‘What happened to Monday’ is good, but could have been better

I’d like to think that Tommy Wirkola’s new Netflix original film, “What happened to Monday” (2017), is the product of a 48-hour film project — as if the writing and directing team were given four mandatory prompts to work with and were ordered to produce a film in a relatively short time frame. 

Written by Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson, “What happened to Monday” feels like the type of caffine-fueled delusions produced under these hypothetical circumstances. 

In this case, perhaps they were given the line: “Seven minds are better than one.”

The character: Karen Settman, a woman who works in finance.

Genre(s) to choose from: Sci-fi/Action.

And prop: Sauce pan.

The result is good — if they were working under these hypothetical constraints that probably didn’t exist. Without these limits though, it’s much easier to see “What happened to Monday’s” imperfections. The confusing and rushed plot. The underdeveloped characters. The way the film feels like many books or movies that came before it. (Think: Margaret Peterson Haddix’s “Shadow Children” books meeting the movie “Blade Runner” meeting an extra long “Black Mirror” episode.)

The world Botkin, Williamson and Wirkola envisions is that of the future. The year is 2073, when the world’s biggest threat is overpopulation.

For the past 30-plus years, politician Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close) has attempted to control this problem by strictly enforcing the one child policy. Any siblings are seized and put to sleep indefinitely by the One Child Allocation bureau.

But Terrence Settman (Willem Dafoe) couldn’t separate his seven identical septuplets grandchildren (all played by the wonderful Noomi Rapace). Instead, he raised them to follow three basic rules:

  1. The girls could only go out one at a time on the day of the week in which they were named after (i.e. Monday would go out on Monday, Tuesday on Tuesday, and so on and so forth).
  2. The girls would each share the identity of Karen Settman when they left their flat.
  3. The girls could never mention they had siblings.

This ruse kept all seven siblings alive well into their thirties, but one day, Monday goes missing.

The rest of the movie revolves around the siblings trying to find out what happened to Monday without being discovered by the One Child Allocation bureau.

There’s at least seven things to like about “What happened to Monday.” Rapace is phenomenal as all seven Settman sisters, who share the same name, face and screen time, but also have very distinct haircuts and personalities. They’re the reason you like “What Happened to Monday” and why the sisters are more than Sporty Sis, Sexy Sis, Responsible Sis, Techie Sis, Rebellious Sis, Boring Sis and Spiritual Sis. Thanks to Rapace’s acting and some creative special effects from editor Martin Stoltz, you have no trouble believing that there are seven Settman sisters, who squabble and tease each other as sisters do. Without Rapace’s acting (which includes many scenes involving clever green screen work), “What Happened to Monday” would be just as forgettable as its title.

That’s not to say that this movie isn’t good. (I still gave it a thumbs up on Netflix.) But you can’t help wanting this movie to be better — to be one of those things that takes up more brain space and changes the way you think. That’s what you expect from a good sci-fi movie.

Instead, the movie feels a little stiff and off — as if the writing and directing team were also trapped within the confines of the rules they’ve created.

“What Happened to Monday” was directed by Tommy Wirkola and written by Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson. 

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Why a story about a garbage can being thrown from a parking ramp injuring a tourist made me think of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Babel’

This is your gut reaction when you hear this story: 

It’s your outrage if a boy shot a bullet at a moving vehicle filled with foreign tourists.

It’s what you’d think if a woman left two children alone and unattended out in a desert.

It’s the disgust you’d feel if one of your patients tried to kiss you while you were cleaning her teeth at a dental office.

Five innocuous little words. What is wrong with you? Assigning blame without knowing everything.

But while the boy/woman/patient (and whoever might have thrown a garbage can at a tourist) were clearly at fault here, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning film “Babel” (2006) humanizes these actions and shows us that actions have consequences — no matter how good the intentions initially were.

The boy/woman/patient are not bad people, even though they might have all done bad things. They’re not monsters. They didn’t shoot at a tour bus, leave children alone in a desert, or attempt to sexually assault you out of hate, but rather love and pride. Iñárritu’s film explains the tower of confusion or misunderstandings that led to these situations in about 143 minutes.

The boy, woman and patient are all distantly connected in this story, which circles round and round like a kaleidoscope.

The patient is a teenage Japanese deaf girl (Rinko Kikuchi) who found the dead body of her mother after she committed suicide on their balcony. If that isn’t alienating enough, the girl finds it impossible to find love — especially when boys realize she can’t hear or speak. Her attempt to kiss her dentist was a perversion, yes, but it was also a very misguided attempt to find love.

The boy Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), who lives in a poor and rural community in Morocco, was driven by a bet with his brother Ahmed (Said Tarchani). Ahmed bet that his brother couldn’t hit the moving bus. Yussef proved he could. They never intended to shoot Susan Jones (Cate Blanchett), an American touring Morocco while on vacation with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt).

And Richard and Susan Jones, never intended to extend their stay in Morocco. Because they did and because they didn’t have anyone else to watch their children, Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble), their babysitter Amelia (Adriana Barraza) faced an impossible choice: watch the children in San Diego or miss her son’s (Robert ‘Bernie’ Esquivel) wedding in Mexico. 

Amelia opted to shoot for the moon and brought the children she was babysitting to Mexico with her for her son’s wedding, but as an undocumented immigrant, Amelia had trouble returning to the states after the festivities.

It didn’t help that her nephew and driver Santiago (Gael García Bernal) got drunk at the wedding before he drove her to the U.S. border.

It didn’t help that they tried to cross the border with two kids that weren’t theirs.

Santiago, Amelia, Mike and Debbie do make it over the border, but in an attempt to shake the U.S. Custom and Border Control agents from their tail, Santiago left Amelia and the children in the middle of the desert with a promise to return for them. Santiago didn’t return. And Amelia briefly left the children to save them — to find someone who could give them food, water and shelter — even if it was one of the CBC officers they were running from.

Was that wrong?

And if so, what was wrong with that? That Amelia thought with her heart rather than her head?

Could that also be how the garbage can which hit a tourist got thrown from a parking ramp?

“Babel” makes us question what we see and second-guess what we value.

Meanwhile, a question like “What is wrong with people?” might not be so easy to answer.

“Babel” was written by Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The film was directed by Iñárritu. “Babel” won an Oscar for “Best Original Score.”

‘Captain America: Civil War’ is an allegory for American politics

You’d think that an ultimate showdown between superheroes would be funny and absurd as Lemon Demon’s “The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny,” but Anthony and Joe Russo’s superhero showdown “Captain America: Civil War” isn’t funny.

The only part that’s remotely funny is the banter in an almost 12-minute battle sequence at an airport.

Other than that, the painstakingly long two-and-a-half hour film is mostly about what keeps bubbling up in conversations: politics.

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, “Captain America: Civil War” centers on a political debate America’s all too familiar with: the battle between whether governmental bodies should have more or less oversight. In it, the Avengers become an allegory for America and representatives within the organization aren’t willing to compromise on how the Avengers should be governed.

Armed in his red Iron Man costume, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) stands with democratic values, believing that the United Nations should oversee the Avenger team. Donning a red, white and blue shield, Captain America (Chris Evans) sides with traditional republicans beliefs, advocating for less governmental control and more freedom of choice.

The resulting arguments aren’t pretty. They’re nasty, vindictive and very, very physical (These are the Avengers after all). Plenty of people get hurt. And even after the battles are over, the fissure remains.

“Captain America: Civil War” was directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo. The screenplay was written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. 

How the ’13th’ Amendment of United States perpetuated modern-day slavery

The 13th Amendment of the United States constitution was taught as a law of liberation: the one that freed slaves from servitude; however, Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated Netflix-original documentary, “13th,” reminds us that the blade that protects us can also maim us.

Yes, the 13th Amendment proclaimed that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist within the United States,” but the amendment also provided an exception — a clause that calls slavery by another name and makes it perfectly legal.

Inserted within the fine print of the 13th Amendment is the clause that explains how African Americans are still persecuted today. Convicted criminals don’t received the protection of the 13th Amendment. And so the 13th Amendment became a economic and political weapon that ensnared blacks through mass incarcerations.

DuVernay enlists the help of activists, historians and politicians to explain more than 150 years of American history. Interviews with figures like Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Jelani Cobb, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Angela Davis, James Kilgore, Newt Gingrich, Charles Rangel, Van Jones and Cory Booker explain how blacks continue to be criminalized.

“13th” is a disturbing and sometimes overwhelming portrait of how people of color have been wronged, but more frightening still, is how people of color continued to face persecution through legislation and the media. Stereotypes perpetuated in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” have been mirrored in modern political ads and news segments. However, like how a blade can simultaneously maim and protect, DuVernay also offers a weapon for the Eric Garners, Philando Castilles, Sandra Blands, Trayvon Martins, Oscar Grants and Emmett Tills. 

Only media and technology can change the narrative.

“13th” was written by Spencer Averick and Ava DuVernay. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. DuVernay’s film “Selma” was nominated for Best Picture in the 87th Academy Awards.  

‘The Lobster’: a bizarre satire of loneliness

Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” is a piece of performance art exploring the meaning of love.

Written by Greek writers Efthymis Filippou and Lanthimos and nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay, “The Lobster” is about a series of bizarre rituals in a dystopian society where uncoupled humans are harvested for blood and body parts and then transformed to spend the rest of their lives as an animal of their choice.

Couples get to live in the city and grow old together, but when a couple divorces or when a mate dies, their partners are checked into a painful purgatory of sorts.

That’s where this painstakingly long two-hour film begins: with David (Colin Farrell), a man recently separated from his wife of nearly 12 years.

Without time to grieve, David’s immediately checked into the hotel — where hospitality staff strip him of his clothing and monitor his moves.

Singles and couples are segregated here with couples on tennis courts and yachts while singles are quarantined to other single-designated areas. The catch: singles must find a partner with a similar physical feature within 45 days or else they will be forced to spend the rest of their lives as an animal.

Even if that isn’t enough pressure to find a suitable mate, singles are forced to watch propaganda on why coupledom is better. A wife can rescue a man from choking to death while a husband can protect a women from being raped.

Lanthimos film is a disconcerting journey because for much of the film, you feel lost — wandering a world without knowing its rules. The voice of your all-knowing narrator (Rachel Weisz) seems more focussed on bizarre details like the color of David’s shoes than helping you understand. Just when you begin to get your bearings though, you hear three unnerving cords that make your whole body tense.

“The Lobster” is a frustrating experience — as if you were a puppet guided by a cruel and whimsical god. This one, Lanthimos, sends your ship to whirlpools and sharp rocks. You survive and persevere, somehow, but even if loneliness isn’t torturous enough, perhaps love is just as absurd.

“The Lobster” was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Efthymis Filippou and Lanthimos. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay.    

Dreaming of ‘Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’

Told like one of Georges Méliès’ féeries stories, “Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart” is a balancing act — a Jenga tower that could have easily toppled over.

On one hand, you see the romantic and tragic tale of “Romeo & Juliet.” On top of that, you see the quixotic influences of Miguel de Cervantes, the surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali and the gothic characters often found in Tim Burton films.

The fragile balance is even more precarious when beautiful, almost life-like animation is interspersed with musical numbers in a steampunk world.

And then suddenly, Georges Méliès (Jean Rochefort, Stephane Cornicard) appears in an animated film he might have written, directed or invented once upon a time.

Written and directed by French author Mathias Malzieu based on his book and album, “La Mécanique du Cœur” (which translates to “Mechanics of the Heart”), “Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart” is a surrealist and dreamlike fairytale about another boy named Jack (Mathias Malzieu). This one didn’t nip at your nose, climb beanstalks or rip throats from prostitutes in London. This Jack was born in Edinburgh on a night so cold that his heart became encased in a block of ice.

Luckily, the witch doctor Madeleine (Marie Vincent, Emily Loizeau) was able to repair Jack’s frozen heart, replacing it with bits of gears and magic. Instead of a beating and bloody heart, Jack was given a cuckoo-clock, which chimed when it was startled and smoked when he felt any passion.

To protect his mechanical heart, Jack was given three rules to live by: 1. Never touch the hands of the clock; 2. Control his temper; and 3. Never fall in love. Naturally, he breaks the rules and becomes infatuated with a girl named Miss. Acacia (Olivia Ruiz, Samantha Barks).

Like Salvador Dali paintings, the film stretches time and probability. In one moment, you’re longboarding through desserts; in another, you’re climbing the sky — flying and falling through scenes filled with pop-up houses, bouquets of glasses, cats with elongated necks and smoke made out of paper.

Malzieu and his co-director Stéphane Berla present us a magic show walking the tightropes of a surrealist dream.

It isn’t a smooth walk. It floats and falls. Pushes and pulls. Flickers and stops in seemingly random bursts.

It’s a film full of contradictions filled with things that shouldn’t exist. A man with a spine of a xylophone. Humans with elephant ears. And a boy with the cuckoo-clock heart.

Yet somehow, all these pieces fit together like misfit toys — both ugly and beautiful, forgotten and loved.

“Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart” was directed by Stéphane Berla and Mathias Malzieu based on Malzieu’s book and screenplay. The film contains original music from Malzieu’s band Dionysos.  

The story of ‘Life, Animated’

To hear Ron and Cornelia Suskind describe it: It was like some sort of grim fairy tale — you know, the one where your son gets kidnapped by fairies and leaves a changeling in its place. You’re never going to see your real boy again; it’s like he’s been kidnapped right before your eyes.

Of course, I’m paraphrasing here. Ron Suskind already told this story — wrote it in his 368-page book, “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.” Excerpts were published in New York Times Magazine in 2014.

Now, this story is retold in Rodger Ross Williams’ Oscar-nominated documentary, “Life, Animated.”

“Life, Animated” begins as a parents nightmare. Once upon a time, Ron and Cornelia’s three-year-old son Owen was diagnosed with regressive autism and losing cognitive abilities including the ability to speak. Autism was like a death sentence in the early nineties.

The breakthrough came, however, when Owen regained some communication and understanding of the world by parroting the lines and ideas in the collection of Disney movies he memorized.

“Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Lion King,” and “Bambi” became the lens in which he viewed the world and he thought of himself as these characters’ protector.

“Life, Animated” is a moving tale, but it’s far from a fairy tale. Owen, now in his early-to-mid twenties, still feels like “The Jungle Book’s” Mowgli, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s” Quasimodo, “Peter Pan’s” Peter and “Dumbo’s” elephant. He spent his high school years bullied. He still struggles to tie a tie. And his parents, in their mid-fifties, won’t be around forever.

But even if real life doesn’t have a “happily ever after,” you get the sense that everything will be OK.

“Life, Animated” was directed by Rodger Ross Williams, filmed by Tom Bergmann and edited by David Teague. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature. 

When you don’t ‘Burn After Reading’

Part of the fun of “Burn After Reading” is that it feels like you’re looking at something you’re not supposed to. When the film begins, you’re literally dropped into CIA headquarters, playing voyeur to an analyst (John Malkovich) whose about to be fired from his position.

In subsequent scenes, you’re privy to infidelities, confidential divorce meetings and cosmetic surgery appointments, following such a vivid cast of characters that you feel like a spy.

Written and directed by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen and filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki, “Burn After Reading” invites you into the convoluted and cockamamy story of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a lonely gym receptionist who would like a number of “necessary” plastic surgery procedures to attract men like Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). The problem: her insurance won’t pay for the procedures and she can’t afford them with her salary.

When her coworker, personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), finds a mysterious CD containing notes from ex-CIA analyst Osborne Cox (Malkovich), they decide to blackmail Cox for a ton of dough.

What they don’t know: Cox’s CD is neither worth anything nor does he have the money Litzke and Feldheimer are looking for — especially not with ongoing divorce proceedings with his wife (Tilda Swinton).

The entire ensemble are excellent and the acting is wonderful. None of the characters in “Burn After Reading” are likable, but they’re eccentric and memorable — the type of people you’d gleefully gossip about if you knew they actually existed. “Burn After Reading” allows you to be that fly on their wall and eavesdrop on things you probably shouldn’t.

Joel and Ethan Coen are Shakespeares in the own rights. “Burn After Reading” is a ridiculous farce, but it’s so cleverly woven that you can’t help but become intimately entangled in the story. In some scenes, you’re literally in the closet with another character while watching another man undress. In other scenes, you’re watching the narrative from close sidelong profiles of men who rather not be seen.

But even if “Burn After Reading” lures us in like moths to a flame, it’s not a particularly nice movie. The humans and their failures are cruelly held underneath a microscope and we can’t help but watch.

“Burn After Reading” was written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen and filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki. 

‘Hamilton’s America’: a non-stop roller coaster

It’s 2014 and Lin-Manuel Miranda describes his life as a roller coaster — as if he were strapped into the ride as it’s climbing up. At this point of his life, he’s waiting for rehearsals to begin while still composing the words to “Hamilton.”

At this point of his life, “Hamilton” hasn’t sold out in its off-Broadway production at the Public Theater.

“Hamilton” hasn’t been touted as “the greatest thing we’ve ever seen ever” on the “Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.”

“Hamilton” hadn’t moved to its Broadway location at the Richard Rodgers’ Theatre.

“Hamilton” hasn’t won 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. 

At this point of his life, Miranda’s just moved into a new apartment, waiting for the birth of his son and preparing for “Hamilton.”

“This is the part of the roller coaster’s that’s just going up,” he says.

And that’s what watching Alex Horwitz’s PBS documentary “Hamilton’s America” (2016) feels like — as if you, too, were on strapped into a roller coaster as it climbs the tracks. The pinnacle of this ride would have been seeing the musical in its entirety on the Broadway stage with its original cast members, but watching “Hamilton’s America’s” premiere on PBS Friday may have been the next best thing.

“Hamilton’s America” builds with momentum, taking you behind-the-scenes as Miranda tells the story of Alexander Hamilton — America’s founding father who derived much of the modern banking system, penned most of the Federalist Papers and was shot by Aaron Burr.

You probably know more of his story — like how he was George Washington’s chief of staff during the Revolutionary War or how he was was “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman.”

Much of Hamilton’s modern fame is due to Miranda’s musical, which you’ve probably sampled on iTunes, Spotify or YouTube.

But while watching a complete run through of “Hamilton” would have been educational and entertaining enough, Horwitz’s documentary delivers both history and insight. Told by interviews from Miranda, Senator Elizabeth Warren, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, President Barack Obama, composer Stephen Sondheim, rapper Nas and historian Ron Chernow, “Hamilton’s America” gives you an understanding of Hamilton’s accomplishments as well as Miranda’s creative process.

The inspiration behind “Hamilton” is Chernow’s biography “Alexander Hamilton.” Miranda saw Hamilton’s story as a hip hop story and wrote and performed its title track as part of the White House’s Poetry, Music & Spoken Word Night in May 2009.

He spent the next seven years researching and writing the words to “Hamilton,” visiting historical sites such as Valley Forge National Historical Park, the Morris-Jumel Mansion and Mount Vernon.

The project gained speed with the help of Tony Award-winning musical director Alex Lacamoire and director Thomas Kail. But the real magic is in Miranda’s words — which translate history to music and brings lessons from the classroom to life.

“What it did was capture the fact that the Founding Fathers were to some degree flying by the seats of their pants and making it up as they went along,” said President Obama. “And the fact that the experiment worked was a testimony to their genius and you can draw a direct connection to what the founders were doing and what we’re doing today.”

That’s one of the remarkable things about “Hamilton’s America” — that his story is ours. But to hear “Hamilton” in our language of rap and R&B and hip hop makes it more real than reading it in a textbook.

Just like how the “Hamilton” musical made American history more accessible, Horwitz’s PBS documentary makes the musical “Hamilton” accessible to the America who’s heard the music, but haven’t been able to buy tickets to the show.

But while “Hamilton’s America” teases us with performances from the musical, it doesn’t satiate our thirst to watch and learn more.

Reliving ‘OXD: One Extraordinary Day’

It’s either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid to willingly fall flat on your face again and again, until the bridge of your nose is bleeding and taped up. The doctors warned you that this type of impact will harm your body. And you know too many friends and teachers who have broken limbs perfecting this craft. You’ve already ran through all the awful scenarios of everything that could go wrong. Yet you still climb the 40-feet of scaffolding and take that leap of faith, completely trusting the command of choreographer Elizabeth Streb.

Directed by Craig Lowy, his 100-minute documentary “OXD: One Extraordinary Day” captures what it’s like to be one of Streb’s PopAction dancers in the Brooklyn-based Streb Extreme Action Dance Company.

Filmed by Lucas Smith and Raul Santos and edited by Lucas Groth and Lowy, “OXD: One Extraordinary Day” invites us to be a part of Streb’s crew as they prepare and perform “One Extraordinary Day” — a seven-part series where Streb and her crew canvas the city of London landmarks as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiads.

Rather than focus on a fluid and seamless transition from one move to the next, these dancers work to defy what the human body’s capable of. Streb tells her dancers that she wants their bodies to behave exactly like a piece of plywood when they free fall off of 30 feet of scaffolding parallel to the mat. She tells her dancers to hide the transitions, so the human eye sees one move and another, but never how they get there. While bungee-jumping off the Millennium Bridge and dangling off of the London Eye, these dancers feel like superheroes, performing moves called “Superman,” “Spiderman,” “X-Man” and “Peter Pan.”

Although “OXD: One Extraordinary Day” shows us death-defying stunts, the special effects are surprisingly spare. In a few scenes, we see the camera rewind so that the falling dancers look like they’re flying in slow motion; these scenes are few and far in between. For the most part, we see their stunts in real time as Lowy spends much of the documentary building up that extraordinary day.

Four months of practice, preparations and performance are edited down to 100 minutes, but the documentary contains too much exposition, removing the suspense and magic of the actual performance itself.

The dancers tell us about how much adrenaline it takes to get through these performances, but the camera doesn’t show us what it looks like to hover more than 200 feet above any solid ground. Lowy’s camera is either too zoomed in or too zoomed out and we feel disconnected rather than in the moment.

As a result, the viewer feels safe and protected, harnessed and secure. And when that extraordinary day comes, the performances are disappointing.

It’s a shame, really. While Craig Lowy’s documentary captures such an intriguing world, its edits are poorly executed, splatting hard on the floor and failing to get up.

“OXD: One Extraordinary Day” was directed by Craig Lowy and had it’s Western New York premiere as part of the tenth Buffalo International Film Festival.