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 ~ The Dead Don’t Die

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.

Stars: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, Caleb Landry Jones, Carol Kane, Danny Glover, RZA, Austin Butler, Rosie Perez, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: It isn’t often a movie about a zombie apocalypse gets a premiere at the fancy Cannes Film Festival but if you are director Jim Jarmusch you’ve earned a certain amount of street cred.  The famously indie auteur has been operating since 1980 and has delivered numerous cult faves, many of them originally received as complicated misfires.  Given it’s subject matter, starry cast, and B-movie aura, I’d imagine The Dead Don’t Die will join those cult classic ranks but you won’t find me lining up to see a midnight screening of this one anytime soon.  I had trouble enough staying awake during a daytime viewing.

Look, I’m about zombie-d out by this point and I don’t care who knows it.  I don’t watch The Walking Dead, I avoid all of the straight-to-streaming zombie flicks, I’ve long since sold-off any zombie video games I owned, and I keep my distance from television shows with a zombie premise.  I just think we’re moving on to different things by this point and the whole metaphor linking zombies to mass consumerism is entirely passé.  All I need to do is watch George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead and my craving for brainy material is satiated. (Heck, even Warm Bodies, the zombified Romeo & Juliet will do just fine if you don’t like the hard horror stuff.)  It’s so strange to me that Jarmusch, who has been on a critical uptick the past few years starting with the fascinating vampire tale Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013, would find himself wanting to draw inspiration from this well.

Not much happens in the sleepy town of Centerville, OH.  As the film opens, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray, Aloha) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver, Midnight Special) are traveling out to find Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, The Old Man & the Gun), thinking that he stole a chicken from Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, Hotel Transylvania 2).  That’s the extent of the excitement going on until the Earth starts to experience a strange phenomenon caused by polar fracking and a shifting on its axis.  It’s this event that causes the town to lose almost all connection with the outside world and for the bodies in the cemetery to start inexplicably rising from their graves and feasting on the unsuspecting townspeople.

The next several days are captured in small vignettes of varying degrees of success from the large ensemble Jarmusch has assembled.  What Jarmusch does exceedingly well is attract top talent to his film and this is another example of an over-abundance of familiar faces popping up when you least expect it.  In addition to our two lead cops, there’s Chloë Sevigny (The Snowman) as another weary officer not used to so much action in town, Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project) and Danny Glover (Monster Trucks) playing store owners who barricade themselves inside a hardware shop to fend off the walking dead, and Rosie Perez (Won’t Back Down) playing an informative newscaster named, wait for it, Posie Suraez.  Though many of the cast have worked with Jarmusch before, the only one that really feels like they know what movie they are in is Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) as the town’s new mortician who takes a methodical slice and dice approach in handling the undead.  Some cast members come off as lackadaisical in their approach, which is very Jarmusch in style, but Swinton knows how to pitch that aloofness into something that makes you curious to know more.

Though it gives way to full blown horror in its final stretch, much of the film is paced and pitched at a low boil. There’s so much effort put into the set-up and an absurd amount of characters repeating back the same information on what’s going on to newcomers. Always one to look a little askew at midwestern America, it’s no surprise Jarmusch has cast the townspeople as a bunch of oddballs who get even stranger when death comes knockin’. For pure comedic effect, Jarmusch’s zombies rise up not just with a craving for human flesh but harboring the same obsessions they had when they were alive.  One zombie cries out for chardonnay, another asks Siri a question and these moments of levity are fun at first but begin to become as repetitive as some of the dialogue.  In a bit of supposed extra fun, Jarmusch has Driver and Murray break the fourth wall several times, often commenting as themselves…which might be interesting if they didn’t come off as just riffing off each other between takes.  I’m all for going meta if you can see it through but this continually fell flat.

What was so great about Jarmusch’s take on vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive is that he found an interesting angle into the story which allowed him to craft memorable characters within that framework. In The Dead Don’t Die, there’s no real easy way into a genre that’s been explored to the fullest if you don’t have anything new to add to the conversation.  Even when the tone switches to all-out horror there’s little tension created, and the production isn’t helped by hokey special effects and make-up meant to be impressive that’s hard to see in the dark.  What’s left is a pack of good actors stumbling around for 105 minutes with little to show for their effort.  The film may boast the “the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled” but it just doesn’t come together in the end.

Movie Review ~ The Florida Project


The Facts
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Synopsis: Set over one summer, the film follows precocious 6-year-old Moonee as she courts mischief and adventure with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious but caring mother, all while living in the shadows of Disney World.

Stars: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Karren Karagulian, Jim R. Coleman

Director: Sean Baker

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: In 2015 director Sean Baker made quite a splash on the indie circuit with Tangerine, a film about a trans woman working the streets to survive in California on Christmas Eve.  The film was notable not only in the urgency of its performances but for it being filmed entirely on an iPhone.  I’ve regrettably not seen Tangerine yet but I did catch Baker’s follow-up which switches coasts to Florida for a rough, raw look at children and adults that reside in a Disney-adjacent motel.  It’s title, The Florida Project, has a triple meaning but its message is crystal clear.

Taking place over the summer months when children roam free around the The Magic Castle Motel, The Florida Project plays like a series of vignettes that don’t have the clearest through line.  There are several stories fighting for the spotlight here and while some characters overlap or disappear completely, our main focus is on six year old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite), and Bobby (Willem Dafoe, The Fault in Our Stars) the manager of the motel.  Moonee runs around with several other children while Halley only makes the most basic attempt to keep their heads above water.  Halley is feisty and averse to authority and it looks like Moonee is heading down that same path.  Bobby has to watch out not only for the up-keep of the motel but for it’s denizens that run afoul of each other and the law at regular intervals (Bobby’s argument with a washed-up stripper intent on tanning topless is a riot).

As the months go by we never learn too much about Moonee and Halley’s backstory because the film wants to stay in the moment like its main characters.  Bobby has some sort of paternal fondness for both girls, perhaps to make up for some suggested failings with his own child (Caleb Landry Jones, Contraband) that are only hinted at.  When Halley’s income dries up she embarks in increasingly dangerous behavior that leads the film to its emotional, impactful conclusion.

I’m going to be honest, The Florida Project isn’t for everyone and right up until the end I wasn’t even sure it was for me either.  The acting (I use that term very lightly) is amateur at best, with Baker plucking most of the cast out of obscurity (leading lady Vinaite was recruited from Instagram) and the pacing grows repetitive at nearly two hours in length.  Yet there is so much life on display here, so much devil-may-care attitude from those on screen and that helps to keep these characters alive long after the credits roll.

Dafoe’s performance is pretty remarkable too, largely because as the only truly experienced actor in the main mix he never makes it feel like he’s working with first-timers.  Often in these situations you can easily pick out the newbies but Dafoe keeps those dividers down, instilling even more realism to an already authentic-feeling movie-going experience.  Everyone else on screen is going on pure instinct and Dafoe meets them where they are to blend right in.

While overall I would suggest that you get The Florida Project on your list, I caution again that it’s not an easy film to take.  The ending especially is hard to sit through yet the final minutes are a surprisingly effective gut-punch I just wasn’t expecting in the slightest.  Baker already had good credit as an independent filmmaker and he’s captured lightening in a bottle again with The Florida Project.

 

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Get Out

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRfnevzM9kQ 

Synopsis: When a young African-American man visits his white girlfriend’s family estate, he becomes ensnared in a more sinister real reason for the invitation.

Release Date: February 24, 2017

Thoughts: If you were asked to draw a line between Jordan Peele and a selection of movie genres, I doubt that horror would be the first (or second, or third) one you’d select. So I’m fascinated that popular comedian Peele (Wanderlust) wrote and directed Get Out, which sorta plopped in out of nowhere for me.  While this trailer (as so many are nowadays) is way, way too long and curiously spoiler-heavy, it does offer some creepy moments and is more than enough for me to want to keep tabs on it until it’s released in February of 2017.  I’m also excited for this cast: Catherine Keener (Enough Said), Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks), Daniel Kaluuya (Sicario), Betty Gabriel (The Purge: Election Year), and Allison Williams.

The Silver Bullet ~ Stonewall

stonewall

Synopsis: A young man’s political awakening and coming of age during the days and weeks leading up to the Stonewall Riots.

Release Date:  September 25, 2015

Thoughts: Though we still live in a world plagued by racism, homophobia, sexism, and a lot of other unfortunate “isms”, it’s worth noting that we’ve come a long way over the last half century and these key moments in the civil rights movement for all walks of life are getting the silver screen treatment in full force the last few years.  2014 had its Selma and 2015 audiences will get see Meryl Streep in Suffragette and Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall.  Fitting for the director of Independence Day, Emmerich (White House Down, who I wasn’t aware was gay himself until a few years ago) takes on a dramatized version of the events surrounding the 1969 Stonewall riots, placing a fictional story in the midst of the very real conflict.  I’ll admit to being under-educated on this period in history and while I won’t rely on the film to tell me all I need to know, I hope it’s a good jumping off point to continue the discussion on equality.