|Films I Neglected To Review: Nazis And Tigers And Voguers--Oh My
|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally," "Endangered Species" and "Port Authority."
Mildred Gillars was an American woman living in Germany as the Nazis were taking over who soon found herself a part of the propaganda machine when she began doing radio broadcasts where she would sing songs and urge Allied forces to just surrender while they could. Although not quite as famous as the better-known Tokyo Rose, her broadcasts were widely heard and a couple of years after the war, she was arrested in Berlin and sent to the United States, where she became the first woman to be convicted for committing treasonous acts against America. A story like that could easily serve as the inspiration for a potentially fascinating film but "American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally" seems to go out of its way to somehow render it uninteresting. Instead of telling Mildred's story in a linear manner, Michael Polish, the once-interesting director of such indie oddities as "Twin Falls Idaho," "Jackpot" and "Northfork" who also co-scripted here, has elected to jump back and forth in time by illustrating her 1948 trial and then jumping back to get a fuller illustration of the events she is now trying to defend participating in. This might have resulted in something risky, intriguing and edifying but Polish doesn't have the nerve to try any of that. Instead, he spends the entire film presenting Mildred as a woman who did what she did because of her faith in her lover/collaborator (Carsten Norgaard) and her determination to survive at all costs. Just to ensure that we donít get her confused with any of those bad Nazi sympathizers, the film even offers up a couple of ugly scenes in which she endures sexual abuse at the hands of Joseph Goebbels (Thomas Kretchmann) himself in order to get us on her side.
The other major problem comes in the form of the two lead performances. As Mildred, Meadow Williams (who also serves as one of the producers) is just not very good--between the speechifying, the singing and the modeling of her 40s-era wardrobe, her work her feels more like an audition reel for a part that she is not going to be getting. There is never a moment when you ever get the sense that she is truly inhabiting the role of Mildred or has any thoughts as to what possibly makes her tick and allows her to do the things that she has done. As Mildred's lawyer, who frankly takes on the cause of defending one of the most hated women in America as a way of drumming up publicity for himself, Al Pacino makes yet another in a series of questionable recent career choices. Perhaps realizing early on that the courtroom element was the least interesting stuff in the screenplay, Pacino evidently decided to compensate by throwing himself into full-on hamola mode and while his blustering can still inspire moments of amusement, it proves to only be a momentary distraction from the dullness of the material and eventually only serves to make you think of other and usually better films that featured him railing against a courtroom in his inimitable manner. Alas, not even his increasingly laborious efforts (which look especially goofy in his scenes with Williams, who underplays so severely that she hardly registers at times) can help rescue "American Traitor" from the one thing that you would never think that this particular story could possibly inspire--a sense of utter mediocrity.
The new thriller "Endangered Species" wants to be taken very seriously, both as a thriller and as a statement regarding the conservation of wildlife populations in Africa that are under constant threat from poachers, but blows it with a screenplay that is so ridiculous that there are times when it feels like a spec script for a potentially middling episode of "The Simpsons" that took a weird turn in the creative process. Despite having been suspended from his job at an oil company--apparently he helped cause some massive pipeline leak--Jack (Philip Winchester) is nevertheless determined to take his family--wife Lauren (Rebecca Romijn), spunky stepdaughter Zoe (Isabel Bassett), her hippieish boyfriend Billy (Chris Fisher) and son Noah (Michael Johnston)--on a spectacular vacation in the wilderness of Kenya without letting on about his employment status. This leads to his brilliant decision to skip over the expensive safari tour (with guides and marksmen and marked trails and the like) and take everyone out on their own to do some off-road exploring for a real safari. This idea, unsurprisingly, does not end well as their car is attacked by a rhino protecting its calf that leaves them injured and stranded in the middle of nowhere with no water (ah, the perils of insisting on glass bottles only), no insulin for diabetic Lauren no idea of where to find help and any number of potentially deadly creatures ready to attack. With no help expected to come (for them anytime soon, the group find themselves bickering and arguing about long-simmering resentments (including Jack's unwillingness to accept Noahís homosexuality on the basis that it might ruin his chance for an athletic scholarship) as they struggle to make their way back to civilization.
The film was directed and co-written by M.J. Bassett, whose previous film, last year's "Rogue," found Megan Fox playing a mercenary leading soldiers through a remote part of Africa on a mission that quickly becomes complicated as they find themselves stalked by a hungry lioness. That film was, not surprisingly, really dumb but in hindsight, it now plays in the memory as the "Jaws" on land that it clearly wanted to be in comparison to this one. For starters, the array of narrative curlicues thrown in to land the characters in their presumably life-or-death situation are so ridiculously contrived that the whole thing comes across like a spoof instead of an intense thriller. Next is the fact that, with the exception of Romijn's character--who spends much of her time reeling from her treacherous blood sugar levels--all of these characters are so spectacularly annoying and uninteresting (especially dear old Dad, whose alpha-male idiocies will boggle that when Jerry O'Connell pops up as a seemingly amiable type harboring a dangerous secret, his presence comes like a breath of fresh air by comparison. As for the animals, while I can understand the reluctance to put actors and live creatures together in the manner of the still-startling "Roar" (which featured a young Melanie Griffith being genuinely mauled by a jungle cat), the CGI rhinos, hyenas and additional creatures are laughably shoddy. Perhaps realizing his inability to create a film that works on its own dramatic merits, Bassett tacks on a title card at the end explaining that while the film we have just seen is fiction, the plight of the rhino is all too real. If only he had but that card up at the front of the film--he could have gotten his message out and saved everyone 100 minutes of their lives to boot.
"Port Authority" is a film that takes a potentially interesting story and then tells it in such an awkward manner that it winds up nearly nullifying all of the genuinely good things about it. As the story opens, Paul (Fionn Whitehead), a young man with a troubled past who practically has "toxic masculinity" tattooed on his forehead, arrives in New York City and, after being blown off by his sister, ends up falling in with a group of hyper-aggressive dudebros crashing at a homeless shelter who work as "furniture movers" who are basically charged with throwing people with tenant issues out onto the street. One day, he spots and immediately crushes on a gorgeous young woman dancing in the streets. Eventually, he formally meets Wye (Leyna Bloom), who is a competitive ballroom dancer who lives and works with her tight-knit family of fellow dancers. They fall in love but Paul soon stumbles across the fact that Wye is transgender. Predictably, he reacts badly at first but finds that he cannot shake her in ways that force him to reassess his long-held and frankly retrograde notions regarding gender and sexuality in order to make a go of it with her.
The chief problem of this film from writer-director Danielle Lessovitz is not too hard to diagnose--the story is told from Paulís perspective and favors the things that happen to him even though Wye is the far more interesting character of the two. Having seen far too many movies about dumb white guys who learn how to become marginally better people (generally without actually doing much of anything to accomplish those goals), I, for one, would have appreciated a story focusing on Wye and her far more intriguing issues and let Paul's comparatively familiar drama take the B story slot. This becomes an even more obvious choice once you get a load of the dynamic and incredibly charismatic performance from Bloom (making her feature film debut) as Wye. Even when the plot threatens to get a little too hokey and melodramatic for its own good, she cuts through all the nonsense with a performance of such authenticity that it makes the otherwise contrived elements (such as Whitehead's performance, in which he yells and screams and rages without ever giving a real sense of who Paul is) seem even more forced and awkward than they already are. I cannot quite recommend "Port Authority" because it ultimately chooses the wrong character to put its focus on. That said, I don't want to dismiss it entirely either because even though the film as a whole does not work, the performance from Leyna Bloom is a real knockout. Here is hoping that she is able to land some future projects that provide her with material that is better suited to her undeniable talents.
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originally posted: 05/28/21 21:44:24
last updated: 05/28/21 22:19:21