An Experiment in Escapism and Capturing one’s Mojo Goes Terribly Wrong in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round

Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) returns to the topic of a group of individuals undergoing a mid-life crisis in his latest movie Another Round (Druk). In a way, Another Round comes dressed in the same sort of angst that colored his 2016 movie The Commune, in which a Danish family, grappling with the blues of ennui borne from normalcy (to use the only word I could attach), make a bold decision: to establish a sort of group living, a collective, in which everyone would be family and a renewed sense of creative liberty would flourish. Like many experiments that have ventured into the unknown and unpredictable, this one was laden with thorns from the onset, and it was only time before the cracks began showing within the foundation, and a long day’s journey into dissolution would take place.  

Such is the case for the scenario in Another Round, which reunites Mads Mikkelsen and Thomas Bo Larsen as friends who teach at the local high school alongside two others. The quartet seems to be going through the motions and rather self-aware of it. On a lark, they realize that they need to somehow “spice things up” within their humdrum lives and base their findings on a Norwegian psychiatrist who argues that the blood alcohol level of people is always a bit too low. Should people consume at least one drink a day they would see a marked change in their mood and end depression.   

At first, matters do seem to improve, especially within Martin’s (Mikkelsen’s) marital life. Soon, the men start gathering, listening to 70s funk, recounting how the greatest writers and creative people have always found inspiration in alcohol consumption. [When names like Hemingway and Churchill start to get thrown around my critical eyebrow decided to come alive. While it might be true that Hemingway was and is an important literary figure, the men fail to observe that drinking in excess led to suicide. Churchill may have met a different fate, but it was also customary in society of the early part of the 20th Century to always drink. 

It’s not long before matters start to get out of hand, and Vinterberg spares his main cast nothing in their trip to near self-destruction. He never allows his movie to go via the route of Blake Edwards Days of Wine and Roses – a film that nearly 60 years ago was audacious in showing the ravages of alcoholism – but he still shows enough to makes us worry for the fates of his characters. Another Round shows us careers getting smashed to bits, families being torn apart, and one man ending on a terrible note that could have been averted.  

If the movie stops short of being sublime it’s because it goes into some slight sentimentality, but perhaps that was earned after witnessing four men literally drowning in alcohol addiction. A scene in which one of the teachers coaxes a student to have a drink in order to pass a crucial exam arrives with a note of falsity that didn’t quite gel once it was over. However, Another Round does manage to get saved by Its final scene. Even when it is a bit escapist, it gets acted and danced the hell out by Mikkelsen (a dancer by trade), whose performance gives the movie its glimmer of hope.  

Grade: C+ 

Identifying Features, a MostlyIndies Review

Image by Kino Lorber

A mother’s void after losing her son leads her into the unexpected in Fernanda Valadez’s solid drama.

It has been a long-running story tied to Latino culture. Since there was such a topic as emigrating from one’s mother country — be it Mexico, Dominican Republic, or Cuba — in search of a better future, there has been an untold number of illegal entries either by land or by sea. With those entries, many successful, there are always, without fail, the ones that end tragically.

I was lucky to see Fernanda Valadez’s drama of the sordid lives of the forgotten last November at the AFI LatinX Film Festival. Valadez’s story seemed too poignant, too much of an open wound to ignore. I had written some notes about its haunted story and left it at that because I felt it needed another view. When it came out again at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, I jumped at it almost immediately. That already announces how good this movie is, even when it is slightly obscure and with hints of magical realism,

Identifying Features (Sin Señas Particulares) tells the story of Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez), a woman of no stature and scant education, whose son Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela) goes missing and is presumed dead after an attempt to cross the border and seek a future in the US. Getting next to no help from authorities, relying on hearsay and the kindness of strangers, Magdalena, needing closure, sets out into the unknown in search of whatever happened to her son.

Her search dovetails with that of another young man named Miguel (David Illescas) who was in the vicinity of where Jesús was last seen and is on his way home. As they interact with one another, a vague, tenuous mother-son bond starts to form, and Magdalena begins to wonder if her search may have been not for the son she lost, but a son she could still have.

Valadez’s movie is a shadowy experience. Because it seeks to disclose a system of anarchy that seems to be working in tandem with local officers, a sense of lethal corruption permeates her narrative. No one speaks in a direct way for fear of some unknown, exacting punishment. People who decide to help Magdalena often talk to her off-screen, sometimes in near-whispers. One snippet of information leads Magdalena to the next snippet until she comes face to face with a terrible reality.

Viewers seeking narratives that focus on the lives of migrants will come to appreciate Valadez’s textured mystery-drama and even appreciate its slight deviations into magical realism. I think this is a strong debut feature film and almost wish that Mexico would have submitted this one instead of I’m No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aquí) because of its theme of those who’ve slipped into the cracks of a system that exploits the poor for a few corrupt dollars.

Grade: A

Promising Young Woman, A MostlyIndies Review

Before the Covid-19 pandemic shot an entire cinematic year to hell, I had planned on viewing this odd film that had hit trailers as early as February 2020 and was set to premiere a month or so later. I wasn’t too keen on it, being that the trailer painted it out to be a simplistic, trashy revenge-fantasy thriller with slight brushstrokes of many other revenge-fantasy movies that have come out in recent years. However, and mostly because Carey Mulligan for once was outside of a costume and not drowning in a period film — a place she’s been stationed since the very start of her career as an actress — I decided that yes, I would see Promising Young Woman when it finally made it onto virtual platforms almost a year later,

Mulligan plays Cassandra, a 30-year-old woman who we first see in the film’s bravura opening scene as helplessly drunk and a prime target for what exactly happens in short order. When a guy (Adam Brody in a small part), taunted by friends, attempts to help her get home — Cassandra can barely even function, let alone get home in one piece — it looks as though he will actually deliver on being a Good Man, However, he decides to take control over the situation, and over Cassandra. What he isn’t aware is that Cassandra isn’t drunk. Or helpless. And that he’s in big trouble. “What are you doing?” she demands, rising from the bed that he’s placed her against her will, sober as a clear day in June, unsmiling.

This is the first of several turns the movie takes and we’re barely into the tip of the iceberg. Emerald Fennell dives us into the life of Cassandra — post-opening scene — as she works in an ice cream store owned by her friend Gail (Laverne Cox). She lives home with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), who wonder what happened to their baby girl. You see, Cassandra was this stellar student poised for immediate and guaranteed success as a surgeon. Something took place that essentially stalled her in the prime of her life, and now she’s seen the world go by while at night she goes hunting for men to shame. A closer glimpse at a ledger she keeps reveals that she’s been doing this for a long time now. But why?

The answer to this will get revealed later on. In the meantime, like the heroine in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Cassandra has a few stops to do. First off is an ex-classmate (Alison Brie) with whom she has a rather revealing conversation, followed by the dean of the school (played by Connie Britton) she attended, whom she gives a taste of her own medicine. While we realize that perhaps what Cassandra is doing is venturing into truly ugly territory, we also realize that she is completely justified. Fennell delivers a powerful commentary on how society has allowed men to behave badly and get away with it for so long its become normalized even by the women who get trampled under the violence men inflict upon them.

While this is all happening, Cassandra has met and is having serious thoughts about Ryan (Bo Burnham). Ryan enters the film as a truly nice guy. From the moment he walks into the ice cream store the chemistry between himself and Cassandra is extremely strong — so palpable that it leaps off the screen. It’s then a surprise that he would know someone that Cassandra is seeking. That someone, unlike her, has not only moved on with his life but is also getting married. Should Cassandra forget her road to retaliation or settle down with Ryan? The plot thickens.

Promising Young Woman arrives at an interesting juncture. Had it been made back in the 80s, we probably would have been saddled with something closer to The Accused. It’s mind-boggling that as a society, the rape of a female has never openly been discussed in film (unless it came in documentary form, such as The Invisible War, to name one, or guilty pleasures like the French film Revenge from 2018. It is safe to say that the fallout of the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and the #metoo movement have spawned a conversation in which stories where we see disempowered women facing not just sexual, but emotional and mental abuse get told. If you were to erase the physical violence inflicted on an invisible character that we witness through a phone and a character’s reaction, and the society that allows it, you would have The Assistant, another great drama that tells the story of a belittled woman temping in an office run by testosterone-poisoned men who gleefully abuse their positions with next to no restraint.

Much has been said from where the movie eventually goes with its story. When I first saw it back in mid-January I equally loved its candy-colored look reminiscent of the 80s and how Cassandra’s story, divided into four parts, took her from floating aimlessly as a female vigilante to relentless avenger of those who don’t have a voice. The final outcome of the film — which I will not discuss here — will essentially make or break the movie for you, plain and simple. You will either understand the director’s vision of what she wanted to achieve or not even bother with the very last scene. I, for one, was both horrified and shaken. It takes guts to present the audience with something that will leave a sour aftertaste. In another time Fennell would have had to completely re-film the ending — and her being a female director would have had nothing to do with it.

Promising Young Woman, while being entrenched very much in the revenge fantasy theme, offers its best asset in a thrilling performance by Carey Mulligan. Here she plays both damaged and fearless in one relentless whole. Some of her decisions might not make much sense, but they add up to the math and work for the story. A scorned woman is a dangerous being, indeed.

Grade: A–

New On Netflix: I Care A Lot

Rosamund Pike seems to be sculpting a career that looks modeled after a certain Bette Davis, and I’ll tell you why. While Davis enjoyed a stellar career during her peak period, she managed to check every box in the book. She could just do no wrong, even when the movie itself did less than good or didn’t live up to certain expectations. And when she played a bitch, boy was she good.

Pike is definitely not Davis, but you get where I’m headed to. Before Gone Girl, the movie that basically brought her out of the shadows, Pike was in all sorts of movies ranging from action-adventure films, bland comedies, or little-seen dramas that didn’t do much to advance her career whether she played the lead or a supporting part. Gone Girl, on the other hand, reinvented her in one masterstroke. It was as though the Pike we had seen — soft voiced, usually non-threatening, Jane to Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth in 2006’s Pride and Prejudice — had suddenly revealed vicious pit-bull teeth… and a lethal relentless bite.

That same bite shows up in J Blakeson’s I Care A Lot, a black comedy that tells the story of Marla Grayson. By itself, the name conjures images of an unassuming frump who by day performs the role of a social worker, and by night, continues to do so, undecorated. Under the polished persona of Pike — a smartly dressed woman with reed-straight hair cut in a sleek, geometric bob — Grayson is, to society, the very essence of elegance in the service of selflessness as a legal guardian for elders too weak, or too mentally incompetent to fend for themselves.

Pity you would find yourself under Marla’s supervision. Marla is, from the word go, a shark, and she would take that as a weak compliment if you told her so. She shamelessly preys on the finances of the elderly, placing them under her care to cash in on their bank accounts and live a life of luxury. Into her line of exploitation through an associate comes Jennifer Paterson (Dianne Wiest). Paterson, a wealthy retiree, is practically bamboozled into Marla’s care, placed under lock and key in a facility that Marla presides over under an iron fist.

What Marla and her girlfriend and partner-in-crime Fran (Eiza Gonzalez) ignore is that Jennifer has some pretty heavy connections… and they’re not especially happy to know Jennifer’s home has been repossessed and her whereabouts are nowhere to be found. When a man named Roman (Peter Dinklage) demands that Marla release Jennifer, she refuses. The money that Jennifer can deliver is too much for Marla to refuse it.

Without giving too much of the plot away, I have to say that I Care a Lot is ultimately too silly to be taken seriously. However, it is also solid entertainment that manages even through its wild plot twists to point a finger at an actual, terrifying reality in which corrupt legal guardians have all but destroyed a system for their own financial gain. What seemed to be poised to be one kind of film, in which Marla’s actions would yield a progressive retaliation from Roman, turns into something else, and it’s entirely unexpected.

It doesn’t quite work all in the end, but that’s because Pike’s character is so completely amoral and so unyielding that she becomes an unknowable wall. At first, her dogged refusal to back down when her circle starts to close seems defiant, and strangely fascinating. It’s when she gets into far deeper than she ever planned that credibility starts to strain a bit. Dinklage doesn’t exactly fare better — his part is rather one-note, and too much of Dinklage renders the movie a bit flat. His character and Pike’s are basically the same despite coming from entirely different backgrounds, so it is no surprise when one unyielding force meets unyielding force, leaving it all to an act of poetic justice to carry out its final sentence.

But, as I have said before, this is a silly movie that uses a serious matter to tell a plot full of pulp and retro-80s action. Watch I Care a Lot, and feel both outraged and repulsed by its connection to actual corrupt legal guardians, but think nothing of it once the credits have rolled.

Grade: B

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time: A Review

Natasa Stork, in Lili Horvát’s Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Careful what you wish for; you may or may not get it. This is more or less the premise of the rather improbably titled Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, Hungary’s entry to Best International Feature Film for the 93rd Academy Awards and Lili Horvát’s second feature film. Horvát’s story centers on Marta (Natasa Stork), a neurosurgeon returning to her home country for a visit. At the start of the film, she is seen in abstract, apparently naked from the waist up, seemingly relaxing after what may seem a night of passion, and later on, discussing her return with a therapist (Péter Tóth). Such disjointed scenes indicate that we may be witnessing something that has happened already, especially when Marta herself states that, “I wanted something so bad I forgot I dreamed up the entire thing.”

As Marta’s story unfolds, we learn that some time ago she and a colleague, Dr. János Drexler (Viktor Bodo) met at a symposium in New Jersey. Both seemed to have fallen hard for each other and made a pact to meet at a certain location in Budapest. When Marta abruptly leaves her life in the USA — which on the surface seems already out of character for her — she actually shows up at the meeting location. Alone. Soon after, she desperately tracks Drexler down to the hospital where he works. To her dismay, he claims to have never met her. Undone, she faints dead away in the middle of the street.

However, Marta, instead of returning back to the US, decides to stay. We don’t exactly know why — certainly this could have been a fluke, which as embarrassing as it is, would grant her the chance to pick herself up and move on. Marta rents an apartment near to the hospital where Drexler works and even lands a job there. If all this seems a bit too creepy and “fatal attraction-like”, it is, and it’s not. Horvát takes the story elsewhere, although not too far from Drexler. Marta initiates a tentative affair with a much younger man (Benett Vilmányi), which manages to bring a spark of interest in Drexler.

Preparations is a bit ambiguous in what it decides to reveal and conceal about Marta, which is just how I like my cinema. Perhaps all this did happen or was a figment of Marta’s own mental state — which would be ironic, being that she is a neurosurgeon. However, a final minute turn of the screw muddles up whatever aspirations Horvát was attempting to portray, and this leaves the movie a bit flat. Even so, Horvát has crafted a layered character study of a woman who perhaps should know better than to follow her folly, and who may or may not be herself re-creating the same scenario with an unsuspecting bystander who also falls for her.

Preparations is still playing in virtual platforms and if you are in New York, Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the Film Forum.

Grade: B

Power to the People: The Trial of the Chicago 7, and Judas & the Black Messiah

In a way, it seems we haven’t really left the 60s. When we constantly see news footage about law enforcement barreling against civilians for performing quiet protest, and then you see the Black Lives Matter movement, you can tell there is still a racial divide, still, a dissonance between what people want as opposed to what those in power — good or bad, elected or shadily elected — have to offer. The difference in both, however, couldn’t be clearer: the riots of the 60s sought to end racism. Black Lives Matter continues the fight and has also been seen as a fringe movement by ultra-conservatives who would still prefer to live in an America that has not existed for half a century if not more.

It’s taken me a longer than usual time to come to these two movies to review them after having seen both of them almost back-to-back. I sometimes wonder if I do have anything else to say about events that transpired before my time. I can only lend a critical eye to the chaos that the nation was embroiled in due to politics, war hounds, paranoia, and the first great wake-up call between those who had a view of a more peaceful, less racist world, and those who would rather keep it that way, the elite always beyond reach, the masses always kept under strict observance of the law, and anyone who would dare step out was deemed “an enemy of the people”.

Two narratives take place almost side-by-side, both in reaction to a war that was going nowhere, and a society steeped in racial divide. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 can’t really be reviewed by itself — well, I guess it can, but hear me out — because one of its players navigates its waters, and that player is Fred Hampton.

The Rise and Fall of Fred Hampton

Controversial in all aspects, Hampton, a Black Panther leader in the Chicago chapter, was seen as a threat by the virulently racist J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and seen as a savior to his fellow African Americans (and minorities who would unite with him to fight systemic racism). His part in Judas and the Black Messiah takes center stage in the fact that Shaka King attempts to give us an observational glimpse into the life that Hampton lived, a life that at 21 was already too old and wise, and tragically cut short by the Chicago police (and Hoover’s paranoid racism).

In both movies, Hampton’s story frames the stories of others, and perhaps that is intentional. The Trial of the Chicago 7 concerns itself with the seven eight anti-war activists on trial for having participated in violent clashes with the Chicago Police at the Democratic National Convention, accused of incitement to riot and conspiracy crossing state lines. Hampton has a few key scenes in which he attempts to discredit the charges brought up to fellow Black Panther Bobby Seale. In Judas and the Black Messiah, we become privy to Hampton’s life not just through Hampton himself but through the man who infiltrated the Panthers in exchange for serving a jail sentence. That man is William “Bill” O’Neil.

It’s no secret that law enforcement agencies utilize players to infiltrate a group seen as a threat to National Security. Usually, those players happen to be of the ethnicity or religious make-up or beliefs of the group in question and can provide more information than if it were through more conventional means. O’Neil (Lakeith Stanfield, finally coming into his own) plays the mostly straight role here, a man caught in the tangles of petty crime who now has to report to an FBI handler (Jesse Plemons, delivering perfectly coiffed creepy) who in turn is also reporting to the head of FBI, Hoover (Martin Sheen). His infiltration into the Black Panther Party of Chicago has the purpose of getting crucial intel meant to dismantle the threat, and thus, restore order into an already chaotic city.

The tricky part of becoming an informant is that getting in deep into any group and learning its secrets means ascending ranks within the group while pledging allegiance to its ideology. O’Neil has stated in interviews that he had no fealty to the BPP. However, throughout Judas and the Black Messiah, King suggests otherwise without overplaying his hand. O’Neil’s transformation from a simple background foot soldier gathering data for murky superiors to someone who commits the ultimate act of betrayal — not without an expression of total horror at to the depths that he has sunk — is unbelievably complex. You hate him, yet you feel sorry for him.

Hampton, through David Kaluuya’s acting, comes magnetically alive even when his deep-set eyes indicate perpetual sleepiness, a somewhat disconnect from the life that has placed him here. The movie does give Hampton ample ground to get a nuanced development without turning him into a saint, and even then, he remains a bit unknowable. His speeches are a force of nature. Compare that to scenes where he reveals himself as a deeply feeling man capable of giving a mother a moment of comfort. Scenes with Deborah Foreman (Dominique Fishback), while warm, suggest he was an intensely shy individual. There’s almost a Shakespearean quality to how his character manifests itself as he barrels forward, unaware of the betrayer standing next to him.

The Trial

While Hampton wove his way through the minefield that was Chicago, The trial against eight activists was taking place. This trial, meant to set an example to future activists, became a media circus, and Aaron Sorkin cleverly gives the movie enough of that feeling which delivers a sense of how ineffectual Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella) was in handling his court, and how effective the men on trial, in particular, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, scene-stealer), were in mocking a system that was already dead in the water.

Sorkin’s movie serves as a documentary if you will about the end of an era, although even then I feel I may have said something rather dull. The story of how these disparate people came together for one mega event and somehow found themselves facing a common enemy (the establishment itself) is riveting material for many a view or a read. The fact that due to his color alone, and his association with the BPP, Bobby Seale (Yahuya Abdul Mateen II) found himself not just on trial but treated with a savagery that has to be seen to be believed. It is by far the most cringing moment in the film, and one that brings forth images of innumerable African Americans who have been treated as little more than animals by a society keen on keeping a foot firmly planted on their necks. One could see that one scene as a bridge between the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow and the recent upsurge of white on black violence, again, inflicted by anyone with a uniform or a badge.

Where The Trial of the Chicago 7 probably suffers is in the trial itself, and its last minutes in which Eddie Redmayne, who plays Tom Hayden, falters a bit in delivering a convincing stance. Perhaps I’m nitpicking. It just seemed a bit too pat if you will, a move meant to seal the trial on its deserved high note. Other than that this is a terrific picture, rife with razor-sharp dialogue (again, a Sorkin trademark), and memorable turns by its entire cast which let’s face it, is rather large.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is on Netflix. Judas and the Black Messiah played for a month on HBOMAX but is still in theaters until it moves back to virtual platforms. Of the two, I would favor the latter in the sheer complexity of its two lead characters, men caught in a web of power and racial paranoia much greater than they could ever anticipate.

The Trial of the Chicago 7: B+ Judas and the Black Messiah: A

Belated Reviews: Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow

An incursion into existential horror spins into butter in Amy Seimetz’s second feature film.

Nine years ago I came upon a little-seen indie that played at the IFC called Sun Don’t Shine. I knew nothing about the actors (Kate Lyn Shiel and Kentucker Audley) or its director, the also-actress Amy Seimetz. What I do recall is experiencing something close to a noir film disguised in a road movie based in Florida, with the barest thread of a plot — a couple on the run from a crime that continues to stalk them. It was solid while ethereal, with a clear homage to Terrence Malick, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. In her debut movie, Seimetz managed to make what would have been a more brutal story feel almost weightless with fragile performances by its two leads. I liked it and hoped to see more from Seimetz.

Late last year I heard some buzz that Seimetz had released her follow-up, She Dies Tomorrow, and that audiences were polarized. Some praised its atmosphere filled with fear of the unknowable, others were scratching their heads. I held out until I was done with festivals, which was by then the tail end of the year. Walking in, I knew nothing other than the title and that Seimetz was working with a slightly larger cast, many who have worked with her as actors or on Sun Don’t Shine.

What I encountered was a film that announced itself rather shrilly, with Mozart’s Lacrimosa blaring at me with the force of a slap in the face. It is a piece that recurs in several intervals. The heroine of the piece, Amy (Shiel) mopes around languorously, sometimes in dread, sometimes in a fugue state of pitch-black depression. She seems caught in a vortex that she cannot escape. She is absolutely convinced that she will die, tomorrow. Her friend Jane (the always reliable Jane Adams) comes to her succor, to no avail. Then we focus on Jane, suddenly rapt and moody, enveloped in dark colors and perpetually in pajamas. When she crashes her sister-in-law’s birthday party — a party in which the rather outré topic of dolphin sex is the theme of the evening — she virtually stops the party in a manner that would make Debbie Downer seethe with depression and a “Wah-waah.”

It’s safe to say that once Jane leaves, everyone else starts to act as though they’re in the final, downbeat scenes of the most existential nightmare. Are all of these characters, people we barely know, also afflicted with the malady of impending death? When we return to Amy, she is still alive. And then, the movie decides to turn its head away from its J-Horror inclinations in which a terror leaps from person to person, and stops short.

She Dies Tomorrow felt — and still comes to mind — as though in concept, it would have made for a rather surreal entry into nihilism. As it is, Seimetz never develops her concept, or her characters, and lets them carry their non-personas into teary resolutions drenched in regret and ill-earned maudlin. Fear of the unknown, of what lies in the doors into the afterlife, is real and as old as time. It is why the Egyptians made sure to create death ceremonies of their dearly departed. You could even argue that this is why we as a modern society favor exercise and living green, prolong our stay and delay the inevitable.

However, Seimetz, coming out of a horror remake that made her more widely known as an actress, leaves it stillborn. So much could have been developed had she cared more for the terror that knowing your time comes with an exact expiration date brings. Movies like The Ring (both the Japanese and the American versions) took that fear and ran with it. This movie, sadly, deflated before it even had a chance.

Grade: D+

Netflix Finds: The Invisible Guest (A Contratiempo)

Here we have a movie that should have been released formally before getting acquired by Netflix right after its world premiere at Fantastic Fest. It’s a shame, and no offense against Netflix, but had I known of this movie I would have front and center in a movie theater.

But, details, timing, it doesn’t matter. Netflix still holds streaming rights to Oriol Paulo’s The Invisible Guest (Contratiempo), where. it sits awaiting a click and a view. Paulo’s movie arrives drenched in Hitchcockian suspense from its opening sequence in which we get introduced to Adrian Doria (Mario Casas), a high-tech businessman caught in a nasty situation involving his now-murdered girlfriend Laura (Barbara Lennie). Doria stands accused of her murder, and his lawyer has contacted a no-nonsense, high-power attorney, Virginia Goodman (Ana Wagener), to defend him. Goodman, upon arriving at Doria’s apartment, reveals that the prosecuting side has found a credible witness who will testify against Doria, so he must tell his side of the story quickly and not omit a single detail to her.

Doria tells his story to Goodman, who, hawk-like and incapable of missing a beat, listens. We get a delicious cat-and-mouse game of storyteller and witness, but with the stakes so high, The Invisible Guest traverses the gamut of noir and whodunit as it had done this before and then some. It becomes next to impossible to establish a clear identification with anyone since both Doria and Laura become complicit in a horrible act of fate, the “setback” of the title. Through Doria, we see a man trying his best to save the skin from flying off him. However, Paulo has other designs on his story’s and he drops little crumbs to the audience just to see who pays attention, and who is simply watching.

No one does suspense as the Spaniards do, and Paulo’s The Invisible Guest is proof of my statement. His movie unfolds rather straightforwardly until what we are watching, what we are being forced to witness and accept, gets thrown out the window and we are left with a different reality. Savvy viewers might figure most of it out rather around the hour mark, but it doesn’t matter. Paulo’s story veers deep into Agatha Christie filtered through a Brian de Palma lens soon after and never bothers to look back to retrace its steps. And in the maelstrom, we have the accused and his defense attorney, measuring each other with pens that act like knives and glances that act as daggers.

The Invisible Guest is a thriller that oozes high-end, high-concept gloss and boasts strong performances by Casas, Wagener, Barbara Lennie, and Jose Coronado.

Grade: A

P.S.: As a side note, there have been a few remakes made from the ashes of this remarkable film. Just last year The Invisible Witness from Italy made its rounds in virtual release, and Netflix also hosts its Indian remake Badla. My advice: stick with the one that matters.

Saint Maud: Movie Review

Here is the movie that I re-launch my film page after an unsuccessful transfer of 900 reviews from another hosting site effectively erased them from online view. [Eventually, I’ll attempt to publish at least some of them to the best of my abilities, but for now, onwards with the first of this new incarnation.] Saint Maud is the movie I have been salivating over for almost 18 months following my first glimpse into its chilling, unsettling trailer one September evening in 2019 following its Toronto Film Festival premiere as I sat in a movie theater watching Mike Flanagan’s It: Chapter Two.

Of course, on the heels of having finally seen this via EpixNOW (it is playing in very limited cinemas), I realized that this unique horror movie would be its own horror-show to review. I’d have to approach it with delicacy and tact and avoid disclosing any plot points for anyone who has not yet seen it and is waiting for the Prime release not linked to an Epix membership. Nothing brings on the wrath of a moviegoer than to skim through a film review that basically explains the entire movie and effectively slashes the experience for you until it’s in tatters. Ergo, I’ll keep in mind and venture gingerly ahead.

I do find it a bit strange that although this movie is just out of the oven, not many people have seen it or even know about it–it is getting no television promotion, unlike Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland which I saw last September via the New York Film Festival. Even some avid movie-goers are in the blind about this picture, something I find a tad strange. Perhaps the shadow of 2020 still lingers on, but what do I know about film releases — I just see them and report.

Off we go.

Saint Maud tells the story of a devoutly Catholic hospice nurse named Maud (Morfydd Clark, previously in Love & Affection) who becomes the caregiver of Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Amanda is an American former dancer of considerable fame who has since been rendered disabled following a terminal disease that is wasting her away. As it can happen to many who have lost their livelihood and feel as though life played them a nasty trick, Amanda reveals herself to be rather vinegary. An early scene in which Amanda spots Maud’s Mary Magdalene pendant which Maud wears rather openly posits her to make a snide comment. The comment would have offended the wearer of the pendant, but Maud is different. A woman who seems to have been struck by divine inspiration, Maud identifies Amanda’s apparent worldliness as a challenge to reform her.

Maud takes it upon herself to take utmost care of Amanda and to her defense, she does become a pretty efficient nurse. The movie blends the physical and fragile, barely-there sensual sequences of palliative therapy with the confessions of both women in a rather enveloping manner that suggests a density to this relationship. You get a sense that these two women are together not by chance, but something else. Prodded on by Amanda, Maud discloses the nature of her faith and her connection to God. Meanwhile, Amanda confesses to having fears of oblivion and what lies beyond death. It is this fear, masked by a cynical smirk and the need to draw into herself every last drop there is to her dark place, that cements Maud on a quest.

However, Maud herself seems to be in her own dark place. [And why wouldn’t she? It is a psychological horror in the vein of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona had Persona dug in deeper into its nurse’s black heart.*] Maud seems to be preternaturally attuned to the dense, decaying atmosphere around her created by both Amanda’s light being slowly snuffed out and her own inner self, reflected as her need to serve and thus, save. Her presence, while not overpowering, dominates the film by her sheer languidness. There are moments of impending dread whenever she is alone (which is constant; Maud is alone even in a crowd). It seems that a much greater force, which seems to be growing within and around her, will finally give way and do what it must.

It is this force that eventually starts to gain traction and manifest itself as the vortex Maud keeps seeing. Not many horror movies are so connected to a character’s mind. Many are content with presenting a character’s plight and the hidden (or sometimes, not so hidden) forces gathering around their lead character, pushing them closer and closer to the edge of the abyss. Maud does that, true, but it manages to do so from her own perception. She wishes to do good, but Hell is a road paved with good intentions.

Rose Glass’ first feature film is a total knockout drenched in hues of chiaroscuro. I don’t think that there is a single shot that doesn’t threaten to swallow its characters whole through sheer truncation of color: as previously mentioned, Amanda’s house already seems Gothic by proxy, bathed as it is in velvety textures of blacks, ambers, and forest greens. She doesn’t reinvent the wheel — Hereditary comes to mind as another movie with rich, warm colors framed by a pervasive sense of black — however, decadence and claustrophobia never looked this richer.

This is the type of movie that lovers of slow-burn movies will revel in. If this is your cup of tea, then Saint Maud definitely lives up to its hype and has been worth the wait as it was for me. Anyone expecting jump scares and over-the-top narratives, however, should look elsewhere; this would not be the movie for you. As for me, I will say Glass’ movie is extremely unsettling and made me ponder on the power of the inner voice and how it can sometimes have an intention all its own for days.

Grade: B+ is back, but…

Image by AV Forums

I guess I didn’t plan this accordingly. I got a bit blindsided with the impatience of getting away from my previous hosting site and their Ultimate Plan which was priced a bit too steep for me that I didn’t stop to think about backing up my work. In the end, I lost a total of 400 entries, many which contained multiple reviews as I tend to go to at several film festivals throughout the calendar year. However, on the plus side, it’s not like these writings were at the level of, let’s say, Pauline Kael or Dorothy Parker. [Perish the thought! I think I may have heard them rolling in their graves, the poor dears.] No, many were downright perfunctory and I’d even say borderline awful. I’d blame the fact that I can believably sit down and do movie marathons for both new releases and home video releases as well as what’s playing on art-house apps like MUBI or Criterion, so in the end, unless it’s a classic that requires a bit more analysis, the reviews are kept to the point, concise, and at a word limit of about 500 – 700 per film.

Lesson learned — back up your work. On the bright and busy side, you would think that February would be a dead or slow month for movies but with festival features releasing direct to streaming platforms left and right it seems that the niche is saturated more than ever. Not sure how this one, this Accidental Cinephile, will manage. Opening February 12 — tomorrow, as per this writing — there are a bundle of movies opening, from Lee Isaac Chung’s critically acclaimed Minari (which made its premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center last December for a one-week run), Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, and the much-anticipated film by Rose Glass… Saint Maud. Still playing on virtual platforms are five entries for Best International Feature Film for the 93rd Academy Awards: Italy’s Notturno, directed by Gianfranco Rosi; Hungary’s Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time by Lili Horvát (2014s White God); Filippo Menechetti’s lesbian-themed drama Two of Us, representing France; Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades!, Russia’s submission, and Denmark’s Another Round, directed by Thomas Vinterberg (2013’s The Hunt).

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