Ryan Reynolds hits his sweet spot with FREE GUY

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Years ago, putting on sunglasses tipped the hero off to what was really going on in the world in They Live. Something similar happens to Guy (Ryan Reynolds) in Shawn Levy’s Free Guy. There is a difference: Roddy Piper’s Nada was made privy to the reality of human existence in John Carpenter’s horror sci-fi classic. Guy is an NPC (non-player character) in a video game, clued in by the glasses to the fact that he lives in a video game, which goes so far in explaining why every day of his existence is exactly the same. But that is far from all in this fast-paced, action-packed movie that is both a fresh and funny existential comedy and a delightful rom-com.

In Free City, Guy lives a strictly regulated life, dressed daily in identical blue button-down shirts and khaki pants, drinking the same coffee order, greeting people with the same catch phrase (“Don’t have a good day – have a great day!”), and destined to be robbed every single day at his job as a bank teller. Such is the life of an NPC, who exists only as background with predetermined actions and behaviors.

Unaware that he is nothing but a string of binary code, he is a cheerful, happy sort. But one day, he tries to order a cappuccino – most definitely not his regular order and not on the café’s menu – and it is the beginning of Guy’s emancipation from the dreary existence of an NPC. The glasses add fuel to the fire and so does the appearance of Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer, Killing Eve), a comely British bad-ass on a personal mission. The twin revelations spur guy to become one of the “sunglasses people” he’s always admired: a man of action, and in his case, a hero.

Guy’s activities do not go unnoticed in the world outside the game. For Keys (Joe Keery, Stranger Things) and Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Brittany Runs a Marathon), low-level techies at the gaming company, he is a problem to solve. For Millie (Comer again), locked in a battle with crass CEO Antoine (an exuberantly evil Taika Waititi) over code she is certain he stole from a game she and Keys designed that he repurposed for Free City, Guy might hold the key to proving her case. The gaming world falls in love with the character. Antoine, about to release Free City 2, feels threatened by the outlier and just wants him gone. And while Guy is all-in on his crush on Molotov Girl, Keys remains in oblivious denial of his feelings for his old gaming partner.

The screenplay by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, from an idea of Lieberman’s, keeps all of its balls in the air. The action is satisfying and blends well with the comedy, particularly in scenes where Keys and Mouser adopt characters to go into the game to track down Guy and in a confrontation that Guy has with rough-and-tumble character Avatar (Channing Tatum). At the same time, there is a sweetness that permeates even the most action-packed scenes, reflecting the personality of Free Guy‘s bubbly hero. Whether throwing down with bad guys, mooning over Molotov Girl, or earnestly trying to convince his best pal, bank security guard Buddy (Lil Rel Howery, Get Out) that there is a life to be had outside their rote existence, Guy’s warmth and good intentions shine through.

Guy is a role tailor-made for its star, capturing both his humor and bonhomie. Reynolds shines as this accidental hero and a man reaching beyond his seeming capabilities. As an NPC, Guy’s is a circumscribed role, but he has somehow slipped his programming and developed as artificial intelligence, capable of thought and feeling and of earning the admiration and empathy of humans. We’ve been trained to imagine an AI world as one of The Terminator, where we will live in fear of what we created. But what if AI is something else? What if AI looks a lot like Guy? Imagine the possibilities. Free Guy does and it’s glorious. –Pam Grady

Character actor Udo Kier steps into SWAN SONG and emerges a star

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Udo Kier recently spent a lot of time in a nursing home. Oh, not because the 76-year-old German actor was ill or otherwise infirm, but because that was the home of Pat Pitsenbarger, the retired Sandusky, OH, hairdresser he plays in Todd Stephens’ Swan Song.

“I talked to Todd about shooting [the film] as chronologically as possible,” Kier says in a recent Zoom call from his elegant home in Palm Springs.

“We started in the nursing home and I spent time there on my own, to get a feeling for the room, for the mattress. Where are my cigarettes? I have to know that because it is my room. I’ve lived there for years, so I cannot, just as an actor, come to a set and say, ‘Whare are my cigarettes?’ I have to know.”

In a career that spans 55 years and nearly 300 film and television credits, Kier counts among his collaborators Paul Morrissey (Blood for Dracula, Flesh for Frankenstein), Dario Argento (Suspiria, Mother of Tears), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Stationmaster’s Wife, The Third Generation, Lili Marleen), Guy Maddin (Keyhole, The Forbidden Room), and Lars von Trier (Europa, Breaking the Waves, The Kingdom TV series, and many more). He was Dragonetti in the 1998 horror film Blade (“I was the overlord vampire who says, ‘I have lived for thousands of years!,'” Kier recalls 23 years later.) In recent years, he’s played a miller with a visceral taste for vengeance in the 2019 adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s World War II novel The Painted Bird and a hunting guide whose wealthy clients seek vulnerable prey in Bacurau.

In short, it is not the resume of someone one would immediately think of when casting a flyover country hairdresser, but Stephens knew Kier was his Pat the moment they met. The filmmaker knew Pitsenbarger, so he had specific memories from which he drew the character.

“Pat was a flamboyant guy, but he was also a quiet. He was kind of like Udo,” Stephens says.

“Also, one of the things was I wanted somebody that could relate to the life that Pat led, and that had known people that were lost, that lost friends to AIDS, and lived through that experience and didn’t  have to fake it but be real and that’s Udo.”

The death of Pat’s frenemy, Rita Parker Sloan (Dynasty‘s Linda Evans), sets Swan Song in motion when she leaves instructions that he is to do her hair for the funeral. So, he makes his escape from the home and spends the day visiting old haunts and poking at old memories, all roads leading to the bar where he was once a star drag queen attraction.

Returning to Sandusky where his parents and other family – Stephens’ brother put up Kier for the 18-day shoot – still live was a kind of shock to the filmmaker. He made his first feature, Edge of Seventeen there, 23 years ago and remembers hiding the fact that the film was a gay, autobiographical coming-of-age drama because he felt he couldn’t tell the truth in a small, conservative city. This time out, when he arrived back in town to start production, he was just in time for Sandusky’s third annual Pride celebration.

“There’s Gay Pride flags all up and down Main Street,” Stephens says, “And people knew the real Pat. It was like, ‘Oh my god, my mother went to him or my grandmother went to him,’ and so there was big love for the real guy.”

For Kier, Sandusky helped inform his character. He describes Main Street as his studio. Most of his scenes were shot in various stores and other locations there. He further got to know Pat through the reminiscences of the hairdresser’s old friends that he was able to meet. He became one with his character.

“I had an amazing time, because for me, there wasn’t any difference, I was Pat all the time,” Kier says. “I was the same person, day and night, just like that.”

“It was like 100 degrees half the time,” Stephens adds. “But it was the best experience shooting my life. Watching this guy every day blew my fucking mind.”

So often the character actor who stands out in support, this time Kier is the star, a development not lost on him. He won the best actor prize at the Monte Carlo Comedy Film Festival and his reviews have been stellar. While he jokes he will never star for Steven Spielberg, he senses new opportunities in the independent film realm that has long been his home.

“This film with Todd, it’s very important for me because it changed my attitude for the future,” Kier says. “It also a little changing my life, getting main parts in films. I got a few offers and I’m looking for something where people can follow me, if I play maybe a man I knew very well, William Burroughs. Maybe I’ll play William Burroughs. He was a very interesting man, painting and shooting at his paintings. I knew him quite well. So that’s what I’m looking for.

“And I’m so happy for Todd. This is such a success.” –Pam Grady

Swan Song is playing in theaters.

With Reservations: ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN

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Anthony Bourdain stars in Morgan Neville’s documentary, ROADRUNNER, a Focus Features release. Credit Courtesy of CNN / Focus Features

“Roadrunner,” Jonathan Richman’s euphoric ode to cruising down the highway opens Morgan Neville’s latest documentary, a promise that this biopic of the late chef, writer, TV host, and raconteur Anthony Bourdain will be a celebration. It was a song the filmmaker should have passed on because that was a promise he was never going to be able to deliver. As he admits not long after Richman’s tune fades out, Bourdain’s is a story without a happy ending. In fact, Roadrunner is not so much a documentary as a dirge.

When Bourdain published Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, the then executive chef at the New York brasserie Les Halles became an instant star. The book exposed what goes on behind the scenes in restaurant kitchens with swashbuckling wit – the tone of a writer who grew up a fan of the Burt Lancaster adventure The Crimson Pirate. In middle age, Bourdain found himself not just the author of best-selling books but a globetrotting media sensation, thanks to his shows A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown as well as his appearances on everything from The Oprah Winfrey Show to Late Show with David Letterman to The Daily Show. Even as he entered his 60s, his future seemed limitless – until he ended it, hanging himself in a French hotel room in 2018.

Neville, whose previous documentaries include the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom and the Fred Rogers biopic Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, frames his film as kind of an investigation into what led a man who apparently had everything to take his own life. Neville limns Bourdain’s youth and troubled life before he righted himself first in restaurant kitchens, then as the head of his growing media empire. He delves into the man’s insatiable appetite for acquainting himself with new cultures, new foods, and new adventures. And Neville covers Bourdain’s broken relationships, although only his second wife (and mother of his young daughter) Ottavia Busia participates. Notable by their absence in the postmortem interviews are Bourdain’s first wife (and high school sweetheart), Nancy Putkoski, and his last lover, actor/filmmaker Asia Argento, cast in the doc in a kind of evil Yoko Ono role.

Besides Busia and Bourdain’s younger brother, Chris, it is left up to Bourdain’s friends and associates in restaurant kitchens and the television world to fill in the blanks, supplemented by copious amounts of footage of Bourdain both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. One imagines it was cathartic for the people who sat down with Neville to talk about their friend, but actual insight is rare. We learn he could be cruel – one friend is brought to tears recalling how Bourdain once told him that he didn’t think his pal was capable of being a good father. (“Projecting,” the friend concludes.) In a moment captured late in his life, we learn how geeky Bourdain could be in a cringe-worthy moment where he prattles endlessly about Argento’s car parking prowess.

But for all the footage of Bourdain on screen, it is his voice that is truly missing. (So missing, in fact, that Neville made the ethically dubious decision to digitally fake Bourdain’s voice in a couple of scenes.) Even with the behind-the-scenes footage and home movie excerpts, what we’re privy to is a public persona. What he chose to reveal of himself in his writing and public appearances was carefully curated. Neville has set for himself an impossible task in seeking answers that went with Bourdain to his grave. We get prismatic glimpses of the man through the offered recollections, but the portrait remains incomplete. The filmmaker never gets as close to his subject as he did to, say, Fred Rogers.

Why did Bourdain’s marriages fail? Why did a man who embraced middle-aged fatherhood still spend 250 days every year on the road and away from the daughter he adored? Why did the man who was open and eager to experiencing everything life had to offer end that life so abruptly? Bourdain who seemed so knowable in life is unknowable in death – at least, in this documentary. The suicide that punctuates the doc remains as shocking as it was when it happened three years ago. But with that shock comes the realization that Bourdain deserves a better coda than this, one that doesn’t feel so hollow or so muck like gawking at the sight of a terrible car wreck. – Pam Grady

F9: Stuff blows up when it is brother versus brother

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Movies in the Fast & Furious franchise really ought to come with a warning. Not about the extravagant violence and sky-high body counts, but about the sheer idiocy that defines these movies. Oh, they are entertaining and frequently hilarious in their doltish way but watching them is a good way to kill off brain cells. F9, the dumbest entry in moviedom’s dumbest franchise, will murder many.

Like Michael Corleone once lamented, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” so it is with Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel). Living in exile on an isolated farm with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and his young son, Little Brian (yes, “Little” Brian – as if anyone would mistake a small child for the late Paul Walker after whose character he’s named), he has put his old life behind him. At least, until Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) show up to enlist Dom and Letty into a new caper with the fate of the world in balance. Those snobs at MI6 or IMF have got nothing on these gearheads charged with recovering a device that could alter the world order – and with putting to right Dom Toretto’s world.

The first hint that something biblical is on the menu happens when Dom is still on the farm, putting Little Brian to bed, telling the boy that God lives in his heart. Then he says, “I live in your heart.” Does this mean Dom is God? In his own mind, certainly. But the theme continues when it turns out that the nemesis he must vanquish this time out is his own brother Jakob (once and future WWE fighter John Cena). The Cain-and-Abel vibe is unmistakable, sibling rivalry turned into sibling warfare (and often sibling hand-to-hand combat, that is when they aren’t trying to outdrive each other). Flashbacks reveal the heart of the beef between these warring brothers with daddy issues.

The Dom and Jakob reunion is not the only one in F9, as this is a film that assembles as much of the crew as possible, both friends – including Dom and Jakob’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), Han (Sung Kang), and Sean (Lucas Black) – and Dom’s foe Cipher (Charlize Theron, slumming to the point where the Academy might want its Oscar back). Even Deckard Shaw’s (Jason Statham) thieving mum, Queenie, shows up, Helen Mirren adding a touch of regal class to this live-action cartoon. (To catch sight of Statham, stay for the end credits.) F9 is not the end of the franchise, but if it had finished here, it would have been given a proper burial.

Instead, the will soldier on, despite the fact that there are really only so many ways you can crash cars and director Justin Lin and the writers are clearly beginning to run out of ideas on that score. The non-driving Ramsey learns on the fly, steering a big box truck down the narrow streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, the vehicle equipped with high power magnets, so that the chase becomes one of high-powered, explosive bumper cars. So far, so funny, but then the magnet gag keeps getting repeated. And, sure, that helps pad out the running time, but it loses steam through rote repetition. A more inspired (and lunatic) bit plants Roman and Tej in a rocket-equipped car – and, well, cue the Space X jokes.

F9 left me yearning for the return of SCTV and Joe Flaherty and the late John Candy’s “Farm Report” where a pair of cinephile farmers acted as the rural answer to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. They would have cut to the chase and distilled F9 to its very essence: “Stuff blowed up real good.” Yes, yes, it did. –Pam Grady

Grief, guilt, and revenge animate resonant RIDERS OF JUSTICE

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A soldier returns from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan after his wife’s death in a train accident and turns into a merciless avenger when he becomes convinced that his spouse was actually collateral damage in a vicious conspiracy. That Death Wish trope activates the plot in this Danish drama that reunites filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen with frequent collaborators Mads Mikkelsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas, but things are never that simple-minded with Jensen. Instead of a revenge thriller, Riders of Justice is a violent, sometimes darkly funny but also surprising and warm observation of people grappling with grief, guilt, and the human impulse to make sense out of the incomprehensible.

A young girl’s wish for a blue bicycle for Christmas is what sets the film in motion. She has nothing to do with anyone else in the film. She doesn’t even live in Denmark, but her stated desire is the first link in a chain reaction that explodes into madness. Markus (Mikkelsen) adds another link with his decision to stay at his military post rather than return home for a visit with his family. Data scientist Otto (Kaas) forms one more link as a survivor of the train accident. But perhaps the most important link is the member of the Riders of Justice motorcycle gang who left his wheels home and took the train on that fateful afternoon.

While Markus and Otto are convinced that somehow the motorcycle gang is responsible for what the authorities deem an accident, they are each, in their own way grappling with guilt that implicates them in the event. Markus’ wife and daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) would not have been on the train had he come home. Otto has survivor’s guilt and not only for this one event.

Together, they are a mess. Otto at least has a support system in fumbling colleagues Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro). They rally around Markus and Mathilde, too, but Markus is too much inside his own head to accept emotional support or to give it. He is useless to Mathilde, unable to offer the solace she desperately needs.

There are many pleasures in Riders of Justice, from the arresting performances of Mikkelsen, Kaas, and the rest of the cast to Jensen’s nuanced, complex screenplay to the chaos unleashed on the bikers by Markus and his oddball band of science geek brothers.

But what is most entrancing is watching Markus, Mathilde, Otto and his colleagues, and others drawn into their orbit slowly come together for far more emotionally resonant reasons than simple vengeance and seeing Markus – a man apparently dead inside long before he lost his wife – gradually return to the land of the living.

Riders of Justice is a rare film. Movies with this much brutal action are not supposed to leave audiences feeling warm and fuzzy about humanity. With the aid of his wonderful ensemble, especially Mikkelsen, in this latest work, Jensen manages exactly that. –Pam Grady

Riders of Justice is playing in theaters.

Statham, Ritchie reunite for WRATH-ful thriller

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Jason Statham stars as H in director Guy Ritchie’s WRATH OF MAN, A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Photo credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved

Wrath of Man is a homecoming of sorts, Jason Statham’s first film since 2005’s Revolver with Guy Ritchie, the director with whom he started his career with the one-two punch of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000). An adaptation of a 2004 French film, Le convoyeur, the reunion between an auteur of ultra-violence and his stoic muse is a diverting wallow in high body count cinema.

Ritchie is well past the era when his films were inventive and as darkly funny as they were bloody, but he can still produce a satisfying (if ridiculous) thriller. This one begins with the suspense meter already set at 11 with a high-octane action sequence set in the streets of Los Angeles that introduces a faceless heist gang with at least one trigger-happy member. From there, it develops into the story of H (Statham), a new British employee at a Southern California armored car company who barely passes his gun qualification only to show exactly how deadly his aim is when a shipment he is guarding comes under fire. He clearly is not the average schlub he claims to be (as if his reserved demeanor and six-pack abs didn’t already give that away).

Eventually Wrath of Man settles into a three-pronged story. There is the origin story of H defining who he is, really, and why he wanted a job far below his particular skill set. There is the story of the criminal gang that includes war vets Jackson (Burn Notice‘s Jeffrey Donovan) and wild card Jan (Scott Eastwood), who seem to be operating out of the notion that because they served their country, the world now owes them. And there is the armored car company where absurd nicknames like Bullet (Mindhunter‘s Holt McCallany), Boy Sweat Dave (Josh Hartnett), and Hollow Bob (Rocci Williams) abound to substitute for anyone having a distinct personality.

To Ritchie’s credit, he keeps things moving and puts the “thrill” in thriller, acts of extravagant brutality bursting forth at regular intervals. One area where he and co-screenwriters Marn Davies and Ivan Atkinson fall short is on creating three-dimensional characters. H comes closest, thanks to Statham’s truculent charm and more fully realized motivation for H’s actions.

That the entire plot rests on one very big coincidence makes the whole movie vaguely farcical (although never humorous). But as vicious time waters go, Wrath of Man fills the bill for suspenseful, if superficial entertainment. It’s the cinematic equivalent of junk food, nothing but empty calories, but satisfying a certain urge for mindless, savage amusement. – Pam Grady

Celebratory Hector Babenco doc streams in virtual film series highlighting 2021 international Oscar picks

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For her feature documentary directing debut, Brazilian actress Barbara Paz, did not have to travel far, only to the other side of the marital bed as she turns her lens on her husband, filmmaker Hector Babenco. A joint project between spouses, Babenco: Tell Me When I Die, Brazil’s 2021 international feature film Oscar entry, is an incandescent examination of an auteur’s life and work and a deep dive into an artist’s reckoning with his own mortality as Babenco – who died in 2016 at 70 – wages a losing battle against cancer. Despite that, the film is not maudlin nor is it an elegy. It is a wife’s love letter to her spouse and a celebration of his art.

By the time, Babenco tells his wife, “I’ve already lived my death; now all that is left is to make a film about it,” the Argentinean-born director, who adopted Brazil as his home, has been living with dying for decades. He was only 38, riding high on the strength of his 1981 critically acclaimed drama of the Brazilian favelas Pixote and his Oscar-nominated 1985 Hollywood debut Kiss of the Spider Woman, when he was first diagnosed with cancer. At one point, in the first years of the disease, he was given four to six months to live. Yet, not only did Babenco survive, he thrived for three more decades.

Images in Babenco: Tell Me When I Die are a luminous black-and-white, even the clips from Babenco’s films and behind-the-scenes footage of the director at work rendered so. His last film, 2014’s My Hindu Friend parallels the filmmaker’s real-life situation, as Willem Dafoe (an associate producer on Babenco: Tell Me When I Die) plays a filmmaker facing death. In the documentary, Babenco similarly struggles with his failing health, but his illness is only one facet of the film. Paz takes the measure of her husband’s life: his youth in Argentina, his life as an artist, his love of film. She also limns a devoted couple’s story as they face the biggest challenge of their relationship. It is not a straightforward biography; playful, surreal touches abound as Paz celebrates Babenco’s life in a rich, impressionistic style that bits her subject and his oeuvre.

Babenco: Tell Me When I Die does not yet have a US distributor, but it is screening Jan. 22-Feb. 11 as part of the California Film Institute (CFI)/Smith Rafael Film Center’s 17th annual For Your Consideration: A Celebration of World Cinema. The virtual program comprised of over two dozen of the 93 films eligible for the international feature Oscar this year is available for streaming nationwide on the CFI website. –Pam Grady

Oh to be in GREENLAND at the end of the world

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Oh to be in GREENLAND at the end of the world

They call the comet “Clarke” in the new movie Greenland. How sweet. What a cute name for a comet so long that astronomists cannot even see its tail. As it hurtles closer and closer, the media quotes the scientific consensus that the space object will come so near Earth that anyone looking up will be able to see it in the sky, even in daylight – but it is harmless. Even as pieces start breaking off, speeding toward Earth, the world is reassured the shards will land harmlessly in the ocean.  Of course, were that to happen, there would be no drama and no movie.

That scenario of an event that begins innocuously enough only to threaten all life on Earth is not new. Even Lars Von Trier had a go at the scenario with Melancholia and managed to turn an action trope into an existential drama about a family facing the enormity of apocalypse. But Greenland stars Gerard Butler, he of the Fallen series, so it is an action movie – about a family… trying to catch a plane.

No joke. Clarke is about to cause an extinction level event. For structural engineer John Garrity (Butler), Allison (Morena Baccarin), and young son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd), their own shot at survival is to make their way to Greenland and a place in one of the sweet underground bunkers the US government has set up there. Originally among the chosen few selected for a spot, when through circumstance, their official ride falls through, it is a race through the night to catch a plane that John hears about through random, end-of-the-world gossip.

Greenland is a film that raises so many questions. Why Greenland? The US has bases all over the world and within the United States, so why are the only bunkers in that Danish territory? Why was Garrity picked, among all the many structural engineers in the US, as a designated survivor? Was there a secret lottery? And how often is the apocalypse-survival master list updated? Why would parents entrust their diabetic child to carry his own insulin in a backpack with his blanket and toys? Why is the media so calm while reporting their own impending deaths? Why did Morena Baccarin take a role that mostly consists of crying and near-hysteria? Is the middle of a pandemic the best time to release a movie about an event with dire, world-altering consequences?

Those and many more questions are bound to come up as one watches a film in which the consequences are high stakes, but the action needed to reach an ultimate conclusion is unconvincing. Director Ric Roman Waugh (Angel Has Fallen) handles the action scenes competently enough, but Chris Sparling’s script is weak.  He’s cobbled together a series of unfortunate events that add roadblocks to the Garrity family’s ultimate goal, too many not entirely believable. Also, since there is so little attention paid to character, beyond John is stoic and capable, Allison is emotional, and little Nathan is precocious, it is hard to care whether they make it to Greenland or not. Why this family? Why not that other family? The stakes are high, but Greenland is more of a video game—and not a very exciting one at that—than a movie. And the outcome is never in doubt. Everybody dies. Well, almost. –Pam Grady

THE LAST VERMEER sketches out Dutch artist’s postwar peril

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Guy Pearce as Han Van Meegeren in TriStar Pictures’ THE LAST VERMEER.

Guy Pearce, who played Andy Warhol in the Edie Sedgwick biopic Factory Girl, plays yet another 20th-century artist in Dan Friedkin’s The Last Vermeer, Dutch painter and art dealer Han van Meegeren. Imbuing the character with equal parts charm, arrogance, exuberance, and a deep well of humor that never deserts him even as van Meegeren faces the gallows, the actor is riveting in this delicious slice of historical drama.

In the Netherlands in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Dutch judicial system is running full speed to punish those who collaborated with the Nazis. Among the targets of the investigations is van Meegeren, who sold one of the country’s national treasures, a rare work by 17th-century master Johannes Vermeer, to Nazi leader Hermann Goering. Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang, The Square), a former Resistance fighter, is the man leading the inquiry. At first certain of the artist’s collaboration with the enemy, that conviction wavers in the face of van Meegeren’s spirited defense that casts his actions in a vastly different light.

At times, The Last Vermeer takes on the suspenseful tones of a thriller as Piller finds himself at odds with a judicial bureaucracy that has already made up its mind and is out for blood. But eventually the film settles into an involving courtroom drama. That van Meegeren’s guilt has been predetermined is understandable. Even without the receipt of sale for the looted Dutch masterpiece, the artist’s opulent lifestyle in a country where most of the population has suffered deprivation and hardship simply looks bad. How was he able to keep his fortune in a country occupied by Nazis? In defending him, Piller has his work cut out for him, and part of the pleasure in watching the film, is watching that defense unfold. The question of van Meegeren’s actual relationship with the German high command lingers tantalizingly over the proceedings. Is he innocent? Guilty? A trickster who is both at once?

In contrast to Pearce’s ebullience, Bang offers a sober portrayal of a man trying to do the right thing. A Jewish man who covertly fought the Nazis, Piller is well aware of what collaboration with them meant, even if collaboration in this instance was selling a piece of art and not overtly aiding the Nazis’ war/genocidal efforts. A man of conscience, he seeks justice, not revenge, which puts him at odds with the prevailing mood. His insistence on following the case wherever it leads sets him against an unforgiving system. He is the beating heart of the film, a hero of the resistance who is still fighting the good fight.

Based on van Meegeren’s tribulations after the war and adapted from Jonathan Lopez’s book, The Last Vermeer shines a tantalizing light on a small chapter of World War II. Weaving together biography, the force of two strong personalities, and the legend of a Dutch master, it is a potent blend of drama with the history of art and war. –Pam Grady

The Last Vermeer opens in theaters November 20.

A monster in the White House in ’70s-era THE WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON

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The Nixon administration and its misdeeds inspired this queasy horror comedy set in the august halls of the White House. Writer/director Milton Moses Ginsberg could have gone for a more on-the-nose scenario with vampires sucking blood out of bodies and the body politic, but instead he unleashes a malevolent hound on the Oval Office. In this curio from 1973, playing on the Metrograph‘s virtual screen Oct. 16-22, Dean Stockwell is the hapless assistant press secretary for whom things get a little hairy at the full moon.

It is the director’s cut that the Metrograph is screening and Ginsberg has added a note to the beginning of the film that it has taken him 40 years to come to terms with Nixon’s presidency and find the right cut to The Werewolf of Washington. The statement seems innocuous enough until you watch this slim – only 70 minutes – but wild feature and are left to wonder what ended up getting cut and what might have been restored at some point. This film is bonkers.

Among the few oblique references to the actual Nixon administration is newly minted deputy Jack Whitter’s (Stockwell) address in the Watergate apartment complex. A one-time reporter who used to cover the White House and dated the president’s (Biff McGuire) daughter Marion (Jane House), Jack leaves his latest post in Hungary to take the new job. But he brings a little bit of Eastern Europe back with him in the form of a curse, something Jack only becomes aware of at the first full moon after his arrival.

Ginsberg juggles two narratives, one a satire of Washington politics, with a boorish blowhard (no, really) installed in the Oval Office. McGuire is terrific as a crass pol who never listens to anyone and blusters his way through every situation. In one of the film’s funniest moments, the president is bowling in the bowels of the White House when his ball gets stuck in the return. He insists that Jack accompany him down the lane to retrieve it. The site of McGuire and Stockwell gingerly making their way down adjoining gutters is hilarious.

The rest of the movie is taken up with Jack and his problem. He tries to explain it to Marion’s fiancé (Beeson Carroll), a Navy psychiatrist, only to be met with derision. As the body count around Washington mounts, Jack’s panic mounts, but no one will take him seriously. He is tortured and cannot stop staring at his hands, but the president and others are not sympathetic. Instead, they question Jack’s masculinity.

A two-time acting award winner at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 for Compulsion and 1962 for Long Day’s Journey Into Night and a future Oscar nominee in 1989 for Married to the Mob, Stockwell attacks his role here full-throttle. He makes grand use of those expressive eyebrows of his as he begins his transformation, signaling another wild night out on the town. It is not a subtle performance, but Jack is a role that cries out for over the top and the actor delivers.

In the waning term of our own century’s shambolic presidency, a scant two-and-a-half weeks before the election and two weeks before Halloween, the time is right for the return of this monster mashup. It’s a howler. – Pam Grady