REVIEW: “Tread” (2020)

TREADposterSometimes reasonable men must do unreasonable things.” Those words were written in 2004 by Marvin Heemeyer and found several days after he went on a bulldozer rampage through a small Colorado town. For obvious reasons the story caught national attention but only for a short time. President Ronald Reagan died the very next day, quickly stealing the headlines. Meanwhile the locals were left trying to make sense out of what had happened.

“Tread” is a fascinating documentary from Paul Solet that examines the lead-up and eventual wave of destruction in Granby, Colorado. The story is constructed through a combination of interviews, reenactments, camcorder footage, and actually audio from cassette recordings Heemeyer left behind. Solet gives plenty of attention to the genesis of Heemeyer’s rage and carefully uncoils the motivations behind the “job” he believed God had asked him do.

Through a sly and absorbing story structure Solet begins by playing with our sympathies. The film makes a compelling case that Heemeyer was a victim of “good ol’ boy” small town politics. In interviews friends portray him as a fun-loving, larger-than-life guy. A friendly, self-made man who loved snowboarding and had a knack for welding and working on engines.

Heemeyer was from South Dakota but stationed in Colorado while serving in the Air Force. He liked it so much that he stayed, buying a home in Granby and a two acre spot of land where he built a muffler shop. He earned the reputation of being a fine citizen and a hard worker. But things soured when Heemeyer’s business was annexed into the sewer district. The local board informed him that he was not only required to connect to the town’s sewer lines, but to pay to run the lines himself. Something that would cost up to $80,000. It set in motion a series of conflicts between Heemeyer and those in power who he felt were trying to squeeze him out.

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PHOTO: Gravitas Ventures

But then Solet takes an interesting turn and begins considering the disputes from different points of view, particularly from the city officials and businessmen who were involved. They each paint a much different picture of the situations which led to the bad blood. The new perspectives instantly challenge our sympathies. It muddies the waters and the reliability of Heemeyer’s narration is suddenly called into question. The same audio tapes that first put us on his side suddenly become full of self-justification for the horrible act he was preparing for.

Heemeyer purchased a Komatsu D55A bulldozer and for a year worked in secret to turn it into a tank, reinforced with steel and concrete. It was impenetrable and June 4, 2004, Marvin Heemeyer sealed himself in and set out to destroy select targets around Granby. From there Solet’s film takes yet another form. You would think you were suddenly watching a grindhouse thriller except for the real camcorder footage that injects it with reality. Solet keeps us glued to the screen as this unbelievable rampage plays out.

“Tread” is thoroughly compelling filmmaking; a documentary just as interested in the buildup as the notorious headline-making act. It may start slow for some, but even those early moments offer a fuller picture of Marvin Heemeyer and his ultimately beef with Granby, Colorado. And by the time we get to his destructive warpath we practically feel like citizens ourselves.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Terminator: Dark Fate”

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You might say the Terminator series is the definition of a tired franchise. I know it still has its fans and I’ve certainly squeezed out my share of enjoyment from the series. But there’s no denying that the name Terminator doesn’t stir up nearly the same excitement as it has in the past. I know I wasn’t exactly rushing to see yet another installment.

Here’s another reason I wasn’t chomping at the bit for a new Terminator – the last movie, 2015’s “Terminator: Genisys”. It wasn’t good and (for me) it easily sits as the weakest of the franchise. In an attempt to get things back on track as well as usher in the return of producer James Cameron, the new film “Terminator: Dark Fate” tosses out everything since the much beloved “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”. In other words, T3, Salvation, Genisys – none of it happened according to this new movie. It’s a lazy tactic I’ve never really liked and it was stuck in my head throughout the new film. Thankfully the movie is surprisingly good on its own merits which helps overlook at least some of the convolution.

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

“Dark Fate” begins with a flashback meant to serve one lone purpose – to sever ties with everything after T2. Set three years after “Judgement Day”, younger Sarah Connor and her son John (both CGI rendered) have thwarted the machine-led apocalypse and now live on the beach in Guatemala. They are suddenly attacked by a T-800 Terminator who kills John before disappearing. Just like that “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and everything that followed was gone.

Jump ahead twenty-two years later. A clothing impaired augmented human appears in present day Mexico City. She goes by Grace (Mackenzie Davis) and has been sent from the future to protect an auto factory worker named Dani (Natalia Reyes). From what/who you ask? A new advanced shape-shifting Terminator called Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna). Ruthless and relentless, the Rev-9 has been sent to kill Dani by any means necessary. Grace intercepts and the chase begins.

Tim Miller of “Deadpool” fame directs from a screenplay written by the team of David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray. It’s filled with all of the big action flourishes you would expect glued together by scenes intended to humanize the whole crazy concept. There’s also a healthy dose of nostalgia mainly in the return of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a domesticated T-800. Hamilton’s Sarah is in hardened ‘been-there-done-that’ mode, snarling verbal jabs and packing an assortment of high-powered weaponry. Arnie brings levity and (of course) a handful of crowd-pleasing action moments that are sure to tickle fans.

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

The new female driven story does a surprisingly good job mixing the old with the new. Miller goes big with several action scenes, none better than a chase sequence in the first 30 minutes. After that the action gets more digitally enhanced and less engaging. It’s not bad, just noticeably CGI heavy. And the story, while starting off strong, basically becomes you standard Terminator tale with slightly different dressing.

But “Dark Fate” still packs enough to make this enjoyable especially for franchise fans. The characters are the biggest treat, the fresh faces and the series vets. And despite the ever lingering scent of familiarity, Tim Miller and company breathe a little life into a franchise that was on its last leg. Does this film warrant yet another sequel? I don’t really know. But one thing is for sure, Terminator movies are as persistent as the futuristic killer machines themselves so I wouldn’t rule one out.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Two Popes”

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I think it’s safe to say this is not your average buddy movie. And while that statement is certainly a thinly veiled attempt at humor, in many ways “The Two Popes” has quite a bit of common with those kinds of films. It just happens to take place within the boundaries of the Catholic church and the buddies happen to be Pope Benedict XVI and the future Pope Francis.

“The Two Popes” is such an odd yet thoroughly fascinating creation. In one sense it’s an enlightening behind the scenes look at one of Catholicism’s most sacred traditions. It also resembles a biopic spending big chunks of time digging into the backstory of (specifically) Pope Francis (aka Jorge Mario Bergoglio). Yet it’s very much a ‘what-if’ dramedy about the unorthodox friendship between a firm-footed conservative (Benedict) and a loose progressive (Francis).

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Director Fernando Meirelles, working from a dense and colorful screenplay by Anthony McCarten, infuses his film with a visual style that adds an unexpected vibrancy. Sometimes it looks at its subject from a documentarian’s point of view, but other times Meirelles employs an energetic assortment of flourishes often bathed in bright light and vivid colors. At times it makes you forget that you’re simply watching two elderly men talk.

The perfectly cast Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce do most of the heavy lifting capturing an odd couple-like vibe that’s both honest and at times really funny. We first meet them following the death of Pope John Paul II. They are part of a conclave of 115 Cardinals gathering at the Vatican to choose a new pontiff. The process is shown to be as much political as it is spiritual. In the end German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Hopkins) gets the required 77 votes beating the prospected frontrunner Cardinal Bergoglio (Pryce).

Ratzinger becomes Pope Benedict XVI while Cardinal Bergoglio heads back to Argentina to continue his work among the impoverished. Seven years pass and the Vatican is embroiled in the knotty Vati-Leaks scandal. Meanwhile Bergoglio has prepared to retire but he can’t get Benedict to respond to his letters. Frustrated, he books a flight to Rome but before he can leave he is summoned to the Pope’s summer home at the Palace of Castel Gandolfo.

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© Netflix All Rights Reserved

This begins a steady series of discussions that move from the gardens of the summer palace to Vatican City. Their talks start seriously as pointed debates on Catholic dogma and the direction of the church. But as their icy relationship warms we get more playful back-and-forths about things like the music of ABBA and World Cup soccer. Soon a true friendship blooms and their conversations turn deeply personal and confessional. This opens the door for several of the film’s lengthy but compelling flashbacks.

“The Two Popes” begins with the “inspired by true events” tag but a ton of artistic license is clearly taken. It works though thanks to the film’s ability to make every encounter we have with its two titular characters feel organic and true. The two veteran actors bring plenty gravitas but just as much humor and humanity. And while the movie is a bit talky, you can’t help but be pulled in by its heart regardless of your position on faith.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

Bergman 101 : “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961)

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Continuing my trend of theme-based Wednesdays, today I’m starting Bergman 101, a look at the films of acclaimed auteur Ingmar Bergman. Over the next three Wednesdays I’ll be examining his Trilogy of Faith.

When Ingmar Bergman set out to make “Through a Glass Darkly” he had no intentions of creating a trilogy of films. But the thematic through-line linking it and the two movies that followed prompted many critics to recognize them as the Trilogy of Faith. Bergman eventually acknowledged the idea, then dismissed it, then semi-adopted it and so on.

The themes found in so many of Bergman’s movies are rooted in the filmmaker’s experiences growing up in a devoutly religious home. His father was a Lutheran minister whose harsh disciplinarian approach to parenting often clashed with the faith he espoused. As a result Ingmar wrestled with faith and many of his movies were expressions of that. And while these three films are recognized as his Trilogy of Faith, they could more specifically be considered treatments on the Silence of God.DARK2

“Through a Glass Darkly” (a title taken from 1 Corinthians 13:12) is essentially a Swedish chamber drama. It is set within the bounds of a remote island retreat where four family members are vacationing together. You have the patriarch David (Gunnar Björnstrand), his daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson), her husband Martin (Max von Sydow), and David’s seventeen-year-old son Minus (Lars Passgård).

Bergman opens the film with the four coming out of the Baltic Sea after a swim. Their laughter and playful jesting insinuates happiness and joy. But it’s all a mask covering up many of the themes Bergman will explore throughout his film. It uncoils in a methodically written and shrewdly acted dinner scene. In it several key bits of information are shared and tensions are subtly illuminated. These tensions are between each person at the table and unfold through scene after scene of emotional interaction and personal revelation.

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During our time with this family we learn of Karin’s seemingly incurable mental disease which becomes the catalyst for much of the narrative’s maneuvering. We see Martin, a truly loving husband but who is quietly frustrated at his wife’s lack of affection. We discover David is a struggling writer who far too often has prioritized his career over his family. And Minus, bitter about his father’s disinterest and desperate for some form of connection.

Throughout the entirety of his tightly framed story you see Bergman expressing himself in a variety of ways. Take the three men and their uniquely personal reactions to Karin’s illness. David is riddled with guilt yet so perversely callous due to his allegiance to his art. Martin submissively cares for his wife but feels utterly powerless to help or comfort her. Minus seems confused about his sister’s illness and for a time oblivious to its severity. You can’t help but wonder if Bergman sees pieces of himself in each of these individuals.

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Yet part of the film’s genius is in the many ways you could interpret it. Are these men actually reinforcing the meaning of the movie’s title? In the biblical text “glass” is better translated as “mirror“. “Darkly” refers to how unclear we see things. The passage speaks to a reflection that is blurred and indistinct. It lacks clarity and definition. Bergman could be showing us three men who see themselves as truly loving Karin when in reality they do so on their own selfishness terms.

As the men wrestle with their own insecurities, the film’s true centerpiece Karin slowly unravels. She begins to hear voices in a vacant upstairs room declaring that God will arrive soon. Are the voices holy or are they something sinister? Are they simply figments of Karin’s frail mental state? Harriet Andersson is terrific navigating this dense emotional minefield and there is a subtle haunting agony underneath her every gaze and expression.

Technically, everything Bergman does is part of the film’s unique storytelling language. Acclaimed cinematographer Sven Nykvist proves to be a key component to the movie’s effectiveness. Whether he’s bathing his images in brilliant natural light or shooting intense closeups that look beyond the eyes and into his subject’s soul, Nykvist compliments Bergman’s cold, austere perspective. And he makes even the cleanest, simplest composition worthy of our inspection.

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“Through a Glass Darkly” would take home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bergman’s second win in as many years. But for Bergman, his thematic look at family reconciliation, the search for God, and the self-absorbed drive of the artist was about more than awards. For him it was a metaphysical exploration, a deep introspection, and a much-needed catharsis. The results are dark, muddy, and complex. Even the film’s seemingly positive final rumination (which Bergman himself later disparaged) may be far more cynical than it sounds.

But that’s another part of what makes this such a great film. You almost immediately sense it’s coming from a deeply personal place. It’s something seen in so many of Bergman’s movies, and something certainly recognized throughout the rest of this either intentional or unintentional trilogy.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Tell Me Who I Am” (2019)

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The extraordinary new film “Tell Me Who I Am” is further proof that the most potent documentaries aren’t always the one’s focused on prominent people or major events. Sometimes it’s the docs which tell the more intimate and deeply personal experiences that are the most compelling.

‘Intimate’ and ‘deeply personal’ certainly describes “Tell Me Who I Am”. Through the entire film we only hear two voices, those of identical twin brothers Alex and Marcus Lewis. Director Ed Perkins puts us face-to-face with the twins as they tell their remarkable story through their own emotionally crippling points-of-view. And Perkins’ approach to their story is (wisely) more therapeutic than probing.

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In 1982 when the British brothers were 18-years-old Alex was left in a coma following a serious motorcycle accident. He woke up with long-term amnesia, unable to remember anyone or anything with one exception. From his hospital bed he looked over and immediately recognized his brother Marcus. But regarding everything else Alex states “My head was just blank.”

After being released from the hospital the family returns home and Alex begins the daunting journey to rediscover his identity. He leans heavily on his brother whom he trusts implicitly. Like a jigsaw puzzle Marcus begins putting pieces together for Alex and painting a portrait of a happy childhood with two loving parents. But years later the discovery of one single photo changes everything and brings into question all that Alex has been led to believe about his past.

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I don’t want to give away much more but suffice it to say there is more to their childhood than Alex knows and it was intentionally kept from him by the one he trusted most in the world. Now 54, the brothers are still wrestling with their situations. Alex struggles with the vast hole in his memory and the broken bond of trust with his brother. Marcus is burdened by his actions and the moral dilemma of telling Alex the truth or keeping something from him that could cause tremendous pain.

Perkins slowly builds the tension by structuring each of the first two acts around the individual brothers. That sets up a heart-shattering third act that brings every raw feeling and deeply rooted emotion to the surface. It also brings the entirety of the film together in a truly affecting way. It’s absolutely devastating even though it feels like we are only scratching the surface of their story. At the same time I didn’t want to go further. I already felt as if I was invading their painful pasts. Thankfully Perkins shows restraint and allows the brothers to dictate what is revealed and what is kept private. Any other way and the film would be unbearable.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Transit” (2019)

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Christian Petzold’s stunning 2014 drama “Phoenix” featured a piercing story of lost identity, deep longing and heart-shattering betrayal all to the backdrop of post-World War II Germany. After a few quick glances at his latest film “Transit” you might be tempted to believe he was covering the same ground. In some ways the similarities are striking.

While the two films unquestionably have some of the same things on their minds, “Transit” carves out its own unique path and sets itself apart in a variety of ways. Much like “Phoenix”, the influence of history is all over his new film, but we quickly learn Petzold isn’t bound to it. It too features an enigmatic story, but “Transit” plays out with a complete disregard for expectation.

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Petzold (who serves as both writer and director) bases his film on a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers about Nazi occupation during World War II. But finding your footing on Petzold’s timeline is easier said than done. At first glance you could easily think you were watching the story of a Jewish man on the run from the Gestapo. But then you see a modern car or the police’s advanced tactical gear and your sense of time is blurred.

The melding of historical and contemporary goes beyond appearances and often hints at more provocative ideas. For example the cities have the buzz of modernity but there is a noticeable lack of technology. We get plenty of worried talk about transit papers and exit visas. And the looming fascist forces are presented as current day yet they sharply resemble Hitler’s Nazism. Interestingly you could argue that the fascist threat is (at least in part) a MacGuffin and the movie’s interests are far more intimate and profoundly human. Like many truly great films, “Transit” allows room for various interpretations.

The film stars German actor Franz Rogowski who works with a quiet but ferocious intensity much in the vein of Joaquin Phoenix. He plays Georg who we first meet sitting in a Paris bar as police sirens wail in the background. The city has been occupied by an unnamed fascist regime and a “Cleansing” is underway (reminiscent of the horrific 1942 mass roundup of Jews).

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Georg is anxious to flee the city but first he agrees to help a friend deliver two envelopes to a writer named Weidel who is in hiding at a nearby hotel. One of the envelopes contains a letter to the writer’s estranged wife. The other an exit visa to Mexico. Events quickly unfold and we see Georg escaping Paris for Marseilles with both envelopes and genuinely honorable intentions. But things can change in a blink of an eye.

In Marseilles a brief moment of indecision leads to Georg assuming the identity of Weidel and being granted passage out of the country. But first he must wait three weeks until his ship sets sail. During that time he connects with several people trying to escape the coming oppression. Among them is the widow (Maryam Zaree) and young son (Lilien Batman), a dispirited doctor (Godehard Giese), and a mysterious woman with a knack for vanishing as quickly as she appears. She’s played by Paula Beer.

Then there are the familiar faces of people who Georg repeatedly bumps into – fellow refugees who we never know intimately yet we hear them sharing their stories. As a narrator explains “Ports are places where stories are told” and telling their stories helps them deal with their troubles. These may seem like small touches but actually they’re among the many vibrant strokes of humanity on Petzold’s stunningly authentic canvas.

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“Transit” is a film of many layers and much of the enjoyment comes from peeling them back and discovering the wealth of meaning underneath. It offers itself to many different readings – identity, fate, and the ever-present danger of repeating history just to name a few. And you can see it drawing from a variety of interesting influences – Alfred Hitchcock, Franz Kafka, even Curtiz’s “Casablanca”.

The world Petzold defines is girded by fear, paranoia and uncertainty yet his direction and the performances show a confident restraint. His intoxicating story moves to measured, melancholic beats while demanding every ounce of our attention and patience. This is one masterfully crafted movie if you’re willing to put in the effort. And it comes from a filmmaker so brilliantly in tune with his vision that it’s hard not to be dazzled.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars