COME PLAY (2020)

October 28, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hopes are always high this time of year for a creative new horror film. As each Halloween approaches, we search for new movies that will frighten us in an entertaining way, or at least be creepy enough to make us sleep with the lights on! Looking to be this year’s horror breakout, writer-director Jacob Chase has expanded his own 2017 5-minute short film LARRY into a full-length feature film.

Azhy Robertson (the young son in Noah Baumbach’s Oscar nominated MARRIAGE STORY, 2019) stars as Oliver, a dead-ringer for Danny Torrance in THE SHINING (1980). Oliver is an autistic, non-verbal boy who has no friends and depends on his electronic devices to communicate and entertain (he loves “SpongeBob SquarePants”). His parents, Sarah (Gillian Jacobs, “Community”) and Marty (John Gallagher Jr, SHORT TERM 12, 2013) constantly argue, which exacerbates Oliver’s hyper-sensitivity. When Dad moves out, an overwhelmed mother does her best to follow the advice of Oliver’s therapist. What she doesn’t know initially is that some being or creature named Larry is tracking her son through an online story called “Misunderstood Monsters” that pops up on his mobile devices.

Larry just wants a friend.” As the story slowly unfolds on the tablet Oliver’s dad found in the lost & found in the parking lot booth where he works, we come to understand exactly what is happening, and who and what Larry really is. The theme has some similarities to Jennifer Kent’s excellent film, THE BABADOOK (2014), with a dose of THE RING (2002), but the suspense never builds to that level despite a nice performance from young Mr. Robertson.

A clever twist actually ends up lessening the fright factor here. The monster can (mostly) only be seen via the mobile devices, which means the visuals are often limited by the size of the screen, although I’m a fan of the practical effects. Because of this, sound effects are critical, as are the reactions of Oliver and his parents … as well as the classmates unfortunate enough to get volunteered for a sleepover.

It seems only fitting that in 2020, loneliness is the real monster, and technology is the conduit for its impact. Additionally, all parents will relate to the extremes Sarah and Marty go to protect Oliver, and the final scene does offer an all-knowing moment that reverts to a simpler time … one that Larry wouldn’t appreciate.

watch the trailer


MARRIAGE STORY (2019)

December 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Nicole has already made her decision. The film opens with her and husband Charlie in a therapy session. They are listing traits they admire about the other person. Watching this, we are unsure if the therapist thinks this exercise might salvage a broken marriage, or if it’s some cruel way of highlighting what is being lost. This is writer-director Noah Baumbach’s most gut-wrenching film to date, and it’s based, at least partially, on his split from wife Jennifer Jason Leigh. Writing about personal experience is nothing new for Baumbach, as THE SQUID AND THE WHALE was inspired by his parents’ divorce.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is an up-and-coming theatre director in New York City, and wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is the company’s lead actor. When Nicole informs Charlie that she wants a divorce, and is headed back home to Los Angeles to be with family and resume her TV acting career, he is stunned. She explains that her dreams and ambitions have been stifled by focusing on his career, and despite her numerous attempts to discuss this, he has never bothered to take her seriously. Oh, and she’s taking their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) with her.

What follows is a masterclass in writing, acting, directing, editing, and human nature. We watch as Nicole builds the foundation of her new life, while Charlie is staggered – not so much in denial, as disbelief. Their initial course of an amicable split, equitable division of belongings, and shared/split custody of Henry is abruptly altered when Nicole takes counsel from powerhouse LA divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). Complicating matters is the bi-coastal nature of the divorce and California laws. This forces Charlie to meet with attorney Bert Spitz (a terrific Alan Alda), who may or may not be up to the task – his acumen varying from day to day.

Baumbach allows both sides to play out. These are basically normal, good people in a situation that brings out the worst traits in both. Unsparing pain arises at every turn. One particular argument between Charlie and Nicole is the axis on which the movie turns. It’s a spilling of guts and filled with devastating honesty. The scene is relentless and builds to a breakdown or breakthrough … any description leaves us spent. Just when we don’t believe we can handle any more emotional turmoil, up pops a moment of genuine tenderness that restores our faith – even if it’s only long enough for us to breathe again. There are even some surprisingly funny (dark humor) moments sprinkled throughout, just as there is in life.

Supporting roles are filled beautifully by Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Weaver and Wallace Shawn. As Henry, Azhy Robertson avoids the “cute-kid” syndrome and delivers an actual nuanced performance by a child actor. Although it seems they are both everywhere these days, Ms. Johansson and Mr. Driver are truly outstanding in their roles here. Scarlet perfectly captures a woman moving on, while Adam singing Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” at the bar in front of his theatre company is one of the most poignant on screen moments of the year.

There have been some amazing movies about marriage/divorce over the years. Bergman’s SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1974), Benton’s KRAMER VS KRAMER (1979), and Farhadi’s A SEPARATION (2011) come to mind. Baumbach’s latest belongs in that group. Even the “best” divorces – those where both sides end up better off – are a “loss” for both parties. At a minimum, it’s a loss of a once-in-time vision of life partnership. The division of assets is a cold term for the shredding of emotions. We are fine with whatever the adults decide as long as the priority for both is their young son who shouldn’t pay the price for their debacle … but certainly will, just as countless other children have. I’m only now able to write about this film after seeing it at the inaugural North Texas Film Festival (NTXFF). As a movie lover, I’m in awe of the acting and storytelling. As a human being, it temporarily destroyed me.

watch the trailer: