Hit the Road

26 Jun

‘Hit the Road’: Steering into something big

Iranian filmmaker Panah Panahi’s debut is right in line with the films of his father, Jafar, whose great dissident-leaning works include “The Circle” (2000), “Offside” (2006) and “The White Balloon” (1995), all in their own way measured jabs at Iran’s theocratic oppression of women. The Iranian government has the ability to review scripts and the work of films in progress and squash them along the way, or ban them, if they feel the final cut demeans or could trigger any kind of political action against the establishment. “The Circle,” about a group of women in jail for what we would consider jaywalking, was banned in Iran yet played arthouse venues everywhere else. Jafar Panahi was placed under house arrest in 2010 and prohibited from making films for 20 years, yet in 2011 we got “This Is Not a Film,” shot mostly on an iPhone from his apartment in Tehran. The document of his imprisonment starring a lethargic iguana was allegedly smuggled out of the country on a flash drive inside a cake.

Panah Panahi too cooks up something politically barbed in “Hit the Road,” though it takes a while to get where “Hit the Road” is heading. We begin with a semi-joyous car ride across relatively barren terrain where a not-quite-nuclear family partakes in raucous car karaoke. In the back seat, dad (Hasan Majuni) has a broken leg. Back there with him is his highly animated, highly mercurial 5-year-old son (Rayan Sarlak), with the older brother (Amin Simiar) up front clutching the wheel of the lux SUV and looking dour despite the seemingly festive mood. Mom (Pantea Panahiha) is up front too, perched in the passenger seat, trying to hold order as much as she can when younger brother flies off into one of his many impish snits.

We never get names, and in addition to the older brother’s defeated look there are small cracks of something bigger going on – that broken leg, a random SIM card, a sick dog in the way, way back and the revelation that the SUV was borrowed in desperate haste. Clearly this is not a fun-seeking family excursion or a bonding getaway to some desired destination, but a mission, if not a fleeing. To say more would be to ruin the mesmerizing enigma of a poignant and provocative existential odyssey that would make a great double bill with Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010; and yes, the name refers to an ancestor of mine).

The cinematic renderings of the wind-sculpted landscape by Amin Jafari, who worked with Jafar Panahi on “3 Faces” in 2018, stun. The key to the film’s triumph, however, is the soulful performances by the all-in cast. Majuni casts his compassionate patriarch as a wounded old lion, while Panahiha conveys much with an angular face that has the same kind of ageless grace that has come to define Catherine Deneuve – and boy, can she bounce and hop when the music moves her. And of course the young Sarlak, whose mood swings from hellacious terror to teeming bundle of joy, buoys and underscores the dichotomy of bigger, bittersweet what’s-going-on. With his raw innocence, he doesn’t seem to be in on the what-and-the-why of their hie; he lives in the moment and, for the most, is the only one in the family focused on that dog in the back.

The Black Phone

24 Jun

The Black Phone’: Its ’70s retro trappings aside, supernatural-tinged thriller might not grab you

By Tom Meek Thursday, June 23, 2022

“The Black Phone” is a neat dial-back to the indelible sound and style of the 1970s, but as a quirky bit of horror it’s all posture without much bite. Director Scott Derrickson, who helmed Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” (2016) and exited this year’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” during pre-production, adapted a short story by Joe Hill (son of horror-meister Stephen King) as a straight-ahead BTK creepshow with co-writer C. Robert Cargill. There’s few red herrings or inventive twists, and very little character development. The film’s shining asset, aside from the allure of the era and devil mask worn by the central boogeyman, is the strong performances by its young cast members, namely Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw as an imperiled brother and sister.

We embed with Finney (Thames) in late-1970s Denver, where several kids have gone missing, black balloons left each time as the perp’s signature. Gwen (McGraw) has visions of the kidnappings and post-abduction torture, but parents and friends at school move around as if there’s no peril on the streets. Finney’s more concerned about the bullies who often corner him at school, but he’s got king ruffian Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) watching out for him, because Finney’s good at math and helps Robin with schoolwork – until he’s “grabbed,” as the John Wayne Gacy of Denver is a devil-masked magician known as The Grabber, played by a hardly recognizable Ethan Hawke (“First Reformed,” “Boyhood”). Finney awakes in a “Saw”-like basement dungeon where there’s nothing but a mattress and the disconnected device of the title hanging alone on a scummy wall. The Grabber pops in every now and then to menace Finney, and the phone begins to ring. On the other end are previous victims, who also appear as bloody apparitions to give Finney clues and hints as how to survive The Grabber’s games, and possibly escape. Some of the advice is odd: to break into the back of a freezer that’s locked on the other side, or stuff the phone receiver with dirt to give it “heft” as a weapon. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see an old rotary phone in action again; but do 6 ounces of soil add lethal mass?

More perplexing is The Grabber’s brother, Max (James Ransone), who is unaware of his sibling’s misdeeds but for some reason has launched an amateur investigation into the disappearances and who The Grabber might be. Then there’s Finney and Gwen’s dad (Jeremey Davies, “Spanking the Monkey”), an odd olio of inconsistent parts. Initially he lands as alcoholic trailer trash trying to beat the visions out of Gwen (ma had the gift too, and it led to her death) in the name of Jesus, but later assumes the mantle of concerned, caring father. It doesn’t click, and I’m not sure Davies or Derrickson ever really had a sense as to how to play it. The Grabber too – the whys and whats never get meted out. It’s a huge hole that makes the film almost pointless. The saving grace is the chemistry between Thames and McGraw as siblings struggling with the loss of their mother and their father’s addiction and intermittent cruelties. Much is asked of Thames, and he delivers. Comparisons to “Stranger Things” are expected considering the adolescent focus, eerie dangers lurking just beyond eyeshot and that hip, retro throwback to an era of fond (or not so fond) notoriety. It’s fair, but know that Hill’s short take was woven a decade before the hit Netflix series began streaming.

Lightyear

17 Jun

‘Lightyear’: A buzzkill for the ‘Toy Story’ series

By Tom Meek, Thursday, June 16, 2022

You’re bound to be thrown off a bit by “Lightyear,” the latest Pixar offering, which in theory extends the “Toy Story” franchise. No, Tim Allen is not in the mix as the titular Buzz, and Buzz here doesn’t look so much like Andy’s old space ranger toy. Nope, this Buzz is more square-jawed and all-American, kinda Captain America-ish, which makes good sense as Buzz is voiced by Cap portrayer Chris Evans. “What the what?” you might ask. Simply put, “Lightyear” is an origin story; in the “Toy Story” films that talking toy (“To infinity and beyond!”) was the merchandised byproduct of a hit movie called “Lightyear” – this is that movie.

Our trajectory finds Buzz and and fellow space ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) piloting a giant space orb – which looks exactly like the landing ship in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) – on some exploratory deep space mission. Also not far off from “2001,” the crew of 1,000 scientists is in sleep stasis when Buzz and Hawthorne decide to land on a planet for much-needed resources. Turns out the Earth-like terra firma isn’t so friendly, as relentless tentacled vines pop up everywhere and a teeming swarm of nasty giant mosquitos come at the landing party. After enduring much hectoring, Buzz and Hawthorne make the smart decision to get the heck out. But when they blast off, Buzz tries a risky maneuver and damages the hyperdrive, for the most part stranding the crew on the planet. What to do? Build a new hyperdrive, test it on a smaller, X-wing-like ship and get on with the mission. (Space rangers always finish the mission.) Easier said than done. Test flight after test flight fails, and because of hyper speed, each time Buzz returns, Hawthorne and the now-walled-in village of scientists have aged four or more years, though Buzz is the same as when he left. From there on, it’s wash, rinse, repeat. Hawthorne’s progression is fun to watch as she marries and has a child, which brings a granddaughter (Keke Palmer). There’s also some killer robots who show up to assail the explorers’ forcefield-fortified dome, as well as a rip in the multiverse – is it me, or are we awash in alternate realities these days?

Overall it feels a stretch to categorize “Lightyear” as a “Toy Story” entry. The connection’s tangential and the film’s far too plot driven, leaving it not all that emotionally deep. My 12-year-old daughter, who has moved on from “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” to “Avatar” but always comes back to the “Toy Story” films with deep affection, commented that the animated backstory felt too much like a “Star Wars” chapter. What she was getting at (with few exceptions, like that deft aging twist) is that you can see where this space quest is going from infinity and beyond. 

Jurassic World Dominion

10 Jun

‘Jurassic World Dominion’: Ending on overdrive for a series makers could have just left in ‘Park’

By Tom Meek Friday, June 10, 2022

The “Jurassic Park” films all possessed that classic Spielberg wonderment propelled and embossed by a trumpeting John Williams score, and the 2015 “Jurassic World” reboot by Colin Trevorrow, who made the small indie feature “Safety Not Guaranteed” (2012), had some decent rootings to it. The latest dino theme park installment, “Jurassic World Dominion” (also directed by Trevorrow), tries to do too much with too little. It’s not so much that it’s too long – okay, at two and a half hours, it is – but that it tries to blend the two franchises (“Park” and “World” now each having three chapters) and weave them into an unnecessarily complex plot that has world-hopping aspirations as well as deep-creviced conspiracies. It borrows too much from other films without digging new dirt; we get cool new CGI dinos to gawk at, but little else.

The franchise crossover seems to be a thing these days. Last year’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” not only dragged in a potpourri of MCU denizens but also the previous two incarnations of Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire popping up alongside reigning Spidey Tom Holland) due to a Doctor Strange-triggered multiverse. Here it’s not that complicated or far-fetched – at first. The world is now shared with dinosaurs, which were taken off the Costa Rican island in the previous “World” movie, “Fallen Kingdom” and got loose. If you’re trawling for crab in Alaska, you might bring up a mosasaur that will flip your ship and take your catch; if you’re in the high Sierras, be careful walking about, because there’s velociraptors in the woods. Every now and then a human gets gobbled, there’s an exotic dino market in the bowels of the Maltese capital of Valletta (feeling a lot like the bar scene from “Star Wars”) and a concerted global effort to relocate dinos to sanctuary reserves. More menacing are the 3-foot locusts with cretaceous DNA that eat up nearly every farm crop not sowed with Biosyn Corp.-engineered seeds. Yup, avarice, god complexes and long, dubious corporate agendas play big, as do spy games and old flames.

Raptor wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and his betrothed, the former Costa Rican park manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) live in those Sierra with Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), who at the end of “Fallen Kingdom” was revealed to be the first human clone. Also in those woods is ol’ raptor Blue, which Owen raised at the theme park. Blue has reproduced without mating, and her offspring and Maisie are wanted by Biosyn for their DNA. Meanwhile, Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), last seen in 2001’s “Jurassic World III,” gets dragged in to look at the locust problem and enlists the help of paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), her former flame. (She got married and had kids, he didn’t.) Chaos theory mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) just happens to be working for Biosyn on a short-term contract.

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Crimes of the Future

3 Jun

‘Crimes of the Future’: Familiar themes are fuel for more delicious creepiness from Cronenberg

By Tom Meek Thursday, June 2, 2022

It’s been eight years since David Cronenberg last made a movie. That film, “Map to the Stars” (2014) and his previous effort “Cosmopolis” (2012) were decidedly un-Cronenberg-esque, not that the director hadn’t stepped away from his psycho-horror roots before (“M. Butterfly,” “Naked Lunch” and “A Dangerous Method” among the many). The good news for Cronenberg purists – those who admire “The Fly” (1986) and “Dead Ringers” (1988) but burn for “Scanners” (1981), “Videodrome” (1983) and “Rabid” (1977) – is that “Crimes of the Future” marks a devilish return to the director’s fetish-fueled eroticization of gore and body mutilation. “Dead Ringers” and “Videodrome” stand at the head of that list, but more visceral and perhaps even more erotic than “Dead Ringers,” if that’s even possible, is Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel “Crash” (1996) about ecstasy seekers who literally get off on others’ mangled flesh and scars from willfully triggered automobile collisions. If the title piques your Cronenberg sensibilities, it was the title of his lightly regarded feature from 1970; while it has some thematic overlap, it’s not the same movie.

“Crimes” lands us in dystopian near future, when people grow new organs inside their bodies as a hobby. Pain is no longer an impediment and surgery, we’re told, “is the new sex.” The film centers on Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen, Cronenberg’s go-to collaborator, their best and finest being the 2005 crime drama “A History of Violence”), a renowned performance artist whose jam is growing radical organs in his abdomen and having his amour, Caprice (Léa Seydoux, dour and stunning), remove them onstage for an intimate underground audience to ooh and aah over. In context and theme the film weaves together Cronenberg signatures almost as if it is a farewell celebration of sorts: There’s that noted sexualized fetish frenzy from “Crash,” the notion of “the new flesh” from “Videodrome” and even an internal organ beauty pageant, something that was touched upon in “Dead Ringers.” Of all Cronenberg’s varied works, however, “Crimes” is most akin to “eXistenZ” (1999) with its array of skeletal, buglike animatronic devices that perform surgery and cocoon Saul at night to help nurture his new organs into being. Those sets and designs were eerie and surreal back in 1999 but now feel a bit dated and gimmicky, if not hokey. That said, the concept of evolution police and a national registry of new organs (they’re tattooed and tagged) intrigues, as well as the sub-race of what we might call mutants who can, with organ manipulation, consume plastics and other industrial waste – a handy parlor trick that doesn’t get explored enough in the context of plastic atolls or climate change.

The driving force of “Crimes” is Mortensen’s weary yet soulful performer, pasty, wan, vampirelike and forever in a cloak like a grand wizard. There’s a heaviness he bears from a clear physical and emotional toll. He’s a man on edge and asked much of by many; those at the registry (a breathy Kristen Stewart and an excellent snappy, nerdy Don McKellar) who fawn over his work and want more (even to be part of his show), the police (Welket Bungué) who want to put a lid on radical organ generation, and the leader of those plastic-consuming rebels (Scott Speedman) who wants Saul to feature the body of his murdered son in one of his pieces. What Saul wants is unclear, though you can feel his camaraderie and passion with Caprice. In one of the more arresting  scenes, after having old-school sex with her, Saul brushes the act off as something of a burden and blessedly archaic, which is the true crime of Cronenberg’s future vision. 

Top Gun: Maverick

27 May

‘Top Gun: Maverick’: Cruise, back in pilot’s seat, hits the same targets with wisdom of experience

By Tom Meek Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Hard to believe it’s been 35 years since Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer tangled in the Danger Zone. The original “Top Gun” (1986) was branded by ’80s flair (the hair), music (Kenny Loggins and Berlin’s hauntingly excellent “Take My Breath Away”) and the era’s go-for-broke excess (cocaine and unregulated Wall Street), something that got amped up for effect by producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott; amazingly, what’s on screen in the long-cooking sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick” eerily channels the spirit and vibe of that earlier film while sliding seamlessly into the now. It’s a neat parlor trick pulled off by director Joseph Kosinski, who worked with Cruise on the sci-fi thriller “Oblivion” (2013), and Bruckheimer (he’s back; Scott and Simpson died during the in-between years). The ace in the hole, as it was then, is Cruise. Do the math: Cruise was 25ish when he made the first one and near 60 here. If you look at him in both you’d be hard pressed to think that 10, let alone 20 or, god forbid, 35 years have passed. Sure, there are some crows feet, but the man is a movie star who maintains his asset like Tom Brady does – the main difference being that Cruise has to look good doing it, and you could argue that doing his own stunts at his age is as dangerous as avoiding oncoming linemen when you’re 15 years younger.

If you put the two “Top Gun” movies on the tarmac together, the newer one would leave the other in its vapor trail with relative ease. The 1986 chapter was steeped in macho cliches, the tang of pre-#MeToo sexism and thin characters pumped up to be more than they were. “Maverick” is more about soul finding than chest beating; while there’s some of the latter, it’s reserved mostly for the new young guns.

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Men

20 May

‘Men’: Escaping trauma and engendering horror

By Tom Meek Thursday, May 19, 2022

Alex Garland, the scribe behind “The Beach” (2000) and “Never Let Me Go” (2010) and director of “Ex Machina” (2014) and “Annihilation” (2018), continues to raise the bar on immersive psychological horror with this third helming – which, as the title might suggest, is about the male of the species behaving badly. It’s not so much a #MeToo rallying cry but a confessional of a long ingrained inequity, to put it mildly. The film begins with a poignant crack to the jaw as a young Londoner (Jessie Buckley), whose name we learn is Harper, stares out a window. It’s a beautiful view of the Thames and all things London until a man on the other side of the pane drifts slowly into frame. Their eyes lock for a knowing moment, and then he’s gone. You sit there in a prolonged “Wait, what the …” and the camera flips to Harper. Before her face can register as aghast, we notice she has a bloodied nose and a puffy eye.

The man in the window is Harper’s troubled – troublesome might be the better word – husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). In the aftermath of his death, Harper decides to decamp and decompress by renting a 500-year-old countryside estate for a long weekend. The Airbnb tour is given by the owner, an affable chap named Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) who looks like Hugh Grant gone to pot with bad hair and buck teeth (the prosthetics work in the film is a minor wonderment); anyone want to pack their bags for this remote, verdant tranquillity, though Geoffrey’s late comments to Harper about not putting hygiene products down the loo and some nonsense about “forbidden fruit” are cause for a brow raise. Things are a tick off, and start to go off the rails when Harper, walking old train tracks now grown over and lushly green, yodels playfully into a moss-lined tunnel. It’s a freeing, symphonic cavort until a menacing figure appears at the other end and begins growling and hooting. Later a naked man (also Kinnear) wanders into the garden as Harper is FaceTiming with a bestie. She calls the police, who arrest the intruder (the female officer is compassionate, her male counterpart not so much, and dismissively tags the perp as harmless and wayward). Men, it seems, are initially welcoming and open to Harper, including a priest and a peevish little puck both also played by Kinnear, but ultimately rebuke her with condescending impunity for, essentially, being a woman. The film begins with a series of such macho microaggressions, but gets physical and wildly surreal down the line. To say more would be to dispel the perfectly orchestrated atmospheric dread and well-laid psychological horror that Garland and crew conjure up.

Thematically, there’s a lot to “Men”: the intersection of paganism and Christianity, religious sexual repression and, of course, the headlining gender oppression. But for all its grand motifs and moodiness, the characters and the film itself are fundamentally thin. Don’t get me wrong, “Men” is an all-consuming cinematic experience, and Buckley, so good in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (2020) and “The Lost Daughter” (2021), and Kinnear of TV’s “Penny Dreadful,” put on a thespian clinic. But Harper, when boiled down, is little more than a grieving woman who likely escaped an emotionally abusive relationship. One might even argue she’s in a better place. Part of our understanding of that gets filled in by meted flashbacks, where James is less and less the kind, compassionate gent you first got to know, and you wonder too much about how the two ever came together; the trauma manifests in the present with the cast of quirky lads lurking around the bucolic countryside. If you were a fan of Garland pushing the boundaries of reality in “Annihilation” (I was), he goes even further here while dipping his toe into folk horror and adding a few Cronenberg-worthy touches, such as a severed limb and male birthing. More direct and emotionally genuine jabs at institutionalized sexism would be Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men” (1997) and Kitty Green’s fictional take on all things Harvey Weinstein, “The Assistant” (2020). “Men” adds to that conversation, but not much that’s new. It’s how it adds that makes it a must-see curio.

Mumblecore ‘godfather’ Andrew Bujalski is back, and still finding his cinematic role ‘Funny Ha Ha’

28 Apr

By Tom Meek

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Director Andrew Bujalski, right, with actor Kevin Corrigan on the set of his 2015 film “Results.” (Photo: Ryan Green/ Magnolia Pictures)

Funny, it feels like “mumblecore” is a genre from the distant 1980s or ’90s, but it’s much more recent: The term was coined in 2005 by sound editor Eric Masunaga at the South by Southwest Film Festival, when he used it to encompass the lo-fi independent films “The Puffy Chair” by Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass, “Kissing on the Mouth” by Joe Swanberg and “Mutual Appreciation” by Andrew Bujalski. Bujalski – for whom Masunaga has been a longtime collaborator – is often referred to as “the godfather of mumblecore,” and his first film, “Funny Ha Ha” (2002), about a wayward young woman (Kate Dollenmayer), is widely considered a cornerstone of the canon.

Bujalski, who grew up in Boston, studied filmmaking at Harvard and shot that debut feature in and around the area, is back in town for a 20th anniversary screening of the film Thursday at the Coolidge Corner Theatre with a Q&A moderated by Cantabrigian filmmaker and critic Gerald Peary. (Look for some insider play with Peary, who had a small role in Bujalski’s fourth feature, “Computer Chess.”) I spoke with Bujalski about labels and the challenges of making low-budget films and supporting a family.

“I think the only thing that was different, quote unquote, or new or seemed to capture a moment was a generational divide. We just happened to be the young people at that moment,” Bujalski said of the “mumblecore” term. “Lord knows I was not setting out to define any kind of aesthetic or anything.” Mumblecore films by definition are low-budget, dialogue-driven and feature young stars, with a generational vernacular often punctuated with “uhms” “likes” and “you knows.” “Chatty movies about young, middle-class white people,” is how Bujalski sums it up. 

The making of “Funny Ha Ha” had a lot of happenstance to it. Bujalski had Dollenmayer in mind when he wrote the lead role of Marnie, a recent college grad who tempers her malaise with alcohol and sets her sights on a college friend already in a relationship. The two were roommates in Boston, but after college Bujalski was living in Austin, Texas, and Dollenmayer was looking to go to grad school in L.A. Fate, family and friendly resources landed them back in Boston to do the shoot – they had thought about L.A., but Bujalski said that would have been a “disaster.” The film wrapped in late August 2001, just two weeks before 9/11.

Bujalski’s presence in Austin isn’t an accident. One of the key cited influences for mumblecore (which has a horror subgenre called “mumblegore”) is Richard Linklater’s 1990 debut “Slacker,” which kicked off a new ripple of independent filmmaking. “Talk about godfather,” Bujalski says of Linklater (“Boyhood” and “Waking Life” – the latter being one of the few other films Dollenmayer worked on), a fellow Texan who runs the Austin Film Society and has made the city something of an indie filmmakers’ haven. 

Of his own, mumblecore “godfather” tag, Bujalski laughs, both embracing it and shrugging it off. “At the time it kind of irked me, because it felt like a slight,” he said.

Now no longer the 20-something he makes films about, Bujalski is married with 7- and 11-year-old children. With his 2015 get in shape flick “Results,” his work went upscale with some A-minus-list actors (Guy Pearce, Coby Smulders, Kevin Corrigan and Giovanni Ribisi) and a bigger budget – but he remains coy about that, saying only that all of his seven films could be made for what a first-time Sundance smash might cost. (The Internet says $30,000 for “Funny Ha Ha”). His films generally gross north of $100,000 and garner critical raves.

Of money, Bujalski says, “I have two modes: not care, and panic. I’m getting close to panic now.” For “side hustles” Bujalski says he does whatever comes his way in the industry, including working on the dubbed version of the critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated French film “I Lost My Body” (2019), a Best Animated Film pick by the Boston Society of Film Critics. 

Bujalski is working on his seventh film, “There There,” which includes Lili Taylor, Jason Schwartzman and Lennie James of “The Walking Dead” among its cast. The director was reticent to describe it beyond not being the film Bujalski set out to make; Covid thwarted those plans, and he pivoted to “There There.” (Bujalski also did not say what that eighth feature might be about.)

“We’re not sure how to describe it,” Bujalski said of “There There.” “We’re just gonna put it on the screen and let everybody else tell us what we did.”

The Northman

24 Apr

‘The Northman’: Viking precursor to Hamlet barely hesitates to hack away at his problems

By Tom Meek Friday, April 22, 2022

It’s hard to believe Robert Eggers’ $90 million Viking saga is just two films out from his rousing debut “The Witch,” which he made for a humble $4 million back in 2015. That moody, Colonial-era chiller went on to amass more than $25 million worldwide, reinvigorating the folk horror genre and pronouncing Eggers as the talent of tomorrow. Tomorrow is today as “The Northman” thunders into theaters, an ambitious, big-scale take on the A.D. 895 tale of Amleth, a classic (or the classic?) revenge drama that would later become the roots for the Shakespearean tragedy “Hamlet.”

From the opening shots of an Icelandic volcano belching rivulets of lava and the churning north sea (the North Atlantic, as we now call it), Eggers casts a foreboding scape that brims with brutal beauty and primal allure. We often get Viking warriors crouched on all fours, grunting and howling as they channel their inner wolf during pre-battle rites conducted within the ring of a bonfire; no words, English or language of yore, fall from their lips.

In chaptered segments, we begin with King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) returning from a conquest to his people, his wife Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and his young son, Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak). Hawke slips surprisingly well into the gruff, growly role, but Aurvandil’s not with us long; his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang, “The Square”) ambushes him and looks to kill the prince as well, but as lore and legend have it, Amleth is something of an Aquaman and can swim far and wide. In the next chapter we catch up with Amleth, now mature and ripped and played by Alexander Skarsgård (who played opposite Kidman as her husband in the series “Big Little Lies”) embarking upon a war party raid that is one long, gorgeously shot carnival of carnage. It’s not until the last drop of blood soaks into the mud (the film has that “Gladiator” sword-and-sandal texture to it, but mud-and-blood is a more apt tag) that you fully realize that Amleth is out for one thing: to even the score with Fjölnir. To do so, he poses as a slave working Fjölnir’s fields. You’d imagine with such strong genetic ties, his uncle might recognize his now burly and physically capable nephew, but he does not, and neither does his mother, who has taken up with Fjölnir and borne him a son.

Much of the copious and well-staged violence unleashed onscreen is the manifestation of the molten rage that roils inside Amleth, who proves an efficient and unrestrained killing machine. Skarsgård carries the part strikingly, but it’s Kidman who shines in a multifaceted role in which everything is not as it appears. Eggers regular Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch”) throws in as Olga, a slave alongside Amleth who becomes his lover and co-conspirator, as does fellow Eggers ally Willem Dafoe (who co-starred with Robert Pattinson in “The Lighthouse”) as Aurvandil’s fool. Icelander Björk, in her first feature performance since “Dancer in the Dark” in 2000, takes up the part of the oracle who torments Amleth.

Those who might be concerned that such a budget and scope might change or addle the filmmaker’s work can relax. “The Northman” feels strangely akin to Eggers’ earlier efforts; at the core, they’re all period pieces set in harsh, unforgiving surroundings haunted by the spirits of past inhabitants. Where those big dollars go are the sets, the stockaded villages, Viking ships and earth-roofed fiefdoms nestled into the rolling hills of Iceland. Eggers carries forward his animal obsession too. It was a menacing goat in “The Witch” and a baneful seagull in “The Lighthouse”; here we get a murder of crows that have Amleth’s back, not to mention his ability to commune with a friendly fox on his covert night stalks or Fjölnir’s pet bull mastiff. Not all of “The Northman” works – some of it’s muddled visually and linguistically, and at turns it gets a bit too feral for its own good – but the immersion and mood makes for a mesmerizing and haunting odyssey, much in the same way Terrence Malick’s dreamy “The New World” (2005) took us to back to our early colonial origins.

Mark Wahlberg is reaching out

14 Apr

The actor-producer is mourning his mom, modeling faith instead of underwear and repudiating his breakthrough in ‘Boogie Nights’

By Tom Meek Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Mark Wahlberg, in town to promote the opening of his “Father Stu.” (Photo: Tom Meek)

The evolution of local guy Mark Wahlberg has been an intriguing, ongoing process, starting as a troubled Dorchester gangbanger with brief turns as an underwear model and hip-hop incarnation Marky Mark (“Good Vibrations”). As a movie star he’s worked with some of the industry’s best (Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tim Burton and David O’Russell), done a myriad of cheeky comedies (“2 Guns,” Daddy’s Home”), rocked it in actioners (“Lone Survivor,” “Transformers”), made a few duds (“Infinite,” “Mile 22”) and shot local (“Patriots Day,” “The Fighter,” “Spenser Confidential,” “Ted” and “The Departed,” for which Wahlberg was Oscar-nominated). He’s starred in nearly 70 films and has produced many of those projects, including “The Fighter” (2010), which earned Wahlberg a Best Picture nomination, and his latest, “Father Stu,” a passion project about the titular real-life boxer Stuart Long, who bottoms out but goes on to become an inspirational priest while facing severe personal challenges.

Wahlberg was in town to promote the film for its Wednesday opening. The actor, who has a past of assault and drug use as a teen, was warm and open in conversation and called the film “a reflection of my faith and where I’m at today as a person.” (In 2017, after connecting with his Catholic faith, Wahlberg said that he regretted making 1997’s “Boogie Nights” because of the views the Catholic Church has on pornography, and that he wanted to serve as a role model for youth finding faith.) Wahlberg’s trip back to his hometown was notably bittersweet, as he lost his mother to dementia during the making of the film. “It’s tough, because it’s the first time I’ve been back in Boston,” Wahlberg said, “because the first thing I do is go see my mom. I don’t get to make the phone calls anymore, and every time I came, she was always just right there. So it’s a bit strange being here right now.”

About the film and its religious overtones, which are fairly balanced in the final product, Wahlberg is pragmatic: “It’s a redemption story. It’s many things, but, you know, hopefully, it’s going to encourage people to start looking at the good again.” Wahlberg put up much of the money to get the project made and in the future hopes to “utilize whatever influence I may wield in the industry to make the kind of things that I want to put out there” – ostensibly, more faith-based films. One of his main allies in making the film was Mel Gibson, a fellow Christian who directed the deeply faith-based film “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) and costars as Wahlberg’s father. The two connected on the set of “Daddy’s Home 2” (2017). “I was always inspired by his making of ‘The Passion of the Christ,’” Wahlberg said, “and I wanted pick his brain about it, and to see where he had difficulties and why he just chose to do it on his own.” Gibson’s partner, Rosalind Ross, wrote the script and makes her directorial debut with “Father Stu.” 

For all of Wahlberg’s professed desire to make more faith-based work, his upcoming projects include the comedy “Me Time,” about a dad needing some personal space, and “The Six Billion Dollar Man,” a 2022 fiscal and technological update of the ’70s TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man.” 

He also said he wanted to revisit the role of boxer Micky Ward, which he played in “The Fighter,” and explore Ward’s relationship with Arturo Gatti, whom he faced in three grueling title fights. (Gatti died in 2009 of mysterious causes, which many believe was a homicide set up to look like suicide.)