HAPPILY (2021)

March 19, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


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.


THE LITTLE THINGS (2021)

January 30, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a script has bounced around Hollywood for 30 years without getting produced, there is usually a good reason why. Written by John Lee Hancock in the early 1990s, a handful of directors have been attached at various times, but it’s the writer himself who has managed to get it on screen all these years later. Mr. Hancock has found his niche as a director by targeting the precise middle of mainstream with such films as SAVING MR BANKS (2013) and THE BLIND SIDE (2009), an approach more challenging when the topic is chasing a brutal serial killer.

Of course, casting three Oscar winning actors is always a wise choice. Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington (TRAINING DAY, 2001, GLORY, 1989) stars as Joe Deacon, a defrocked L.A. homicide detective banished to the California desert as a Deputy Sheriff in Kern County. “Deke” suffered a heart attack, went through a divorce, and lost his job as a result of being haunted by an especially grisly unsolved case. When Deacon is tasked to pick up evidence in Los Angeles, he stumbles into a case being worked by his hotshot replacement, Jim Baxter. Oscar winner Rami Malek (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, 2018) brings his unorthodox mannerisms to the role and soon (and unsurprisingly) the ‘old school’ and ‘next gen’ detectives are teaming up to work a serial killer case with (unsurprising) similarities to Deke’s old case.

Denzel is especially effective in the first half of the film. His Deke is a quiet man with extraordinary observational and listening skills, and he brings none of his patented histrionics to the role. Deke’s ‘little things’ process quickly identifies a suspect, and it’s a doozy. Oscar winner Jared Leto (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, 2013) is Albert Sparma, a greasy-haired appliance repair man (who let’s this guy in their house?) with a penchant for following news of the city’s crimes. Soon enough he’s taunting Deke and Baxter, and enjoying every minute of their frustration at the lack of evidence. It’s the cat and mouse game we’ve seen many times.

I’m a fan of retro movies, and Hancock announces upfront that this one is set in 1990. There are two reasons for this: that’s the era when he wrote the script, and it corresponds to a time when the Night Stalker was fresh on the minds of L.A. citizens. (side note: Netflix is currently showing the superb docuseries, “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer”). The idea of mismatched partners with polar opposite personalities is another aspect that we are quite familiar with, and Hancock even uses flashbacks to show us exactly what haunts Deke.

Supporting work comes from Chris Bauer, Terry Kinney, Glenn Morshower, Natalie Morales, and Michael Hyatt, with the latter two providing a non-victim female presence – although neither is given much to do. The most interesting aspect of the story is how Baxter is falling into the same emotional void as his new mentor, but unfortunately, not much time is devoted to this. In fact, the story has very little to keep us interested, and instead that burden falls to Washington, Malek, and Leto. Hancock has delivered a dark, brooding crime thriller that fails to deliver the thrills. It certainly pales in the obvious comparisons to David Fincher’s Fincher’s SE7EN (1995) and ZODIAC (2007), but is fine for killing time while stuck at home during a pandemic.

Now available on HBO Max

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017)

September 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. At least two generations are too young to have experienced the 1973 media circus that was the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. However, what matters is that the impact and social changes that began in earnest that night at the Astrodome are still being felt and evolving today. It might seem incredulous that the 29 year old top-ranked women’s player emerging victorious against a 55 year old who played his last professional match 14 years prior would have an impact on anything other than TV rankings, but in fact, it caused a significant societal shift.

Real life married couple and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are well known for their collaborations on iconic music videos and TV commercials, and since joining the movie world have brought us LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and RUBY SPARKS. Their talent for visual presentation is on display here in both the tennis scenes and the more intimate character moments. And, oh my, there are some intimate moments thanks to the script from Oscar winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE). There is no shying away from Ms. King’s sexual confusion/awareness/preferences.

Emma Stone (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND) stars as tennis legend Billie Jean King and manages to convey three different sides: the ultra-competitor, the champion for equal rights, and the married woman coming to grips with her sexual identity. Steve Carell captures the essence and mannerisms of Bobby Riggs, the former tennis champ, floundering in middle-age and always on the lookout for his next hustle or gambling opportunity. Surprisingly, only a minor portion of the film deals with the actual tennis match. Instead, the film dives into the personal lives of these two polar opposite personalities, each with their own challenges and issues.

Despite the fun and outrageousness that the Riggs character delivers, the film might have been better served focusing even more on Ms. King. While she needed the “villain”, it was really her dedication to the cause and strength amidst the backlash that made the difference … along with her court skills. Watching her stand tall in confrontations with the chauvinistic and powerful Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is something to behold. Again, those that weren’t around might not believe some of the outrageous claims by the men of the times.

Supporting work comes from Andrea Riseborough as the all-important Marilyn, who turns Billie Jean away from her husband Larry (Austin Stowell), Sarah Silverman as promoter Gladys Heldman, Natalie Morales as Rosie Casales, Alan Cumming as the colorful clothes designer, an underutilized Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ wife, Fred Armisen as Rheo Blair – Riggs’ partner in the herbs and vitamins game, and Lewis Pullman (Bill’s real life son) as Riggs’ son, Larry. We are even treated to a Bob Stephenson sighting as the Sugar Daddy PR guy at the match.

This was the era when the Vietnam War was winding down, the Watergate scandal was raging, outside “the norm” sexual preferences were kept in the closet, prize money for men’s tennis was 8-10 times that of women, and the overall respect for women and their sports was excruciatingly misguided. Listening to Howard Cosell speak so condescendingly during the national broadcast merely confirms the inequity. Of course, these same issues are discussed and debated even today, as society evolution is often slow, even when moving in the right direction. The film might not add much to today’s cause, but it reinforces the early legacy of Billie Jean King as a difference-maker.

watch the trailer: