Movie Review ~ Nitram

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Nitram lives a life of isolation and frustration with his mother and father in suburban Australia in the Mid 1990s. That is until he unexpectedly finds a close friend in a reclusive heiress. However, when that relationship meets a tragic end, he begins a slow descent that leads to disaster.
Stars: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Essie Davis
Director: Justin Kurzel
Rated: NR
Running Length: 112 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Here in the U.S., in the pre-pandemic days, it seemed like stories of gun violence were almost writing themselves with the daily reports of mass shootings printed in boldface across our newspapers.  Endless debates about stricter gun safety laws drew lines in the sand among friends and family about what responsible measures were necessary to protect people from one another and why gun owners needed automatic weapons for hunting.  While the violence and events haven’t gone away, it felt like they had subsided slightly during the lockdown because fewer people were out in public and could be targeted as routinely. 

Within these debates, many pointed toward Australia for their radical and swift changes to gun control laws, with politicians and ordinary citizens wondering why those with opposing views couldn’t work together to enact similar rapid change in hopes of eliminating known threats.  Most don’t realize what led to these laws in the first place and how it came to pass that Australia enacted this legislation with support from multiple sides of their government at the time.  I, for one, had no idea about the tragedy that occurred in 1996 in Port Arthur, Tasmania, that left 35 people dead and 23 wounded when a murderer went on a rampage at the popular tourist site.

I can imagine what a movie like Nitram must symbolize for the people of Australia then.  The story of the man behind the gun is sure to raise anger in the survivors of the single-person mass shooting and questions in those wanting the country to continue its healing process.  Director Justin Kurzel, a South Australian native, takes great pains not to glamorize or excuse the perpetrator but instead, I think, aims to understand the situation and, in doing so, find another path toward healing for those still in limbo.  Gathering some of Australia’s top talent, including his wife Essie Davis, Kurzel (Assassin’s Creed) has put together a shattering portrayal of the worst kind of wreckage, one you can see coming in slow motion but are powerless to stop.

25-year-old Nitram (Caleb Landry-Jones, Contraband) is an intellectually disabled young man living at home with his parents, known around his neighborhood as both a troublemaker and troubled.  His father (Anthony LaPaglia, Annabelle: Creation) is a well-intentioned businessman hoping to find a place in an unforgiving world for his stunted son by purchasing a bed and breakfast they can run as a family.  Not that his mother (Judy Davis, The Dressmaker) holds much faith in either of the men in her family. Mainly content to watch as they try and fail and ready to pick up the pieces when they do, she’s supportive to a degree but judgmental to a fault.  She’d also like her son to get motivated and find his calling, but on terms that she sets.

Her control over him significantly loosens when he meets Helen (Essie Davis, The Babadook), an eccentric heiress living alone in a Grey Gardens-esque lot with only her dogs to keep her company. Initially stopping by to mow her lawn, Nitram becomes her companion, her roommate, and eventually, something more.  Much to his mother’s horror, Helen replaces her as the author of Nitram’s future plans, and it’s after a tragic accident occurs, that Nitram once again falls back into his mother’s grasp.  This time, though, he’s had a taste of what it was like to feel free and newly empowered and funded to do what he pleases, he treads a dark path that leads him to commit a heinous crime that will forever change his country.

The press materials for Nitram ask us specifically to avoid naming the actual perpetrator of the crime and omitting the use of particular words that might be misinterpreted out of context, and I can understand why.  Talking about something so intimate and personal is difficult, let alone making a movie about it.  I think Kurzel and his cast pay a great deal of respect to the families of all involved up through the chilling finale (which, I should add, is not shown, nor is there any such violence depicted in the film).  The mere suggestion of what is to come is enough – and this is from the director of violent films like an update of Macbeth and True History of the Kelly Gang.  The restraint is critical to keeping the movie within an emotionally intelligent space.

Kurzel has assembled the right cast and crew as well.  The cinematography from Germain McMicking (Mortal Kombat) is a nice balance between gritty realism and a soft-focus dream-like flutter.  Pairing the production design and costume design always leads to a measure of success, and Alice Babidge helps give harmony to everything the eye touches.  Jed Kurzel’s music is appropriately ominous but can be a bit on the nose.  The quartet of leading performances is riveting, starting with Landry-Jones tackling the crucial title role.  It had to have been hard to find a way into the character without giving off too much sympathy, but the balance struck is more than equitable.  LaPaglia is one of the most underrated actors working today, and in his native Australia, he’s found another solid role to tuck under his impressive belt of films. 

An intense scene partner for Landry-Jones, Essie Davis is kooky at the start. As she gradually understands the man she’s invited into her house, her acceptance of his strange ways speaks to her loneliness and desperation for companionship.  More than anything, a lasting impression is left by Judy Davis as perhaps the most complex of all involved.  The mother looks the other way so often, and Davis lets us sit with several long takes of her just drinking in her surroundings and some of the insanity around her.  It’s only after the film is over you recognize she doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, yet she’s spoken volumes with the way she carries herself all the same.

The film leaves us with staggering facts about Australia’s gun laws and how things stand today, eye-opening numbers for anyone thinking the country has everything figured out.  Gun violence is an issue that isn’t going away and needs more work and support from multiple angles before we can even begin to address the heart of the matter.  Films like Nitram won’t get the job done, but they can serve as solemn reminders of the kind of individuals that never should be allowed to own a gun.  Until we all accept that it is ok to deny that right to those that can’t be responsible, we all have a target on our backs.

Movie Review ~ Annabelle: Creation

The Facts:

Synopsis: Several years after the tragic death of their little girl, a dollmaker and his wife welcome a nun and several girls from a shuttered orphanage into their home, soon becoming the target of the dollmaker’s possessed creation, Annabelle.

Stars: Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Philippa Anne Coulthard, Samara Lee, Tayler Buck, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto

Director: David F. Sandberg

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In 2013, James Wan’s The Conjuring gleefully scared the bejeebus out of me and a bunch of other movie-goers that had been disappointed with horror movies for years. Smartly made, terrifically acted, and with significant replay value, it signaled a turning of the tides from the torture porn popularity of the Saw films into something with a bit more meat on its bones. Basically, it classed up the joint. Building off that film’s popularity and while waiting for Wan to deliver The Conjuring 2 in 2016, Annabelle was a quickie spin-off developed and released in 2014. Focusing on the freaky doll that was featured in the prologue to The Conjuring, it was clearly a cash-grab . Though it was competently made, it lacked the will to scare and wound up being a disappointment in my book.

With The Conjuring expanding into its own cinematic universe ala DC Comics and Marvel, a prequel to the spin-off sequel is here and it’s doozy. Annabelle: Creation is, as implied, an origin story and rights every wrong committed by its predecessor. The scares are there in droves, the acting is better than it has any real right to be, and director David F. Sanberg (Lights Out) brings some serious style to the proceedings with inventive cinematography and taut pacing. Best of all, it manages to connect to all the films that came before it and hints at what terrors await us in the future.

The prologue of Annabelle: Creation introduces us to the Mullins, a happy family living on the outskirts of a country town. Producing handcrafted dolls in his workshop, Mr. Mullins is putting the finishing touches on his newest wooden wonder when tragedy strikes and his daughter is killed in a car accident. Twelve years later, after they are forced out of their orphanage, a nun (Stephanie Sigman, Spectre) and six orphans in her charge come to live with the Mullins. This act of charity has deadly consequences for all when the girls start to experience strange occurrences all centered on a doll discovered locked away in a room lined with pages from the Bible.

An isolated house. A dumbwaiter with a mind of its own. A creaky stair-lift. A character that wears a porcelain mask to hide disfigurement. A battered scarecrow. There are so many warning bells going off in Annabelle: Creation that the audience and the characters are keen to and honestly that’s part of the fun. While there’s a mystery central to the story, it’s not complex enough to poke a bunch of holes in nor slight enough to write off as baloney.   Sandberg and screenwriter Gary Dauberman (IT) have taken extra time to flesh out most of the characters without sacrificing pace or the attention of the audience.

Unexpectedly, where the film shines the most are the performances with the children often surpassing the adults. Talitha Bateman (The 5th Wave) and Lulu Wilson are convincingly strong leads with Bateman offering the right amount of pluck as a child crippled by polio while wide-eyed Wilson colors her growing fear with a nice dose of moxie. I struggled with the flat line readings of Sigman’s nun at times but she grew on me before the movie was over. Anthony LaPaglia (The Client) and Miranda Otto (What Lies Beneath) as the grieving parents harboring a dark secret do a lot with what little expository dialogue they have and their presence here gives some good grounding to what could have been a cheap-o scare-fest.

Fans of this series will get a few surprises from previous films and make sure to stick around until the end of the credits for a little teaser of the next chapter in this burgeoning library of horror.

Movie Review ~ Django Unchained

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned-bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Gerald McRaney, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayouette, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson, Kerry Washington,

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 161 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  If you’re headed into a Tarantino film chances are you are expecting certain mainstays: coarse language, outrageous violence, non-linear storytelling, an eclectic soundtrack, and Samuel L. Jackson.  This holiday season, right in time for Christmas, Tarantino is releasing his latest epic yarn that thankfully gives his audiences/fans exactly what they’ve come for – amped up a few notches.  Django Unchained is one of Tarantino’s most enjoyable films, one that takes the standard spaghetti western and gives it a nice bristle brush scrubbing thanks to an assured bravado most filmmakers today wouldn’t dare to employ.

Beginning in 1858, Tarantino opens his film with slave Django (Foxx) trudging along in chains through a desolate landscape after being sold at auction.  A superlative theme song and the director’s trademark bold titles establish that the movie is operating in a slightly altered reality, though it is set in the heart of a country on the brink of civil war.  This was the age of slavery and the film pulls no punches in how black men and women were treated, painting a fairly revolting picture on the way. 

All hope seems lost for Django until a bounty hunter by the name of Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) waltzes into his life and changes his path from plantation to salvation.  Schultz needs Django to help identify a trio of wanted men…and in exchange he will give him his freedom and a split of the earnings.  When this initial bounty hunt show promise, the men decide to team up for a winter until Django can return to Mississippi and find his wife (Washington). 

The first half of the picture is really a breezy buddy film as Django and Schultz make a killing (har har) tracking down the men that are wanted dead or alive.  In between scenes of gruesome violence/vengeance there are some solid exchanges that Foxx and Waltz work wonders with.  Waltz still shines from his Oscar winning turn in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and returns in another memorable performance here in a role tailor-made for him.  I often find Foxx to be a little overrated but his work as Django is exciting and commendable – starting off as a man with spirit but without hope, you gradually see the life reentering his body as his friendship with Schultz thickens and a reunion with his wife draws nearer. 

It’s about halfway through the movie that things take a curious, but no less interesting, turn as Schultz and Django set their sights on finding the location of Django’s wife Broomhilda von Shaft (just one of the memorable character names  along with Jinglebells Cody, Tennessee Redfish, Chicken Charlie, and Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly).  Information comes to them that Broomhilda or “Hildy” is now the property of one Calvin Candie (DiCaprio)…a silver spoon fed plantation owner Django and Schultz must outsmart if they are to save the girl and make it out alive.

The final act of Django Unchained plays out in Candie Land, and it in and of itself could have been expanded into an entire film thanks to some fascinating dialogue from Tarantino, scenes of violence that are both hysterical and horrifying, and a troupe of actors doing some very brave work when you consider their previous film roles.  It’s touchy subject matter but instead of shying away from it, Tarantino encourages all involved (the audience included) to go with it and stay engaged. 

Some early reviews of the film criticized Django Unchained for being too talky and long but I found it to be easier to get through than Inglourious Basterds (which I also liked).  This is probably because the nearly three hour film is episodic in nature so it just has a natural flow from one adventure to another. 

In typical Tarantino fashion, the violence is surreal, stylish, and in your face.  Nearly everyone comes face to face with a bullet at some point and they do one of two things: go quietly or die in screaming agony as the blood drains from them.  It’s gory and grotesque but there’s something definitively cinematic about it that keeps it from feeling too exploitative. 

Though Tarantino packs his film with more recognizable character actors than I’ve seen in any film recently (including Ted Neely – the Jesus Christ Superstar of stage and screen), the leads carry the film with ease.  In addition to the strong work from Waltz and Foxx, you have Washington playing the physically and emotionally taxing role of Django’s wife with beautiful confidence and Johnson as a Colonel Sanders looking plantation owner resisting the urge to be a cartoon.  Johnson in particular has a riotous passage with would-be Klansmen that wind up fighting over the sacks they wear over their head.  It’s a wonderful scene courtesy of Tarantino that gets the audience laughing at the bigoted bickering.

DiCaprio finally figures out the formula to turning in an award-worthy performance: be a supporting player.  Though many have cried foul that DiCaprio hasn’t received the award recognition he deserves over the years, I’d say that he really hasn’t truly earned it in any picture up until this point.  Here, in a large supporting role, he does his best work in ages as a vicious southern brat that has the tables turned on him in royal fashion.

Though much of the pre-release Oscar buzz has been for DiCaprio, I’d argue that the best performance in the film belongs to Jackson as DiCaprio’s head slave.  As slyly evil a character as I’ve seen Jackson play, he goes all out in the vile department without tipping the scales to farce.  I actually didn’t recognize Jackson the first few frames of the film he’s in, but once it sunk in and the audience saw him…it truly was his picture to steal and that’s exactly what he does.  If DiCaprio is to receive an Oscar nomination (as he probably will) here’s hoping that Jackson gets one as well.

The movie has about four endings and as the third hour was approaching I do admit that I was ready for the film to end.  Tarantino just can’t leave well enough alone (or resist a personal and oddball cameo) and while the ending was satisfying and felt right, I also wouldn’t have minded if it had said its goodbye twenty minutes prior.  That may not have worked for some audiences that demand explanation or a true wrap-up…but it would have made the ending of the film feel as special as the proceeding two and a half hours.

Tarantino has done wonders with this genre…turning the Western picture into what he’s called a Southern.  It’s a fast, funny, ferocious affair and it’s either going to send you out of the theater dazed and amazed or dazed and confused.  I thought it was a splendid film for mature audiences and wouldn’t mind putting it on my end of the year Best of lists.