Crisis


Greg Kinnear makes his point to Gary Oldman.Cinema

(2021) Drama (QuiverGary Oldman, Armie Hammer, Evangeline Lilly, Greg Kinnear, Michelle Rodriguez, Kid Cudi, Indira Varma, Lily-Rose Depp, Mia Kirshner, Guy Nadon, Michael Aronov, Adam Tsekhman, Veronica Ferres, Nicholas Jarecki, John Ralston, Martin Donovan, Marcel Jeannin, Eric Bruneau, Duke Nicholson, Ellora Torchia, Daniel Jun, Luke Evans, Billy Bryk, Meghan Allen.  Directed by Nicholas Jarecki

One of the major problems facing our country right now – and yes, there are many – is the opioid epidemic. Something like 100,000 people die every year of overdoses of opioid painkillers, most of which began as prescriptions and moved on into full blown addictions.

Claire (Lilly) had been an addict, hooked on oxycodone. She’d managed to kick the habit, though, and had a career as a successful architect in Detroit. She asks her hockey-mad son (Bryk) to stop by the corner grocery on his way home from practice and pick up some tortillas. He never arrives back home. She goes out looking for him with her sister (Kirshner) but can’t find him; then she gets the news every mother dreads – her son is dead, of a drug overdose. Claire is stunned. “If he was an addict, I’d know!” she blurts out. Something doesn’t sit right about this whole affair and she is determined to get down to the bottom of it and figure out what happened to her boy.

Jake (Hammer) is a hard-bitten DEA agent who is trying to stem the flow of opioids coming into the country. He’s currently working on some Armenian gangsters who are importing them from Canada, and they are particularly interested on obtaining Fentanyl, which looks to be the new hot opioid-of-choice for the discriminating addict. He arranges a buy with Montreal-based drug kingpin Mother (Nadon) who turns out to be a lot more bloodthirsty than his name implies. Jake is under pressure from his boss (Rodriguez) to make a quick arrest; he’s been undercover for a year now with nothing to show for it. Jake is also trying to hide the fact that his own sister (Depp) is also an addict in rehab.

College professor Tyrone Brower (Oldman) has brought in a healthy revenue stream for the university by testing new products for Big Pharma in his lab. When on of the more unscrupulous companies touts a new wonder drug that is a non-addictive painkiller, the FDA is falling all over itself to approve the drug and stem the tide on the opioid crisis. But as Dr. Brower discovers that far from being non-addictive Klaratol is actually far more addictive and leads to death among his test subjects, he wants to blow the whistle, but the FDA doesn’t want to hear about it, the drug company will do anything to squelch his research and his obsequious dean (Kinnear) tries to convince him to forget his research. A crisis of morality beckons.

The three stories all parallel but only two of them converge – that of Claire and Jake. The Dr. Brower story, while interesting, never really touches what’s going on in the other two stories and seems like it should have been an entirely separate movie, but that kind of laxness in execution characterizes Crisis which has the advantage of being timely – the opioid crisis is certainly on the minds of many.

The cast is stellar and they all do pretty good jobs, particularly Lilly who has an excellent scene with Kirshner early on in the movie as her grief overwhelms her. The former Lost actress who is better known for her work in the MCU these days has always been a fine actress, but she rarely gets the opportunity to show off her mad skillz and so this is a refreshing change.

Jarecki cuts between the three stories rapidly and without any sort of linking device, so the changes are often jarring and inorganic. All of these stories have a certain amount of dramatic tension built in but Jarecki scuttles it by moving from story to story so quickly and so often that whatever momentum he builds up gets lost and the audience loses interest.

That’s not to say that the movie isn’t worthwhile; it is certainly well-acted and has a compelling subject, but the stories are so interesting that you want to spend more time on them, which Jarecki fails to do, ending up giving short shrift to all of them. He probably could have eliminated the Brower story completely and padded out the other two with further character development and made a more effective movie – and kept the Brower story as a separate, stand-alone movie. That would have been a more satisfactory solution. Perhaps he can still do that with a director’s cut, someday. I wouldn’t mind if he did.

The film is currently playing in limited release around the country but will be available starting Friday on most major streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime, Vudu and Google Play, to name just a few. Check their website (click on photo above) for further information on where the film can be streamed on Friday.

REASONS TO SEE: A timely exploration of different viewpoints of the opioid crisis.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dramatic tension is sabotaged by the quick cutting between stories.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of drug content, profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled Dreamland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews, Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Traffic
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
‘Til Kingdom Come

Sister of the Groom


A woman’s side-eye is her most devastating weapon.

(2020) Comedy (Saban) Alicia Silverstone, Tom Everett Scott, Mathilde Olivier, Jake Hoffman, Charlie Bewley, Ronald Guttman, Mark Blum, Julie Engelbrecht, Abigail Marlowe, Noah Silver, Michael Bernardi, Jamie Choi, Adrienne Ellis, Nicole Tio, Tony Costa, Adam Griffith, Deeva Green, Kenneth Maharaj, Claudja Bicalho, Guyvlaud Joseph, Deborah Joy Occhipinti. Directed by Amy Miller Gross

 

Weddings are often joyous occasions, times when families are brought together to celebrate the joining of two lives, two families. They are also occasions for the most boorish and reprehensible behavior imaginable.

Audrey (Silverstone) has reached a crossroads in her life. She is trying to restart her career as an architect, a career she gave up to raise a family. She is turning 40 – this very weekend in fact – and has severe issues with her body, particularly her post-maternal belly which has never returned to the flat, svelte showpiece it once was. Her husband Ethan (Scott) is driving her to the hastily rescheduled wedding of her adored younger brother Liam (Hoffman), taking place at their old family home in the Hamptons, which Liam purchased some years back as his career in finance took off.

Now he is marrying a French wanna-be pop star, Clemence (Olivier) and Audrey immediately gets her hackles up. Clemence is a bit of a diva and tone-deaf at that; she seems to wear the pants in the family, and that is off-putting to Audrey to begin with, but when she discovers that the bride-to-be is pushing Audrey’s brother – who was her best friend growing up – to not merely refurbish the home she loved and had so many memories connected with her late mother but is completely turning it into an abomination and to add insult to injury, they are using Audrey’s ex Isaac (Bewley) as an architect and that to further make things awkward, have invited him to the wedding. Well, let’s just say it’s not the grounds for a strong relationship between sisters-in-law.

Gross references a lot of different touchstones, not the least of which are My Big Fat Greek Wedding and This is 40 in a bid to make a comedy that hits a lot of different demographics. Refreshingly, the wedding is a Jewish one so we miss all the tropes about Christian ceremonies that normally appear in movies like this. Strangely, in avoiding those cultural truisms, director Amy Miller Gross pulls out nearly all the stereotypes about the French – turning the family of the bride into whining, rude Bohemians who are certain they are superior to everybody else.

And perhaps that could have been played for laughs, but instead, Gross (who wrote the script) makes the odd choice of turning Audrey from a sympathetic character into a snarky to the point of flat-out cruelty bitch who takes what sympathy Gross spent the entire first half of the film accumulating for her and tossing it aside until one wonders why on earth anyone would tolerate her for even a moment, let alone the fifteen-plus years of marriage she has enjoyed with Ethan. And to make matters worse, she gets a mad case of mid-life crisis and spends a good part of the second half of the film trying to rekindle a romance with Isaac.

Even so, Gross still had a possibility of pulling it off with Alicia Silverstone in the lead, but it is hard to believe that this is the same actress who made Clueless so delightful, and I’m not just talking about the passage of time. Silverstone resorts to rubber-faced mugging throughout as if she had been convinced she was doing an Ace Ventura movie and it just doesn’t work. I know Silverstone hasn’t been getting a lot of work over the last decade but even so I know she can do better than this.

You can kind of see what Gross was going for and occasionally some things work, like the corrected title cards for each segment, and the use of Clemence’s songwriting partner Orson (Silver) as a kind of Greek chorus. I also like the exploration of why we have a tendency to always want more; as if having a great life and a great family isn’t enough. Maybe that’s part of being human, but we are constantly being bombarded with messages that tell us that we are underachieving and that we need to want more – more money, a better career, a happier family – than what we already have. Contentment has become so passe.

There are some indications that this could have been a much better movie than it turned out to be, so if you’re anything like me you’ll be frustrated by this film, but one can look at it as a learning experience for all involved and hope that their next projects will work out better for them and us.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a whole lot of neuroses going on.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as comedic as it could have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexuality and nudity, brief drug use and some comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed primarily on location in Amagansett, Long Island.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Best Friend’s Wedding
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Don’t Click

Isn’t It Romantic


Three’s a crowd.

(2019) Romantic Comedy (Warner Brothers Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Adam Devine, Priyanka Chopra, Betty Gilpin, Brandon Scott-Jones, Jennifer Saunders, Alexandra Kis, Jay Oakerson, Rao Rampilla, Marcus Choi, Hugh Sheridan, Luciano Acuna Jr., Ray Anthony Thomas, Zach Cherry, Sandy Honig, Rosemary Howard, Ron Nakahar, Tom Ellis, Michelle Buteau. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson

 

I have never been a huge Rebel Wilson fan, but even I can see that the girl’s got skills. Part of my problem with Wilson is that she seems to be cast in very similar roles that after a while, get monotonous. The good news here is that she is the lead for the first time In her career, and she has been given a part that is unlike anything she’s ever played before.

The bad news is that it isn’t a part like anything we haven’t seen before. She’s Natalie, a junior architect at a New York City firm in which she is ignored and marginalized – the billionaire client (Hemsworth) whose project she’s working on, continually asks her to fetch coffee for him. As with many people in the Big Apple, she is alone. Cynically rejecting the tropes of romance and of romantic comedies in particular, she sees herself as a realist – until a bonk on the head during a subway mugging knocks her unconscious, leading her to wake up in a world that IS a romantic comedy.

This is a nightmare for a cynic. All the clichés are here, from the gay best friend to the PG-13 coupling, to the way it always seems to rain when she kisses someone romantically. Most satires tend to be pretty hit and miss and that’s very true about Isn’t It Romantic but it does get some laughs – just not as many as I would have preferred. The ending is a bit sappy but pleasant in a surprising way and is geared to lift even the most grumpy soul out of the doldrums, which is something all of us can use lately.

REASONS TO SEE: Pleasantly surprising, particularly the ending.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much of the humor doesn’t work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual references and brief drug material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Strauss-Schulson watched over 90 rom-coms in just over two weeks in order to note similarities in visual styles so he could apply them to this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews, Metacritic: 60/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Enchanted
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Sunlit Night

Firstborn (Pirmdzimtais)


Even in Latvia, a stroll in the dark could end up costing you dearly.

(2017) Thriller (ArtsploitationKaspars Znotins, Maija Dovelka, Dainis Grube, Kaspars Zale. Directed by Aik Karapetian

What does it mean to be a man? In this era of #MeToo and renewed focus on rape culture and patriarchy, the book is being rewritten on the subject. Once upon a time, men were required to be providers and protectors, to rid the house of any creepy crawly spotted by the wife and to repair anything that requires it in the house. These days, on top of all of that, they are also required to not know where anything is in the house, to never ever ask for directions no matter what the cost and be able to anticipate whatever mood our mate is happening to experience at that particular moment.

All kidding aside, the nature of masculinity is changing and while that is on the surface a very good thing, what does that do to expectations? Francis (Znotins) is not, by any measure, a very masculine man. An architect, he is the very definition of a man who wouldn’t hurt a fly – possibly because he’s terrified the fly might turn around and beat the crap out of him.

As introverted as Francis is, his wife Katrina (Dovelka) is the polar opposite. Pretty much feminine by every standard, she is outgoing – the life of the party – and a beauty in any beholder’s eyes whereas Francis is a skinny and slight man who has a face that can only be described as ordinary. It is hard to figure out what she sees in him and by appearances she’s beginning to wonder too.

The two have been trying to get pregnant for some time without success. They go to a small party with friends who have a pretty amazing kid and Katrina is beginning to feel like her opportunity to have one of her own is rapidly passing her by. She has a little too much to drink and as the couple walk home, a passing motorcyclist (Zale) reaches out and tries to grab her purse unsuccessfully. She yells at him, prompting him to come back. He assaults both Francis (taking him out with a single punch) and Katrina, violating her with a tire iron. Humiliated and traumatized, she gives her assailant the purse.

Her relationship with Francis goes from barely cordial to much worse. It is clear she feels like he didn’t protect her when he was required to and to be honest, he doesn’t disagree. When he sees her getting chummy with the police detective assigned to the case (who happens to be an old flame of Katrina’s) he decides to find the mugger himself, and force him to return the bag and apologize to his girl. You can imagine that this is going to go all sorts of bad and it does but not in the way you’d think.

There is really not a lot of subtlety here; Karapetian makes no bones about what his interest is here. Francis undergoes something of a transformation from a meek, mousy sort to one full of toxic masculinity who begins to take out his insecurities on Katrina, even after he finds out she’s finally pregnant. There follow a lot of twists and turns, some of which any regular viewer of thrillers will be able to suss out in advance.

Karapetian is actually quite brilliant behind the camera particularly in terms of his shot composition and his framing. Whether filming in dimly lit apartments (one has to wonder if Francis and Katrina are paying their electric bill) or in remote snowy landscapes, the look of the film is distinctive. It doesn’t hurt that both Dovelka and Znotins deliver strong, believable performances. During the initial encounter with the motorcycle-riding thug, the danger is palpable and the scene is terrifying in a realistic way that directors of Hollywood thrillers often get wrong. This one feels like it could have happened exactly as depicted.

The film does take its time in getting to its denouement and maybe some American viewers will find this a bit too long for their tastes. There are some scenes in the middle the movie didn’t need to be honest. Still, as thrillers go this one is top notch and it is likely to get thinking audiences doing just that; it certainly will make for some interesting discussion. I’m not sure I agree with Karapetian’s point of view completely but I give him props for having one.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot and framed.
REASONS TO AVOID: Runs a little too long and moves a little too slow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (some of it brutal), sexual situations, profanity, nudity and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Karapetian was born in Armenia but raised in Latvia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Straw Dogs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Captain Black

Dead Pigs


Old Wang comes charging to the rescue!

(2018) Dramedy (China Lion) Vivian Wu, Haoyu Yang, Mason Lee, Zazie Beetz, David Rysdahl, Meng Li, McColl Cowan. Directed by Cathy Yan

 

In the “that’s something you don’t see every day” department, thousands of dead pigs were discovered floating in the waterways near Shanghai back in 2013. That was enough to give Chinese-American director Cathy Yan plenty of inspiration.

Old Wang (Yang) is a pig farmer who lives well beyond his means. While he happily supplies the insatiable need for pork in the city, he discovers all the money which he has invested in the stock market has been absconded with by his broker. Suddenly broke and in debt to loan sharks, he first visits his sister Candy Wang (Wu), the successful owner of a beauty salon for the dough. She’s having issues of her own however; a big development company is putting together a new multi-use complex and her property is the last one not to sell. All the others have been bulldozed so there is no neighborhood left but Candy stubbornly clings to the old, creaking and falling-apart house. Her brother begs her to sell so they can split the proceeds but Candy refuses.

Next Old Wang heads to his son Zhen (Lee) who he believes is a successful businessman. However, Zhen has been hiding the truth from his father; he’s merely a waiter at a suckling pig restaurant. He has also developed a crush on poor little rich girl Xia Xia (Li) who is diffidently going through life from one party to the next, sure her friends love her and shocked when she finds out that they don’t really care. Sean Landry (Rysdahl) is the ex-pat American architect for Golden Happiness which is heading the development threatening Candy’s home – ironically it is to be a recreation of a Spanish village. Sean has some skeletons in his closet of his own – he might have overstated his qualifications on his resume just a tad. He’s hoping this project will leapfrog him to the wealth, power and happiness he’s been chasing. Chasing Sean is Angie (Beetz) who runs a kind of dating service for affluent foreigners in Shanghai.

All will come to a head as the five entwined stories come together. The story ends on kind of a Hollywood-type ending that most film buffs will sniff out a mile away but that doesn’t take away from the pleasantly quirky debut that Yan has concocted with her feature debut. Veteran actress Wu steals the show, being the conscience of the film and despite her sometimes acerbic and grumpy persona, she has genuine reasons for taking the hopeless stand she does. Young Mason Lee, son of director Ang, shows some promise as the young besotted waiter and fills the screen with a kind of quiet decency that bodes well for a leading man future. Beetz who has begun a pretty solid climb to stardom herself is solid in little more than a cameo.

The film is nicely photographed by Federico Cesca and utilizes its Shanghai location nicely from the futuristic but largely sterile cityscapes to the much of the rural pig farms to the stark landscape of the bulldozed development-to-be. Antiseptic office spaces, kinetic nightclubs and fashionable restaurants also look dazzling under the watchful eye of Cesca.

This is what I would consider a twisted comedy with black accents but with enough heart to allow the flaws to be overlooked. It is certainly apropos and a parable of modern Chinese life – socioeconomic gaps, the loss of tradition in the rush to modernize, and the importance of family. This is definitely a solid debut and Yan a talent to keep an eye on.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s a very quirky film in all the right places. The cinematography is very nice.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little bit on the Hollywood side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zhangke Jia, who directed Ash is Purest White which is also playing the Miami Film Festival, executive produced this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Nightingale

Patient 001


What’s more beautiful than a new mom and her baby?

(2018) Science Fiction (Random Media) Jason Dietz, Gabe Doran, Rosie Fellner, Noah Fleiss, Michel Gill, Michael Hayden, Ezra Knight, Ian O’Malley, Steven Ogg, Alexandra Rhodie, Jenna Stern. Directed by Katie Fleischer

 

I have heard it said that there is nothing more insistent than a woman’s urge to become a mother. It claws and rends from the inside out and never lets go like a puppy with a chew toy. For some women that urge is more irresistible than in others.

Josie Kingman (Fellner) is deep in the grips of the urge. However, she has a problem; she wants to have a child only with her husband Leo (Hayden) and her husband lies in a coma, the victim of a terrible accident. She resorts to having sex with her unconscious husband, much to the bemusement of the hospital staff who watch her gyrate on top of him.

Nothing works and Josie is getting more desperate by the day. In her despair she is approached by Dr. Alec Jameson (Gill) who offers to help but not in the conventional way. Taking some DNA from the sleeping Leo, he essentially creates a clone, inseminating Josie with the cells which will eventually become Leo 2.0. She gives birth and wonder of wonders, Leo wakes up nearly immediately. At first Josie’s joy is without compare but then clouds begin to appear in the bright blue sky of her life. Whenever the baby and Leo get together, he has blinding headaches, terrifying visions and his personality becomes rage-filled. Eventually, Josie is faced with a terrible decision and she makes it but like many life-altering decisions, her choice will come back to haunt her.

We have seen movies about the consequences of cloning before and those consequences are almost always terrible. I don’t know what moviemakers have against clones, but they are almost always evil and have psychic powers. The clone here is no exception and like many movie clones, he is in full possession of the sins of the father – and by extension, his obsessions. Let us just say that the movie is a bit of a nod towards Oedipus and let it go at that.

It’s a low budget film and while there are some fairly artistic images for the most part the film is fairly standard for a movie of its genre in terms of story and production design. In other words, the look and the tale itself are nothing to write home about. Sadly, the acting is not up to par in a lot of cases; most of the performances seem forced and stiff. The exception is Fellner who not only is exquisitely beautiful and super sexy, she also commands a bit more natural charisma than the others. She has a thankless job that at times has her doing things they probably never told her about back in high school drama club but she at least goes at it like a trooper and acquits herself well.

That isn’t to say that this is a bad movie per se but it isn’t a very good one. There are a few good elements here, especially Fellner but not enough for me to recommend this movie unreservedly. If you’re looking for a hidden gem, this really isn’t it. However those who have an obsession with cloning there are worse films on the subject out there.

REASONS TO SEE: Fellner has some potential in the screen presence department.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story isn’t super compelling. The acting is on the stiff side for the most part.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and violence as well as sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Phillip Seymour Hoffman was set to executive produce the film until his untimely death.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Replicas
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Hunter

Jonathan


You’re never alone when you’re a schizophrenic.

(2018) Science Fiction (Well Go USA) Ansel Elgort, Suki Waterhouse, Patricia Clarkson, Matt Bomer, Douglas Hodge, Souleymane Sy Savane, Shunori Ramanathan, Joe Egender, Ian Unterman, Alok Tewari, Jeff Kim, Alaska M. McFadden, Ramses Torres, Teo Rapp-Olsson, Julie Mickelson.  Directed by Bill Oliver

 

Most people have facets to their personalities. They aren’t just one thing; not just a party animal, not just a career person, not just a mama’s boy (or girl). We are most of us several different people whose varied personalities make up our one personality. What would it be like if the different personality traits turned out to be different and separate consciousnesses, battling one another for control?

That is the situation Jonathan (Elgort) is in. By day he is a ramrod-straight, obsessive draftsman for an architectural firm where he is just on the cusp of breaking into an important role. By night, he is a laid-back physical guy who drinks, hangs out with friends and is messy. Essentially, Jonathan and his other self John are twin brothers inhabiting the same body. They have been cared for nearly all their lives by the wise and maternal Dr. Mina Nariman (Clarkson) who often acts as a kind of mediator between the two brothers.

There are rules they must follow, mainly because they don’t want their secret discovered although to be honest I was never clear as to why they couldn’t let anybody know what they were going through. The boys each dictate a video diary which the other one reads when they “wake up” before recording their own diary when they go “to sleep.” That way, both brothers are prepared for the reactions neighbors and acquaintances might have for them.

The problems begin when John falls for a pretty barmaid/cocktail waitress named Elena (Waterhouse) and doesn’t tell Jonathan about it. When Jonathan finds clues that there’s something that may be going on, he hires a private investigator (Bomer) to figure out what’s going on. When he discovers the truth, he is furious and insists that John end the relationship. John refuses and so Jonathan takes it upon himself to do it for him by telling her the truth. She naturally thinks John is schizophrenic and breaks things up, which causes a rift between the brothers, a rift that only deepens when Jonathan finds himself falling in love with Elena himself.

The brothers’ 12 hour control “shifts” (John gets 7pm through 7am to be conscious, Jonathan from 7am to 7pm) is regulated by a doohickey which is where the science fiction element comes in. While this is set in a recognizable present day, the cold and sterile environs of the office Jonathan works in, the apartment he lives in, and the doctor’s office he visits weekly give an almost dystopian THX-1138 feel to the movie. In fact, the visuals are so antiseptic at times the movie feels nearly colorless and emotion-free. That’s a reflection of Jonathan’s cold and calculating personality, and it is through his eyes we primarily see the events of the movie.

Elgort has mainly been cast in teen heartthrob roles although from time to time he has shown glimpses of raw talent. This is his best performance – or performances – to date. The two twins are definitely separate personalities and Elgort looks comfortable and believable in both of them. Waterhouse has to react to both halves of the Jonathan whole and she does so admirably although fairly colorlessly. She isn’t given much personality to work with and mainly exists in the film as a fulcrum to spark the dissension between the two personalities.

For the most part the script is smart, refusing to take shortcuts and in fact nicely mapping out the rules of the world Jonathan exists in. Yes, there may be a sci-fi doohickey involved but it’s more of a MacGuffin than a focal point. That keeps the tech from getting too distracting.

This is definitely aimed at those who prefer thought-provoking science fiction over space operas. Critic Warren Cantrell of The Playlist even discusses the Freudian implications of the two separate Johns (you can read his analysis here) which is a fascinating interpretation and not wrong at all. As things start to break down for Jonathan, the color palate for the film grows more diverse – more food for thought.

In short (too late), this is a well-developed well-considered movie of the type we don’t get enough of these days. It’s a solid feature debut for Oliver and while some may find the sterility of Jonathan a bit off-putting, those who like to exercise their grey matter may find this film a decent workout.

REASONS TO GO: Elgort pulls off a difficult task. The script is intelligent and well-thought out.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this too sterile and intellectual.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a brief picture of blisters that may be a bit disturbing for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the third time Elgort and Waterhouse have appeared together – they were also both in Insurgent and Billionaire Boys Club.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daniel
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
See Know Evil

Destined


In any reality, there are some guys you just don’t mess with.

(2016) Drama (XLRator) Cory Hardrict, Margot Bingham, Robert Christopher Riley, Jesse Metcalfe, Jason Dohring, Hill Harper, Zulay Henao, Mo McRae, La La Anthony, Demonte Thompson, Paula Devicq, James McCaffrey, Curtiss Cook, Robert Forte Simpson III, David Bianchi, Terri Partyka, Ricky Wayne, Sarab Kamoo, Martavious Grayles, Karen Minard. Directed by Qasim Basir

 

There is a theory that there are an uncountable number of realities, each one changing due to a different outcome in a pivotal moment; a choice made, a road not taken. Every outcome creates its own reality. This was explored somewhat in the romance Sliding Doors in which a missed train led to life-changing consequences for Gwyneth Paltrow.

Here, a young teen drug courier flees from the police. In one reality, he escapes and goes on to become Sheed (Hardrict), a ruthless drug kingpin who rules urban Detroit with the help of his volatile right hand man Cal (Riley). In the other, he stumbles and is caught by the police, straightens out his life and becomes an architect Rasheed (also Hardrict) who with the encouragement of close friend Calvin (also Riley) prepares to demolish his old neighborhood and erect gentrified condominiums in its place.

The two realities are differentiated by camera filters; in the Sheed story there is a warm, orange filter; in the Rasheed story the filter is more of a cool blue. Once you figure out the difference, it is generally pretty easy to tell which story is which although occasionally there is some confusion which might just be a continuity issue.

I did like the concept a great deal, which is meant to illustrate how a seemingly random change can have an earth-shattering effect on an individual life but some of the differences between the two realities seem to be inexplicable. In the Rasheed reality, Dylan Holder (Metcalfe) is a corrupt corporate type who works with Rasheed; in the Sheed reality, he is a relentless police officer looking to put an end to the reign of a drug boss. It doesn’t make sense that an arrest could have such a polarizing effect on Holder. Also, in the Rasheed reality his mother (Devicq) is a drug addict reaping the benefits of her son’s underworld status; in the other she is supportive and clean. How would her son’s arrest change her from a junkie to mother of the year?

In a lot of ways the Rasheed tale is much more interesting than the more generic Sheed story. The erosion of Rasheed’s conscience in the name of ambition resonates with me more. We’ve seen characters like Sheed in a number of thug life movies and he doesn’t really add a whole lot to the mix. Rasheed on the other hand is someone who is struggling between making a better life for himself but begins to wonder if the cost is too high. Most of us have to choose from time to time between the greater good and self-interest.

In each reality, Sheed/Rasheed are ambitious and ruthless, both willing to do whatever it takes to make that big score that will set him up for life. In each reality, he is pining for Maya (Bingham), a childhood friend who is trying to better herself. Either way, Sheed/Rasheed has an appointment with a loaded gun which seems to indicate that no matter what you do or how you live, you’re still going to end up at the same destination which seems to defeat the purpose of the whole film.

Hardrict is a compelling presence who could join actors like Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman and John Boyega as big stars. He shows some rough edges here but with a little more experience and the right roles he has unlimited potential. His is definitely a name to remember coming out of this film.

Basir also utilizes the bleak urban war zone landscape of Detroit to full effect; in the Rasheed stories, he shows a dilapidated high rise being torn down as a kind of metaphor. The Sheed storyline packs a few too many clichés of the urban crime drama – the hip hop club where drug lords go to have a few drinks with their entourage, glare at one another, start wars with one another and argue with their nagging girlfriends. They don’t seem to be there to have a good time as we never see much dancing. There’s also the hotheaded pal who becomes a rival for power within his own gang. And so on. And so forth.

This is far from being a complete success. There are definitely signs of talent and imagination behind the camera and in front of it but Basir and crew don’t quite pull together a solid movie. Part of the issue is that the two stories don’t intertwine well; they need to flow together more smoothly and harmonize, each story complimenting the other. Often the movement from one story to the other seems somewhat arbitrary and without purpose. When the final credits roll, the viewer is left wondering what the point of the movie was other than as acting as an exercise in filmmaking that will lead to bigger and better things for all involved. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s hard to recommend for viewing a movie that at times feels like a practice run.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is a good one, although not original. Basir does a good job of delineating between the two realities.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a lot of stock urban crime tropes. The ending is somewhat anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are all sorts of profanity, violence, sexuality and occasional drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the producers is Rick Rosenthal, director of two movies in the Halloween franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sliding Doors
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Big Sonia

The Light of the Moon


Sometimes you can only hold each other in the dead of the night.

(2017) Drama (Imagination Worldwide) Stephanie Beatriz, Michael Stahl-David, Conrad Ricamora, Catherine Curtin, Cindy Cheung, Susan Heyward, Jessica M. Thompson, Olga Merediz, Craig Walker, Heather Simms, Cara Loften, Christine Spang, Patricia Noonan, Christian Barber, Mike Ivers, Michael Cuomo, Nelly Savinon, Sarah Dacey-Charles, Jennifer Bareilles, Ashley Van Egeren. Directed by Jessica M. Thompson

 

In the wake of revelations about celebrity sexual predators (i.e. Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey) along with a commander-in-chief who thinks it’s perfectly okay to grab the genitals of a woman uninvited, there is no doubt that we have a culture predisposed to rape. To be a woman in 2017 means that she has to be absolutely aware of her surroundings at all times; she doesn’t have the freedom to walk alone at night, to accept drinks from strangers that she hasn’t  watched the bartender pour, to be subjected to the icy predatory stares of men checking her out, the condescending remarks and to be judged more on how she looks than who she is. Being a woman in 2017 to be frank is scary, and to raise a daughter in this time is heartbreaking, knowing what she is likely to experience before she is even old enough to vote.

Bonnie (Beatriz) is an architect working for a firm that is a rising star in the field. She’s been given a major project to lead and she’s putting in a lot of hours, wanting to make a big splash. She lives in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn only a few blocks from where she works. Her boyfriend Matt (Stahl-David) also has a career that demands a lot of time from him; he was supposed to meet Bonnie and some of her work friends for after-work drinks but had to blow her off to entertain a client.

Bonnie has been through the drill before though and she and her friends Priya (Loften) and Jack (Ricamora) drink heavily, dance like there’s no tomorrow and generally have the kind of good time that New Yorkers seem to instinctively know how to have. As her friends scatter, Bonnie refuses Jack’s offer to share a cab and decides to walk the few blocks home.

Intoxicated and wearing headphones, she doesn’t hear her attacker until it’s much too late. She is dragged into an alley and raped. It isn’t a long, drawn-out attack but to Bonnie it musts have seemed interminable. Her attacker, having done what he wanted to do, leaves her to pull her panties up, gather herself together, wipe herself off with tissue paper and stagger back home. Matt hasn’t arrived yet so she puts her panties and the tissue paper she wiped herself off with and when Matt arrives home and sees the black eye and nasty cut on her forehead, accompanies her to the Emergency Room. Led to believe it was only a mugging, she confesses in a small child-like voice that she was raped.

Matt is devastated, guilty that he wasn’t there to protect her as she should have been. Bonnie wants as few people to know as possible – she tells her colleagues at work that she was mugged but neglects to mention the sexual assault. She also refuses to tell her family that she was raped, leaving Matt, the detectives working her case and the DA who is prosecuting it the only ones who know.

At first Matt is overly attentive, fixing her breakfast, coming home early and cooking dinner. Bonnie wonders why he wasn’t giving her this much TLC before she was raped. She seems to be in a place where she just wants to move on and put it behind her but Matt worries that she’s not really dealing with the trauma. When he suggests she join a support group, Bonnie snarls “I don’t want to join the Sisterhood of Rape Victims.”

Intimacy between Matt and Bonnie becomes a minefield. He is concerned about hurting her; she wants the sex to be as raw and as rough as it was before the incident. Gradually the two begin to move inexorably apart; Matt desperately wants to do the right thing but doesn’t understand what Bonnie needs. Bonnie herself just wants to put her ordeal behind her but everybody who know about her rape treats her like she’s made of glass. When Matt tries to explain “This happened to us” he doesn’t realize how that must sound to Bonnie; nor does Bonnie understand that there is an element of truth in that Matt is affected by her trauma.

I wasn’t sure that this movie was going to be anything but a glossy Lifetime movie version of a serious topic but my fears on that subject turned out to be groundless. This is a powerful, sometimes raw and sometimes very hard to watch look at the aftermath of one of the worst things that can happen to a woman. Survivors of sexual assault may end up being triggered by the movie; although the rape scene itself isn’t very graphic (there is no skin and the scene is mostly dark and a close-up of Bonnie’s face) it is still very realistic and may not be suitable for those sensitive to depictions of sexual assault. You should decide for yourself if you are up for viewing the movie on that basis.

That said it is an educational look at the aftermath which is something that often gets short shrift in the discussion of rape. Bonnie finds that people look at her differently as a sexual assault victim; she becomes an object of pity, one to be handled delicately. Bonnie doesn’t want to be handled; she knows she’s strong, she knows she is a survivor and she simply wants to move on. Society wants her to deal with the trauma and she simply doesn’t want to. Is her approach a healthy one? Most would say no, but who’s to say what’s healthy for one individual may not be for another?

Beatriz gives us a searing performance; Bonnie can be both brittle and fragile, or tough and strident. There aren’t a lot of histrionics here but there are a lot of powerful emotions handled with empathy and with dignity. Beatriz, who is known most for her role on Brooklyn Nine Nine is a star in the making. Performances like this can move her right up to the next level.

There are some things that I wish first-time feature filmmaker Thompson would have done a little differently; the indie trope of the young professionals living in an amazing book-filled apartment in New York City (at a rent that would likely cost them the GNP of a small country in real life) and the overuse of Bonnie going into a dissociative trance with the sound getting muddied like the microphone is underwater. Other than that, this is truly a rich story well told and well acted and tackling a subject that is often taboo but is something that we SHOULD be talking about.

With all the focus on how much sexual assault, molestation and harassment that goes on today it is time that we had a conversation about the real trauma of rape and this movie helps to initiate that conversation. In that sense it is as timely a film as it possibly could be but then again this is a conversation long overdue. Again, some survivors may have a hard time with this and should be aware of what their tolerance for this kind of realism I going to be. Beyond that, this is a movie everybody should see.

REASONS TO GO: The acting performances are strong throughout and Beatriz is absolutely extraordinary. A timely arrival in the wake of the Facebook “Me Too” campaign. A realistic relationship and the effects of sexual assault on that relationship are portrayed.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few indie clichés in the mix.
FAMILY VALUES: There is an intense depiction of a rape, sexual content, profanity, violence and it goes without saying, adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the crew including the director, writer, cinematographer and editor are either women or minorities.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Accused
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
ADDicted

Pop Aye


Never get between a man and his elephant.

(2017) Drama (Kino Lorber) Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Bong, Chaiwat Khumdee, Naronng Pongpab, Yukontorn Sukkijja. Directed by Kirsten Tan

Sometimes we get feelings in our lives that threaten to overwhelm us, feelings we just can’t ignore. They become the elephant in the room, that feeling like we don’t fit in any longer or never fit in, that life has somehow managed to pass us by. Sometimes it takes a desperate action to get our lives back in order.

Thana (Warakulnukroh) is an architect who no longer feels at home in the firm he helped put on the map. Once a brilliant, bright shining future, he designed Gardenia Square, a shopping center which is now slated for demolition a mere twenty years after it was built. The son of his former boss now runs things and has replaced most of the architects with younger men who look at Thana as something of a dinosaur whose only use is to provide files.

Things are bad at home as well. His wife Bo (Sirikul) no longer seems attracted to Thana – and to be fair, his attempts at seduction are mostly awkward. Bo lives to shop and while her husband was a well-respected architect, there were plenty of things to buy. These days she knows she’s married to a man widely regarded as a fool and their marriage is a shell that isn’t going to last much longer. She seems shallow when we first meat her but as the movie goes on we see that there are heretofore hidden depths that explain her actions somewhat.

One day in the streets of Bangkok Thana spies an elephant (Bong) who he believes to be the elephant that he once had as a boy in the village of Loei, some 300 miles northeast of Bangkok. Nicknamed Popeye after a favorite cartoon of his as a youth (he trained the elephant to do the “toot toot” at the end of the “I’m Popeye the sailor man” theme), the elephant is mostly a means of making a quick buck for the mahout that owns him. Wanting more for his beloved elephant, Thana buys him on the spot and tries to bring him home but Bo is not having it.

Instead, Thana who has grown tired and disillusioned with city life decides to return to Loei where Thana’s Uncle Peak (Pongpab) will care for the creature. He and Popeye begin a journey from the bustling city of Bangkok into rural Thailand where they will meet a bevy of eccentric characters, including a transgender woman named Jenny (Sukkijja) who Thana treats with some compassion and who eventually gets a chance to return the favor, Dee (Khumdee), a gregarious homeless man living in an abandoned gas station who knows that his days are numbered but only regrets having left the love of his life whom he wishes to connect with one last time and a pair of officious police officers who are trying to move Thana and Popeye to the police station for “violating urban tidiness” even though the cops encounter the two on a road in the middle of nowhere.

All of these encounters serve to help Thana grow into a different man, one at peace with the disappointments of his life. While it may be true, as Thomas Hardy once put it, that you can never go home again, Thana finds out the secret to life; home is where you are at.

Tan was born in Singapore and has lived in a variety of places including Thailand where she worked as a t-shirt vendor on the streets of Bangkok. Now based in New York after attending the Tisch School of Visual Arts, she has made several impressive shorts. This is her feature-length film debut and it is a strong one. The movie has a gentle kind of surrealism to it that makes of unusual situations a kind of normality that makes them more palatable to the viewer. There is a sense of humor throughout but it is a gentle one, more of a chuckle than a guffaw at the ridiculousness of life.

The cast is mainly unprofessional but they do a fair enough job in conveying the various eccentricities of the various characters involved.  Warakulnukroh, a former progressive rock musician, manages to convey the puzzlement of Thana as he moves through a life that has left him behind. I don’t get the sense that he’s trying to adjust very much; he seems to be fairly bothered by the situation but doesn’t seem too motivated to change things until Popeye shows up. Khumdee also has some quiet moments that are compelling in his all-too-brief appearance here.

Most important here is the elephant and he is more expressive than a lot of human actors I’ve seen. I’ve never had the privilege of looking directly into the eyes of an elephant but there is a wisdom and sadness locked in those pachyderm eyes, an emotion that conveys empathy for the plight of Thana and by extension, himself. In many ways, Popeye is our avatar, marching slowly and resolutely towards an end that is pre-ordained but not necessarily without surprise. It is indeed the journey and not the destination since we’re all headed the same way anyway.

The movie is pretty slow-paced and might have benefited from some shorter more concise scenes particularly in the middle third. Keep in mind that an elephant never gets anywhere from anywhere else quickly so your best bet is to sit back and just enjoy the ride and that’s really good advice for watching any movie like Pop Aye. Allow it to wash over you and immerse you in its gently skewed universe. The ending is a little unexpected which is most appreciated, and you never really know what’s around the next bend in the road. All good journeys are like that.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a low-key sense of humor. The elephant is a keeper.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a touch too long and may be too slow-paced for some viewers. Some characters just fade from the movie without explanation.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tan won the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first filmmaker from Singapore to win an award at the prestigious event.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walkabout
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: I Don’t Feel at Home In this World Anymore