Movie Review ~ Honeyland


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman utilizes ancient beekeeping traditions to cultivate honey in the mountains of Macedonia. When a neighboring family tries to do the same, it becomes a source of tension as they disregard her wisdom and advice.

Stars: Hatidze Muratova, Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam

Director: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov

Rated: NR

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Anytime the Oscar nominations are announced, it sets into motion a very different type of movie watching.  Before that, you are shooting in the dark a bit and hoping you’re choosing correctly so that come nominations day you have that many fewer movies to see before the big night.  In recent years, I’ve gotten better at keeping an ear to the ground and picking up on the more obscure films that may populate the less mainstream categories because those may be harder to track down in the short period of time between the nominations and the ceremony.

When John Cho and Issa Rae announced the unsurprising nominees for the top categories for the 92nd Academy Awards on January 13, I was able to breathe a little easier that I didn’t have a huge mountain to climb if I wanted to clear the board again this year.  Last year I was able to see all the movies nominated in every category and by the time all the nominations were read and removing the short features that I already knew I’d be seeing I was left with a list of seven movies I’d need to make time for before February 9th.  Sounds easy, right?  Wel…then again… Now comes the hard part…actually tracking them down and watching them.

The first one was easy because I already had it; the screener had been looming large on the shelf just waiting to be popped in for a month or so but never made it to the top of the pile until now.  Only the second film from Macedonia to be nominated for the Best International Feature Oscar (formerly Best Foreign Language Film) and the first film ever to be nominated in Best International Feature and Best Documentary Feature in the same year, Honeyland was a fine place to start and an interesting jumping off point.

Likely to be referred to less eloquently as the Macedonian Bee Keeper Movie, Honeyland follows Hatidze Muratova, a beekeeper in northern Macedonia that cares for her ailing mother while earning a living cultivating honey from her wild bees.  Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov provide no narration or text to introduce audiences to Hatidze or her world; we’re just dropped into her daily routines and interactions with her mother, neighbors, and denizens of the city market.  With skin grown tough from the exposure to the harsh elements of the Macedonian climate and other key indicators that show up physically and emotionally suggesting she grew up largely fending for herself, Hatidze is still worldly-wise even though it’s unlikely she’s rarely traveled outside her small village.

The arrival of a family who set-up shop next to Hatidze and her mother is at first a welcome change of pace for the women.  Instead of being isolated, they now have two adults and multiple children running around, not to mention the animals they brought with and the cows they intend to breed and use for milk.  Hatidze and the patriarch Hussein form a neighborly friendship, with Hatidze eventually giving the man advice on how to start his own bee business, an act of kindness that will come back to sting her in more ways than one.  We’re not quite sure where Hussein has come from with his family but you soon get the impression they wore out their welcome because it isn’t long before the household runs amok, threatening to upset the delicate balance Hatidze has maintained for so long.

It’s reassuring to see that two separate branches of The Academy voted Honeyland into the Top 5 movies of the year in very different categories…but it really does have its feet planted firmly in both genres.  On one hand, it’s a striking representation of a slice-of-life documentary in that it brings audiences from another part of the globe to a population most don’t know about.  Speaking for myself, I enjoyed the bits and pieces of culture that are represented.  That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Kotevska and Stefanov deliberately attempted to create as remote of a location as possible so the film would have a “this could be anywhere” feel to it…and it works quite well.  Watching Hatidze and her neighbors suffer setbacks is difficult and one thinks how hard it must be for the filmmakers to sit back and watch these painful moments occur and not interfere.

I can also see how the documentary auteurs in charge of selecting the nominees found their way to recognizing Honeyland.  There were key moments and some interesting twits that felt like plot points out of a pre-planned movie, with villains both unintentional and rogue who pop in to cause trouble.  If I hadn’t known this was a documentary, I may have easily been convinced this was a straight narrative feature in a foreign language.  Though it starts a little slowly, I’d urge you to stick with it because the action takes a bit of time to settle in and you may find yourself wondering what all the hype was about…yet there’s a tipping point where you realize just how involved you’ve become in the lives of these people halfway across the world.

I wish as many people that line up to see the nearly three hour Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood would also take the 86 minutes to watch Honeyland but I’m realistic enough to know that not even 1/10 of those watching that (also excellent) Quentin Tarantino flick will take this journey.  Still, no matter where Honeyland finishes at the end of the Oscars telecast, I know that it accomplished what few films can really do anymore – take you somewhere real that is completely foreign and open your eyes to a new experience.  That’s something to create buzz about.

Movie Review ~ Three Christs


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A boundary-pushing psychiatrist treats three schizophrenic patients who believe they are Jesus Christ.

Stars: Richard Gere, Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins, Bradley Whitford, Charlotte Hope, Julianna Margulies

Director: Jon Avnet

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: It seems like a rite of passage for every serious actor (or actor that wants to be taken seriously) to play a psych patient at some point in their career.  Watching Three Christs, you get the feeling the three actors that signed up for this slow rolling drama felt as if this was their chance to cross the padded room experience off their list.  The trouble is, they’ve found themselves in a movie that isn’t very interesting outside of its central subjects and there’s not enough warmth within any of those characters to keep audiences engaged for its lengthy run time.

Based on Milton Rokeach’s 1954 nonfiction book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, the psychiatric case study was adapted into a narrative screenplay by director Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes) and Eric Nazarian.  From the beginning, with Richard Gere (Pretty Woman) appearing bruised and worn-down speaking into a tape recorder so that he may, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘set the record straight’, Nazarian and Avent have a hard time translating Rokeach’s landmark study into anything compelling.  If anything, they’ve taken what was evidently a radical approach to treatment of paranoid schizophrenia that wasn’t entirely embraced by the psychiatric community and reduced it to a series of vignettes that pits a doctor (Gere) and his team against his more traditional colleagues.

As the three men believing themselves to be Christ, Walton Goggins (Them That Follow), Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks), and Peter Dinklage (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) have varying degrees of success throughout the movie in their interpretation of mental illness.  While Rokeach’s study is fairly descriptive to the degrees of how the schizophrenia affected each man, all three seem to be operating largely on the same level of energy with Goggins opting for the most expressive approach, Whitford for the most muted, and Dinklage the most practical.  Instead of it being a showcase of their talents, it just gets awkward because you become distracted by Dinklage’s droll insistence on adopting another poor British dialect and Goggins tendency to bug his eyes behind thick glasses that already magnify them.  Whitford likely emerges the most sympathetic because his affectations don’t manifest themselves as outwardly bombastic as the other two.

Per usual, Gere is all business with no one more earnest about the plight of his character than the actor himself.  Gere is always good with convincingly advocating for the roles he is playing; whether they are nice people or not, if they are wrong, he’ll convince us they’re right.  That’s troublesome here because many of the doctors methods aren’t ethical and, while breaking the rules may lead to breakthroughs, it doesn’t always mean it was the right choice.  The doctor learns that the hard way.  Also learning things the hard way?  Any fan of Julianna Margulies (The Upside) hoping to see her get to do something interesting.  Aside from a brief suggestion she’s dealing with her own troubling vices, her role is largely relegated to the wife that stands at the doorway to her husband’s study and asks “when are you coming to bed?”  As the token fuddy-duddy naysayer, Kevin Pollak (Indian Summer) get some mileage as Gere’s colleague who looks down his nose at the new doctor’s questionable methods.  Only Jane Alexander’s (Testament) brief appearance as a respected professional willing to listen to new ways of thinking strikes the kind of interesting note the rest of the movie sorely needed.

Three Christs was filmed in 2016 and had it’s premiere in September 2017 at the Toronto International Film Festival.  Just now receiving its release three years later suggests that no one was in a rush to release this movie and you shouldn’t be in a rush to see it either.  It’s a movie for fans of these actors only…and even then your mileage may vary based on how long of a leash you’re willing to give them.

Movie Review ~ Inherit the Viper


The Facts
:

Synopsis: For siblings Kip and Josie, dealing opioids isn’t just their family business — it’s their only means of survival. When a deal goes fatally wrong, Kip decides he wants out for good. But his attempt to escape his family’s legacy soon ignites a powder keg of violence and betrayal, endangering Kip, Josie and their younger brother.

Stars: Josh Hartnett, Margarita Levieva, Owen Teague, Bruce Dern, Chandler Riggs, Valorie Curry, Dash Mihok

Director: Anthony Jerjen

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I’d imagine had Inherit the Viper been released 10 or 15 years ago it may have been received a tiny bit better than it does in 2020 when its dark tale of an already fragile family dynamic torn apart by drugs feels more than a little also-ran.  It’s hard to watch the movie and not think of the countless other television series, true-crime documentaries, and other analogous indie films that have covered the same dingy terrain and done it better.  That’s not to say there isn’t room for other stories with similar themes to be told but there has to be something that sets it apart from its genre siblings and Inherit the Viper sadly doesn’t have anything fresh or revealing to add.

Things don’t get more cookie-cutter than the elements that make up the setting, players, and plot of the film, scripted by Andrew Crabtree and directed by Anthony Jerjen.  In the Appalachian mountain area (think West Virginia, because if one movie about the opioid crisis is set there, they all have to be), a family that has grown up in the shadow of their father’s drug trafficking have continued the family business to keep themselves afloat.  Kip (Josh Hartnett, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later) is beginning to grow wary of the dangers that come with the territory, having decided to settle down with his pregnant girlfriend (Valorie Curry, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2).  That doesn’t sit too well with his hard-nosed sister Josie (Margarita Levieva, The Diary of a Teenage Girl) or their younger brother Boots (Owen Teague, Mary) who has just returned home after a long absence.

As Kip is planning his exit, Josie and Boots are just getting started thinking of making their individual moves to the next level, each for their own personal reasons.  Unable to get close to anyone to have a family of her own, Josie is carrying on an affair with the married local lawman (Dash Mihok, Silver Linings Playbook), partly as an unspoken pact for him to look the other way.  Never accomplishing anything on his own, Boots struggles to escape the impression he rides the coattails of his siblings and family name by entering into a risky deal that puts his family and his life at risk.  A series of unfortunate events affecting the siblings set into motion decisions that will force them to question how strong their family ties are.

While this sounds like the makings of a film with some grit, Jerjen’s direction doesn’t have any momentum to it so it just sort of lays there and refuses to build up to anything substantial.  Even an ending that Crabtree intends as eye-opening lands with the smallest of bangs because up until that point we’ve cared so little about the characters it’s hard to muster up much emotion for what happens next in their lives.  On the good side, Hartnett and Levieva feel like they are giving the kind of performances that should be in a movie with a better script while the puzzling appearance by Bruce Dern (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) as a crusty bar owner feels like a phoned in favor.

Blessedly short at 90 minutes, it feels longer due to the slow pacing and development.  The long and the short of it is that there simply isn’t enough to the plot to warrant a feature length film.  Had Crabtree and Jerjen trimmed this to be a short film, I’m imagine they’d fix the problems that made this one unavoidably dull.  The more you stretch something that’s already thin, the bigger the holes become.  Inherit the Viper is a good title for a subpar film.