REVIEW: “Sno Babies” (2020)

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If there is ever a movie in 2020 with his heart in the right place it’s “Sno Babies”. This small budget indie aggressively and unflinchingly takes on the ravages of drug addiction and recovery. And the film doesn’t just talk about its subject. Portions of all profits from production to rentals to soundtrack sales goes to the Global Recovery Initiatives Foundation (GRI) to raise awareness and funds in an effort to help those recovering from opioid addiction.

Inspired by actual events, “Sno Babies” tells the story of 16-year-old Kristen (Katie Kelly), a bright and beautiful honor student with aspirations of attending Princeton. She comes from a good Catholic family and loves hanging out with her best friend and classmate Hannah (Paola Andino). The one kink in this otherwise perfect life is that she and Hannah are addicted to heroin. We see the genesis of Kristen’s addiction in a brief yet potent prologue where she’s given a lone OxyContin pill by her self-serving boyfriend. It begins her tragic decline which the film chronicles vividly and with a real sense of urgency.

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Photo Courtesy of Better Noise Films

Skip ahead 15 months. Kristen has moved to the cheaper and more easily available heroin which she and Hannah shoot up on an increasingly regular basis. From there director Bridget Smith concentrates on showing Kristen’s downward spiral, pulling no punches and depicting the depths of her addiction in startling detail. It’s not an easy watch. It’s uncomfortable and heartbreaking. Yet when focused on Kristen the film feels rooted in realism. It forces you watch several grim and uneasy sequences which I’ll let you experience for yourself. They leave their mark in large part due to Katie Kelly. The 20-year-old Texas native gives a performance of intense commitment, one that viscerally sells Kristen’s descent while also capturing our empathy.

Unfortunately the story wanders away from Kristen far too often. There’s a perplexing side story about a guy named Matt (Michael Lombardi) who runs a cash-strapped nature preserve left to him by his father. His wife Anna (Jane Stiles) is desperate to start a family and has her eye on a new house, but selling the preserve would be the only way they could rustle up the funds. Matt’s story does intersect with Kristen’s but not in a necessary or meaningful way. It gets even stranger when he becomes obsessed with killing a wolf which eventually leads to a cringy bit of foreshadowing which the movie could have done without. I found myself spending most of his scenes eager to get back to Kristen.

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Photo Courtesy of Better Noise Films

One of the film’s loudest and most effective warnings shows how easy the symptoms of a loved one’s addiction can be missed especially if you’re not looking. Kristen’s parents (played by Shannan Wilson and Ken Arnold) are career-obsessed workaholics and oblivious to their daughter’s life-threatening problem. They think themselves to be good parents because they only focus on the externals such as providing Kristen with a nice home, giving her an expensive private school education, taking her to church. Yet despite it all they never truly SEE their daughter which only exacerbates her problem. With practically no guidance or stable outlet of support, Kristen is left to her own devices – the absolute worst thing for an addict. It’s a powerful and needed message.

With “Sno Babies” not only will you get a gut-wrenching revelation of addiction’s devastating effects, but you’ll also be helping in immensely important cause. The movie itself hits hard when centered on Kristen. Smith and writer Mike Walsh never dull the edge of Kristen’s story and Katie Kelly’s performance firmly anchors it in reality. If only we didn’t spend so much time on a distracting side story that never feels needed or relevant. It steals a significant amount of running time away from the far more impactful plot line – the one that still makes this a film worth seeing. “Sno Babies” premieres September 29th on VOD. #LetsSaveLives

VERDICT – 3 STARS

 

3-stars

REVIEW: “Sputnik” (2020)

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Mere seconds into the trailer for the new film “Sputnik” I immediately felt strong “Alien” meets “The X-Files” vibes. That’s all I needed to be onboard with this Russian sci-fi horror picture from first-time feature film director Egor Abramenko. Originally slated to debut at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, “Sputnik” joined many other movies in seeing its big premiere postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully IFC Films is dropping it this Friday on VOD and it deserves an audience.

The story (co-written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev) opens with a prologue set in outer space. In 1983 two cosmonauts heading home from an orbital space station encounter something mysterious just outside the earth’s atmosphere. Their space capsule eventually lands but the retrieval team finds the mission commander Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) suffering from short-term amnesia and his co-pilot in a coma.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

The cosmonauts are taken to a secret research faculty in Kazakhstan ran by Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk). He is under pressure from Moscow to figure out what happened to the crew, specifically their “national hero” Konstantin. But it’s soon discovered that there is more at stake than just propaganda. Turns out Konstantin is host to an alien parasite that is using his body as an incubator of sorts. He doesn’t know it’s inside him, but Semiradov does and the potential benefits to the government could prove invaluable.

Semiradov recruits Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), a neuropsychiatrist who is in hot water with the Health Ministry for using some controversial methods to save a young boy’s life. Semiradov needs someone willing to “take risks” to save a national hero for the government’s propaganda machine and save a potential weapon for the Soviet military. But to do so she’ll have to navigate through the facility’s numerous secrets in order to find out what’s really going on. And some of her discoveries have dramatic (and potentially fatal) implications.

“Sputnik” is built upon a surprisingly rich attention to character. It’s spends much of the first half uncoiling the people we meet almost exclusively through Tatyana’s point of view. Even as the action intensifies in the second half, the characters are always front and center. The performances are well-tuned for a Cold War era thriller. Akinshina brings a needed steely grit to Tatyana while Bondarchuk’s Colonel Semiradov is an enigma – cold, emotionless, and impossible to read.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

One of the film’s biggest strengths is found in the eerie atmosphere it maintains from start to finish. Abramenko makes great use of both visuals and sound to create a chilly and unwelcoming environment. Cinematographer Maxim Zhukov shoots in moody washed out color tones and with a slight grain to his images. It effectively looks cut from its time. Meanwhile the ominous score from Oleg Karpachev cuts in at the just the right moments, reenforcing the sense of dread.

I’m almost certain that “Sputnik” will be too much of a slow-burn for some. Yet at the same time Abramenko is constantly moving his story forward whether it’s through the chilling mystery or character growth. I love his patience in allowing his crafty genre brew to play out. And while the influences of “Alien” and “The X-Files” are all over it, “Sputnik” etches its own identity that feels fresh in this day of stale rehashes. “Sputnik” premieres this Friday on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Seberg” (2020)

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I still remember my first time seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave classic “Breathless”. It was right after discovering Francois Truffaut’s sublime “The 400 Blows” (a movie that has remained an all-time favorite of mine). I instantly wanted to dig deeper into La Nouvelle Vague and “Breathless” was the logical next choice. Within seconds I was drawn to the enchanting presence of a young American woman selling newspapers on the Champs-Élysées. It was of course Jean Seberg.

For Seberg, what started as a Cinderella story ended in heartbreak and tragedy. As an 18-year-old from Marshalltown, Iowa she was discovered in a talent search for a lead role in an Otto Preminger picture. But it was Godard’s “Breathless” that made her an international sensation with a promising career ahead. She became a target of Hoover’s FBI for her large donations to civil rights groups and alleged affairs with black militants. The FBI began a vile smear campaign to “cheapen her in the eyes of the public.” Their relentless pressure pushed her over the edge. Only a few years later she would be dead of an apparent suicide, her body found decomposing in the back seat of a car. She was only 40-years-old.

As you can tell there is plenty of material for a thoughtful and compelling biopic about this troubled life. “Seberg” from director Benedict Andrews could have been that movie, but its vision ends up being too narrow and certain creative choices, specifically from Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse’s script, leaves the complex actress and fashion icon sadly short-changed.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

It doesn’t take long to notice the film’s chief goal. “Seberg” is oddly focused on martyrdom over illumination. To accomplish that, Seberg’s artistry is tossed aside for politics making this a very one-dimensional look at her life. Her career work and creative talents are all but ignored, only occasionally referenced in passing comments. The film skips past the early details of her life, even her star-making work with Godard. There’s simply no interest in Seberg the actress.

Instead the filmmakers make their movie all about her activism. It settles in once Seberg (Kristen Stewart) meets a black revolutionary named Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) on a flight from Paris to Los Angeles. She’s immediately attached to his cause but with no real burgeoning conviction. Seberg was certainly an activist, but here it comes across as spontaneous and out-of-the-blue. Her motivations are simplistic and often muddled making some of her later rhetoric toothless and hard to buy.

Jean and Hakim begin a torrid affair despite both of them being married. It’s one of several bad choices Jean makes that puts her in the crosshairs of a crooked and relentless FBI. At the time Hoover was looking to quell any possible black uprising either peaceful or militant. Jean’s financial support of such groups mixed with her celebrity platform leads to her being deemed “a threat to the protective organs of the body politic.” In response the Bureau begins a vicious and destructive campaign to turn the public against Jean Seberg.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

From there the movie turns into a psychological thriller of sorts as paranoia sets in and Jean slowly comes unraveled. But through it all it seems like Seberg is competing for time in her own biopic. That’s because a lot of time is given to a young FBI agent played by Jack O’Connell. He’s a fictional concoction whose only purpose seems to be to add some semblance of humanity to the FBI. His struggles with his conscience and the strain his job puts on his marriage. It’s all handled well enough, but it pulls too much time away from Seberg and adds practically nothing to HER story.

As for Stewart, she definitely has the chic blonde pixie girl hair and stylish verve. But there’s only so much she can do when major qualities of her character are this thinly sketched. She gives a performance of commitment and compassion, but it’s hardly a fully realized portrayal. There are good supporting turns from Mackie, O’Connell, Yvan Attal, and Vince Vaughn. Meanwhile Margaret Qualley and Zazie Beetz get what amounts to throwaway roles, relegated to playing little more than jealous wives.

“Seberg” taps into the enigma that was Jean Seberg but doesn’t go much further than that. So much of what made her fascinating is either shortchanged or simply not addressed at all. What’s left is a well-meaning misfire that gets too caught up in its message, leaving the audience to still pose the question “Who is Jean Seberg?”

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “7500” (2020)

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The code 7500 is what pilots use to inform air traffic control that their plane is being hijacked. That should give you a good idea of what the new air-thriller from Amazon Studios is all about. The film marks the welcomed return of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who took over the lead role after Paul Dano dropped out) and he’s asked to put the entire movie on his back.

“7500” is writer-director Patrick Vollrath’s feature film directorial debut. He puts together a tightly-wound and claustrophobic thriller that takes place almost entirely within the cockpit of a commercial airliner. Minus some opening airport security camera footage, the camera literally stays within the cockpit for the duration of the movie. It occasionally looks through the window or out the cabin door, but it always maintains the same close-quartered cockpit perspective.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The aforementioned airport cameras offer a brief tone-setting introduction to the film’s antagonists. They quietly and effectively show four men making their way through security, a gift shop, the bathroom, and then onboard the plane. We never get much in terms of motivation or purpose. Just a generic splash of Islamist terrorism with no real depth of cause whatsoever. Instead Vollrath seems far more interested in human psychology under extreme duress. How do we respond when pushed to our emotional edge? How do we react in high-anxiety situations? Do we submit to self-control or allow our emotions to drive our actions? “7500” is constantly asking the question “What would you do?”

Gordon-Levitt plays Tobias Ellis, an airman for 10 years who still looks like a college freshman. For this particular flight from Berlin to Paris he’ll be the American first officer for the German Captain Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger). I admit to being really into their pre-flight prep of flipping switches, sharing figures, checking manifests. It’s pretty convincing stuff as they ready the plane and their passengers. These scenes also introduce us to Gökce (Aylin Tezel), a flight attendant who is also Tobias’ fiancé.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Once in the air and at cruising altitude another flight attendant checks on the pilots before locking them in the cockpit. But before she can close the door two men armed with glass shanks knock her aside and rush the cabin. The pilots manage to fight them off and seal the door but not before Tobias is slashed on the arm and Michael is stabbed multiple times. With terrorists threatening passengers and the captain incapacitated, it’s up to Tobias to either follow protocol or give in to the terrorists’ demands.

As the tension ratchets up the choices people make become more of the focus. It’s surprising how much the movie digs into the psychology especially in the third act. That’s also where the drama begins to sputter on its way to an inevitable finish that’s tipped off a few scenes to soon. Still, Vollrath keeps his audience involved and Gordon-Levitt is a solid lead. It all makes for a taut, immersive thriller that may be simple in concept but is crafty in its execution.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Shirley” (2020)

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Acclaimed American author Shirley Jackson, best known for her work in horror and Gothic-styled thrillers, worked for two decades before her untimely death at age 48. Throughout her prolific career she wrote a total of six novels, two memoirs, several books on parenting, and over 200 short stories. Her last few years were spent in seclusion as her health steadily deteriorated. Yet despite her early passing, Jackson left behind a fascinating literary legacy that has recently been discovered by an entirely new audience.

The new movie “Shirley” may sound like a biopic but that label doesn’t really stick. Loosely based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel, the film erases Jackson’s four children and uses the perspective of a fictional young couple among other things. Instead this is more of a biographical sketch that imagines Jackson’s life by placing her in a space that could pass for one of the author’s own short stories. Director Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins prove to be the right people to tackle this reality versus imagination mindbender.

Often tagged as “experimental”, Decker seems to have an inquisitive and explorative nature that often comes through in her filmmaking. While I’ve often struggled to get in tune with some of her work, here she cunningly melds numerous elements of her movie – narrative with visual, psychological with tangible, genre flavor with stinging social rebuke. It’s such rich and evocative filmmaking. It also doesn’t hurt to have someone like Elisabeth Moss as your lead.

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Photo Courtesy of Neon

Moss plays Shirley Jackson at that stage where her health was on the decline and she hadn’t left her North Bennington, Vermont home in two months. Her domineering womanizer of a husband Stanley Hyman (a devilishly good Michael Stuhlbarg) teaches at Bennington College during the day and at night attends numerous faculty ‘gatherings’ often frequented by young co-eds. I’ll let you do the math.

We learn all of this and more through the eyes of Rose (Odessa Young), a freshly married young woman who moves to North Bennington with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman). He’s been hired as a teaching assistant for Stanley while Rose plans on auditing classes at the university. Much to Shirley’s chagrin, Stanley invites the couple to stay with them until they can get their feet on the ground. Rose quickly has her plans dashed after Stanley sneakily puts her in charge of cooking and cleaning while introducing Fred to his college inner-circle.

Meanwhile Shirley observes it all, in one sense keenly aware of what’s happening yet seemingly on the precipice of a mental breakdown. Moss’ frizzy crop of hair and horn-rimmed glasses make her a spitting image of Shirley Jackson, and she brilliantly paints the author as an unsettling enigma. The townsfolk thinks she’s gone sick in the head while Stanley explains away her eccentricities and abrasiveness (such as masking her cutting cynicism as premonitions).

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Photo Courtesy of Neon

Meanwhile, Shirley slowly starts finding inspiration in Rose and in the mysterious disappearance of a local college girl. She begins furiously working on a new novel (what would be her 1951 book “Hangsaman”) getting closer to Rose in the process. But in Decker’s wickedly off-kilter sphere Jackson’s motives are always cloudy and we’re constantly wondering whether Rose helping to free Shirley from her isolation and misanthropy or if the seasoned writer is spinning a web and the young woman is trapped inside.

Like much of Shirley Jackson’s work, the film sets you down in a familiar real-world space only to subtly dissolve the boundaries between reality and illusion. Squeezing meaning out of some scenes can be a challenge and at times frustrating. For example, hard to resolve moments of romantic tension (or is it dark eroticism) can feel out-of-the-blue and weirdly disconnected. But Decker paints with expressionistic strokes, infusing scenes with a woozy, hallucinatory quality. Intense closeups, shifts in focus, ghostly gazes, slightly disorienting handheld camerawork – it’s all used to delightful effect.

Aside from its sharp psychological edge, “Shirley” gives a clear-eyed look at women in early 1950’s America and the modern day reverberations. It’s told entirely from the female perspective, showing two women trapped in worlds quietly dominated by their husbands. Moss’ uncompromising and self-contained performance is award-worthy, especially in the scenes with Stuhlbarg where the two vividly bring Sarah Grubbins’ searing dialogue to life. Not every scene gels together seamlessly but the look, tone, and curdling sense of unease keeps you glued to every frame.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Sergio” (2020)

SERGIOposterInternational diplomats tend to go largely unnoticed, but Sérgio Vieira de Mello was as close as they come to being a celebrity. The Brazilian born de Mello rose through the United Nations ranks due to his humanitarian efforts, his tireless quest for peace and his steady advocacy for those trapped in war-torn regions. On August 19, 2003 a truck loaded with explosives drove up to the UN headquarters in Baghdad and detonated. Sérgio Vieira de Mello was among the 22 people killed.

The new Netflix Original simply titled “Sergio” tells chunks of de Mello’s story from an unexpectedly unique point of view. The film opens with the bombing which left de Mello (passionately played by Wagner Moura) and his top aide Gil Loescher (Brian F. O’Byrne) pinned under a pile of rubble. We then bounce back-and-forth on the timeline as Sergio reflects on significant moments of his life. While the approach makes sense of the fractured storytelling, it doesn’t make it any less messy.

Director Greg Barker and writer Craig Borten hit a few of the high points from Sergio’s career. They touch on his efforts to ease the boiling tensions in East Timor which had been invaded and occupied by neighboring Indonesia. It shows bits of his work in Iraq, butting heads with George Bush’s envoy Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford) over the withdrawal of American troops. Yet while the filmmakers clearly admire de Mello and his work, they show surprisingly little interest in digging deeper and exploring what drove the man to risk life and limb for the persecuted.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Instead, much of the movie focuses on Sergio the romantic. Although married, he develops a fiery attraction to a beautiful U.N. economic adviser Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas). Interestingly, the movie doesn’t make much of a judgement on their affair and his wife gets nothing more than fleeting mentions. In fact the only real negative image of Sergio is in the movie’s brief depiction of his relationship with his two sons. Otherwise it’s a doting portrayal that removes any potential scandalous edge. As a result the film’s Sergio is missing the complexity and depth that comes with being flawed people.

While the heavy emphasis on the affair is a puzzling choice especially in light of Sergio’s accomplishments, there’s no denying the simmering chemistry between Moura and de Armas. They’re no strangers, also working together in Olivier Assayas’ Cuban political thriller “Wasp Network”, a Netflix film set to release later this year. Here the romantic tension is palpable even when their scenes wander into sentiment. But it still undercuts de Mello’s profound work in the field which only gets what amounts to the bullet point treatment.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

When the film is chronicling Sergio’s diplomatic journey it moves between inspirational and perplexing. For those who don’t know de Mello, the sheer scope of the movie reveals the importance of his impact even though on a mostly surface level. But it’s in the handling of the details where things get a little murky. For example, if you patch together a handful of seemingly damning scenes there is a subtle implication that the American military presence in Iraq was the indirect cause of the U.N. bombing. In reality, Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility stating that de Mello was targeted due to his work leading East Timor to independence. If explored that could be the kind of dramatic layer the movie really needs.

So we end up with an almost saintly portrait that glosses over milestones, mostly skips internal conflicts, and favors a passionate yet overcooked romance. The performances are strong, vibrant, and committed and you can squeeze enough out of the story to get a general idea of who Sérgio Vieira de Mello was. But if you’re looking for a deeper, more informative dive and want more high-stakes historical drama, “Sergio” will probably leave you feeling shortchanged.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars