The Hole in the Ground


Another creepy kid flick.

(2019) Horror (A24Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey, Kati Outinen, David Crowley, Simone Kirby, Steve Wall, Eoin Macken, Sarah Hanley, Andrew Bennett, James Cosmo, John Quinn, Miro Loppen, David McMahon, Alain Eloy, Chloé Grogan, Gregory Praet, Kobe Truijens, Stevie Greaney, Karim Barras, Helena Coppejans. Directed by Lee Cronin

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A young woman, Sarah (Kerslake) escapes a (possibly abusive) relationship with her young son Chris (Markey) to a creepy old house in the middle of nowhere. One day, her little boy disappears for a short time, only to turn up in his bedroom, insisting he had been there all along.

After that incident, he begins to change in subtle but terrifying ways. Sarah becomes slowly convinced that her boy that disappeared is not the one that returned home, particularly after the rantings of a (possibly demented) old woman (Outinen) proclaim “that is not your son!” Might it have something to do with the gigantic but oddly symmetrical sinkhole near the house that nobody else in the village even knows about?

In the last few years, we’ve been treated to some innovative and downright terrifying movies in the independent horror genre. This isn’t one of them. You get the sense that Cronin is trying too hard to create an atmosphere of dread, but he throws way too many red herrings in our direction, hoping that one will stick. That isn’t to say there aren’t some wonderfully inventive moments with some foreshadowing that hints at infernal roots, and yes, the movie does deliver on some of the scares. Kerslake makes for a resolute heroine, and her emotional journey is believable. I just wish Cronin had had enough faith in his story to pull through without the completely unnecessary white noise that he delivers.

REASONS TO SEE: Kerslake does a fairly decent job.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries a little too hard to be atmospheric, throwing too many red herrings at the audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The pattern on the wallpaper Sarah is working on is a reference to The Shining.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews, Metacritic: 63/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Prodigy (2019)
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Black Water: Abyss

Outlaws (2017)


Ba da bing.

(2017) Crime Drama (A24) Ryan Corr, Abbey Lee, Simone Kessell, Josh McConville, Matt Noble, Aaron Pedersen, Sam Parsonson, Eddie Baroo, Aaron Fa’aoso, Jacqui Williams, Adam T. Perkins, Soa Pelelei, Daniel Pantovic, Moodi Dennaoui, Alex Arco, Gary Owens, George Houvardas, Gemma Sharpe. Directed by Stephen McCallum

 

Outlaws is the debut feature from Aussie Stephen McCallum, and it is equal parts Sons of Anarchy and grindhouse biker flick from the 60s and 70s. It features the Copperhead Motorcycle Club, whose president Knuck (Noble) has just been released from prison. His right-hand man Paddo (Corr) has been running things in his absence, and doing a good job of it as well; in fact, Paddo’s girl Katrina (Lee) would like to see the temporary in charge situation made permanent.

But Knuck’s wife Hayley (Kessell) doesn’t trust Paddo to step down quietly, and with the two women pushing their men towards it, conflict is inevitable. And with Paddo’s mentally and emotionally challenged brother Skink (McConville) providing the catalyst, things are just about to blow.

There’s plenty of violence and loud rock and roll, which is to be expected in a movie like this. While the acting is merely adequate, I suspect that the fundamental problem here is the script, which is a bit vapid and at times, riddled by logical holes. It also feels like we’ve seen all this before (we have, but on TV in the aforementioned Sons of Anarchy which is a much better viewing choice). While there are elements of Lady Macbeth in the two biker chicks and the plot is vaguely Shakespearean, the characters are mostly various degrees of deplorable and don’t inspire a whole lot of audience identification, unless beating up other people is your thing.

REASONS TO SEE: Nice pacing and fine tension level maintained.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is not very original.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexuality and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matt Noble, who plays Knuck, wrote the script.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews, Metacritic: 24/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Animal Kingdom
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Here Awhile

Mid90s


Sk8er Boiz.

(2018) Drama (A24) Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston, Lucas Hedges, Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, Alexa Demie, Fig Camila Abner, Liana Perlich, Ama Elsesser, Judah Estrella Borunda, Mecca Allen, Aramis Hudson, Sonny Greenback, Del the Funky Homosapien, Chad Muska, Donovan Piscopio, Kevin White, Harmony Korine, Lauren B. Mosley. Directed by Jonah Hill

 

Growing up is never easy and the movies have made a cottage industry out of illustrating that. This coming-of-age film set in 1995 in Southern California, introduces us to Stevie (Suljic), a 13-year-old boy who lives with his single mom (Waterston) and his abusive older brother Ian (Hedges). Stevie escapes the dreary home life by hanging out with older skaters in a local skate shop. The problem is that Stevie doesn’t have a board and doesn’t know how to skate, but he trades his brother for one and learns on his own – painfully.

Eventually he gets accepted and even respected by the misfits at the store – Ray (Smith), Fuckshit (Prenatt), Fourth Grade (McLaughlin) and Ruben (Galicia), the latter of which introduces him into the world and later resents him for gaining acceptance so quickly. Nicknamed Sunburn by his new friends, Stevie is introduced to the staples of skater culture; drinking, doing drugs, sex, and getting into trouble.

Although the movie isn’t autobiographical, writer-director Hill, bests known as the star of films like Superbad, gives the movie an authenticity of era that is downright amazing. The situations and dialogue ring true; if it isn’t autobiographical, Hill must have had some personal experience at least similar to what was depicted here. Most of the cast (particularly the skaters) are non-professional and they do a credible job. Prenatt has an irresistible smile and an easy charm, but as his character begins to spiral into alcohol and drug abuse, there isn’t a sense of the tragic so much as of the inevitable. Smith also has a big brother-like feel which is perfect for Ray’s relationship with Stevie.

The movie does tend to lose steam in the final reel, and the authenticity that characterized much of the film falls apart into contrivance in the final scenes. This is definitely a guy’s picture, as female characters are few and far between save for Stevie’s mom, who is given little to do, and a scene in which Stevie has his first sexual experience with an older girl (Demie). Still, this is a solid effort and even if you were never part of the skater culture and never wanted to be, there is definitely something here worthwhile. Hopefully we’ll see more of Hill in the director’s chair down the line.

REASONS TO SEE: Gritty and gut-wrenching; captures the era perfectly.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam and becomes a bit more contrived by the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, drug use, violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hill, making his debut as a director, shot the film entirely on 16mm stock.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kids
FINAL RATING; 6.5/10
NEXT:
H4

The Children Act


Move over, Judge Judy – here comes Judge Emma Thompson.

(2017) Drama (A24Emma Thompson, Fionn Whitehead, Stanley Tucci, Jason Watkins, Ben Chaplin, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Vansittart, Rosie Cavaliero, Anthony Calf, Nicholas Jones, Andrew Havill, Angela Holmes, Micah Balfour, Chris Wilson, Anjana Vasan, Paul Jesson, Eileen Walsh, Hilel Patel, Daniel Eghan, Michele Austin, Paul Bigley, Deborah Rock. Directed by Richard Eyre

 

.The things that make a judge a wise and diligent arbiter are the same things that destroy a marriage. The cost of making the right call weighs heavily on the bench.

That’s the message in this 2017 adaptation of a 2014 Ian McEwan novel. Oscar winner Emma Thompson stars as Fiona Maye, a justice in the High Court presiding over cases involving children. Fresh off of giving a hospital the right to separate conjoined twins that will result in the death of one of them, she is given the task of a boy just shy of his 18th birthday who is refusing a blood transfusion that would save his life. He was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness who believes that the blood is where the soul resides and that the mixing of blood is blasphemy. Even though refusing the treatment would kill him, the boy – Adam (Whitehead) – holds that his religious beliefs are more important.

At the same time, her academic husband Jack (Tucci) has become fed up with the lack of intimacy in their marriage and, frankly, the lack of presence by his wife. He wants to have an affair, even though he professes to still love his wife. Fiona is having none of it. Jack leaves.

Fiona throws herself into the case as a way of keeping the demons at bay. She elects to take the highly unusual step of meeting with Adam in his hospital bed and finds him to be charming and articulate. The two even end up singing a duet together of a folk song based on a Yeats poem. But Fiona has a difficult decision to make; does the boy’s religious beliefs supersede medical facts? The children’s act, which places the welfare of the child as the paramount factor in any judicial decision in England, holds the key.

Thompson has long been one of my favorite actresses and even though this is one of the least approachable characters she has ever played, Thompson still imbues Fiona with humanity and intelligence. Her relationship with her husband is less symptomatic of her personality than her relationship with her clerk Nigel (Watkins). His obsequious nature is at odds with her blunt personality, and yet his devotion to her is absolute.

At the center of the film is the relationship between Fiona and Adam and that’s where the movie slips a little. Whitehead makes Adam almost too good to be true; it is only after Adam begins to feel more strongly towards the judge that Fiona begins to shy away which leads to an ending that is frankly a little maudlin which is definitely at odds with the rest of the film. Eyre and screenwriter McEwan (who adapted his own novel) have the courage to take on some thorny issues and handle them with equal attention to both sides of the coin. That’s a rarity in films today.

Even though the movie slips into preposterous mode near the end, it is still a smart, well-written drama that utilizes the talents of its star rather nicely. You don’t have to be familiar with the intricacies of British law in order to enjoy this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Emma Thompson is a force of nature here. Tackles some real thorny issues equitably.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam near the end. The Adam-Fiona relationship seemed a bit forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a single sexual reference and some adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitehead starred with Thompson’s ex-husband Kenneth Branagh in Dunkirk.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, GuideDoc, Hoopla, Kanopy, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews, Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Most John Grisham adaptations.
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

Uncut Gems


New York is Adam Sandler’s town; you’re just living in it.

(2019) Crime Drama (A24Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Eric Bogosian, LaKeith Stanfield, Judd Hirsch, Idina Menzel, Kevin Garnett, The Weekend, Jonathan Aranbayev, Jacob Igielski, Noa Fisher, Paloma Elesser, Keith Williams Richards, Tommy Kominik, Louis Anthony Arias, Sean Ringgold, Jeremy Sample, Benjy Kleiner, Josh Ostrovsky, Sahar Bibiyan, Lana Levitin. Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie

 

There are certain people who just live for the rush. That high that comes from risk that leads to reward. These are the people who have their bookies on speed dial, who haunt the sports book at casinos in Atlantic City and Vegas.

Howard Ratman (Sandler) is one of those guys. A jeweler in New York City, his picture is what you’ll see on Wikipedia when you look up the word “hustler.” He always has some scheme going, some bullshit story that explains away the absolute crap that he pulls. His long-suffering wife (Menzel) is close to having had it; his mistress (Fox) who also works as a clerk in his store seems to be the only one who sees anything worthwhile in him. His kids certainly don’t. Most of his employees think he’s a jerk and of course the people he owes money to are about ready to drop him out of a window – preferably from a floor in the double digits.

He has some high hopes in a raw opal mined in Ethiopia that he has been trying to import (illegally) that will fetch him over a million in auction. He also has a thing for celebrities, including basketball legend Kevin Garnett – the movie takes place in 2012 when KG was with the Boston Celtics fighting in the playoffs against Philly. Howard wants to sell him some bling; KG has taken a shine to the opal. He borrows it (using his championship rings as collateral) and has a monster game, which Howard bets heavily on. He is juggling chainsaws, trying to move money around to satisfy the bookies who are sending increasingly irritable muscle to collect. Howard, though, is making moves, knowing that every move he makes may be his last.

It is not surprising that Martin Scorsese is one of the producers for this movie; the film has a gritty Mean Streets-kind of feel. The Safdie Brothers, who are best known for Good Time, know how to create characters who are basically unlikable but casting them so perfectly that you end up rooting for them. There is little to commend in Howard but because it is Adam Sandler playing him, you can’t help but hope the guy makes it through even though the odds are against him.

Sandler, who emerged from Saturday Night Live as a movie star with plenty of charisma and charm, has been suffering through a series of truly bad movies over the last years but his performance here cements his reputation as a dramatic actor of depth and talent. He’s got a legitimate shot at the Best Actor Oscar this year and he simply owns the screen from the moment he steps on it – even when it’s his colon that is the subject (don’t ask).

The big issues that keep this from getting a perfect score start with the score; it’s bad. I mean, the kind of bad that would ruin a lesser movie. It’s like Vangelis and Raffi had a love child and the proud parents gave him a toy synthesizer. Also, the Safdies sometimes seem far more concerned with style over substance. They displayed that more in their previous films, but perhaps their association with Scorsese has tempered that tendency. It detracts from the movie when they get into “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” mode.

The last 20 minutes of this movie are incredible, edge-of-your-seat kind of stuff. The tension that the Safdie brothers have built really pays off and it’s almost impossible to look away from the screen as things come to a head. This is not a movie for the faint of heart; those sorts are liable to get palpitations watching Howard try to survive and win his last bet.

This isn’t an easy movie to love but you might just end up doing it. I find myself thinking more highly of it now than I did when I walked out of the theater. This is the kind of movie that is going to have some pull in the Oscar conversation this year and while it may be a bit of an underdog for some of the bigger awards, it is certainly one of the best movies of the year regardless.

REASONS TO SEE: Possibly Adam Sandler’s finest performance. The lasts 20 minutes are absolutely riveting. A totally unexpected ending.
REASONS TO AVOID: Most. Annoying. Soundtrack. Ever.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a plentiful of f-bombs, along with a fair amount of violence (some of it startling), some sexual content and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house used for the exterior of Howard’s Long Island home is the same house used for the exterior of Freddie Mercury’s home in Bohemian Rhapsody.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Owning Mahowny
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

Midsommar


Even hippies can do horror!

(2019) Horror (A24Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe, Henrik Norlen, Gunnel Fred, Isabelle Grill, Agnes Rase, Julia Ragnarsson, Mats Blomgren, Lars Väringer, Anna Ǻström, Hampus Hallberg, Liv Mjönes, Louise Peterhoff, Katarina Weidhagen, Björn Andrésen, Rebecka Johnston. Directed by Ari Aster

Ari Aster, with just two films under his belt (his first being last year’s acclaimed Hereditary) has become in a short time one of the leading names in horror films. His newest is very different from his last…in fact, very different than any horror movie you’re likely to see.

A group of American grad students in anthropology take up an invitation from jovial Swedish student Pelle (V. Blomgren) to attend a summer festival in a small Swedish commune above the Arctic circle. Among those going is Dani (Pugh) who is still grieving from an unimaginable tragedy, and her self-absorbed boyfriend Christian (Reynor) who in fact has tired of her emotional neediness and is looking for a way out of the relationship. His pals Josh (Harper) and Mark (Poulter) are also not keen on having the fragile Dani along on their boys’ trip to the land of beautiful blondes.

Josh at least has the excuse that he’s writing his graduate thesis on the rituals and culture of the region but soon those rituals begin to take a sinister turn. Making all of them additionally crazy is the fact that the sun never really sets at that latitude at that time of the year. As the tension builds with each ritual growing more bizarre and bloodier than the last, it becomes clear that Dani has an important role to play – assuming she survives the nine-day festival.

Aster does a masterful job of building the tension, the feeling that all is not quite well here. While the movie does run a little bit long in my opinion – my attention began to wane near the end – you almost don’t mind because of the palpable sense of dread, interspersed with scenes of unexpected graphic and bloody violence.

While some have complained that the central relationship between Dani and Christian isn’t really fleshed out, I would argue that it doesn’t need to be. We know all we need to know and we can focus on the more meaty material within. Aster did a bang-up job on research and while the movie was filmed mostly in Hungary, it does a great job of conjuring up rural Scandinavia.

I don’t want to get into too much detail about what happens during the course of the film – the less you know, the more impact it will have – and giving it a more thorough review might well spoil some of the surprises therein. However, suffice to say that this is not only one of the best horror movies of the year, it is one of the best films of the year period. If you aren’t the squeamish sort, this is worth checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: A very creepy vibe. Clearly well-researched. Swedes are batshit crazy! Increases the “something is rotten in Sweden” tone exponentially.
REASONS TO AVOID: Just a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing images, ritualistic violence, graphic nudity, sexuality, brief drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the Swedish spoken in the film is deliberately not subtitled, giving the audience the same set of isolation and confusion that the English-speaking characters must have felt.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wicker Man
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Day 4 of Six Days of Darkness!

The Kill Team (2019)


In battle there is brotherhood.

(2019) War (A24Alexander Skarsgǻrd, Nat Wolff, Adam Long, Jonathan Whitesell, Brian Marc, Osy Ikhile, Rob Morrow, Anna Francolini, Oliver Ritchie, Edd Campbell Bird, Adam James, Elham Ehsas, Tunji Kasim, Ian Attard, Taz Skylar, Zackary Momoh, Luka Schardan, Julio Perillan, Edward J. Bentley, Andreas Karraas, Amani Zafdoe. Directed by Dan Krauss

 

War is far from simple, although it is sometimes characterized that way. There are those who see it as the ultimate expression of masculinity, the place where young men go to prove themselves men. Others see it as institutionalized murder. It does require those who go to war to kill or be killed, putting them in a constant state of high stress. It also asks of them to violate some of the most sacred precepts both from a societal standpoint as well as a moral one – thou shalt not kill.

18-year-old Andrew Briggman (Wolff) has enlisted following high school. He wants to make a difference, to protect his country from terrorists and perhaps to some extent, be all he can be. Earning the pride of his father (Morrow), he goes to Afghanistan with a young man’s expectations. He quickly learns that Afghanistan is nothing like what he expected. Fortunately, he has a sergeant (Ikhile) who is a hearts and minds kind of guy, trying to win over the Afghan people with kindness. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work out too well for him.

Enter Sergeant Deeks (Skarsgǻrd) who is of the “speak softly and carry a big gun” persuasion. He is far more interested in winning over the hearts and minds of his command than in those of the locals. To Deeks, everyone is a potential enemy and he has no trouble sorting out the good from the bad – they’re all bad in his view and treats them accordingly. He appeals to the machismo of his men, rewarding them for their more bloodthirsty tendencies.

At first, Briggman buys into it but as he sees his platoon fall further and further from decency to the point where they are executing locals for sport, he is horrified. When he tries to report what he’s seen, he discovers Deeks has friends in all sorts of places and with Deeks falsifying reports, it boils down to the word of a three-tour decorated veteran versus a young wet-behind-the-ears rookie.

Briggman realizes that out in the field he is at the mercy of his comrades who are all trained killers. Soldiers survive because they know their brothers-in-arms have their backs; when you go out into the field not only uncertain whether your platoon has your back or might just shoot you in yours, it is not a place to be, to say the least. Briggman finds himself at odds with his conscience as well as his survival instinct.

Krauss based this loosely on a documentary that he directed back in 2013 (Florida Film Festival attendees may recall it and for those whose memory needs a jog, you can read my review here). That was a bit more of a morality play, chronicling a family’s encounter with the military justice system as the young soldier fights for the truth with his supportive family behind him. This version is fictionalized and the names are all changed, and the focus here is more on what the soldier endured and how it affected him. None of the film depicts the fall-out from the soldier’s accusations.

The role of Deeks is tailor-made for Skarsgǻrd and he responds with an intense performance. The actor underplays the role, giving the character a whole lot of menace. He certainly holds our attention on-screen. Wolff gives his character the right amount of naivete and gung-ho machismo to make him very relatable. Unfortunately, none of the other characters get much development.

Krauss also proves himself to be adept at building suspense and creating an on-screen tension that will keep audience members on the edge of their seats (or couches, as the case may be). The action sequences are a bit on the low-key side but they are adequate – in a lot of ways, the movie has the feel of a lot of recent war movies dealing with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of the moments in the film are truly terrifying and really hit you in the gut. There are enough of these to give the film a solid recommendation, but be warned that not all of the movie is like that and there is an awful lot of SSDD when it comes to modern war films. The Kill Team has been available on DirecTV for about a month and is just now hitting a limited theatrical release as well as being available on most streaming platforms. It’s not a must-see but then again you won’t go too far wrong if you do take a chance on it.

REASONS TO SEE: Truly harrowing in places, building the tension up nicely. Skarsgǻrd is absolutely amazing.
REASONS TO AVOID: The violence is curiously understated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a cornucopia of profanity, war violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Skarsgǻrd and Ikhile were both in The Legend of Tarzan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Few Good Men
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness kicks off!

Low Tide (2019)


Summer is a time for Springsteen.

(2019) Drama (A24Jaeden Martell, Keean Johnson, Shea Whigham, Alex Neustaedter, Daniel Zoghadri, Kristine Froseth, Mike Hodge, Michael David Baldwin, Danny Bolero, Teddy Coluca, Albert Dubinski, Khail Bryant, James Paxton, Arial Eliaz, Camila Perez, Jean Tucker, Dave Lach, Elisa de la Roche, Sunny Edelman, Devon Moyd, April Mauger. Directed by Kevin McMullin

 

When it coms to our formative years, we have a tendency to either overly romanticize or overly criticize. When it comes to making movies about that time in our lives, the balance leans heavily towards the former.

The Jersey shore as the 80s are becoming the 90s isn’t necessarily an idyllic life. While the town is a bit of a postcard, the lives being lived without it are not. Brothers Alan (Johnson) and Peter (Martell) are largely on their own over the summer; their mother passed away years earlier and their father is literally out to sea; he’s a long-liner whose fishing trip lasts essentially the entire summer. The two boys are on their own.

As boys on their own will do, they fall in with the wrong crowd. Red (Neustaedter) is a sociopath, prone to violent outposts and ruling his little group with fear and intimidation. Smitty (Zoghadri) is a slippery character, the kind of guy who’d sell out his own mother if there was a percentage in it for him. Alan, Red and Smitty have taken to robbing the summer homes of “Bennies,” their derogatory name for upscale tourists vacationing in their quaint hamlet. Why do they do it? Boredom, likely; it also provides a cheap source of alcohol and drugs which they also take along with whatever trinkets they can fence.

On one job, their usual lookout Smitty breaks his leg in a clumsy fall and puts the burglary shenanigans on the back-burner for a while. Alan meets Mary (Froseth), a pretty summer Bennie whom he wants desperately to impress. Peter, who earns a little extra income by selling fish at the dock, is a Boy Scout with a future ahead of him. Then, Red convinces his crew to pull one last robbery with Peter substituting for Smitty. At this house, Peter and Alan find something they didn’t expect; a bag of vintage Doubloons that are worth a fortune. Deciding to keep it from the volatile Red who would likely take the bulk of the coins for himself, especially after Red deserts Peter and Alan leading to Alan getting caught by the local sheriff (Whigham) although he keeps that a secret from Red, knowing Red would go ballistic if he thought for even a second that Alan had spoken to the cops.

Peter buries the coins but not before Alan pawns enough of them to buy himself a car, the better to impress Mary with. Peter is aghast, knowing that this will draw attention to them – and of course, it does. Now the crew is eating its own young and nobody trusts anybody – and Red is a ticking time bomb who might just resort to murder if he suspects any of his friends might betray him.

It seems to me that movies with this kind of setting almost lens themselves; the cinematography is definitely a highlight here. It is counterbalanced (and not in a good way) by the score which is just annoying and weak. McMullin does a pretty decent job of establishing time and place with the strategic use of Bon Jovi on the soundtrack.

Fortunately, the cast is much better than one would expect. There is a great deal of chemistry between the leads and there is a naturalism to their performances that is quite charming. Martell and Johnson in particular come off as brothers from other mothers and Martell may be the best new find of 2019. He has the simmering charisma of a young John Cusack and the presence of a Brad Pitt. He’s got star quality written all over him – hopefully in permanent ink.

I was also impressed by Neustaedter’s performance. Red is an ideal movie villain, the kind whose fuse is short that you literally sit on eggshells whenever he’s onscreen; you never know how he’s going to react and how violent that reaction will be. He’s the kind of kid who knows he’s a bad seed and doesn’t much care. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth (the son of a big local developer) and a chip on his shoulder. Whatever rage drives him, it’s bound to lead him to trouble even his well-heeled dad won’t be able to buy him out of someday and indeed it does.

The ending isn’t the most innovative you’ll ever see and in fact McMullin (who also wrote the script) telegraphs the ending a bit too much. There are vibes here from movies like The Goonies and TV shows like Stranger Things although without the fantastic elements. However, this isn’t strictly an idealized version of the good old days; some pretty bleak things happened and the people that surrounded Peter and Alan weren’t the kind that are likely to be a part of their lives well into adulthood. There’s certainly some things worth checking out here but it’s a bit too uneven to give it an unbridled recommendation.

The movie has been playing on DirecTV since Labor Day and is just now getting a limited theatrical release. It’s also available on a number of VOD outlets if you’re more into home viewing than checking it out on the big screen.

REASONS TO SEE: A good late summer film that manages to establish a decent level of suspense.
REASONS TO AVOID: A weak score and a predictable ending disintegrates some of the good will it builds up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some teen drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature debut of director McMullin.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bling Ring
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Memory: The Origins of Alien

The Farewell


A happy family portrait.

(2019) Dramedy (A24) Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Shuzhen Zhou, Diana Lin, Jim Liu, Han Chen, Aoi Mizuhara, Yongbo Jiang, X-Mayo, Hong Lu, Gil Perez-Abraham, Becca Khalil, Ines Laimins. Directed by Lulu Wang

 

It is inevitable as we journey through our lives that we will lose loved ones. The natural order of things is that we age, grow old and die so those who were put on this Earth before us finish their cycles before we do. We have to come to grips with their mortality and in doing so, our own. It is hardest sometimes for those who are young to truly understand that those around them are neither invincible nor immortal.

Billi (Awkwafina) is an underachieving Chinese-American writer whose parents emigrated to this country when she was a little girl, tearing her away from the culture she knew and the family she loved, in particular her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhou). Even as a grown woman, she still telephones her grandmother regularly and remains close even though she hasn’t seen her in years.

One day while home doing laundry, she discovers her father (Ma) disconsolate in his bedroom and demands to know what’s wrong. It turns out Nai Nai – his mother – has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and doesn’t have long to live, maybe only weeks. Billi is devastated of course but she is further thrown for a loop when she discovers that Nai Nai hasn’t been told the truth about her condition – a Chinese tradition in which the family takes on the burden of knowing and worrying about the impending mortality of a loved one.

The marriage of a hapless cousin, Hao Hao (Chen) to a Japanese girl, Aiko (Mizuhara) is used as an excuse to bring the family to Changchun where Nai Nai lives. Billi is eager to go to say farewell to her grandmother but her mother (Lin) is adamant; Nai Nai must remain ignorant about her condition and Billi is sure to give away her grief, being an emotional sort.

Naturally Billi goes anyway and Nai Nai is absolutely delighted. She’s totally in her element, planning everything having to do with the ceremony and the reception, arguing with the caterers over whether crab or lobster is to be served. Billi agrees to hold her tongue but it’s hard not for her to be melancholy from time to time. It’s the rest of the family though that has trouble keeping their emotions in check.

Billi has issues regarding the move to America. China has changed to an incredible degree and isn’t a country she recognizes. Her connection with Nai Nai is her connection to her heritage and it is part of her identity. The Farewell allows us – and director Lulu Wang, whose life and experiences this is based on – to explore the tightrope that Chinese-Americans must often walk to reconcile the cultures of their background and of their present circumstances.

Awkwafina, a rapper who started out as comic relief in films like Oceans 8 and Crazy Rich Asians is absolutely devastating here. This is the kind of performance that establishes careers and can net an actress plum roles. Billi is a nuanced individual, caught between two cultures and not really sure which one she identifies with most. Her self-worth has taken a beating, mostly due to her overbearing hyper-critical mother. She believes strongly that her Nai Nai should be told the truth about her condition and she has trouble justifying the lie, yet she keeps a big secret of her own. At the end Billi embraces both sides of her identity and it is beautiful to see. Zhou and Ma give Awkwafina some great support and the onscreen relationships feel totally real.

It is no secret how much the Chinese culture values family above all else and for those Westerners who don’t understand that, the difference between East and West is succinctly explained here. Even so, there is a universal aspect to families; we all have members of our family we treasure and others we see only on rare occasions (and that’s just fine with us) while there are still others we barely know. I think you’ll find that the family gathering here will seem very familiar in a lot of ways to most of you, even if there are some cultural differences – like karaoke. Just don’t try to make sense of all the cousins, aunts, uncles and family friends.

This is a movie that has heart and comes by its emotional responses honestly. You don’t get a sense of being manipulated here; nonetheless this will resonate, particularly with those who have lost a beloved grandparent. I was very much reminded of the last time I saw my grandmother alive in Winnipeg. I did get a chance to say goodbye to her which was a very good thing even though she wasn’t in a terminal stage yet. I’ve never forgotten my Baba and how warm and loved she made me feel. Grandmothers are like that, you know.

This looks to become a major indie hit for A24 and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get a wider release than it is already enjoying. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the film got some recognition come Oscar nomination time, particularly for Awkwafina but maybe for Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Zhou) and Best Picture. Cinephiles should make a beeline to the box office for this one as should anyone who has ever loved their grandmother, particularly if that grandmother is still alive. You definitely need to appreciate her while she’s still around.

REASONS TO SEE: The story struck a huge chord in me. Awkwafina is absolutely amazing here. This is not a tourist version of China but a peek into the everyday lives of Chinese people.
REASONS TO AVOID: Got a little bit hard to figure out who was who in terms of the relatives.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity as well as some serious adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the film made its limited release debut on July 12, it beat out Avengers: Endgame for the largest per-screen average of the year to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Departures
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Lamp Light

Gloria Bell


Gloria Bell’s life is in a whirl.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (A24) Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Michael Cera, Brad Garrett, Holland Taylor, Rita Wilson, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Sean Astin, Chis Mulkey, Caren Pistorius, Cassi Thompson, Tyson Ritter, Barbara Sukowa, Jenica Bergere, Sandra Rosko, Sonia Gascón, Aileen Burdock, Janet Sherkow, Ari Schneider, Cristobal Tapia Montt, John Luder, Jennie Fahn. Directed by Sebastián Lelio

 

Laura Branigan’s 80s pop hit “Gloria” despite its sprightly synthesizers, upbeat melody and delicious pop hooks is not a happy song: “Gloria, don’t you think you’re fallin’/If everybody wants you, why isn’t anybody callin’?” Gloria is a lonely and desperate lady; such is the fate for Gloria Bell.

Gloria (Moore) has been divorced for several years, an amicable parting that has left her alone (husband Dustin (Garrett) is remarried to Fiona (Tripplehorn) and Gloria is friends with both of them) but not ostensibly lonely. She works as an insurance claims adjuster/mediator and at night hangs out in clubs where she can dance to the pop hits of her youth. It is on one of those nights that she meets Arnold (Turturro) who is recently divorced.

Arnold is a gentle and loving man and Gloria dares to hope that he might be someone she can commit to. However, Arnold soon begins to show some character flaws; he is still tethered to his ex-wife and unemployed adult daughters both as a provider and as an emotional punching bag. Arnold turns out to be something of a weakling and at times chooses the path of least resistance rather than standing up for what he truly wants out of life. He is a man crushed by the weight of his perceived obligations. Can Gloria have a future with a man like that?

In a year where women as filmmakers are becoming more visible, so are stories that put women front and center and this one has much to recommend it. First and foremost is Julianne Moore; she is an actress who I (and I’m not alone on this) consider essential. Nearly every performance she gives is a clinic and this one is one of her best in recent years, including her Oscar-winning role in Still Alice. There are plenty of critics who say that her performance here exceeds those of the nominees for Best Actress at the most recent Academy Awards but like them, I’m skeptical that her performance in March will be remembered when nominations are being considered in January of next year. Moore brings a kind of inner light to the character that makes her excessively attractive.

Turturro also brings some humanity to a role of a feckless loser, making the character almost sympathetic despite some of the spiteful and spineless things he does, although to be fair Gloria herself doesn’t always make the best decisions; the occasion of a birthday party for her bitter and somewhat mean-spirited son (Cera) leaves Dustin feeling ignored and unwanted which isn’t much of a stretch for him who has self-image issues to begin with. I liked the performance but I can see where the character might make it hard for some audiences to relate to him.

In fact, most everybody n the movie is flawed in some way and Gloria herself as I mentioned is known to make decisions thee and me would consider questionable. She is big-hearted however and perhaps a little more optimistic (Da Queen thought “hopeful” would be a better word here but you draw your own conclusions) which leaves her open to be hurt. As together as she often seems, she is at the heart of things extremely vulnerable.

Lelio makes the clever move of using the soundtrack – which is wonderful by the way – reflect Gloria’s mood at the moment. When she is hurt, we hear Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” When she feels hopeful that her relationship with Arnold is becoming something real, we hear Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights.” At the birthday party we hear the whole family singing Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” which displays her feeling of isolation. Olivia Newton-John’s “A Little More Love” is an early melancholy moment. Moore sings along with many of the songs here – off-key on most of them.

Gloria is the kind of character that life can’t get down for long as the ending clearly shows. There is an element of triumph despite the setbacks that she suffers and while some critics have complained that there is no growth in the character over the course of the film, I disagree; the character manages to stand tall despite having her heart broken and that can’t be discounted. In any case, how much growth do you expect from a 50-something character? It’s not that someone that age can’t change, it’s that those changes are often subtle and seemingly insignificant.

I found the movie incredibly charming and occasionally moving and it’s largely due to Moore’s scintillating performance. I suspect a lot of the movie-going public is going to give this a miss because we’ve become conditioned to big blockbusters and movies with big emotional pay-offs. You don’t get either of those elements here but this is nonetheless a satisfying movie-going experience you deserve not to cheat yourself out of.

REASONS TO SEE: Moore remains an essential actress. The soundtrack is excellent, reflecting Gloria’s on-screen moods.
REASONS TO AVOID: Turturro is a great actor but his character here will drive you crazy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality, some nudity, a fair amount of profanity and some brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is an English-language remake of Lelio’s 2013 film Gloria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All About Eve
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Hurley