Wallflower


Reflection of a mass murderer.

(2017) True Life Drama (Passion RiverDavid Call, Atsuko Okatsuka, Conner Marx, Hannah Horton, Cequoia Johnson, Hassan Cristos Messiah, Molly Tollefson, Hope Shanthi, Jose Abaoag, Stewie Valencia, Sheila Houlihan, Joe Cummings, Kyle Jewell, Rosario Rieger, Nathan Christopher Haase, Geoff Garza, Reza Leal-Smartt, Rachelle Henry. Directed by Jagger Gravning

 

Sometimes, when a mass murder is committed, there’s a reason, an explanation that those left behind can at least understand. Other times, however, the act is senseless and we are left to wonder why the killer did what he did.

The movie is based on the 2006 Capitol Hill Massacre in Seattle. A loner, a disturbed young man identified only as Murderer (Call) in the credits, attends a rave at the Capitol Hill Arts Center. He seems aloof and quiet, but he meets Link (Marx), a happy-go-lucky prankster who invites him to an after-party at a local home owned by aspiring comic book artist Strobe Rainbow (Okatsuka) – the victims are mainly identified by their rave names.

The movie tends to move around in time quite a bit. Therefore, the murders actually occur about 15 minutes in (incongruously set to the strains of the Archies bubblegum pop hit “Sugar Sugar,” one of the most upbeat songs ever) and the rest of the film (except for the final scene) is mainly told in a series of flashbacks as the murderer hovers on the edge of conversations, a figure of judgmental indignation who grows creepier as the night progresses. He’s the kind of guy who sees life as a party that he hasn’t been invited to and as a result despises those who seem happy and part of the community

By all accounts the Seattle rave community was known for its inclusive nature and while recreational drug use was a heavy part of the scene, they also look out for one another and make sure everyone is okay.

Most of the characters other than those of Link and Strobe, are mainly undeveloped. Even the murderer is essentially labeled as an angry white guy which  seems to me to be a gross over-simplification; while I applaud the director’s refusal to give the murderer a name or even a motive (to this day, nobody is sure why he erupted the way he did) it doesn’t serve the movie well to boil him down to an archetype.

Most of the conversations we overhear (through the murderer’s ears) are inane and even downright immature. The main question that bothered me while I was watching was why did this movie have to be made? To illustrate the innocence of the victims? Since they are never named, it makes me wonder if the project was done without the cooperation of the survivors and the families of the victims.

That doesn’t mean that Gravning doesn’t have some moments. There’s one sequence set at the rave where he changes the music on the soundtrack to classical music. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition and is a welcome relief from the occasionally monotonous EDM music that dominates the soundtrack. There’s also a conversation between Strobe and Link near the end of the film that has some depth that is staged in an interesting way with Strobe at the bottom of a staircase leading to the basement and Link, smiling and good-natured, leaning over the railing. Some of the shots show a nimbus of the rising sun around his head, presaging what was about to happen to him (although we saw his fate early on).

Most of the film is dimly lit by necessity but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The performances are solid even if the characters are mostly forgettable, although Marx and Okatsuka were both impressive and Call makes a game effort to make something of a thankless role. I’m still not 100% sure that I understand what the director had in mind, but this is nonetheless a reasonably interesting take on an act of violence that has become, tragically, so common that this particular act has been forgotten outside of Seattle.

REASONS TO SEE: Gravning makes a few interesting choices that really work nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Watching a party is never as much fun as being at one.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a lot of drug use and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gravning was a long-time member of Seattle’s rave scene and had been invited to the rave depicted here but was unable to go.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wrinkles the Clown

War Machine (2017)


War is an all-American pastime!

(2017) Dramedy (Netflix) Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley, Tilda Swinton, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, Scoot McNairy, Lakeith Stanfield, Alan Ruck, Will Poulter, Nicholas Jones, Meg Tilly, Josh Stewart, Tim Downey, Richard Glover, Griffin Dunne, Andrew Byron, Daniel Betts, John Magaro, RJ Cyler, Emory Cohen, Rufus Wright, Sean Power, Sian Thomas, Paul Hickey, Georgina Rylance. Directed by David Michôd

 

Netflix has been producing original movies for several years but their Adam Sandler comedies aside, their first serious attempt at a blockbuster of their own was this fictionalized Brad Pitt film based on a non-fiction book about the War in Afghanistan. It is not a promising start, although they have several films that have been released since then that are far better and far bigger.

The movie is meant to be a black comedic commentary on the nature of 21st century war as practiced by the United States. It moves at a kind of snail’s pace (at roughly two hours long, it is about a half hour too much) through a bloated script full of unfunny bits. The fault here isn’t Pitt’s although this is perhaps his most deranged work yet; his General Glen McMahon is a walking tic machine, exhorting troops that “We WILL prevail” at the same time expressing frustration with the bureaucracy he has to deal with. His square-jawed expression is the epitome of every Hollywood American military commander yet his odd gait looks like he has some sort of wound in his genitals.

Despite having a cast of some of the best actors and character actors working today, there are simply too many roles and you forget who is who after about five minutes, leading to further confusion that the screenplay hasn’t already caused itself. This has all the earmarks of moviemaking by committee.

I liked the concept and thought that given the pedigree of Michôd (Animal Kingdom) that this project had promise but it pretty much falls apart of its own weightiness. I get the sense that the filmmakers were told to make a comedy, then told to make a commentary on war, then told to make a drama by the powers that be. What they ended up making was a mish-mash that is neither one nor the other but is a tedious waste of two hours. I expected much better

REASONS TO GO: Even at his most subdued, Pitt still exudes star power.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is bloated and dreadfully unfunny.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film references actual events that took place during the command of Stanley A. McChrystal between 2009 and 2010.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wag the Dog
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Suburbicon

12 Strong


Chris Hemsworth to the rescue!

(2018) True Life War (Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Navid Negahban, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, Austin Hébert, Austin Stowell, Ben O’Toole, Kenneth Miller, Kenny Sheard, Jack Kesy, Rob Riggle, William Fichtner, Arshia Mandavi, Elsa Pataky, Marie Wagenman, Allison King, Samuel Kamphuis, Lauren Myers. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig

 

After the attacks of 9-11, the military was caught a bit disorganized and flat-footed. Who do we attack? There was no geo-political entity that one could say “There! If we fight them, we can keep from having more terrorist attacks on the United States.” It wasn’t like Pearl Harbor; we knew who did it and we knew who had to pay.

It is true that a group of Marines – 12 of ‘em – went into Afghanistan early in 2012 to link up with the Afghan Northern Alliance and take down some Taliban baddies. While the ads for the film hysterically said that if we didn’t win this battle that there would be MORE terrorist attacks (there’s no evidence to suggest that was true) there’s no doubt that the men who went into Afghanistan only to find out that the terrain required horses rather than trucks and jeeps – and only one of them knew how to ride – were heroic, credits to the military and to their country.

Hemsworth has become a dependable star from the Thor films to other appearances. Here he shows off that he can be a badass without a magic hammer and his charisma and charm still stand him in good stead even when the film is dead serious. It helps that he has a fine support cast behind him, including Shannon who gets a rare non-villainous role.

While the movie felt more like a recruitment poster than entertainment at times, it still accomplishes the latter goal for the most part at least. While I thought it was a little long and may have been guilty of doing an inappropriate victory dance when we’re still fighting the same bloody war sixteen years (as of this writing) and counting afterwards, it at least will get American hearts beating and American chests pounded by American fists. Military lovers, have at this one.

REASONS TO GO: Hemsworth continues to develop into a solid leading man.
REASONS TO STAY: Many times the film didn’t feel as authentic as others covering the war did.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s lots of war violence and plenty of profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riggle plays Colonel Max Bowers in the film; a Marine before he became a noted actor, Riggle actually served under the real Max Bowers at approximately the same time period the film is set in.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Winter Brothers

Lady Bird


There’s always a little love/hate in every mother-daughter relationship.

(2017) Dramedy (A24) Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, Odeya Rush, Kathryn Newton, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Laura Marano, Andy Buckley, Danielle Macdonald, Jordan Rodrigues, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kristen Cloke, Daniel Zovatto, John Karna, Bayne Gibby, Bob Stephenson, Marielle Scott, Chris Witaske, Suzanne LaChasse.  Directed by Greta Gerwig

 

Adolescence is a difficult period. We all undergo it; we don’t all survive it. We muddle through as best we can as we learn to find out who we are and hopefully, who we want to become. It’s a wonder that any of us live to be 21.

Christine McPherson (Ronan) insists that people call her “Lady Bird.” That isn’t her name; she just likes the sound of it. A high school senior at an all-girls Catholic school in suburban Sacramento, California, she is chafing at the bit to get free of the Great Central Valley and move somewhere sophisticated and cultured i.e. New York. Her mother Marion (Metcalf) would prefer that Lady Bird stay somewhere local, mainly because that’s about all the family can afford. At least Marion can take comfort in that her daughter, who is surprisingly smart, doesn’t really have the grades to get into any schools she really wants to go to.

Lady Bird has a fairly small circle; in addition to her mother with whom she has a contentious relationship, there’s her brother Miguel (Rodrigues) who graduated college but has only been able to find a job bagging groceries and her father Larry (Letts) who is as loving and kind as her mother is critical and demanding. Lady Bird’s bestie Julie Steffans (Feldstein) is, like herself, from the wrong side of the tracks. Julie is, like Lady Bird, on the outside looking in on the popularity scale.

Like most girls her age, Lady Bird is very interested in boys but they mystify her. She doesn’t really know how to act around them or to let them know she likes them. She’s also interested in sex but she wants it on her terms. I think it’s pretty much safe to say that Lady Bird wants to live life in all its aspects on her own terms which at 17 isn’t necessarily an unusual thing. She will explore different aspects of high school life, experience all sorts of different things both good and bad and continue to work towards her goal of going to college in New York, as hopeless a goal as it may seem.

The term “coming of age film” can cover a whole lot of sins but in this case, it is truly apt. We actually see real growth (as opposed to Hollywood growth which is generally unearned) in Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig, riding the director’s chair solo for the first time in her career, does a bang-up job. Although only semi-autobiographical (Gerwig has gone on record that this is more emotionally autobiographical than factually so) there is an air of authenticity to it. If Lady Bird isn’t Gerwig she’s certainly a cousin and that’s not a bad thing.

Ronan and Metcalf both turn in performances that have legitimate shots at Oscar nominations. When mother and daughter are going at it the screen just about crackles with electricity. Marion loves her daughter passionately but doesn’t always express that love in healthy ways. She’s outspoken (like her daughter) and hyper-critical which is definitely not appreciated. Larry does his best to mitigate things but he’s a little intimidated by Marion as well and when he loses his job he clearly begins to doubt himself although that’s an aspect of the story that isn’t explored thoroughly. Then again, it’s not Larry’s story – it’s Lady Bird’s.

In a sense this is also a love letter to Sacramento (where Gerwig grew up and where this is set). Although Lady Bird complains about the provincialness of the city, it’s clear that Gerwig has a great deal of affection for the place. Residents and regular visitors will recognize a lot of different landmarks and local hangouts shown at various times in the film. One can’t complain about a movie with this much love for the capitol of California.

There is a pretty frank portrayal of Lady Bird’s sexuality; she becomes attracted to two different guys during the course of the film and contemplates losing her virginity. The frank discussion of the event is going to feel familiar to most women, although those who find such things distasteful are going to have a difficult time with that particular scene. I suppose it is going to depend on how comfortable you are with sexual discussions.

Gerwig doesn’t get everything right. The ending feels a bit rushed and a little bit of a nonsequitir. Her move from one BFF to another one who is more shallow just so Lady Bird can get closer to a guy she’s interested in comes off as a little bit cliché and maybe a little bit out of character. However, those are relatively minor things and she does for the most part nail the film.

I commented on Facebook that everyone who has ever been an adolescent girl should see this and I stand by that. It is going to resonate deeply with most women who will recognize the situations and the character dynamics. Men are also going to enjoy this because they will also get a chance to laugh at some of the foibles of adolescent girls – and maybe get to understand the women in their lives just a teensy bit better. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

REASONS TO GO: The writing is smart and the characters realistic. You have to love a film that gives Sacto this much love.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending feels a little bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a lot of teen sexuality, some brief nudity and lots of teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lady Bird recently set a Rotten Tomatoes record for the most positive reviews without a single negative review – 164 consecutive positives and counting.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Gangster Land

All We Had


Have a Coke and a smile.

Have a Coke and a smile.

(2016) Drama (Gravitas) Katie Holmes, Stefania Owen, Richard Kind, Luke Wilson, Mark Consuelos, Eve Lindley, Siobhan Fallon, Katherine Reis, Judy Greer, Richard Petrocelli, Odiseas Georgiadis, Michael Cavadias, Lolita Foster, Tim Markham, Osh Ghanimah, Randy Gonzalez, Milly Guzman, Rahmel Long, John McLaughlin, Amelie McKendry, Aly Brier. Directed by Katie Holmes

 

Statistically speaking, women make up the majority of the poverty class. Statistics however do not tell us the entire story. Each number on that sheet is a person, a person with a story and a person who has been under unimaginable stress. Unimaginable…unless you’ve lived it.

Rita (Holmes) hasn’t exactly had a sterling track record when it comes to men. She’s made a lot of bad choices and now, in 2008, she is fleeing her latest boyfriend disaster along with her 15-year-old daughter Ruthie (Owen). She sells her TV set and hits the road, hoping to make it to Boston where she and her daughter dream of having a two-story house with a pool. Given that the economy is about to crash and burn, it isn’t a very realistic dream but it is a dream nonetheless.

The two shoplift when they need to until the car finally gives out in a small town. A kind-hearted diner owner named Marty (Kind) goes the compassionate route when Rita and Ruthie fail at the dine and dash scam and gives Rita a job waitressing along with his transgender niece Peter Pam (Lindley).

Ruthie turns out to be quite the smart cookie and shows signs of doing really well in school, but tries to fit in with the wrong crowd. Rita hooks up with an unscrupulous realtor (Consuelos) who puts her in a foreclosure house; Rita doesn’t realize the terms of her mortgage are predatory and as business begins to dry up at the diner as the town is hit by unemployment and foreclosures, Rita and Ruthie realize they are about to lose their home.

Still, there is Lee (Wilson), an alcoholic widower who is also the town dentist who has taken a shine to Rita, whose former beau has since hit the road. Rita, who has a history of running away at the first sign of trouble, wants to stay in town. Ironically it is Ruthie, who has been the more mature one in the relationship, who wants to leave. Rita is finally getting her act together and recognizing her own issues, but is it enough and in time to salvage her relationship with Ruthie?

This is Katie Holmes directing debut and while it isn’t particularly an auspicious one she doesn’t disgrace herself either. The movie is pretty much shot by the numbers which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The mistake a lot of first-time directors make is trying too hard to make a mark by using unusual shot setups or narratives. While the narration by Owen is occasionally off-putting, the story is told in a straightforward manner which is at least from this quarter well-received.

There is more than a passing physical resemblance between Holmes and Owen; they look very much like mother and daughter (although the running joke in the movie is that they are mistaken for sisters) which does a lot to add to the realism. One of the things I like about the script is that Ruthie isn’t as worldly as she thinks she is, which again is somewhat realistic when looking at teens, particularly teen girls. The roles of the two women move towards each other; as the movie begins, Ruthie is the mature one. As the movie ends, it is Rita who has that mark.

You’re not used to seeing Holmes in this kind of role; it is gritty and often unpleasant. She wears too-short skirts on dates and blue eyeliner without a whole lot of other make-up; it’s kind of a white trash look. It isn’t the most attractive you’ll see Ms. Holmes, but it is a challenging role for her and I for one am glad to see her stretching a bit, even if she had to direct herself in order to do it.

Kind is one of those actors we tend to take for granted; he always seems to reflect a real honest humanity that genuinely makes me like him. It’s nice to see him have a meatier role than he usually gets. Wilson also is one of those genuinely nice-guy actors who when he gets a chance to play one seems to hit it out of the ballpark and he does so here. In a movie in which Rita starts off a cynic “trust nobody” sort, it’s a smart move for Holmes to pepper her cast with actors who reflect genuine warmth and goodness.

It should also be noticed that the film deals with the transgender issue pretty honestly if a bit over-the-top. There’s a fairly shocking scene in which some of Peter Pam’s tormentors go to the next level. It is a situation all too many transgenders have to face in reality, a situation that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon particularly now.

One of the big problems with the movie is that the pacing is uneven. Some scenes feel rushed and seem to fly by; others seem to stretch out for uncomfortably long periods. A surer hand in the editing bay might have helped here. Also, the script doesn’t benefit by seeing all the major issues that Rita and Ruthie face getting neatly solved one after the other. Anyone who has lived hand to mouth as these ladies do will tell you that it really doesn’t work that way in real life. Some problems don’t have neat solutions.

I don’t know that Holmes has a bright future as a director, but I think she might. Certainly she made a movie that is entirely watchable and while it isn’t perfect, she acquits herself pretty well as a first-timer. I do like the point of view that she takes as a filmmaker and I like that she’s willing to take risks as an actress. I hope that she plays it a little less safe next time as a director.

REASONS TO GO: An unflinching look at women in poverty. This is a very different role for Holmes.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is somewhat erratic. Problems are too easily solved here which isn’t very realistic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Anne Weatherwax novel this is based on was endorsed by no less than Oprah Winfrey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mermaids
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Stevie D

Secret in Their Eyes


The eyes have it.

The eyes have it.

(2015) Mystery (STX) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina, Dean Norris, Joe Cole, Michael Kelly, Zoe Graham, Patrick Davis, Eileen Fogarty, Lyndon Smith, Kim Yarbrough, Mark Famiglietti, Amir Malaklou, Niko Nicotera, David Israel, Dennis Keiffer, Don Harvey, Glenn Davis, Walter Tabayoyong, Michael Tennant, Ho Sung Pak, Saige Donaldson. Directed by Billy Ray

 

The line between justice and vengeance is often a fine one. There are those that say that you can have one or the other but never both; there are others that say they go hand in hand. Either way, both are exceedingly hard to attain and in the pursuit of one, often one has to settle for the other. When what attains is vengeance, we often have to kill a little piece of ourselves in order to find it.

In the aftermath of 9-11, an elite counter-terrorism task force has been established in Los Angeles by multiple law enforcement agencies. District Attorney Martin Morales (Molina) heads up the team, and among his agents are partners Ray (Ejiofor) from the FBI and Jess (Roberts) from the L.A. District Attorney’s investigative team. In their crosshairs is a downtown mosque which is said to harbor a cleric who had intentions of taking the jihadist fight to the City of Angels.

When a body is found in a dumpster next to the mosque, red flags are sent up and Ray and Jess are sent to investigate. However, the grisly discovery is of Jess’ 18-year-old daughter Carolyn (Graham), a vivacious soul who had been getting ready to go to college in the fall. The discovery devastates the team. New assistant D.A. Claire (Kidman) is assigned the case and a suspect is quickly located. However, dead end upon dead end frustrates the team and eventually Ray figures out who really did it – an informant within the mosque itself (Cole). But he is being protected by powerful forces and is set free, only to disappear.

Thirteen years later, Ray – now working as a security consultant for the New York Mets – comes to Claire – now the District Attorney – with the startling news that Ray has located the long-missing suspect. Claire and Jess (who still works for the office) are reluctant to reopen old wounds but Ray is particularly obsessed with the case and in bringing the man who killed Jess’ daughter in to pay for his crime. But even now, there are obstacles in the way of finding peace for Ray, Jess – and Claire.

This is based on the 2009 Oscar-winning film The Secret in Their Eyes, an Argentine film that won Best Foreign Language Film that year. While the plots are identical, some of the details have been changed which changes the dynamics of the newer film somewhat. Also you have three Oscar-caliber actors, all of whom who have won or at least been nominated, in the main parts.

Ejiofor is the central character and as he did in 12 Years a Slave he carries the movie on his broad shoulders. The scene in which he discovers the identity of the body in the dumpster is an incredible piece of work, although it is sadly unduplicated throughout the rest of the film. No, all three of the actors in the front deliver good, solid performances with moments of excellence. Roberts in particular has a haunted look that is most unlike any of her previous performances.

The problem here is that the low-key aspect of the film drains the energy from the audience. The pacing is extraordinarily slow and there were a number of scenes that I thought could have been trimmed if not excised. Ray also jumps in time between 2002 and 2015 and often the only way to tell what time period you’re observing is by the amount of gray in Ray’s hair. I occasionally found it confusing and hard to follow.

The overall atmosphere has a bit of a noir edge to it, just as the original did albeit with a Latin flavor. Transplanting the movie to Los Angeles robs it of that and indeed gives the movie an oddly generic quality – so many thrillers have been set in L.A. that there’s a been there-done that patina. That’s kind of disturbing and not in a good way.

While the ending is cathartic if a bit preposterous, it doesn’t save the audience from feeling that this is something they’ve seen before, even if you haven’t seen the original movie this is based on. Considering the abilities of the director and the talent of the cast, this is an extremely disappointing project that on paper should have been much better than it turned out to be. While it is still entertaining and I can recommend it solely on that basis, this is a movie that is haunted by the specter of what could have been.

REASONS TO GO: All three leads are fine actors. Cathartic. Noir-esque.
REASONS TO STAY: Surprisingly lethargic. Could have used some judicious editing. Time jumping can be confusing (keep an eye on the actors’ hair for clues).
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing violence and sexual content, rape and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All three of the leads – Ejiofor, Kidman and Roberts – are left-handed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zodiac
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Second Mother