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Films I Neglected To Review: Hello Nurse!
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Apollo 11: Quarantine," "Palmer," "Saint Maud," "Supernova" and "Wrong Turn."

"Apollo 11," you will recall, was a highly popular documentary from a couple of years ago that chronicled NASA's 1969 mission to land the first people on the moon that eschewed the usual array of narration, talking head interviews and stock footage in order to tell the story entirely from rarely-seen film that had been stored in the agency's archives for nearly a half-century. Utilizing that same approach, filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller has created "Apollo 11: Quarantine," a 23-minute short film that shows what happened to astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins after they returned to Earth following the completion of their mission. As the title suggests, the three were placed into quarantine for 21 days to ensure that they did not bring back any new diseases with them but that did not stop them from continuing to be the focus of intense interest, judging by the enormous crowds that we see observing them during their stay. Admittedly, the combination of the brief running time and the specific subject matter will presumably ensure that the film will not have the popular impact of its predecessor. That said, those who did enjoy that film and who are interested in the history of the space program will find much of this material fascinating, ranging from footage of Armstrong’s quarantine birthday party to Aldrin's address to Congress a month after being let out. While I am not entirely certain that it is worth going out to see during its current Oscar-qualifying release in IMAX theaters, it is nevertheless a valuable and interesting document providing the little-known coda to one of the most well-documented stories of our age.

As "Palmer" opens, former golden boy Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) returns to his hometown following a 12-year stretch in prison that nobody he encounters seems inclined to forget. While trying to figure out what to do next with his life, he moves back in with his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb) and this is how he meets Shelly (Juno Temple), the drugged-out mess who lives in a trailer on Vivian's property with Sam (Ryder Allen), her seven-year-old son who is prone to playing with dolls, trying on makeup and obsessing over a cartoon princess show. Shelly has a tendency to occasionally disappear for a few days and Vivian happily takes the boy in during these times, much to Palmer's consternation. However, when Shelly's latest disappearance is more prolonged than usual and Vivian passes away, Palmer finds himself in the unexpected position of being the only thing keeping Sam out of child protective services. At first, Palmer does not get Sam or his behavior at all ("You know you're a boy, right?") but when he sees how others mistreat him for simply being himself, he becomes more protective of the kid and even looks into the possibility of getting himself named Sam's legal guardian, despite the unlikeliness of the court to place a kid in the custody of an unrelated ex-con currently on parole.

"Palmer" is a well-meaning drama about acceptance that certainly has its heart in the right place but which nevertheless never quite comes together in a satisfying manner. While clearly written with the best of intentions, Cheryl Guerriero's screenplay always feels more like a compilation of cliches than a truly heartfelt drama--every aspect seems so preprogrammed that it is hard to become genuinely moved by any of it. This is especially evident in the later scenes involving Palmer’s attempts to gain custody of Sam--we have been primed to see Palmer in the best possible light to realize that he would be a perfect guardian for Sam but the film cannot shake the inescapable fact that perhaps putting a young child in the hands of an unrelated parolee might not be the best idea, even if he is in possession of Justin Timberlake’s puppy-dog eyes. As for Timberlake, he is okay but his role is so saddled with nobility that he never gets a chance to demonstrate the fire and personality he has shown in many of his past screen performances. The one aspect of "Palmer" that really does work is Ryder Allen's work as Sam--he alone is able to break free of the cliches found in both the screenplay and Fisher Stevens' direction and make Sam into a compelling and sympathetic character. Other than him, this is ultimately a film that is little more than an elongated Afterschool Special about the importance of tolerance that spends more time preaching to the choir than in creating an interesting story.

"Saint Maud," the highly touted U.K. import that is finally arriving on these shores after having its original release scuttled at the last minute by the pandemic arrival, is a film that tries to negotiate a fine line between being a serious-minded art film and an out-and-out horror story and just misses the boat in both regards. Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a former hospital nurse who, following some unexplained but clearly traumatic incident, is now working as a private nurse for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a one-time dancer and choreographer now in the end stages of stage-four lymphoma. The two could not be a more unlikely match--as a result of her recent trauma, Maud has embraced religion with an intense fervor that manifests itself in denying herself anything that even remotely smacks of pleasure while believing she can genuinely hear and sense the presence of God while Amanda, knowing the end is near, has elected to go out indulging in as many pleasures as she can still muster the strength for along the way--and indeed, Amanda looks upon her caregiver with a certain bemused fascination, giving her the ironic nickname "Saint Maud" and gifting her with a book of William Blake paintings. Maud, on the other hand, disapproves of practically everything Amanda is doing and becomes obsessed with the notion of saving her soul, regardless of how far she has to go to accomplish her task.

"Saint Maud" is the debut feature of writer-director Rose Glass and of the two jobs, she proves to be far more adept at the latter. She is able to conure up a nicely menacing sense of atmosphere, demonstrates a flair for unexpectedly trippy visuals that come from out of nowhere and she gets strong and intensely committed performances from both Clark and Ehle. The problem is that while her screenplay does a good job of introducing and establishing its provocative premise over the first 20 minutes or so, it doesn't have much of a clear idea of where to go from that point. As a study of a tormented psyche on the verge of tipping over into full-on madness due to pressures from both the outside world and her own inner turmoil, there is nothing about Maud's journey that hasn’t been seen before in other films and the decision to keep her as much of an enigma as possible (other than hints of her leading a more reckless life before embracing God, we never really learn much about who she was and how she came to be who she is now) keeps her from becoming a truly interesting and compelling character. As for the horror angle, Glass does come up with a couple of unnerving images towards the very end but the rest of the film is never quite as terrifying as it evidently thinks it is. "Saint Maud" is not junk by any means--even at its weakest points, it is always serious-minded and ambitious--and Glass demonstrates enough prowess behind the camera to make you anticipate seeing what she could do with a stronger screenplay. That said, there is enough about the film that doesn't work or come together in a satisfying manner to qualify it as a miss--a near-miss, to be sure, but a miss all the same.

"Supernova" is a low-key and gentle human drama that s hampered only by the fact that I did not buy any of it for a single solitary moment. The film stars Stanley Tucci as Tusker, an author and fledgling astronomer who is beginning to suffer the effects of early-onset dementia and Colin Firth as Sam, his longtime lover and a concert pianist preparing to make his first live appearance in a long time. The two, along with their dog, set off on a journey to the concert venue in a rambling camper and make a number of stops along the way, including the campsite where they shared their first date and a large family reunion at the house of Sam's sister (Pippa Haywood) that is the catalyst for a number of revelations that lead up to a big climatic confrontation between them. The trouble with writer-director Harry McQueen's film is that all of it comes across as too forced for its own good--the dialogue never rings true, the various plot developments and confrontations feel more like contrivances than actual events and the two leads, despite the enormous amount of goodwill that they have managed to generate over the years with moviegoers, never for a single moment suggest a longtime couple facing both a devastating illness and an uncertain future. Even the idea of using the titular celestial event as a grand metaphor for Tusker's plight is a clunker--it always feels like a clumsy literary metaphor applied by McQueen to given the otherwise trite story some meaning, even though it doesn't really seem to apply to the narrative at hand. I really wish that I liked "Supernova" more than I did because smaller-scale movies aimed at adults are in short supply these days. Alas, it feels more like a tortured bit of would-be Oscar bait than a genuinely moving drama and by the time it finally gets to its flat conclusion, you may find yourself wishing you had watched the other "Supernova" movie--the misbegotten Walter Hill sci-fi venture--instead of this one.

I must confess no small amount of surprise when I learned that "Wrong Turn," the fairly undistinguished 2003 gorefest in which a group of attractive young things ran afoul of a group of inbred backwoods cannibals, somehow managed to spawn no less than five sequels over the years--while I saw the first film and knew of the existence of 2 & 3, the existence of the subsequent installments was a revelation to me. That said, there are presumably people out there who could cite chapter and verse for all six of them and they will no doubt tune in to the new franchise reboot, "Wrong Turn," expecting even more of the same. As it turns out, while the film bears both the same title and screenwriter (Alan B. McElroy), it quickly takes several sharp turns of its own by throwing out the very stuff that most people would recall from the films (i.e. the dietary requirements) and replacing them with a genuinely screw-loose storyline that basically plays as a brutal rejoinder to its predecessors. It starts off on familiar enough ground as a group of six attractive young city kids decide to hike the Appalachian Trail and, perhaps inevitably, one of them convinces the others to ignore the warnings to stick to the marked trail and veer deeper into the woods in search of a Civil War site that is supposedly right nearby. Unsurprisingly, this proves to be an ill-considered decision as they first get lost and then suffer a violent calamity. It is at this point that the film itself begins to veer way off of its own marked trail and so I will leave the rest of the details for you to discover on your own.

Whether you should go and make those discoveries on your own is a slightly harder call to make. Those who are not predisposed to grisly horror exercises will have little use for the film and those expecting an exact rehash of the original film will most likely grow frustrated with the way in which McElroy and director Mike P. Nelson thwart those expectations at every turn. Even those viewers who are okay with gory horror films and have managed to keep their veneration of the original "Wrong Turn" in check may have a few problems with it as well--the inclusion of a subplot involving the father of one of the kids (played by none other than Matthew Modine) results in some serious structural problems and the increasingly mad developments do not entirely overcome some lapses in narrative logic as things progress. And yet, as uneven as the film may be, it held my interest to a far greater degree than I might have expected from an entry in the "Wrong Turn" franchise. It at least tries to do something different and even when those efforts don't quite come off, at least it always goes down swinging. I can't honestly say that this film has inspired a desire to either revisit the earlier films or to see future installments but genre buffs with a taste for something seriously flaky and unusual may get an unexpected kick out of it all.

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originally posted: 01/29/21 04:17:47
last updated: 01/29/21 04:21:06
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