel threatened by her very existence in their wilderness.

Capsule review: 1BR is a nasty good time

This year has seen some strong horror flicks — Relic and The Beach House come to mind. While 1BR is not as impactful as those aforementioned, more artful chillers, it is still a nasty, clever good time with a touch of Shyamalan. (In a good way!) This story of a young woman who discovers her apartment complex is, well, not what it seems, is involving, well-acted by newcomer Nicole Brydon Bloom, and genuinely frightening. It’s also a bit too brutal and upsetting to want to watch more than once. The film’s final shot, with echoes of Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, adds a nice Twilight Zone touch. It will be fascinating to watch what’s next for Brydon Bloom and writer/director David Marmor.

Watch the trailer here.

Grade: B-

The Cuban: If memory serves (guest review by Alycia Ripley)

Still from The Cuban.

Alycia Ripley is one of the most creative and prolific writers in Buffalo, and she’s also a passionate lover of film. I’m excited to feature a review Alycia has written of The Cuban, starring Louis Gossett, Jr. -C.S.

Its opening credits scatter like colorful ink blots, an early hint to the importance of memory to the plot and themes of writer Alessandra Piccione and director Sergio Navarretta’s film, The Cuban. Mina, a young pre-med student, begins working in the nursing home in which her Aunt Bano, played by the always-elegant Shohreh Aghdashloo, serves as administrator. Bano was a doctor in her previous life in Afghanistan, and has now dedicated her life to ensuring her niece succeeds with advantages she lost once coming to the United States. We sense an ambiance of entrapment, one character assuring others that they alone know what’s best. Bano may have unwritten rules for Mina, but Bano’s relatives feel they know what’s best for her, especially regarding Bano’s living arrangements. They give their own daughter zero independence, arranging a marriage with someone from the old country she’s never met rather than considering the boy she loves and who loves her back with honor. 

Mina meets Luis Garcia, a resident with vascular dementia, who rarely speaks, often refuses to eat, and is wholly unaware of his surroundings and current life. He receives no visitors and his room, ‘the sunshine room,’ as Mina sarcastically refers to it, has no personal details. Our first look at Luis is unsettling because of the actor playing him. Academy-award winning Louis Gossett, Jr., a legend of stage and screen, is known for characters who mean business. This is the man who helped stop terrorists in Toy Soldiers, mentored a wayward teen in Iron Eagle, built a misfire of a theme park in Jaws 3D, put Richard Gere in line in An Officer and A Gentleman. He’s known for vitality, charisma, and a beautifully-delivered monologue. The sight of Louis Gossett, Jr. in a wheelchair, unable to speak, disconnected from the world, is startling and uncomfortable, which may be precisely why Navarretta was determined to cast him. This is a film about how we treat elderly citizens in this country, how their stories and histories, once rich and intricate, fade away without someone to remember or care. Those in our own lives may be destined for the same fate, relying on the kindness of strangers. Mina takes to Luis immediately, realizing that his lone decorative poster implies a love for and connection to jazz. Before long, she is playing him jazz music and cooking authentic Cuban food to replace bland hospital meals. Luis comes alive, speaking, gesturing, and sharing snippets of stories we see through flashback, colorful memories that illustrate how Luis remembers his life, a fluidity of beloved past and trustworthy present.

The friendship with Luis opens Mina up to Kris, a boyfriend who helps with Luis and is frustrated by her inability to assert herself to her family. It also exposes Mina to the watchful eyes of nursing home staff less inclined toward progressive treatment such as Nurse Baker. Baker is played by Lauren Holly as a probable descendant of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but imbued with only a tad more warmth. Everything about the nursing home and its staff is colorless, bland, diffuse, similar to the apartment Mina shares with Bano. In Luis’s memories, we are inundated by color and stunning cinematography by Celiana Cardenas—colored skies, red lips, leaves of deep green, shoes of yellow, bright orange cars, even the vibrant, shiny blacks of a venue stage. Luis isn’t just a music lover but a musical legend in the world of Cuban jazz. Mina delves in to learn about his history: the places at which he played with his band, the dynamics amongst its players, and his long-lost love, Elena, who he often replaces with Mina in his daydreams. Mina wants Luis to live his life rather than waiting to die and disagrees with Nurse Baker who states that patients like Garcia simply want ‘peace and quiet.’ 

Navarretta’s entire point seems to be about caring, and how few actually do. Lives have meaning when shared and the film ruminates on memory, identity, the passing of time, and how a life’s worth is determined. Even Bano is presented with photos that force her to consider and remember who she was before coming to this country. 

The film is also about music and the glorious way it connects us and sparks love and joy. Its fantastic soundtrack vibrates the film with life. With music comes re-connection—for Luis and an old friend who owns a club, Luis with himself, and the special bond between Luis and Mina, played by Ana Golja with a natural charm and infectious smile. We know trouble is brewing when it’s discovered how she substituted Cuban food for hospital fare but the film treats her admonishment differently than we expect. It glides from this setback into a deeper look at breaking free from tradition, from our mental and physical rooms, and toward a love of life, a discovery of identity through examining where we’ve been. Gossett, Jr. is as dynamic a performer as ever, creating a character literally from the inside out of Garcia’s confused, dying body, a special role in a versatile career reminding us he’s one of our best.  Kindness is what we have to offer others. Our great loves are sometimes real only to ourselves but our stories are for sharing and to untap our potential at any point in life. The Cuban is about Luis’s life but a springboard for Mina’s to take a different, more diverse direction. And one for viewers to remember how many stories remain untold and to feel inspired to tell them.

Catching up with my latest efforts: Books on Parasite and Dune, new virtual cinema, and … Showgirls!

I haven’t been quite as busy with film writing in recent months as I was during the winter, but I’ve done enough to warrant a roundup.

First is SHOWGIRLS, of course — well, a documentary about SHOWGIRLS, that is. YOU DON’T NOMI is a new film about the curious afterlife of Paul Verhoeven’s much-maligned T&A extravaganza, and it’s a blast. It’s now available as a North Park Theatre virtual cinema selection — check out my review for The Film Stage at https://thefilmstage.com/you-dont-nomi-review-the-life-dea…/.

Also new for The Film Stage is my latest roundup of books about cinema, including explorations of PARASITE, David Lynch’s DUNE, the great PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE, and more: https://thefilmstage.com/you-dont-nomi-review-the-life-dea…/.

I’ve also written a few recent virtual cinema roundups for Buffalo News Gusto, featuring films available through Dipson TheatresNorth Park Theatre, and The Screening Room Cinema & Arts Cafe.

First is a look at MR. JONES, JUDY AND PUNCH, THE FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY, and A WHITE, WHITE DAY: https://buffalonews.com/entertainment/recommended-virtual-cinema-soviet-history-infidelity-marionettes-and-murder/article_4d830066-050f-565c-9801-9877bf1ba1a1.html.

Next is my analysis of TOMMASO, MILITARY WIVES, SHIRLEY, and SPACESHIP EARTH: https://buffalonews.com/…/new-virtual-cinema-military-wive…/.

And before that I covered DRIVEWAYS, CORPUS CHRISTI, SORRY WE MISSED YOU, ZOMBI CHILD, and DEERSKIN: https://buffalonews.com/…/virtual-cinema-5-picks-include-d…/.

Quarantine cinema, part two: Latest capsule reviews feature Flanigan, Feldstein, Coogan, Scooby, and more

I continue to watch quite a bit during COVID-19, as evidenced in past posts, as well as for The Buffalo News. Here is another roundup of recent home views. You can also check out my Letterboxed and Rotten Tomatoes pages for more updates. Thanks for reading! And watch for more to come …

Never Rarely Sometimes Always: A-

It is possible, when 2020 comes to a close, that Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always will rank as the year’s most impactful film. Anchored by two of the most natural performances from young actors in recent memory — lead Sidney Flanigan plays a teenager who journeys to New York City for an abortion, while Talia Ryder plays her cousin — Never Rarely is, quite simply, a stunner. It also features a moment that has already achieved iconic status, a somber, unbroken shot in which Autumn is questioned by a clinic employee. It’s a beautiful sequence, wonderfully acted by Flanigan. (Interestingly, Flanigan is a Buffalo native and resident, while Ryder was born in Buffalo as well.) This is a film which should be required viewing for teenagers. It is a conversation-starter, to be sure, but also an involving character piece. Hittman, Flanigan, and Ryder deserve worldwide applause for this achievement. 

Watch now

How to Build a Girl: C+

I was bummed to miss How to Build a Girl at both the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2019 BFI London Film Festival. As a die-hard anglophile and Britpop obsessive, this is one that had intrigued me from the get-go. A teenage girl becomes immersed in the U.K. music press during the mid-90s? Come on! Sadly, however, the film itself left me rather disappointed. Beanie Feldstein gives a fine performance — although her British accent is at first rather distracting; were there no actual British actors available? Still, she brings her usual wit and charm to the role. But the film is far too predictable, and never quite as funny or moving as it should be. That being said, it’s difficult for me not to at least partially like a film that A) revolves around the British music press and B) hinges on a life-changing Manic Street Preachers concert. How to Build a Girl is worthy of a watch, but do not expect a coming-of-age classic.

Watch the trailer

The Trip to Greece: B+

The fifth and (supposedly) final film in Michael Winterbottom’s Trip series might be the best yet — uproarious and moving. Once again, British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play versions of themselves on a road trip tour of fine restaurants. This time, the duo hit the luscious landscapes of Greece. They discuss BAFTAs, trade Olivier impressions, and then are forced to confront mortality. It concludes with resigned acceptance of its characters’ stations in life; Coogan, the more commercially and critically successful performer, suffers through loss and sadness, while Brydon is left in ecstasy with his wife. Is this a judgmental finale? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps The Trip to Greece is simply accepting the trade off that occurs in order to achieve commercial success. Either way, it is a sharp, hilariously funny, emotionally satisfying film. All hail Coogan and Brydon. Please do one more, in America. 

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The Roads Not Taken: C

Here is a film whose heart is in the right place. But despite good intentions and a stacked cast of heavyweights, this story of a man reviewing his choices as the end draws near simply does not work. When looking at the talent roster, that might seem shocking. How could a film directed by Sally Potter (Orlando) and starring Javier Bardem, Salma Hayek, and Elle Fanning be so unmemorable? The answers lie with a script that fails to provide any fresh insight to the “what-if?” trope. Fanning, especially, gives a strong performance; coupled with her role on Hulu’s wild and woolly series The Great, she’s on a nice tear. The acting makes The Roads Not Taken a drama worth watching for fans of Bardem and Fanning. But do not expect to remember the film a day later. 

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The Wild Goose Lake: B-

The Wild Goose Lake is hugely acclaimed, and it’s easy to see why; there are moments of devastating beauty in this Chinese gangster drama. For me, its story, of a small-time criminal who accidentally kills a police officer, simply did not quite land. But it’s still a stunningly photographed ride, one that is never remotely dull and often heads into unexpected terrain.

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Blood Quantum: B

Canadian zombie flick Blood Quantum is down, dirty, and legit terrifying. Its final few minutes, especially, are genuinely devastating. Smartly setting its story of ravenous zombies on a First Nations reserve, it has an unhinged, anything-goes feel. It’s no wonder Blood was so acclaimed at the Toronto International Film Festival. It makes Jeff Barnaby as a director to watch.

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Scoob!: D+

Ugh. I paid $25 for to buy Scoob! since paying $20 to just rent it seemed wasteful. The animated film, which famously skipped cinema for a home debut, never feels like a Scooby Doo story. Rather than a mystery, the story involves superheroes and a journey to “the Underworld.” Oh, and Simon Cowell, for some reason. Dull, overlong, and never remotely involving, Scoob! makes the silly Matthew Lillard-starring live action films seem rather quaint and joyful by comparison. Something worth noting, however: While my kids were not particularly invested in the film when we watched it as a family, they’ve since watched it at least two times. Now, they’re fans. Maybe the $25 wasn’t such a waste after all …

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