Grey, the color of winter frost, dimmer-switch lighting, and moody cinematography. “Deliver Us,” a loopy “The Omen”-style Antichrist horror-thriller, is also grey. Just look at the movie’s poster and trailer. Grey isn’t just a color or an aesthetic—it’s a whole dire vibe.
You might, therefore, worry that, despite the pulpy nature of this sort of material, “Deliver Us” will not also be fun. Thankfully, there are very few scenes in this movie, all about a Russian nun who claims Immaculate Conception and then gives birth to twins, that don’t leave one squinting in wonder, confusion, and maybe amusement. Directed by Cru Ennis and Lee Roy Kunz, “Deliver Us” features psychic babies, a murderous one-eyed German priest, nudity, bear traps, performances of variable quality and styles, apocalyptic visions, breast-feeding, decapitations, Estonian wolves, and even some sex. This movie would look great at the drive-in if you could only see it there.
“Deliver Us” begins with a ritualistic series of decapitations. The camera slowly tracks down a line of shivering faces, kneeling in medium closeup, just ahead of a stern-looking fellow with a machete. We only see the killer’s machete after he tees up for the last victim in line. Blood spurts on each successive face, so you can tell that all these panicked, heavy-breathing people are afraid of something. These are Zoroastrians, by the way.
After the violence, we see various naked and now headless bodies as they’re dragged across the floor on their stomachs, presumably because showing us the actors’ genitals would cross a line. A one-eyed priest, Father Saul (Thomas Kretschmann), hangs out by a lit brazier at the far end of a vast, sparingly lit cell. He’s presented with the flayed skin of one of the Zorastrians’ victims. He makes a face as he pores over the bloody, tattooed skin like it’s a holy text. “Deliver Us” simultaneously is, and it isn’t that kind of movie.
Father Saul soon returns, though he’s obviously not a protagonist. Rather, he chases blinkered Father Fox (Lee Roy Kunz, also the movie’s co-writer/director/producer) from Russia to Estonia after Father Fox is called in by the Vatican for a special mission. Fox’s presence is specifically requested by Sister Yulia (Maria Vera Ratti), a Russian nun who becomes mysteriously pregnant with twins after a suggestive scene where she’s assailed by wind noises and flickering lights.
By the time we meet Fox, he’s already developed a reputation, having assisted with an exorcism in Murmansk. No, really. Father Fox reluctantly takes Yulia’s case, though only after seeking counsel from his Estonian partner Laura (Jaune Kimmel). Laura encourages Fox while he calmly and methodically chops red cabbage in extreme closeup. Laura has faith in her relationship and even alludes to her bright future life with the good father when they’ll settle down in, uh, Canada.
So Father Fox travels to Yulia’s Russian convent with the impressionable Cardinal Russo (Alexander Siddig), a curiously accented Catholic who thinks the weirdest things are “fascinating.” Together, Fox and Russo help Yulia give birth to twins, one of whom might be “the Christ child” and one of whom could be the Antichrist. The Vatican wants to abort both kids just to be safe. Father Saul also wants Yulia’s children, so he follows her and Fox to Laura’s secluded Estonian estate. Fox also experiences campy visions, including a nightmare where he delivers the twins from an icy lake. In at least one scene, the twins exhibit psychic powers. One of them speaks with a husky adult male voice.
Some stylistic indicators, like a busy strings-and-percussion score and some arty deep-focus cinematography, suggest that the filmmakers take themselves and this story very seriously. Nevertheless, “Deliver Us” tilts perilously at moods and tones that are rarely fully articulated. Creaky line deliveries, music-video-slick visions, and unpredictable fits of violence are this movie’s normal. The consistent volatility of “Deliver Us” casts a wonky spell.
“Deliver Us” stands apart from many other recent indie genre movie throwbacks given a flurry of endearingly creaky and lurid flourishes. It’s not enough to mimic yesteryear's Eurosleazy genre movie ripoff cinema. To approach those depths of crass greatness, you should also be so committed to the gonzo reality that you’re depicting that you and your collaborators appear a little blinkered, regardless of your imaginative reach or technical polish. So many creative choices in “Deliver Us” left me wondering what year it was and how this movie wasn’t released with the alternate title of “Beyond the Door VII: More Doors, More Problems.”
“Deliver Us” stands out because its creators have struck the ideal balance of lull-inducing silences to daft genre trope punctuation. It doesn’t make much sense, or flow smoothly from one scene to the next. But boy, “Deliver Us” sure does what it does.
Now playing in theaters.
For his second cinematic magic trick of 2023 (the first was the sublime "Asteroid City"), director Wes Anderson conjures a shaggy dog story without a hair out of place. The source is the author Roald Dahl, whose The Fantastic Mr. Fox inspired Anderson’s first foray into stop-motion animation. Fox was a kid’s book of sorts, but Anderson honored its more adult stresses and the slightly sinister undercurrent beneath its already sardonic ironies.
This is Anderson’s first Netflix movie, and it’s the first that the filmmaker said was made under protest, so to speak. Anderson had wanted to make the project for a while, during which time Dahl’s estate made a rather rich deal (one presumes) with the streamer. Anderson has given the streamer a nearly 40-minute precision-tooled narrative mostly in the boxy Academy ratio, although at crucial points, the frame itself bounces around in the wider frame overall.
It’s not animated—the actors are live-action and are a familiar and reliable bunch. Ralph Fiennes plays a version of Dahl; the movie opens in an Andersonian recreation of the writer’s real-life “writing hut,” where, after mumbling a list of what it takes to get him started on a story, Fiennes starts telling what purports to be a true one.
Dahl’s actual story, the action of which spans the globe, could conceivably be made into a very expensive multi-location movie. Anderson limits the action to a series of meticulous sets (of course they are) that, in this iteration, reminded me of the work of the fantastic Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman, who put live-action actors into animated backgrounds. All the actors address the camera directly, serving as narrators and characters. And they speak with little overt inflection (although quite a bit of subtle craft) at a very fast pace.
The words are almost all Dahl’s own, but Anderson has condensed the actual short story, which is fanciful though hardly child-aimed (although it’s not actively child-unfriendly, either). He understands he can’t improve on the dry wit of Dahl’s verbiage, so he doesn’t try. Describing the mega-rich title character, Dahl notes, “Men like Henry Sugar are to be found drifting like seaweed all over the world. They can be seen especially in London, New York, Paris, Nassau, Montego Bay, Cannes, and San Tropez. They are not particularly bad men, but they are not good men either. They are of no particular importance; they’re simply part of the decoration.”
The story is a meta-narrative (unless, of course, you choose to believe Dahl’s assertion that it’s true) that takes off when Henry (Benedict Cumberbatch, utterly perfect), bored, goes to the drastic extreme of taking a book off of a rich friend’s library shelf. The slimmest volume he sees, of course. It turns out to be a sort of dissertation about a man who can see without his eyes. The man in question is played by Ben Kingsley, and the doctors who confirm his power are Dev Patel and Richard Ayoade. The thing that catches Henry’s attention is this man’s ability to see through downturned playing cards. Henry is a gambler and not a particularly skilled one. Henry teaches himself how to see without eyes using a study method originated by a cranky yogi and absenting himself from society for several years due to his devotion/obsession.
The power-that-lets-you-cheat-at-cards bit was featured, cinephiles know, in Roger Corman’s 1963 “X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes.” In that film, the power is chemically induced and is only fun for a while—eventually, Ray Milland’s character sees too much, which, when you get to the end of the cosmos, gets to be a drag. (This theme is treated in “Oppenheimer,” too, when you think about it.)
The upshot of Henry’s achievement is rather different, and if you don’t already know Dahl’s story, it's rather gentler than what you might expect of the writer. It’s disarming and lovely to see a spiritual growth parable rendered in Anderson’s jewel-box style. His delivery here is not willfully eccentric but gorgeously centered. Form underscores content in "Henry Sugar" in a most delightful way.
This review was filed from the 2023 Venice Film Festival. "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar" will be released theatrically on September 20th and on Netflix on September 27th.
Well-made and infuriating, HBO’s three-part documentary “Savior Complex” tells the story of Renee Bach, No White Saviors, and Serving His Children. It's a fascinating melting pot of colonialism, charity, outrage, class, race, privilege, and naivete, but what really elevates it into a conversation starter is how much it refuses to provide easy answers. People who go in convinced that Bach is a hideous monster on the level of Hitler will likely find enough to justify maintaining that opinion; people who believe she has been a victim of activist hypocrisy masquerading as justice will probably continue to take that stance. "Savior Complex" is a remarkably detailed examination of this shocking case that answers most viewer questions as they arise by segueing back and forth from Bach’s story to the other people involved in this tale, intercut with sharp, revealing footage. And it never lets Bach off the hook, countering her claims with heartbreaking eyewitness testimony, showing how no one has the full picture here.
Renee Bach was just a teenager when she went on a missionary trip to Uganda, finding her purpose in Africa. After working at an orphanage, she decided to start her own charity in the district of Jinja, opening up a facility for malnourished children in an area of the world where nutrition and disease are constant concerns. She registered her new NGO (non-government organization) under the name of Serving His Children and hired a staff. Two things are undeniably true about what would happen next, despite conflicting viewpoints on motive and even moral & legal responsibility. 1.) Bach saved the lives of children in the area. Some mothers attest to that fact. 2.) Bach started performing medical procedures for which she was not qualified, even admitting she often used “gut feeling” instead of expertise. Over a hundred Ugandan children died, and the number is arguably much higher.
When an American registered nurse named Jackie Kramlich went to work at SHC, she was stunned by what she saw, including a lack of education and unsanitary conditions. In interview segments in “Savior Complex,” she gives compelling eyewitness accounts of Bach seemingly nonchalantly giving medicine injections and administering IV drips dangerously. Other employees accuse Bach of ignoring the advice and orders of qualified, educated Ugandan nurses and doctors. The thought that Bach dismissed a well-founded medical opinion because of a gut feeling that led to even one child’s death is unconscionable. The startling dynamic at SHC forced Kramlich to resign, but she felt further action was needed when an employee reported that the conditions were getting worse. That’s when No White Saviors got involved.
No White Saviors is an organization that directly compares missions like Bach’s to colonialism, the infiltration by people who think themselves superior to the one they’re helping and use that position to control them. Director Jackie Jesko doesn’t avoid the idea that Bach was a part of this vile ancient tactic, using her position as a powerful American white woman to bring her vision of God to the people of Uganda, no matter the human cost. And Jesko doesn’t hammer it as much as some other filmmakers might have. She very smartly allows Bach to reveal her own blinders at times, even including a scene in which Bach doesn’t know how to pronounce neocolonialism, a moment almost too good to be real in documentary terms. Jesko also hints at a really interesting idea regarding how young white women take power in missionary structures worldwide because they can do so more easily than in male-dominated American ones. Bach doesn’t seem to comprehend any underlying issues like this in her story, defending herself on purely human terms and frustratingly dismissing the systemic concerns at play.
“Savior Complex” gets even richer when one considers the flaws of No White Saviors, an organization with a vocal, outspoken leader who just happens to be a white American woman. Seriously. She jokes it away, but the idea that Kelsey Nielsen doesn’t understand that she too is kind of a white savior saving Ugandans from white saviors is amazing, especially as the organization continues to push for the literal prosecution of Bach, even when the story doesn’t line up exactly how they want it to. For example, a mother is interviewed for their case against Bach, but she considers the missionary an actual life-saver—instead of just going with the viewpoint of the woman whose child was actually saved, NWS uses images of her child on social media to further their cause in a grossly exploitative manner. And some of their social media campaigns cross the line into abuse, especially when they involve Bach’s adopted daughter.
Even the numbers in the Bach case can be hard to decipher. Bach and her team, including her mother, argue that 105 children died at SHC, with a mortality rate of 11%. Over the same period, the nearby children’s hospital had a mortality rate of 14%. However, these numbers simply can’t tell the whole story. If Bach had listened more than acted, could her number have been under 10%? If so, aren’t those lives valuable? However, if Bach hadn’t been there, could that number have been doubled?
It all becomes a battle of interpretation and perception that can inherently have no winners. Jesko and her team, including the great Roger Ross Williams as an executive producer, avoid the true crime docuseries clichés by allowing people to walk away from “Savior Complex” with a better understanding of the people involved but no clear answers on what happened or who, if anyone, is to blame. Bach would argue that being forced out of the country by No White Saviors cost lives because there was no one there to help the malnourished children of the region who couldn’t get to a hospital. It’s probably true. And yet Bach’s brand of righteous privilege is obviously extremely dangerous. Also true.
The opening episode of Jesko's series includes a oft-repeated quote: “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.” Despite the balance that makes it so rich, “Savior Complex” ultimately makes very clear the danger inherent in this belief, one that justifies drastic, life-changing things like medical intervention under the banner of being called by God. It’s a complicated blend of so many interesting and competing ideas, a docuseries worth watching, especially for any organization even considering getting involved in a society other than their own.
Whole series was screened for review. "Savior Complex" premieres on HBO tonight, with two more episodes airing tomorrow, all available on Max this evening.
“The Expendables” had a simple enough concept—gather a bunch of '80s-era action cinema icons, including Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren, and Mickey Rourke, and bring them together for an old-school-style shoot-em-up in which they, along with such current familiar faces (and pecs) as Jason Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture, and Steve Austin, joined forces to blow things up real good. The film was no masterpiece, but the aggressively retro approach—it felt like exactly the kind of thing that the late great Cannon Films might have conjured up if they were still in business—had a certain lunkheaded charm, and it wound up being a surprise hit. Two sequels followed in 2012 and 2014, and while neither one lived up to the exceedingly mild promise of their predecessor, they served their purpose as B-movie fodder and a way for veteran action stars (including Harrison Ford, Chuck Norris, Wesley Snipes, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Antonio Banderas and, inexplicably, Kelsey Grammer) to kill a couple of adequately-paid weeks reliving the good old days—sort of the genre equivalent of a Hall of Fame game.
That said, it has been nearly a decade since the poorly-received third film was released, and despite no discernible outcry for its return, the franchise has been revived with “Expend4bles.” Okay, perhaps “revived” is not quite the right word to describe this laughably lazy exercise in utility-grade meat-and-potatoes filmmaking. It's the kind of concussive contrivance that, to judge by the closing credits, seems to have more co-producers than actors with speaking roles and where the countless shootings, stabbing, and punches on display are nowhere near as excruciating as the listlessness with which they have been presented here.
This time around, veteran Expendables Barney (Stallone), Christmas (Statham), Gunner (Lundgren) and Toll (Couture) are joined here by new recruits Easy Day (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and Galan (Jacob Scipio), who is supposed to be the son of the Banderas character, for a brand-new top-secret mission supervised by the shadowy CIA agent Marsh (Andy Garcia). Arms dealer Rahmat (Iko Uwais) and his army of goons have broken into one of Gaddafi’s old chemical plants in Libya and stolen a bunch of nuclear detonators for Ocelot, a mystery figure who decimated another squad of Barney’s years earlier. Alas (Spoiler Alert, barely), the mission goes sideways for Barney. When Christmas deviates from the plan in an effort to save him, he winds up getting booted from the group entirely.
However, there is still a loose Ocelot out there, and when it appears that they are hoping to instigate WW III between the U.S. and Russia, the Expendables once again go off to save the day, this time with Marsh along for the ride and with the leadership of the group taken by Gina (Megan Fox), who also happens to be the on/off girlfriend of Christmas to boot. Of course, Christmas won’t take no for an answer, and, accompanied by another old friend of Barney’s, Decha (Tony Jaa), also sets off in pursuit. Eventually, they all wind up on a massive shipping vessel containing the set-to-explode bomb and battle waves of anonymous bad guys as they try to save the world in the ta-daa nick of time.
My problem with “Expend4bles” is not that it is a boneheaded action film; it has been made with such obvious indifference from all involved that you can practically feel their contempt in every scene. The screenplay by Kurt Wimmer, Max Adams, and Tad Daggerhart conjures up the kind of slapdash narrative one rarely encounters outside Mad Libs. Director Scott Waugh proves to be equally lackadaisical in his duties—the big action beats are staged in a startlingly flat manner that's further dulled by some of the chintziest CGI I have seen in a major movie in a while. There are many points where "Expend4bles" feels less like a legitimate continuation to a franchise that has been quite profitable to many involved and more like a cheapo television pilot that was mercifully scuttled before it could air.
The film's biggest, most inexplicable flaw is that it takes the irresistible hook that has driven the franchise to date—the chance to see past action icons strutting their stuff once again—and bizarrely elects to dispose of it here. At least in those earlier movies, there was a certain degree of frisson, as it were, at the sight of seeing the likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis together for the first time (at least outside of a Planet Hollywood stockholders meeting) and the first two sequels managed to keep that up as it brought new old faces into the fold. Here, with fewer returning cast members than before (and with Stallone himself barely in it), the balance shifts heavily towards the newer additions and, except for martial arts faves Jaa and Uwais (who contribute the only real thrills during the brief moments when they show their stuff), none of them are exactly action icons and a couple of them stretch the definition of “star” to the breaking point. The most ridiculous of the bunch by far is Fox, who seems to be there to serve as a reminder of that once-promised all-female “Expendabelles” spinoff and to show us that she can do anything that her male co-stars can. In this case, however, “anything” seems limited to delivering every line in a monotone and looking made up to such a degree that she might have shot this between set-ups for this year's Sports Illustrated photoshoot.
"Expend4bles" is just an embarrassment from start to finish, and the only positive thing to say about it is that it should pretty much put a nail in the coffin of a series that has clearly overstayed its welcome. At least for another decade.
Now playing in theaters.
The French actress Laure Calamy is largely known to U.S. viewers for her work in the French series “Call My Agent,” which developed a strong following here via Netflix. The 48-year-old is fortunate not to be American, given the dearth of respect and meaningful roles bestowed on female performers her age in Hollywood. Her appeal here nevertheless speaks to a real problem in stateside casting practices. In the meantime, that appeal means the U.S. release of her work on the Continent, showing a nice range. She’s great fun in the bouncy rom-com “My Donkey, My Lover, & I” and in “The Origin of Evil,” a gnarly, knotty thriller co-written (with Fanny Burdino) and directed by Sébastien Marnier, Calamy gives a dramatic performance of unsettling depth.
Her role is of a down-at-heels ex-convict who works at an anchovy-packing plant, yech. The environment and the largely lost souls who work in it are conveyed in a widescreen frame that’s almost entirely grayscale. She’s being kicked out of her rented room by a landlady who’s reuniting with her estranged daughter. Her imprisoned girlfriend refuses a visit. One nervous night, she calls a man who lives in Porquerolles, an island off the Cote d’Azur. This rich man had a daughter out of wedlock many years ago. And so Calamy’s character introduces herself as Stéphane, the long-lost child, and secures an invite to visit the old man.
Once off the ferry and in the villa belonging to wealthy restaurateur Serge (white-haired, bearlike Jacques Weber), the movie’s color palette changes as the matriarch of the house, Louise (Dominique Blanc, giving off strong Bette Davis/Baby Jane vibes) coordinates her nouveau-riche tacky outfits to match the Douanier-Rousseau hues of the furniture. Serge and Louise’s oldest daughter, George (Doria Tillier), is a more low-key dresser and an impeccably cold customer. Sensing, not quite without reason, that Stéphane is sniffing around for an inheritance at least, she instructs Stéphane to leave the island and not return.
But Stéphane has a plan, one that starts with impressing Serge. She tells the family she founded and runs that anchovy-packing plant and lies so quickly and effortlessly that the viewer’s jaw almost drops. She’s framed as a kind of rooting interest here, so vapid, sniping, and nasty are the other members of Serge’s clan. But as the specifics of her scheme become evident—and they are tied in explicitly to her relationship with that prison inmate—Calamy’s character becomes less ingratiating.
This is one of those thrillers in which almost nobody is who they seem to be. And those who are, are definitively unhinged. In Stéphane, Serge sees an exit ramp to an onerous situation—his family, led by George, who claims to have “saved” his business, is seeking a guardianship that the aging Serge is loath to accept, and he enlists Stéphane to testify on his behalf at a hearing. Again, we sympathize with the poor old guy at first. But soon, we’re asking whether Serge is in fact a kindly patriarch besieged by vultures or himself a monster.
In this film, lying is hard to stop once you’ve started. So is, as it turns out, killing. The web spun by “The Origin of Evil” arguably features one twist too many, but the viewer is in for more than a pound by the time it happens. Largely thanks to Calamy’s rock-solid performance.
Now playing in select theaters and available on demand.
It begins with your standard shot, a camera tracking through a modest but deteriorated home. In the abode’s hallways are dead, crumpled bodies. Screams can be heard emanating from an ajar door leading to the basement. We travel down creaky stairs to a body burned so badly that steam is still rising from the charcoaled skin. Its hand is outstretched to a glass jar filled with black smoke. This jar is merely a vessel, a metaphor for the difficulties faced by the Indian inhabitants of this white suburb.
“It Lives Inside,” the feature directorial debut from Bishal Dutta, trades in cultural mythology and rote atmospheric frights to tell the story of Samidha (a captivating Megan Suri). A smart, very popular student Samidha—she goes by Sam—is the kind of typical teenager with an overbearing mom (Neeru Bajwa) and a crush on the popular boy (Gage Marsh) at school common for these films. Her former best friend, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), is well, going through it. Sleep-deprived and talking to herself, she totes the same glass jar we saw earlier.
It’s enough to worry her teacher Joyce (Betty Gabriel), who approaches Sam and asks her to talk with Tamira. Sam, unfortunately, doesn’t want to be associated with the “crazy” Brown person and rebuffs Joyce’s pleas to stick together. She also ignores Tamira’s story about a specter haunting her. Sam doesn’t believe her friend until she accidentally breaks the jar. Tamira mysteriously goes missing; the creepily designed ghoul, composed of tiny teeth, comes to Sam’s dreams and begins attacking others around her. What follows is a movie that wants to be a teen movie and an allegory for the immigrant experience but never wholly coheres.
Many will compare the mechanics of the film’s monster, a Pishach, to “The Babadook.” Both beings demonstrate a desire to isolate their victims and work on their psyche. But the mythical being from Hindu and Buddhist mythology predates Jennifer Kent’s film, speaking to the universality of how loneliness can warp the brain. The film translates that sense of othering, leading to assimilation, that can happen to Black and Brown people amid a white ecosystem. Sam, for instance, doesn’t want to go by her Indian name; she hangs out with micro-aggressive white kids over Tamira; she rarely speaks Hindi anymore and doesn’t bring anyone over to her home. Those decisions put her at odds with her traditionalist mother, causing your prototypical friction between parents and first-generation Americans to arise.
One wishes Dutta pulled the weight of assimilation further, closer to what Remi Weekes did with “His House,” another horror flick similarly affixed to the immigrant experience. There are some hints that Dutta wants to take that route: We learn how the monster may have origins back in India and that it has passed between multiple Indian families, individuals who also feel isolated. But Dutta is too concerned with fashioning a less-than-successful suburban teen narrative.
The primary reason Sam wants to fit in, as with any teen, but especially someone afraid of the cultural repercussions that come from being different, is for social cache. When one of her teenage friends is murdered in her presence, however, we never see the ramifications for Sam at school. She just continues to go to class. For an area suspicious of Brown people, these pearl-clutching white folks certainly aren’t searching for any answers. There’s no police presence, no outreach from the kid’s parents, no confrontation between Sam and literally anybody in this tiny community. It simply makes no sense. If you want to be a teen movie, you must keep viewers in that milieu rather than relying on the basic building blocks cobbled from other, better films.
The visual language restricts the viewer too: While Dutta and cinematographer Matthew Lynn rely on close-ups (granting an immersive touch), they also love copying Spike Lee’s double dolly shot. Rather than waiting for a key moment to unleash it, however, they use the move three times, each less successful in translating the interior angst felt by Sam than the last. Bad match cuts meant to instill horror fall flat, too, as does the basic sound design. The final freakout, a showdown in a basement between Sam and the monster, stretches on for far too long, losing rhythm and pace as Dutta maneuvers for an avenue to a sequel.
Telling an Indian-American horror story, particularly one set in suburbia, should have allowed for plenty of rich opportunities. With major deficiencies like plot, themes, and tension holding Dutta’s film back, “It Lives Inside” is merely average on the outside.
Now playing in theaters.
A family vacation is off to a bumpy start in Luis De Filippis’ feature debut, “Something You Said Last Night.” Ren (Carmen Madonia) is stealing puffs from her illicit vape to cope with the stress of life when her disapproving mom, Mona (Ramona Milano), isn’t watching. Her sister Siena (Paige Evans) looks like annoyance personified, disgusted that she’s been dragged out to a vacation in cottage country that even their dad Guido (Joey Parro) can’t muster enough enthusiasm for to stop scrolling on his cell phone. His daughters are similarly glued to their screens as if they were waiting out the vacation so they can pile back into the car. While Siena finds a little summer love as a distraction, her sister Ren barely tolerates her mom’s incessant scolding. As tensions in the Canadian-Italian family come to a boil, just when will the arguments begin?
De Filippis’ family drama is a taut domestic number, with each character’s mounting frustration taking turns escalating into a series of volatile fights. The unspoken resentment of many years, parents’ disappointments, and the tried and true conflict of sibling rivalry pour out into the rented kitchen and living room like steam escaping from a kettle. But De Filippis’ “Something You Said Last Night” isn’t just one big family war game either. It’s just as much about the smaller, quieter pains of feeling like your parents won’t listen, or your kids are disrespecting you. Her camera captures both sides' silent eye rolls and exasperated sighs. No one is an outright villain, and everyone feels like they’re in the right about picking each fight. Perhaps what's most is disturbing is how familiar this drama feels: sisters fighting over petty things and trading catty insults to get back at one another, mom’s needling questions and her outsized responses when she gets an answer she doesn’t like, dad looking silently on, a touch hurt and maybe even confused as to why everyone else is screaming loud enough to be heard outside. Yet, these few moments of peace, of inside jokes and hugs, prove there’s more to this family than verbal spats.
Although there are conflicts aplenty, from arguing over a hat that takes a surprising amount of time to resolve to barely tolerating a pottery painting session with mom to not texting after leaving all night, De Filippis almost entirely skips mentioning that her main character is a trans woman. Ren is just who she is, and although the family fights can get pretty mean, no one picks on her for being a trans woman. She is accepted by her family, and even if she butts heads with her mother almost constantly, Mona is the first to defend her daughter against any ignorant comments. De Filippis, also a trans woman, focuses instead on exploring the relationship dynamics in the family and their many highs and lows in a few short days.
Madonia, who plays Ren, finds the perfect sense of mid-twenties millennial ennui—that uncertainty about the direction of one’s life, the creeping sense that there’s more to the world than you may possibly afford, the clashing desires to be independent but still need the occasional parental support. Tall and willowy, Ren is one of the calmer personalities in the group, but she’s just as expressive when it comes to her body language, betraying a little childish resentment whenever fighting with her mom or sister. She’s had a taste of independence away from home and doesn’t want to give it up or feel like a burden to her parents. Ren acts guarded from the rest as if she is keeping an emotional distance even if she knows she has to move back.
Playing up that sense of bygone family vacations, De Filippis and cinematographer Norm Li filmed “Something You Said Last Night” on 35mm, giving the movie a nostalgic quality that makes even a crowded shoreline and sandwiches in the sun look good. De Filippis surfaces these memories and feelings in a way that is specific to this family but is very relatable for any one of us who have fought with siblings in our adulthood, unsure how to break bad news to our parents, and how coming out as a writer will always disappoint moms. This family isn’t picture perfect, but the way De Filippis tells their story is pretty flawless.
Now playing in theaters.
Mark Cousins is equally known for film writing and filmmaking. The two overlap to such an extent that by if you tried to draw a Venn diagram showing the relationship between them, it would just be a circle. A critic, scholar, programmer and documentarian, Cousins is best known for "The Story of Film: An Odyssey” and its variants, including "A Story of Children and Film" and "The Story of Film: The New Generation” as well as for more, shall we say, idiosyncratic works. "The Eyes of Orson Welles" is framed as a letter to the director, who died in 1985, while "What is this Film Called Love?" is a walking tour of Mexico City with Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) as imaginary travel companion, and "Bigger than the Shining," a film about copyright and the question of whether two people can every really see the "same" film, was only shown once and then intentionally destroyed. Cousins works so intuitively and personally, often generating whole projects off a sudden insight or inspiration ("A Story of Children and Film" was sparked by looking at home video footage of his niece and nephew) that the results are necessarily going to be hit and miss.
"The Storms of Jeremy Thomas," about the career of one of the most important film producers of the last 50 years, is one of Cousins' best and most entrancing films. It's a "road movie" that follows Thomas, the producer of "The Last Emperor," "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," "Sexy Beast," "Crash," "The Naked Lunch," and other notable features, as they drive from the UK to the Cannes Film Festival, with both Thomas and his biographer ruminating on what the work means and where it came from. As is usually the case with Cousins, it's impossible to coldly analyze why this movie feels so on-point while others might seem half-baked, and there will surely be reviews contrary to the one you're reading.
This one has a different feel from a lot of the others, partly because even though the films Cousins name-checks are well-known or semi-known (at least to the sort of person inclined to seek this documentary out), in terms of his human subject he's got a blank canvas to paint on. Thomas is a friend of Cousins and has a long and impressive resume, but his name is largely unknown to the moviegoing public. (When he accepted the Best Picture Oscar for producing Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor," most viewers didn't know his name until the broadcast booth flashed it onscreen.) The freshness of the subject lets Cousins paint an audiovisual portrait of Thomas (and himself; there's always a lot of Cousins in every Cousins film) using the intellectual/aesthetic divining rod techniques he's been developing for decades while neutralizing nitpicks about why he spent so much time on this part of the subject's life and not enough on that, and whether the overall approach suits the subject.
"The Storms of Jeremy Thomas" arrives in time for the 50th anniversary of the Recorded Picture Organization, which Thomas founded in 1974. A scion of a film industry family (he'd be called a "nepo baby" if he came up today), he's described by Rebecca O'Brien, a producer for Ken Loach and Lynne Ramsay, as "a producer's producer. His history with amazing European filmmakers and beyond is just incomparable." He made multiple films with Bertolucci (including "The Sheltering Sky" and "The Dreamers") as well as Nicolas Roeg ("Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession," "Eureka," "Insignificance") and David Cronenberg (one of the liveliest sections has Thomas recalling the premiere of the latter’s “Crash,” which prompted the Daily Mail headline "a movie beyond the bounds of depravity").
Thomas, now 74, is a compelling camera subject even when silent, and more so when speaking. He drives like "a teenager," per Cousins' narration; survived cancer, and evolved due to his brush with death; worships the bohemian or liberated sensibilities of European artists, and has the rumbling baritone voice of an old French character actor.
It seems as if most of Thomas' interviews with Cousins were recorded separately from the shoot itself and then treated as voice-over narration to accompany the footage Cousins shot of the Cannes trip and the clips he selected to accompany the career analysis. The separation of narration and image seems awkward initially but ultimately proves a masterstroke. It makes the movie play like a deathbed "exit interview" by somebody who's still very much alive, evoking the sort of quasi-European art cinema movie that would've sparked young Jeremy Thomas' imagination before he decided to get into the producing business and make his own equivalents.
Cousins' narration compares Thomas to Virginia Wolff in a list of artists who possess "quiet radicalism," along with painters Francis Bacon and J.M.W. Turner and filmmaker Michael Powell. It's a reach within the film's grasp. The intertwining of Thomas' and Cousins' voice-overs subtly connects the film to that formative period in English language fiction in the late 19th and early 20th century when Wolff and other writers were innovating in hopes of approximating the complexity of personality and consciousness. And it helps the audience navigate the disparate sections of the movie, which go wherever the crests and troughs of Thomas and Cousins' interactions take them.
Buffs interested in discovering what Thomas thought of boldfaced names he's worked with won't find much in the way of salacious gossip or shocking revelations. But the tidbits are fun and enlightening. Debra Winger (of "The Sheltering Sky") and Tilda Swinton (with whom Thomas has collaborated on numerous projects related to filmmaking and film exhibitions) sit for interviews with Cousins about Thomas and praise his energy, openness, and resourcefulness. It's a mutual admiration society: Thomas describes them as kindred spirits whose instincts help unify and clarify a movie's themes and intent. Thomas also talks about "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" costar David Bowie (mainly concerning celebrity); Marlon Brando, who gave one of his last film performances in the little-seen Thomas-produced Johnny Depp film "The Brave" (Thomas calls him "one of the best"), and Tony Curtis, who explained his tendency to caress cameras placed near him for closeups by explaining: "Mr. Thomas, it loves me, baby."
Cousins' narration gets a bit MFA fiction workshop at certain points, but that's a feature of his work, not a bug (in another life, he might've been a novelist, possibly in a Beat writer mode). The film is organized around storms and divided into numbered chapters with titles like "Sex" and "Death." It gets a bit fanboyish when delving into the sexual and political content of Thomas' projects. Cousins accounts for this by noting that his own tastes were partly formed by watching Thomas' movies.
Regardless, there’s a place in current documentary cinema for a lament about how the relentless corporatization of mainstream films helped feed a squirmy Puritanism that eschews psychological complexity as well as adult sexuality and insists that bad behavior be labeled as such. "The Storms of Jeremy Thomas" encourages viewers to broaden their horizons and seek out unknown and possibly uncomfortable work. It portrays the '70s, '80s, and '90s as a lost continent of handsomely funded movies aimed at sophisticated and curious adults rather than The Kid Inside All of Us. The voyeuristic impulse that has always fueled cinema to some degree is acknowledged in several film clips, such as the brother in "The Dreamers" watching his sister and the visiting American getting intimate, and the title character in the Thomas-produced "Dom Hemingway" proclaiming that a painting of his johnson "should hang in the Louvre."
Cinema, Swinton says in an interview with Cousins, "asks for something visceral. And that's the best cinema: the cinema that asks for that." Cousins praises Thomas for helping important filmmakers push right up to the edge of whatever lines were being drawn at the time, then go over because that's what art is empowered to do. Cousins joins the movement himself by pairing a rumination about Thomas' libertine sympathies ("is the producer, the prince, a petrol head, a bohemian?") with a video selfie taken while he's wading naked in the pool of the house Thomas rented at Cannes (full-frontal, but partly obscured by water).
"I like the counterculture," Thomas says at one point, summing everything up. "I'm not seeking the popular culture. I enjoy a Spielberg movie like everybody else. But they're not what I'm looking for. The most famous paintings are available to all, out in the first hall in the museum. The counterculture is something you sort of...you have to look for it. You have to find it."
Now playing in theaters.
At the heart of “My Sailor, My Love,” the English language debut from Finnish filmmaker Klaus Härö, is a prickly tale of familial love gone sour and romantic love found almost too late. Although it attempts to tackle the heavy theme of generational trauma, it too often forgoes the more insightful aspects of its family drama in favor of an overly trite twilight romance.
Härö opens his film at group therapy, where women open up to each other about their life traumas. When it’s time for Grace (Catherine Walker) to share, she clams up, unable to voice what has brought her to the group. The film then shifts to a sweeping tracking shot of coastal Ireland, following Grace’s car to an isolated home right on the seashore.
Here, we meet her cantankerous father, Howard (James Cosmo), a widowed sea captain who spends his days weaving and telling tall tales. It’s his birthday party, but Howard hasn’t even finished washing the dirty laundry he left in the sink. Her brothers arrive with tales of trips abroad but don’t bother to help Grace with the festivities. Howard even refuses to eat a slice of the elaborate chocolate cake Grace brought. It’s clear Grace’s traumas stem from the unhealthy dynamics at play in this splintered family.
Fed up with his mess, Grace posts an ad at the local pub for a housekeeper, almost immediately hiring the gregarious older woman Annie (Bríd Brennan). When Annie cooks and cleans and chats about her grandkids, the gruff Howard insults her, and she leaves. Only to, of course, be wooed back by Howard’s apology and a bouquet of flowers.
The rest of the film cuts back and forth between Grace’s disintegrating life as she loses her job and her husband and Howard and Annie’s burgeoning relationship. It’s the stuff of high melodrama but mostly played at a very muted pace. Grace and her husband have calm, cooled, collected fights rather than rage. Howard and Annie fall for each other through small, shared moments.
While this all sounds very mature, the execution, especially with the romance, sorely lacks in subtlety. At one point, while picking apples, Howard and Annie reach for the same apple, and their hands graze. There is no hint of irony in how this hackneyed moment is filmed or employed. Aside from a little bit of chemistry and his ability to make her grandkids laugh, it’s hard to see what Annie sees in Howard. In fact, both characters are developed with such broad strokes, their personalities and histories so vague, what depth they contain comes solely from what Cosmo and Brennan bring with their quietly calibrated performances.
Grace is at least given a much richer personal history, which is slowly teased out. At first, it seems she is just overprotective and controlling of her father’s life. Then, she appears jealous, as she reacts poorly to Howard’s relationship with Annie and the joy he seems to take in becoming part of Annie’s large, boisterous family. But eventually, we realize this growing tension between Grace and Howard stems from a lifetime of neglect and emotional abuse. Her pain from the kind of unique wounds that can only be inflicted by a parent on their child.
Walker has the most difficult role here. Without alienating the audience, she must show Grace’s hurt, especially her anger. She does this mostly through body language; her constricted breathing clearly holding back years of anguish. Early on, her clipped sentences cut off just when she says something in mixed company that would make her appear to be the bad guy. It’s a dance she’s practiced for years, a trick anyone in this kind of abusive familial relationship knows all too well. When she does slip and say a little too much, it’s like she’s snuffed out oxygen for everyone in the room. And yet, there’s always a little bit of love left, stinging as it sticks in the back of her throat.
"My Sailor, My Love" is at its best in these moments where it explores Grace’s pain—when it shows how it has poisoned her ability to relate to others, be it the other women in group therapy, her co-workers, her husband, or even herself.
Unfortunately, because it also wants to be about the healing power of romantic love, Grace’s more nuanced storyline is shelved for long periods in favor of the more clichéd romantic beats of Howard and Annie’s story. And while their story wraps up in as mawkish a way as can be, at least "My Sailor, My Love" knows the final emotional beat belongs to Grace. It’s just too bad the filmmakers weren’t brave enough to make the whole film about her story, too.
Now playing in theaters.
It has long been a matter of diminishing returns with the “Spy Kids” series for years. While the 2001 original was an enjoyably lively demonstration of Robert Rodriguez’s infinite resourcefulness, subsequent installments have felt stale and grating.
These are movies for families and sometimes by his family, as the Austin-based auteur often likes to include his own kids on camera and behind the scenes. The “Spy Kids”-adjacent “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D” from 2005 reportedly sprang from the imagination of his then-seven-year-old son, Racer Max, who received a writing credit.
But families deserve better than the cheap-looking and cloying reboot of the franchise, “Spy Kids: Armageddon,” now streaming on Netflix and playing theatrically in limited release. It’s more of the same, without any discernible improvement in quality, despite the massive technological leaps over the past two decades. Rodriguez’s original claim to fame was his ability to accomplish a lot with a little, wearing various hats at once. Here, he once again serves as director and co-writer (alongside the grown-up Racer Max) as well as producer, cinematographer, and editor. The result is a movie that will appeal only to very young kids; even for that audience, there are too many preferable options.
“Spy Kids: Armageddon” has the exact same premise as the first movie in the series: The parents are secretly spies, and when the kids find out, they have to spring into action and save the day. Zachary Levi and Gina Rodriguez step in for Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino as new characters, Terrence Tango and Nora Torrez. From their hidden lair inside the family’s sleekly modernist glass-and-steel home (the coolest part of the movie, by far), Terrence and Nora tinker with an all-powerful Armageddon code. While playing his favorite video game, their son, Tony (Connor Esterson), inadvertently unleashes the code to brilliant tech billionaire Rey “The King” Kingston (a weirdly bland Billy Magnussen), who plans to use it for nefarious purposes. Now it’s time for the eager Tony and his smart-alecky sister, Patty (Everly Carganilla), to spring into action and save the day and the world. Levi and Rodriguez seem as bored by the material as we are, while the young actors do their best to bring enthusiasm to their banal banter.
There is exactly one clever idea in this movie: That the code becomes a virus requiring people throughout the globe to play a video game to fulfill mundane tasks like taking money out of the ATM. Mostly, “Spy Kids: Armageddon” alternates between frantic slapstick antics and people standing around explaining things to each other. Chintzy green-screen effects turn something as simple as a car chase down Austin’s Congress Avenue into a distracting mess. The lighting often has a flat sameness, regardless of the situation. Because this is a spy movie, there are, of course, gadgets galore, but even those aren’t terribly inspired. A bit involving giant fly swatters quickly grows repetitive, for example. And the whole endeavor feels about 20 minutes too long, with no compelling sense of pacing. The action drags, and then all of a sudden, it’s chaos.
Somewhere beneath the mayhem is the celebration of Latino pride that has infused Rodriguez’s films from the beginning, with his ultra-low-budget indie “El Mariachi” from 1992. Tony and Patty must recite their entire names to gain access to an underwater safe house as a reflection of their heritage. These fleeting touches are welcome and make the movie feel personal. And what little kid hasn’t played a make-believe game in which they’re the hero? “Spy Kids: Armageddon” takes that basic sense of good vs. evil and whips it up into a shrill, annoying frenzy.
Now on Netflix.