REVIEW: “Hope” (2021)

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There is no shortage of movies that deal with the sensitive subject of illness. It’s delicate ground to cover and an emotional minefield for filmmakers willing to navigate such heavy material with earnestness. Yet you can never judge these types of movies by one over-arching standard. That’s because there are deeply human and often intensely personal stories of all kinds related to sickness. That’s why when done well these movies can have a powerful and visceral impact on an audience. And when done poorly, words like ‘exploitative’ and ‘manipulative’ often come up.

The terrific “Hope” dodges those pitfalls thanks to the clear-eyed sincerity of writer-director Maria Sødahl. She pours herself into the movie, pulling from her own cancer scare to convey the gamut of emotions that surround such a life-changing diagnosis. At the same time it’s a deeply affecting relationship drama anchored by two unforgettable performances. “Hope” premiered at Toronto in 2019 and was Norway’s official selection for this year’s Academy Awards. Now it’s finally getting its official US release courtesy of Brooklyn-based KimStim Films and it’s easy to see why it has garnered so much praise.

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Image Courtesy of KimStim

When talking about “Hope” you have to begin with the emotionally rich and complex performances from Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård. They play partners Anja and Tomas, two stage producers who have been together for years yet have steadily grown apart. They have a nice spacious flat in Oslo where they live with their three children and three other children from Tomas’ previous marriage. Anja and Tomas never married, always finding some reason, either personal or professional, to put it off. These days they maintain their relationship out of a sense of routine, both withdrawn into their own disconnected worlds.

On the day before Christmas Eve Anja goes to see her doctor to get something for her dizzying headaches. Her concerned physician immediately calls for an MRI which reveals a malignant brain tumor believed to be linked to her lung cancer from exactly one year earlier. It’s obviously devastating news and there’s no proper handbook on how to handle it. Sødahl understands this and she gives both Anja and Tomas space to deal with the news in their own ways without ever making judgements. This is where Hovig and Skarsgård really shine.

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Image Courtesy of KimStim

As the story plays out through the Christmas and New Years holiday, the couple attempt to come to grips with her diagnosis while wrestling with the ‘hows’ and ‘whens’ of telling their family. “I don’t want my kids to hate the holidays,” Anja laments. At the same time, her condition forces the partners to come together in a way they haven’t been in years. At first it’s out of necessity, “I can’t do it on my own,” she explains. But later, as Anja and Tomas reckon with their relationship, waves of raw and repressed emotions come to the surface. Long buried anger, frustration, perhaps even love are unearthed as the two struggle to find themselves amid Anja’s life-threatening condition. And with her time remaining suddenly in question, they’re finally willing to open up and be candid with each other.

Hovig’s performance is something to behold – a rich and textured portrayal that equally captures her character’s strength and fragility. With a striking authenticity Hovig sells every facet of Anja’s physical, mental, and emotional struggle. And she’s just as powerful in her quieter and more intimate moments. Meanwhile the seasoned Skarsgård can speak volumes without saying a word. His sad, heavily burdened eyes show a man crushed by his wife’s diagnosis and silently processing it to the best of his ability. Other times he seems lost, unsure of what to do or say. So he listens, knowing Anja needs that outlet to release her emotions and unpack her frustrations.

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Image Courtesy of KimStim

As the story pushes forward the reason for the movie’s title comes into focus. As Anja suffers through headaches, nausea, mood swings, and anxiety; as she suppresses and endures all of that pain just to give her family a “normal” Christmas; as she listens to conflicting suggestions from medical specialists; she’s left with the aching question – is there any hope? Is having hope in her situation rooted in reality or is it simply a coping mechanism? It’s a weighty question that Sødahl handles delicately but sincerely. And she can do so because she’s been in Anja’s shoes.

Yet the question of hope isn’t reserved just for Anja’s cancer, but also her relationship with Tomas. Is there hope for two people full of regret, who wasted years of their lives disconnected from each other and burrowing into their work, to rediscover the love that brought them together in the first place? Sødahl, Hovig, and Skarsgård explore this question with a real-life sensibility – no frills, no gloss, no melodrama, just truth. And because of that unclouded honesty and deep human expression, this becomes so much more than just another movie about cancer. “Hope” is set for a limited theater release April 16th.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Hunter Hunter” (2020)

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Shawn Linden’s “Hunter Hunter” wasn’t at all what I expected. Its crafty advertising sells a deep woods thriller about a wolf terrorizing a wilderness family. To be fair that is a big part of the movie. But as the film sets your eyes in one direction it then broadsides you with a story full of deeper human themes. Oh, and it caps it all off with an unforgettable ending that will leave your jaw on the floor. And that’s no exaggeration.

“Hunter Hunter” is about a a family living off the grid deep in an unspecified forest. They live off the land, mostly hunting and trading furs for supplies. It’s a life that suits the father Joe (Devon Sawa) and is accepted by the mother Anne (Camille Sullivan). But their daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell) is born into it and given no choice but to learn how to survive. That weighs on a guilt-ridden Anne who begins to think they would be better off giving up their life of isolation and moving into town. “We don’t run from our problems,” Joe growls.

While out checking traps Joe and Renee find evidence that a ravenous wolf has returned to their area. Joe not only sees it as a threat to his family but to the secluded life he has chosen. He becomes obsessed with the wolf and sets out to hunt it down, leaving Anne and Renee to fend for themselves until he returns. A few grisly discoveries later makes it clear that this is more than a simple ‘man versus beast’ story. And when Anne loses radio contact with Joe, she becomes the one who must protect what matters the most – her daughter.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Linden, who serves as both writer and director, carves a surprisingly layered story out of a premise that seems pretty simple on its surface. I won’t dare spoil anything, but let’s just say he introduces some terrifying elements into the story that ups the intensity and adds this unnerving sense of dread that hangs over the final act. Camille Sullivan really emerges in the second half, putting the film on her back and giving a forceful and committed performance. And that ending. Linden goes all-in with an unsettling finish that feels exactly right for what he’s going for.

“Hunter Hunter” is a movie that quietly lures you in by building an interesting family dynamic worth investing in. The characters feel authentic which makes their tense and eventually frightening story resonate. Shawn Linden uses the setting’s beauty to hide something sinister while delving into some unsettling human themes that gives his movie a surprising kick. “Hunter Hunter” is now streaming on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Herself” (2020)

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Phyllida Lloyd opens her new film “Herself” with an unforgettable scene that goes from sweet to harrowing in a matter of seconds. Two darling little girls put makeup on their mom, softly giggling with each stroke of rosey red lipstick and gold eyeshadow. Before long the three are dancing in the kitchen, the room full of music, smiles and laughter. Then the music stops as the husband and father enters the room. He orders the girls to go outside and then begins a violent, stomach-churning assault on his wife. The images of it haunts her and us for the rest of the movie.

“Herself” is an interesting mix of clear-eyed movie realism and life-affirming drama. It takes an honest and unadorned look at the lasting effects of domestic abuse and confronts the slow-moving legal system that harshly punishes the victim for signing a form wrong but considers putting children in the custody of the abuser despite clear evidence of his crimes. But the film has another side, one that doesn’t write our world off just yet. One that reminds us there is good out there; that compassionate and empathetic people do still exist.

Irish actress Clare Dunne plays Sandra, the victim of the above mentioned domestic assault. After the distressing opening scene, we see she has left her abusive husband and now works two jobs just to put food on the table for her daughters Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) and Molly (Molly McCann). She’s also forced to move from place to place, living in hotels and housing that accepts city assistance. Meanwhile she’s required to keep in touch with her abusive husband Gary who wields his visitation rights like a weapon. But through it all, the film stresses Sandra’s inspiring fortitude and her unbending love for her children.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Hungry to provide a more stable life for her daughters, Sandra is inspired by an internet video to build her own low-cost home. But she can’t do it alone. This is where the film’s faith in humanity brings a warm and welcomed ray of light. Sandra encounters a series of people sympathetic to her plight who help her in a myriad of ways. It starts with one of her employers, a widow named Peggy (Harriet Walter) who donates a plot of land. A former contractor named Aido (Conleth Hill) agrees to help with the building and before long other people join the project. Meanwhile Sandra has to dodge stupid government regulations that threaten to upend her hopes of having a house of her own.

Dunne not only delivers an incredibly natural performance but is also given story credit and co-wrote the screenplay with Malcolm Campbell. You sense her passion as much in her writing as in her acting. “Herself” has a lot on its mind and it’s not afraid to look at real-world issues with a critical eye. At the same time Lloyd and Dunne clearly have a belief that there is goodness in the world and they show it without becoming mawkish or stumbling into over-the-top melodrama. And even during its more inspiring moments, there are frequent reminders of the hardships lurking in the background for people like Sandra. “Herself” is now streaming on Prime Video.

VERDICT- 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Hillbilly Elegy” (2020)

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When J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” came out in 2016 it was almost instantly thrust into the divisive political arena. To no surprise many partisans from both sides of the aisle had dramatically different reactions to book. But at it’s heart Vance’s memoir was a deeply personal work. It was a therapeutic release derived from his first-hand experiences growing up among three generations of a troubled Appalachian family. The poverty, the physical and verbal abuse, the cyclical nature of his family’s plight – just some of the things that clearly left their mark on Vance.

Director Ron Howard teams with screenwriter Vanessa Taylor in adapting “Hillbilly Elegy” for Netflix. Their film is told from Vance’s point-of-view, both from his teen years (where he’s played by Owen Asztalos) and as a college student (played by Gabriel Basso). Howard and Taylor nimbly maneuver along the two timelines, frequently crossing over in an effort to capture where J.D. came from and what he’s trying to escape.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

The performance many will be talking about/debating comes from Amy Adams. She plays J.D’s mother Bev, a woman known more for her history of drug abuse and failed relationships than for being a loving and responsible parent. Adams gives an undoubtedly big performance, sometimes sucking all the air out of a scene. But that’s more to do with the writing and directing than the actress. Adams is fully committed and convincing. But Bev lacks the complexity the film wants her to have mainly because far to little time is spent fleshing out any redeemable qualities. We’re given light strokes but hardly anything that evokes sympathy.

Glenn Close is given a much more rounded character. She plays J.D.’s tough-skinned, tough-tongued grandmother who makes it her job to keep the family together. Close goes big in a few scenes herself, but she’s also given quieter moments that add dimension and clarity to her character. It’s a bit startling how much Close resembles Vance’s real-life Mamaw (we see her picture during the end credits). Her transformation and performance both help form a character who ends up saving numerous scenes from getting out of hand.

The story attempts to cover a lot of ground, settling mostly in the family’s hometown of Middleton, Ohio. The early images of a once bustling town drying up and dying really resonates. As does the terrific production design from Molly Hughes and the set decoration from Laura Belle and Merissa Lombardo. They create very real and lived-in spaces while offering a vivid portrait of struggling low-income living. “Whatever better life my grandparents had been chasing up Route 23 they never caught it“, says J.D. in narration.

While J.D.’s teen years show us a good kid surrounded by heartbreak and hopelessness, his college scenes reveal a young man working hard to break out of his family’s mold. J.D. works three jobs while attending Yale Law School and has beautiful and supportive girlfriend named Usha (played by the 36-year-old Freida Pinto who can still easily pass for a college student). But when those inseparable family bonds (specifically his mother’s demons) tempt to pull him back in, J.D. is forced to make some life-defining choices.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

It’s here that Howard and Taylor wrestle with the idea of family obligation and expectation. We know what J.D. should do regardless of how difficult it would be. But it clashes with his deep-rooted sense of family duty which gives us one of the film’s more well-developed conflicts. Does he remain a product of his raising or does he pursue the better life that is waiting for him at Yale. Or the bigger question – is it possible to do both?

“Hillbilly Elegy” isn’t the easiest material to cover but Howard gives it his best. It’s a gritty, coarse and intense family drama that works really hard to sell itself. Unfortunately there are a few loose threads and narrative oversights that hold it back. Keeping us almost exclusively behind J.D.’s eyes doesn’t always work either. Both performances, young and old, can be a little dry and you’ll often find yourself more invested in the characters around him. It doesn’t squash the things “Hillbilly Elegy” does right, but it does leave the film feeling like a missed opportunity. “Hillbilly Elegy” opens November 11th in select theaters and premieres on Netflix November 24th.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “His House” (2020)

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At a pivotal point in “His Room” a character has a sobering revelation. “Your ghosts follow you. They never leave. They live with you.” It’s a powerful line that gets to the heart of this scintillating new horror thriller from first-time feature filmmaker Remi Weekes. “His Room” is an exciting debut that teases you with some of the horror genre’s most well-worn tropes only to surprise you with its big ideas and potent real-world relevancy.

Wisely snatched up by Netflix prior to its Sundance premiere, “His Room” is one of the craftiest horror movies of 2020. It’s a thematically bold genre film that takes an unexpectedly sharp look at the immigrant experience while delving into themes of grief, denial, racism, and survivor’s guilt among other things. Weekes (who also wrote the screenplay) embraces horror elements but doesn’t rely on them. Instead, the terror in his film is as much true-to-life as it is supernatural. And some of the most frightening scenes happen outside the walls of a seemingly haunted council house.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

The film is anchored by two sublime performances from Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku. They play Bol and Rial, a Sudanese couple who in the film’s opening moments are attempting a harrowing escape from their war-torn homeland. Their journey is perilous – dodging gunfire in cramped buses, long rides in the backs of pickups, and taking a small boat across the turbulent sea that ends up claiming their young daughter’s life. They’re picked up and brought to the United Kingdom but not before a heavy emotional toll had been taken.

After being detained for an unspecified length, Bol and Rial are granted refugee status and given a ramshackle house in a council estate outside of London. Though stared at by neighbors, ridiculed by local kids, and treated as second-class citizens at every turn, the couple are determined to turn their new place into a home. Bol is the more optimistic and resolute. He quickly buries everything from their past and pours all of himself into adapting. Rial finds it harder to let go and struggles to conform to their new way of life.

It’s all vividly captured when Bol comes home to find Rial has prepared a classic Sudanese meal. The romantic dinner is spread across a blanket on the floor to flickering candlelight. “Wonderful” Bol says as he sits, “but maybe next time we can use the table.” He then springs up and goes into the kitchen bringing back silverware. “All I can taste is the metal” says Rial. Bol dismissively replies “You’ll get used to it.” Its an eye-opening scene that highlights the fracture between this husband and wife.

Meanwhile both Bol and Rial begin hearing noises in the walls, mostly when they’re alone and mostly at night. Each of their encounters slowly grow more terrifying. Before long the couple are plunged into their own hellish purgatories, each hearing and seeing very different things. Bol refuses to budge and slowly begins to unravel as the hauntings intensify. Rial is convinced that a devilish witch has followed them from Sudan and brought with it a horde of malevolent spirits. But as Weekes digs deeper we begin to wonder, was it really a witch who filled their walls with ghosts?

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

That may sound like standard haunted house fare, but as connections are made particularly in the film’s chilling yet gripping finish, it’s clear that Weekes has far more on his mind than bumps in the walls and creepy figures in the shadows. And he surprises with his sure-handed visual approach whether it’s the penetrating closeups or his effective use of lighting. There’s also one wickedly surreal scene that I won’t spoil but that really leaves a mark without feeling jarring or self-indulgent.

“His House” is easily one of the best filmmaking debuts of the year and another reminder that there is more to the horror genre than cheap gimmicks and jump scares. It’s a technically, narratively, and thematically rich movie with an earnest affection for its genre but with much, much more going on under its surface. It’s a nice grab for Netflix and hopefully great exposure for one the year’s best horror features.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Honest Thief” (2020)

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Despite all of the uncertainty in 2020 one thing is for sure. No crummy pandemic is going to keep us from getting our annual Liam Neeson shoot-em-up action thriller. While I always get a kick out these films on a very loosely entertaining level, this year’s Neeson escapism is more welcomed than usual. Not only does it give us something new to see on the big screen, but it comes at a time (especially here in the United States) where ‘escaping’ the divisive and vitriolic news cycles is something many of us can appreciate.

So does all of that mean Neeson’s latest “Honest Thief” is a great film? Well “great” is a bit of a stretch. But it is exactly the kind of movie you would expect it to be and it delivers precisely what it advertises. In many ways these Neeson films have become their own genre. Obviously some of them are better than others and this one lands solidly in the middle. Fans of the previous flicks will have fun with “Honest Thief” while those hungry for something fresh shouldn’t expect to find it here. Me? I had a good time with it, flaws and all.

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Photo Courtesy of Open Road Films

The 68-year-old Neeson plays Tom, a former Marine (aren’t all of his characters ex-military of some kind) who has taken up robbing banks across the country. The FBI has tagged him the In-and-Out Bandit (a name Tom abhors), but he’s not one of those bad thieves. No, his safecracking and bomb-making talents are never used to hurt people (well, not physically). He sneaks into well-scouted banks during the dead of night, avoids the security systems, breaks into the vault, grabs the cash and skedaddles without a trace. Oh, and he hasn’t spent a dime of the $9 million he has stolen. See! A thief with principles!

But that’s not why the film is called “Honest Thief”. Tom moves to Boston and since you gotta store all that loot somewhere he rents a storage unit from a grad student and recent divorcee named Annie (Kate Walsh). The two share a flirty scene of not-so-convincing love at first sight and within moments we’re hit with the “One Year Later” card. Now the two are in a committed relationship even planning to move in together. Tom can’t stand the thought of keeping his big secret from Annie any longer. So he decides to come clean, first to the feds and then Annie. There’s your honest thief folks.

Tom calls the FBI, agreeing to confess and turn in the $9 million in exchange for a minimum sentence in a prison near Boston. FBI agents Nivens (Jai Courtney) and Hall (Anthony Ramos) are sent to check out his story but instead they steal the money for themselves and attempt to erase Tom from the equation. Things unravel and one dead agent later, Tom finds himself framed for the murder and on the run from the Bureau and from the two crooked G-men intent on covering their tracks. But once Nivens and Hall make Annie a target, let’s just say it may be time for Tom to pull out his “very particular set of skills“.

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Photo Courtesy of Open Road Films

From there the movie becomes a cat-and-mouse game across Boston, complete with fisticuffs, shoot-outs and several entertaining chase sequences. Director and co-writer Mark Williams bumps things along at a snappy pace, creating a fair amount of tension and raising the stakes just enough to get by. Jeffrey Donovan is a nice presence playing an FBI agent who shares a mutual respect and a mutual distrust with Tom. And of course you have the rock-solid Neeson, a seasoned actor working in his comfort zone who by now can do these roles in his sleep.

There’s no denying that “Honest Thief” uses genre tropes galore. You see them in the characters, in plot points, even in some of the action. And while the romance at the film’s center is incredibly sweet, you can’t help feeling that much of what would have given it heft happened in that “one year later” window. Still, Neeson has once again delivered what his film promised – light, breezy entertainment for fans of these fun getaway thrillers. I completely understand if these films have ran their course for others. Me? I’m still enjoying the ride. “Honest Thief” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT- 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars