Movie Review ~ Burial

The Facts:

Synopsis: In the last days of WWII, a band of Allied soldiers trafficking Hitler’s remains out of Germany is ambushed by Nazi Werwolf fighters
Stars: Charlotte Vega, Tom Felton, Harriet Walter, Barry Ward, Kristjan Üksküla, Dan Skinner, Bill Milner, Niall Murphy, Tambet Tuisk, David Alexander, Hendrik Toompere, Esther Kuntu, Sten Karpov
Director: Ben Parker
Rated: NR
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  It always feels slightly ghoulish to me to set a freaky flick within the context of a historical war where millions of lives were lost because the atrocities of battle are horror on their own. Adding that extra element of terror feels like overkill; as if the situation wasn’t bad enough, why don’t we pile on more devastation? True, the rise, reign, and downfall of Hitler’s Nazi army have provided the basis for successful films like 2018’s Overlord and 1978’s The Boys from Brazil. Yet, upon reflection, something exploitative in the telling gives the viewer pause.

Approaching a movie like Burial, I expected some of those same feelings to reignite and was surprised to find Ben Parker’s film more substantive and considerate than its premise might suggest. Here’s a movie that is allowed to develop naturally, doling out its narrative with an easy hand that draws you in and up to the edge of your seat as you follow along. It’s less of a horror film and more of a taut thriller that relies heavily on its solid performances when its screenplay drifts into the more outlandish aspects of its third act. 

The less you know about Burial, the more fun you’ll dig up along the way, so I’ll try to give you just the bones of what you need to know.

A framing device begins the film in 1991, introducing us to elderly Anna (Harriet Walter, The Last Duel) in her London flat as she watches news of the Cold War ending. A thief seeking more than mere money breaks in that same evening, but he’s chosen the wrong victim because Anna is the keeper of secrets that stretch back almost half a century. Once she has him where she wants him, she gives him what he thinks he wants, the tale of her previous life as a Russian soldier and the end of WWII mission that changed her life forever.

In 1945, Brana (Charlotte Vega, Wrong Turn) was among a small group tasked with the ultra-secret job of transporting the body of Adolf Hitler out of Germany into Russia so Stalin could see for himself that the Nazi leader was dead. This was a time when rumors kept people alive, and only cold, dead proof would convince otherwise, so it was critical this mission succeeded for the world to rebuild. Unable to travel by plane, the military brigade travels by truck through territory still occupied by Nazi fighters that remain loyal to their leader. 

When they are ambushed outside a small village and its surrounding forest, Brana and her team must protect their cargo from vicious hunters who know what they are carrying and are determined to stop them from reaching the border. Mistrust within the group and fraying mental states add to the problems, not to mention the rampant sexism hurled towards Brana as the sole female amongst them. Unafraid to put the mission before lives because she realizes its importance, it soon becomes a game of cat and mouse as the soldiers are tracked over foreign terrain by an enemy familiar with the surroundings.

The performances are right on the money, starting with Vega as the headstrong (but not always confident) heroine who is all business, that is, until she reaches a profound moment of realization that feels like a culmination of everything she’s seen so far in the war. Vega’s calm composure is a nice counterpoint to Barry Ward’s (Dating Amber) take a licking and keep on ticking grunt, who becomes her ally even as their colleagues begin to gang up on them. I’m not always one for bookends in a movie, but Walter is a droll delight, never at a loss for pulling a trick out of her sleeve at the last moment.

At 95-minutes, Burial wastes little time standing still in one place for long. This keeps the film moving at a breakneck pace and gives even slower dialogue-heavy scenes an urgency to them because you begin to understand how much time plays a factor in survival. Movies in wilderness environments (including night sequences) can often feel bewildering. That’s not the case here. Parker’s assured direction and Rein Kotov’s striking cinematography allow the viewer to keep up without hanging back. You always know where you are and what’s happening, only adding to the general feeling of uneasiness running through the film. 

Movie Review ~ The Good Boss

The Facts:

Synopsis:  Awaiting a visit by a committee that could give his company an award for excellence, the owner of an industrial scales manufacturing business tries to resolve any problems from his workers in enough time.
Stars: Javier Bardem, Manolo Solo, Almudena Amore, Oscare de la Fuente, Sonia Almarcha
Director: Fernando León de Aranoa
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  There are some movies that I crave to watch again because of a memorable performance. As much as I love 2012’s Skyfall for being more than just a fantastic James Bond film, it’s Javier Bardem’s role as a sinister villain Silva that always gets me excited for a viewing. He doesn’t appear until a good chunk of the movie is over, but the whole aura noticeably changes when he does. In the same breath, I should also say that I’d love to revisit 2007’s Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men but struggle to get up the nerve because Bardem’s Oscar-winning role as a psychotic killer gave me such nightmares the first (and only) time I’ve seen it.

While he’s a highly celebrated member of Hollywood’s A-list, I still get the impression that Bardem is underappreciated, considering his talent. He’s enlisted to play many dramatic roles and plenty more that play on his skill for menace. Still, there are more shades to him than we’ve seen so far here in the U.S. That’s why I hope more people get to see Bardem in a film like The Good Boss, writer/director Fernando León de Aranoa’s cutting comedy that gives the actor one of his best and funniest roles yet. It’s not a laugh riot of a film but a slyly humorous poison dart takedown of a flawed corporate culture with a top-down mentality.

Julio Blanco (Bardem, Dune) believes that to run a successful business, you have to treat everyone like they are a member of your family. You welcome them, shelter them from the outside world, and allow them space to make mistakes. If you must separate, it’s painful for everyone involved, but it will ultimately be best for the family. Manufacturing scales and regularly recognized for service excellence, Basculas Blanco has thrived but is at a pivotal stage with an upcoming inspection that could lead to recognition in the industry and significantly increase its worldwide presence. There is no room for any mistakes, especially this week.

Naturally, Araona’s script opens right as situations in Julio’s professional and personal life begin to crack. A disgruntled former employee has taken up residence on the land outside the plant to demonstrate against his firing, an unsightly reminder on Julio’s daily drive that it’s not one big happy family. His oldest friend and production coordinator, Miralles (Manolo Solo, The Invisible Guardian), is distracted by marital problems and careless errors, causing a hungry underling to question why loyalty should trump performance. Worst of all, Julio’s long-standing penchant for bedding his pretty interns comes back to bite him hard when the newest fling (Almudena Amor, The Grandmother) won’t be pushed aside so easily, potentially causing trouble for Julio and his wife (Sonia Almarcha).  

At first, juggling several storylines and characters appears to be leading The Good Boss to a familiar misery with the expected foibles that come with infidelity and workplace politics. However, in Bardem’s hands, these situations take on unforeseen challenges and become interesting dissections of business and business culture. We see this towering figure as the confident head of the company who knows more about the output of goods than what goes on to make it all happen. As much as Julio proclaims about promoting a familial atmosphere and allegiance to the company, his instincts are always to serve himself first.

It would have been easy to create Julio as a man wearing masks, one for the public and one (or more) for the private, but Bardem keeps tremendous control over his character. Only once does he show a major fissure in his demeanor, and it’s a scary preview of what could happen if he ever were to drop his well-protected armor. That control is challenging to pull off and remain charming, but Bardem has his character figured out, allowing the entirety of the work to feel natural. He’s surrounded by a terrific cast of supporting characters, all providing distinct roadblocks or doors to Julio’s character getting what he wants. 

I know The Good Boss hopes to be considered for Spain’s official entry as the Best International Feature at the Academy Awards. Based on Bardem’s performance and Araona’s witty script, it would fit as a classy entry to the category. Even without a distinction of that level, it’s an intriguing watch. Not for how different the business culture is in Spain (I don’t mean to make it sound like a stuffy homework assignment, it’s far from that) but how it weaves in that familial aspect we often overlook in our dealings. 

Movie Review ~ Gigi & Nate

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young man’s life is turned upside down because a near-fatal illness leaves him a quadriplegic. Moving forward seems near impossible until he meets his unlikely service animal, Gigi – a curious and intelligent capuchin monkey.
Stars: Marcia Gay Harden, Charlie Rowe, Josephine Langford, Zoe Colletti, Hannah Riley, Jim Belushi, Diane Ladd
Director: Nick Hamm
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 114 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  When I go to the movies now, I miss as many previews as possible because they give away so much of the coming attractions they are advertising. (Don’t believe me? Check out the trailers for The Invitation or Ticket to Paradise, and tell me what more the movie has to offer.)  If I happen to be subject to the previews, I’ll divert my eyes or cover my ears to absorb as little as I can, but I recently made the exception when I was in an IMAX theater, and the trailer for Gigi & Nate came flashing across the screen. I’m a sucker for a cute monkey movie, and I “ooohed” and “aahhed” along with the rest of the audience there to see E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. I didn’t expect much from the film, which looked serviceable at best, sentimental sap at its worst, but the monkey was in it, so I was sold.

Oh, those previews, they will get you every time!

Gigi & Nate is a perfectly fine film that will reach its target audience and hit them right in the sweet spot. It’s competently made and features an appealing cast that gets the job done without sullying any reputation along the way. It lacks the drive to be more than its plot description and the will to change stories about overcoming significant obstacles from a small screen feel to big screen achievements. Adorable monkeys may get the butts in the seats but using them as a device to entice in a film that questions the morality of using wild animals for service feels a bit tuneless. Throw in the more questionable use of a non-disabled actor to play a person with quadriplegia in a business consistently accused of discrimination, and the family friendliness starts to fade. You start to think less about Gigi & Nate and more about right and wrong.

Eh, pish-posh.

That’s the critic’s brain diving deep into this account inspired by a real story of a boy who lost the use of his body below the neck after an infection and the service animal who assisted him in finding a new outlook on his life situation. I think we can dial it back a bit and take the movie for what it is, a ‘means-well’ take on an oft-told tale, like Penguin Bloom did just a year ago on Netflix. In that film, Naomi Watts was ‘rescued’ by a cute penguin, but in Gigi & Nate, Charlie Rowe (Rocketman) plays Nate Gibson, who is with his family on a 4th of July celebration at their lake home when he develops an infection that becomes life-threatening.

Flashing forward, we see Nate in a wheelchair living in a specially designed guest cottage behind his parent’s house as he struggles to adjust to his new reality. A suicide attempt leads his tiger mom (a wild-wigged Marcia Gay-Harden, Moxie) to follow through on her promise to pursue locating a service animal for her son, to the dismay of his father (James Belushi, Wonder Wheel). The latter doesn’t understand how a monkey will make things better…until the movie determines its time for him to learn. The arrival of Gigi (played by Allie, the monkey) means changes for the household, which includes another at-home sister, a wise old granny (Diane Ladd, Joy), a dog, and the occasional visit from a college-age sister and her boyfriend whenever an added dose of tension is needed.

It takes longer than you might think to get our title stars together. While we see Gigi at the film’s beginning as she is rescued from a rundown roadside attraction, the monkey goes missing for a decent amount of time as we are introduced to Nate and his family. There’s so much of this groundwork (adding to the film’s lengthy run time) that you almost forget the monkey is part of the mix until she’s introduced about halfway through. Even then, she has little to do, and this is not a movie that trades on riotous passages of monkey mayhem. Unless you count a raucous party scene where Gigi has one too many…  It all climaxes in a big legal drama where everyone says the right words most compellingly, yet strangely you feel unmoved. 

Not quite a family film, considering its PG-13 rating and adult subject matter, I wonder who the audience for Gigi & Nate will ultimately be. I think there’s value in the story being told, but I wish director Nick Hamm had found a way to use an actual actor in a wheelchair for the role of Nate. It would bring a different authenticity to the piece and give it a purpose that extends past its feeling of sameness. That’s no slight against Rowe, who does what he can with a limited-range role, often upstaged by the monkey (even the CGI one), but at least he has Harden to work with because she improves any scene. Not worth tossing out of the cage, but it won’t stick around long in your heart either.