The popularity of HBO’s recent miniseries “Chernobyl” proves yet again that audiences are drawn to disaster stories — especially when they’re also cautionary tales about hard-working people betrayed by corner-cutting, responsibility-dodging bureaucrats. The new naval thriller “The Command” is a dramatization of the 2000 Kursk submarine catastrophe; and it too aims to appeal to that part of humanity fascinated by preventable tragedy.
Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Mikhail Averin, a captain leading a crew of underpaid Russian sailors on a routine exercise in a poorly maintained sub. When an explosion kills all but about 20 of the men, the survivors sink to the freezing ocean floor, with a limited supply of oxygen.
Director Thomas Vinterberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat keep most of the action confined to the remains of the Kursk, stepping away occasionally to check in with Mikhail’s anxious wife Tanya (Léa Seydoux) as well as with a British commodore (Colin Firth) offering to help an embarrassed, hesitant Russian government.
The domestic scenes don’t add much; they feel too old-fashioned. But the scenes of rival naval officers talking past each other add a useful layer of context — and tension — to a story set after the Cold War, when an economically struggling Russia was trying to reestablish itself as a global power.
Mostly though, this is a solidly gripping and at times heartbreaking study of ordinary guys, out on the water trying to support their families, while knowing deep down — just from the shoddy condition of their sub’s equipment — that any given voyage is likely to be their last.
Rated: PG-13 for some intense disaster-related peril and disturbing images, and for brief strong language.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, Galaxy Mission Grove, Riverside; available June 21 on VOD
The five segments in the horror anthology “Nightmare Cinema” each run about 20 minutes, which can make watching the movie feel a little like bingeing a TV series. But that’s OK, because as anthologies go — big screen or small — this one has an unusually high winning percentage. Only one episode falls flat, while two cruise by on style and attitude, and two are genuinely brilliant.
The dud comes last: the Mick Garris-directed “Dead,” a slow-paced yarn about a hospitalized kid reconstructing the details of a recent trauma by conversing with ghosts. Garris also helms the film’s better-than-average connectors, about a mysterious projectionist (Mickey Rourke) who lures the episodes’ characters into his theater to show them movies about how they die.
Directors Joe Dante and Ryûhei Kitamura fare well with their “Mirare” and “Mashit” — the former about a nightmarish plastic surgery clinic, the latter a gore-splattered tale about a demon-plagued Catholic school. Both run out of ideas early but compensate with spectacularly grotesque imagery.
The must-sees here though are Alejandro Brugués’ “The Thing in the Woods” (which starts as a teen slasher riff, then cleverly shifts perspective) and David Slade’s “This Way to Egress” (with Elizabeth Reaser as a woman going mad in an increasingly disgusting therapist’s waiting room).
All five of these shorts are about people suddenly confronted with the deep rot underneath reality. The best of the bunch start out unassumingly, then suddenly rip the scales from viewers’ eyes — along with any attached hair and skin.
Rated: R, for horror violence/gore, grisly images, language, some sexuality and brief nude images
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood; also on VOD
‘I Am Mother’
One of the smarter, most assured science fiction films of recent years, “I Am Mother” makes the most of just three performances — all by women — and some stunning special effects, to tell a story about artificial intelligence and the survival of the human race that’s alternately chilling and hopeful.
The relatively unknown young actress Clara Rugaard makes a strong impression as “Daughter,” a teenager birthed in a lab and raised by a robot named “Mother” (voiced by Rose Byrne) in an underground bunker on a ravaged future Earth. After being told all her life that she’s being trained to lead the next generation of humans to repopulate a barren planet, Daughter is shocked one day when she hears a knock on the door and rescues an unnamed injured woman (played by Hilary Swank) who claims to be part of an underground colony of survivors who have been hunted to extinction by machines like Mother.
Directed by first-time feature-helmer Grant Sputore — who also co-wrote the story with screenwriter Michael Lloyd Green — “I Am Mother” takes place almost entirely on one sparsely furnished set. Yet thanks to a talented cast and a script that hints at a larger world, it never feels too constrained or too cheap.
Instead, this film engages and challenges the audience throughout, raising questions about the relationship between humanity and the technology we rely on. It’s an exciting film to watch, but an even better one to think about after — preferably in the company of a real, physically present person.
‘I Am Mother’
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
Playing: Available now on Netflix
‘All is Well’
Anyone with has a hard time watching on-screen sexual violence should be warned that German writer-director Eva Trobisch’s debut feature “All Is Well” (known elsewhere as “Alles ist gut”) is about the aftermath of a rape, which is depicted in the film from start to finish. But Trobisch doesn’t stage the assault in a lurid way. If anything, what stands out about the scene is its mundanity. The rape happens in an instant, then keeps hanging in the air like a threatening storm cloud.
Aenne Schwarz gives a powerful performance as Janne, a newly unemployed middle-aged professional who has a chance encounter with an old friend, Robert (Tilo Nest), who offers her a job. The same night, Janne meets Robert’s brother-in-law Martin (Hans Loew), who seems nice, until she lets him crash at her place, and he forces himself on her.
The rest of “All Is Well” is about how Janne tries — with limited success — to get on with her life as though nothing happened, while working in an office where she sees Martin regularly. Trobisch frames the story as a character study, holding on Janne’s face as she plasters on a smile in public around Martin and Robert, then breaks down when she’s on her own.
Like a lot of slice-of-life films, “All Is Well” stubbornly withholds emotional payoffs, all the way through to a daringly elliptical ending. But it has a cumulative power, as Trobisch focuses on the small details, looking closely at a woman who doesn’t want to be defined by the thoughtlessly inhumane thing someone else chose to do.
‘All Is Well’
In German with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Available now on Netflix