REVIEW: “Another Round” (2020)

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Filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg and actor Mads Mikkelsen struck gold with 2012’s “The Hunt”, a searing drama about a man wrongfully accused of sexually abusing a child and the hysteria that engulfs a small close-knit community as a result. The two team-up again for “Another Round”, an absorbing character study about middle-aged disillusionment and another home-run for the Danish duo.

A large part of the film was shaped by a personal tragedy. The movie was original set to star Vinterberg’s 19-year-old daughter Ida. But just four days into filming Ida was killed in a car accident. Utterly devastated but determined to make his movie in honor of his daughter, Vinterberg reworked the script with co-writer Tobias Lindholm and made what is “Another Round”. Vinterberg’s goal was to change it to something “life-affirming”, but you can’t miss the undercurrent of sadness that’s felt from the film’s pre-title montage to its exhilarating yet heartbreaking final scene.

Mikkelsen has always been an actor able to root out the inner complexities and conflicts of his characters. Here he is magnificent playing a high school history teacher named Martin. Mikkselsen’s emotionally detailed performance reveals a detached man, his eyes lightless, melancholy etched into every expression. Martin is in the throes of a midlife crisis, stuck in a mire of unfulfillment and uncertainty. “I don’t know how I ended up like this,” he laments. He’s lost his fire both at school and at home. His grades-conscious students notice it, even putting together an intervention of sorts. His wife Anika (Maria Bonnevie) also notices and is constantly taking on night shifts at work (you get the sense it’s to get away from her husband).

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Image Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

One evening Martin and fellow teachers Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Peter (Lars Ranthe) attend a birthday dinner for friend and colleague Nikolaj (Magnus Millang). After some needling Martin agrees to join them for some light drinking. As the four begin loosening up Nikolaj shares a hypothesis from Norwegian psychologist Finn Skårderund. His idea was that the blood alcohol content in humans is 0.05% too low and that light day drinking would lead to “increased social and professional performance.” Martin has reached a point where he’s willing to try anything so the four decide to test Skårderund’s theory.

First they set the rules for their cockeyed social experiment. It would consist of daily alcohol consumption maintaining but not exceeding 0.05% BAC. There would be no drinking after 8:00 PM and none on weekends. Throughout the ‘experiment’ each would take notes and report back with the results. Their sets of rules and procedures attempt to give it all a sense of legitimacy, but it’s clear each are trying to fill holes in their individual lives. For a desperate Martin it’s about being able to feel again; about finding the zest for life he once had. It’s about rekindling the relationship with his wife and rediscovering his enthusiasm for the classroom. In other words, for Martin it’s about living again.

It’s really a nutty premise, the kind Hollywood is almost certain to remake and probably botch. But it works here because Vinterberg isn’t as enthralled with the concept as much as he is the people involved. Even when the movie ventures into black comedy territory, Vinterberg’s focus is set firmly on Martin and the other characters. And as silly as the concept sounds, it opens up the characters in a number of surprisingly intimate ways, allowing us to see deeper inside them. This is where the acting shines brightest, especially from Mikkelsen who gives a subdued yet full-bodied performance that can be darkly funny but that is undergirded with an unshakable sense of tragedy.

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Image Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Interestingly (and wisely) Vinterberg doesn’t judge the four men or their actions. In fact he even hints that there may be some truth to Skårderund’s wild theory after the buzzed teachers begin seeing success both at work and at home (I guess there are reasons for the nicknames “spirits” and “liquid courage”). Also the experiment brings the friends closer together than they’ve ever been. At the same time Vinterberg subtly reminds us that the potential consequences, both personal and professional, are enormous. This becomes even clearer when the four begin stretching their own rules by increasing their daily intake. We know they’re in a precarious position and the tightrope they’re walking could snap at any moment.

I’m still astonished by how effectively Vinterberg brings all of his parts together to make something playful yet perilous; something that sounds absurd but ends up being as captivating as it is provocative. And despite its smattering of dark humor, you can’t miss the elements of Vinterberg’s real-life personal anguish that permeates scene after scene. And what better actor to soulfully channel it than Mads Mikkelsen who (here I go again) gives what’s easily one of the year’s best performances.

For the most part there isn’t a lot of variety when it comes to movies strictly about drinking alcohol. There are your care-free party movies full of boozing but often free of consequences and repercussions. The others are usually sad somber tales of people languishing in the grip of alcoholism. “Another Round” nimbly finds its place somewhere in the middle. It fully acknowledges the pleasures and appeal of drinking for some people. At the same time the film shows that the gap between social drinking and dependency can close quicker than you think. And while a couple of glasses of wine may loosen you up, it’s no cure for deep-seated psychological pain. And in the end that pain is what “Another Round” is most interested in exploring.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “All My Life” (2020)

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You would be hard pressed to find a more wildly diverse group of films than the last four made by director Marc Meyers. In 2017 he made “My Friend Dahmer”, a biopic about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s high school years. Next he made the blood-soaked horror-dark comedy “We Summon the Darkness”. And earlier this year he released “Human Capital”, a family drama, crime thriller, and mystery all wrapped into one. So what’s the fourth film you ask? Meyers’ latest is “All My Life”, a warm and fuzzy tearjerker. See, diverse.

“All My Life” (written by Todd Rosenberg) is based on the true relationship of Solomon Chau and Jennifer Carter. The film is carried by the expressive Jessica Rothe, a talented rising star with a pretty diverse resumé of her own. Here she plays Jenn, a young woman who has spent most of her life looking ahead but rarely living in the moment. Everything changes when she goes to a sports bar with friends and has that chance meeting of a lifetime (dramatic music swells) with Solomon (Harry Shum Jr.), a hunky amateur chef. The very next day the two go out for a jog, sparks fly, and off we go.

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Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The first half of “All My Life” is a sweet and fairly grounded story of a young couple falling in love, moving in together, and setting their eyes on a future together. There’s a really nice chemistry between the two leads and a surprising amount of heart which makes them not only a likable couple but people we feel good about rooting for. Everything is ideal in these early scenes and they’re even shot with this radiant storybook glow. We get the tender romantic moments, some hip music, and eventually a flash mob marriage proposal sequence with enough cheese to clog every artery.

But then there’s the second half where their modern day romance is cut short after Sol is diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. It’s the flip-side of the story that we know is coming from the start. Meyers doesn’t go deep into the internal conflicts or dive into themes like mortality and fate. Instead he keeps it mostly on the surface, offering plenty of tissue-worthy moments while (thankfully) avoiding the annoying sap that you may get in a Nicholas Sparks flick. Meyers and Rosenberg make their film all about living. More specifically, about making the most out of the time you’re given.

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Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

With the help of their fun but nondescript group of friends, Jenn and Sol decide to go ahead with their wedding, determined to make every day they have together memorable. The film wisely doesn’t gloss over the bumps in the road. “People will see a widow in white,” Sol tells Jenn during one particularly dark and crushing scene. But the film mostly keeps its head up as the friends start a GOFUNDME account to cover expenses and help Jenn and Sol have the best wedding possible under the circumstances.

Despite its best efforts there are still those gooey moments that seem custom made for the movies rather than plucked from real life. But every time the film gets too close to schmaltzy Meyers is able to rein it back in. And while we could have learned more about their characters (does Sol even have a family???), there is an infectious charm to the young couple and this is a case of a film being helped by its ‘true story’ element. Sure it’s all pretty familiar and it misses opportunities to do something original. But it also avoids many of the usual trappings and has genuine heart, something quite honestly I wasn’t expecting. “All My Life” is now playing in theaters.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “A Rainy Day in New York” (2020)

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Even if you question Dylan Farrow’s accusations, you have to admit Woody Allen’s personal life has been suspect and that’s putting it nicely (many would say repugnant is more accurate). In the wake of #MeToo few have seen their careers take a hit quite like his. Despite his fervent denials, Allen has been shunned by many in the film community. As a result he was released from his contract with Amazon Studios and his latest film pulled from their release schedule.

Allen has since acquired the film rights from Amazon and has slowly been releasing “A Rainy Day in New York” across the globe. It’s now out in the States and within minutes of watching I had spotted practically all of Allen’s most recognizable signatures: the neurotic and insecure narration, a strong sense of location, classic piano chords dancing in the background, the cloud of melancholy hanging over numerous characters. And while several of Allen’s later efforts feel like exercises in rinse-and-repeat, I still find his movies effortlessly watchable, this one included.

“A Rainy Day in New York” certainly won’t fall among Allen’s very best works. It’s a movie that gets off on the right foot and for the first 45 minutes or so I was enamored with it despite some noticeable flaws. But then the few threads of plot begin to unravel leading to a messy final act full of thinly sketched characters and underdeveloped ideas. It doesn’t completely undo the film, but it highlights an unfortunate lack of depth and focus.

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Photo Courtesy of Signature Entertainment

This time around Allen’s avatar is Timothée Chalamet. He plays Gatsby Welles, the eccentric son of stuffy upper-crusters and boyfriend to Ashleigh (Elle Fanning), a sweet and flighty girl from Tucson. The two attend Yardley University, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. Ashleigh enjoys school and is a reporter for the university’s newspaper. Gatsby doesn’t have much interest in grades, class or anything else school related. Instead he’d rather be lounging at a Manhattan piano bar or buying into a high-stakes poker game. When asked about his plans for the future he quickly replies “floundering“.

Ashleigh lands a big interview with tortured indie director Roland Pollard (Liev Shreiber) in (where else?) New York City. Gatsby jumps at the chance to return to the Big Apple and immediately starts planning their time together. But his plans get shot down when Ashleigh’s one-on-one interview turns into a madcap caper of sorts as three highfalutin movie men strangely vie for her affections.

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Photo Courtesy of Signature Entertainment

The men – the brooding Pollard, his nervy screenwriter Ted Davidoff (Jude Law) who suspects his wife Connie (Rebecca Hall in little more than a cameo) is having an affair, and a heartthrob actor (and easily the most shallow of the three) Francisco Vega played by Diego Luna – shuttle Ashleigh from one scenario to the next eventually stranding her character at a frustrating narrative dead-end. Fanning deserves credit for charming her way through scene after scene, but ultimately she’s let down by a storyline that gives her no meaningful place to go.

That leaves Gatsby to mope around the rainy city in his tweed jacket and unruly mop, waiting for Ashleigh to call and offering up sardonic musings whenever the script calls for it. While strolling he bumps into Chan (Selena Gomez), the snarky younger sister of an old girlfriend and they decide to kill some time together. It’s clear the two are supposed to have some kind of spark, but the chemistry between Chalamet and Gomez is inconsistent at best. Still, there is some fun and witty chatter between them that may not sound like anything real college kids would actually say yet it feels right at home in a Woody Allen movie.

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Photo Courtesy of Signature Entertainment

As an out-of-her-element Ashleigh rubs noses with the entertainment elite, Gatsby goes to the Metropolitan with Chan, visits his buffoonish brother who wants out of his upcoming wedding due to his fiance’s “fatal laugh“, sits in on a big-money poker game, and meets a call girl named Terry (Kelly Rohrbach) in a dive bar. All of this while trying to avoid his aristocratic parents who are throwing a lavish party for their friends in the 1%. Both of the dual storylines are a bit scattered but have their own quirky Allen-esque allure. That is until the aforementioned final half-hour when Allen throws all of the characters at the screen before limping to the finish line.

And that leads to my other issue, one that I just couldn’t shake – Chalamet. For starters he seems way too young for the role Allen has penned. That’s not so much his fault as it is the writing and/or casting. There’s also an inconsistency with his delivery. There are plenty of times where Chalamet could pass for an authentic person. But there are far too many instances where it looks as if he’s doing an impression of a traditional Woody Allen character. It’s difficult to put into words, but in these scenes you can see Chalamet straining to fit in a mold.

It’s hard to watch “A Rainy Day in New York” and not feel like it’s something you’ve seen before. Simply put, Allen doesn’t have much new to say in this, his 48th movie. Yet there are times when the film pulsates with the same satisfying energy of Allen’s past work. Its soaked with familiar feelings of nostalgia, from its anachronistic lead character unwittingly channeling a bygone era to more personal Allen obsessions that spring up throughout. It may not paint the most modern portrait, but in many ways I think that’s the point. Allen has often dabbled in real-world fantasy as a way of wrestling with ideas and longing for the past. It’s no different here, just a bit messier.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “Alone” (2020)

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In the lean taut thriller “Alone” a woman finds herself constantly in the unwanted company of a creepy middle-aged stalker with all the markings of a serial killer. It’s a simple premise and director John Hyams wrings out every drop of tension while once again proving that when it comes to cinema less is often more.

“Alone” is a remake of the 2011 Swedish film “Gone”. It’s written by screenwriter Mattias Olsson who wrote and co-directed the original. The film opens on a woman named Jessica (Jules Wilcox) loading a Uhaul trailer. She fills it with the last of her personal items, gets into her car, sets the GPS and heads out. She leaves the unnamed city and is soon traveling along winding rural roads lined with beautiful tall timber and scarcely a house to be seen. We aren’t told where she’s going, but we get the sense she’s leaving something behind, perhaps in an attempt to make a new start.

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Photo Courtesy of Magnet

From there Hyams begins to tighten his narrative screws. The story is broken into chapters with the first called “The Road”. As Jessica travels she gets behind a slow-moving SUV and attempts to pass. But the driver speeds up almost causing Jessica to have a head-on with an oncoming 18-wheeler. The SUV then begins riding her bumper, honking and flashing its lights before finally veering off at an intersection. Later while getting gas she sees the SUV again. After staying the night at a motel she finds the mustached SUV driver (Mark Menchaca) waiting for her as she starts to leave. He apologizes for their encounter before hitting her with the creepily ambiguous “I’ll see ya around.” Yeah, I’m sure you will.

It’s followed by four more chapters, each with titles like “The River” and “The Rain” that mark our progression through the story. Needless to say the man doesn’t go away and Jessica soon finds herself in a match of wits and survival, alone with a maniac in a dense isolated forest that resembles the Pacific Northwest. In fact they’re so alone that Wilcox and Menchaca are the lone cast members except for a brief but excellent appearance by Anthony Heald (“Silence of the Lambs”). The performances really are terrific led by Wilcox who convincingly sells Jessica’s terror while showing her grit and ferocity specifically in the second half. And Menchaca is absolutely chilling, bringing an ‘average Joe’ menace to every scene he’s in.

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Photo Courtesy of Magnet

Hyams helps his cast by showing off a great eye both with the camera and in the editing room. He works with DP Federico Verardi to put together a tense and immersive visual presentation. Keen touches like small and steady camera movements, crafty angles, and stunning high-resolution drone shots. And his co-editor work with Scott Roon is equally effective. Surgically precise cuts that are not only technically impressive, but that also ratchet up the nail-biting tension.

File “Alone” into the Really Nice Surprise category. From the very start the filmmakers commit to their premise, proving the movie’s simplicity is one of the its biggest strengths. We do learn a few character details along the way, but for the most part “Alone” remains an intensely focused thriller anchored by two dramatically different but equally effective performances. “Alone” is now showing in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Ava” (2020)

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In case you didn’t know it, Jessica Chastain is a bonafide movie star. Case in point, take a look at her latest film “Ava”, a mixed bag of a movie made considerably better by Chastain’s terrific lead turn. Star-powered performances can often (but not always) carry a movie and elevate it beyond what it would have been otherwise. Chastain does just that with “Ava”, driving the film with killer charisma and intense commitment.

As you probably guessed, Chastain plays the title character Ava Faulkner, a globetrotting assassin doing jobs for a shadow organization simply known as “management”. Sound familiar? That’s because writer Matthew Newton borrows a lot from the action genre he’s playing in. Newton was also slated to direct the film but bowed out amid assault and domestic violence allegations. Tate Taylor was hired as a replacement, directing Newton’s script but bringing nothing particularly new to the film. Instead he puts the bulk of the load onto his able cast, specifically Chastain.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Ava is one of the organization’s best assassins but she comes with some baggage. She’s a recovering alcoholic slowly losing her grip on sobriety. She’s also having bouts with her conscience. In hopes of justifying her actions, Ava begins questioning her “subjects” about their sins before offing them. That’s a big no-no in her line of work and “management” starts to worry. Thankfully she has Duke (John Malkovich), her handler for the organization and proverbial father figure, a welcomed replacement for the slug of a dad she had growing up. Duke works to convince his boss Simon (Colin Farrell) that Ava is stable and still an asset. MmmHmm.

That’s all one side of the story. We get the flipside once Ava returns home to Boston. Surprisingly, the movie spends a ton of its running time on this part of Ava’s story. In one sense the filmmakers should be applauded for bringing depth to its lead character. They do so by digging into her dysfunctional family history with her sharp-tongued mother (Geena Davis) and her embittered sister Judy (Jess Weixler). Toss in the presence of Ava’s ex-fiancée Michael (a painfully wooden Common) who’s now engaged to Judy. Talk about throwing gas on an already raging family fire.

Chastain shines in both sides of Ava’s story. She’s a tough, physical force and makes for a thoroughly believable action movie lead. And she brings strong and relatable emotion to the family drama half of “Ava”. The problem is the two sides of the story are at odds with each other. You watch and wait for their inevitable convergence but oddly they never come together (at least not in a truly meaningful way). Instead they both kinda play out, connecting superficially rather than substantively.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Strangely both of the movie’s two halves work good on their own but they don’t gel together in the way they need to. Sadly it’s the action stuff that gets shortchanged the most. Chastain brings intensity and physicality to the shoot-outs and fight scenes while Bear McCreary’s pulsing score amps up the energy. But ultimately it all needs more time and setup.

While “Ava” may not come together to form the most cohesive movie, it has enough meat on its bones to make for an entertaining escape. It’s also sure to catch a lot of people off guard, especially those expecting a more straightforward action flick. Instead “Ava” is just as much a tough dysfunctional family drama. If only the two parts melded together to make a better whole. So we’re left with a movie that teases franchise ambitions but will probably end up as a one-and-done. It’s a shame because I wouldn’t mind following Chastain’s Ava on the next leg of her journey. “Ava” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “A Girl Missing” (2020)

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There is so much packed into the new Japanese drama “A Girl Missing” – jealousy, spite, brokenness, and revenge. It looks at elderly care and rabid news media. Guilt by association and the dangers of keeping quiet only scratch the film’s thematic surface. You would think a movie with this many narrative tendrils would have its hands full covering so much ground. Instead “A Girl Rising” is every bit of a slow burn – a movie almost too casual to add punch to any of its interests.

“A Girl Rising” comes from writer-director Kōji Fukada and is the follow up to his highly acclaimed 2016 film “Harmonium”. Fukada has some interesting ideas most notably starting his one single storyline in two different places and then walking them to their inevitable convergence. It’s crafty storytelling no doubt. Unfortunately the parallel stories clash more than they connect adding a level of confusion to much of the film. But when Fukada does bring it all together, it paints a big picture that I couldn’t help but admire.

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Photo Courtesy of Film Movement

Mariko Tsutsui gives a terrific two-pronged lead performance. We first meet her as Risa, a troubled and downcast woman who develops what seems like an obsessive attraction to a hairstylist named Yoneda (played by Sosuke Ikematsu). Next we see Tsutsui playing Ichiko, a caring and compassionate home health nurse who loves her job and is engaged to be married. Two very different lives at two dramatically different junctures.

Ichiko’s story gets the bulk of the attention and it’s by far the most cohesive of the two. She works as a caregiver for an elderly ex-painter and through her caring service she has become close with the matriarch’s family. Especially the two granddaughters, the moody Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and her outgoing younger sister Saki (Miyu Ogawa) who Ichiko helps with their studies.

After one of their study sessions Saki disappears and her story quickly makes citywide headlines. Police believe it’s an abduction and Ichiko’s nephew Tatsuo (Ren Sudo) the prime subject. Motoko convinces a reluctant Ichiko not to share her family connection to Tatsuo for fear that she’ll be fired. But Motoko’s motivations are murky and keeping that kind of a secret adds suspicion whether deserved or not.

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Photo Courtesy of Film Movement

Interestingly the abduction of Saki (and the film’s title itself) plays a relatively small part in the story. Instead the film’s main focus is on how quickly the walls of Ichiko’s happy life crumble. Meanwhile Risa’s pursuit of Yoneda turns into a patchwork romance that essentially springs out of nowhere. Most of the character detail and patience put into Ichiko’s angle is missing from Risa’s. Thankfully Fukada does eventually connect the dots in a satisfying way that makes you rethink Risa’s story. But getting that point is a little rocky.

So “A Girl Missing” ends up being both fascinating and frustrating. One angle puts ample attention into building its character and exploring the unfolding drama surrounding her. The other feels like an appendage, tagging along and waiting for the movie to finally grant it relevance. Once together, Fukada’s vision is impressive, even audacious. And I really admire Mariko Tsutsui’s performance and the depth she brings to her Ichiko character. She infuses that storyline with a wealth of humanity and Fukada gives her plenty of room to work. If only the other story angle worked as well.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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