“Dara of Jasenovac” (Dara iz Jasenovca) is a technical beauty, but leaves us wondering about the purpose and effect of Holocaust films moving forward
Serbia’s official submission for the 2021 Academy Awards, Dara of Jasenovac, reminds us that no matter how many Holocaust films are made, there are important details and individual stories that have not yet been represented on the screen. Directed by Predrag Antonijević, Dara of Jasenovac is the first film about the Jasenovac complex in The Independent State of Croatia during the 1940s, which was run by the fascist Ustase government and used for the systematic murder of ethnic Serbs, Jews, and Roma people. While the film’s protagonist, 10-year-old Dara (Biljana Čekić), is not based on a specific historical person, the filmmakers chose to tell the story from a child’s perspective to emphasize the fact that there were specific camps in Jasenovac for children. The film begins when Dara is first transported to the complex along with her mother, infant brother, and other people from her village. She is subsequently moved through different facilities, gradually coming to understand the evil unfolding around her as those who entered the camp with her are killed one by one. Taking on more responsibility than she should ever have to bear, Dara resolves to do everything she can to keep her brother alive.
Psychological thriller “The Night” masters the familiar haunted hotel setting with technical excellence.
Kourosh Ahari’s psychological thriller, The Night, is a stellar example of a film that may not have the next best original ideas within its genre, but is so well done that it is nonetheless entertaining and worthwhile. Despite a handful of predictable plot points and stereotypical gendered conflicts, The Night’s talented cast and distinct style create a spine-chilling, mind-bending, what-did-I-just-watch experience that reminds us why the horror genre is so exciting.
With a darkly comedic, absurdist and fantastical tone, the style of “The Mimic” is more impressive than its content
The tagline for The Mimic, “the lighter side of being a sociopath,” boasts an intriguing story for anyone interested in representations of mental illness on screen. While this dark comedy from writer/director Thomas F. Mazziotti is not quite the informative and mental health-positive flick you might expect, The Mimic still has several interesting stylistic tidbits to offer. The story’s self-proclaimed narrator (Thomas Sadoski) is a brooding screenwriter and widower who becomes suspicious of the new guy in his neighborhood, referred to as “The Kid” (Jake Robinson). After both men attend a meeting for the community newspaper, The Kid starts following The Narrator around everywhere and popping up in the most unlikely places, leading The Narrator to believe that this unwanted “mimic” is a certified sociopath. However, The Narrator is also pining after The Kid’s young wife, who is characterized as a beauty so perfect that she cannot be shown on screen. As The Narrator takes a deep dive into obsessive research on sociopaths and even begins writing a screenplay about The Kid, it’s hard to tell if he is being stalked by his overeager new neighbor or if The Narrator is turning into a stalker himself. With dark humor and an obscure style, The Mimic is an off-beat, self-referential buddy comedy that touches on psychology and interpersonal relationships.
With strong performances, a compelling story, and a satisfying blend of romance and mystery, all “32 Weeks” needs is a better ending.
Sometimes, writers get a tad bit lazy with their narratives and throw in a character with amnesia as a cheap and easy way to wiggle themselves out of plot holes and avoid the extra work of coming up with a clever twist for their story. Because this predictable soap-opera-style technique is so familiar, it can be easy to dismiss and overlook stories that center around memory loss. However, when used with caution and careful thought, amnesia as a plot device can actually make for compelling storytelling, as is the case with 32 Weeks. This romance/ mystery from writer/director Brian Cavallaro works so well because the protagonist’s memory-loss-inducing-incident occurs right at the start of the story. When Cole (Nicole Souza) wakes up in the hospital after a car accident with no memory of the past 32 weeks of her life, the audience is in pretty much the same boat as Cole with no knowledge of what happened to her during that time. This setup creates a thrilling closed mystery with tons of possibilities that keep us engaged and guessing until the end. However, things begin to fall apart for 32 Weeks when the mystery is revealed with the final “twist,” a somewhat sloppy ending that doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the film. Still, the story leading up to that final let-down is a charming journey with some fantastic performances.
After the accident, Cole can remember a lot of things. She remembers her personal information, her apartment, and how to play the violin. She also remembers her best friend and former roommate, Hannah (Nicole Rainteau). What she doesn’t remember, however, is her six-week relationship with the charming, outgoing Simon (Scott Bender). Cheeky but caring, Simon does everything he can to help Cole recover her memories, even though she has absolutely no recollection of him. While Simon knows just about everything about Cole, Cole must essentially start the relationship over from scratch and can only rely on Hannah’s word and her old text messages to be sure that she was even dating Simon before the accident. As flashes from the past begin to come back to Cole like dreams, she gets the thrilling opportunity to get to know the man she had fallen in love with all over again. In soft, romantic sequences with a tinted grainy filter and twinkling music, 32 Weeks takes us back into Cole’s pleasant memories as they all come rolling back to her. However, not all the memories that come back are good ones. As Cole continues to look back through her messages and texts, she realizes that Simon isn’t the only person from her recent past that she has forgotten, and her friends are reluctant to help her fill in the gaps of the more painful memories. Cole is forced to try and put the pieces together herself until the final memory clicks into place.
Highly anticipated queer romance “Ammonite” doesn’t quite live up to expectations, despite its technical mastery
With its poster of Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan looking wistfully out onto the sea, Francis Lee’s Ammonite, a period romance inspired by the life of English Paleontologist Mary Anning, has certainly set high audience expectations for itself. Although Lee constructs a fictional romance between Anning and her fellow geology enthusiast, Charlotte Murchison, for his film, Ammonite is less about speculating the actual details of Mary’s personal life and more about humanizing this often overlooked pioneer for women in science in a context of connection and intimacy. Although Ammonite more than hits the target with technical mastery and beauty, creating a fictionalized version of Anning whose weathered soul and loneliness bites through the screen, the romance itself lacks the chemistry and nuance that would have taken it to the next level.
Tapping into the rich history of water-creature horror flicks, Braden R. Duemmler’s feature debut, “What Lies Below” is quite a mixed bag
As a descendant of the aquatic-creature-horror genre (sub genre? Sub-sub genre?), Braden R. Duemmeler’s feature directorial debut, What Lies Below, naturally inherited some Universal Classic Monsters nostalgia. Besides Creature from the Black Lagoon’s “Gill Man,” (1954) the common ancestor of so many cinematic water-terrors, What Lies Below also takes cues from a handful of other film classics. There’s dashes of Spielburg in the eerie lights that glow from the bottom of the lake, bits of Friday the 13th (1980) in the film’s isolated lake house setting, and echoes of dozens of teen summer camp films in the bright colors of the opening scenes. What Lies Below pulls together an eclectic mix of movie influences, but the question is whether or not all this inspiration actually works together. Although it is an entertaining thriller overall, What Lies Below takes on a bit more than it can handle. The film never quite comes into its own, jumping shakily back and forth between different themes and schemes.
The good intentions of dramatic thriller “Choir Girl” fall flat as the story devolves into a questionable savior fantasy.
Choir Girl sets up a story that begs to be told through pictures. Its protagonist, Eugene (Peter Flaherty), is a shy street photographer who hopes that his pictures will expose the hardships of everyday life in his neighborhood and, eventually, make him enough money to pack up and move somewhere better. But it’s not simply the main character’s profession as a photographer that makes this story so well suited for film. Choir Girl, the feature debut of writer/director John Fraser, is all about looking and being looked at, about capturing and criticizing images, and about creating perspective through the lens of a camera. Any narrative that is so centrally structured on these subjects is a narrative most artfully told through film or photography itself rather than words, music, or live performance. Films about film naturally develop multiple layers of self-reflexivity and can, in turn, create a self-aware viewing experience for the audience. Choir Girl sets the stage for such a viewing experience but, unfortunately, watches more like a rough first draft than a final cut. Although it is bubbling with potential, Choir Girl leaves much to be desired.
Although its technical aspects are more successful than its plot and characters, torture-horror “Sleepless Beauty” makes for an interesting watch.
Excessive and explicit violence on screen always leads to questions about whether such images are necessary. If a director packs their movie with medieval torture and bodily trauma, does that violence serve a purpose, or is it simply a sadistic celebration of gore that delights in human pain? Is the audience expected to enjoy the blood and torture, or are they likely to have a more complex viewing experience? After watching the trailer for Sleepless Beauty, a torture horror film from director Pavel Khvaleev, I’ll admit that I had low expectations for the film as far as it’s use of violence, and I prepared myself for excessive gore with little meaning or thought behind it. However, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Sleepless Beauty, which, although by no means groundbreaking or flawless, makes a definite attempt to substantiate its numerous torture scenes with a bit of social commentary. While it does not succeed in every instance, Sleepless Beauty aims to create a sympathetic victim, explore her mental state, and ask relevant questions that go beyond the blood and guts on screen.
Dazzling fantasy “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” brings a thrilling journey of self-acceptance to life
When it comes to fantasy, I’ve always been most drawn to stories that emphasize the element of escape; stories in which the setting is not just a magical world, but a world that is within reach of our own reality. There’s something almost seductive about stories like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Peter Pan, or A Wrinkle in Time in which the characters just happen to stumble upon a wondrous world that’s only a flight away or behind the thin wooden back of a wardrobe. The idea that Narnia and Neverland could exist alongside reality endows my own world with a rich and thrilling potential energy. This is the sort of thrill I experienced while watching Martin Krejcí’s feature directorial debut, The True Adventures of Wolfboy, a delightful coming-of-age drama that combines the fantastical visual style of Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003) with the adventurousness of timeless teen classics like Stand by Me (1986). Although the hero of the story, Paul, (Jaeden Martell) never actually crosses over into another world, and all of his adventures could, in theory, take place in our present reality, his journey exudes such heroic grandeur and wide-eyed fantastical wonder that it captures the thrill of a fantasyland just waiting to be discovered behind a door or down a rabbit hole.
Spike Lee brings David Byrne’s once in a lifetime musical experience “American Utopia” to HBO and HBO Max.
On October 9th, The Broadway League announced, to the severe disappointment of theatre professionals and fans, that Broadway will remain closed until June 2021. It’s difficult to imagine that the musicals, concerts, and plays that have been a New York City staple and a popular tourist attraction for years just aren’t taking place right now. However, even before the pandemic, filmed versions of Broadway shows brought these performances to audiences across the country who couldn’t otherwise afford to experience Broadway theatre. The success of the Hamilton pro-shot, released earlier this summer on Disney+, revealed how these filmed performances can keep the love of theatre alive, even while Broadway remains closed. While film and live theatre are entirely different mediums, and a film certainly cannot replace the experience of a live performance, a pro-shot can create an entirely new perspective on an already amazing show. Oscar and Emmy-winning director Spike Lee has done just that with David Byrne’s American Utopia, which captures a breathtaking, sold-out performance in a way that only film can.
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."