Movie Review ~ Wolf (2021)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man who believes he is a wolf trapped in a human body is sent to a clinic by his family where he is forced to undergo increasingly extreme forms of “curative” therapies at the hands of The Zookeeper.

Stars: George MacKay, Lily-Rose Depp, Paddy Considine, Fionn O’Shea, Eileen Walsh

Director: Nathalie Biancheri

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Learning new language about the world and the experiences people go through is one of the many benefits that come with seeing as many films as I do.  I may not understand it, agree with it, or believe it but exposure to these varying viewpoints is important and vital in becoming well rounded.

All that being said, I’m not entirely sure the universe wanted me to see Wolf and after making it through the thorny flick I think I should have paid more attention to the signs.  So many cosmic roadblocks popped up to stand in my way, not the least of which was a review copy that I was trying to watch through an internet link that kept freezing up, resulting in my having to watch and then re-watch large stretches of writer/director Nathalie Biancheri’s sullen and faux-ny look inside the very real experience of species dysphoria.  More on that later though…

Despite my misgivings and troubles getting going with Wolf, I soldiered on like a good critic, though I truly should have heeded the call to turn around and find a way out of the woods.  The woods is where we start and end, though, so let’s kick things off by saying the first images we see are of a very naked human (George MacKay, 1917) prowling through the fauna in a feral state.  Like much of Wolf, the passage is seemingly random and left unexplained…the audience is obviously supposed to piece together as the film progresses that this is Jacob in the wild and he’s eventually been brought to clinic that specializes in the treatment of others that share his condition.

Species dysphoria is an experience “associated with the feeling that one’s body is of the wrong species”.  So, Jacob believing himself to be a Wolf would be a prime candidate for the program the clinic offers, with graduates leaving having exorcised their thoughts of being an animal.  Jacob arrives and is integrated with other patients that believe themselves to be, among others, a German Shepherd, a parrot, a squirrel, and a duck.  Often, these species will react toward each other like they would in the wild, keeping the clinic staff busy.  At first, Jacob doesn’t know what to make of the situation and holds back…much like a wolf would in new surroundings.

When Jacob is befriended by a girl who works at the clinic and is also a patient that thinks she’s a wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp, Silent Night), they form a bond that goes beyond the personal and into the primal. Watching others in their program fail and succeed, Jacob and Wildcat realize they’ll never conform to the clinic’s methods and hatch a plan to break out from under the tyranny of the head of the department, known as The Zookeeper (Paddy Considine, Macbeth).  However, with Jacob’s will being tested by those in authority, do they both have the strength to flee and live life on their own, as they really are?

It’s clear there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface of the screenplay Biancheri has written but it’s sorely lacking from clarity onscreen.  Instead, we have weird sequences of “therapy” that come off more like tortuous abuse scenes between doctor and patient.  You can’t ever tell if Biancheri is playing some scenes for comedic effect to show how ridiculous those in power are to those that are different or if the goal is to expose prejudice in the medical profession toward people who have this condition.  I don’t doubt this exists and that the treatment is specialized, but what’s on display here comes off like a badly told joke.

It’s a shame that MacKay has taken so much time with the physicality the role demands because it’s sort of wasted in the entirety of Biancheri’s awkward and artsy-fartsy film.  Once we started getting patients dressing up like their, forgive the co-opted term, “spirit” animal, the movie began to tank for me because it’s too silly watching someone whine and pant like a dog.  MacKay’s physical transformation in Wolf is incredible but it can’t carry the picture, even if his acting is the highlight of the piece.  Rose-Depp is less successful in a role that is less interesting all around – even when she’s perched and hissing at others it comes off as the overly dramatic girl at a party wanting to get attention.  That’s what many of the patients in Wolf come off as, actually.  Desperate for attention instead of dependent on treatment.

Movie Review ~ Silent Night

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Nell, Simon, and their boy Art are ready to welcome friends and family for what promises to be a perfect Christmas gathering. Perfect except for one thing: everyone is going to die.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Roman Griffin Davis, Annabelle Wallis, Lily-Rose Depp, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Davida McKenzie, Rufus Jones, Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, Lucy Punch, Holly Aird, Trudie Styler, Dora Davis, Gilby Griffin Davis, Hardy Griffin Davis

Director: Camille Griffin

Rated: NR

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Every now and then I find that I run into a bit of a crisis as a reviewer.  Here’s the situation I face.  There’s a movie I’ve seen which I know is worth a look, yet I have trouble with an outright recommendation because there’s something about it which could turn the viewer against it and, by proxy, me.  I don’t want you to end up hating me and “ghosting” my webpage in the future.  Obviously, if this was my full-time job and I was getting paid for my thoughts I would have less trouble just churning these musings out without worry but I sort of, y’know, care about you and your trust in me so I’m going to be always upfront. 

In the spirt of that message (and the season) I need to tell you the new Christmas-set UK film Silent Night is one of the most unrepentantly bleak movies you’ll encounter this year or any year in recent memory.  Dealing with a family that gathers at a secluded country estate for a yuletide celebration on the eve of a population-ending event, one they all know is coming, there’s an invisible ticking clock hanging over the ninety-minute film which makes it feel both too short and never ending at the same time.  Timed for release on the second Christmas the world is spending in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a well-made but unsettling drama offering none of the easy-outs you may be expecting. 

For Christmas this year, everyone attending Nell and Simon’s gathering has been asked to bring one important item…their own suicide pills.  Due to an environmental catastrophe which has sent a cloud of toxic gas throughout the land, all humans will perish, and it’s set to hit British soil on Christmas.  This is known. There is no escape.  The most humane way to deal with it, and not suffer the horrific effects of dying by the gas, is to take the pills issued by the government with your loved one and die quickly rather than painfully.  First though, there’s a feast to be had and the guests are arriving.

In addition to Nell (Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method), Simon (Matthew Goode, Stoker), their eldest son Art (Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit) and their twin boys, the revelers include steely Sandra (Annabelle Wallis, Malignant) who is bringing her less than well-liked daughter, fun-loving lesbian Bella (Lucy Punch, Into the Woods) and her more button-downed wife (Alex Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Cruella), and reflective James (Sopé Dìrísù, His House) and his newly pregnant wife Sophie (Lily Rose-Depp, Wolf).  Not everyone is so sure about taking the pill, Sophie is about to bring new life into the world and maybe wants to wait to see if the gas is survivable, Art doesn’t want to have his parents decide his fate for him.  Various points throughout the night provoke stark questions about death, human rights, and who has the ultimate choice about existence.

Director Camille Griffin (mother of Roman who plays Art) makes a wonderful debut that’s as challenging to watch as it is interesting to debate. It’s meant to be a conversation starter and boy is it ever.  It’s certainly a well-made movie, just horribly sad and without much reprieve throughout.  I can’t lie and say it has the rosiest of endings but can offer a shred of light and say that in ending the way it does, there are lessons to be learned that we can all benefit from in some way.  Is Silent Night one to consider swapping out one of your Christmas favorites for?  Not a chance.  However, maybe you can wait until March or April to try this out one…unless you enjoy the sadness the holidays can bring.

Movie Review ~ Voyagers

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With the future of the human race at stake, a group of young men and women embark on an expedition to colonize a distant planet. But when they uncover disturbing secrets about the mission, they defy their training and begin to explore their most primitive natures.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Lily-Rose Depp, Tye Sheridan, Fionn Whitehead, Archie Madekwe, Chanté Adams, Quintessa Swindel, Madison Hu, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Viveik Kalra

Director: Neil Burger

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: It’s an odd thing to look over the IMDb credits for director Neil Burger and see just how many of his films have found eerie similarities in other work.  Though it technically came out first, 2006’s The Illusionist is often dwarfed in memory by Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige which also featured dueling magicians and a woman that causes trouble between them.  The surprise 2011 hit Limitless may have secured some box office clout for Bradley Cooper but it had all the calling cards of a Luc Besson film just without the Frenchman’s guts to go truly wild.  Burger was behind the start of the Divergent series which was on shaky legs even in 2014 when it suffered big time comparisons to The Hunger Games, and this was before it released two more Burger-less sequels that were so bad they didn’t bother to even make the last movie.  Remaking the French blockbuster The Intouchables as The Upside in 2017 seemed like a ghastly prospect but while Burger’s take was harmless it made so much money that who directed it didn’t seem to matter much.

That brings us to Voyagers, which won’t remind you so much of any movie you’ve seen recently but perhaps a book you may have trotted out during quarantine.  Plenty of reviews of Burger’s new sci-fi yarn will correctly label it as Lord of the Flies set in space but to just put it in that ready-made box is doing a disservice to William Golding’s 1954 morality barometer disguised as a dystopian novel as well as this Lionsgate production which is entertainment at its coldest and most obvious.  Yes, it follows an uprising that divides two factions of young adults left to fend for themselves in a solitude from which there is no hope of escape, but Burger doesn’t forget what his job is in this concoction.  His audience isn’t at home under the covers reading a browning paperback by flashlight.  They’re in a theater (if you’re into that kind of thing being fully vaccinated and/or masked up) where this film opens on Friday or, as Voyagers will be in several weeks, in their homes waiting for the fun to begin.

With the Earth’s resources being depleted at a rapid rate, scientists continue to explore the boundaries of space for signs that there could be another planet humans could survive on.  Forty years from now, that planet is found but it will take another 86 years to get there.  A crew will need to be assembled to travel to this new world and report back what they find, but due to the time it will take to get there the crew that starts out the mission won’t be the ones that actually make the discovery…their grandchildren will.  Unable to find a crew of thirty to make that commitment, the team behind the mission resort to conceiving them via IVF with, ahem, contributions from the best and brightest minds of the day.

Watching over these children as they grow (literally) is Richard (Colin Farrell, Dumbo) a scientist that winds up being the sole chaperone when the young crew finally enter space and begin their journey.  Ten years later, the group are now teens that go about their daily ship business with a detached efficiency that’s only upset after Christopher (Tye Sheridan, Mud) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk) stop taking ‘the blue’, a daily dose of liquid they discover has a mood controlling and sensory dulling drug added in.  Free to finally feel for the first time, the rest of the squad follows suit including Sela (Lily-Rose Depp, Tusk) the pretty chief medical officer that’s both a confidant to Richard and his bridge to the other teens.  Sela also begins to catch the eye of the newly hormonal Christopher and Zac, both fueled by alpha male frustration that’s built up for quite some time. 

After an accident leaves them stranded, on their own, and unable to communicate with Earth, at first the niceties of protocol are followed until Zac and others (including Midsommar’s Archie Madekwe) realize that no one is going to hold them accountable for stepping out of line.  They’ve been bred to produce and that’s all so why not take as much as they want, when they want it, while they can?  This pits former friends against one another and forces all to take sides.  The wider the division gets, the larger the danger of everyone losing in the end becomes.   

It’s easy to be a bit confused by Voyagers at first glance.  The trailers make it look like a clunky C-list castoff you’d settle on when all else fails and the poster gives off the impression it’s more of an erotic trip into teen space angst.  So I was surprised that the first half of the film gets off to a rather crackling start, luring the audience in with an engaging premise and laying the groundwork for an intriguing mystery that might factor into the plot (I won’t spoil it).  Burger takes his time with things…at first.  Rather suddenly, however, the rushing begins and the time between realization and full on knowledge of the facts shortens considerably for everyone in the film.  Everyone just seems to “know” what things mean the moment they see them, or if they don’t, they understand it quickly and these leaps are more for the plot to continue to make haste than anything else.

It’s also a bit uncomfortable to watch the teens embrace their hormones with such vigor – one character goes from touching a girl’s shoulder to pretty much honking her breast in an instant.  I know none of them have experienced these sensations before, but have they never read a book or learned about etiquette?  It’s like the scientists taught the boys everything but how not to fondle girls and taught the women all about plant hydroponics yet skipped over the “no means no” conversation.  The male dominance of it all was a bit suffocating and if Burger had just given one female a bit of the nasty business to do instead of relegating it all to the guys it might have come off better.  As it is, the females become galactic wallpaper, aside from the standout Chanté Adams (Bad Hair) as a strict-rule follower that won’t be silenced by the bullies that have risen to power.  While we’re talking about the cast, Sheridan comes across like he always does…perfectly fine but terribly shallow.  If you ask me, Depp reminds me more of her model turned actress mother Vanessa Paradis than her much in the news Oscar-nominated father, and that’s not a bad thing in the least.  The standout in the cast is Whitehead who achieves a goal of creating an oily villain that you can easily root against – none of this ‘redeeming quality’ nonsense.

Despite some sag in the middle which shows some areas where the 108-minute film could be trimmed a bit, Burger gets to a fairly lively final act quite nicely.  While the effects aren’t going to win any awards, for a film of this size and with a cast of this caliber (no shade here, all are decent and acquit themselves nicely in roles that carry troublesome moments throughout) they mostly look good but I’d imagine they’d appear crisper in a theatrical setting.  For fans of sci-fi or space like myself, Voyagers is a worthy watch but know that it’s purely surface level material that is good for a distraction and little more.