|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "The Commune," "96 Souls," "Spirit Game: The Pride of a Nation" and the digital download release of "Big Little Lies"
Set in Copenhagen in the 1970's, Thomas Vinterberg's ''The Commune'' begins as Erik (Ulrich Thomsen)reluctantly agrees to keep the enormous Copenhagen home left to him by his late father and his wife, newscaster Anita (Trine Dyrholm) proposes that not only should they and their daughter, Frejka (Martha Sofie Wallstrom Hansen) move in, they should open it up into a communal living situation. Eventually, they take in leftist Ole (Lars Ranthe), unemployed Allon (Fares Fares) and a family with a seven-year-old son who likes to announce to everyone he meets that he has a heart condition and will be dead within two years. ( No, I wouldnít dream of revealing whether or not the film trots that plot device out whenever it needs some kind of dramatic jolt.) It all goes swell for a while but tensions eventually develop within the group, especially when Erik begins to have an affair with one of his students, Emma (Helene Reingaards Neumann), and insists on moving her in as well.
Though the concept of communal living chills me to the bones in the way that ''The Shining'' does to most other people, the early scenes of the film show in smart and subtle ways that while this hippie-like commune may think that they are rejecting boorish patriarchal values for a more idealized approach in which everyone is equal, they are clearly deluding themselves--they may hold ''democratic'' votes about house matters every night but the increasingly alpha males Erik and Ole essentially make sure that whatever they want goes and while half the members are women, they are largely relegated to the sidelines. Alas, once the story shifts focus from this aspect to the grisly dissolution of Erik and Anita's marriage--and donít forget that kid with the bum ticker--it just becomes a soap opera and an increasingly tedious one at that. ''The Commune'' is not entirely without interest and indeed has moments that really do have something to say--it is just unfortunate that it runs out of them far too early in the proceedings.
Under normal circumstances, I would feel a little bad about expending time and energy to writing a bad review of a dreadful little micro-budgeted film that is hardly going to make a dent in the marketplace in the first place. However, when one comes across an exception as utterly baffling as ''96 Souls,'' one is practically forced to make an exception. The narrative feature debut from writer-director Stanley Jacobs, it begins as overworked biomedical researcher Jack Sutree (Grinnell Morris)--who is about to lose all of his funding from Clayton Redfield (Paul Statman), the Big Pharma weasel running things--has a bizarre accident while conducting experiments involving the olfactory and not only gains the power to somehow see odors but, more importantly, can now visualize the innermost thoughts and intentions of anyone near him. At first, he intends to use those powers (not so much the scent-based ones) for good, first by helping trial consultants pick juries and then by trying to help a homeless musician named--I kid you not--Bazement Tape (Toyin Moses) track down her long-missing mentally ill mother. Meanwhile, Redfield learns of what has happened and wants to exploit the new formula for his own devious uses.
There are so many things wrong with ''96 Souls'' that to list them all would seem a tad cruel, so I will stick to only three. First, even though the plot may make it seem like a superhero spoof, the film, with the exception of a couple of moments of comedic relief (as in the stuff with the trial consultants), the film is as deadly earnest as it is deadly dull, and bear in mind, this is stretched out to nearly two poorly paced and visually harsh hours. (At one point, the whole thing grinds to a stop for an extended discussion of the metaphysical aspects of an onion, which sounds funny in theory, but which really isn't in execution. Finally, the storyline involving the Bazement Tape character is undermined by the fact that she has been written in the vein of the wacky ethnic sidekick to the hero from a less-than-enlightened film from the Forties--when a character mentions ''algorithms,'' she thinks it is pronounced ''Al-Gore-isms'' because I donít know why. I donít think that Jacobs was intentionally trying to interject an outdate racial stereotype into his film but it sure feels that way and every time you hear her, you almost want to echo Chris Elliott and ask ''What is that, scat talk?'' Not even inadvertently amusing enough to work as camp, the only people I can really recommend ''96 Souls'' to are the people behind Rifftrax--something tells me that they might get some use out of it.
On the surface, ''Spirit Game: The Pride of a Nation'' may look like just another sports documentary but this film by Peter Spirer and Peter Baxter proves to be more ambitious than that. Ostensibly, the focus is on the sport of lacrosse and its importance among the Iroquois people, who originated it and believe that it was once played amongst animals long before mankind appeared on Earth. We get a history of how the Iroquois use the game as part of the spiritual process and their struggles to be recognized as a sovereign nation by the Federation of International Lacrosse.Their initial admittance was rough--when England hosted the World Lacrosse Championships in 2010, they refused to acknowledge the Iroquois Nation passports and they were barred from playing--but by 2015, the Iroquois themselves hosted the World Lacrosse Indoor Championships against their bitter Canadian rivals, who developed the indoor version of the game in the 1930s. While all the lacrosse action is going on, a more dramatic story is building in the background as the Iroquois take their long-simmering grievances regarding the papal bull put forth by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 stating that any land devoid of practicing Christians--such as Iroquois land--was to be considered empty and clear to be colonized and attempt to convince Pope Francis to renounce that edict while meeting with him during his 2015 US visit. This is a lot of subject matter for any one movie to juggle--the papal material could have made for its own documentary--but Spirer and Baxter do a good job of keeping all the plates spinning and making it into something more than just a well-meaning but indigestible lump of advocacy filmmaking. People with an interest in lacrosse will no doubt want to seek this one out but even those, like myself, with no working knowledge of the sport or its history beyond the fact that it exists, should find it interesting as well.
For those of you with a little time for binge-watching over the long weekend, HBO has made one of their most talked-about recent series available for digital download in advance of its upcoming blu-ray release. ''Big Little Lies,'' (HBO Home Entertainment. $24.99)based on the novel by Liane Moriarity, is a seven-part mini-series that already widely considered to be a shoo-in for plenty of Emmy nominations and it certainly deserves them. Set in the moneyed and pampered arena of Monterey, California, it begins on an intriguing note--someone dies violently during a charity gala but we are not told who they are or what exactly happened--and then takes us back in time to a few months earlier as we meet and observe the lives of the alpha women who are at the heart of the social scene--the bullying Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), her best friend Celeste (NIcole Kidman), who is being abused in her daily life but seems to have weirdly made peace with it, Madelineís bitter rival Renata (Laura Dern) and newcomer single mom Jane (Shailene Woodley), who frequently cannot believe what she is seeing. To say anything more about the plot as it goes about setting the scene for that killing, which is revealed in full at the very end, would not be fair, of course, but on the other hand, this is not a story that is dependent entirely on the surprise twists and turns, of which there are plenty. Instead, the focus is squarely on the relationships, toxic as they can sometimes get, between the women (who also include Zoe Kravitz in their ranks) and also with the men in their lives (including Alexander Skarsgard, Adam Scott, James Tupper and Jeffrey Nordling), all of which are depicted in unsparing detail--running the gamut from darkly satirical to outright horrific--by director Jean-Marc Valee and the standout performances from the entire cast, with the MVP award going to Kidman, who turns in one of the bravest and most brutal performances of her entire career here. The details of the final resolution may bug a few nitpickers but everything else comes together so beautifully that most people will be too swept up in it all to care. Even if you think that ''Big Little Lies'' is nothing more than seven hours of self-absorbed people being awful to each other, give it a chance anyway because there is a very good chance that it will surprise you.
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originally posted: 05/29/17 20:58:47
last updated: 05/30/17 11:44:08