Knock at the Cabin

Release: Friday, February 3, 2023

👀 Theater

Written by: M. Night Shyamalan; Steve Desmond; Michael Sherman

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Starring: Dave Bautista; Ben Aldridge; Jonathan Groff; Nikki Amuka-Bird; Abby Quinn; Rupert Grint; Kristen Cui

Distributor: Universal Pictures

 

***/*****

A compelling moral dilemma takes center stage in M. Night Shyamalan‘s new film Knock at the Cabin, a home invasion thriller set in remote Pennsylvania and at the edge of the apocalypse. Adapting the 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, Shyamalan may not be working from scratch, and by all accounts the book and the movie are different beasts, but for at least the first half this is one of his stronger efforts in some time. 

Knock at the Cabin finds the 52-year-old director working in rare R-rated territory, following only 2008’s The Happening. Spoiler alert, this experiment is a little more convincing, even if it fizzles out in the end. Thirty-something dads Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) have taken their seven-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) to a quaint cabin in the Pennsylvania wilderness for some R&R. As Wen scouts the surroundings for grasshoppers to collect in her terrarium she is approached by a mountain of a man, Leonard (an outstanding Dave Bautista), who does everything he can to reassure the little girl he isn’t here to harm anyone.

The former wrestler embraces the opportunity to play a more nuanced, emotionally conflicted role and excels in it. A contradiction of menacing size and gentle demeanor, Bautista is the movie’s MVP by far. Leonard says he has urgent news to deliver and feels terrible about what it’s going to do to a nice family. Attempts to break the ice fail when three other individuals appear behind him, each carrying some kind of homemade weapon, causing Wen to flee inside to alert her parents. Leonard insists on diplomatic methods and repeatedly states a desire to avoid violence. But the best laid plans still end up with someone more fuzzy-headed than they should be, and a child bearing witness to more bloodshed than was ever intended.

The foursome — Leonard, a schoolteacher; Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a nurse; Adriane (Abby Quinn), a restaurant cook; and Redmond (Rupert Grint), the loose cannon fresh off a stint in jail — claim to have been guided to this particular cabin after having experienced a shared vision of the end of days. They say they don’t know each other. With deep exhales they also state that the inhabitants are the only ones who can help prevent catastrophe, but in order to do so the family will have to sacrifice one of their own or else humanity will slip into an unending darkness. As if that’s not enough, the act has to be voluntary and suicide doesn’t count.

With his latest stress test Shyamalan proves to be more a master technician behind the scenes than a powerful messenger behind the pulpit. For what essentially amounts to a chamber piece, Cabin is a surprisingly dynamic viewing experience, chockablock with unconventional camera angles pulling us in further when we want to lean back. Other choices are commendably economic — once again a TV becomes an important narrative device to connect us to the outside world, although the service it provides is nowhere near as chilling as it was in Signs. And the way he integrates flashbacks is not as interruptive as it could be; in fact in some ways the unpleasantries dealt with here only add to the stress of the present.

Regrettably, it’s when the film goes big that it also gets weaker. In guiding us away from what might be to what actually is, Shyamalan struggles to make what’s preordained feel organic, to convince us that the choices being made are not the whims of a writer but rather the results of selflessness and excruciating introspection. Even worse, in choosing his own sentimental ending he invites mockery and criticism rather than profundity — not of his actors and the family they create, but of the logic that dictates who gets to live and who doesn’t. 

It’s not that Shyamalan is out of his depth thematically here; elements of faith and denialism have found their way into much of his work, whether it’s a priest having a personal crisis amidst an alien invasion or a kid coming to terms with the fact his dad is an actual superhero. (And in the aforementioned, other-R-rated offering, you just had to hold on to the hope he hadn’t lost his touch.) With Cabin, he gives us another provocative situation and draws out some great acting from his small cast. In the end, it may be a case where some things are just better left unexplained. 

Knock knock . . .

Moral of the Story: One of Shyamalan’s better efforts, despite its flaws. The performances (beyond Bautista) are all solid, as is the hook. A really strong first half gives way to a less satisfying third act where the direction becomes more forceful and in that way less natural. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins. 

Quoted: “Maybe the truth is that the end was happening long before we got to this cabin. And what we’re seeing now isn’t the fireworks. It’s just the final flickering sparks.”

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I Am Mother

Release: Friday, June 7, 2019 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Michael Lloyd Green

Directed by: Grant Sputore

Starring: Clara Rugaard; Rose Byrne; Hilary Swank

Distributor: Netflix

 

****/*****

I Am Mother is another movie ideally suited for those of us already harboring a healthy distrust of robots. An often disconcerting experience, this post-apocalyptic thriller from Australian and first-time director Grant Sputore uses the relationship between a matronly AI and her flesh-and-blood daughter to create a fascinating allegory for parenthood.

The DNA of some undisputed sci fi classics is infused into the core of this dystopian family drama. While I Am Mother nods toward The Matrix in the climactic moments and a pretty cool rug-pulling moment wherein our perception of the truth gets inverted, and on more than one occasion evokes Skynet’s ubiquitous presence and ruthless determination, the newbie director blends the familiarly awesome and uniquely eerie in a satisfying way, threading plot twists through a claustrophobic, stainless steel environment where not everything is as it seems.

Stripping the world down to a fail-safe bunker and a single automaton (voiced by Rose Byrne, ambulated by Luke Hawker), the story begins in the immediate aftermath of a cataclysmic event that has wiped out all of mankind. Mother awakens and promptly sets about her duties, making breakfast, reading the morning news and, oh yeah, seeing to the pretty important task of repopulating Earth. She’s in charge of some 60,000 human embryos, all waiting to be “born” into a decidedly more austere life where Mother’s many rules are a sophisticated calculus to keep everyone safe. From what, exactly, we’re not sure. A relatively fresh face in acting, Danish singer Clara Rugaard plays the first human occupant of the bunker, and to keep things simple awkwardly formal (and no doubt symbolic) she’s only ever referred to as “Daughter.”

Her formative years — halcyon days captured beautifully in a brilliant usage of Bette Midler’s “Baby Of Mine” — appear lonely but the structure is not unlike that afforded a child raised in a loving, well-to-do, albeit more traditionally fleshy family. Limited though they may be she develops passions outside of her schooling, overseen by, who else, Mother. A cute little montage has a young Daughter covering her robo-mommy with stickers. Birthdays are celebrated. For a time, the world is perfect. As she grows she develops a curiosity about the world around her: “Why are there no other children?”

I Am Mother‘s man-machine conflict revolves around trust, something to which I’m sure those who are more qualified to speak on such matters might attest (i.e. actual parents), is a real mother of a challenge. Life’s a harrowing, endlessly twisting tunnel full of unexpected right and left turns. Raising a child is more complicated than the inner gizmos driving a machine. Often it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Unlike for AI making mistakes is part-and-parcel of the human experience. You can be great at nurturing but you won’t ever be perfect.

Which is why it’s so difficult for Mother when an uninvited human guest (an intense Hilary Swank) shows up, seeking shelter from the wasteland and bringing some alarming news with her. Daughter lets her in under certain conditions and in brazen defiance of house rules. “We’ve talked about this. No potentially hostile, gun-wielding guests after 9, got it?”

It’s a point of no return in which I Am Mother‘s fascinating moral conundrum goes from simmering to full blaze. It’s also where Swank essentially wrestles the film away from the erstwhile stars of the show, her wounded-outside-and-in Woman jolting the film with an urgent energy — an adrenaline rush we kind of needed right as the prolonged first act begins to drag a little. All the while the soothing in Byrne’s voice takes on more menace, the native Aussie never inflecting so much as a blip of emotion. It’s brilliant work from a performer you never see. Rugaard remains a sympathetic presence, selling her character’s ingenuity and intelligence, her compassion and her confusion. It’s a complex performance that she handles well, even if her rapport with Woman develops a little too quickly. (I’ll lay more of the blame there on the direction.)

Minor flaws aside, I Am Mother is a meticulous work of art. There are a lot of details that need to come together in just the right way to create that gutsy cliff-hanger-like ending — one that’s sure to keep viewers talking for awhile after. And let’s not overlook the production design, for it’s a character unto itself. The clinical setting of the domicile never makes one feel like they’re at home, while Peter Jackson’s own visual effects company Weta Workshop render the homemaker as a cross between Alicia Vikander’s Ava (from Ex Machina, a movie you could consider the more polished British cousin to I Am Mother), the T-800 (especially when she’s in full-on crisis control mode) and that single, unblinking eye just screams Hal-9000, arguably the mother of all cinematic AI.

Nobody told me raising a kid would be THIS hard

Moral of the Story: I Am Mother is catnip for fans of intelligent sci fi, with a trio of strong female performances leading the charge and the dystopian aesthetic pulling from a number of big-time (and male-dominated) sci fi of years past. There’s also touches of more contemporary pieces like Ex Machina and 10 Cloverfield Lane as well. And it’s a movie whose ambiguous ending has and will continue to divide opinion. After nearly a month of sitting on this movie I am still unsure what to think of it. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “Mothers need time to learn, too. Raising a good child is no small task.”

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30 for 30: The Last Days of Knight

Release: Thursday, April 12, 2018 (Vol. III, Ep. 24)

👀 ESPN

Starring: Robert Abbott; Terry Clapacs; Rick Davis; Bob Knight

Directed by: Robert Abbott

Distributor: ESPN Films

 

 

****/*****

In the eyes of many Bob Knight is an obvious candidate for the Mt. Rushmore of collegiate hoops coaching greats. He has numbers on his side and generations of fans ensure he won’t be forgotten. But whereas words like legacy are most often used to glamorize and romanticize the past, when it comes to Coach Knight, who threw chairs and kicked lockers out of frustration, was caught on tape grabbing a player by the throat during practice and one time even used fecal matter to demonstrate how he felt about team effort, legacy takes on a different, perhaps darker connotation.

If we’re talking accolades this guy is doing the butterfly in a deep pool of ’em: In his 29 years with the Indiana Hoosiers he amassed 902 NCAA Division I wins which, as of 2008, when he retired (at this point he was head coach at Texas Tech), was the most all-time at that level. Today it is third-most all-time, recently eclipsed by his former assistant and current Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim.

Knight’s coaching résumé includes three NCAA Championship titles, 11 conference titles, one National Invitational Tournament Championship, four Coach of the Year honors and thus far the last true undefeated squad in 1975-’76. In 1984 he coached the Olympic team and led the Americans to victory in L.A., making him one of the elite few college coaches to have won an NIT title, an NCAA title and an Olympic Gold medal.

Statistics can speak volumes about a coach’s skill, knowledge and experience but what of their style? Their moral code? They certainly don’t tell the whole story when it comes to this highly controversial figure. The Last Days of Knight is a scintillating exposé directed and narrated by and prominently featuring former CNN producer Robert Abbott. What begins with a journalist inquiring into the curious transfer of three top IU players out of the program in the 90s opens up into a much larger and troubling story about institutional corruption, abuse of power and toxic fandom.

After his playing days were over Bob Knight established himself as a demanding coach with an old-school approach, equating hard work and discipline with success. His intimidating presence earned him the nickname ‘The General.’ His first stint was coaching the Army Black Knights at West Point at the ripe age of 24 and while successful, early cracks in his composure began to show, proving in moments of frustration to be a combative personality and a hot head. In 1971 he was hired as the head coach at Indiana, and though his first year ended in disappointment he’d soon have the Hoosier faithful in the palm of his hand, bringing multiple titles to a state that worships the game.

While Coach Knight and his temper take top billing, Abbott also plays a major role in the narrative, and for good reason. Not only is the film a culmination of 17 months of painstaking research and chasing down crucial interviews, the downfall of a coaching deity is directly linked to Abbott’s investigation. During the process he learned to appreciate how much of a bombshell his story was indeed becoming, and on camera he is up front about the moral dilemma he often found himself in.

From a journalistic perspective you don’t get a story much bigger than this: Bob Knight, coaching God, has been doing terrible things to his players. He taunts them. Hurls insults at them. Plays mind games with them. At the same time he was acutely aware of the pain his investigation was causing, not to Coach but to the whistleblowers who, as a result of speaking out, endured public humiliation and faced lynch mobs and unrelenting death threats. The additional complication of Abbott himself coming under fire for pursuing what some high-powered, well-connected individuals called a witch hunt further amplifies the drama.

What makes Knight’s run at Indiana so extraordinary is the amount of leeway a little (okay, a lot of) winning afforded him. His tenure outlasted that of school administrators and athletic directors. It’s been said that at the height of his success Knight became a more influential figure than even the state governor, his ability to mold boys into men under his authoritative leadership earning him first the respect and then the undying loyalty of the Hoosier community. A pattern of abuse endured not just one bad season, it went on for decades, always justified by a well-above-.500 record and perennial postseason success — at least up until 1994, the last time a Bob Knight-led Indiana squad would reach the tournament. He would stay on as head coach until September 2000.

The Last Days of Knight is conspicuously devoid of any current interviews with the man himself. The fall from grace is old news now but a lack of immediacy doesn’t dilute the power of the voice or the images. Throughout we get several truly frightening sound bites of him in fine fear-mongering form. Other clips depict his behavior during press conferences, at times as bizarre as it was hostile. Meanwhile interviews with Neil Reed, the player whose neck Knight grabbed, serve as an indictment on an institution that prioritizes the bottom line over the well-being of its students.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Say it don’t spray it, Bobby.

Moral of the Story: The downfall of Bob Knight remains one of the most popular stories in modern college hoops, so it surprised me it took ESPN this long to produce a film on it. But better late than never, because while the film doesn’t really offer new insight into a story that’s been rehashed in the media for years on end, the personal perspective offered by Robert Abbott adds another layer of intrigue. In an era where the integrity of journalism is being intensely scrutinized, this documentary does feel more timely. 

Rated: TV-G

Running Time: 102 mins.

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Truth

Release: Friday, October 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: James Vanderbilt

Directed by: James Vanderbilt

Truth be told, a movie featuring household names like Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett, one propped up on real-world events of this magnitude shouldn’t feel like a chore to get through. Yet, here we are.

To clear the air first: don’t think of this as the definitive Dan Rather biopic; think of it as a drama that calls upon his iconic red suspenders and larger-than-life personality when convenient. If anything, this is the story of Mary Mapes, the 60 Minutes producer who believed she had unearthed some new documents alleging then-President George W. Bush had not met the minimal standards required of fighter pilots at the time of the Vietnam War (thus affording him a loophole from joining in the fight) and had been protected politically, rendering his hypothetical AWOL status one of the most well-kept secrets in recent American history.

Okay, so we’ve been misled a little bit. Of course, that might be on us since it’s easier to associate this shameful chapter in broadcast journalism with a certain face. And it’s easier to recall Rather’s final farewell with teary-eyed reverence than anything Mapes may have said or done as she watched her career collapse like the Hindenburg.

With that in mind, Blanchett is far from a bad alternative as she impetuously fights a losing battle in an effort to exonerate herself and her good friend from this now infamous ethical debacle. The argument she presents? The authenticity of said documents — which turned out to be forgeries created in Microsoft Word and which she gained after a brief meeting with Stacy Keach’s Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett — isn’t the big picture. Finding out precisely what happened with Bush’s involvement in the armed forces in the early ’70s is.

This is almost verbatim what she tells a panel of hard-nosed, ultra-conservative lawyers — some of whom fought on behalf of former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove prior to his 2007 resignation — in the film’s spectacularly unspectacular final scenes. The big, bad showdown, as it were. This, after being cautioned by her own lawyer to simply keep her head down and try hard not to fight back. Old habits die hard I guess.

Truth is, of course, very well-acted. Blanchett settles in to yet another tough female lead who’s difficult to get along with, introduced as someone whose chip-on-their-shoulder couldn’t be any more apparent. In her lowest moments we see her popping Xanex and chasing it down with white wine, behavior reminiscent of her troubled Jasmine. Her performance is reason enough to see the picture. Redford, inhabiting the undoubtedly challenging role as the iconic CBS anchor, delivers a subtler and more emotionally reserved performance and is thoroughly likable, despite minimal screen time. Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Elisabeth Moss round out the team working under Mapes but they don’t register at all, in terms of performance or their contributions to the drama.

Truth is, writer/director James Vanderbilt, who penned the screenplay for David Fincher’s Zodiac, forces empathy for Rather and his pseudo-surrogate daughter — I can’t think of a better way to describe the pair’s relationship, at least as it’s presented here — as they journey down the gauntlet of shame and humiliation. The feeling hardly eventuates naturally. This is the Salem Witch Trial sans witches and torches. The American people feel it’s well within their right to take down these journalists as hard as they damn well can, their argument being these people make a living out of digging into other people’s lives. Those not in the business are painted as villainous and bloodthirsty.

Truth is, no matter how you slice it, the innate complexities of the matter make the drama a tough sell to anyone who is unable to look past the political motivations of Hollywood interpreting these events. The liberal slant is far from subtle. The package is too neatly contained to be real life. Despite several sizzling moments of dialogue (mostly spat by a righteously indignant Blanchett) was there any good reason this didn’t materialize in the form of a thoroughly revealing documentary . . . . maybe on 60 Minutes?

That’s the kind of irony that will never be, seeing as this film’s trailers were blacklisted from CBS. It’s an even harder sell when the events depicted in Vanderbilt’s feature film debut are laced with such contriteness you have but one option come the film’s end: feel bad for the people who failed to uphold one of the major pillars of good journalism.

Recommendation: Truth is a strange experience. On one hand it’s well-performed and suitably emotional as we experience the catalytic events that ended Mary Mapes’ and Dan Rather’s careers in shame. On the other, there’s no denying this has an agenda all its own, which is a little frustrating as there is a better movie in here somewhere underneath the moral indignation (for both the American people and the ones getting done in). I don’t want to get into the politics of what constitutes good journalism, I’d rather get into the politics of good acting and Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford indeed make a good team. They’re very strong cogs in a relatively weak engine.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “Our story is about whether the President fulfilled his service. Nobody wants to talk about that, they want to talk about fonts and forgeries and they hope to God the truth gets lost in the scrum.”

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