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Films I Neglected To Review: Kirkes In
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Among Wolves," "Arctic," "The Nun," "St. Agatha," "Under the Eiffel Tower" and "Untogether."

I could describe Shawn Convey's film ''Among Wolves'' as a documentary about a biker gang and while that would be technically correct, it would not come close to conveying what the film is really about. His subject is the Wolves Moto Club, a motorcycle gang whose elder members are all veterans of the Bosnian War and whose leader, Lija, helped defend his village of Livno during that war when he was only 20. Now the members continue their service to Livno by performing tasks ranging from repair work to blood donations to tending a herd of wild horses that they first came across while in battle. However, as we gradually discover, these men have not fully healed from their own experiences and many of them struggle with varying degrees of PTSD that only seem to abate when they are out in the fields with their beloved horses. However, this is not just a feel-good story about men healing through exposure to horses and each other--as Convey reveals in a quiet but interesting manner, these men have a decidedly complicated relationship with the violence that they experienced during the war, including that which they doled out themselves, that continues to haunt them in various wats even today. Smartly, Convey doesn't go out of his way to try to make the men overtly likable--there is still a lot of unchecked machismo on display and their attitudes towards women are as dubious as one can imagine--but watching them try to come to terms with themselves, each other and their shared experiences does make for an ultimately engrossing film.

For those hardy souls who have recently emerged from that polar vortex that recently plunged much of the country into a frozen nightmare, the idea of spending 90 minutes watching a man struggling to survive against similarly frigid conditions may not seem the most entertaining way to pass a couple of hours at the multiplex. Yet that is exactly what is on display in ''Arctic,'' a hardy survival drama in the vein of ''All is Lost'' or some of the grimmer stories of Jack London. As the film opens, a man named Overgard (Mads Mikkelsen) is digging at length through several feet of snow and ice. At first, it looks like he could be conducting some kind of scientific research but eventually the camera pulls up high enough so that we can finally realize that he has in fact been digging a giant ''SOS.'' We begin to piece together that his small plane crashed some time ago and that he has been using his rudimentary survival skills to catch fish for food, map out different areas from where to send electronic signals to potential rescuers and not risk his life through overexertion. Salvation seems to finally come in the form of a helicopter but following a freak disaster, all he is left with is a more detailed map of the area and a badly injured and largely unconscious woman (Maria Thelma Smaradottir) whom he rescues and who goes on to tax both his meager resources and his ability move them to an area where there is a better chance of rescue.

As someone who tries to keep his exposure to the glories of nature to an absolute minimum, I can assure you that ''Arctic'' did absolutely nothing to change my view that the great outdoors are anything but a violent hells cape from which there is no escape. What is interesting about this particular take on such material is the approach utilized by co-writer/director Joe Penna. Instead of starting off with the crash as a way to give viewers a big thrill right off the bat, Penna begins long after the accident and leaves it to viewers to suss out what happened and how Overgard is coping with his extreme situation. Penna further puts us into his hero's boots by refusing to supply him with some kind of running monologue to explain his backstory and goals to viewers--instead, he accentuates the isolation by keeping him mostly silent even as he is surrounded by the noise of crunching snow, the howling winds and the deafening silences that seem to be the only return on his efforts to survive. Much like the central character himself, the film does begin to run out of gas in its final half-hour or so as the obstacles that he faces while trying to get himself and his new dependent to a place where they can be rescued become so overwhelming that they threaten the sense of reality that Penna has carefully built up to that point. For the most part, however, ''Arctic'' is a smart, spare and convincing tale of one man going up against the elements that will leave most viewers with the desire to bunker down in their homes and not step outside again until at least mid-May.

From the moment that the production of Jacques Rivette's ''The Nun'' was announced in 1966, it was a highly controversial work that was the subject of a ban in its home country of France before it was eventually allowed to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where it became both a critical favorite and, thanks in no small part to the scandal, a box-office success to boot. Now it has returned to theaters in a new 4K restoration and it does not appear to have lost even an iota of its ability to shock, outrage and move viewers. The great Anna Karina stars as Suzanne, a young woman who is forced by her parents--for ultimately selfish reasons of their own--to join a convent and take her vows to become a nun. Although a reasonably devout person in her own right, this is not what Suzanne wants to do with her life but never less submits to her parents wishes and takes her vows. Unfortunately for her, what happens next is less ''The Nun's Story'' than a horror story as the convent she joins is run by a cruel nun (Francine Berge) who rules by fear, refuses to allow any contact with the outside world and doles out brutal punishments for the tiniest of infractions. Miraculously, Suzanne manages to get transferred to another convent and while this one seems more like a combination sorority/summer camp at first glance, the surface charms hides a darker reality in which the head nun, Madame de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver) essentially brainwashes her charges so as to sexually exploit them.

''The Nun'' may be more than a half-century old but with its themes of sexual and emotional domination hidden within the structure of the Catholic church, it feels as vital and contemporary as if it had produced today. More so, in fact, because most filmmakers today would not dare to tackle the subject and those that might would almost certainly not do so with the direct power that Rivette displays throughout. Granted, this is not the most subtle of films--right from the opening scene, the church is presented as a sort of prison, complete with iron bars--but it is not just a simple-minded attack on the Catholic church. Rather, he is lashing out at any system where those in power are able to use their authority to cruelly mistreat and exploit the very same people that they are theoretically supposed to help and those without power or stature are treated as little more than property to be used to satisfy their darkest desires. In what is arguably her best performance in a non-Godard film, Anna Karina serves as a powerful guide to those cruelties and as her chief oppressors, Berge and Pulver are far more frightening and memorable than the caricatures one usually finds in empty-headed nunsploitation epics like the craptacular from last year that shares a name with this film and, not surprisingly, nothing else. Angry, powerful and enlightening, ''The Nun'' is one of the great films from one of France’s best directors, a classic of the New Wave that has not dated a bit.

Now if you prefer your wimple-based entertainments to be somewhat more coarse, ugly and rock-stupid than the likes of ''The Nun,'' maybe you might consider ''St. Agatha,'' in which director Darren Lynn Bousman does for evil nuns what exactly what he did for self-righteous death dealers in the second, third and fourth ''Saw'' films, remakes of grindhouse classics in ''Mother's Day'' and dystopian musicals in ''Repo: The Genetic Opera''--very, very little. Set in 1957, the film tells the story of Mary (Sabrina Kern), a young woman with a dark secret in her past, a bun in the oven courtesy of an unreliable boyfriend/partner in crime and nowhere to go. At the end of her rope, she is pointed towards a remote convent in the hopes that the sisters will take her in and help her as she prepares to give birth to the child that she fully intends to keep. This quickly turns out to be a mistake as the Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennesy) turns out to be a crazed martinet who not only intends to break the spirits of all the young women who come to her convent for help (at one point, she and the other nuns lock Mary in a coffin in an effort to force her to take on the name Agatha) but has some very specific ideas about what to do with their babies as well.

As modern-day nunsploitation exercises go, ''St. Agatha'' is pretty bad, though I suppose it is at least a half-step up from the likes of such pure garbage as ''The Nun.'' Although I give the film points for not fully lurching into the supernatural in the way that it appears to be leaning early on, Bousman doesn’t really have much to offer other than a wan riff on ''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'' with the occasional gross-out moment (including self-mutilation and the weaponization of an umbilical cord) to keep the less-discriminating fans in their seats. That might have worked--the performances that Kern and Hennesy are able to give despite such substandard material are just good enough to make you wonder what they could have accomplished with a more competent script--but Bousman seems to have no idea of how to tell the story in an interesting manner and the whole thing just becomes a seemingly endless slog that moves at a glacial pace towards a conclusion that will not come as a surprise to most of its viewers. Give Bousman a little bit of credit for trying something a little different from his previous over-the-top gorefests but after a while, most people watching ''St. Agatha'' will find themselves as desperate to escape as its hapless heroine.

As ''Under the Eiffel Tower'' opens, Stuart (Matt Walsh), a recently fired guy in the depths of a mid-life crisis, is invited by his best friend to join him and his family on a trip to Paris in an effort to snap him out of his funk. This quickly goes sideways when, intoxicated by the romance of the land and his fear of being alone, ends up proposing marriage to his friend's 25-years-younger daughter (Dylan Gelula) and it does not go quite as he expected. Now on his own and pretty much broke (all his money went into the engagement ring that he can't yet get returned), he ends up falling in with roguish Scottish football player Liam (fellow ''Veep'' co-star Reid Scott) and the two find themselves on the same train with the alluring Louise (Judith Godreche), who co-owns a local vineyard with Gerard (Gary Cole) and who inspires romantic notions in both men that eventually puts them in competition for each other for her attentions.

With a plot that centers around two middle-aged men trying to come to terms with their relationship issues while making their way through an exceptionally lovely bit of wine country, there is no doubt that anyone who sees this film will find themselves comparing it to Alexander Payne's ''Sideways.'' In nearly every department, it comes up short--the storyline lacks any real drama or insight, the characters are not as fully drawn and developed and the comedy is not quite as incisive. That said, the film does still have its own modest charms to offer. There are a few scenes that will have most viewers laughing and cringing at the same time. Although Walsh's character never quite hits the depths of despair that one might expect, he still manages to inspire a certain sympathy despite the fact that it is pretty certain from the get-go that everything is going to wind up okay for him. As the eventual object of his affection, Godreche (who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Archie Borders and David Henry) may not be playing the most fully drawn character--there are times when she comes across as Manic Pixie Dream Woman--Gallic Edition--but demonstrates more than enough charm to make up for it. ''Under the Eiffel Tower'' is no masterpiece and anyone who sees it will be hard-pressed to remember much about it the next morning but, like many of the countless number of glasses of wine consumed by the characters throughout, it goes down easy and leaves a pleasant, if ultimately short-lived, afterglow.

At first glance, ''Untogether'' looks like it might be this generation's ''All These Small Moments,'' another excruciating look at a group of uncommonly irritating people coming to terms with life and love and the like--both films even feature Jemima Kirke in the cast, for God's sake. This time around, she plays Andrea, who wrote a best-selling novel when she was young and has done virtually nothing since. Now sober for about a year, she begins an affair with Nick (Jamie Dornan), a hunky and emotionally unavailable doctor who is now the hot new literary thing thanks to a best-selling memoir about his tragic romance. Meanwhile, her sister Tara (played by Lola Kirke, Jemima’s real-life sister) is a massage therapist who is seeing an aging two-hit-wonder rock singer (Ben Mendelsohn) but who finds herself expanding her spiritual horizons when she meets and becomes infatuated with a socially conscious rabbi (Billy Crystal. . . yes, Billy Crystal). While all of this is going on, the two sisters are still trying to grapple with the emotional fallout from the recent demise of their own father, a former rock star who got Andrea hooked on heroin, cleaned up and then became a good and dutiful dad to Tara who nevertheless clearly left her with a number of unresolved issues of her own.

''Untogether'' may sound like whiny, self-absorbed claptrap and there are times when this debut feature from writer-director Emma Forrest does lean that way. The satirical stabs that it takes at the publishing industry (including a turn by Alice Eve as a mindless literary agent) are pretty weak and not exactly teeming with insight. The various romantic entanglements involving the sisters and the men in their lives also don't really add up to much, although Crystal has a few amusing moments and Dornan gets a chance to spoof, however unevenly, the same kind of rich and self-consciously aloof hunk that he played with a straight face over the course of the three ''Fifty Shades of Grey'' films. And yet, as annoying as these elements can be, the central story about the relationship between the two sisters was enough to more or less hold my interest despite all the less interesting detours. Sure, the fact that the roles are played by real-life sisters is an attention-getting curiosity but the film really does come alive as it charts their lives together following their separate-but-equally-toxic upbringings and how those issues continue to reverberate in their daily lives. These are the scenes in which Forrest seems most engaged and they clearly stand out from the rest of the movie, thanks in no small part to the performances from the Kirkes. I don't know if I can quite give ''Untogether'' a full-out recommendation--there is a lot of nonsense to go through in order to get to the good stuff--but the material that does work is strong enough to both make the rest of it at least somewhat bearable and make you wonder what Forrest will come up with next.

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originally posted: 02/09/19 02:11:02
last updated: 02/09/19 02:25:03
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