REVIEW: “Undine” (2021)

Needless to say my expectations for the new Christian Petzold film were through the roof. The German filmmaker’s last two movies, 2014’s “Phoenix” and 2018’s “Transit”, are both snugly among my favorites from the last decade. His latest “Undine” has finally come to the States courtesy of IFC Films. And while it might not pack the punch of his meatier predecessors, there’s still a lot to like about this beguiling romantic fantasy.

“Undine” is as enigmatic as it’s titular character; a movie that moves to the rhythms of a love story but that has much more simmering under its surface. It’s a fairytale of sorts that keeps one foot firmly planted in the real world while routinely blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. What story we get is built around a captivating yet elusive mystery that hints at the mythological and supernatural. But Petzold is a crafty filmmaker who blends an assortment of ideas underneath his film’s rather simple facade.

Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

The movie opens on a woman named Undine (as played by new Petzold favorite Paula Beer), her very name hearkening back to an old European myth and offering us our first hint of what the movie may be going for. We see her sitting at a café getting the news from her boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) that he has been unfaithful. He’s ready to end their relationship but she hits him with a inauspicious warning, “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you. You know that.” It’s a startling caveat that could be born out of either heartbreak or obligation. Petzold takes his time revealing which.

Undine orders Johannes to wait at the café as she goes across the street to the city museum where she works as a historian and guide. There she gives talks to out-of-towners on the history of Berlin’s urban development, something that Petzold slyly sews into the fabric of his story. You can tell Undine has given her presentation countless times before, but this time her mind is clearly back at the café with Johannes. By the time she gets back Johannes is gone but she does meet Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver and underwater welder who attended and was taken by Undine’s talk.

After what turns out to be a soggy first meeting, a spark is ignited that quickly puts thoughts of Johannes out of Undine’s mind. Beer and Rogowski have a sparkling chemistry and their warm and simple romance, though clouded with a tinge of doom, takes Petzold’s story in a unique direction. When we first meet Undine she can barely hold back tears. With Christoph she gets to re-experience something akin to happiness as their romance unfolds through a series sweet and tender meetings.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

But this is a Christian Petzold film meaning there is an underside to the story waiting to be unearthed. Several other of the filmmaker’s interests can be found throughout the movie such as his affection for history and having the past and present rub shoulders in a number of compelling ways. All of it together defies any traditional reading of the film which all but ensures this won’t be a commercial success. But fans of Petzold’s distinctive oeuvre will find plenty to admire even if his latest doesn’t reach the heights of his previous films.

“Undine” challenges its audience to wonder while allowing us plenty of room to make our own conclusions. The film’s restraint is both remarkable and curious. In one sense you can’t help but appreciate the quiet subtleties of Petzold’s storytelling and the trust he places in his audience. In another sense you can’t help but wish he had went deeper and pushed us even more. The emotional closeups, the beautifully framed shots of the city, the haunting blue-green underwater scenes – they all immerse us into a world as romantic as it is mystifying. And with Beer and Rogowski so perfectly rooted at the movie’s core, it’s hard not to get lost in Petzold’s wonderfully murky fantasy. “Undine” opens June 4th in theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Unholy” (2021)

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While this year’s movie releases have clearly been affected by the pandemic, there has been no shortage of horror movies in early 2021. One of the latest is the new Sam Raimi produced supernatural horror flick “The Unholy”. The film marks the directorial debut for Evan Spiliotopoulos who also wrote and co-produced this adaptation of James Herbert’s 1983 best-selling novel “Shrine”.

“The Unholy” sees Jeffrey Dean Morgan playing a very Jeffrey Dean Morgan character. He stars as Gerry Fenn, a disgraced Boston journalist and overall slimeball who lost his job and credibility fudging facts to spice up a news story. Now he’s forced to take any small freelance assignment he can get just to make ends meet. And that’s what leads him to Banfield, a small and cozy central Massachusetts town with a warm welcome sign that reads “A little piece of God’s country”. He’s there to report on claims of mutilated livestock by area farmers. When one is quick to attribute it to Satanists having “unholy orgies”, Gerry realizes his trip was a bust.

But before he leaves town something potentially newsworthy happens. An 18-year-old hearing-impaired girl named Alice (Cricket Brown) who has never uttered a word in her life shocks the small town when she suddenly speaks. Not only that, but she can now hear and she seems to possess the gift of divine healing. Alice claims to have been touched by the Virgin Mary and begins relaying messages from “the Lady” to the local Catholic congregation. Gerry smells a story and more importantly for him a chance to reignite his career.

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Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

But remember, this is a horror movie so of course things aren’t quite what they seem. Alice’s “miracles” soon gets national attention and believers flock to Banfield. Even the Vatican takes notice and begin their own investigation to either confirm or debunk the miracle. During it all Gerry is given exclusive access to Alice, something that starts as an opportunist’s dream but soon opens his eyes to his own self-absorption.

The movie’s slow-burning buildup turns out to be considerably better than its iffy ending which for several reasons doesn’t quite pass the smell test. Along the way Spiliotopoulos manages to capture some chilling imagery and pretty good horror movie atmosphere. But too often the tension feels manufactured and it’s pretty easy to see how some of the scenes are going to play out. And if jump scares aren’t your thing, beware. There aren’t a ton of them but enough to cheapen what could have been some of the movie’s spookier scenes.

Some fun faces pop up in supporting roles including William Sadler as the haggard town priest and Alice’s uncle. And Carl Ewes plays a church-sanctioned investigator sent by the Vatican to comb over and evaluate Alice’s miracle. Small treats aside, “The Unholy” ends up being a pretty vanilla horror movie. It starts with promise but hits too many familiar beats and can’t fully stick its landing. It’s far from terrible, but it’s an example of a movie built around some good ideas but not really sure how to bring them all together. “The Unholy” opens tomorrow (April 2nd) in theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Unhinged” (2020)

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Movie theaters all around the country are welcoming back audiences with “Unhinged”, long advertised as the first major new release to come out on the big screen in five months. After several delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, the movie is finally set to open exclusively in theaters this weekend. “Unhinged” is a road-rage thriller from director Derrick Borte and writer Carl Ellsworth that starts off with a pulpy bang, foregoing all niceties and getting right to the dirty work of putting a face to its title.

In its terrific tone-setting opening, we see a man played by Russell Crowe sitting in his pickup truck as rain pours down from the night sky. He looks haggard and empty – his nerves clearly shot. He pops some pills, pulls off his wedding band and flicks it over his shoulder. With a sudden glance of calm resolution, he steps out into the downpour, pulls a long claw hammer and a gas can from his backseat and walks to the front door of a two-story suburban home. The violence that follows firmly sets him as the film’s antagonist and all before the title hits the screen.

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Photo Courtesy of Solstice Studios

That shocking prologue puts “Unhinged” in an interesting place. It’s a rousing, savage introduction that sets high expectations which the rest of the movie works hard trying to reach (it never quite does). One thing is for sure, Borte’s shrewd table-setting gets its hooks in the audience and Crowe’s grim manifestation of modern society’s festering angst, fury, and incivility leaves you glued to the screen.

Not wanting to overplay its ‘crazy man’ hand, the movie pivots to its main story. Recently divorced Rachel (Caren Pistorius) has hit rock-bottom, struggling financially while trying to take care of her young son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman). After oversleeping she speeds through the dense traffic of an unnamed city (filmed in and around New Orleans) to get her frustrated son to school on time. “Three tardies is an automatic detention” Kyle grumbles, used to his mother’s perpetual lateness.

Rachel pulls up behind a pickup at a traffic light. The light turns green but the truck doesn’t budge. A stressed Rachel lays on her horn and swerves around followed by an angry flip of her hand. At the next light the truck pulls beside her, the man from the prologue in the driver’s seat. He rolls down his window and explains that he’s been having a rough go and apologizes demanding Rachel do the same. When he doesn’t get the response he’s looking for his poorly veiled indignation boils over. “I don’t think you even know what a bad day is.” he seethes. “But you’re gonna find out.”

The encounter sets the single-minded story in motion as the deranged madman terrorizes Rachel for the duration of the movie’s running time. The man (who calls himself Tom Cooper in one scene but is hardly convincing) follows Rachel around the city, actually getting her phone at one point and threatening to kill her loved ones. “Who’s going to die? Or do you want me to play Russian roulette with your contact list?” Borte squeezes out everything he can from the simple story, cranking the tension level to 10 and not shying away from amping up the gruesome nature of the violence.

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Photo Courtesy of Solstice Studios

Pistorius makes for a solid protagonist, ably portraying a single mother down on her luck but not without her own shortcomings. She’s steadily convincing whether conveying abject terror or mama bear grit when protecting her son. But it’s Crowe who takes no time reminding us of his A-list acting chops. We know from the chilling opening that his character has more going on than a simple case of the Mondays. But Crowe goes all-in, bulling through scenes with sadistic blunt force. He’s the one people will be talking about.

“Unhinged” is a simple yet satisfying thriller that by the end turns into full-on maniacal horror. Its simplicity is its biggest flaw. While the film aggressively barrels forward, it sticks to its one single lane and never taking a detour. You know where it’s going to end. Still the trip there is worthwhile in large part thanks to Crowe and the unsettling menace he brings to the screen. You never doubt his character’s burning hatred towards everything living including himself. It’s great to see Crowe in top form once again. “Unhinged” opens Friday only in theaters.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Uncorked” (2020)

UNCORKEDposterThe new Netflix drama “Uncorked” tells the age-old story of a demanding father and a dutiful son. The father has plans for his son, but the son has dreams of his own. It’s a tried-and-true formula and well-plowed movie ground. Yet despite its familiar premise, “Uncorked” has its own welcomed flavor and is pleasant enough going down. And with that I promise no more wine-inspired puns.

Writer-director Prentice Penny caught the wine bug while attending a wedding in Paris. He quickly began soaking up books and documentaries as well as taking a wine studies class. All of this helped inspire “Uncorked” which sees a young man named Elijah (Mamoudou Athie) sporting a passionate interest in wine. The problem is his father Louis (Courtney B. Vance) runs a BBQ restaurant that was handed down to him from his father. “This place is historic,” Louis says. “Frankie Beverly had a stroke here.

Obviously Louis’ plan is for Elijah to one day take over the place. But he grows frustrated at his son’s lack of interest which (predictably) drives a wedge between them. As is often the case, it’s the mother who plays referee/voice of reason. Here she’s played by a fun but affecting Niecy Nash. While we have seen this whole family dynamic in numerous other films, Penny and his cast inject a strong dose of personality and authenticity while showcasing a welcomed perspective on the black experience not often represented in cinema.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Athie’s subdued performance hits it mark in giving us a conflicted twenty-something who feels an obligation to his family while dreaming of becoming a master sommelier (for the unlearned like me, a sommelier is a trained wine professional who specializes in wine services for fine restaurants). He finds encouragement in his new girlfriend Tanya (a terrific Sasha Compère) and his mother backs his enthusiasm. But it all comes back to his father who only thinks of the restaurant and his expectations for his son.

The central conflict plays out as you might expect, but it’s getting there that makes “Uncorked” feel fresh. First off, Penny nimbly walks a fine line and keeps Louis from being an all-out villain. You’ll want to pull his hair out at times, but Penny gives the character several dimensions and imbues him with enough human complexity to avoid caricature. In fact I can see Louis striking a chord with many people who will see shades of their own fathers.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

I also like the scenes with the rest of Elijah’s family, many of whom are endowed with their own special eccentricities. Penny gives them all a role in Elijah’s story whether it’s back-and-forths at the BBQ joint or the comical dinner table rapport when they all gather to eat. All of these side players breathe a lot of life into the story. So does the Memphis setting which moves in the background like a silent supporting character. The hip hop interludes aren’t quite as effective although I appreciate what Penny is going for.

As Elijah decides to pursue his dream the movie shifts to Paris but home is always somewhere in the scene. And while Penny allows us to dip our toes into wine culture, he doesn’t bypass Deep South urban living and all of it’s moving intimacies and bitter realities. And despite being built on an all-too-familiar framework, there is enough fresh meat on its bones to make “Uncorked” as enjoyable as a plate of Louis’ scrumptious ribs. Okay, maybe not that good but you get what I’m saying.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Underwater” (2020)

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Readers of this modest little site probably know I have a soft spot for all kinds of science-fiction. That even includes movies like “Underwater”, a sci-fi/horror/survival mashup from director William Eubank. The movie follows a pretty familiar path – survivors find themselves trapped after a catastrophic event and must find a way to escape. Of course they won’t all make it out (they never do in these things). But who survives and who doesn’t, that is the question.

“Underwater” isn’t all that interested in setup or background. It opens with a series of images and reports that tell us a giant corporation is drilling for resources on the ocean floor deep down in the crescent-shaped Mariana Trench. From there the movie wastes no time getting going. We are immediately dropped nearly seven miles below the ocean’s surface where we meet Norah. She’s played by Kristen Stewart with cropped blonde hair almost as if she were prepping for a Jean Seberg biopic.

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© 20th Century Fox Pictures All Rights Reserved

Norah is a mechanical engineer living and working on the Keppler 822 Deep Sea Station. Within a minute of actually screen time she begins hearing strange noises which are never a good sign. In an instant the hull of the facility begins to crack and Pacific Ocean water gushes in at every seam. Norah instinctually springs into action sprinting towards a hub where she is joined by a tech named Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie). The two seal off the hub and begin their search for other survivors. The entire opening sequence is tense, energetic, even a bit thrilling.

Norah and Rodrigo eventually meet up with a handful of other station dwellers. Several of them fit particular types common to these movies: the stoic captain (Vincent Cassel),  the terrified young technician who everyone tries to keep calm (Jessica Henwick), and the yawn-worthy comic relief (T.J. Miller before his litany of bad behavior had surfaced). None of the characters really develop past what you first see although Stewart deserves credit. She works hard to bring a welcomed vulnerability to Norah who turns out to be a tough woman but a very human one as well.

While the movie starts strong it’s hampered by a hit-or-miss mid-section. Way too much time is spent walking along the ocean floor in the dark murky waters. At first the tension is thick as the survivors come face-to-face with the harsh environment while an unknown and unseen predator prowls around in the shadows. But it eventually runs its course. And so much time in the water leads to several instances of undecipherable effects shots.

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© 20th Century Fox Pictures All Rights Reserved

“Underwater” gets back on track in the third act where it fully embraces its ‘creature feature’ influences. Unfortunately the story doesn’t get any deeper and some character motivations are still a little muddled. But for a movie that languished in development purgatory for three years following Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, it ends up being a fun although shallow (horrible pun intended) popcorn genre flick.

There are some who for whatever reason have zero tolerance for these kinds of movies. Perhaps its the redundancy of ideas or the predictable story structures. Maybe it’s the stock characters or their lack of depth. Those gripes aren’t without merit. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to have with these genre pictures. All of those things describe “Underwater” to a T. It’s not all that original and it has some character issues. At the same time it’s a fun deep-sea survival romp that essentially delivers on its promises.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Uncut Gems” (2019)

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I can’t tell you the last time I was genuinely curious about an Adam Sandler movie. Maybe 2002 with “Punch Drunk Love”? His latest man-child venture, the blandly titled but propulsive “Uncut Gems”, reminds us that when given the right kind material Sandler is more than capable of keeping your attention. And he certainly keeps you watching here even when other elements of the film test your endurance.

“Uncut Gems” comes from the directing duo of Josh and Benny Safdie. The pair also co-wrote the film along with Ronald Bronstein. It doesn’t take long to notice the movie doesn’t have much in terms of narrative. The Safdies seem far more interested in breaking the single movie f-bomb record than really putting together a compelling plot. Obviously I’m being a little facetious, but with the exception of a character or two, no one can hardly utter a line of dialogue without it. It’s a pretty big distraction.

The story is as simple as this: Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a sleazy jeweler working in New York’s Diamond District who owes some really bad people a lot of money (for what, I don’t know). We do learn he is a compulsive high-stakes sports gambler and he’ll pawn off anything for money whether it belongs to him or not. We end up following him around for over two hours as he works different angles to try and score some cash to pay off his debt. It requires a lot of lying, a lot of yelling, and a lot of avoiding various people he owes.

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Howard thinks he has found the answer to all his problems when he gets his hands on a rare Ethiopian opal which he values at $1 million. Normally that would be an incredible score, but Howard fails to consider his one biggest hurdle – himself. He’s a natural screw-up and after one irresponsible act here and a poor choice there he finds himself deeper in trouble than he was before.

The Safdies do try to add a little depth to Howard by throwing in some scenes with his estranged wife (Idina Menzel) and kids. To no one’s surprise they don’t like him very much since he’s proven himself to be self-centered and unreliable. About the only person who does is his girlfriend-on-the-side Julia (Julia Fox) who he secretly shares an apartment with. She’ll pretty much help him with anything and forgive him regardless of what he does.

None of the family scenes add much other than to establish his credentials as a crappy husband and father and also that he is Jewish. But again, the Safdies aren’t too concerned with that. They’re all about propelling forward at an adrenalized fever-pitch. The film’s aggressive pacing is relentless. There’s no nuance or complexity. It simply wants you to grab hold and brace yourself as it bulls forward. Stop to look for more and you’re going to be disappointed.

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One of the film’s big upsides is Darius Khondji’s kinetic cinematography. Khondji has shot several films I truly love including “Se7en” with David Fincher, “Midnight in Paris” with Woody Allen, and “Amour” with Michael Haneke. Here he creates a gritty, street-level aesthetic that maintains this steady fluorescent glow. He uses tight closeups and assertive camera movements which gives the movie some extra kick.

Many have mentioned anxiety and frazzled nerves when talking about “Uncut Gems”. I didn’t really have that kind of reaction. Instead I found myself asking more questions than I should have. How has Howard not been arrested? How has he not been killed? How does he still have a business? How is he still married? How can so many people be swindled (either emotionally or in business) buy such an obvious scumbag? I guess you could argue that Howard is shrewd and charismatic. But in “Uncut Gems” all we see is him consistently failing. But again, the Safdie’s are more interested in the ride.

So if you’re into what the Safdies are doing you’ll probably love this. But for others it will be similar to colonoscopy we see at the very beginning – extremely unpleasant. Sandler’s character may not be the best company, but his performance is solid. All of them are including from Lakeith Stanfield and NBA star Kevin Garnett. But I think you could make a case that this film wants to be off-putting. If so, mission accomplished.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars