HELD (2021)

April 9, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Co-directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing previously collaborated on the horror film, THE GALLOWS (2015), and this time they are working from a script by Jill Awbrey, who also stars. It’s Ms. Awbrey’s first feature film as a writer or actor. Most people agree that marriage can be challenging, but this one introduces thrills and chills into a relationship that’s already navigating in choppy waters.

Writer Awbrey (a Julie Harris lookalike) plays Emma Barrett, who we see in an early flashback as a young woman trapped in a car with two men. We don’t see it, but we know what’s about to happen against her will. Today’s Emma is then seen again in the backseat … as her Uber driver (Rez Kempton) asks inappropriate questions, and comes across more than a bit creepy as he notes the remoteness of her drop-off and pressures her for a bonus tip. These two scenes remind us of how women must always have their defense mechanism on high alert around men.

Emma and her husband Henry (Bart Johnson, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL) have set up a rendezvous to see if they can rekindle what’s waning between them after 9 years of marriage. We get an aerial view of the ultra-modern and ultra-smart house stuck in a cornfield miles from civilization. The terror and mystery begin the next morning when Emma and Henry wake up in different clothes and with missing phones. A “voice” tells them that the secrets of their marriage are no longer secret, and they must “obey”. If not, the implanted sensor behind their ear will act as a shock collar, causing extreme discomfort and pain. Emma and Henry both experience this the hard way.

The film appears to be a VRBO home invasion movie wrapped in the contemporary issue of surveillance and security. However, that’s only part of the story. The “voice” is pushing the couple into a 1950’s version of THE STEPFORD WIVES, replete with veggies in the fridge, modest wardrobes in the closet, and an apron for Emma. She is being coerced into acting like a submissive wife, as if anyone today still fantasizes about a 1950’s marriage. It’s disturbing to watch as Emma and Henry try to find a way to escape, while not triggering another jolt of pain, and complying with commands from the voice (who seems to be Jigsaw from the SAW series transformed into a marriage counselor).

The objective here seems to be as satire and commentary on male privilege in a male-dominated society … one where women always carry a bit of fear, despite being so much stronger and forceful than what we saw in 1950’s TV series. That traditional marital structure no longer exists, but when combined with a luxurious smart house, does make for an interesting premise in the horror-thriller genre. When save-the-marriage transitions to survival mode on top of fear of being watched and manipulated, the terror is palpable. The only frustration is that so much more could have been done, over and above the twist. Despite the lags, the film does provide ‘talking points’.

In theaters and On Demand April 9, 2021

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AMUNDSEN: THE GREATEST EXPEDITION (2021)

April 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Director Espen Sandberg continues his string of movies highlighting the heroes of Norway. Previous movies include MAX MANUS: MAN OF WAR (2008) and the Oscar nominated KON-TIKI (2012), the tale of legendary explorer Thor Heyerdahl. And then to earn some coin, Sandberg also directed PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017). This latest project, written by Ravn Lanesskog, takes on another legendary explorer – this time it’s Roald Amundsen, the first to traverse the Northwest Passage, the first to reach the South Pole, and the first to reach the North Pole by plane.

Pal Sverre Hagen stars as Roald Amundsen, and he also played Thor Heyerdahl in Sandberg’s KON-TIKI. Hagen bears a striking resemblance to the photos of Amundsen, and utilizes a low key, yet very direct communication style to give us a look at the relentless commitment to achieving his goals. We learn he held grudges – against the Brits and even against his own brother – and used this as motivation. Director Sandberg uses a conversation as a framing device throughout the film. Roald’s estranged brother Leon (Christian Rubeck, SWIMMING WITH MEN, 2018) and Roald’s lover Bess Magids (Katherine Waterston, THE WORLD TO COME, 2020) share their insights and perspective while awaiting word on Roald’s latest excursion. This begins after the opening sequence where we see Roald’s prop plane crash land on an Arctic ice shelf.

Of course, this is the story of one of the greatest explorers and adventurers in history, so there is a nice blend of that conversation, some backstory, and a first-hand look at some of Roald’s expeditions. The elements are incredibly harsh, but Sandberg never lingers too long on any one piece of this puzzle. It seems he is more interested in what made Roald tick – what drove him to these pursuits at the expense of most relationships. The rivalry with the Brits is clear and we see the humiliation Roald endured after besting Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole. Rather than accolades, he faced criticism and judgment of his methods.

Roald Amundsen was clearly not a man to rest on his laurels, even after being presumed dead on more than one occasion. He was always a body in motion. We see his childhood fascination towards unexplored areas. No map? No problem. Roald’s harsh treatment of his brother is explored, and it’s interesting to note the differences in how Bess and Leon describe Roald. Amundsen went missing while on an Arctic rescue mission in 1928. He was 55 years old, but looked 20 years beyond that. This film is not hero worship or even a traditional tribute. Then again, maybe it’s the type of tribute a man like Roald Amundsen would appreciate. For those who wish to learn more, search out the 6-hour 1985 PBS mini-series, “The Last Place on Earth.”

Opening in Virtual Cinemas and VOD April 2nd

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EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE (2021)

April 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Psychological Thrillers can be quite fun to watch when well-written and well-acted. It’s a delicate balance though, since if even one of those elements is lacking, the enjoyment level plummets and the eye-rolling begins. Unfortunately this film from director Vaughn Stein (TERMINAL, 2018) and screenwriter David Murray (his first feature film) is a masterclass in eye-rolling, despite a well-respected and familiar cast.

Oscar winner Casey Affleck (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, 2016) and Michelle Monaghan star as married couple Dr. Philip and Grace Clark. He works at a Psychiatry Institute and she’s a local Real Estate Agent. An early scene shows adoring mother Grace driving their young son to hockey practice. Tragedy strikes, and since that night, Philip and Grace barely speak to each other or his teenage daughter (by another mother) Lucy (India Eisley, daughter of Olivia Hussey). All three are grieving in their own way – emotionally isolated from the others. Grace aggressively swims laps day and night in the pool at their stunning modern mansion. Lucy has been expelled from her private school for snorting cocaine during Science Lab. Philip immerses himself in his work with clients, and we know he’s smart because he’s wearing glasses.

One client with whom Philip takes a special interest is Daphne (Emily Alyn Lind, DOCTOR SLEEP, 2019), a troubled young lady from a troubled family. To help Daphne deal with boyfriend issues, Philip uses unconventional personal therapy, which he then presents as a Case Study for students … against the wishes of his boss and friend Vanessa (Veronica Ferres). This backfires when Daphne seemingly commits suicide, and her grieving brother James (Sam Claflin, THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY) shows up.

At this point, everyone is grieving and Philip’s career begins to crumble as he’s blamed for Daphne’s suicide. James turns on the charm for Grace and Lucy, and even though the characters don’t get it, every viewer will recognize what’s happening, why it’s happening, and where it’s headed. Even this would be fine if things played out in a clever manner, rather than over-the-top and obvious. Even the Rorschach inkblot tests used as artwork in the pristine Clark mansion are cause for eye rolls. Claflin probably has the most fun of any with his role, but it’s Monaghan who comes closest to molding a full dimensional human out of her character. Affleck just adds yet another despondent, joyless character to his resume … though he does get to throw one tantrum while sitting in his car – alone, of course. Fortunately, these actors will assuredly move on to projects more worthy of their talents.

In select theatres and premium VOD on April 2, 2021

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SAY YOUR PRAYERS (2021)

April 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The brothers have chosen to accept the mission they’ve been given, which is to assassinate outspoken atheist writer, Professor John Huxley. The deed is to be done during the Ilkley Literature Festival where Huxley is a featured speaker. Brothers Victor and Tim are Christian radicals, and not particularly clever. In fact, the terrific opening sequence shows us an execution on a hill – one that displays the tragic effects of mistaken identity.

Writer-director Harry Michell (he played Nick in YESTERDAY, 2019) and co-writer Jamie Fraser (his first feature film) deliver a strong first act that really gets our hopes up. Tom Brooke (PIRATE RADIO, 2009) plays Victor, the high-strung older brother to Tim, who is played by ski cap-wearing Harry Melling (the “Harry Potter” franchise). Victor is prone to violent outbursts, while Tim is the more sensitive type – and a bit slow at times. That contrast between the brothers is a fun element, as is the close bond they share.

Director Michell utilizes a recurring men’s choir (breaking the fourth wall) as a way to both drive the story and add a bit of humor. In the first half-hour, the two most obvious comparisons we make are THE BOONDOCK SAINTS (1999) and IN BRUGES (2008). Unfortunately, that’s a standard that the film simply can’t sustain. It seems to be filled with any number of promising ideas that mostly just fizzle or fade out. A perfect example is the dynamic between the two investigative cops played by Anna Maxwell Martin and Flora Spencer-Longhurst. The banter between these two characters is just never quite as colorful or pointed as we wish.

The supporting cast includes Vinette Robinson as Imelda, one of the festivals organizers who has a close relationship with Professor Huxley. Imelda’s time with Tim works well at times. Roger Allum effectively portrays the arrogant atheist author, and Derek Jacobi plays Father Enoch, the priest who raised the two orphans, Tim and Victor, and now has them doing the church’s dirty work. The real standout here is the film’s editing by Xanna Ward Dixon and Dylan Holmes Williams. The pacing and quick cuts keep us engaged and minimize the shortcomings of the story … which certainly could have worked with more risk-taking and pushing of the envelope. Not going far enough is film’s downfall – and it’s quite disappointing given the promising start.

In theaters and On Demand April 2, 2021

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SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT (2021)

March 25, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. I never cease to be amazed at the number of stories connected to WWII that translate so well to cinema. This one comes from director Andy Goddard (known mostly for his TV work) and his co-writers Eddie Izzard and Celyn Jones, and takes place in 1939 England, just prior to Germany invading Poland to start the war. The story was inspired by true events.

Augusta-Victoria College for Girls was located in Bexhill-On-Sea, and served as a finishing school for the daughters of the German elite from 1932 through 1939. We open as the school’s English teacher, Mr. Wheatley (Nigel Lindsay), frantically flees when he realizes his undercover mission has been discovered. An artistically filmed sequence on the boardwalk ends with Wheatley missing and his bowler floating off on the horizon. We don’t know yet what he uncovered, but Thomas Miller (co-writer Eddie Izzard) is quickly hired as the new teacher by Headmistress Miss Rocholl (Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench).

Teacher Ilse Keller (Carla Juri) puts the girls through their robotic lessons and ensures they listen to Nazi propaganda on the radio. Of course, as in most spy thrillers, no one is as they seem – or at least most aren’t. Most of the girls seem indistinguishable from each other, save for dark-haired and bespectacled Gretel (Tijan Marei), who is a true outcast. The girls are referred to as the “Hitler League of German Girls” and are being educated and groomed for the planned new socialist nation.

It doesn’t take Miller long to uncover a plan, and almost immediately, he’s wrongly accused of murder – sending him on the run. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Miller is part of British Intelligence, and in the role, Izzard delivers a more restrained performance than what we are accustomed to (see OCEAN’S TWELVE and OCEAN’S THIRTEEN … and it’s very effective. James D’Arcy as Captain Drey enters about halfway through, as does his partner Corporal Willis (played by co-writer Celyn Jones). This gives us a bit of cat and mouse between Drey and Miller, and they are joined in the fun by Charlie the bus driver, played by the always interesting Jim Broadbent.

The plan to evacuate the girls before the war seems a bit overly complicated, but then my experience planning such war time strategy is admittedly non-existent. Still, the lead characters and the setting make this intriguing enough, and cinematographer Chris Seager certainly has some fun with camera angles. For those hooked on all things related to WWII, it’s likely a story you haven’t heard much about.

From IFC Films, SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT opens March 26, 2021

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THE COURIER (2021)

March 19, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Spies, and the whole world of espionage, are prime for cinema thanks to the globe-trotting and varied settings, the personality of those drawn to such a calling, and the intrigue and two sides of the work itself – either turning on those to whom one was once loyal, or even pretending to. Director Dominic Cooke (ON CHESIL BEACH, 2017) and writer Tom O’Connor (THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD, 2017) enter the spy thriller genre with a strong cast and a Cold War setting … not the first to do so, and certainly not the last.

The film is based on a true story, so of course there are conflicting recollections of how this all went down. Oleg Penkovsky (played expertly by Merab Ninidze, McMAFIA, 2018) was part of GRU, the main intelligence agency of the Soviet Union. His front row seat to, and subsequent concern with, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s apparent obsession with starting a nuclear war with the United States, led Penkovsky to reach out to the U.S with classified intelligence in hopes of thwarting global doom. This was the height of the Cold War, with the Cuban Missile Crisis ultimately a key element of Penkovsky’s intel.

Ambitious CIA Agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) reached out to MI6 Agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright), who recruited British salesman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) to be their amateur spy … a regular citizen to conduct regular business while procuring valuable documents from Penkovsky. Greville is portrayed as anything but a James Bond-type. Instead, he’s a fun-loving family man whose wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley, I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS, 2020) has forgiven him once for marital indiscretion, and is not inclined to do so again.

This story occurred not long after Pyotr Semyonovich Popov was executed for delivering Soviet intelligence to the United States. Because of this, the CIA had a weak presence and required Britain’s assistance … enter Greville Wynne. Greville is an odd bird. One could even say a bit goofy. However, Cumberbatch delivers a terrific performance as he transitions into a more complex and courageous man than the one we initially meet.

Although the story is not as tightly told as the best spy thrillers, there are two segments that are pretty well done. Watching Penkovsky (code name “Ironbark”) and Greville get to know each other and then work together is quite interesting – and made even better by the two actors. Also the final act, with both men in KGB prison, finally ups the tension level to what we expect for the genre. The brutal environment and mistreatment is well conveyed, and it’s the point where we realize what the risk-taking of espionage can lead to. There are times the film is similar in tone to THE INFORMANT, and other times it recalls BRIDGE OF SPIES, though the latter is a superior film. This was a crucial point in the Cold War, and the film is interesting enough thanks to the cast and real life story.

THE COURIER is receiving a theatrical release on March 19, 2021

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HAPPILY (2021)

March 19, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most frequent movie-goers have complained about the over-supply of sequels, remakes, and superhero movies. The battle cry is typically something like, “We want some creative new movie ideas!” Well, the feature film debut of writer-director BenDavid Grabinski (writer-producer of TV series “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”) serves up a unique and creative premise in which Act 1 really gets us excited for new experience.

There’s a party at a very nice house. A woman makes inviting eye contact with a man across the room. Their spontaneous sex romp forces Arthur (Al Madrigal, “I’m Dying Up Here”) to find an alternative place for relief. Soon the hosts are explaining to Arthur that the bathroom is tied up by Tom (Joel McHale, “Community”) and Janet (Kerry Bishe, “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels”), a couple who has been married for 14 years, yet they can’t keep their hands off each other. Skeptical Arthur states it must be an act, and “they are as miserable as everyone else.”

We quickly discover that Tom and Janet are neither acting nor miserable. Dinner with the hosts of that ‘bathroom’ party, Karen (Natalie Zea, “Justified”) and Val (Paul Scheer, “The League”), brings a disinvite to a planned couples weekend getaway, along with the brusque enlightenment to Tom and Janet, “everybody hates you.” The next day, a stranger shows up at their front door. Goodman (Stephen Root, OFFICE SPACE, 1999) basically explains the couple is defective and missing the genetic DNA that creates the law of diminishing returns. Fortunately, he has the vaccine that will bring them normalcy. A dramatic turn of events leads to panic and a phone call from Karen re-inviting the couple to the weekend getaway.

That initial set-up is brilliant and played to perfection. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to that standard. Things begin to falter once the couples begin showing up at the luxurious Airbnb booked by Patricia (Natalie Morales, BATTLE OF THE SEXES, 2017) and her husband, Donald, (Jon Daly, MASTERMINDS, 2016). The other two couples include Carla (Shannon Woodward, ODE TO JOY, 2019) and Maude (Kirby Howell Baptiste, “Barry”), and Gretel (Charlene Yi, THIS IS 40, 2012) and Richard (Breckin Meyer, ROAD TRIP, 2000). Until this point, we kind of liked Tom and Janet, and got a kick out of the annoyance shown by Karen and Val. However, once everyone is under the same roof, we realize just how unlikable these people are and how screwed up each relationship actually is. The smart dark comedy of Act 1 devolves into a party that we wish we weren’t at, with a twist that makes little sense.

It’s fun to see the familiar faces, and McHale and Biche are fun, but the hope we felt for that creative beginning never pays off. There is a “Twilight Zone” vibe to the premise and the Stranger, but even that is a letdown. The message the movie leaves us with is that people aren’t all good. It’s a message we live every day, not one for a comedy.

In theaters, on digital, and On Demand March 19, 2021

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SXSW 2021 Day 3

March 19, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 3

 This was my third and final day of movies at this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) virtual festival. I’ve watched and reviewed 16 movies in 60 hours, and remarkably, there wasn’t one clunker in the bunch.

 

Day 3 for me included a documentary, a comedy, two dramas, and a horror film. Here’s a recap:

 

 

WITHOUT GETTING KILLED OR CAUGHT (documentary)

 Jerry Jeff Walker made the lyrics famous: “If I can just get off of this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught”, but it was Guy Clark who wrote ‘em. Co-directors Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield put together a profile of legendary songwriter Clark, but it’s also an intimate look at an era, the challenges of the music industry, Clark’s enigmatic wife Susanna, and at their friendship with the great Townes Van Zandt.

The film is based on Susanna’s diaries and the biography written by co-director Saviano entitled, “Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark”. Most documentaries that focus on a musician spend the vast majority of time on the songs, but this is something quite different. Sure, the music is crucial to the story, but this is the saga of struggling artists and poets, and the unconventional and complicated relationships they formed. It’s more of a psychological character study than a tribute to the beautiful music.

Background on Guy and Susanna go back to each of their childhoods. We see family photos and videos, and learn Guy was brought up west Texas tough, while Susanna had a large family. Brought together by tragedy, their 40+ year relationship was built on art and a free-wheeling nature not uncommon to the times. Guy became best friends with songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and an unconventional triumvirate was the result when Townes and Susanna became spiritual soul mates.

Vince Gill, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell fill in some details of those early years, and more importantly provide perspective on the commitment to a specific type of songwriting that Guy held precious. There are also clips of interviews with Townes, and we learn just how difficult it was for Guy to achieve success. It came much easier for Susanna, who wrote #1 hit songs AND was an accomplished artist – her painting served as the cover of Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” album.

Of course, Guy Clark ultimately achieved both admiration and success with his songs. Jerry Jeff put him on the map, but Grammy awards came later, as did lifetime achievement awards and best-selling albums. The film includes much of Susanna’s time with “TR”, which is what she called the tape recorder, so we eavesdrop on many conversations – both personal and musical. Clips of Guy’s appearances on Austin City Limits in 1977, 1981, and 1989 are a pleasure, but the later years are a bit more difficult. The most challenging part of the story is knowing that Susanna remained bedridden after Townes’ death in 1997. Guy passed a few years later: “Texas is callin’, callin’ me home.” With narration from Sissy Spacek (as Susanna), the film is a personal journey that we are privileged to take.

 

SWAN SONG (drama)

 It’s never too late. We’ve all heard the phrase, but is it accurate … at least mostly? Writer-director Todd Stephens met the real life Pat Pitsenbarger in a small town gay bar, and he turned that person into this engaging story by casting the great Udo Kier in the lead. When we first meet Pat, he’s living a life of daily drudgery in a nursing home. He’s a curmudgeon whose hobbies are folding (perfectly) the paper napkins he takes from the cafeteria, and sneaking a smoke when no one is looking. We also see how tenderly he treats an incapacitated neighbor. It’s not the last time we see his two sides.

Pat was once a renowned hairdresser in Sandusky, Ohio. When he is informed that a long-time former (wealthy) client has passed away, and her dying wish was for Pat to do her hair for the funeral, he sneaks out of the home and begins a road trip down memory lane. Despite Pat spending the time on foot, the film has the feel of a true road trip movie as he crosses paths with many folks – some new and some with ties to his previous life. One of his first stops is the graveyard to visit his life partner who died of AIDS. We realize Pat still grieves.

There is a hilarious stop at a convenience store as he tries to knock off the items on his shopping list for the project. Since he has no money, Pat depends on the kindness of others … and his own sticky fingers. As he makes his way through town, some folks remember him, while others remind him of how long he’s been gone and how much has changed. His house and business may be gone, but his memories remain.

Two folks from his past generate tremendous scenes. Pat confronts Dee Dee Dale (a reserved Jennifer Coolidge) who gets to tell her side of the story of their unpleasant business split so many years ago. Even better is a “conversation” in the park with his old friend Eunice (a superb Ira Hawkins). The two old friends toast the bygone days of their gay club, while also acknowledging the new world of the gay community. It’s a touching sequence.

But the most surprising portion of the film occurs at the funeral home, where Pat imagines a final chat with that recently deceased client, Rita Parker-Sloan. What a pleasant surprise (actually shock!) to see Linda Evans back on screen. She is terrific in her brief appearance and we’ve really missed her over the last 23 years. But this film belongs to Udo Kier, and he kills. Pat is known as “The Liberace of Sandusky” and Kier embraces all that entails. This is a sentimental story punctuated by a spirited performance – and a Shirley Bassey song!

 

HOW IT ENDS (comedy)

 We get glimpses of the meteor that’s speeding on a collision course with Earth, but no character ever points it out. In fact, most emit a chill vibe that corresponds to that of the film. The only exception is Liza. Played by Zoe Lister-Jones, Liza simply wants to get trashed and let the world end overnight … well after she finishes off her morning pancakes (at least a dozen) and glass of wine.  Liza’s only problem is Young Liza (Cailee Spaeny), her metaphysical younger self who pressures Liza to attend the Apocalypse Party being thrown by Mandy (Whitney Cummings).

In addition to attending the party, Young Liza persuades Liza to spend the day confronting her regrets. This includes meeting up separately with her divorced parents (Brad Whitford and Helen Hunt), as well as a former best friend (Olivia Wilde), and past boyfriends, including her one true love (Logan Marshall-Green). In fact, this trip down Regret Road provides a steady stream of stereotypical California flakes. This means none of the soul-searching ever goes very deep, but playing spot-the-funny-person is a win-win. None of the interactions seem to last more than 2-4 minutes, but it’s a blast seeing how many familiar faces pop up during Liza and Young Liza’s day of walking. I won’t name the others here so that you can enjoy each moment – some more than others.

The film is co-written and co-directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, and it’s one of the more entertaining ‘pandemic’ films so far. For me, the constant roll of quick vignettes never got old, but you should know that as good as the performances are from Lister-Jones and Spaeny, the soul-searching and self-discovery only skims the surface. Still, a chill End of the World party seems perfect, even if a 1980’s relic agreed to be a punchline.

 

VIOLET (drama)

 Justine Bateman’s first feature film as writer-director acts an education for men and a wake-up call for women. And it’s welcome and effective on both fronts. Olivia Munn (“The Newsroom”) stars as Violet, a film industry executive whose self-doubts and lack of confidence prevent her from every really feeling happiness. Her inner voice – she calls it “the committee” feeds her bad ju-ju and keeps her obsessed with safe decisions, rather than dynamic ones … both personally and professionally.

As an example, her inner voice (Justin Theroux) pushes her to date an older, boring film executive for the sake of her career, rather than her screenwriting life-long friend Red (Luke Bracey) who clearly thinks more highly of Violet than she does herself. Violet’s boss (Dennis Boutsikaris) purposefully belittles her which causes some of her staff to also show little respect. Violet does have some supporters who recognize the talent and strength within her, but of course, it’s Violet who must come to terms with the disconnect between achieving happiness and the way she makes choices.

We see flashbacks to Violet’s childhood and understand how the seeds of self-doubt were planted. The supporting cast is excellent and very deep, though some (Bonnie Bedelia for one) only appear briefly. Filmmaker Bateman uses on screen script to let us know what’s going on in Violet’s mind as it battles with her “committee”. It’s a trick that serves the purpose well. Some may recall the “Seinfeld” episode where George does “the opposite”. Well that sentiment serves Violet well and puts her on the road to recovery … and to silencing that darn committee. A terrific first feature from Ms. Bateman, and kudos for the closing credits which put the crew on camera.

 

VIOLATION (drama/horror)

 Not just another rape-revenge thriller, this film from co-writers and co-directors Dusty Manicinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer is one of the most brutal and unforgiving films I’ve seen in a while. Emotional pain, regret, bitterness, and compromise worm through every scene and every character.

It begins as a cabin in the woods story. Miriam (co-director Sims-Fewer) and Caleb (Obi Abili) have a strained relationship that appears headed towards a breaking point. They are meeting up with Miriam’s sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at his family cabin. There is an underlying tension that prevents the four from every being at ease with each other, though we only get bits and pieces at a time. To further force our concentration, the story is told in non-linear fashion, making it important to focus on hairstyles and details.

One evening by the campfire turns into a turning point in the film and acts as the before and after point. A primal and brutally violent sequence takes up close to half of the film, and it’s unlike anything I’ve previously seen on screen. The practical effects are next level, and Ms. Sims-Fewer is absolutely terrific throughout. A chilling use of music accompanies an odd combination of wolf-rabbit-psychopath, and the filmmakers use shots of nature as connective tissue in a world where sometimes we are the wolf and sometimes the rabbit. Certainly not a film for mass audiences, but it will surely find an appreciative following.

 


SXSW 2021 Day 2

March 18, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 2

 This year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) festival is being held completely online, and of course a virtual festival lacks the oh-so-enjoyable elements of long lines, rude people, bad weather, and rushed fast food. Sure the excitement and energy of an audience is missing, but at least there is no hotel expense!

Day 2 for me included two documentaries, two thrillers, and two dramas. Here’s a recap:

 

WeWORK: OR THE MAKING AND BREAKING OF A $47 MILLION UNICORN (documentary)

 It’s quite possible that many scams originally begin with someone’s good intentions. However it’s just as likely, and maybe even more so, that many scams begin with only the intention of raking in millions or billions for the founder. The dream of becoming the next Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg is simply too enticing for some. Filmmaker Jed Rothstein profiles the rise and fall of WeWork, or more accurately, its charismatic commander, Adam Neumann.

Offering a nice overview for those unfamiliar, the film uses multiple clips of Neumann speaking so that we get a real feel for how so many fell under his spell. Neumann was an immigrant from Israel, and certainly bought into the ideal of living the American Dream. Labeled a visionary, and always full of ideas, Neumann co-founded WeWork with Miguel McKelvey. They were known affectionately as Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside, respectively, due to McKelvey’s focus on operations and infrastructure and Neumann’s ability as a salesman and the (and hair) of the company.

The idea of co-working space was not new, but it had never been pitched or marketed the way that Neumann did. He appealed to the rebellious nature of millennials, who couldn’t picture themselves in the traditional corporate office environment of the establishment. Neumann capitalized on their FOMO, and rammed home the message of “Do what you love.” He preached to the choir with his promise of the next revolution being the “We revolution.”

Journalists from Forbes, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal are interviewed, as are former We staff members and clients. Mr. Rothstein does a nice job of tracking the progression of the company via graphics showing valuation each year beginning with a few million in 2012 through a peak of $47 billion in 2018. He also explores how, within a 6 week period, the company went from that peak to near bankrupt.

A business model based on “community” with the goal of changing the way people work and live, turns out to be smoke and mirrors if legitimate business practices aren’t followed. That’s not to say his communal approach doesn’t work, but as so often happens, greed and the lust for power, create the downfall. Rothstein points out that the company’s own S-1 filed prior to the planned IPO was the red flag that had previously gone undetected.

This is as much a psychological study of Neumann as it is a business case study. Every time Neumann bristled at being called a “real estate company”, we should have known. With his cash infusion from Japan’s SoftBank still not leading to traditional profitability, we should have known. When his bizarre actress wife, Rebekah, became more involved with decisions and publicity, we should have known. Hindsight is crystal clear, and by the end, we realize Neumann has more in common with the notorious Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos than with Steve Jobs. The Jesus Complex seems obvious, but as humans we want so much to believe the words of an idealist … especially a cool one. There is a lot to unpack in this documentary, and it’s worth it – even if it helps us learn our lesson yet again.

 

HERE BEFORE (drama/thriller)

 Grief can be the most powerful and dangerous emotion we experience as humans. Anger and joy come and go, but real grief seeps into our marrow and becomes part of our being. Writer-director Stacey Gregg wisely tackles the topic with the assistance of the always excellent Andrea Riseborough (a resume loaded with strong projects) as Laura, a mother who begins to believe that her deceased daughter Josie has been reincarnated as the new neighbors’ daughter, Megan (Niamh Dornan).

Ms. Gregg expertly builds tension and doubt through the film’s first half, and throws a terrific curve ball in the final act … one I kick myself and applaud the filmmaker for not seeing it coming. There is an awkwardness between the two families forced together by a shared dwelling wall. That awkwardness only builds as Laura continually oversteps boundaries when it comes to Megan, who seems to know entirely too many details when it comes to Josie’s death.

Megan’s parents, Marie (Eileen O’Higgins) and Chris (Martin McCann), are from a different socio-economic class than their neighbors, and the uncomfortable connection extends to Laura’s husband, Brendon (Jonjo O’Neill) and son, Tadhg (Lewis McAkie). Whether it’s in the front yard, at school, or the grocery story, each time these families cross paths leaves us with weird vibes and feeling more confused. Is something supernatural at play here?

The cinematography from Chloe Thomson is superb, and composer Adam Janota Bzowski is pitch perfect is giving us just enough at the right moments. Set in Belfast, this is a gripping thriller with terrific performances throughout. Stacey Gregg makes it look all too easy with her first feature film.

 

LANGUAGE LESSONS (drama)

 The use of video chats as a plot device might have been a bit more adventurous 18 months ago, but oddly, the pandemic and our familiarity with this type of communication (out of necessity) actually works to strengthen this interesting film. It’s the feature film directorial debut of Natalie Morales, who co-wrote the script with Mark Duplass, and the two co-star as the only characters we see on screen.

Ms. Morales plays Carino, a Costa Rica-based Spanish teacher hired by Adam’s (Duplass) husband Will (an unseen DeSean Terry). An awkward first lesson – Lesson #1 of 100 in the package – includes Adam’s morning routine of hot/cold dips in the pool and spa in the backyard of his luxurious home. Director Morales labels the lessons throughout, and no, we thankfully don’t see all 100. After a personal tragedy occurs, the teacher-student dynamic shifts and becomes more therapy before settling into a strange friendship.

Between lessons, Adam and Carino exchange many personal messages, many littered with entirely too many “I’m sorry” lines in an attempt to avoid overstepping boundaries. Adam is forthcoming with his personal feelings, while Carino bounces between trying to stay professional and wanting to bond. It’s clear she is hiding details of her personal life, while rarely discouraging Adam from over-sharing. The frequent personal messages reveal more about each character than the scheduled meetings, but combined they work very well.

The charisma of Duplass and especially Morales allow us to care very much about this relationship. They are both charming, and Morales has the most fun in the drunk birthday song scene. She is to be commended for taking such a simple structure and creating an interesting movie that proves people need connection – whether in person, through masks, or via Zoom.

 

THE FALLOUT (drama)

 Megan Park is an established actress with some memorable roles (WHAT IF, 2013), and although she has directed some short films, this is her first feature film as writer-director. Her subject matter revolves around a school shooting and how it impacts students in so many ways. Rather than creating a project focusing on gun control, Ms. Park instead takes on the various emotions that occur after such a horrific event.

Vada (Jenna Ortega, young Jane in “Jane the Virgin”) is a 16 year old high school student who is in the restroom when gunfire is heard. We don’t see the shooter, and instead director Park sticks with Vada and Mia Reed (Maddie Ziegler) as they hide in the stall, terrified of what’s happening. Mia is the school beauty, and one that Vada and her best friend Will (Nick Ropp) would typically make fun of behind her back. While in the stall, a bloody Quinton (Niles Fitch) joins them.

The three students form an unlikely bond after the shooting, as Will finds a new mission in life as an activist and spokesperson. Vada’s parents are played by a skittish Julie Bowen and the always dependable John Ortiz. Vada and Mia both struggle with their emotions, and start to depend on each other. Quinton has serious fallout to deal with, though he and Vada get closer as well. Though she is unable to talk to her parents or deal with her younger sister, Vada does see a therapist played by Shailene Woodley.

It’s painful to see anyone have to deal with such a horrific event, but it’s so much worse when it’s kids who simply aren’t mature enough or experienced enough to handle such a burden. Wine, sex, and pot all make up the attempts at self-healing by the students, and the film doesn’t shy away from the difficulties they face in returning to school – or returning to anything resembling normalcy after attending memorial services for numerous classmates. Filmmaker Park allows us to experience Vada’s slow recovery, and then throws in a gut-punch of an ending that is likely to stun many. A terrific performance from Ms. Ortega and strong filmmaking from Ms. Park makes this one stick with us.

 

TOM PETTY SOMEWHERE YOU FEEL FREE (documentary)

 Adria Petty, daughter of the late rock legend, Tom Petty, discovered a stash of 16mm film shot by photographer Martyn Akins between 1993 and 1995. The footage chronicles Petty’s recording of his 1994 triple platinum album, “Wildflowers” – the album he considered his best and most personal. The found footage, along with insight and perspective from many who were there, allows us to understand why he felt that way.

Mary Wharton directed multiple episodes of “VH1 Legends”, and her expertise with musicians elevates this to must-see for any Tom Petty fan … or even any songwriter who wants to witness the crafting of songs, and the crafting of a sound. See, this was Petty’s first time to work with famed rap producer and co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, Rick Rubin. Adria explains what was happening in her father’s personal life during this time, and how he wanted something new and different from his work with The Heartbreakers – although most of them worked on this album as well.

In addition to the 27 year old footage, Ms. Wharton includes current day interviews with Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and producer Rubin. Campbell seems mostly bored with the interviews, but Tench spills all his memories. It’s really Rubin who brings the most insight and perspective to what Petty was trying to do. The changing of drummers from Stan Lynch to Steve Ferrone is discussed, and we hear Petty explain that he still wants to sing with bassist Howie Epstein. So the songs may sound different, and have special meaning to Petty, many of the musicians are those he was most familiar and comfortable with.

We see rehearsals, recordings, sound checks, and live performances. There are also rare clips of Petty at home. Ms. Wharton provides a unique opportunity to watch an artist at work and how the pieces are assembled to create a masterpiece album that is as strong today as it was on its first release. Tom Petty died in 2017, but lives on in his music, and now in the footage of his musical process.

 

OFFSEASON (horror)

 Horror director and writer Mickey Keating adds to his oeuvre with a creative twist on the genre that mixes zombies, the depths of hell, and a powerful monster. Using title cards to take us through six chapters and an Epilogue, Mr. Keating has us experience the events through the eyes of Marie Aldrich (played by Jocelin Donahue). However, it’s Marie’s mother Ava, played by the always interesting Melora Walters (whose career dates back to DEAD POETS SOCIETY, 1989), whom we see and hear from first. She appears near death as she explains that she’s accepted that there is no way to run away from nightmares … they always find you.

Marie receives a letter informing her that her mother’s grave has been desecrated and it’s an urgent matter that must be handled promptly and without fanfare (do people usually go to the press on such matters?). Marie and her boyfriend George (Joe Swanberg) head to the island where Mom is buried. It’s a creepy place that shuts down for the winter. Marie’s mother had told her stories of the island and “The Man from the Sea”, and how the island residents sold their soul to the sea monster in order to survive the harsh conditions. Reluctantly, the Bridge Man (Richard Brake) allows them to cross the bridge onto the island.

Things immediately seem weird and off-center. Marie finds her mother’s damaged grave, but the caretaker is nowhere to be found. Under a time crunch, Marie and George make some bad decisions … of course, it wouldn’t be a horror movie without bad decisions! Not to give away any of the fun, but suffice to say the island is cursed, just as Marie’s mom had warned.

Keating creates some nice visuals, and has terrific placement of The Vogues’ “Turn Around, Look at Me”. One thing that I couldn’t help but notice is that Marie runs and runs. She runs a lot. I’m hoping Ms. Donahue agreed to the extra miles before arriving on set. There are enough chills here to keep us engaged, and Keating deserves credit for an original story within a genre that frequently re-treads.


SXSW 2021 Day One

March 16, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 1

This year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) festival is being held completely online, and of course a virtual festival lacks the oh-so-enjoyable elements of long lines, rude people, bad weather, and rushed fast food. Sure the excitement and energy of an audience is missing, but at least there is no hotel expense!

Day 1 for me included four documentaries and one narrative. Here’s a recap:

 

HYSTERICAL (documentary)

 Stand-up comedy is certainly one of the toughest ways to make a living in the entertainment world. As if making others laugh isn’t difficult enough, convincing someone to give you mic time on stage takes a minor miracle when first starting out. Documentarian Andrea Blaugrund Nevins goes one step further as she focuses on the trials and tribulations facing female stand-up comedians. And she does so in a way that allows us to feel the struggle.

No matter your age, if you are reading this, then there were successful and funny female comedians working when you were growing up. Ms. Nevins includes clips of Moms Mabley from 1948, as well as Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, and other legends. But this documentary is about so much more than great jokes. We are privy to the personal stories behind the stage acts of many of the women working stand-up today. These women are honest and raw in recounting their journeys, and they are fascinating and informative.

Souls are bared, and no topic is off limits. Confidence, anger, self-doubt, childhood issues, and the desire for attention and acknowledgment are discussed. In what has traditionally been “a man’s world”, we are told that once onstage, “There is no one telling us what to do.” The dark side is also present. Pay discrepancies between the genders is well documented. We hear multiple stories of being subjected to inappropriate behavior, groping, and even assault. Included is the 2019 clip of Kelly Bachman rocking the room while Harvey Weinstein was present. On top of that, there is competition amongst the women due to the belief that there is only room for so many. Yet, despite this, a camaraderie exists among these brave women to prove the power of laughter. Terrific work from Ms. Nevins.

 

DEAR MR. BRODY (documentary)

 Filmmaker Keith Maitland is responsible for one of the best made and most interesting documentaries of all-time. His TOWER (2016) was a favorite on the festival run, as well as its numerous TV showings. The body count on his latest is reduced, and it plays like psychoanalysis of a young man who captured the nation’s attention for one brief moment in time.

If the title doesn’t ring a bell, you likely were either too young or not born when, in 1970, the heir to an Oleo Margarine fortune made headlines everywhere. Michael James Brody, Jr announced that he was going to give away his millions to anyone who asked. He even gave out his home address and phone number in Scarsdale, New York. The announcement even got him a spot on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to sing a song … which led to a recording contract.

At the time, Brody was 21 years old and married to Renee, who was kind enough to sit for interviews with Mr. Maitland for the film. Her (reluctant) insight paints a picture of a man who believed in “Peace” over “Money”, and started with the best intentions of helping people. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the cracks to show in Brody’s mission. His pronouncements of gift-giving had his wealth fluctuating from $25 million to $50 million, and even into the billions at times. His demeanor shifted drastically, sometimes within the same day.

The letters flowed in. And kept coming. We hear from authors, friends of Brody, and researchers. Producer Melissa Robyn Glassman located 12 boxes of unopened letters that movie Producer Edward Pressman had in storage from a movie project that never materialized. We also hear from Brody’s and Renee’s son Jamey, who not only collects items from the family “Good Luck” Margarine brand, but also has 40-50 boxes of unopened letters addressed to his dad … Dear Mr. Brody.

It’s those letters that provide the heart and soul of the story, the movie, and this moment in history. Maitland and Melissa track down some of the original letter writers, as well as some of the surviving family members. As they read the words from decades ago, emotions take over and instantly, we are observing an intimate memory. We may be intruding, but these are raw human emotions on display.

Brody’s mental state at the time is also discussed. Drugs clearly played a part in his behavior – specifically PCP, and this led to interest from the editor of “High Times” magazine. It also led to Brody being hospitalized for a time, and ultimately to tragedy. History is filled with odd characters, and Michael James Brody, Jr certainly had his Andy Warhol ’15 minutes of Fame’, but the real story here is that of those who wrote the letters of need/want more than 50 years ago.

**NOTE: it’s not surprising that Brody’s house at 31 Paddington Road in Scarsdale was long ago razed and replaced with a mansion more suitable to the area.

 

INTRODUCING, SELMA BLAIR (documentary)

 Whether it’s navigating the stairs on all fours, getting a boost up to the saddle of her beloved horse, or showing off her glittery turbans and walking canes, the showmanship of actress Selma Blair seems ever-present despite the severe effects of her Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Documentarian Rachel Fleit films the daily challenges faced by Ms. Blair as she comes to grips with the disease and its impact on her career, her life, and her ability to raise her son.

You likely recognize Selma Blair from her most popular movies, CRUEL INTENTIONS (1999) and LEGALLY BLONDE (2001). She admits to viewing herself as a supporting actor, rather than a star, but with 80 screen credits over 25 years, she’s certainly worked consistently. But here we see her daily physical and emotional struggles, though her sense of humor is present except for the darkest moments. Cracking wise about Kim Kardashian or Norma Desmond (SUNSET BLVD), and never hesitating to ensure her cane serves the dual purpose of fashion accessory, Ms. Blair keeps us constantly guessing as to whether she is serving up raw emotions or her best performance in the moment.

We can easily forgive her if a bit of her good humor is an act. It seems clear the film is designed to be a “gift” to her young son Arthur, should her life be cut short. Early on, we witness an MS episode when the stimulus gets to be too much. Her physical contortions and impaired speech are difficult to watch, but necessary for us to fully understand the brutality of the disease.

Half of the film is dedicated to her decision to seek stem cell treatment. The process is long and arduous, and we are spared much of the worst that she experiences. Still, it’s a weeks-long cycle followed by a two year recovery, with no guarantee of improvement. In fact, no miracle cure or recovery occurs, and Ms. Blair initially seems shocked that she has two years of recovery ahead. It’s difficult to believe she had not previously been informed.

Selma Blair’s slogan, “We have so much time to be dead”, is a terrific message and she’s to be commended and respected for opening up her challenges to the camera. It’s hopeful that her willingness to do so will help others, while also educating those unfamiliar with this disease. Mommy issues and extra drama aside, this film is quite something to experience.

 

THE END OF US (drama)

 Co-writers and co-directors Steven Kanter and Henry Loevner serve up one of the first COVID-19 relationship movies. It’s the kind of indie movie that plays well at festivals, but also one that nails what so many have experienced over the past year … well hopefully sans the break-up.

Ali Vingiano is Leah and Ben Coleman is Nick. They have been in a four year relationship that ends abruptly when Leah gets fed up with carrying an unbalanced load in regards to grown-up things like rent, food, and insurance. See, while Nick dreams of writing a screenplay and getting acting jobs (while taking few auditions), Leah is the grounded one who holds a real paying job. It’s easy for us to understand when Leah says ‘enough’.

The wrinkle here is that the break-up occurs in the early days of the pandemic. Knowledge is scarce and deaths are mounting. Businesses are closing and a stay-at-home order is issued in California, forcing this newly separated couple to … well … not be separated. Nick sleeps on the couch, but the two are together more now than … well … when they were together. Tension and stress is as prevalent as Zoom meetings.

It’s an unusual situation, and both Leah and Nick have friends they confide in, but moving on is pretty difficult when the proximity is closer than ever before. Petty emotions come into play, as do real ones. Apologies and quasi-apologies are rampant, but we see both change and grow despite the challenges. The lead actors are solid and the script is fresh and spot on. There are some uncomfortable moments, but relatability is the key here. Nice work from those involved.

 

DEMI LOVATO: DANCING WITH THE DEVIL (documentary)

 Opening Night Headliner at SXSW is a place of honor, and this year’s selection was the docuseries from Michael D Ratner (TV docuseries “Justin Bieber: Seasons”) highlighting Demi Lovato’s personal challenges, of which there are many. The 4-part series was shown straight-through with only chapter slides showing where each new episode begins. Initial scenes show Lovato during her 2018 tour, which was originally the purpose of a documentary. Filming ended abruptly when she overdosed on drugs and nearly died.

In 2020, Ms. Lovato had a new story to tell, and her personal struggles became the focus of the documentary. She promised transparency and honesty, and by all indications, she delivered. Very few celebrities have ever revealed so many personal challenges. By the end of the finale, we’ve heard about her addictions, the physical-emotional-sexual abuse she’s endured, her eating disorder, bi-polar diagnosis, depression, self-harm, and body issues. We also learn of her frequent lies to friends, family, and associates.

Not only does Lovato sit for many interviews, we also hear from her mother, sisters, friends, choreographer, Security Director, Business Manager, and former personal assistant. That’s right. One of the things that stands out most here is privilege. The former Disney child star and now global pop star has a support team and resources that most can only dream of. She went to rehab at one of the most exclusive facilities in the world, and after a near-death drug overdose, her famous new manager agrees to sign her, even after a relapse shortly after her rehab stint. Obviously addiction is something many struggle with, but it’s quite eye-opening to see the care wealth can attain.

One of the most interesting things to come from this is in the final episode where Lovato admits that “moderation” is her personal approach to dealing with addiction. Despite input from Elton John, Christina Aguilera, and Will Ferrell, Lovato believes she is better off with moderate alcohol consumption and pot smoking than stone cold sobriety. Only time will tell. One thing is for sure … her voice remains a true gift. Her “comeback” performance at the 2020 Grammy Awards and her singing of the National Anthem at the 2020 Super Bowl are unmistakable in proof of talent. However, we can’t help but wonder how the personal admissions will be received by the youngsters who look up to Demi Lovato.