American Folk (September 12)


Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth are fine musicians but they’re not above being corny.

(2017) Drama (Good Deed) Joe Purdy, Amber Rubarth, David Fine, Krisha Fairchild, Bruce Beatty, Elizabeth Dennehy, Miranda LaDawn Hill, Emma Thatcher, Holger Moncada Jr., Julian Gopal, Lawrence Mandley, Noah Craft, Bradford Barnes, Paul White, Shelly West, Maryann Strossner, Andrew Walton (voice), Greg Williams, James Perry, Ricky Aynes, Isabella George Brown. Directed by David Heinz

 

The road movie is an institution as American as, well road trips themselves. Exploring our own country is something we often fail to do in our busy lives but there is something that is truly uplifting about getting in a car and driving down the open road in whatever direction you happen to fancy, particularly when we take the back roads and avoid the Interstates which are, I grant you, soulless and Godless.

Elliott (Purdy) is a folk musician in an L.A. hotel room with maybe the thinnest walls ever – or a neighbor in the adjoining room with the worst temper ever, constantly banging on the wall whenever Elliott softly strums his guitar and sings into the cassette deck, working on a song. He has to get to New York City to begin a gig as a member of a band called the Hairpin Triggers, a gig that he’s not overjoyed about but as his agent intimates, may be his last opportunity to continue to make a living as a musician.

He’s not much of a people person so as the flight takes off he puts on his headphones and zones out. However the bright perky woman sitting next to him, Joni (Rubarth) whips out a splitter and listens in. I’ve never had that happen on a flight before but I suppose in all the annals of transcontinental air travel it must have happened o someone. Anyway, rather than punching her in the face, he strikes up an awkward conversation with her that is cut off when the flight is turned around and forced to land back at LAX. It’s not because of engine trouble or a medical emergency – all flights are being grounded. The date is September 11, 2001.

Elliott desperately has to get to New York and Joni has to return to take care of her ailing mother who is under the auspices of a none-too-reliable sister so Joni invites Elliott back to the house she was staying in with family friend Scottie (Fairchild), an ex-hippie and former touring musician herself. She lends the two a 1972 Chevy Van (and only children who grew up in the 70s will appreciate the Sammy Johns reference) and off they go.

The van has a tendency to overheat so the Interstates are a non-starter. They take back highways instead until the van gives up the ghost in the desert. They are pointed in the direction of Vietnam vet Dale (Fine) who lives out in the sand dunes by himself but can fix just about anything. The two travelers begin to bond over music and a shared love of traditional American folk – the music of Pete Seeger, Odetta, Joan Baez and John Prine among others.

Along the way they run into other people who grab their attention but particularly a lesbian couple from San Francisco named Bianca (Hill) and Emily (Thatcher) who are on their way to Virginia to meet Bianca’s parents…and to come out to her very stiff-necked father (Beatty). Getting to New York the two begin to realize that it was truly  all about the journey and not the destination – and it would be a journey they’d remember forever.

I went into this movie thinking that it would be about folk music but in many ways it really isn’t. Think of the title for a moment – it’s not about American Folk but about American folks. This is a snapshot of a moment in our history when the country was drawing together and unifying in the face of a dreadful, horrible attack. That the unity that we experienced in those days and weeks following 9-11 has been completely lost makes it doubly tragic only 16 years after the fact.

Purdy and Rubarth make strong leads; Purdy is quiet and introspective, Rubarth outgoing and open-hearted. They are an opposites attract sort of couple but then again this is no rom-com; this is definitely a road movie and while they do bond there’s never a sense that they will remain together once they pull up in New York. Some viewers may end up wishing they had.

There is some great music on the soundtrack, much of it played and sung by Rubarth and Purdy (the two are touring together in support of the movie doing folk dates throughout the country). It is well that the filmmakers actually shot on the road rather than in a single state or soundstage; we get the flavor of the couple’s travels and that adds a lot to the enjoyment of the movie overall.

While the film gets a little flat in the middle, it does keep the interest high throughout. It has a gentle heart and a dulcimer’s soul, and the harmonies that Purdy and Rubarth make while singing echo in the very DNA of the film. I can’t say that there is anything particularly revelatory here – the healing power of music is well-known and road movies are nothing new, but still I found myself enjoying the journey. I think you just might, too.

REASONS TO GO: Purdy and Rubarth are surprisingly strong leads. The music the two make is really very good and the classic folk on the soundtrack works as well.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few indie clichés scattered here and there. The movie loses some momentum in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some sophisticated themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Purdy and Rubarth are veteran singer/songwriters in folk and other American music forms. This is the first onscreen acting role for the both of them. In addition, this is Heinz’ debut as a feature film director after a long and distinguished career in film editing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Easy Rider
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Tikli and Laxmi Bomb

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In the Shadow of Iris (Iris)


There are layers of deceit when it comes to sexual fetishes.

(2017) Thriller (Netflix) Romain Duris, Charlotte Le Bon, Jalil Lespert, Camille Cotin, Adel Bencherif, Sophie Verbeck, Héléne Barbry, Jalis Laleg, Violetta Sanchez, Gina Haller, Félix Cohen, Waël Sersoub, Benoit Rabillé, Antoine Bujolli, Mourad Frarema, Vincent Dos Reis, Olivier Galzi, Christian Ameri, Nicolas Grandhomme, Betony Vernon, Alexandra Langlais. Directed by Jalil Lespert

 

Who knows what is in a woman’s mind (or a man’s for that matter but that’s for a different review) behind the façade of civility? All sorts of things percolate; the woman who may seem to be a model wife may have cheating on her mind. The woman who seems proper and prim may indulge in fetishes and perversions that would shock you if you knew.

Iris (Le Bon) is the wife of wealthy Parisian banker Antoine Doirot (Lespert). They are at lunch one afternoon when she excuses herself for a smoke. When she doesn’t return, at first Antoine wonders if she didn’t decide to go shopping without saying goodbye but as the day wears on and there’s no sign of her he begins to worry…but then the call comes in on his smart phone complete with a photo of his wife tied up and gagged in some dark room. The ransom is high but affordable for someone like Antoine.

She is in the possession of auto mechanic Max Lopez (Duris) who not only is in financial trouble and dealing with a divorce, but is about to lose his home due to Antoine’s bank. Yet he is not a suspect right away; though he has a criminal record, nobody thinks he has the skills to pull something like this off. As the police detectives Vasseur (Cotin) and Ziani (Bencherif) look into the matter more deeply, it quickly becomes clear that all is not as it seems – and that nobody is as they seem in this twisted drama.

This French thriller has noir-ish elements as well as being heavy on the erotic. Playing heavily into the plot are bondage and S&M fetishes – one scene includes a dominatrix whipping the hell out of a main character’s back, almost into unconsciousness. There is sex on top of a murder victim by the murderer, and there are all sorts of references to marital infidelity, sexual violence and prostitution. This is most definitely not for family viewing, unless your family hangs out in leather clubs.

I’m not a prude but the eroticism feels a bit gratuitous to me. It doesn’t really make too much of a difference in the plot really but that’s neither here nor there. If you’re into S&M it’s fairly tame stuff compared to what you might find on some of the adult movie sites but more realistic than what you’ll find in the Fifty Shades movies.

The real problem here is that Lespert inserts flashbacks throughout the film to explain some of the things going on, but there’s no real way of telling you’re watching something from a different time until often later in the movie. It’s confusing as hell and the plot, convoluted already, doesn’t need that kind of confusion. Lespert is decent enough with the tension, keeping viewers into the movie but sometimes it’s truly hard to figure out what’s going on. It doesn’t help matters that Lespert and Duris look fairly similar and the only way to tell them apart is when Max is wearing his mechanic coveralls – which he doesn’t always do.

On the plus side the soundtrack is awesome with a lot of great pop and rock songs from France, England and the U.S. I’d go so far as to say that it may have the best soundtrack of any of the Netflix original films I’ve seen thus far. Still, if you’re looking for an erotic thriller, there is a lot going for this one. There’s also a lot going against it, to be fair. I think what it boils down to is whether you can tolerate the film’s flaws, are able to tolerate (or if you have a thing for) bondage and S&M, and if you don’t mind subtitles. If the answer to all of those are positive, definitely have at this one.

REASONS TO GO: Lespert does a fine job of maintaining tension. The soundtrack is excellent.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points are far-fetched. The flashbacks are often confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity, sexual situations, brief language and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a loose remake of the 2000 Hideo Nakata film Chaos. Initially this was going to be an American film but when no studio would finance it, the movie was shopped to other countries with a French production company footing the bill.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Disappearance of Alice Creed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
American Folk

Vacancy


This is not the kind of room service you want in a motel.

This is not the kind of room service you want in a motel.

(2007) Horror (Screen Gems) Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry, Scott G. Anderson, Mark Casella, David Doty, Caryn Mower, Meegan E. Godfrey, Kym Stys, Andrew Fiscella, Norm Compton, Ernie Misko, Bryan Ross, Chevron Hicks, Kevin Dunigan, Chuck Lamb, Richie Varga, Cary Wayne Moore, Dale Waddington Horowitz. Directed by Nimrod Atal

 

We take hotels for granted. We check in and go to sleep, completely vulnerable. We don’t know who is at the front desk, or what sort of people they are. They have access to our rooms, could enter while we’re sleeping and do God knows what to us and we wouldn’t know it was happening until it was too late.

David (Wilson) and Amy (Beckinsale) Fox are already having a bad night. Their marriage is already sinking into a morass of self-recrimination, self-medication and naked hostility following the tragic death of their son. On their way to a family function, David decides to take a shortcut off the interstate and is soon hopelessly loss. His navigator Amy is in a Xanax-induced snooze bordering on a coma, awakening to find one more reason to bicker.

A raccoon in the middle of the road causes David to swerve and crash. Nobody is hurt, not even the raccoon, but the car is barely drivable. They limp into a gas station that is anything but all-night. A friendly mechanic (Embry) tries to help them, telling them there might be a mechanic on duty in a town down the road, but their car has other ideas. They only make a few miles before their car expires of plot contrivance.

The bickering couple hoofs it back to the gas station, but the friendly mechanic is gone for the night. However, the fleabag hotel next door is open for business. The smarmy night clerk (Whaley) gives them a room with a view – of the parking lot. Hey, it’s the honeymoon suite. At first, David and Amy are not thrilled about spending a night in the same bed. After seeing the stains on the bed and the bugs in the bathroom, they aren’t thrilled about spending a night in THIS bed. Resigned to a terrible night, David puts on a videotape in the high-tech VCR on the TV which you half-expect to find rabbit ears on.

They see what appears to be a cheap horror movie of half-nude women being raped and slashed to pieces by masked killers. Then David notices something familiar about the scene. The bedspread looks an awful lot like the one in the flea-bitten room they are staying in. So do the curtains. Disquieted, David puts another cassette in and discovers it to be much the same thing – a couple being horribly murdered in a room not unlike their own. That’s when Amy makes the startling realization that it is their room. Their every move is being watched through a series of hidden cameras placed throughout the room. The sound of insistent knocking on their door signals the beginning of a night of terror in which the odds are stacked against them as a trio of killers comes after them to make the next episode in their snuff film series. Will David and Amy be able to survive the night, or will some other unfortunate traveler see their tape in that broken-down motel room?

Luke Wilson has been charming in a great number of better movies, but he is a bit flat as a slasher film hero. It’s not for lack of effort, however; he just seems a bit stifled. Beckinsale, from the Underworld movies, is gorgeous and resourceful. She makes the perfect heroine for this kind of movie, although her character’s bitchy moments make it difficult to root for her survival. Whaley is appropriately creepy, and most of the other characters are either meat for the grinder, or the ones doing the grinding.

Director Atal made his English language debut. He made the impressive Kontroll a few years back and his visual style seems tailor made for Hollywood. His seedy hotel is really seedy and claustrophobic. Paul Haslinger’s score is Horror Film Music 101, but at least it isn’t intrusive. Beckinsale is very pleasing to look at, and there are a few genuine scares. There is almost a Jim Thompson quality to the motel and the night clerk working there. The action sequences are pulled off nicely.

The stranded travelers are a hoary old premise for terror flicks going back to the earliest days of the movies and Vacancy doesn’t contribute anything particularly new or exciting to the genre. Wilson isn’t a terribly convincing hero; you keep waiting for a punchline that is never delivered.

As horror movies go, this one is about average. Beckinsale is easy on the eyes and as mentioned above, there are some pretty decent scare sequences. However, I wound up with a feeling I’d seen it all before, and better. If you haven’t seen a lot of horror movies and you want to see this one, you might not mind the clichés that are thrown at you like a water buffalo to the face, but otherwise this is merely a diversion.

WHY RENT THIS: Some pretty good scares can be found here. Beckinsale is a resourceful slasher film heroine.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is pretty mundane. Wilson is a bit lackluster as the slasher film hero.
FAMILY MATTERS: The snuff film sequences are graphic and disturbing. There is also a great deal of violence, and a fair amount of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The film was shot on the same soundstage as The Wizard of Oz was.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD edition has an alternate ending; the Blu-Ray contains this and an alternate opening as well as a compilation of all the snuff footage in one feature if you’re of a mind to watch that.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.3M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now, Crackle, YouTube
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Strangers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Moana

Angels Crest


Here's an angel that Charlie missed.

Here’s an angel that Charlie missed.

(2011) Drama (Magnolia) Thomas Dekker, Lynn Collins, Jeremy Piven, Mira Sorvino, Elizabeth McGovern, Emma Macgillivray, Joseph Morgan, Greg Lawson, Chris Ippolito, Dave Brown, Colin A. Campbell, Marty Antonini, Ameko Eks Mass Carroll, Jonathan Lachlan Stewart, Julian Domingues, Aedan Tomney, Wally Houn, Lindsay Burns, Barbara Williams, Christianne Hirt, Kate Walsh. Directed by Gaby Dellal

Bad things happen, sometimes to good people and sometimes to bad. Even the worst of events that occur have nothing to do with a person’s goodness or lack thereof. What the true measure of a person is depends on how they deal with the truly awful things that life throws at us.

Ethan (Dekker) is a 21-year-old young man who works at an auto shop in the working-class Rocky Mountain town of Angels Crest. It’s one of those places where everyone knows everyone else, where rugged individualism is the expectation and where the bleak winters often mirror the bleak outlook for many, who have no hope of escaping the lives they lead.

Ethan is the father to 3-year-old Nate (Carroll) and his sole caregiver, mainly because Nate’s mommy Cindy (Collins) is a mess, a raging alcoholic who can barely care for herself with a side order of promiscuity. One bright afternoon, Ethan takes Nate for a boy’s trip into the woods. On the way back, an exhausted Nate falls asleep and as Ethan drives towards town, he sees some deer. For whatever reason, he gets out of his truck, makes sure Nate is strapped in to his child’s seat, and leaving the heater running, follows the deer out into the woods.

You can guess that wasn’t a very smart idea. When Ethan returns to the truck, Nate is gone. He searches through the woods fruitlessly, then races back to town, returning with a search party but Nate is nowhere to be found. It takes a little while but little Nate is eventually found, frozen to death. Of course, Ethan is devastated and the hot mess that is Cindy blames Ethan for her little boy’s demise.

The town is sharply divided by the event, some joining Cindy in blaming Ethan and calling for his arrest for negligence (a feeling that the prosecutor (Piven) shares) while others believe Ethan when he says he was gone for just a few minutes and that this was just one of those horrible things that could have happened to anyone.

Like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, the film examines the effects of a tragedy on a small town but the similarities end there. In the Egoyan film, the school bus accident that took the lives of a fair amount of children touched nearly every family in town; here, the directly affected are few. Still, the howls of Ethan’s grief are no less heart-wrenching no matter the number of children lost; in some ways the grief of a single person is more relatable than the grief of multiple people.

But the movie goes off the rails because of the excessive number of subplots which for the most part have no real bearing on the matter of hand. There is a lesbian couple (McGovern and Walsh) struggling for acceptance, with McGovern trying to win the affections of her own son (Domingues) who is also a horror show. The prosecutor has some deep dark secret that is motivating him to obsessively pursue an investigation that is tearing the town apart. A diner waitress (Sorvino) struggles to raise her own son on her own and happens to be Cindy’s best friend. Ethan’s best friend (Lawson) feels guilt over having been banging Cindy at the time of the incident.

All of these little subplots are enacted by characters whose only reason to be in the movie is to be involved in these subplots. They add no insight and don’t really enhance the story any. While the movie is beautifully shot with plenty of picturesque snow-covered vistas, the whole thing feels a bit like a soap opera more than a drama. While some of the scenes carry a good deal of emotional resonance, an equal number of scenes fall flat. This is as inconsistent a film as you’re likely to see.

Still, there is enough here that the movie is worth a casual glance if the opportunity presents itself although I wouldn’t put a whole lot of effort into seeking it out. The deficiencies in the film’s story and script nearly (but don’t quite) exceed the movie’s emotional impact.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the scenes work. Evocative. Beautiful cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes don’t. Heavy-handed and plodding. Soap opera-esque.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, strong language and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was titled Abandoned in the UK.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are interviews with Dekker and Sorvino.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $832 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone Baby Gone
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Creed

Wendy and Lucy


Wendy and Lucy

Lucy patiently awaits the return of Wendy.

 

(Oscilloscope) Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Larry Fessenden, Will Oldham, Walter Dalton, John Robinson, Marilyn Hickey, John Breen. Directed by Kelly Reichardt 

The world is not always an easy place to live in, but it’s particularly hard on those who have nothing. Sometimes even making a move from one place to another to find work can be an undertaking requiring the bravery of a soldier running into battle. 

Wendy (Williams) is down on her luck, having dwindling funds and no job. She is driving from Indiana to Alaska to (hopefully) find work in a cannery, although nothing is certain. She is alone save for her only friend in the world, Lucy (a golden retriever) whom she hangs onto like a life raft. The only love Wendy experiences in life comes from Lucy. 

Unfortunately, as often happens to those who can least afford it, disaster sets in. Her car breaks down in Portland, Oregon. Unnerved, she goes to a grocery store to get some dog food for Lucy, and winds up being arrested for shoplifting. By the time the mess is sorted out, Lucy is gone. The rest of the movie is taken up by Wendy’s search for her only friend in a place she doesn’t know. 

The plot is deceptively simple but undeniably effective. Most of us have, at one time or another, lived on the ragged edge, one paycheck away from utter disaster. We can all relate to having nothing, or being left with nobody. Director Reichardt brings a sense of realism to the movie that is palpable; there is little background music and nothing forced about the plot. 

There are a number of background characters who flit in and out, most notably Dalton as a security guard who is the only oasis of human kindness in the movie. Most of the other characters in the movie treat Wendy with indifference or contempt, which is how the homeless are generally regarded by most of us, as if they chose homelessness over a life of productivity. While some may have, every last one of them has feelings just like the rest of us and this film reminds us of that. 

Williams does a courageous job as Wendy, her face expressing so much of the internal dialogue, reflecting Wendy’s hope, terror and concern when need be. She has to carry the movie to a real extent and she does so with a good deal of dignity. This isn’t a glamorous role – far from it – but it’s a role that can make directors and producers sit up and take notice and hopefully Williams will get a few juicy roles out of this. 

This is the first movie I’ve seen by Reichardt although she’s done several, and I must say she’s quite a talent. She keeps the tone low (perhaps too low for those who prefer their movies more challenging) and quiet; this isn’t a movie that gets up in your face but rather, it sticks with you. She co-wrote the script along with original short story author Jonathan Raymond (the two also collaborated on Old Joy) and while this isn’t a strident call to arms, the spirit of Tom Joad is alive and well and living in this movie. That is quite the legacy as far as I’m concerned. 

WHY RENT THIS: A decent indie film about poverty and the bonds of love that are unshakable. Williams gives an impressive performance. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s gut-wrenching at times. The overall tone is a bit slow. 

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be a bit rough, and the subject matter is a little on the mature side; even though there’s a dog involved, this is probably more for the more mature members of the family than the kids. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to get into character, Williams did not bathe for the two weeks of shooting, wore no make-up and did not shave her legs or cut her fingernails. After shooting was completed, her friend actress Busy Philipps treated her to a manicure and pedicure. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Reichardt also acts as a visiting professor of film and electronic arts at Bard College; she has thoughtfully included five short films by four of her colleagues made from 1979 through 2004. 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably broke even or might have made a slight profit. 

FINAL RATING: 6/10 

TOMORROW: Zoom