OLD (2021)

July 23, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) and UNBREAKABLE (2000) created a movie bond with filmmaker M Night Shyamalan that will always exist. In other words, I continue to go into each of his projects with hopeful expectations of another classic. Of course, some have been pretty good (SPLIT, 2016), while others are barely watchable (THE LAST AIRBENDER, 2010). His latest lands somewhere in the middle, but does feature a stunning beach setting (Dominican Republic) – one whose tropical beauty hides a sinister reality.

The film’s synopsis is captured in the trailer: tourists experience a mystifying and terrifying phenomenon while on a day trip to a gorgeous secluded beach. The director adapted the film from the 2010 graphic novel “Sandcastle”, written by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters. Shyamalan specializes in one thing: big and creative ideas. He is a risk-taking filmmaker, but one not always focused on execution, coherence, or details. Especially awkward here is the dialogue. None of these characters talk like real people. Lending to the awkwardness is the attention given to each character’s name and occupation … except for the kids, where age is the significant data.

Due to the nature of the story (and the effects of the beach), the cast is significantly larger than the number of characters. We ride along with one family as they first approach the luxury resort. Insurance actuary Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his wife, museum curator Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are vacationing with their 11 year old daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and 6 year old son Trent (Nolan River). The couple clearly have a strained relationship and appear headed for a break-up. Encouraged by the resort manager to spend the day at a secret remote beach, they are joined by Charles (Rufus Sewell), a surgeon, his calcium-deficient trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their young daughter Kara, and the doctor’s elderly mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Another couple is there as well, nurse Jarin (Ken Leung) and his wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a psychologist. Already at the beach when they arrive is rap star Mid-sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), replete with bloody nose and the corpse of the woman who accompanied him.

It’s best not to go into specifics about the progression of things for these folks on the beach, but it can be noted that they frantically try to find a way back to the resort. When all attempts prove unsuccessful, that ridiculous dialogue fills in many of the gaps for us, though you should know the science doesn’t hold up … think of it as fantasy instead. As their day at the beach moves forward, other actors take over: Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie are teenage Trent and Maddox, Eliza Scanlen is Kara, and later, Emun Elliott and Embeth Davidtz become Trent and Maddox. It becomes frustrating for viewers as the professions are emphasized: Guy spouts statistics at every turn, Prisca discloses she’s not a pathologist, and Patricia attempts to get everyone to bring their feelings to group. Ugh.

Despite the many missteps and the overall mess of characterizations, Shyamalan (who also appears as the driver who drops them at the beach) does serve up a creative idea – one that will likely get viewers questioning their own mortality and how best to spend time. Mental illness is addressed in a crude manner with Rufus Sewell (a fine actor) bearing the brunt of a poor script, while physical afflictions and the effects of age come off a bit better. The strange looking woman serving up custom cocktails at the resort is Francesca Eastwood (Clint’s daughter), and Shyamalan’s patented plot twist ending does make sense and even has a contemporary feel to it.

Opening in theaters on July 23, 2021

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CENSOR (2021)

June 10, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Will Hayes is likely the only film censor most movie buffs can name, and it’s been more than ninety years since the “Hays Code” first went into effect. Despite the relative obscurity of the profession, the first feature film from Prano Bailey-Bond, places censor Enid Baines (Niamh Algar, WRATH OF MAN, 2021) at the forefront of a prime midnight movie … a horror film about horror films. Ms. Bailey-Bond has adapted her own short film NASTY (2015) with the help of co-writer Anthony Fletcher, and for the most part, the changes work quite well.

The story is set in 1985 when “video nasties”, the U.K. label for slasher films, were at the peak of their popularity thanks to the convenience of VHS tapes. Many argued these films, typically independent and low budget productions, were influential in allowing sadistic violence to seep into society. As a film censor, Enid (an excellent Algar), who dresses and carries herself like a 1950’s librarian, is responsible for making sure the fictional violence on screen doesn’t cross the line of what’s acceptable and clearly fictional. Enid takes her job extremely seriously and is annoyed when people mistakenly assume she is in “entertainment”. For Enid, it’s all about protecting the public.

Bailey-Bond jams a lot into 84 minutes … much more than most horror films attempt. Enid’s backstory, and really the driving force for the film, involves her sister’s disappearance when they were kids. It remains an unsolved mystery, and Enid often suffers flashbacks and dream sequences – none more vivid than when one of the movies she’s watching triggers hope of resolution and a mash-up of fiction and reality. This kicks the movie into a different gear, as we are no longer caught up in Enid’s stress censoring movies, but rather in her desperate search to solve the mystery of her sister.

Multiple sub-plots (or at least story lines) exist, including Enid’s strained relationship with her parents – with an underlying theme of blame – and a real world tragic event that may implicate Enid’s work. At play throughout is the existence of violence against women, and Michael Smiley (FREE FIRE, 2016) portrays a sleazy producer whose actions are likely similar to many in the mid-80’s. Much of the third act is surreal as Enid crosses over onto the set of director Frederick North’s (Adrian Schiller) latest movie after she sees a possible connection to her sister in North’s previous film “Don’t Go in the Church”. The production design by Paulina Rzeszowska (SAINT MAUD) and the cinematography of Annika Summerston are noteworthy. With Enid wielding both a pen and an axe, the film is a bit deranged and disorienting, but a nice fit for the midnight movie crowd.

In theaters June 11, 2021

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SAINT MAUD (2021)

May 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. This feature film debut from writer-director Rose Glass made the festival rounds beginning in 2019 and, like so many films, had it’s opening delayed due to COVID. So even though it officially opened in February, I’m just now getting around to seeing it.

Morfydd Clark (THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, 2019, and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, 2016) stars as Maud, a nurse relieved of her duties at a hospital after a tragedy. She’s a recent convert to Roman Catholicism from a more free-spirited lifestyle, and is now convinced God not only speaks to her, but also periodically enters her body. Maud takes a new job as an in-home palliative care nurse for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, ZERO DARK THIRTY, 2012), a former popular dancer/choreographer who resides in a large British seaside home as she waits for the terminal cancer to do what it does.

As Amanda chain smokes, guzzles booze, and entertains guests (both intimately and socially), Maud becomes more committed to saving Amanda from herself so that she might have everlasting peace in her soon-to-come death. Though initially enchanted by Maud’s pious dedication, Amanda ultimately rejects Maud’s role as savior in a most public and humiliating manner. This not only costs Maud her job, but kicks her into a faith-questioning, pain/penance/sacrifice mode that is painful to watch. We’ve witnessed her in a near-orgasmic state as God takes over, and now we see the solitude and extreme loneliness of a lost soul seeking direction. Is she possessed?  If so, by which “side”? If not, is she a religious zealot or is she mentally ill … is there even a distinction between the two?  Maud’s two different eye colors lend credence to two sides battling for control.

In addition to Ms. Glass’ screenplay and direction and terrific imagery, cinematographer Ben Fordesman contributes strong work with extreme close-ups of Ms. Clark, as well as creative shots of Amanda’s house that succeed in turning it into a character – a house on the hill that’s not the haunted one. The score from Adam Janota Bzowski adds just the right atmosphere to the uneasy feeling we have around Maud. The supporting cast includes Lily Frazier as Carol, Amanda’s online hook-up, and Lily Knight as Joy, Maud’s friend and former co-worker.

We are initially led to believe this is a story about the unlikely connection between Maud and Amanda, but in fact, this is Maud’s story and no one else’s. Has she been chosen as God’s disciple, or is she losing her mind? Filmmaker Rose, whether intentionally or not, seems influenced by some fine films, including: William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973), Scott Derrickson’s THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), and two projects from Paul Schrader – TAXI DRIVER (1976) and FIRST REFORMED (2017). The inclusions of William Blake’s religious paintings contribute to this as an example of the feelings non-believers have towards the overly religious and their often accompanying hypocrisy. Morfydd Clark’s performance is top notch, and this is arthouse spiritual horror at its finest … certainly not for the masses, but sure to tickle the fancy of a few.

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime

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THE DJINN (2021)

May 12, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Some of the best horror films are low-budget affairs, and David Charbonier and Justin Powell fully embrace this concept. As with their previous collaboration (THE BOY BEHIND THE DOOR, 2020), the production company partners are co-writers and co-directors on this latest – an effective “legend” thriller that plays like a live-action campfire story.

Ezra Dewey stars as 12 year old Dylan Jacobs, a mute boy who moves into an apartment with his dad (Rob Brownstein) after a tragic incident on “a quiet summer night in 1989” leaves Dylan without a mother. Dad works the graveyard shift as a disc jockey, so Dylan is left alone their first night in the new place. Dylan discovers a leather-bound “Book of Shadows” in the closet. Left behind by the previous owner – an old man who died in the place – the book has a chapter, “Wish of Desire”, which especially appeals to Dylan, who would love to have a “voice”.

As one would expect from a 12 year old, and just about anyone at any age, he doesn’t read the fine print in the book, and immediately prepares to perform the spell. All he needs is a couple drops of blood, some candles, a clock and a mirror. The only question is whether the spell will work with sign language. By this time, we’ve also learned that a previous lung operation has Dylan dependent on his inhaler when he’s stressed – something we horror fans recognize is going to happen not long after he lights that candle.

Of course this is no genie-in-a-bottle granting wishes. Nope, Dylan soon learns it’s a supernatural being that takes the form of those already dead – some Dylan recognizes and some he doesn’t. The Djinn is the “guardian of the shadow realm” and the challenge for Dylan is to stay alive until midnight while the entity tries to end him. What makes the film click is the performance of young Ezra Dewey. He carries the film on his back while, obviously, dialogue is not an option. Having a clever and quick-thinking young protagonist gives us someone to root for. The filmmakers wisely stage this confrontation within the confined space of this small apartment. DP Julian Estrada does excellent work and never resorts to trickery – we understand the floorplan and always know where Dylan is at any moment.

The 1980’s vibe is present via a boom box, phone cord, TV with antennae, dad’s pager, and composer Matthew James’ synth score. There is also the interesting contrast of Dylan’s inability to speak, and the Djinn spending much of the time without sight. The filmmakers take a simple approach to the story (the legend) and let Dylan fight his way to midnight as we squirm (and yes jump a couple of times). It’s a brisk 80 minute runtime and one that most horror film fans will appreciate, despite the cruel twist.

Opening in select theaters and VOD on May 14, 2021

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IN THE EARTH (2021)

April 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Have you ever wondered why they warned concert attendees to stay away from the brown acid at Woodstock? I can only speculate, but I assume the poor souls who consumed the taboo drug experienced hallucinations not dissimilar to watching this latest from writer-director Ben Wheatley. Filmmaker Wheatley previously delivered such interesting and diverse fare as the intriguing horror film KILL LIST (2011), the confusing and bizarre HIGH-RISE (2015), and my personal favorite of his, the quite funny and action-packed FREE FIRE (2016).

Martin Lowery (Joel Fry, YESTERDAY, 2019) is sent to track down a doctor whose research may provide desperately needed help in fighting a virus that has wreaked havoc on the human race. Martin himself has been in isolation for four months prior to this mission. He teams up with Alma (Ellora Torchia, MIDSOMMAR, 2019), a Park Ranger who works out of a Lodge that has been closed for a year due to the pandemic. She will act as his guide on the 2 day hike through the dense forest to find the doctor.

As you would expect, the hike doesn’t go smoothly, and things turn very weird and dangerous when Martin and Alma cross paths with Zach (Reece Shearsmith, HIGH-RISE, 2015). He’s the ex-husband of Dr. Wendle, the one Martin and Alma are in search of. However, Zach is off the grid and off his (proverbial) rocker. He converses with the forest, which might possibly be his most normal action.

Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires, I, DANIEL BLAKE) is finally located, and though she and Martin know each other, she seems quite intent on finishing her research in the forest. Back at the Lodge, Alma had filled Martin in on a local folk tale … the Spirit of the Woods, named Parnag. Most just call it, “the thing in the woods.” Are we to believe nature is evil, or is nature just fighting back against humans?

Written by Wheatley last year, the film shows the effects of a pandemic on some people and how trying to solve things through science may fall short. Paranoia, distrust, dread, and isolation from others are all at play here – and quite in line with our current state. A supernatural element hovers, but the psychedelic images keep us disoriented, and seem to exist for the sole purpose of visual effects. The strobes are so strong they could trigger responses from sensitive viewers, and if they don’t, the gore likely will. Cinematographer Nick Gillespie and composer Clint Mansell are standouts here, and though Wheatley is to be commended for his quick work, the film didn’t really click for me. Perhaps the two best comparisons are THE HAPPENING (2008) and the far superior ANNIHILATION (2018).

In theaters April 30, 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.


COME TRUE (2021)

March 11, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Anyone who has experienced recurring nightmares understands how they impact not just the time you are asleep, but all waking hours as well. Anthony Scott Burns is the writer-director-cinematographer and is working from a story by Daniel Weissenberger. The film is blend of science fiction and horror, and Burns excels in creating an atmosphere of dread upfront.

Burns kicks things off by immersing us in the dark, troubling dream of high school student Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone, “The Killing”). She wakes up not in her bed at home, but instead wrapped in a sleeping blanket on a local playground. Sarah prefers to sleep in a park or at a friend’s house, rather than at her own home for reasons we can infer. Desperate for sleep and rest, she answers an advertisement for a sleep study at the university.

Based on the cars, movie posters, and tech equipment, the film is set in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Even the synth music is of the era, courtesy of Electric Youth and Burns’ own Pilotpriest. The music mirrors the film in that it’s superb in the beginning, and less effective in the second half. The blue-gray color palette and icy cold weather perfectly complement the unorthodox sleep study, and those who are running it. Jeremy/Riff (Landon Liboiron, TRUTH OR DARE, 2018) is the creepiest while looking like a bearded Harry Potter, though it takes a while to unravel his story. Also present is Dr. Meyer (Christopher Heatherington), who does little more than quietly observe. Allowing this character to play a bigger role could have benefited the story.

The mystique of dreams is what’s at play here, and the blinking monitors and concerned look of the scientists all serve their purpose. Unfortunately, it’s the dreams that let us down. The shadow man associated with sleep paralysis is on display here, but his glowing eyes amongst the abundance of gray lacked the eerie imagery need to capture my imagination. In fact, I found the dream sequences to drag, even after the first one got my hopes up.

It’s highly likely that Burns is a fan of filmmaker David Cronenberg, and we do appreciate the homage to Stanley Kubrick and Rodney Ascher. However, to be truly effective, a sci-fi/horror film, especially one dabbling in pseudo-psychology, must have more than the right look. Lead actress Julia Sarah Stone brings a unique appearance to the role, and she’s the reason I stuck with it until the end. My gut feeling is this could have been a world class short film, and it seems probable that I missed a deeper message here. But neither of those was enough to overcome my feeling of boredom during the film’s second half.

COME TRUE will open in select theaters, digital platforms, and cable VOD on March 12, 2021 courtesy of IFC Midnight

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


THE HAUNTING (1963) revisited

January 30, 2021

*** This is an entry into my “Revisited” series where I re-watch a classic movie and then write about it – not with a traditional review, but rather a general discussion of the movie, those involved with it, and its impact or influence.

 Greetings again from the darkness. Long ago, filmmakers figured out how to have fun with ‘things that go bump in the night’. Of course some do it better than others, and how scary or creepy you find a movie will depend on your personal phobias and preferences. For a combination of haunted house, ghost story, and psychological thriller, few are better than this 1963 gem from director Robert Wise. I’ve strategically planned this after the recent success of two limited series from Netflix: “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018) and “The Haunting of Bly Manor” (2020). Although the two series were marketed as being related, in fact only the 2018 series was based on the 1959 novel from Shirley Jackson … the same as Wise’s 1963 film.

The story begins with Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) being contracted to conduct a scientific study of psychic phenomena and paranormal activity in the now vacant Hill House mansion that has a 90 year history of strange and tragic endings for its past inhabitants. He will be joined by two hand-picked volunteers, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom), as well as Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), the young man who stands to inherit Hill House. Eleanor has a history of paranormal connection (as a child) and Theo is a clairvoyant with ESP tendencies. Luke is mostly an obnoxious rich kid hoping to cash in on his inheritance.

We get an early introduction to Eleanor’s home life, and in those days she would likely have been labeled a spinster. She has spent many years taking care of her recently deceased mother, and is now out of step with reality … and burdened with guilt from her sister, who not only treats her like a child, but also blames Eleanor for their mother’s death. Being selected for the Hill House research is a dream come true for her – a chance to do something for herself. Her arrival at the gates of the manor provide a glimpse of just how important this is to her. She refuses to heed the caretaker’s (Valentine Dyall) warning, and demands to be allowed in.

Our first view of Hill House is seen through Eleanor’s eyes and we hear her inner voice acknowledge the feeling of having the house “watch her” as she drives up. The exterior shots of the neo-Gothic mansion are truly awe-inspiring and intimidating. She is greeted at the door by the other caretaker (Rosalie Crutchley), who takes socially awkward to a new level with her zombie-like warnings of the night and the dark. Soon the others arrive, and the initial conversations allow us to understand the differing personalities and get our first look at the interior of Hill House.

The initial set-up is for a scientific, first hand analysis of supernatural occurrences inside the house … all led, of course, by Dr. Markham. Sexual tension plays a role here as Eleanor is attracted to Dr. Markham, who conveniently has not mentioned that he’s married. Simultaneously, Theodora teases and flirts with Eleanor, while only admitting to not being married, yet still cohabiting as an “us”. What is abundantly clear from the beginning is that Hill House itself is a featured character. Director Wise and cinematographer Davis Boulton utilize creative camera angles and specialized lighting, and capture the essence of the home through terrific set design. In a rare case for horror movies, very few special effects are present outside of sounds; although the spiral staircase in the library and the heaving wooden doors are quite memorable.

Director Robert Wise was a 4 time Oscar winner (THE SOUND OF MUSIC, 1965, WEST SIDE STORY, 1961) and was also Orson Welles’ film editor on CITIZEN KANE (1941). Wise directed such diverse films as STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979); the sci-fi classic THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951); SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (1956), which turned Paul Newman into a star; RUN SILENT RUN DEEP (1959) a submarine movie starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster; THE SAND PEBBLES (1966), which was Steve McQueen’s only Oscar nomination; and another horror gem AUDREY ROSE (1977). Well-liked by actors and respected in the industry, Mr. Wise died in 2005 at age 91.

Screenwriter Nelson Gidding and director Wise both previously received their first Oscar nominations for I WANT TO LIVE (1958), and were frequent collaborators, including: ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959), THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971, adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel), and THE HINDENBURG (1975). Gidding adapted Shirley Jackson’s tremendous novel, “The Haunting of Hill House”, with some variations that turned it into more of a psychological cinematic experience. Mr. Gidding passed away in 2004 at age 84.

 Julie Harris received her Oscar nomination for EAST OF EDEN (1955), where many fell in love with her as Abra, the girl torn between two brothers, one of which was played by Oscar nominee James Dean in his star-making turn. Ms. Harris’ career spanned seven decades (1948-2009), and, as a 5-time Tony winner, she remains one of the most honored and respected stage performers of all-time. Much of her later career was on stage and television, including a long run on “Knot’s Landing”. She passed away in 2013 at age 87.

Claire Bloom, who plays Theodora, is still alive today and turns 90 the day after Valentine’s Day 2021. He acting career has spanned eight decades (1948-2019), and one more gig will get her to a remarkable nine! Never one to shy away from controversy, Ms. Bloom shines here as the lesbian with ESP, and she is also a renowned stage actress recognized for her Shakespearian work. She had marriages to Oscar winning actor Rod Steiger and Pulitzer Prize winning author Phillip Roth, and many will recall her role as Queen Mary in THE KING’S SPEECH (2010).

The two male leads in the film were played by Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn. Mr. Johnson is known as the actor who turned down the role of James Bond in 1962, setting the stage for Sean Connery’s historic run. Johnson was briefly married to Kim Novak (VERTIGO, 1958), and his career lasted seven decades (1950-2015), and he remained working until his death in 2015 at age 87.  Mr. Tamblyn was coming off his role as Jets’ leader Riff in Robert Wise’s WEST SIDE STORY (1961), and he had earlier appeared in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954). He was Oscar nominated for his role in PEYTON PLACE (1957), and during his 8 decade career (1948-2018), he appeared in 6 movies that were Oscar nominated for Best Picture. He is 86 years old and recently appeared in the 2018 limited series “The Haunting of Hill House”. He is the father of actor Amber Tamblyn.

For fans of James Bond movies, you’ll be pleased to see Lois Maxwell appear in this film as Dr. Markway’s wife. Of course, Ms. Maxwell is known to fans as Miss Moneypenny in 14 James Bond movies, second only to Desmond Llewelyn’s 17 appearances as Q. She passed away in 2007 at age 80.

 In the movie, Hill House is described as a 90 year old New England house with a history of psychic phenomena. However, the exterior shots are actually of a neo-Gothic mansion (hotel) in Ettington Park near Stratford-Upon-Avon. It’s an active hotel with a history tracks back to the 11th century. The interior shots were conducted on a UK studio set. In 1999 director Jan De Bont (SPEED, 1994) delivered a second adaptation (not a remake) of Jackson’s novel, starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones. A different house was used for Hill House.

Wise’s film is now nearly 60 years old, and it holds up today thanks to the house, the performances, the direction, and the decision to create a psychological thriller and character study. The power of suggestion is key, yet it never loses the core of being a haunted house story … a house that seems to want Eleanor (note the parallels to the origin story of Abigail told in one of the early scenes). There have been debates about whether that initial set-up takes too long, or if more attention should have been paid to why the house is drawn to Eleanor (and vice versa), but overall, it holds up very well as classic horror. On a separate note, no one could accuse the film of being cursed, as most everyone associated, enjoyed a long a fruitful career and life … even the house!

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


GRIZZLY II: REVENGE (1983/2021)

January 6, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The slate of movies I review each year leans heavily towards serious and dramatic material, but is there anything more serious than an 18 foot tall grizzly bear seeking revenge for the poaching of her cubs? And is there a better springboard to success for actors than the sequel to a cheesy land-based riff on JAWS? OK, I sense your skepticism. What if I told you that sequel featured three Oscar winners, and the original was one of the most profitable ROI films of the year? Starting to come around, aren’t you?

Well, before you get overly excited in anticipation of this film’s release, please allow me to explain … or come clean. This 1983 film has its own special place in cult film lore. Some even doubted its existence (or at least the actual title). But now, after all these years and rumors, the legend comes to life, and has not only been “completed”, but is getting a semblance of release. If you love schlock horror where nature-goes-awry, with the added bonus of ‘spot the actor’ (now almost 40 years older), then there is the possibility you are worthy of watching this … this … abomination (meant here as a term of endearment).

You should know that there are very few sightings of the enormous grizzly bear; although we do get an opening sequence with some quality camera work featuring grizzlies in the wild. Even though we don’t see much of the titular beast, she does dominate the story. The earliest sequence features three young campers ignoring bear warning signs. These three campers are why we are all here. A pre-“E/R” George Clooney (21 years old) sports a denim vest before climbing in a sleeping bag with a partially clothed 16 year old Laura Dern, who has somehow managed to complete the hike wearing sandals and whining the entire time. The third wheel is played by a 17 year old with hair hanging in his eyes and acne on his face. You’ll recognize him as Charlie Sheen, although here he looks very much like brother Emilio. If you show up for this trio, hold off on the potty break, because there’s an angry grizzly lurking.

There are other pieces to the story … and I use ‘pieces’ in a manner similar to what one sees in an intersection after a couple of cars collide. A group of drunk poachers roam the woods looking to collect grizzly gall bladders, which evidently have value on the black market. The Park Rangers are preparing for an upcoming rock concert where 100,000 attendees are expected. A concert promoter played by Louise Fletcher (an Oscar winner as Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, 1975) bullies the newest Park Ranger played by Steve Inwood (who also appeared in STAYING ALIVE that same year, reaching world class clunker status twice in 1983) into “the show must go on” despite the grizzly killings.

This was director Andre Szots’ second and final feature film as a director, though he did have a career as a producer. The husband and wife writing team of David Sheldon and Joan McCall ‘crafted’ the screenplay. He was also a co-writer on the original GRIZZLY (1976), while she appeared on screen in it. Continuing our game of ‘spot the actor’, we can’t help but notice Deborah Foreman as the lead Ranger’s wide-eyed daughter. Ms. Foreman was a very popular actor in the 1980’s, including a starring role in VALLEY GIRL (1983). Unfortunately her career never hit the heights many predicted, although she does have one of the best lines in this film when she proudly states her skill at working a phone – both dial and push-button! Fans of either the “Lord of the Rings” or “Indiana Jones” franchises will surely get a kick out of John Rhys-Davies as a lumberjack-American Indian, who is renowned for his expertise in hunting “the devil bear”. Other familiar faces include a young Timothy Spall (MR TURNER), Deborah Raffin (rumored to be the second choice for Sandy in GREASE), Ian McNiece (ACE VENTURA: WHEN NATURE CALLS, 1995), Dick Anthony Williams (a hard-working actor from the 1970’s until his death in 2012), Jack Starratt (actor in FIRST BLOOD, 1982, director of RACE WITH THE DEVIL, 1975), and Charles Cyphers, who played the Indians’ General Manager in MAJOR LEAGUE (1989).

The joy in seeing these folks in one place is compromised (to say the least) by the horrendous 1980’s pop music being performed by those on stage attired in just about any outrageous 80’s fashion you can recall. Initially comical, the musical acts quickly evolve into something stomach-churning to watch. The kindest description of the production quality is “low-budget”, but there is simply no term for the effects. A Darth Vader breathing sound is heard when the grizzly is near, a speeding Ranger jeep on a dirt path is used to create suspense (the same shot is used multiple times), the day-night inconsistencies could be their own drinking game, and fireworks and a forklift prove to be a bad mix with our grizzly. Finally, for reasons we never really understand, a US Senator is a guest at the concert, and these days a Senator would likely be considered a greater threat than an 18 foot grizzly. You’ve heard the adage, “so bad it’s good”, well this one is simply so bad it’s bad. William Girdler directed the original GRIZZLY in 1976, and he tragically died at age 30, just two years later.

Available On Demand January 8, 2021

watch the trailer