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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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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NOBODY (2021)

March 25, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Revenge movies have long been popular because they let us live out the fantasy of getting even … a chance real life rarely offers. Of course, few of us actually cross paths with Russian mobsters or have a secret life that requires our government personnel file be redacted. But all of the above is in play for director Ilya Naishuller’s first feature film since his debut, HARDCORE HENRY (2015), an innovate POV action/sci-fi movie.

While watching this, numerous other movies kept popping into my head, but front-and-center were the JOHN WICK movies. It wasn’t until afterwards that I discovered this film’s writer was Derek Kolstad, the creator and writer of the first three John Wick movies to date. Knowing that leads to the obvious comparison of leading men – Keanu Reeves versus Bob Odenkirk. Yep, the same Bob Odenkirk who owns the Saul Goodman role from “Breaking Bad” and its terrific spinoff, “Better Call Saul”. And nope, he’s not as cool as Keanu, but it’s the risk of casting against type that prevents this from being same old, same old.

Odenkirk stars as Hutch Mansell, a suburban husband and father, working as a bookkeeper at the shop owned by his father-in-law (Michael Ironside, TOTAL RECALL, 1990). A brilliantly edited opening sequence shows us the daily drudgery of Hutch’s life. The rapid cuts tell the story of a man whose existence involves taking the bus to a dead-end job, filling his coffee cup, receiving little respect or affection from family, and yelling at the backend of a garbage truck. Things only get worse when, one night, intruders break into his home. His teenage son (Gage Munroe) springs into action, but Hutch freezes, and is viewed as weak by just about everyone.

It’s at this point where Hutch awakens – his secret past coming back to life. Now you might chuckle a bit at the thought of Odenkirk playing a man who once was so dangerous, he was known as an “auditor” … the last person you want to see at your door. Well, that’s not likely to be your last chuckle, because the over-the-top moments are just getting started. Hutch fights a group of thugs on a city bus, and the one that dies just happens to be the little brother of Russian mobster kingpin Yulian, played with gusto by Aleksey Serebryakov (LEVIATHAN, 2014). Like us, Yulian underestimates Hutch, and most of the movie is spent with every living Russian gangster trying to end Hutch.

Hopefully by now you have intuited that Naishuller’s movie is cartoonish in nature, and has no sense of realism or logic. If you’re not quite sure yet, you should know that 82 year old Christopher Lloyd (as Hutch’s ex-FBI father) joins in on the action – and I mean, he actually joins in on the shootouts. Think of “Mayhem” from the Allstate commercials and you get some idea of the exaggerated shoot ‘em up/ blow ‘em up nature of the action. Connie Nielsen (GLADIATOR, 2000) plays Hutch’s wife and RZA plays Hutch’s equally talented brother.

If one squints and twists, there is some insight into today’s emasculated male – those more likely to bake lasagna than take down an intruder. But mostly it’s just exaggerated revenge action in a way that mirrors John Wick, rather than DEATH WISH (1974) or STRAW DOGS (1971). Director Naishuller gets extra credit for poking fun at the never-ending ammo issue in most action movies, and it might have benefitted from a bit more humor along the lines of the kitty cat bracelet. Fans of the John Wick movies will likely find enjoyment here, but probably “nobody” else … especially those looking for Saul Goodman cleverness.

This film 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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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.


NIGHT OF THE KINGS (2021, Ivory Coast)

February 27, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Could you tell a story that lasts all night? What if you were standing on a box in front of a few hundred rowdy inmates? What if your life depended on it? Writer-director Phillippe Lacote (RUN, 2015) opens the film with an aerial shot over the jungles of the Ivory Coast and slowly makes way to the isolated prison known as La MACA.

The camera takes us to the bed of a police pickup truck where a handcuffed young man is being escorted by an armed guard. It’s the first day of his prison sentence. La MACA has a warden and prison guards, but even they admit the place is mostly run by the inmates. The warden (Issaka Sawadogo) meets with the new prisoner (newcomer Bakary Kone), but it’s Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) who summons the newbie to his cell. Blackbird has been the Dangaro, Chief of Prisoners, for years, and only recently has his hulking presence led to chatter of diminishing losing power. With his fatigue requiring regular intake from oxygen tanks, Blackbird realizes his reign is near … and tradition requires that, once too weak to lead, he take his own life.

Blackbird names the wide-eyed new prisoner Roman, meaning he will be the storyteller at that evening’s Red Moon. Blackbeard has this planned as his final hurrah as leader. Two prisoners are vying to become the new Dangaro: Blackbeard’s loyal assistant Half-Mad (Jean Cyrille Digbeau) and rival faction leader Lass (Abdoul Karim Konate). They each have their eye on wearing the “crown”.

If all this sounds a bit convoluted, you should know it’s fascinating to watch unfold on the screen. The rules and rituals are followed vigorously, and just like in any political situation, behind-the-scenes maneuverings are ongoing. We never lose sight of the fact that there are hundreds of criminals gathered in a confined area, yet the structure of their organization lends itself to Roman’s storytelling.

As a member of the Microbes gang in the Lawless Quarter of Abidjan, Roman doesn’t consider himself a storyteller, and is reluctant to begin. Urged on by the aggressive reactions of his audience, he’s soon weaving tales blending his childhood, the recent arrest of local legend Zama King, and the mythology and history of the Ivory Coast. Stunning flashbacks and visuals are utilized in just the right dosage to help us understand the stories without losing the danger Roman faces. What danger, you ask? Well a fellow prisoner named Silence (played by Denis Lavant, from 2012 cult favorite HOLY MOTORS), who keeps a chicken perched on his shoulder, warns Roman that his story must last through the night until the Red Moon sets on the horizon … or the ritual demands he be killed. Talk about motivation – as if the metal hook in the stairwell wasn’t enough!

Filmmaker Lacote excels with his ‘story within a story’ and the blending of truth and fiction. The fed-up guards watching through the small window in their protected office says more than words could. And cinematographer Tobie Marier Robitaille works wonders within the claustrophobic confines of the prison, and by capturing the emotions of the participants. This is an original film that could be equally effective as a stage production, as both vehicles can convey the glory of the moment morning breaks. Let’s hope this isn’t “once upon a time” for Lacote, and that he has more to offer at this level.

Available February 26, 2021 in select theatres and Virtual Cinemas

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CRISIS (2021)

February 25, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The best thrillers often interweave multiple story lines to create a complex web of detail for viewers to unwind. Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki (ARBITRAGE, 2012) serves up three story lines, all related to the current Opioid crisis. Although the film looks great and has a deep cast, we’ve seen most of this before and no new insight is provided in regards to the struggle. Instead, it’s really standard thriller fare that never goes deep enough into any of the characters to make us care.

Armie Hammer (along with the recent personal baggage attached to him) stars as Jake Kelly, a DEA Agent who has worked undercover in hopes of exposing the Armenian-Canadian-American drug traffickers responsible for a significant portion of opioids crossing the border. Hammer spends the entire movie with an intensely furrowed brow that would likely inspire distrust amongst any potential drug syndicates.

In storyline number 2, Evangeline Lilly (Wasp in the ANT-MAN movies) is Claire Reimann, an architect and recovering drug addict, who is out for vengeance when her beloved high school athlete son is found dead with drugs in his system. The third segment features Oscar winner Gary Oldman (DARKEST HOUR, 2017) as Dr. Tyrone Brower, a science professor at a private Detroit university. He runs a drug-testing lab and faces a moral dilemma when questionable lab results for “the first non-addictive painkiller” puts people at risk, not to mention funding for his work.

Any one of these actors or stories could carry the weight of a movie, but when combined, they succeed only in crushing the entertainment value and tension level. Oldman’s story is easily the most interesting. It addresses how Big Pharma gets new drugs rubber-stamped by funding otherwise cash-strapped labs and schools. There is also the skepticism involved with the drug-producer’s influence over the supposedly independent FDA, and on top of all that, there is the ethical concerns of everyone putting the almighty dollar ahead of safety.

Director Jarecki (the brother of Andrew Jarecki who directed the superb 2003 documentary CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS) kicks off the movie with a beautifully filmed, albeit brief, chase scene through the snowy Canadian forest. In fact, the camera work throughout is fine. It’s really the overloaded script that prevents any of the stories or characters from clicking. Mr. Oldman seems to sense that he needs to overcome the lack of complexity in his story, and because of the effort, loses his usual reserved cerebral approach for which he’s known.

Supporting work is provided by Greg Kinnear as the Dean willing to sacrifice ethics and friendship for money, Michelle Rodriguez as the DEA supervisor in a budget crunch, and Lily-Rose Depp as Jake’s strung out sister. Also contributing are Indira Varma, John Ralston, Martin Donovan, Mia Kirshner, Kid Cudi, Michael Aronov, Luke Evans, and Veronica Ferres. The weakest link here is director Jarecki himself, who for some reason, thought he could play Jake’s partner … a role that would have benefited from a more refined actor.

The horrific effects of the Opioid crisis are known to most, and the film plays like a Wikipedia explanation for anyone who doesn’t read or watch the news. Certainly not helping is the “Miami Vice” type score that accompanies many scenes, and the choppy editing that causes many scenes to fail. Better movies in this genre would include THE INSIDER (1999, ironically directed by “Miami Vice” creator Michael Mann) and Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC (2000). The obstacles faced by whistleblowers, the importance of funding to academia, budgetary concerns for law enforcement, the tragic impact of drugs on families, and the systemic corruption that has fueled the epidemic … all of these are touched on. It’s just that it all seems too obvious. If somehow you didn’t already know, the money-hungry don’t play fair – whether they be drug dealers or drug companies.

The film will hit theaters on February 26, 2021 and Digital and On Demand March 5, 2021

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CHERRY (2021)

February 25, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo are known for their work with Marvel, including, AVENGERS: ENDGAME, and AVENGERS: INFIINITY WAR. This time they tackle a stylish crime-thriller based on the Nico Walker novel, and adapted for the screen by co-writers Angela Russo-Otsot (sister of the directors) and Jessica Goldberg. The Russos reunite with Tom Holland (Spider-Man in the Marvel universe), and he proves quite capable of carrying the heavy load in a bleak and somber drama.

Opening a film with a Van Morrison song is always a welcome move, and then it cuts right to Holland as our lead character narrating as he executes armed robbery at a local Cleveland bank. He admits it’s not his first and that his face has been caught on camera a few times. Oh, and he discloses to us that he likes trees. It’s not the last time we ask, “Why?”

The directors break the film into segments, beginning with Part 1: 2002, “When life was beginning, I saw you.” In English class, he spots Emily (Ciara Bravo) and soon the romance is in full bloom. A too-quick decision has him joining the Army, and the two lovebirds tie the knot before he heads out. In this segment, we learn that he takes Xanax for panic attacks, and his best friend is James (Forrest Goodluck).

Part 2 takes us through Basic Training, where Holland’s character pushes through the brutal Drill Instructors to become a medic, which transitions into Part 3 known as Cherry (the name given to Holland’s character after his first battlefield action. His time in Iraq finds him watching as his Army pal Jimenez (Jeff Wahlberg, Mark’s nephew) dies from wounds.

Part 4 “Home”, shifts the film from a character study to a case study on the extremes of PTSD. Even though he is back with Emily, the love of his life, Cherry simply can’t function as a normal person. The medal for his heroic war efforts means nothing to a man who can’t sleep or find peace. His self-destructive actions include drinking, drug addiction, and a series of bad decisions … all dragging his lovely Emily right down with him. This leads to Part 5 “Dope Life”, which is without question, one of the most depressing and difficult to watch segments of any movie I can recall. It’s every bit as much of a downer as THE BOOST (1988), LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995), or  REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000). The film becomes a sea of drugs, bank robberies, and needles in arms.

Long time cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (DRIVE, 2011; THE USUAL SUSPECTS, 1999) assists with the horrific sensation that these situations evoke by capturing the desperation of the characters and squalor of their environment. The Epilogue covers an extended period time through present day, and though the ending is not really a surprise, we do wish a bit more context had been provided. The initial bank robbery we see basically bookends the film leaving us trying to recover from this Romance-War-Mental Health-Drug Addiction-Crime thriller that saps our energy. This is not one for those who prefer light-hearted cinema or get annoyed by cheap filmmaker tricks.

Available in theatres February 26, 2021 and on AppleTV on March 12, 2021

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JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021)

February 11, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Electrifying. Towering. Ferocious. Choose whatever superlative you prefer to describe Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. Remarkably, Mr. Kaluuya captures Hampton’s legendary oratory skills, and his stage presence reminds of Forest Whitaker’s Oscar winning turn as Idi Amin in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (2006). And the most stunning part is that this isn’t even really a story about Hampton. Director Shaka King, who co-wrote the script with Will Berson from a story by the Lucas brothers, Kenneth and Keith, actually devotes more time to Bill O’Neal, the FBI informant played by LaKeith Stanfield (SHORT TERM 12, 2013).

The film opens with a montage of activists in the 1960s, including Bobby Seale, and transitions right into a 1968 FBI symposium where director J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen in botched make-up) tells the auditorium full of agents that the Black Panthers are the greatest security threat to America. From there we watch as Bill O’Neal, wearing a trench coat and fedora, steals a car from a group of men in a pool hall simply by waving an FBI badge. When he’s apprehended, it’s that badge, not the car, that puts young O’Neal (he was 19 at the time) in the precarious situation of going to prison or accepting (actual) FBI Agent Roy Mitchell’s (Jesse Plemons, I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS, 2020) offer to infiltrate the Black Panthers as a federal informant.

One of the film’s most memorable lines occurs when Agent Mitchell asks O’Neal why he impersonated an agent. The reply: because “a badge is scarier than a gun”. It’s a belief that still holds true more than 50 years later. And that sentiment is a key part of Mr. King’s film. Blatant racism within law enforcement is on display through both the Chicago Police Department’s harassment, and the FBI (and Hoover’s) strategy to prevent the rise of black people.

As fascinating as Hampton and O’Neal are as characters (and real life men), the script falters in a couple of ways. We never really get to know Hampton except as the fire and brimstone speaker on stage. As impressive as that is, it’s a mystery to us how this 21 year old man became so inspirational and skilled at forming alliances. His “rainbow coalition” goal to unite local groups to battle ‘the establishment’ is remarkable, but we are left to wonder if feeding the poor and opening a local medical center were possible through any method other than all-out war. And if so, why the stock pile of guns? Another letdown with the script is that we are not shown how O’Neal manages to become so quickly trusted, and promoted to head of security.

Most of this is told through the eyes of O’Neal, and Stanfield is terrific at capturing the internal conflict and constant danger. Included here are dramatic recreations of O’Neal’s interview on a 1989 PBS documentary entitled “Eyes on the Prize 2”, and he admits to considering Agent Mitchell a role model. Unfortunately, the movie never shows this type of connection between the men. Rather, it’s an awkward and forced bond between two men, neither of which are comfortable with the actions required of their situation. That’s not to say the two don’t share some tense moments, because they do. Especially effective is when Mitchell explains to O’Neal that the Black Panthers are the same, and equally destructive, as the Ku Klux Klan.

Writer-director King and writers Berson, Lucas, and Lucas are all best known for their TV work, so this is a huge step forward for them. It’s a powerful movie that explains some of the Black Panther ideology and how it was treated by law enforcement. The “War versus Politics” explanation cuts to the bone, as do the actual clips played over the opening and closing credits. Dominique Fishback deserves mention for her terrific supporting turn as Hampton’s girlfriend, especially in her final scene. If you’ve ever wondered about the responsibility of leading a revolution, or the inner turmoil of being a snitch, then you’ll find some answers in this memorable film from Shaka King.

In theaters and streaming on HBO Max beginning February 12, 2021

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