Review: ‘Nitram,’ starring Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis and Anthony LaPaglia

April 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia in “Nitram” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Nitram”

Directed by Justin Kurzel

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tasmania, Australia, from 1987 to 1996, the dramatic film “Nitram” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Based on a true story, a troubled young man nicknamed Nitram goes on a downward spiral before committing heinous acts of murder.

Culture Audience: “Nitram” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies that take a dark and disturbing look into the mind of a mass murderer.

Caleb Landry Jones and Essie Davis in “Nitram” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Whenever a scripted movie is made about a notorious murderer, there’s a fine line between trying to understand what caused this person to kill and exploiting/glorifying the situation without any empathy for those harmed by murder. “Nitram,” which is based on real events, walks that fine line. As a psychological portrait, “Nitram” has top-notch acting and succeeds at showing the tragic results of enabling toxic people. As a well-rounded story that gives importance to the real-life murder victims, this drama falls very short.

“Nitram” has absolutely no regard for the real-life victims of the 1996 Port Arthur gun-shooting massacre in Tasmania, Australia—a tragedy that killed 35 people, wounded 23 people, and was caused by a lone gunman, whose name will not be mentioned in this review. It’s the movie’s biggest failing, but one could argue that’s because “Nitram” is told from the point of view of the murderer, who obviously had a complete disregard for the people whose lives that he destroyed. Fortunately, “Nitram” does not glorify this murderer but instead responsibly takes the approach (and shows in disturbing ways) that this horrific murder spree might have been prevented if better care had been taken to get help for the mental health problems of the murderer.

Directed by Justin Kurzel and written by Shaun Grant, “Nitram” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where “Nitram” star Caleb Landry Jones (who plays the title character) won the prize for Best Actor. Released in Australia in 2021, “Nitram” went on to win 11 out of its 15 nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director and all the actor/actress prizes) at the 2021 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards. All of these industry accolades certainly have their merits.

However, it still doesn’t erase the fact that filmmakers doing scripted movies about real-life murders are much more inclined to want to make movies about the murderers instead of the victims. It sends mixed messages when it’s been proven many times that several of these murderers commit these heinous crimes because they want the publicity and the attention, including movies or TV shows made about them. In many ways, “Nitram” doesn’t really help in the healing process for loved ones of the murder victims.

To be clear: “Nitram” rightfully puts almost all of the blame on the killer for this mass murder spree. However, the movie is also a scathing indictment of those who saw all the warning signs that he was a ticking time bomb, and they chose to do nothing or look the other way. It might be open to debate how accurately the women in Nitram’s life are portrayed in this movie, but they are depicted as his biggest enablers, who have some apparent signs of mental illness too.

“Nitram” (which takes place in Tasmania, Australia) opens with an audio recording of a boy being interviewed about setting off firecrackers in an incident where he accidentally burned himself. The unidentified female interviewer asks the boy if he will still play with firecrackers. If she was expecting him to say no, because he learned his lesson, she’s in for a rude awakening. Without hesitation, the boy says that he will continue to play with firecrackers.

That boy, whose nickname is Nitram, grows up to be a troubled, young adult loner (played by Jones), who lives with his parents and who still sets off firecrackers and ignores neighbors’ complaints about this dangerous activity. Later, Nitram develops a fascination for shooting guns at random targets. Except for a few childhood flashbacks, “Nitram” takes place from 1987 to 1996, during the years when Nitram was his late teens to late 20s.

Near the beginning of the movie, the adult Nitram is shown to be a major nuisance in the neighborhood, but his unnamed mother (played by Judy Davis) also ignores people’s complaints about him. When a neighbor yells at Nitram to stop setting off firecrackers, Nitram’s mother calmly appears at the front door of the family house, and she tells Nitram that dinner is ready. This dinner table scene is a microcosm of the dynamics between these three family members.

Nitram’s mother is smothering, domineering, and at times a little fearful in her relationship with Nitram. Nitram’s unnamed father (played by Anthony LaPaglia) is passive, non-confrontational, and trying to be a loving father. Nitram is highly manipulative and aware that he has mental health problems, but he uses his mental illness as both a weapon to harm or scare people, or as a shield to prevent him from connecting with people because he’s afraid of them hurting him.

As an example of how he keeps people off-balance, in the dinner scene, Nitram starts off the meal dressed in overalls. But then, he abruptly leaves the table in the middle of the meal. Nitram comes back to the table wearing nothing but underwear briefs. When he sits back down at the table, his parents say nothing and continue the meal as if they haven’t noticed Nitram’s change of attire. It’s implied that these parents are used to Nitram and his bizarre actions, which they ignore as much as possible.

There are signs that Nitram has arrested development when it comes to his maturity and learning skills. In real life, the killer was diagnosed with learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Asperger syndrome. These conditions are shown or hinted at throughout the entire movie. And although “Nitram” doesn’t show his childhood education, it’s implied that in whatever schooling he had with other kids, he was bullied and treated as an outcast.

As a young adult, Nitram tries to show that he’s interested in a hobby. When he sees a surfboard in a store window, he goes home and asks his mother if he can have the surfboard. She refuses to give him the money for it and says, “I love you, but surfing is not for you.”

The movie has a very minor subplot of Nitram trying to befriend a confident and popular surfer named Jamie (played by Sean Keenan), who has a girlfriend named Riley (played by Phoebe Taylor), who meets Nitram at a beach one day. Jamie tries to give dating advice to Nitram, but this advice mostly goes nowhere because Nitram is socially awkward. Most women who encounter Nitram either ignore him or seem a little repulsed by him because he comes across as creepy and weird.

Needless to say, Nitram has trouble holding on to a job, so he lives with his parents while collecting disability benefits. Nitram attempts to earn some money by asking people in the neighborhood if they need yard care services. Most of the people he approaches seem wary of Nitram and his disheveled appearance, so they say no.

However, a lonely, middle-aged eccentric named Helen (played by Essie Davis) says yes and hires Nitram to clean up her backyard. Later, she hires him for more odd jobs and other housework, and he becomes a regular visitor even when he’s not working. Helen, who is single and lives alone, welcomes his company.

Helen is about 20 years older than Nitram. She lives in a run-down house where she has several dogs and a cat. There are indications that she has hoarding tendencies. Helen and Nitram find out they both have a strange sense of humor, so the two of them hit it off almost immediately. At first, they start off as friends, but then they become romantically involved with each other.

Even though she lives in a dilapidated house, Helen is actually a wealthy heiress who is living off of the money she inherited from her late father. It’s information that she doesn’t tell Nitram about right away. But after they become close, he eventually finds out, and it isn’t long before she invites Nitram to move in with her. Nitram eagerly takes this offer and abruptly moves out of his parents’ home.

Later, Nitram becomes fixated on guns. He has a rifle that he shoots at random targets. Helen voices her disapproval and tells Nitram that he can no longer live with her if he’s going to keep any guns in the house. It’s the only time that the movie depicts someone in Nitram’s life actually setting boundaries for him.

However, Nitram has a dangerous habit that Helen sees firsthand, but she dismisses it as harmless. When Nitram is a passenger in a car, he randomly lunges at the car’s driver and starts a physical altercation while the driver fights to maintain control of the car. Even though Helen sees obvious signs that Nitram can be violent, she does nothing to get him help for his mental health. Except for the gun possession, she lets him do whatever he wants inside and outside of her house.

Nitram’s mother vehemently disapproves of Nitram’s relationship with Helen, because Nitram’s mother is suspicious of Helen’s intentions. One of the movie’s best-acted scenes is when Nitram’s parents meet Helen for the first time during an awkward meal at a restaurant. Nitram is also there during the meeting, but Nitram’s mother talks about him as if he isn’t there. Nitram’s mother—who is seething with resentment that Nitram’s attentions are now focused entirely on someone outside of her home—comes right out and asks Helen how Helen thinks of Nitram: “Is he a husband or a son?”

On another occasion, Nitram’s mother tells Helen a disturbing story about something that happened when Nitram was 5 years old. Nitram’s mother had brought him with her when she went shopping at a fabric store. She lost sight of him, and when she saw that she couldn’t find him, she went frantically looking for him. Several people got involved in the search. Nitram was found hiding in the back seat of his mother’s car, knowing that people were looking for him. According to his mother, Nitram could see how distressed she was, but he was laughing at her pain.

And what about Nitram’s father? There’s a scene where he has to pick up an adult Nitram from a schoolyard because Nitram has set off firecrackers in the yard where children (who are about 7 to 10 years old) are playing. The school’s principal is understandably very upset. When Nitram’s father arrives, he profusely says that he’s sorry and that it won’t happen again, but Nitram shows no remorse. When Nitram and his father drive away in the car, he scolds Nitram and tells him to never to set off firecrackers in a school again, but Nitram’s father doesn’t seem to have a full grasp of the enormity of what just happened.

During much of the movie, Nitram’s father is preoccupied with getting a bank loan to buy a house to start a bed-and-breakfast business. What happens in this hoped-for sale becomes a catalyst for a lot of what occurs later in the movie. People who know the full story of what happened in real life already know how this bed-and-breakfast sale had a role in the killer’s downward spiral, but it won’t be revealed in this review.

Because all of the cast members give such realistic performances, “Nitram” is worth watching so viewers can get an up-close and personal look at the unraveling of this family, and how it all culminated in the horrific tragedy that happened in Port Arthur, Tasmania, on April 28 and April 29, 1996. It was Australia’s largest gun-shooting massacre committed by one person in a 24-hour period. (The movie does not show the gory details of this mass murder.) There are no real heroes in this story, but “Nitram” sounds the alarm for people not to ignore red flags when someone shows obvious signs of becoming a murderer.

IFC Films released “Nitram” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on March 30, 2022, the same date that AMC+ premiered the movie. “Nitram” was released in Australia in 2021.

Review: ‘Finch,’ starring Tom Hanks

November 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tom Hanks with the characters of Goodyear and Jeff in “Finch” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Finch”

Directed by Miguel Sapochnik

Culture Representation: Taking place in a post-apocalyptic United States, the sci-fi drama film “Finch” features an all-white cast of characters representing survivors of an apocalypse.

Culture Clash: A robotics engineer named Finch Weinberg, who has been living by himself during the post-apocalypse, builds a human-like robot to help him and his dog survive, but the robot sometimes has trouble learning how to do things the way that Finch wants.

Culture Audience: “Finch” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Tom Hanks and people who are interested in well-acted road trip movies that take place after an apocalypse.

Tom Hanks with the character of Dewey in “Finch” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

How many movies have there been about a person who’s surviving alone after an apocalypse or other disaster? There are too many of these movies for most people to recite from memory. “Finch” aims and usually succeeds at being a drama that stands out from most other films with the same concept. The acting in “Finch” is well above-average for most post-apocalyptic movies. However, the acting is the best asset for “Finch,” whose screenplay and direction can at times can be plodding and trite.

For “Finch” star Tom Hanks, it’s not the first time that he’s done a movie where he has depicted an isolated disaster survivor. He got an Oscar nomination for the 2000 drama “Cast Away,” in which he portrayed a plane crash survivor stranded by himself on a remote island in the South Pacific. There won’t be any major award nominations for “Finch,” not because it’s a bad film—in fact, it’s a fairly good film, with Hanks turning in yet another believable and heartfelt performance.

However, “Finch” (directed by Miguel Sapochnik and written by Craig Luck and Ivor Powell) breaks no new ground in filmmaking and is entirely predictable. It hits all the expected beats and story arcs that have been in other similar post-apocalyptic movies. There are absolutely no subtle moments or surprises in “Finch,” but the movie is still very entertaining, mostly due to Hanks’ engaging performance.

“Finch” has only one human character speaking in the entire film. His name is Finch Weinberg (played by Hanks), who has been living an isolated existence in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, for an untold number of years after an apocalypse destroyed the world’s environment. As Finch explains at one point in the movie, a massive solar flare hit Earth, and “completely fried the ozone.” This disaster also knocked out all of Earth’s electricity. Batteries, gas, fire or solar energy are now the main ways to operate anything mechanical that needs a source to operate that is not automatically built into the mechanism.

The daytime temperature in this post-apocalyptic world is now too hot (an average of 150 degrees Fahrenheit per day) for a human being to survive outdoors during the day without protective gear, because of the “holes” in the ozone layer. In addition, the apocalypse has left Earth covered in dust and looking mostly like a desolate desert. Giant dust clouds are a very real threat. Even though there are extremely hot temperatures during the day, it’s safer for humans to move about during the day, because the nighttime brings out people who can and will commit deadly crimes in order to steal food, water and resources from other people.

Early on in the movie, Finch reads a book titled “The Effects of Exposure to Ionizing Radiation.” And when he gets a nosebleed and later starts coughing up blood, you know exactly where this movie is going to go. About halfway through the movie, Finch even says out loud what he knows is happening to him, in case it wasn’t obvious enough. No subtlety at all.

Finch spends his days traveling in a sanitation truck. While wearing an astronaut-styled hazmat suit, he goes from building to building to look for food and for other survivors. When he finds a building that’s completely abandoned, he uses red spray paint and sprays a general prohibition sign/symbol (a circle with a slanted slash through it) on the front of the building, to indicate that the building was inspected and no one was found inside. During these excursions. Finch brings with him a four-wheeled robot that he created named Dewey, which is meant to act like a dog that looks like a moving cart.

Dewey does not speak, but Finch has designed a human-like robot that does speak. Back in his bunker, where Finch lives with a male terrier mix dog named Goodyear, Finch uploads computer data to the human-like robot and tests this robot. He is elated to find out that the robot works. The robot, which has the skeleton body of a man who’s about 6 feet tall, has superhuman strength and has the ability to process information like a computer. Finch exclaims triumphantly about his robot invention: “One small step for man! One giant leap for Finch Weinberg!”

Most importantly to Finch, the robot can have conversations and can mostly understand the commands that Finch gives to the robot. Caleb Landry Jones is the voice of the robot, which has an accent that sounds like a combination of Russian and American. There are some cardinal rules that the robot has been programmed to always follow: A robot cannot harm a human. A robot, through inaction, cannot allow a human to be killed. And the most important command that Finch has taught this robot is to always take care of Finch’s dog Goodyear, no matter what happens. The robot quickly learns to move like a human.

Later in the movie, the robot chooses its own name: Jeff. Because “Finch” is a essentially a road trip movie, the reason why Finch and his companions have to be on the move is shown early on in the story. One night, Finch sees from a distance that a collection of storm clouds seem to be headed in the direction of his shelter. Jeff calculates that the storms will intersect over the shelter within 24 hours and will last about 40 days. In other words, it’s unlikely that any living being caught in the storm will survive.

Finch hastily evacuates with Goodyear, Jeff and Dewey in his RV camper. He has a collection of postcards of famous bridges, such as London Bridge, the Sydney Harbor Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge postcard has the most sentimentality to Finch. He tells Jeff that his uncle sent him this postcard, and that their road trip will be to San Francisco, with a vague hope that maybe Finch might be able to find some relatives there.

The movie implies that Finch is a never-married bachelor with no children. He mentions later in the movie that he was brought up by a single mother, who is now deceased. Because Finch does not mention having any siblings, it’s also implied that Finch is an only child.

During conversations that Finch has with Jeff during this road trip, it’s revealed that before the apocalypse, Finch was a loner at work and in his personal life. Finch used to work at a company called Tri-Alpha Engineering, which is where he was when the apocalypse happened. Finch tells Jeff an anecdote about what life was like for him on the job.

In this anecdote, Finch says that he was able to solve a work problem on his own, even though his co-workers said it was impossible. When a head honcho at the company stopped by for a visit, he singled out Finch for praise in finding this solution. However, Finch knew that because of office politics, he had to do the polite thing and say that he couldn’t have done this accomplishment without the rest of the team.

The supervisor seemed to know that Finch was lying, but appreciated Finch being aware that things go smoother on a team when people don’t feel undervalued by a co-worker who outshines them and where co-workers trust one another. This story demonstrates that Finch was a co-worker who liked to think and work independently, but he was also aware that working on a team meant that he needed social skills. Finch tells Jeff that his work experience taught him this lesson: “I just work better by myself.”

And it’s why Finch often loses patience with Jeff when the robot makes mistakes that the robot wasn’t necessarily programmed to understand in the first place. Expect to see several scenes where Finch and Jeff develop a father/son type of relationship, as Jeff learns more about life and how to survive this apocalypse. When Finch scolds Jeff for doing something wrong, it sounds exactly like how a parent would scold a child.

After a while, Finch’s impatience becomes repetitive and actually makes Finch look like the one who’s being immature and illogical. After all, if Jeff makes any mistakes, it’s really because Finch failed to give proper instructions or didn’t program the robot well enough to prevent these mistakes. No one said Finch had to be perfect, because no one is.

However, the movie tends to veer a little bit on the shallow side when it makes it look like Finch’s biggest flaw is that he gets impatient with Jeff. If the movie had more of a backstory for Finch, it would’ve made this character more well-rounded. There are only a few hints of what Finch’s life was like before the apocalypse, based on what he mentions. However, enough information is given about Finch to assume that he’s been coping with having an isolated life better than most people would cope because he was already a loner before the apocalypse happened.

“Finch” skimps on other details. The movie ignores issues of indoor plumbing, how to get fresh water, and how it all relates to sanitation and grooming. There’s plenty of emphasis on Finch getting food for himself and Goodyear, but there’s no depiction of getting water, even though water is more important than food for a human being’s survival, especially in an extremely hot environment. The movie never mentions or shows if Finch bathes or showers, although viewers can probably speculate that he keeps bottled water somewhere for any sanitation and grooming.

Of course, “Finch” has some moments that are meant to be suspenseful, which usually has to do with the danger of being seen by other people who are up to no good, or if there’s another hazard that could be life-threatening. One of the most emotionally poignant moments is when Finch tells Jeff a harrowing story of a horrible crime that he witnessed. And there are a few other tearjerking moments that happen right when you expect them to happen.

Because the landscape is covered in dust and because this movie is about a road trip in this depressing-looking world, “Finch” doesn’t have dazzling cinematography, but the camera work gets the job done in the right places. The movie’s visual effects, particularly with Jeff and any disastrous weather, are believable but not particularly outstanding. Jones’ voice as the robot Jeff might be annoying to some viewers. It’s a voice that people will either like/tolerate or absolutely loathe.

Goodyear is the expected adorable and loyal movie dog, filmed with the type of human-like facial expressions and canine noises to indicate that he mostly understands what’s going on. Predictably, Goodyear is suspicious of Jeff at first. Jeff is a new member of this “family,” and the movie makes a point of showing how this new family dynamic affects Goodyear.

Some scientific-minded people might roll their eyes in disbelief at how robot Jeff seems to develop emotions during the course of the story, just like human beings can develop emotional maturity from childhood to adulthood. This movie takes place in an unnamed year in the future, so viewers have to be open to the possibility that artificial intelligence could advance in the future where computer-generated robots can mimic emotional maturity over time. Ultimately, “Finch” is a science-fiction drama that is meant to be more about emotions than the nitty-gritty details of scientific technology. In other words, there’s really no point in nitpicking a fictional movie’s science that’s supposed to exist in an unknown future.

One of the movie’s best scenes is when Finch admits to Jeff that his biggest fear is the fear of the unknown. There’s another scene in the movie where Finch tells Jeff that what made the apocalypse worse wasn’t the natural disaster but how human beings turned on each other when food and other resources became scarce. “Hunger turned men into murderers,” says Finch. “But me, it made me a coward.”

Actually, Finch shows a lot of courage in this story by retaining his humanity and overall compassion. “Finch” effectively tells through one man’s story how disasters can bring out the worst in people, but can also bring out the best in people, especially when people are forced to confront the fragility of life. Finch’s journey might be easy to predict, but it will have some impact on viewers who believe that hope does not have to be sacrificed when surviving a disaster.

Apple TV+ will premiere “Finch” on November 5, 2021.

Review: ‘The Outpost,’ starring Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones and Orlando Bloom

July 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Caleb Landry Jones (second from right) and Scott Eastwood (far right) in “The Outpost” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“The Outpost”

Directed by Rod Lurie

Culture Representation: Based on real events and taking place in northern Afghanistan in 2009, the war drama “The Outpost” features a racially diverse (white, African American, Asian, Latino and one Native American) and almost-all male cast portraying members of the U.S. Army, Afghanistan natives and Pakistani Taliban fighters.

Culture Clash: During the war in Afghanistan, a group of U.S. Army soldiers stationed at a remote outpost come under attack by Taliban terrorists.

Culture Audience: “The Outpost” will appeal to primarily to people who like war movies that realistically portray the terrifying battles and deep emotional toll that war can take on people who fight on the front lines.

Orlando Bloom in “The Outpost” (Photo by Simon  Varsano/Screen Media Films)

Based on a true story, the effective drama “The Outpost” recreates the Afghanistan War’s Battle of Kamdesh (also known as the Battle of Outpost Keating) that took place on October 3, 2009, in such brutal and realistic detail, that some viewers watching it might feel as if they’ve gone through an emotional war zone just by seeing this movie. The battle doesn’t take place until halfway through this 123-minute movie. But by then, viewers get a sense of what life in the outpost was like for those involved before some of their lives were tragically lost.

Capably directed by Rod Lurie, “The Outpost” begins with this on-screen text to give viewers a historical view of the story in the movie: “In 2006, the U.S. Army established a series of outposts in northern Afghanistan to promote counterinsurgency. The intent was to connect with the locals and to stop the flow of weapons and Taliban fighters from Pakistan.”

One of those outposts was PRT Kamdesh, a relatively small station that was located at the bottom of a valley surrounded by the Hindu Kush Mountains. The location was remote and an easy “sitting duck” target if attackers wanted to use the mountain range as the perfect position to fire guns and bombs down below. And that’s exactly what happened when about 400 Taliban fighters ambushed the approximately 54 U.S. Army men who were stationed at the outpost.

Before that happened, the movie shows the different personalities of several of the Army men at the outpost, as well as the culture that the Army was trying to establish while these U.S. military personnel were living among Afghan civilians. There are multiple scenes of the captain of the team trying to keep the peace with an increasingly frustrated and suspicious group of locals, led by Afghan elders, who are slightly appeased when they are offered money by the U.S. military to help build schools in the area.

Paranoia and tensions run high at the outpost and the nearby communities. The U.S. soldiers capture a young Afghan man taking photos of the outpost, and they temporarily hold him for questioning. The local Afghan people consider it to be a kidnapping.

And although U.S. military men at the outpost have Afghan men helping with translating and acting as lookouts, many of the locals start to feel disrespected by the American soldiers. Some of the soldiers are arrogantly skeptical of a local Afghan man who keeps warning them that Taliban fighters will soon come to attack the outpost.

Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson adapted the movie’s screenplay from the nonfiction book “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” which was written by CNN anchor Jake Tapper. (Tapper is also one of the executive producers of “The Outpost” movie. The end of the movie also includes clips of CNN interviews that Tapper did with some of the surviving soldiers.)

There are numerous military men in the story, but some are written as more distinct than others. Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha (played by Scott Eastwood) is the quintessential “good guy” soldier who, for the most part, gets along with everyone. Staff Sergeant Ty Carter (played by Caleb Landry Jones) is the group’s misfit loner.

First Lieutenant Benjamin Keating (played by Orlando Bloom) is the no-nonsense leader of the outpost. He expresses his intentions by telling his team, “We need to keep a good relationship with the locals. Respect keeps us safe.”

Another example of Keating’s leadership skills shows that he can be tough but merciful. In one scene, Keating admonishes a young soldier named Ed Faulkner (played by Will Attenborough) for smoking too much hashish.  Faulkner denies that he’s addicted to hashish, but Keating disagrees. Rather than docking Faulkner’s salary (because Keating says that money eventually doesn’t mean much to soldiers at war), Keating demotes Faulkner to the ranking of private, and tells Faulkner that this is his last chance to clean up his act.

As with any large group of people who work together, there is camaraderie and there is conflict. During the good times, the men party together and share stories of their loved ones at home. Tension-filled arguments sometimes turn into physical fights, such as when hotheaded Staff Sergeant Justin T. Gallegos (played by Jacob Scipio) angrily kicks and pushes down Private First Class Zorias Yunger (played by Alfie Stewart) for shooting bullets too close to Gallegos’ head.

And sometimes the cruelty to each other is emotional, such as when Carter is ridiculed and disrespected by some of his fellow soldiers for being a little bit of an oddball. (Carter’s eccentric ways include wearing shorts during combat.) Stephan Mace (played by Chris Born) is one of the soldiers who gives Carter a hard time.

A lot of things happen in “The Outpost” can’t be described in detail because it’s spoiler information for people who don’t know the whole story. However, it should come as no surprise that several of the men don’t make it out alive. The Taliban attack is portrayed in horrifying detail, but even among the terror, there’s a lot of inspiring bravery.

As the “misfit” Carter, Jones is the clear standout actor in the movie, particularly in the second half of the film. The dialogue in “The Outpost” isn’t very memorable, but some of the scenes were obviously written as an admirable effort to show these military men as individuals, instead of blending them all together as a generic group.

For example, there’s a sequence that shows all of the men calling home, and viewers see snippets of each and every one of their conversations. It’s a great way of showing their individuality and to give a glimpse into their personal lives. And there are small touches of humor in this serious movie, such as when a soldier holds a photo of a special female and tells another soldier that when he gets home, he can’t wait to hold and kiss her—and then it’s revealed that the female in the photo is the soldier’s dog.

Lorenzo Senatore’s immersive cinematography for “The Outpost” also makes it one of the best war movies released in 2020. In addition, the film makes a bold statement at the end by not doing the war-movie cliché conclusion of showing people being awarded medals, but instead by showing how one of the surviving heroes is wracked with survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many people skip watching the end credits of a movie, but it’s worth sticking around for all of the end credits for “The Outpost.” And for viewers who get teary-eyed during realistic war movies, it might help to have some tissues nearby.

Screen Media Films released “The Outpost” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on July 3, 2020.

Review: ‘The Kindness of Strangers,’ starring Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, Tahar Rahim, Caleb Landry Jones, Jay Baruchel and Bill Nighy

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Finlay Wojtak-Hissong, Zoe Kazan and Jack Fulton in “The Kindness of Strangers” (Photo by Per Arnesen)

“The Kindness of Strangers”

Directed by Lone Scherfig

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City, the dramatic film “The Kindness of Strangers” has a predominantly white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Six strangers find themselves connected in some way when a suburban housewife takes her two young sons to New York City to escape from her abusive husband.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of independent dramas with multiple layers to the story, but the ludicrous contrivances in the screenplay will irritate people who are expecting a story with more realism and substance.

Caleb Landry Jones and Andrea Riseborough in “The Kindness of Strangers” (Photo by Per Arnesen)

If you’re someone who disliked the 2005 Oscar-winning movie “Crash” (one of the most controversial Best Picture wins in Oscar history), then you’ll really despise the drama “The Kindness of Strangers.” The movie takes a concept that’s similar to “Crash”—several strangers in a big city are connected in some way to each other and eventually meet—and makes it even more trite and ridiculous at the same time.

In “The Kindness of Strangers,” the big city is New York (“Crash” took place in Los Angeles), home to thousands of restaurants. But apparently one restaurant—a fairly upscale Russian eatery called the New York Winter Palace—is the go-to place in town for people to have their problems solved. But first, here’s a summary of the six strangers who end up being connected in the story.

Clara is a housewife who lives in Buffalo, New York, but in the dead of night, she’s left her home with her two young sons—older son Anthony (played by Jack Zulton) and younger son Jude (played by Finlay Wojtak-Hissong)—by driving to New York City. The reason for the secret trip? She’s escaped from her physically and emotionally abusive husband Richard (played by Esben Smed), who’s also been abusing the kids. She won’t go to the police or a domestic-abuse shelter because her husband is a cop, and she’s afraid that he’ll find her.

Alice (played by Andrea Riseborough) is an emergency-room nurse who never seems to go home because she’s always popping up in the story at the right momement to “rescue” someone. Not only is she a nurse, but she also does a lot of volunteer work at a church, where she leads a forgiveness support group. She’s also a regular customer at the New York Winter Palace.

Timofey (played by Bill Nighy) is the owner of the New York Winter Palace, which he inherited from his Russian grandfather. Timofey is American, but he fakes a Russian accent when he’s on the job. He has a droll sense of humor and a “seen it all before” attitude toward life.

Marc (played by Tahar Rahim) has recently been released from prison, where he spent a little more than three years on drug-related charges. His brother was a drug addict who eventually overdosed and whose drug activity got Marc arrested and wrongfully convicted. (Marc was in the wrong place at the wrong time.) Near the beginning of the story, Marc meets with Timofey and some of his restaurant colleagues, and convinces them to hire him as a manager of the New York Winter Palace.

John Peter (played by Jay Baruchel) is Marc’s defense attorney. He’s become somewhat jaded over his job, because he says he hates defending clients he knows are guilty. He’s part of the forgiveness support group led by Alice. And after Marc gets out of prison, he accompanies John Peter to the support group too. However, every time Marc goes to the group meetings, he insists he doesn’t really need counseling and he’s just there to be supportive of John Peter.

Jeff (played by Caleb Landry Jones) is a screw-up who can’t seem to keep a job because he keeps making dumb mistakes. He also has a nasty temper, because when he’s fired from a mattress-selling job, he takes a chair and smashes a window with the chair, while his supervisor and co-workers watch in shock. Jeff is four months behind on his rent and is close to being evicted.

When viewers first see Clara and her sons in New York City, she tells them they’re taking a fun vacation. At first, she’s able to fool them into thinking that it’s an adventure and they don’t have to go back to school because “New York is going to be kind of a school for you.” But then reality sinks in (her money starts to run out) and she resorts to stealing to get money for food and other essentials.

Clara steals a designer dress and purse to sneak into upscale parties at hotels and restaurants, where she shovels some of the party food in a bag when no one is looking. One of the places where she ends up stealing food is the New York Winter Palace, where she pretends she’s part of a big family that’s throwing a party there. Marc the manager strikes up a conversation with Clara and seems a little suspicious of her story, especially when he later sees her behind the coat-check desk where the coat checker should be. Clara ended up stealing a coat, and Marc narrowly missed seeing her commit this theft before she quickly left the restaurant.

Meanwhile, broke Jeff is confronted by his landlord, who tells Jeff that he won’t wait anymore for the rent that’s four months overdue. The landlord tells Jeff that he has one hour to leave the apartment. This demand is not only very unrealistic, but it’s also very illegal. Anyone who knows anything about New York City’s eviction laws knows that evicting a tenant is a drawn-out legal process that isn’t done in one day.

But this movie isn’t concerned about details like that, because it would ruin the set-up for homeless Jeff to end up at a soup kitchen, where (you guessed it) saintly Alice happens to be working right at that moment. She gets Jeff to help out in serving people at the soup kitchen in exchange for him getting free meals.

Meanwhile, the situation for Clara and her sons has gone from bad to worse. Clara has taken her husband Richard’s car (which he could easily report as stolen), but the car is towed away because she parked in the wrong zone and has too many unpaid parking tickets. Clara and her sons had been living in the car and now need to find shelter.  And it’s the middle of an ice-cold winter, don’t you know, so that makes the situation even more pitiful.

Clara and the kids end up at the soup kitchen, where (surprise) Alice happens to be working. And then later, the family is really desperate for a place to stay, but Clara doesn’t want to go to a homeless shelter, so they end up at the church again where (surprise) Alice happens to be there too, right after she’s finished her support group meeting. Alice takes pity on Clara and the kids and offers them a room at the church for the night, even though it’s against the church rules. But wait, there’s more “coincidental” drama.

Clara and the kids barely have spent the night at the church when something almost tragic happens that involves someone being taken to the same hospital where Alice works and (surprise) she happens to be on duty that night too. And then Alice decides to break someone out of the hospital, even though it’s something that would get her fired and there are probably security cameras in the hospital that would catch her doing it.

And somewhere in this story, Clara ends up hiding underneath a table at the New York Winter Palace, where she’s seen by Marc, who doesn’t kick her out because he’s attracted to her. He lets her stay hidden under the table, as he serves her Russian food on the restaurant’s finest serving platters that he leaves on the floor like someone feeding a dog.

And then Clara finally comes to her senses and does something she should’ve done a long time ago: Decide to get a lawyer. She asks Marc if he knows any good lawyers. You already know who he recommends, even though John Peter’s specialty isn’t family law.

“The Kindness of Strangers,” written and directed by Lone Scherfig, is the kind of movie where the cast members’ acting isn’t the problem. (Although Nighy’s and Rahim’s American accents aren’t very convincing.) The biggest problem is the jumbled and hackneyed screenplay that has little regard for viewers’ intelligence.

The movie also takes the serious issue of domestic abuse and cynically uses it as just another plot device to connect the dots between these characters. And there are little details that indicate sloppy writing, such as a scene where incompetent and dim-witted Jake (of all people) puts someone on an ambulance gurney, when in reality an EMT or trained medical professional, not an untrained person, is required to do that.

Scherfig is capable of doing much better films (her Oscar-nominated 2009 drama “An Education” was one of the best movies of that year), so hopefully “The Kindness of Strangers” is not an indication that the quality of her work will continue to go downhill. “The Kindness of Strangers” isn’t the worst film you might ever see. It’s just not a very good movie, and you won’t feel much sympathy for the characters who make very bad decisions.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Kindness of Strangers” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on February 14, 2020.

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