Teen Spirit (2018)


Who said pop stardom isn’t easy?

(2018) Musical (Bleecker Street/LD Entertainment) Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Rebecca Hall, Agnieszka Grochowska, Archie Madekwe, Millie Brady, Vivian Oparah, Marius de Vries, Elizabeth Berrington, Olive Gray, Andrew Ellis, Ruairi O’Connor, Jordan Stephens, Tamara Luz Ronchese, Clara Rugaard, Daisy Lowe, Ursula Holliday. Directed by Max Minghella

 

I think it’s fair to say (and I think that most teens and millennials would agree) that the world is constructed to kill dreams. Those that want to be creative, expressive or otherwise different are discouraged; laboring at some soul-killing task over and over again is what’s expected. Nobody in their right mind wants to do that for the rest of their lives; some really don’t have much of a choice. Those that have talent though, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time discouraging it.

Violet (Fanning) lives on the bucolic Isle of Wight off the coast of England, a place forever immortalized by the Beatles in ”When I’m Sixty-Four” thusly: “Every summer we could rent a cottage on the Isle of Wight (if it’s not too dear)” as well as a famous pop festival that took place there. Musically, that’s pretty much it for the Isle of Wight. It does possess a large Polish population of which Violet and her mother (Grochowska) are members of. Violet goes to school (she’s 17 years old), takes care of the horse that she rides whenever she can, works as a waitress in a pub after school and occasionally sings in a different pub; it is the last of these that mum disapproves of as being impractical so Violet has to do it on the sly. However, she does meet an alcoholic ex-opera singer who offers to be her manager so there’s that.

The family is in pretty dire financial straits; the horse gets repossessed because they can’t afford to pay for it any longer. Violet’s life is going exactly nowhere and she is frustrated as anyone would be. Then, a bit of excitement; the American Idol-like pop music competition show Teen Spirit is holding auditions in her town for the very first time and nearly everyone in school is trying out. Shy Violet decides to try out and to nobody’s surprise, she is selected for the local competition. To nobody else’s surprise, she ends up going to the finals in London which are televised. However, she needs a parent or guardian to sign off on her participation which her mother will never do so Violet remembers Vlad (Buric), the alcoholic ex-opera singer and puts him to work as her manager/instant guardian.

The rest of the movie you can pretty much figure out for yourself. There are a couple of swerves that aren’t particularly hard to see coming as well as some predictable moments of fame going to Violet’s head and a few heart-warming moments in between all the gaudily shot music videos of her performances, all bathed in pink and blue neon and looking like a New York art installation from the early 90s. That’s not bad in and of itself but it does kind of scream “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”  in an unnecessarily loud cinematic voice.

Fanning is a talented performer as an actress and not a half-bad singer to boot but her character, who is supposed to be terribly shy and innocent (except when she’s not) is so passive and bland that it’s hard to figure out why she would want to stand up in front of a television audience and pour her heart out onstage. We never get a sense as to why Violet is motivated to become a singer other than she likes doing it.

The songs that Violet and her competition perform are mainly covers of iconic pop songs over the last 20 years, many of which have to do with female empowerment which is part of the ostensible thrust of the film, although one has to consider the fact that Violet and her mother struggle mightily on their own but once a man comes in to the picture for guidance success is theirs. It seems quite at odds with the musical message the film seems hell-bent on sending.

But even though Violet is more vanilla, the relationship between her and Vlad is at least genuine and comprises the heart and soul of the film. Even though Vlad is a polar opposite to Violet, his gruff exterior masks a teddy bear interior that genuinely cares for Violet and wants her to succeed not for his own aggrandizement but for hers.

The performance footage is mainly over-produced; it’s telling that the most genuine and affecting performance is when Violet dances and sings No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” in the privacy of her own bedroom; it’s raw and feels more authentic. That seems to be one of the few moments when we get a glimpse of who Violet truly is. We could have used more of them.

At the end of the day, this movie comes down to whether or not you like American Idol. If fresh-faced young people performing covers of familiar songs for the right to become a pop star in their own right is something that thrills you, chances are you’re going to love this film. If you find American Idol to be a cynical means of keeping potential pop stars as disposable product rather than genuine artists, you probably won’t care much for this film. Me, I tend to lean towards the latter but that doesn’t mean you won’t find something in the film to like.

REASONS TO SEE: The relationship between Violet and Vlad is believable and at the center of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story needs more fleshing out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive content as well as depictions of teen drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are parallels to the film Flashdance and the theme from that film is even used in this one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Dreamz
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Marching Forward

Advertisements

Small Crimes


I was just starting to look up to Nicolaj Coster-Waldau.

(2017) Crime Drama (Netflix) Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Robert Forster, Jacki Weaver, Molly Parker, Gary Cole, Macon Blair, Michael Kinney, Daniela Sandiford, Shawn Lawrence, Pat Healy, Eddie Holland, Jasson Finney, Anatoly Zinoviev, Glen Bowser, Larry Fessenden, Tara Yelland, Derek Barnes, Tyrone Benskin, Frank Schorpion, Alex Stines, Stéphane Julien, Julia Dawi. Directed by E.L. Katz

 

There are those who say they make their own luck and I suppose there is some truth to that. Some people absolutely refuse to let themselves get down; they do whatever it takes to succeed. Conversely there are also people who always seem to be on the losing end of life; they self-sabotage through bad decision making. They truly seem born to lose.

Joe Denton (Coster-Waldau) is one such sort. Recently released from prison after a six year stint, he was once a police officer in a rural Midwestern town who was convicted of conspiracy of trying to murder the district attorney Phil Coakley (Kinney). Corrupt and a raging alcoholic as a law enforcement officer, he has found sobriety in the joint and emerges hoping to turn his life around.

He moves back in with his parents Joe Sr. (Forster) and Irma (Weaver). Ma Denton in particular is suspicious of her son; she doesn’t really believe he’s truly capable of change. Joe is looking to reconnect with his ex-wife and resume being a father again but a single telephone call is sufficient for Joe to back off after a half-hearted attempt.

His ex-partner Lt. Pleasant (Cole) has some worries of his own; not so much about Joe who kept quiet about his involvement even in the face of a prison sentence, but against local crime boss Manny Vassey (Lawrence) who is dying of cancer and has found Jesus; Pleasant is concerned that Vassey might decide to unburden his soul before departing this green earth and in the process incriminate Pleasant.

Joe makes a bee line for the nearest bar and before you know it has fallen off the wagon. He begins to sink into old habits, alarming his mother and a botched attempt to kill Manny brings Joe under the watchful psychotic eye of the mobster’s son Junior (Healy). The lone bright spot in Joe’s life is his budding romance with hospice nurse Charlotte Boyd (Parker) who has baggage of her own, but even this potential game-changer may not be what it appears to be; Charlotte’s only client is Manny Vassey. And so things are beginning to spiral down towards a confrontation as Joe struggles to figure out how to get out of this rapidly deteriorating situation. Knowing Joe, things won’t end well for anybody.

This film had a solid debut at South by Southwest last year followed up with a fairly inconspicuous release on Netflix. The streaming giant has been a big player on the film festival circuit, snagging some prestige properties for their service while showing off some of their own original content. This one, while purchased at SXSW falls more in the mold of filler.

Coster-Waldau is best known as Jamie Lannister on the HBO hit series Game of Thrones and has enormous upside. He plays both hero and villain well which makes sense as Jamie is a little bit of both. He’s had a few high-profile roles but none have really put him over that cinematic hump yet. Here the best moments belong to Forster who is absolutely marvelous. Joe Sr. hopes against hope that his son will turn the corner but the guarded look in his eyes tells us that he doesn’t really expect him to.

I was heartened to find out this was written by Macon Blair, who directed the marvelous Blue Ruin and has written a number of highly regarded gritty indie films. Based on a David Zeltserman novel of the same name, the movie is unrelentingly downbeat. Blair has almost no exposition in the movie whatsoever other than some desultory pillow talk late in the movie; mysterious events are referred to and characters pop in and out of the movie that Joe apparently has some sort of previous relationship with but we are never informed about the nature of those events or the relationships with these people.

Blair is outstanding when it comes to writing male-oriented tough guy material but there is a little too much testosterone flowing for my own personal tastes, a little bit too much macho preening. At the end of the day this is a fairly typical “ex-con struggles to get his life back together despite enormous obstacles and a past that won’t let him go” type of film and although there are a few interesting twists and turns here, eventually when all is said and done Small Crimes adds nothing to the genre. The characters across the board are all unlikable and despite Coster-Waldau’s native charm, he isn’t able to make the character rise above his own flaws and be relatable. By the end of the movie most viewers will pretty much have written off Joe much as his parents have, much as everyone else around him has. Some people, this movie seems to opine, are genetically pre-disposed to fail and that’s such a bleak outlook on people that I find it hard to support a movie that believes that.

REASONS TO GO: Coster-Waldau is always engaging and the rest of the cast does exemplary work. The filmmakers pull no punches.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a little too much testosterone flowing for my own taste. The film is very much a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, violence, drug use and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the novel that the film is based on, Phil Coakley and his daughter are both white; in the film, they’re African-Americans.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Justice League

Lowriders


Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

(2016) Drama (BH Tilt/Telemundo) Gabriel Chavarria, Demián Bichir, Theo Rossi, Tony Revolori, Melissa Benoist, Yvette Monreal, Eva Longoria, Montse Hernandez, Noel Gugliemi, Bryan Rubio, Cress Williams, Franck Khalfoun, Pepe Serna, Taishi Mizuno, David Fernandez Jr., Art Laboe, Damien Bray, Tiffany Gonzalez, Johanna Sol, Jamie Owen, Stacey Bender, Pandie Suicide. Directed by Ricardo de Montreuil

To outsiders, the car clubs of the predominantly Latino East Los Angeles must seem as foreign and mysterious as Shaolin temples. Those familiar with the Fast and Furious movie franchise might think they have car culture figured out, but it’s like watching an episode of Big Bang Theory and thinking you have nuclear physics figured out.

Danny Alvarez (Chavarria) is the youngest son of a Lowrider legend; Manuel Alvarez (Bichir). He basically grew up in his father’s garage and weathered the sorrow of his mom’s illness and death there. He admittedly didn’t get a whole lot of help from his dad, who was battling his own alcoholism even as his wife was dying. Manuel cleaned up his act enough to marry Gloria (Longoria) whom he met cruising; he has since fathered a daughter Isabel (Hernandez) who is preparing for her quinceañera. His big brother Francisco (Rossi) – upon whom Danny has bestowed the nickname of Ghost – is in prison after being caught and convicted of stealing auto parts to customize his own car.

Manuel has been working on a new car, a 1961 Chevy Impala that he’s named Green Poison (for the custom green fleck paint on the roof of the car) for the upcoming Elysian Car Show, one of the most prestigious of its kind. He would love to be working on it with his son Danny but the young man in question has been following a path of his own – street art. Danny is a talented and imaginative street artist where his graffiti shows up in a lot of unexpected places. His dad is worried that the illegal activity might get Danny arrested and the thought of both of his sons in the slammer is more than he can bear.

But Ghost has just gotten released from prison and he is reconnecting with his little brother in a big way. Ghost has a mad on because Manuel never visited him in prison, not once. He definitely has some Daddy issues and has gone so far as to join a rival car club that is a little bit rougher than Manuel’s old school Coasters car club. As Elysian approaches, Ghost and Manuel are on a collision course and Danny is caught in the middle. It looks for sure like a head-on is inevitable.

I have to admit, when I read the plot line for the movie in advance of seeing it I really didn’t expect much and in some ways I was correct not to. The plot is pretty hoary and has been done many times before onscreen dealing with old school dads and rebellious sons who are estranged but who reconcile their differences to achieve the impossible or at least the nearly so. Those familiar with those sorts of movies will find no surprises here.

The good news is that we really get what feels like an insider look at East L.A. Although de Montreuil is Peruvian by birth, he understands the Latin beat that drives the Eastside well. From the rhythms of speech to the thudding of loud music coming from outrageous speakers in outrageous cars, he captures the atmosphere of Baldwin Park so perfectly you can almost smell the carnitas simmering.

Bichir is one of the best actors working today; he has the gravitas of a young Edward James Olmos with a fatherly sensibility of a Tom Bosley. He anchors this movie in ways that the younger cast members can’t; he gives Manuel dignity, even when Manuel is frankly being a dick. He also gives him a certain amount of uncertainty; like all fathers, Manuel has no idea how to react to things outside of his experience. He just plows along doing the best he can which isn’t always good enough.

Rossi and Chavarria both exhibit a great deal of star power and both have virtually unlimited potential. In this day and age, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of matinee idol love for non-white actors and so that might stand in their way somewhat but they both deserve to be A-listers. Were I a Hollywood producer I’d have absolute confidence in either one of them to carry my picture.

The main problem here is that writers Elgin James and Cheo Hodari Coker have spent nearly all of their character depth on the men. The women in this film are of little consequence, either ornaments or child nurturers. While Gloria is characterized as someone who knows her way around an engine, she is given little chance to show it. Even Lorelei (Benoist) who is Danny’s photographer girlfriend is mainly just a hipster caricature. She essentially disappears from the film about 2/3 of the way through and other than a brief moment at the very end is never to be seen again. Maybe Supergirl can find her.

The ending is pretty rote but satisfying enough for me to give the movie a strong recommendation. I think De Montreuil is an up-and-coming talent to be reckoned with, considering he did so much with so little. If he can make a superior movie out of what is essentially a cliché script, imagine what he could do with something more substantial.

REASONS TO GO: We get an insight into East L.A. car culture and the amazing vehicles therein. The ending, although predictable, was satisfying. De Montreuil shows a great deal of promise.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is somewhat passé. I wish that the female characters had gotten a bit more depth to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some violence, some sensuality and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lily Collins was initially cast but had to drop out due to scheduling difficulties. Melissa Benoist eventually took her part.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Better Life
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Life

Eddie the Eagle


The thrill of victory.

The thrill of victory.

(2016) Sports Biography (20th Century Fox) Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Jo Hartley, Keith Allen, Tim McInnerny, Edvin Endre, Iris Berben, Mads Sjøgárd Pettersen, Rune Temte, Mark Benton, Daniel Ings, Christopher Walken, Ania Sowinski, Graham Fletcher-Cook, Paul Reynolds, Jim Broadbent, Matt Rippy. Directed by Dexter Fletcher

Sometimes the whole of something can be greater than the sum of its parts. Movies definitely fit within that realm. Sometimes you watch a movie and realize that the individual elements you’re seeing aren’t particularly noteworthy, but when the movie’s over you realize that you enjoyed it a lot more than you thought you would.

Michael “Eddie” Edwards (Egerton) has dreamed of being an Olympian ever since he was a boy. Not terribly gifted athletically, he trained as hard as he could but was usually sniggered at and told to give up by anyone who had a mouth – which is a lot of people in Britain. Determined to achieve his dream much to the exasperation of his dad (Allen) who is a good-hearted soul who can’t understand his son’s crazy obsession, he decides that because there were no British ski jumpers that if he could master that skill, he could make the Olympic team that way.

There’s just one little roadblock; Eddie has never ski jumped before. That’s not a problem though; he heads to Austria to train and while there meets Bronson Peary (Jackman), a champion American ski jumper who was himself once an Olympian but had messed up a promising career much to the disgust of Warren Sharp (Walken), the legendary coach who was Peary’s mentor and to whom Peary was his greatest disappointment.

Now having crawled inside a bottle, Peary is at first uninterested and downright hostile about the idea of coaching Eddie but his goofy charm and sheer determination to risk everything for this one dream eventually wins Peary over. And the obstacles set in front of Eddie at near-impossible, even though early on he sets the British record for a 70m jump.

However, he has no choice but to make it on his own since nobody is going to help him and against all odds, he must scratch and claw his way to Calgary for the 1988 games. He knows it will be his one shot at Olympic glory, even if not everyone has quite the same definition of what glory might be.

On paper, there is no way I should be liking this movie. Every sports underdog movie cliché is here, from the bromance to the lead character apparently giving up, to the triumph of the final moment. Everything is here almost to a T without a whole lot of variation. These are usually the kinds of movies I can’t stand, for heaven’s sake. And yet, I found myself reeled in by its offbeat charm.

Egerton, who hadn’t really impressed me much in Kingsman: The Secret Service, is far more powerful here. It’s a difficult job because Edwards is such a hero in Britain and his look and mannerisms are well known there; here in the States, not so much. I get the sense we get the spirit of Eddie Edwards much more than the actual person here.

Which leads me to the most serious issue here; almost all of the information here about Eddie Edwards is untrue. Portrayed here as a complete novice, he actually had been skiing for some time and had been the last person eliminated from the men’s downhill team; he saw ski jumping as an alternate way to make the team. There was no Bronson Peary, no Warren Sharp and the unorthodox training that is portrayed here is a far cry from the way Edwards actually trained. His life story has been so filtered and fictionalized that they might as well have made it a fictional character; it must be somewhat demeaning to find out that you are not interesting enough to have your real life story told in your biography.

And yet I still ended up enjoying the movie. This isn’t the Eddie Edwards story, no – but it is a story that appeals to all of us, those of us who think that by wanting something badly enough and by being willing to work hard, overcome every obstacle and always stay true to your own dream that you can accomplish anything. That part of the Eddie Edwards story they got right.

REASONS TO GO: Hits all the right notes. Egerton and Jackman both have charisma and charm.
REASONS TO STAY: Fudges with the facts way too much. Carries every cliché in the book.
FAMILY VALUES: Some partial nudity, a bit of sexually suggestive material and a fair amount of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Edwards failed to qualify for the 1994 and 1998 Olympics once the BOA raised the standards of qualification for the event; those standards were nicknamed the “Eddie the Eagle Rule” by the committee that instituted them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Invincible
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Wave

A Walk in the Woods


Lost in the woods.

Lost in the woods.

(2015) Dramedy (Broad Green) Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Kristen Schaal, Nick Offerman, R. Keith Harris, Randall Newsome, Linda Edwards, Susan McPhail, Andrew Vogel, Derek Krantz, Gaia Wise, Tucker Meek, Chandler Head, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, John Schmedes, Valentin Armendariz, Danny Vinson, Valerie Payton, Stephanie Astalos-Jones. Directed by Ken Kwapis

All of us have a connection to the natural world. Deep down, we pine for it; while most of us will profess to loving the civilized life of home and hearth, every so often we get a yen to go out into the woods and pitch a tent. It reminds us of our connection to this planet, that we are born of it and part of it and that it is conversely part of us. Nothing clears one’s head quite so much as a walk in the woods.

Bill Bryson (Redford) is a semi-retired travel writer who has written some fine books but is about as socially awkward as a 13 year old at a state dinner. He says the wrong things at funerals, cracks incomprehensible jokes that nobody gets and grumps to his saintly patient wife Catherine (Thompson) that talking to people is just something he doesn’t do.

After being upbraided by a smarmy talk show host (Newsome) about having written nothing about his own native country, he chances upon a leg of the Appalachian trail near his New Hampshire home and struck by inspiration. Bryson hits on the idea of walking the entire trail from Georgia to Maine. Catherine takes about as kindly to the idea as she would about having a hole drilled in her noggin. When she sees she can’t dissuade her husband out of the scheme, she insists that he take someone with him.

The trouble is, nobody he knows is willing to go with him. That is until he gets a call out of the blue from Stephen Katz (Nolte), an old friend he had a falling out with a decade or so ago. He’s not choice A for the trip but beggars can’t be choosers so Bill gets himself equipped at the local REI (with Offerman making a cameo as a clerk) and before long Katz and Bryson are putting on their hiking boots.

Katz is, contrary to his self-description, woefully out of shape and is huffing and puffing away like a walrus before he’s gone ten feet. Still, the two manage to make progress although not as much as they probably should. They have to put up with rain, snow, never-ending hills, burying their dookie in the woods, annoying know-it-all hikers (Schaal) and bears. But most of all, they’ll have to put up with each other – and themselves.

Kwapis has a history of creating films that are audience pleasers more so than critical darlings and judging from the scores below has done the same this time out. And what’s not to love? A strong, well-known cast in beautiful settings, that’s for sure. The Appalachian Trail passes through some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet and Kwapis takes full advantage of it.

Redford and Nolte have only been in the same film together once before, that being the 2012 drama The Company You Keep and then they only shared a couple of scenes together. It’s a shame they haven’t done more together because they have amazing chemistry together; they banter like an old married couple and play off of each other like the two old pros they are. Their relationship holds the film together.

Nolte, in particular, is noteworthy; gasping like an asthmatic bear and growling in that gravelly smoker’s voice of his. He’s essentially the comic relief, making of Katz a kind of charming womanizing rogue gone to seed, cheerfully evading his responsibilities. Redford by contrast does what Redford does best; being likable even when he’s supposed to be a curmudgeon.

Which brings up a point. Both of these distinguished actors are in their 70s – in fact, Redford is 79 – but the real Bill Bryson was in his mid-40s when he hiked the Trail and so much of the book’s focus had to be changed. The movie spends much more time dwelling on the decrepitude of the leads than the book did on the inexperience of its leads. Lovers of the book (and there are many) might not be too pleased with that. They’ll be pleased that much of Bryson’s comic tone was retained. I haven’t read the book probably in 15 years or so, but my guess is that it was extensively re-written for the screen, so be warned on that score.

Da Queen really loved this movie; the bonding with nature and the friendship between Redford and Nolte really spoke to her; she proclaimed it her favorite movie of the Summer (I didn’t have the heart to point out that it wasn’t released until September 2nd, after the official summer release season had ended) which considering how delighted she was with Jurassic World is quite an accomplishment. I’m a little less enthusiastic about the film but found it to be genuinely entertaining, sentimental and only occasionally descending into schmaltz and cinematically beautiful.

In short, this is solid entertainment which will likely appeal strongly to an older demographic but those who appreciate movies with a heart will also enjoy  it. I do like an occasional nature walk although my condition prevents long hikes like this one but still it inspired in me a desire to walk the Trail myself. It won’t happen, but it’s nice to imagine that it could. If these two can do it, so can I, right?

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful scenery. Wonderful chemistry between Redford and Nolte. Some genuine laughs.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally clunky. Too many codger jokes.
FAMILY VALUES: A few mild expletives and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally, this was meant to be the third team-up between Redford and Paul Newman when the film was optioned in 2007; however, Newman’s declining health and eventual passing prevented that from occurring. Newman would have been cast in the role that Nick Nolte eventually filled.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Wild
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle Begins!

Gone


Amanda Seyfried wants to have a talk with her agent.

Amanda Seyfried wants to have a talk with her agent.

(2012) Thriller (Summit) Amanda Seyfried, Daniel Sunjata, Jennifer Carpenter, Sebastian Stan, Wes Bentley, Nick Searcy, Socratis Otto, Emily Wickersham, Joel David Moore, Katherine Moennig, Michael Pare, Sam Upton, Ted Rooney, Erin Carufel, Amy Lawhorn, Susan Hess Logeias, Jeanine Jackson, Blaine Palmer, Victor Morris, Ted Cole, Tracy Pacana, Madison Wray. Directed by Heitor Dhalia

Woman Power

The thought of being kidnapped by a serial killer, thrown in a hole and being left there, waiting to die, is something most of us don’t really even consider. The thought of escaping that hole only to have nobody believe you that the ordeal was real is unimaginable.

But Jill (Seyfried) more than imagines it; this is what her life is. She’s certain that there is a serial killer out there, who has dug a large hole in Portland’s Forest Park, some 5100 acres of heavily wooded land in Oregon’s largest city. The police haven’t been able to find any hole, any trace that there are missing women buried there. Jill has a history of alcoholism and mental breakdowns; when her parents died some years earlier she was briefly institutionalized. She is so insistent that this horrible ordeal happened to her that eventually she is sent back to the hospital for evaluation.

A year afterwards, she is still obsessed with it, although less obviously. She works third shift at a diner as a waitress, about the only job she can get given her background. At night she patrols Forest Park, looking for the place she was taken to. She has been operating on a meticulous grid-by-grid method of searching, marking off each grid with a red pen but she still has a long way to go.

After a night of searching the park she returns home to wake up her sister Molly (Wickersham) who wanted to get up early to study for an exam she had  later that day, only to find her bed empty. Jill checks with Molly’s boyfriend Billy (Stan) who informs her that Molly didn’t spend the night, then later on he tells her that she didn’t show up for the exam. Jill gets a bad feeling about the whole thing, and goes to the police.

The cops who had worked her case, Lt. Bozeman (Pare), Sgt. Powers (Sunjata) and Detective Lonsdale (Moennig) are all skeptical, given Jill’s history. They dismiss her claims, looking for reasons that Jill might not have gone to her test, and all of them think this whole scenario is going on inside Jill’s head. Only the newest homicide detective, Peter Hood (Bentley) believes her.

Knowing that she won’t get help through official sources, Jill is bound and determined to find Molly on her own and will do anything, break any law to find her sister who is the only family she has left. She’ll lie, cheat and steal – and if she finds the man who has her, kill – to get her sister back.

This is the kind of movie that should have everything going for it; Seyfried is an extremely underrated actress who shows here that she can take on roles like this and make them work. There’s also the Brazilian director Dhalia who is best known in this country for Adrift and has made some fine films in his native land. Then there’s Portland itself, one of those cities that should have more films made there; it is certainly underutilized.

Seyfried is terrific here. This is the kind of role that is often overplayed and the lead character can go from insistent and focused to shrill and unlikable in an instant. Jill is certainly not without her demons but who among us wouldn’t do the things she does to save a sister? Certainly not me. If Jill is on the ragged edge, it is very understandable and Seyfried makes her actually likable, even in her worst moments. It’s marvelous work and shows that Seyfried is a versatile performer who can do drama, comedy and musicals, all of which she’s done notably in the past.

Now for the bad news; the studio seems to have interfered a good deal on this project, insisting that the movie get a PG-13 rating (the director apparently thought it should be R rated) and made Dhalia’s life so miserable to the point that he considered taking his name off the project. In this particular case, I think Dhalia was right; the movie would have benefitted from being allowed to go to a harder rating. It needed more edge to it.

Worse still, the writing doesn’t do the role of Jill justice. It’s full of logical holes – for instance, how does a girl working a third shift waitress job at a diner afford to hold on to a beautiful home in a nice neighborhood and send her sister to college?  Since she’s going into the woods by herself anyway, why does the killer need to go to such elaborate lengths to get her into the woods?

But worse still, she has the police doing and saying things no self-respecting police department would ever do. I get that the writer, Allison Burnett, wants to completely isolate Jill and force her to take action on her own which is the crux of the whole movie, but certainly there had to be ways that she could have done it that were more imaginative. And I think the movie would have been more effective as well if the audience were left wondering if the whole thing wasn’t REALLY in Jill’s head, right up to the very end.

Still, the beautiful scenery in and around Portland and especially Seyfried’s performance make this worth a look. Granted, the movie got terrible reviews and I can’t say as I blame some of my colleagues for ripping this film a new one, but I can forgive a lot when you get a performance like Seyfried’s in the kind of role – the thriller hero that takes matters into their own hands – that is more of a traditional male bastion. That alone is worth a look-see.

WHY RENT THIS: Seyfried takes a strong role and runs with it. Pretty cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lazy writing. Illogical plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence and depictions of women being terrorized, sexuality, some drug references and brief harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hardware store that Jill shops at in the movie is a real hardware store in Portland and at exactly the location that the film shows it to be.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $18.1M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, VuduiTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kiss the Girls
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Woman Power continues!

Leviathan (Leviafan) (2014)


Dem bones, dem bones.

Dem bones, dem bones.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Alexi Serebryakov, Roman Madyanov, Anna Ukolova, Sergei Pokhodaev, Alexi Rozin, Kristina Pakarina, Lesya Kudryashova, Valery Grishko, Igor Sergeev, Dimitri Byovski-Romashov, Igor Savochkin, Sergei Borisov, Sergei Bachurski, Natalya Garustovich, Irina Gavra. Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev

Life can be unrelentingly bleak. When you live in a coastal town in the northwestern fringes of Russia, where corruption is how it’s always been and ever going to be, how does a single man find justice when the entire system is rigged against him?

Kolya (Serebryakov) is a mechanic living in just such a town. He lives with his son Roman (Pokhodaev) from his first marriage, and his second wife Lilya (Lyadova) in a house that has a stunning view of the harbor, and when the sun is shining (a rare occurrence admittedly) the front windows allow a great amount of light into the small but cozy home. There are worse places to be.

Until the corrupt Mayor Vadim (Madyanov) rests his eyes on the land and realizes that it could be a gold mine for him. However, he has to get his hands on it and that won’t be easy or legal – Kolya doesn’t want to sell. His grandfather built the home with his own two hands after all. But Vadim usually gets what he wants and he uses arcane laws to steal the land right from under Kolya.

However, Kolya knows a guy. In this case, it’s the lawyer Dmitri (Vdovichenkov), an old army buddy of Kolya. Dmitri has the goods on Vadim which might be enough to call off the dogs on Kolya. However, when Dmitri is invited by one of Kolya’s best friends for an afternoon of target shooting, events will transpire that will lead to an abrupt reversal of fortune that will leave none of those involved in the story unaffected.

It is incredible to me that this movie, a pointed indictment at corruption not only in the Russian legal system but in the Russian soul, would have been selected by Russia as their nominee for the Foreign Language film Oscar but not only was it submitted, it made the final short list, losing eventually to Ida for the statuette. I can see why critics and Academy voters loved this movie.

It is, however, unrelentingly bleak which is I suppose not to be unexpected from a Russian film – Russian literature and Russian movies are notorious for their grim outlook. This isn’t a happy, uplifting movie that is going to make you feel better about things; this is a movie about the travails of life, how those who have get the upper hand on those who don’t and how they generally wield it like a club against them. It’s not a pretty picture.

However, in this case, it is a well-acted picture, particularly in the case of Lyadova as the long-suffering Lilya. Her expression is mournful, her demeanor is mousy. Kolya is a bit of a hothead, given to smacking his son upside the head when he is rude which, as a teenage boy, is most of the time. Roman saves most of his vitriol for Lilya whom he clearly doesn’t care for much. There is some question as to what happened to the first wife and when – the film doesn’t explain that bit of particular information, but one gets the sense that Roman knew his mom.

In fact, most of the cast is top-notch although they aren’t well known in the U.S. They have that dour Russian mentality of expecting the worst and usually having their expectations met. Other than the hopelessly arrogant and corrupt Vadim, they know their lot in life is to suffer and to get no justice in their suffering, so they drink.

And they drink a lot. They drink to drown their sorrows. They drink to celebrate. They drink when they go out shooting. They drink when they have a meal. They drink because it’s Wednesday. They drink because they’re awake. If ever there was a movie that would serve as a poster child for temperance, it’s this one. Kolya is the biggest drinker of the lot, a raging alcoholic even by Russian standards.

This isn’t a movie for everyone, and I think you have to be in the right frame of mind to truly appreciate it. There are some difficult moments here, some telegraphed and some not. There are also some light-hearted movies, such as when the group goes out on a shooting outing, they pull out pictures of old Soviet leaders like Brezhnev and Stalin to use as targets. My friend Larry, a student of Russian customs and society, found that particularly amusing.

However, the amusements come few and far between here and depict a life in Russia that is cold, miserable and unfair. Which is a lot like life everywhere else for the most part (except for those equatorial nations where it is hot, miserable and unfair).

REASONS TO GO: Searing social commentary. Lyadova is a real find. Well-acted throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Unrelentingly grim.
FAMILY VALUES: Coarse language, some sexuality and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While based on actual events both in Russia and in the United States, the screenplay was written as a modern reworking of the Book of Job.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Focus