The Legend of Swee’ Pea


(2015) Sports Documentary (1091) Lloyd Daniels, Jerry Tarkanian, David Robinson, John Lucas, Howard Garfinkel, Geary Hendley, Keith Glass, Kenny Graham, Leo James, Ernie Hall, Saul Lerner, Lois Tarkanian, David Chesnoff, Ron Naclerio, John Valenti, Ramon Ortiz, Jabari Joyner, Robbito Garcia, Alvis Brown, Avery Johnson, Benjamin May, Tom Kancholosky, Anita Hendley. Directed by Benjamin May

 

Every so often a basketball player comes along who is considered can’t-miss; they are recruited heavily out of high school by the biggest college programs in the sport and some go on to long, productive careers in the NBA; guys like LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had those kinds of career. And then, there is Lloyd Daniels.

Daniels is a New York playground legend. At 16, he was considered one of the best basketball players in the world – including in the NBA. His mom died when he was a child; he spent most of his time being shuttled between one grandmother in Queens and another in Brooklyn. His father, who never recovered from his wife’s death, sank into alcoholism. Eventually, Lloyd joined him in alcohol abuse at a young age, and went on to get addicted to crack just as it became epidemic in New York.

Lloyd liked to party but he didn’t particularly like going to class and almost never went. One thing not explained in the documentary is how he was allowed to play basketball when he wasn’t attending class. In my day, you couldn’t participate in extracurricular athletics if you didn’t maintain at least a “C” average, but New York in the Nineties might have been different. In any case, Daniels is dyslexic which may explain his ambivalent attitude towards school. However, one thing he was serious about was basketball and he was a 6’7” guard who could pass AND shoot, a rarity. Lots of coaches were foaming at the mouth trying to get him into their programs. He eventually aged out of high school without graduating or passing a single course.

He wound up being accepted to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas on a scholarship. The Running Rebels were coached by the legendary Jerry Tarkanian who were always one of the favorites to win the NCAA title back then. But his college career was derailed before he’d even played a single game; he was arrested in a crack house on a police sting operation on February 9, 1987 and Tarkanian threw him off the team. With a drug arrest in his portfolio, he essentially became untouchable. Also not mentioned in the documentary was the involvement of Richard Perry, a noted gambler who helped steer Daniels to UNLV and the ensuing investigation of whom would lead to Tarkanian being forced out as coach of their team.

Las Vegas lawyer David Chesnoff thought he got a raw deal and helped him get into the Continental Basketball Association with the Topeka Sizzlers. However, his addiction followed him and he was dropped from the team. Going back to New York City, he resumed smoking crack and after trying to rip off some drug dealers of an $8 vial of crack, was shot three times in the chest. He actually died, but was saved by skilled surgeons and lived to play again.

This time it was Coach Tarkanian who came calling; now with the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA. Daniels, given a second chance, started to look like he deserved one. He was showing signs of the skills that had made him one of the most highly sought-after recruits of his generation. Unfortunately, the Spurs weren’t doing all that well as a team and Tarkanian was let go. When John Lucas, a recovering addict himself, was made coach, he saw some disturbing signs in Daniels. Eventually, after a two year stay with San Antonio – the longest of his professional career, he was let go and ended up playing with a myriad of teams, six in the NBA finishing just seven games shy of being vested in the player’s pension program.

These days, Daniels is an AAU coach in New York. In middle age, he bears a striking resemblance to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. His voice is raspy from years of smoking crack. He is divorced, and while his three kids are all college graduates, he frankly gives credit to his ex-wife. Former radiologist-turned-filmmaker Benjamin May got the opportunity to film Daniels; at times he seems to be a very willing subject, opening up about his addictions and what they cost him. We see him visiting the house where he was arrested in 1987, where the wheels began to fall off on his life and career. Tears come to his eyes when he thinks about that cost.

While he appears open and affable here, there is the other side of Daniels. He is still drinking, which is why his ex-wife declined to be interviewed for the project. We also hear a variety of phone messages left on May’s answering machines of Daniels, wheedling for money and accusing him of exploiting Daniels. Eventually, the calls grow more and more angry and confrontational until they end on a conciliatory note.

This is truly a cautionary tale and shows how incredibly difficult it is to get out of poverty; Daniels had all the tools to have an NBA career that would have set him up for life. Sadly, he never got the guidance he needed to deal with life and his addiction would eventually overwhelm his talent. Daniels was failed by those closest to him, failed by the public school system, failed by society but most of all he failed himself. This is the sort of documentary that would have been perfect for the ESPN “30 in 30” series but sadly, it never made it there which is just symbolic of Daniels’ life in general.

REASONS TO SEE: A cautionary tale about wasted potential and drug abuse.
REASONS TO AVOID: The documentary feels a little bit scattered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the executive producers of the film is legendary New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Without Bias
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Booksellers

The Possession of Hannah Grace


The morgue is NOT the ideal place to hide from a demon.

(2018) Horror (Screen GemsShay Mitchell, Grey Damon, Kirby Johnson, Nick Thune, Louis Herthum, Stana Katic, Max McNamara, Jacob Ming-Trent, James A. Watson Jr., Marianne Bayard, Adrian Mompoint, Matt Mings, Gijs Scholten van Aschat, Guy Clemens, Sean Burns, Andrea Lyman, George Vezina, Melissa McMeekin. Directed by Diederick van Rooijen

 

There is nothing fun or desirable about a trip to the morgue. So when a movie has that as a central premise, you have to hope that they do enough to make it interesting.

The movie starts with an exorcism (where many other horror movies end) that is performed on the luckless Hannah Grace (Johnson). When the ceremony turns into carnage, the girl’s loving father (Herthum) smothers her to death. But, as I said, the movie is only beginning.

Megan (Mitchell), an ex-cop battling alcoholism and inner demons, gets to battle an outer demon now as well. She’s starting a new job as an intake clerk at a hospital morgue which looks like it was designed by the same guys who do urban boutique hotels. Lots of concrete, lots of glass, and incongruously, cross-shaped lights inside the morgue itself. A little obvious, don’t-cha think?

In any case, it isn’t long before Hannah Grace’s corpse is deposited and we begin our “not-quite-dead-yet” shenanigans, although she is most decidedly dead, dead enough to inspire a Munchkin song. That’s bad news for the few workers who are present on the (appropriately) graveyard shift, including Megan’s pal Lisa (Katic) and AA sponsor who figures out too late that she’s not imagining things. Hannah’s got a hankering to rejoin the living and she’ll need some freshly dead folks to do that. Demons; can’t die with them, can’t die without ’em.

Essentially this is a standard haunted house flick set in a morgue and despite the title, there really isn’t much in the way of Satanic ritual other than in the opening minutes, so the truth in advertising thing is out the window. There isn’t a lot to the film that’s highly original, other than having the exorcism at the beginning. Van Rooijen doesn’t do a whole lot to work the tone, inserting a lot of jump scares and utilizing a whole lot of icky images of dead, rotting flesh. The mostly young, not-well-known cast (Mitchell is best known from Pretty Little Liars) does about how you’d expect given the limitations of the script.

It’s not surprising that the movie opened in the no-man’s land of the week after Thanksgiving. Not much was expected of it and it basically delivers on the “not much” department. It’s decent looking and the walking corpse effects are pretty good, although nothing particularly new, so this is a tepid recommendation at best. If you’re in the mood to be scared, there are so many better options to choose from.

REASONS TO SEE: The corpse effects are pretty good.
REASONS TO AVOID: A fairly standard haunted house-type film with many lapses in logic and lost scare opportunities.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of terror and some gruesome images throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The exterior of the hospital is actually Boston City Hall.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews, Metacritic: 37/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Autopsy of Jane Doe
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Bias

Ray & Liz


Liz is not someone that you want to cross.

(2018) Drama (Kimstim/1091) Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Patrick Romer, Tony Way, Joshua Millard-Lloyd, Sam Gittins, Richard Ashton, James Eeles, James Hinton, Andrew Jefferson-Tierney, Deirdre Kelly, Michelle Bonnard, Jamie-Lee Beacher. Directed by Richard Billingham

 

It is very hard to look at our parents with any sort of objectivity. Often, we see them through rose-colored glasses as superhuman beings who can do no wrong, but more often we see them as absolute screw-ups who can do nothing right. We rarely see them as human beings.

Richard Billingham, an art photographer turned film director, has made his career by turning his lens on his family life. This movie is largely autobiographical, looking at his parents Liz (Smith) and Ray (Salinger), who live in Birmingham’s Black Country in Thatcher’s England. Ray is on the dole, having lost his job. The family gains additional income from taking in a lodger, Will (Gittins) in their dump of a home. Liz, deciding that young Rich needs shoes, troops off with him and Ray in tow to the shops, leaving the younger brother Jason in the care of Lol (Way), Ray’s brother who is developmentally challenged.

Liz – who apparently has had issues with Lol in the past – leaves with a stern warning not to get into the booze but when Will arrives home, he sees a golden opportunity and finds the liquor, bringing up a crate full from the cellar. He manages to get Lol drop dead drunk, then paints Jason’s face with boot polish and sticks a carving knife in his hand, then quickly leaves, returning to see the follow up which is a terrifying beating from Liz.

The neglect – leaving one’s child with a mentally challenged individual – proves to be a pattern as we follow the family as the boys age into their teenage years. The family now lives in “council housing” i.e. government subsidized apartments for us Yanks. Studious Richard has a chance to get out but young Jason (Millard-Lloyd) is getting involved with delinquent behavior. Ray has become a raging alcoholic, and Liz self-medicates, smoking like a chimney and doing jigsaw puzzles. After a terrifying night when Jason ends up spending a frigid night in a neighbor’s shed, the authorities are forced to step in.

The whole movie is framed with scenes of Ray in his later years (Romer), living in the bedroom of his council flat, the room infested with flies as Ray’s mate Sid (Ashton) delivering bottles of some sort of carbonated home brew. Ray continues to be deep in the clutches of alcoholism, but now he is utterly alone. He is separated from Liz, who comes around once in awhile to cadge money from him, but there is no love between them that’s apparent. The family has completely disintegrated.

There’s no way around it; this is a bleak film filled with unlovable characters trying to make do in an intolerable economic situation. Liz and Ray seem genial on the surface, but both are completely self-absorbed, caring only about having enough cigarettes, booze and whatever distractions they are into at the moment. Their kids barely get a second thought.

Billingham gives us endless close-ups of the flies in Ray’s room, of Ray’s aged and booze-ravaged face. He seems to take delight in showing Ray’s awful situation; one wonders if he is getting back at his parents for the neglect he clearly feels. I don’t doubt that Liz and Ray were far from ideal parents, but they don’t get a voice in this thing; it seems clear that they are both suffering from depression but that’s not the kind of thing that was diagnosed commonly 30 years ago, and it doesn’t feel like Billingham would have forgiven them for it in any case

Smith gives an unforgettable performance as Liz; she stands out in the cast. Salinger is kind of lost as the less assertive Ray, although the actor has had some impressive performances in his resume. Billingham, with a photographer’s eye, composes his shots artistically and the movie, as bleak as it is and as squalid as the settings often are, is a pleasure to watch from a purely technical point of view. Still, there is so much lingering on the flies and on the anger that one wonders if Billingham wouldn’t have benefited more from a therapist than from a feature film.

REASONS TO SEE: Ella Smith is an absolute force of nature.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many extraneous shots of flies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, some violence, plenty of smoking and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Billingham is a photographer making his feature film directorial debut. His photographic essay Ray’s a Laugh is the basis for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kanopy
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 81/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sorry We Missed You
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Possession of Hannah Grace

A Private War


War is actually hell.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Aviron) Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci, Tom Hollander, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Jérémie Laheurte, Alexandra Moen, Amada Drew, Corey Johnson, Hilton McRae, Greg Wise, Mo’ath Sharif, Raad Rawi, Diana Mohammad, Pano Masti, Ahmad Yassin, Maha Al-Tamar, Rami Delshad, Bassam Hanna Touma, Fady Elsayed, Natasha Jayetileke.  Directed by Matthew Heineman

 

Marie Colvin was, in every sense of the word, a hero. She brought to light the atrocities of war, putting her life at risk by going to some of the most hellish places on Earth – Kosovo, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria – until it finally caught up with her.

Colvin (Pike) didn’t go unscathed by what she saw; she suffered from nightmares and PTSD and relied on binge drinking and chain-smoking to dull the pain. She lost an eye covering the Tamil Tigers but gained a trademark – the distinctive eye patch she wore for the rest of her life. The incident is shown early on in the film.

Pike delivers here; her intensity is palpable as is her despair. This is not an iron-jawed war correspondent who is after the scoop more than speaking for the voiceless; this is a fragile, sometimes caustic woman who paid the price for her daring, eventually paying the ultimate price in Homs, Syria in 2012.

Heineman, who previously directed the Florida Film Festival entry Cartel Land, delivers footage that looks authentic; many of the locations may as well have been on the moon, so desolate are they. These feel like war zones, or at least how you’d imagine a war zone to be like. On the flip side, he also shows Colvin as a woman coping as best she can with the things she’s seen and not always succeeding. At an awards banquet, Colvin is dressed to the nines in a cocktail dress and heels but still she stomps through the venue like she’s marching through Fallujah. It is a telling moment.

I’m not sure that this is the definitive biography of Colvin. There is a bit too much attention paid to her sexual liaisons for my taste, which I found to be unnecessary. Nevertheless, this is a powerful film that gives you at least the spirit of Colvin, although you might want to check out the documentaries on her to get to know her public persona better.

REASONS TO SEE: Pike gives an intense portrayal as Colvin. Gritty and realistic depictions of war.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s a little bit too much prurient material for my liking.
FAMILY VALUES: There are violent images, some sexuality and brief nudity, as well as profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taron Egerton was originally scheduled to play Paul Conroy, but dropped out of the production. Jamie Dornan was hired to replace him.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Under the Wire
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Standing Up, Falling Down

A Star is Born (2018)


A song is born.

(2018) Musical (Warner BrothersBradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle, Alec Baldwin, Marlon Williams, Brandi Carlile, Ron Rifkin, Barry Shabaka Henley, Michael D. Roberts, Michael J. Harney, Rebecca Field, Derek Kevin Jones, William Belli, Dennis Tong, Joshua Wells, Greg Grunberg, Drena De Niro. Directed by Bradley Cooper

 

Talk about a tale as old as time: big rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper) wanders into a bar to get a drink (that it is a drag queen bar is a concession to these woke times) and hears a lovely ingenue named Ally (Gaga) belt out a jaw-dropping version of the Edith Piaf classic “La Vie en Rose.” Turns out that Ally also writes songs. Turns out the songs are really good.

Jackson likes one so much that he decides to perform one at his next concert. Just as icing on the cake, he drags a petrified Ally onstage to duet with him. And guess what? The song goes viral. Suddenly the songwriter-performer, who had just about given up on any shot at a career in the music business, has a career in the music business.

But what goes up must come down. As Ally’s star rises, alcoholism brings Jackson’s career to a standstill. A new manager turns Ally from a rock-oriented singer-songwriter into a pop diva complete with orange hair and a dance troupe. It is no accident – and in many ways, an acid comment on the state of music today – that as Ally grows more successful her music becomes less memorable, and in fact, becomes downright shitty.

This is the fourth version of this tale; it is also Cooper’s first foray into directing. He also co-wrote the screenplay and is one of a gaggle of producers. Word has it he also mopped the floors of the sound stages after shooting was done for the day.

The music here is pretty good, other than the robotic pop that Ally performs in the second half of the film. Cooper and Elliott (as Jackson’s manager and big brother) give outstanding performances, but it is Lady Gaga who will always be remembered for this movie. Already a huge pop diva, she shows that she is capable of being a movie star if she wants to be.

The movie runs a bit too long as we watch Jackson’s decline and Ally’s ascent; those scenes should have been a bit more streamlined. To be honest, I don’t think any version of the film is ever going to hold a candle to the Judy Garland-James Mason version back in 1954 – that’s a true classic. Still, there is a lot to be said for this movie, which was a major Oscar contender at last year’s Oscars (it did win one for Best Music Score). It remains a popular film – most people who saw it liked it or even loved it. I didn’t love it but I certainly did like it.

REASONS TO SEE: Lady Gaga is a true cinematic presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long, drags in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexuality and brief nudity, and some harrowing alcoholism depictions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cooper studied Elliott’s voice to come up with Jackson Maine’s voice – before Elliott had been cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Every other A Star is Born
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Venom

Grand Isle


Nicolas Cage, after reading the script to his next movie.

(2019) Thriller (Screen MediaNicolas Cage, Luke Benward, KaDee Strickland, Kelsey Grammer, Beatrice Hernandez, Emily Marie Palmer, Zulay Henao, Duncan Casey, Oliver Trevena, Haley Milsap, Isabella Grace Roark. Directed by Stephen Campanelli

 

Nobody freaks out in the movies better than Nicolas Cage and I mean that as a compliment. Sure, Conan O’Brien once suggested the Department of Homeland Security use clips from his films to demarcate the various terrorist threat levels (not a bad idea, actually) but nonetheless Cage knows how to lose his shit onscreen better than anybody.

In this film he plays Walter, a Vietnam vet slowly drinking himself to death in a small Southern town. It’s one of those delta locales where the steam seems to rise from the skin and even the flies find it too humid to buzz. Campanelli does a good job of establishing the locale (you can almost smell the sweat) although his actors for the most part overdo the Southern accent.

Walter hires a fellow vet (albeit much younger) named Buddy (Benward) to fix a section of picket fence just as a hurricane is arriving in town. As Buddy’s long-suffering wife Fancy (Strickland) observes, it takes some kind of idiot to repair a fence before a hurricane but I suppose it makes sense to the bourbon-soused.

Buddy has been chronically unemployed, putting massive strain on his relationship with his wife Lisa (Palmer) who is coping not only with Buddy’s lack of income but with the health problems of their infant daughter as well. It goes without saying that he’s happy to take any sort of work, even if the job makes him feel uneasy. Much of that uneasiness stems from Fancy (Strickland), the oversexed wife of Walter.  Her husband is, shall we say, less than a stellar performer in the bedroom and she’s plenty frustrated over it.

Of course, Buddy gets caught in the hurricane and is forced to hunker down with Walter and Fancy. And of course, the tension between the three starts to edge over the boiling point. And of course, Walter and Fancy are hiding a dirty secret in that basement which has been locked in such a way as to guarantee curiosity if not outright suspicion.

There are elements of both Southern Gothic and film noir, two genres that usually compliment each other well and to be fair to the filmmakers they manage to strike a fine balance here. However, there is also a lot of disquieting elements to the film. For starters, the actors chew the scenery with so much gusto one would question whether or not they had just been liberated from a prison camp.

Cage is usually the actor I look to when it comes to commanding attention, but he’s much more low-key than usual here which I suppose has to do with the southern demeanor. Naturally, it came as a bit of a surprise that it was Strickland who really made an impression on me, in this case as a Southern femme fatale. She is as seductive as a siren, as acerbic as a pundit and as merciless as a snake.

The script kind of falls apart in the last third. The clichés and tropes begin to pile up and all plausibility goes right out the window. The saving grace here is the entertainment factor; if you don’t think about this one too much you might find yourself enjoying it in spite of itself.

This is the sixth film starring Cage to be released in 2019 (with at least four more scheduled for 2020), almost all of them action thrillers and none of them released wide. Not a great standard for an Oscar-winning actor but hey, you take work where you can get it.

REASONS TO SEE: Southern gothic meets film noir.
REASONS TO AVOID: Southern-fried clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some sexual situations
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Walter is supposed to be an ex-Marine, the uniform he wears in the penultimate scene carries Army insignias and medals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 29/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Key Largo
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Noelle

Seaside


Victim or villain?

(2018) Suspense (Gravitas VenturesAriana DeBose, Matt Shingledecker, Steffanie Leigh, Sharon Washington, Jana Lee Hamblin, Haley Talbot, Bob Olin, Brandt Leeds, Victoria Blake, Jennie Vaughn, Jennifer Mekanas. Directed by Sam Zalutsky

 

The thing about soap operas is that they aren’t very subtle. They are lots of other things – outrageous, sometimes cheesy, sometimes erotic, often implausible but they generally aren’t boring. Those things work well in the soap opera oeuvre; outside of it, they can be deadly.

Daphne (DeBose) is leading a double life. She lives with her mother Angela (Washington) who is on the cusp of losing their home. Angela is disabled and somewhat broken. Daphne also has a boyfriend, Roger (Shingledecker) who is fabulously wealthy but whose father would disinherit him in a heartbeat if he knew that Roger was dating the daughter of his ex-nanny. Oh, didn’t I mention that Angela used to work for Roger’s dad?

In any case, Daddy dearest soon passes away and Roger isn’t exactly in mourning. Gleeful might be more accurate. He’s virtually rubbing his hands in anticipation of the millions he’s about to inherit and that’s when his dad plays one last cruel prank on his son; he leaves him a beach house on the remote Oregon coast and leaves the cash to any heirs Roger might sire legitimately.

So Daphne and Roger move to the beach house which Daphne keeps secret from Angela. In fact, she kept Roger secret from her mom. But no time for that now – Roger is ready to settle down and tie the knot. Only Daphne is beginning to see some disturbing signs; Roger is drinking more and more heavily and getting more verbally abusive by the day. Susanna (Leigh) shows up and it turns out that she and Roger used to be an item until Susanna got pregnant at which point Roger dropped her off at the local abortion clinic and high-tailed it out of town.

So with Daphne beginning to get more and more unsettled about Roger’s past and more importantly, her own future, Daphne soon begins to show that she’s not so helpless as she led Roger to believe.

This is quite the potboiler and maybe the world needs more of those. Cinematographer Philip A. Anderson tends to keep things in muted colors and the sky looks like there’s always a storm on the way but it never quite arrives. What the movie lacks is dramatic tension; there are plenty of twists and turns as you would expect from a decent thriller, but some strain the boundaries of incredulity and most are of the evil twin variety.

The cast here mainly have stage experience and little in front of the camera and it shows. The acting tends to be pretty broad and overdone. Good film acting requires more subtlety. DeBose shows some real potential as a lead actress, although she is given a fairly thankless role. The more we see of her with feckless Roger who oozes entitlement from every pore, the more we wonder what the hell she sees in him in any case.

I have to admit that there were some moments that worked well in the film but overall it doesn’t have that edge-of-the-seat feel that a good suspense movie generates. I can give it a mild recommendation and it isn’t too hard to find on a variety of streaming choices, but I can’t really say it’s worth the effort to track it down.

REASONS TO SEE: Blanche gives a solid performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Has a bit of a soap opera feel to it.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s profanity, drug use and some sexual situations here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeBose ws nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and has been cast as Anita in the upcoming Steven Spielberg remake of West Side Story.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Long Lost
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Heiresses

Tomorrow, Maybe


Father doesn’t always know best.

(2017) Drama (Random MediaRobert Blanche, Bethany Jacobs, Grant Davis, Brian Sutherland, Robert McKeehan, Garfield Wedderburn, Erin Hagen, Pamela O’Hare, Kyle Vahan, Todd A. Robinson, John Branch, Roy Frank Kirk 1st, Jeffrey Arrington, Jace Daniel, Alysse Fozmark. Directed by Jace Daniel

 

Making amends is no easy thing. It is, first and foremost, an admission of wrongdoing, taking ownership of mistreatment. Taking ownership of our less proud moments is difficult even for the saintliest among us. The hardest part, however, is often getting those we have wrong to allow us to make amends in the first place.

Lloyd (Blanche) has just been released from prison and is a changed man  He realizes full well that he has wasted most of his life to petty criminality and drug abuse. The relationship with his daughter Iris (Jacobs) is certainly strained; he essentially abandoned her early on and she has been disappointed by him again and again and again, ad nauseam.

Lloyd is looking to leave his past behind him and start a new life on the straight and narrow. In so doing, he hopes to get a second chance with his daughter and become a part of her life. She is understandably reluctant to trust her dad but gradually his sincerity begins to win her over.

He’s picked a pretty good time to return to her life; her husband Bobby (Davis), a cop, has developed a savage drinking problem and is spiraling out of control. He has begun to get violent and Iris doesn’t know what to do about it. Lloyd wants to help salvage things with her husband but things get so bad that Iris kicks Bobby to the curb. Bobby is growing more irrational by the day and blames Lloyd for the issues between him and Iris, believing that Lloyd is turning his daughter against him. The three are on a collision course with tragedy if they’re not careful.

Actually, the film is essentially told in flashback form with audiences being told somewhat of the crowning incident which I will not spoil here even though the filmmakers sort of do. That’s a bit of a tactical error; the director/writer Daniel is trying to pull off a twist in the plot but I think it would have been more effective if we didn’t have an inkling of what all this was leading to.

Otherwise, the movie gets kudos for tackling domestic abuse in a realistic way as well as the issues of making amends. Yeah, at times the film goes for easy answers rather than slogging through some rough emotional terrain while at other times Daniel seems quite willing to do that. Those moments tend to be the highlights of the film.

The three leads need to deliver powerhouse performances and they aren’t quite up to the task. Blanche fares best, giving Lloyd a rough-hewn charm, a man clearly reaching out and a bit confused by the vagaries of life. It’s hard not to root for him and while we clearly understand that his difficulties are largely his own doing, you end up hoping his daughter will give him that chance he so desperately desires.

Jacobs is less successful but truth be told is given less to work with, even though she’s the emotional center of the film. As a woman who has been consistently let down by the men in her life both as a child and as an adult, there is a wariness and a weariness to her manner but at times Jacobs is a bit flat in her line delivery. Davis is a little bit in the middle although it is essentially a thankless role; Bobby turns out to be a fairly irredeemable a-hole so even when we learn the source of his pain, his rage and his drinking, there’s not a lot of sympathy there.

The movie’s tiny budget is evident; often the scenes are underlit or might have used a few more takes. Still, as independent dramas go this one isn’t bad. It’s not Oscar material by a long stretch but it at least has a certain amount of ambition and seems to have at least honest intentions. Not all indie films can claim that.

REASONS TO SEE: Blanche gives a solid performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Has a tendency to go for easy answers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some violence and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The three leads all at one time or another appeared in the TV series Grimm.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleeping With the Enemy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Peanut Butter Falcon

Teacher (2019)


You might not want to forget your homework in this teacher’s class.

(2019) Thriller (Cinedigm) David Dastmalchian, Kevin Pollak, Curtis Edward Jackson, Esme Perez, Matthew Garry, Helen Joo Lee, Alejandro Raya, Cedric Young, Ilysa Fradin, John Hoogenakker, Karin Anglin, Sammy A. Publes, Charin Alvarez, Sam Straley, Bryce Dannenberg, Patrick Weber, Juan Lozada, Shawna Waldron, David Parkes, Sarab Kamoo. Directed by Adam Dick

 

Bullying has been a serious problem in American high schools for many years now. Despite efforts to curb the practice, there seems to be an ongoing issue of strong kids persecuting weaker kids – although who is truly strong and who is truly weak is not always easily evident.

James Lewis (Dastmalchian) is an English teacher trying to get across the intricacies of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to bored kids at Prairie Trail High School, in a tony suburb of Chicago. James is in the midst of a contentious divorce and is showing signs of alcoholism and rage – as the holes punched in the wall of his apartment attest. Still, he’s managing to keep it together and is on the verge of being granted tenure.

When a sociopathic rich kid named Tim Cooper (Jackson) starts bullying the nerdy Preston (Garry), a smart kid as well as the photographer for the school paper, Lewis isn’t happy about the development. Things begin to escalate though when Preston gets a girlfriend – shy, unselfconfident Daniela (Perez) – and Tim, also the star pitcher for the baseball team, gets two victims for the price of one. Mr. Lewis tries to intervene but a litigation-shy administration in the form of the school principal (Young) put the kibosh on any sort of disciplinary action. It doesn’t help that Tim’s dad (Pollak) is stupid rich and is one of those sorts who is used to getting his way by any means necessary.

\Mr. Lewis as it turns out was severely bullied when he was in school and to top it off, his father was an abusive alcoholic to make matters worse. Between the stress of everything, the flashbacks to his own tortured childhood and the disappointment that his life hasn’t gone the way he expected to lead to a reckoning that nobody could have expected – except for those who have watched a thriller or two in their time.

\Dick in his first feature-length film brings up some interesting and salient points about bullying, it’s effect on the psyche and society’s unwillingness to address it. The question is asked “when is violence justified” and the answer is obviously not an easy one nor is it treated as such here. Dick is a director who has some ideas and that’s always a good thing.

The problem here is that the story is just way too predictable. You can kind of figure out where this is all going in the first fifteen minutes. While Dick has some good ideas, he delivers them in a fairly hackneyed plot that telegraphs most of its twists. It does take a while for things to get moving at a really decent clip, so the attention-challenged might not take to this one as well.

Still, Dick gets the benefit of some really solid performances, many of them from largely unknown actors. Dastmalchian, who to date has mainly done supporting roles, shows he can handle lead roles with enough screen presence to light up China. Pollak, who started his career as a comic and impressionist, has proven himself a solid dramatic actor over the years and has never been better than he is here, both jovial and civilized as well as intimidating and brutish. The guy deserves some plum roles, casting directors.

Overall, this is a nifty film but not one that is going to rock your world particularly. I like some of the choices the filmmakers make here but other decisions seem to play it too safe. I do think that Dick has potential as a director; this isn’t a bad first film at all, but it’s not one that I believe will be an essential part of his filmography when all is said and done.

REASONS TO SEE: Dastmalchian shows some good presence and Pollak is always strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some violence and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a short film with the same title that Dick made two years prior to the feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Class of 1984
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Leo DaVinci: Mission Mona Lisa

Bird Box


Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.

(2018) Horror (Netflix) Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver, Trevante Rhodes, Rosa Salazar, Danielle Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, Colson Baker, BD Wong, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Vivien Lyra Blair, Julian Edwards, Parminder Nagra, Rebecca Pidgeon, Amy Gumenick, Taylor Handley, Happy Anderson, Kyle Beatty, Ashley A. Alvarado. Directed by Susanne Bier

 

The secret to a great horror movie is to never reveal the monster too early. What we can’t see is often the scariest creature of them all.

Civilization has collapsed but it’s not a plague of zombies that has done it; rather, an unseen monster that when it establishes eye contact causes the viewer to commit suicide. Essentially, nobody can go out of their house because once you see the monster, you’re toast within moments. In the early scenes of the movie we see precisely how quickly things devolve into chaos as people ram their cars into immovable objects, stab themselves to death and calmly open the door of a burning car and sitting down in the passenger scene, immolating themselves.

Malorie (Bullock) is a take-charge kind of woman who finds herself in this environment. Pregnant, she is on her way from a routine doctor appointment when things go to Hell in a handbasket. She takes refuge in the home of a curmudgeonly novelist who watches his wife kill herself after she beckons Malorie and other stranded motorists into her fortress-like home. Her husband Douglas (Malkovich) is none too pleased about the new guests but admits grudgingly that they bring special skills to the table, including ex-military construction crew chief (Rhodes) who develops a relationship with Malorie, grandmotherly Sheryl (Weaver), conspiracy theorist and grocery clerk Charlie (Howery) and a few others who come and go, some with less-than-noble intentions.

This culminates in a harrowing journey Malorie takes with her children (identified only as Boy (Edwards) and Girl (Blair) five years after the fact in which she rows a canoe down a river while blindfolded, hoping to make it to a rumored sanctuary in Northern California which is mostly shown in flash-forwards.

Bullock is brilliant here in a rare appearance in a horror film for the actress (she doesn’t like horror movies and generally doesn’t take roles in them – her last horror movie was more than 20 years previously). Malkovich chews the scenery here in typical fashion while Weaver is competent as is Paulson. Sadly, the two juveniles playing Boy and Girl are as bland as their names would suggest; they spend most of the film trying to act rather than trying to project themselves into their characters. This is a problem for many juvenile actors and actresses which tend to lead to stiff performances which we get here.

We never see the creatures responsible although we see the carnage they cause. It is a good thing that we don’t; they are far more terrifying that way. Bier is a respected director having done most of her work in her native Denmark; this is her first genre film and she attacks it as she would any drama, allowing the emotions of the characters set the tone, making the movie more interesting than the average creature feature.

This was one of the most popular films released by Netflix last year; it even inspired another stupid dangerous internet phenomenon known as “the bird box challenge” in which people try to navigate a distance (indoors and/or outside) while blindfolding leading to a raft of injuries, some of which required visits to the Emergency Room. While the tension Bier builds is unbelievable, the story is just the opposite. While this isn’t the kind of horror film that uses creature effects to set it’s gory tone, although there is some gore. This is the kind of horror movies that even those who aren’t fond of the genre can see.

REASONS TO SEE: The tension is unrelenting. Another great concept, even if it is a little bit derivative. Some very smart decisions made by the director.
REASONS TO AVOID: The juvenile actors are a liability.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and gore, profanity, adult themes and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bullock is actually blindfolded during the scenes in which her character is (which makes up about half the film) and refused to allow eye holes to be cut, causing her to bump into the camera more than once during shooting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Quiet Place
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Spy Behind Home Plate