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

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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

Hereditary


Toni Collette practices her Oscar acceptance speech.

(2018) Horror (A24) Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Christy Summerhays, Morgan Lund, Mallory Bechtel, Jake Brown, Harrison Nell, Briann Rachele, Heidi Mendez, Moises Tovar, Jarrod Phillips, Ann Dowd, Brock McKinney, Zachary Arthur, David Stanley, Bus Riley, Austin Grant, Gabe Eckert, Jason Miyagi, Marilyn Miller, Rachelle Hardy, Georgia Puckett  Directed by Ari Aster

There are critics who shouldn’t be allowed to review some genres. Those who abhor emotional manipulation should not be allowed to review romantic comedies. Those who think movies exist only to illuminate and educate shouldn’t be allowed to review Hong Kong action films or superhero films for that matter. There are some who don’t have the patience for kid flicks. and there are plenty of critics who don’t get horror movies at all who should be kept away from horror movies with physical restraints – and I suspect some of them would be just fine with that. Me, I love horror movies so at least you won’t get genre snobbery below.

\Annie Graham (Collette) is burying her recently deceased mother. She is strangely ambivalent about it; her relationship with her mom was strained to say the least. In fact, the only member of the family who is sorry to see the old lady go is the youngest, daughter Charlie (Shapiro) who is as creepy a child as you’re likely to find on any movie screen, theatrical or home.

Annie has kind of a strange job; she’s an artist who builds miniature rooms with meticulous detail. These rooms are largely from her own past and present. Annie is already kind of a high strung sort much to the chagrin of her stoner teenage son Peter (Wolff) and grounded husband Steve (Byrne). When a second tragedy strikes the family, it threatens to send Annie over the edge.

Reluctantly, she attends a grief-counseling group where she runs into Joan (Dowd), a motherly sort who has lost her husband and son to a car accident. She confides in an increasingly depressed Annie that she has discovered a means of communicating with the dead. Given a straw to cling to, Annie seizes it with both hands but as anyone who knows anything about the horror genre knows, it’s never a good idea to contact the dead.

Now, the synopsis above makes this sound like a pretty run-of-the-mill horror concoction but I assure you that it is not. This is one of the most justifiably acclaimed horror movies of this year or maybe even any other year, both by critics who do get horror films and fans of the genre alike (not to mention film buffs and cinephiles). The movie is ingeniously crafted, a slow burn that builds to an absolutely twisted finale that will leave you terrified of turning out the lights for days.

One of the reasons to love this movie is Toni Collette. Horror films rarely generate Oscars for actors but this is one that truly deserves to. Collette’s depiction of Anne’s descent into paranoid madness is the stuff of horror rubbernecking – you simply can’t turn away. Collette has been nominated for Oscars before but this may well be her best performance. I can’t imagine anyone topping it. The rest of the performances are strong, particularly the always-reliable Byrne, the up-and-coming star Wolff and veteran character actor Dowd. Shapiro is also particularly strong but she doesn’t get as much screen time as the others.

Steve Newburn is credited with designing the miniatures; they are exquisite and add considerably to the creepy factor So too does the score which doesn’t take cheap shots with ersatz scares. When the really scary stuff starts to unfold, it’s honest and quite frankly, this movie is scary as fcuk. Seriously, if you are easily frightened or overly sensitive this movie may well be too much for you.

This is not the kind of movie that throws jump scares at you to keep you off-balance. This is a slow-building ticking time bomb that immerses you in an atmosphere that is both normal and not-quite-right. As things begin to go off the rails for Annie, we begin to understand she’s not the most reliable of narrators. Is it really happening? I say yes. Whether you’re on the same page as I am, this is certainly one of the most unforgettable horror movies of the past decade and if you didn’t see it during its brief run this past summer, you NEED to see it this Halloween.

REASONS TO GO: Collette delivers a career-defining performance. The ending sequence is terrifying. It’s very likely to become a horror classic. The dysfunctional family dynamic feels authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: This might actually be too scary for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of graphic violence and disturbing imagery, some drug use and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Wolff, Byrne and Shapiro knew each other from previous film work; Collette alone didn’t know any of the actors that played her family, contributing to her sense of isolation which comes out in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Day Four

Lean on Pete


We all need somebody we can lean on.

(2017) Coming of Age Drama (A24) Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Travis Fimmel, Amy Seimetz, Steve Zahn, Chloë Sevigny, Rachel Perrell Fosket, Alison Elliott, Jason Rouse, Lewis Pullman, Justin Rain, Frank Gallegos, Teyah Hartley, Kurt Conroyd, Dennis Fitzpatrick, Jason Beem, Rusty Tennant, Tolo Tuttele, Francisco Garcia, Joseph Bertot, Dana Millican, Julia Prud’homme. Directed by Andrew Haigh

When we are desperate, it’s like we’re drowning; we reach out for whatever might be at hand in order to save ourselves. Often what we find is the most unlikely of life preservers.

Charley (Plummer) is a typical teen; he’s not high on high school but he is a decent football player and enjoys the camaraderie of the team. He lives with his dad (Fimmel) on the wrong side of the tracks in Portland – his mom has been out of the picture for some time now – and his Aunt Margy (Elliott) has had a huge argument with his dad and the two don’t speak to each other anymore although Charley still remembers Margy with some fondness.

Dad is a bit of a ne’er-do-well who has trouble hanging on to jobs but not, as it turns out, to the bottle. He’s initiated a romance with a married (but separated) woman who is kind to Charley. Charley is more focused on getting ready for the football season – it is the middle of summer after all – and while out running he stumbles into a world he never knew existed.

Del (Buscemi) raises quarter horses for racing on the independent circuit which means fairs and carnivals and on tracks that the English with their peculiar sense of understatement might term “dodgy.” He does so with a mixture of gruff charm and world-weary irascibility. Charley is quite taken with him and manages to get a job mucking out stables, walking the horses and doing whatever menial task Del needs done. Charley becomes enamored with a horse named Lean on Pete who is nearing the end of his usefulness to Del which means the equine is one step away from being ground into pet food in Mexico. Charley doesn’t know that though.

However, things change as they inevitably do and not for the better which Is usually the case for people like Charley. He ends up taking a journey with Pete that will take him to unexpected places as he vaguely searches for his Aunt and some sort of normal life that seems to be completely out of reach for him. This might be his only chance to get one.

This looks on the surface very much like “a boy and his horse” kind of movie in which the horse teaches the boy something about courage and determination and helps the boy turn his life around. This isn’t that kind of movie at all, however. Based on a novel by Oregon-based writer Willy Vlautin, the film has a number of unexpected turns of events that in at least one instance caused a startled “Oh!” to pass my lips That’s not easy to do, I can tell you.

Buscemi who remains an independent film icon has been on a bit of a hot streak for the past several years following Boardwalk Empire. His performances have become less quirky and more grounded and as a result he’s become more relatable as a performer. He in fact has become an actor whose films I will see just by the virtue that he’s in them. He’s absolutely magnificent as a tough guy who quite clearly does not have a heart of gold and is not a father figure; he is a survivor who has gotten that way by not getting too attached to people or horses He’s not a bad guy but he isn’t above cheating to win a race. Del exits the movie fairly early on and when he does, the movie isn’t as good.

Plummer though plays Charley so low-key as to be almost comatose. For good or for ill much of the movie’s success rests on his young shoulders and at the moment, at least for me, he’s not up to the job. I don’t feel drawn to Charley and I was indifferent as to what happens to him. In a lot of ways, I felt like I was marking time while viewing the film which is certainly not the reaction any filmmaker wants but quite frankly there are entire sequences that could have been easily cut without effecting the integrity of the film.The truth is that this is a 90 minute movie in a two hour time slot.

Plummer does get the bond between Charley and Pete just right to be fair, and that might be enough to draw horse lovers into the film and that’s an audience that quite rightly will probably appreciate the movie more than someone like me who is more of an admirer of horses than a lover of them. The movie has gotten some fairly praiseworthy reviews from critics I normally trust but I have to say that I didn’t connect with the film as much as they obviously did. Perhaps it’s just me after all.

REASONS TO GO: Buscemi is outstanding in his role. Horse lovers will be drawn to this film without a doubt.
REASONS TO STAY: Plummer plays this way too low-key. The movie is way too long by about half; there are entire sequences that could have been cut without harming the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, brief violence and a disturbing image.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in chronological order.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flicka
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Back to Burgundy

The Vanishing of Sidney Hall (Sidney Hall)


The Hollywood version of a writer hard at work.

(2017) Drama (A24) Logan Lerman, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Kyle Chandler, Janina Gavankar, Margaret Qualley, Nathan Lane, Blake Jenner, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Drayer, Christine Brucato, Alex Karpovsky, Darren Pettie, David Alan Basche, John Trejo, Danny Cullen, Richard Beal, Ryan Willard, Cris Williams, Stephanie Purpuri. Directed by Shawn Christensen

 

From time to time, people who are at the top of their field, wrapped in success and fame, who simply walk away. It’s an irresistible story for the rest of us who wonder why those folks give up what the rest of us dream of. It is a sign of the prurient side of ourselves.

Sidney Hall (Lerman) is a gifted writer. Ask him; he’ll tell you so. We meet him in a high school writing class in which he has been tasked with writing an essay on the meaning of life. What he delivers is a treatise on his willingness to masturbate over a popular cheerleader and his feeling that he’s wasting his efforts on it. Needless to say, this doesn’t impress the tightly wound English teacher much.

Duane (Abdul-Mateen) knows that Sidney is just breaking the balls of the teacher who doesn’t understand him. He acts as kind of a mentor (and later a literary agent) to Sidney, delivering him to a prestigious publishing house and it’s acerbic editor (Lane). Sidney’s first novel, about the suicide of a high school student, becomes not only a bestseller but a cultural phenomenon and makes him wealthy and a bit of a rock star.

But Sidney’s personal life is a shambles. He left home, getting away from his shrill and controlling mother (Monaghan) and with his high school sweetheart Melody (Fanning) who later becomes his wife. But success breeds some not so pleasant side effects and Sidney’s marriage is crumbling as he becomes more and more self-absorbed. After losing the Pulitzer to another writer and devastated at the end of his marriage, Sidney abruptly disappears from public view.

A series of arsons in bookstores and libraries in which Sidney’s books alone are targeted for burning puts a detective (Chandler) on the trail of Sidney, who has at this point become something of a hobo, riding the rails with his dog Homer. But what motivated Sidney to walk away from everything? What is inside the mysterious box he dug up with his jock friend Brett Newport (Jenner)? Who is the mysterious detective chasing him and why is he so keen to find him? There are ghosts haunting Sidney Hall and perhaps that is why he wants to become one himself.

Director Shawn Christensen has enormous talent; it was clearly on display in his last movie Before I Disappear and there are moments where you can see it in this film. Unfortunately, this is much more of a mess than his last movie was. Christensen has three separate timelines interweaving with one another; Sidney’s last weeks in high school as his relationship with Melody begins and his relationship with Brett is explained. There’s also the apex of his career as a successful writer in his 20s in which his nascent ego has reached full flower, alienating him from just about everyone including his wife. Finally we see him as a lonely and just about psychotic wanderer, cloaked in self-loathing and with only a dog for company.

There are a lot of revelations in the film and to be honest some of them work, others are more on the ludicrous side. Lerman is a fine actor but he’s unconvincing here particularly in some crucial scenes which quite frankly undermines the whole she-bang. He also has almost no chemistry with Fanning whose character is so massively cliché that we’re banging our heads against the wall in frustration.

There are a lot of clichés on display here; the writer in his study, a glass of whiskey beside him, cigarette smoke curling up from his keyboard as he ponders the weight of his next few words. There is in fact a great deal of pretentiousness here, from the condescending dialogue to the portrait of the writer as a young snot. Although we find out near the end of the film that Sidney has suffered greatly at the hands of life, by that time it’s really too late to rescue the character from being someone we can’t stand to be around for very long – and we’re forced to hang out with him for nearly two hours.

Yes, the movie is much too long and feels padded out with gratuitous misery. We get it, Sidney’s life sucks and success isn’t all it’s cut out to be yadda yadda yadda. It doesn’t help that the leaping back and forth from timeline to timeline is done with leaden hands, leaving the audience frustrated yet again.

The sad thing is that there really is a good film somewhere in here. The cast is strong top to bottom and the performances are for the most part compelling; Nathan Lane brings some well-needed levity to the movie and Blake Jenner is surprisingly strong in his role as well. This just feels like a director trying to spread his wings but for whatever reason he plummets from his perch to make a great big ker-splat on the ground. I’m hoping this is just a misstep for Christensen and that we can still expect better things from him in the future. This isn’t going to be one of the highlights on his resume though.

The film is just hitting theaters after a month-long run on DirecTV. It is also still available there for subscribers to that satellite service. Expect it on a larger array of streaming services in the near future if you’re of a mind to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Nathan Lane is always a hoot. There are some really nice cinematic moments. The cast does pretty well in general.
REASONS TO STAY: The storytelling is disjointed and frustrating. The movie goes on way too long. The dialogue and plot are way too pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lerman plays Sidney as a high school student, in his 20s and lastly in his 30s; Lerman is actually 25 years old.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 18/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Listen Up, Philip
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Submission

The Disaster Artist


The Franco brothers – together again at last!

(2017) Biography (A24) Dave Franco, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Paul Scheer, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, June Diane Raphael, Megan Mullally, Jason Mantzoukas, Andrew Santino, Nathan Fielder, Joe Mande, Sharon Stone, John Early, Melanie Griffith, Hannibal Buress, Judd Apatow, Bryan Cranston, Charlene Yi, Jessie Hannah Eris, Peter Gilroy, Lauren Ash. Directed by James Franco

 

There are three kinds of bad movies. There are the ones that are just bad, the ones you walk out of in the theater or more usually switch off from your television. There are the ones that are guilty pleasures – movies you know aren’t very good but you still like them anyway because they either speak to you in some way, there’s an actor in it you really like or you simply liked the vibe. Finally there are the “so bad they’re good” classics like Plan 9 From Outer Space or Terror in Tiny Town. One of the most recent examples of this is The Room.

It was made by writer, director and star Tommy Wiseau (J. Franco) who has a decidedly bizarre Eastern European-like accent but claims he’s from New Orleans. With long rock star hair matching his leather rock star pants, he has a look all his own, a kind of heavy metal marching band pirate.

In 1998 he met Greg Sestero (D. Franco) in an acting class in San Francisco. Greg wasn’t very good, unable to commit to his role. Tommy walked in and did maybe the most ham-fisted version of Stanley Kowalski screaming “STELLLLLLLLAAAAAAAH” in history. The two, both of whom have aspirations of making it in the business, become fast friends.

They end up moving to L.A. together and sharing an apartment Tommy has there. Tommy, who apparently has an unending source of money, is rejected by mega-producer Judd Apatow one night – well, he did interrupt his dinner – and decides that rather than waiting for a producer to see the clear star quality he knows he has that he needs to show it by making his own movie.

The thing is, Tommy knows absolutamente nada about making movies and while he hires a professional crew, he chooses to refuse their helpful advice and go resolutely down his own road. From time to time he turns into an actual dictator on the set, bullying actors and technicians alike and firing them from time to time without cause. Nevertheless, somehow the movie gets made and only Tommy seems to know that the movie is completely horrible and yet it will go on to become one of the first cult movies of the millennium.

Both of the Franco brothers are terrific in their performances but particularly James who not only nails Tommy’s bizarre accent and mannerisms but seems to inhabit his head too. Tommy as is pointed out in the movie and by reviewers lives on his own planet and everyone else is just visiting. James has gotten most of the acclaim (and the Golden Globe although surprisingly no Oscar nominations) but Dave deserves a little love too in a much less flamboyant role.

As a matter of fact, the cast is strong throughout as Franco likely cashed in a whole lot of markers to get lots of celebrity cameos – often as themselves – that help make the movie fun in spot-the-celebrity drinking game; you know the one, where you take a shot every time you see a celebrity other than the main roles. I guarantee you’ll be passed out drunk before the film is halfway over. Even given that you may well get a kick out of seeing some familiar stars from the recent past such as Melanie Griffith as a harried drama teacher or Sharon Stone as a harried agent. You’ll also see Seth Rogen at his non-stoner best and Alison Brie (Dave Franco’s real life wife) as Greg’s sweet girlfriend.

Although it shares a certain amount of DNA with Ed Wood, a similarly-themed film that critics seem hell-bent on comparing this to, they are completely different outlooks. Wood is a movie about mediocrity; this is a movie about perseverance. Tommy isn’t a particularly gifted or visionary individual and yeah if he wasn’t wealthy who knows if he gets to make a movie like this but one has to admire his tenacity, even if he occasionally turns into a dick in the process.

There is a question every critic needs to answer when reviewing a film like this – no, you don’t need to see The Room before seeing this and it really doesn’t matter which you see first. I would lean slightly towards seeing this first because you’ll appreciate the Wiseau original much more if you do.

This isn’t one of the best movies of the year but it is a very good movie that I can easily recommend to anyone. Sure it’s a little bit out there – maybe because it gets into the orbit of planet Tommy a little too closely – and some might think it a paean to bad movies – it’s not. Still, those who have ever loved a movie for no reason other than because it was nutty enough to appeal to them will find themselves finding common ground with this film.

REASONS TO GO: Both of the Franco brothers deliver the goods. In fact, the cast is really strong from top to bottom.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too off-kilter for some and some may think it celebrates bad movies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, some sexuality and more of James Franco’s butt crack than you may ever wish to see again.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film from A24 to be screened in the IMAX format.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ed Wood
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Greatest Showman