JUNGLELAND (2020)

November 9, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. We’ve rarely seen more improvement from an actor than what we’ve witnessed on screen from Charlie Hunnam in his nearly 25 year career. His work was particularly strong in James Gray’s LOST CITY OF Z (2017), and he builds on that here as the older brother filled with dreams of a better life. Writer-director Max Winkler (FLOWER, 2017, and son of Henry) co-wrote the script with Theodore Bressman and David Branson Smith (INGRID GOES WEST, 2017), and while it has a ‘seen this before’ vibe, we remain engaged throughout.

Hunnam stars as Stanley, the visionary who manages the underground boxing career of his brother Lion (Jack O’Connell, UNBROKEN, 2014). Lion is quiet and reserved, while Stanley thinks talking is the key to life. We don’t get the full back story on the brothers, but enough to know that Stanley has made an endless stream of bad decisions that have left the brothers squatting in a deserted foreclosed house in Massachusetts that requires them to sneak in and out of windows for access. Preaching a belief in “fate”, Stanley gushes about their future, which he envisions as a beautiful house in California and tailored Italian clothes.

In a scene that we assume has occurred numerous times, Stanley finds himself unable to pay the $2000 he owes his crime boss Pepper, played by Jonathan Majors. Rather than kill Stanley, Pepper offers him the kind of deal that seems too good to be true. All the Kaminsky brothers have to do is drive Sky (Jessica Barden) across the country to Reno, where they are to deliver her to Yates (John Cullum). At this point, we only know enough about Yates to understand that he’s not an upstanding citizen. If the brothers manage to execute this “simple” task, Pepper will ensure that Lion is added to the list of fighters of “Jungleland”, a bare-knuckles, no-holds-barred fight in San Francisco where the Grand Prize is $100,000. Stanley sees this as a much better alternative than being killed, and Lion agrees to go along with the plan.

What follows is a road trip with the Kaminsky brothers, their Whippet dog Ash, and Sky, the mysterious young lady whose minimal dialogue masks intentions that don’t necessarily mesh with the mission of trip. On the road, Stanley makes a few more less-than-brilliant decisions, while Lion and Sky bond … or do they? Regardless, things get challenging and obstacles appear everywhere. Once Yates appears, it’s a joy to behold 90 year old Jack Cullum (“Northern Exposure”) as he tears into the role of tough guy.

Mr. Winkler’s film actually has very little fighting in it, especially when compared to Gavin O’Connor’s outstanding 2011 film, WARRIOR. Instead, this is about brotherly love and the ties that bind (although so was O’Connor’s film). Surprisingly, the soundtrack features Bruce Springsteen singing “Dream Baby Dream”, and we do learn how to dress a knife wound with duct tape.

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FLOWER (2018)

March 22, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Despite being early in her career, actress Zoey Deutch has often been the highlight of her film projects. Although that sounds like a good thing, in her case it speaks not just to her talent, but also the quality of those choices. Her father is director Howard Deutch and her mother is Lea Thompson, so her industry bloodlines run deep. Her eyes and smile are truly luminescent on the big screen, where she comes across as a natural. It’s now time for her take control of her career. Muck like this latest make us question whether she is a next level talent.

Director Max Winkler (son of Henry “The Fonz” Winkler) co-wrote the script with Matt Spicer (a terrific INGRID GOES WEST) and Alex McAuley, and they are fortunate to have such talent as Ms. Deutch, Kathryn Hahn and Adam Scott. A profane, voyeuristic exercise in disturbed behavior becomes something nearly watchable when these three and newcomer Joey Morgan are on screen.

Ms. Deutch plays Erica, a motor-mouthed (in more ways than one) force of nature teenager whose ‘BJ’s for Dad’s bail’ involves seducing older men and then extorting money from them after Erica’s posse catches them on camera. Oh, and she keeps a sketch book of her victims … no, not their faces. The fundraising approach to springing her dad from jail is difficult to accept, but Deutch sells it as best she can. Her mother (Kathryn Hahn) is desperately trying to build a relationship with Bob (Tim Heidecker), whose son Luke (Joey Morgan) is being released after a lengthy rehab stint for pills.

Luke is a hefty young man who finds solace in food and little else. He and Erica could keep multiple therapists busy for years. His problems are exacerbated by an improper school incident involving Will Gordon, a teacher played by Adam Scott. Coincidentally, this same teacher has been labeled “Old Hot Guy” by Erica and her friends at the bowling alley. Once she learns about Luke’s history with the pedophile, Erica plots an evil revenge. You can probably imagine where it goes from there.

Those same eyes and smile mentioned in my first paragraph even light up when Erica describes herself as “the d*** whisperer”. It’s this kind of moment that finds us hoping Ms. Deutch and her agent quickly learn to distinguish between edgy indie project and trashy script not likely to lead to more work. This is an uncomfortable movie to watch, but not in the way where we walk out feeling enlightened. The title does deserve applause because even the scratchiest and toughest flower has a delicate side.

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