Don’t Go


Ireland may not be the best place to go to assuage your grief.

(2018) Mystery (IFC) Stephen Dorff, Melissa George, Simon Delaney, Aoibhinn McGinnity, Grace Farrell, Gavin O’Connor, Lalor Roddy, Des Cave, Luke Griffin, Charlotte Bradley, Sean Mahon, Laurence O’Fuarain, Sahar Ali, Ella Connolly, Tara Breathnach, Grainne Coyne, Aiveen Gleeson. Directed by David Gleeson

When times are hard the movies tend to reflect that – not necessarily about the things causing those hard times but with films that reflect people going through hard times themselves. Any parent will tell you that the hardest time of all is losing a child; it’s not just the anguish of grief but the recriminations particularly when the death could have been prevented.

Writer Ben Slater (Dorff) and his wife Hazel (George) are going through exactly those circumstances. The two are renovating the family hotel that has been in Hazel’s genealogy for generations, a lovely boutique hotel right on the wild shoreline of Ireland. Ben is teaching at a local Catholic school where he pals around with the irreverent Father Sean (Delaney) who recognizes that Ben is using the booze a little too much, even for Ireland.

Often, Ben passes out on the beach near a rocky outcropping where he has a dream – or perhaps memory – of a family day at the beach not long before Molly (Farrell) fell down the stairs of the hotel and broke her neck. It was one of those lovely family days of building sand castles and two parents delighting in the antics of their daughter. Ben is also getting an odd recurring message: Seas the Day.

He becomes convinced that Molly, for whom spelling was a challenge, is the one behind the messages. He also begins to obsess with the idea that he is actually travelling into the past, particularly when he starts returning to wakefulness with mementos of that day clutched in his hand. In subtle ways he has begun changing things in the past but not enough to bring Molly back. To make matters worse, Hazel’s somewhat fragile and emotional friend Serena (McGinnity) has moved back in with them and she carries a secret that can break apart the already on thin ice couple. Things are definitely not right but what will Ben do to make things right?

Think of this as an Irish ghost story without the ghost. Molly’s presence is all over the place for Hazel and Ben, but she’s no apparition and there are no real scares here. Mostly, this is a mystery of a man desperate to change his circumstances and trying to interpret the clues left to him to do it. Dorff, a dependable performer who unfortunately has been stuck with comparisons to Kiefer Sutherland throughout his career, deserves better. His performance here is strong enough to take notice, although not strong enough to overcome the flaws in the script.

The story moves at an elephantine pace and it feels like it shouldn’t be. There are too many scenes that reconfirm points that have already been made; the script could have used a little more brevity or the film more judicious editing at the very least. At times it becomes too much the soap opera which undercuts the basic melancholy which suffuses the movie throughout. Then again, the grim tone could have used a little more lightness.

Besides Dorff, there are other reasons to see the movie. The picturesque Irish countryside and coast make for lovely backdrops and Ferry Corsten delivers a truly lovely score that enhances the beautiful images we are treated to. Still, this is a movie that just can’t seem to get out of its own way and while it comes together nicely with an ending that ties things together, it is definitely a downer of a movie that is best suited for rainy days and broken hearts.

REASONS TO GO: Both the score and the cinematography are lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much soap opera sabotages what would otherwise be a nifty concept.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, profanity and drug use extant.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Dorff will be a key cast member in the next edition of True Detective.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Time Traveler’s Wife
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story

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Lady Bird


There’s always a little love/hate in every mother-daughter relationship.

(2017) Dramedy (A24) Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, Odeya Rush, Kathryn Newton, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Laura Marano, Andy Buckley, Danielle Macdonald, Jordan Rodrigues, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kristen Cloke, Daniel Zovatto, John Karna, Bayne Gibby, Bob Stephenson, Marielle Scott, Chris Witaske, Suzanne LaChasse.  Directed by Greta Gerwig

 

Adolescence is a difficult period. We all undergo it; we don’t all survive it. We muddle through as best we can as we learn to find out who we are and hopefully, who we want to become. It’s a wonder that any of us live to be 21.

Christine McPherson (Ronan) insists that people call her “Lady Bird.” That isn’t her name; she just likes the sound of it. A high school senior at an all-girls Catholic school in suburban Sacramento, California, she is chafing at the bit to get free of the Great Central Valley and move somewhere sophisticated and cultured i.e. New York. Her mother Marion (Metcalf) would prefer that Lady Bird stay somewhere local, mainly because that’s about all the family can afford. At least Marion can take comfort in that her daughter, who is surprisingly smart, doesn’t really have the grades to get into any schools she really wants to go to.

Lady Bird has a fairly small circle; in addition to her mother with whom she has a contentious relationship, there’s her brother Miguel (Rodrigues) who graduated college but has only been able to find a job bagging groceries and her father Larry (Letts) who is as loving and kind as her mother is critical and demanding. Lady Bird’s bestie Julie Steffans (Feldstein) is, like herself, from the wrong side of the tracks. Julie is, like Lady Bird, on the outside looking in on the popularity scale.

Like most girls her age, Lady Bird is very interested in boys but they mystify her. She doesn’t really know how to act around them or to let them know she likes them. She’s also interested in sex but she wants it on her terms. I think it’s pretty much safe to say that Lady Bird wants to live life in all its aspects on her own terms which at 17 isn’t necessarily an unusual thing. She will explore different aspects of high school life, experience all sorts of different things both good and bad and continue to work towards her goal of going to college in New York, as hopeless a goal as it may seem.

The term “coming of age film” can cover a whole lot of sins but in this case, it is truly apt. We actually see real growth (as opposed to Hollywood growth which is generally unearned) in Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig, riding the director’s chair solo for the first time in her career, does a bang-up job. Although only semi-autobiographical (Gerwig has gone on record that this is more emotionally autobiographical than factually so) there is an air of authenticity to it. If Lady Bird isn’t Gerwig she’s certainly a cousin and that’s not a bad thing.

Ronan and Metcalf both turn in performances that have legitimate shots at Oscar nominations. When mother and daughter are going at it the screen just about crackles with electricity. Marion loves her daughter passionately but doesn’t always express that love in healthy ways. She’s outspoken (like her daughter) and hyper-critical which is definitely not appreciated. Larry does his best to mitigate things but he’s a little intimidated by Marion as well and when he loses his job he clearly begins to doubt himself although that’s an aspect of the story that isn’t explored thoroughly. Then again, it’s not Larry’s story – it’s Lady Bird’s.

In a sense this is also a love letter to Sacramento (where Gerwig grew up and where this is set). Although Lady Bird complains about the provincialness of the city, it’s clear that Gerwig has a great deal of affection for the place. Residents and regular visitors will recognize a lot of different landmarks and local hangouts shown at various times in the film. One can’t complain about a movie with this much love for the capitol of California.

There is a pretty frank portrayal of Lady Bird’s sexuality; she becomes attracted to two different guys during the course of the film and contemplates losing her virginity. The frank discussion of the event is going to feel familiar to most women, although those who find such things distasteful are going to have a difficult time with that particular scene. I suppose it is going to depend on how comfortable you are with sexual discussions.

Gerwig doesn’t get everything right. The ending feels a bit rushed and a little bit of a nonsequitir. Her move from one BFF to another one who is more shallow just so Lady Bird can get closer to a guy she’s interested in comes off as a little bit cliché and maybe a little bit out of character. However, those are relatively minor things and she does for the most part nail the film.

I commented on Facebook that everyone who has ever been an adolescent girl should see this and I stand by that. It is going to resonate deeply with most women who will recognize the situations and the character dynamics. Men are also going to enjoy this because they will also get a chance to laugh at some of the foibles of adolescent girls – and maybe get to understand the women in their lives just a teensy bit better. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

REASONS TO GO: The writing is smart and the characters realistic. You have to love a film that gives Sacto this much love.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending feels a little bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a lot of teen sexuality, some brief nudity and lots of teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lady Bird recently set a Rotten Tomatoes record for the most positive reviews without a single negative review – 164 consecutive positives and counting.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Gangster Land

Ouija: Origin of Evil


Never turn your back on your kid for even a minute...

Never turn your back on your kid for even a minute…

(2016) Horror (Universal) Annalise Basso, Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack, Doug Jones, Chelsea Gonzalez, Lincoln Melcher, Nicholas Keenan, Michael Weaver, Ele Keats, Eve Gordon, Chad Heffelfinger, Nina Mansker, John Prosky, Kate Siegel, Sam Anderson, Gary Patrick Anderson, Alexis G. Zall, Halle Charlton, Sierra Davey, Lin Shaye. Directed by Mike Flanagan

sixdays2016-4

Some of us are fascinated by the occult. Science tells us that there’s nothing there, nothing that can be measured or quantified but anyone with even a lick of sense can tell you that science doesn’t know everything; often things that are currently unexplainable may seem like the mysterious or the magical. The fact of the matter is that we don’t understand more than what we do.

In the Los Angeles of 1967 lives a widow, Alice Zander (Reaser). Her husband Roger (Weaver) had passed away recently and their daughters – teenage Lina (Basso) and preteen Doris (Wilson) are grieving in their own way. Doris, in particular, is having a difficult time handling the death of her father, praying to him at night rather than to God. There are those at her school who think she’s a little weird. More than a little, in fact.

Alice makes ends meet by conducting fake seances in which her daughters help with special effects. Alice rationalizes all this by saying that they are helping people find closure which I suppose they are. Lulu is too young and naive to question anything but Lina finds herself believing in nothing.

In point of fact, Lina feels constrained in her house and wants to do the things that teenage girls do in 1967. So like any good red-blooded American teen, she sneaks out of the house and goes to a party with a bunch of her friends, including would-be boyfriend Mikey (Mack). There she discovers the magic and the mystery of a Ouija board. Unfortunately, her friends are discovered by an adult and Lina is handed over to an angry Alice. However, Alice is intrigued by the Ouija board and brings one home to help with the act.

Immediately Doris takes an unhealthy interest in the board – or vice versa. Desperate to communicate with her daddy, she has no idea that there are rules governing the use of the board or how dangerous it is to break them. She certainly doesn’t realize that she’s opened a door that may bring something into this world that wants nothing more than to terrorize – and to kill.

This is a prequel to the wildly successful but critically panned Ouija from 2014. There is an appearance by Lin Shaye in a post-credits sequence that links the two films (not for nothing, but she plays an older version of one of the characters in this movie) but there is little to connect the two films. We do see one of the apparitions from the first film alive and well (relatively speaking) in this film.

The acting here is okay but not memorable. There aren’t a lot of recognizable names here, although most of the cast has experience mostly on the small screen. Thomas, the waif from E.T. is surprisingly strong as a sympathetic priest/principal at the Catholic school that the two daughters attend. Reaser, best known for her work on the Twilight series, shows some promise as the single mom which is a very different role than Esme Cullen.

Flanagan, who had three films scheduled to come out this year (one, Before I Wake, has been shelved indefinitely by troubled distributor Relativity and is unlikely to come out before next year) is becoming a very solid director of horror films for the studios. While he might not have the indie cred of a Ti West or a Jennifer Kent or an Adam Wingard, he has proven that he can direct strong horror films while remaining within studio constraints. There’s nothing here that’s so over-the-top that it can’t tolerate a PG-13 rating (which the studios shoot for, with rare exception, for their horror movies) but it manages to come by some pretty effective scares without resorting to an overuse of jump scares which are prevalent in studio horror movies today.

And to be honest, the studio restrictions are what really drag the movie down in my opinion. In trying to make a movie that fits within studio horror film parameters, in many ways it feels like Flanagan has been constrained from making a horror movie that would really blow our socks off. There is plenty here to work with, but there is nothing here that really gave me a truly “wow” moment. It’s like eating vanilla ice cream when what you really crave is salted caramel.

There’s nothing wrong with vanilla, mind you, but I would have liked there to be more layered flavor profiles here. The movie is exactly what you’d expect it would be. Horror movies are at their most effective when they push the boundaries. Those that respect boundaries will always be little more than a trip on Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride; spooky but not scary.

REASONS TO GO: There are some pretty horrific moments here and some really good scares.
REASONS TO STAY: The film really doesn’t break any new ground.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some pretty horrific and terrifying images, some violence as well as thematic elements that some might find disturbing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that Lina sneaks out to party with her friends in is the same house set used in the David Duchovny TV show Aquarius.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lights Out
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Day 5 of Six Days of Horror!

St. Vincent


Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

(2014) Comedy (Weinstein) Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Jaeden Lieberher, Terrence Howard, Kimberly Quinn, Lenny Venito, Nate Corddry, Dario Barosso, Donna Mitchell, Ann Dowd, Scott Adsit, Reg E. Cathey, Deirdre O’Connell, Ray Iannicelli, Greta Lee, Melissa Elena Ramirez, Ron McLarty, Niles Fitch, Emma Fisher, David Iacono, Alexandra Fong. Directed by Ted Melfi

Some people just have mean and nasty dispositions. Maybe they don’t like people in general. Maybe they get some sort of satisfaction from putting other people down. Or maybe there’s another reason they act the way they do.

Vincent (Murray) is as curmudgeonly as they come. He lives in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn. He is either unemployed or retired. He spends his days drinking in a run-down bar, betting on the horse races at Belmont or hanging with a pregnant Russian prostitute named Daka (Watts). He smokes like a chimney and is generally a pretty unpleasant guy to know.

Into the neighborhood moves Maggie (McCarthy), a single mom still in the process of a bitter divorce from her unfaithful husband David (Adsit), and her precocious son Oliver (Lieberher). Things don’t get off to a good start with their new neighbor when her off-the-books movers accidentally knock a tree limb on top of Vincent’s car, damaging it. Vincent is predictably upset and reacts – also predictably – rudely. Welcome to the neighborhood.

Oliver is the sort of kid who just seems to attract bullies. He’s undersized and of course he doesn’t know anybody. To top it off, he’s a Jewish kid in a Catholic school. So on his first day of school at St. Patrick’s Academy a couple of bullies take his phone and keys. His mother is working as an MRI technician so he has to make his way home and when he gets there, she’s still at work. Left with no choice, he asks Vincent if he can use his phone. Vincent, somewhat begrudgingly, allows him to. Maggie can’t get away to let her son back in the house, but she arranges with Vincent to watch Oliver until she gets there – which Vincent insists on getting paid for.

Vincent has money troubles with a loan shark (Howard) on his back trying to collect. He also has  bills coming due, so he asks Maggie if she would like to make a regular gig of it. Maggie, not really having much of a choice, agrees.

So into Vincent’s world Oliver goes. Oliver joins him at the track, and at the bar. He also gets an insider’s look at what makes Vincent tick. Oliver is introduced to Daka whom Vincent describes as a “Lady of the Night.” Vincent teaches Oliver self-defense with the disclaimer “Don’t worry, you won’t get it right.” He also teaches Oliver something about self-confidence and of creating your own moral compass.

Still, there is a lot of stress in Vincent’s world, with money problems coming to a head and a loved one in dire straits. There’s also plenty of stress in Maggie’s world as she has to take additional shifts to make ends meet, and then her ex-husband is suing for custody of Oliver – mainly to punish Maggie. When Vincent’s style of “babysitting” comes to light, it threatens to destroy everyone’s world.

Murray has come a long way from his SNL days, and has delivered some strong performances such as in Lost in Translation and What About Bob. This is right up there with his best. Murray has said in interviews that Vincent is a lot like who he really is and let’s be frank, he tends to play very similar characters most of the time and Vincent has a lot in common with other characters Murray has played. Yet there is a humanity in Vincent that comes out unexpectedly even as he sometimes erects additional height on the walls he’s built around himself.

We’ve come to expect these sorts of performances from Murray so the success of the movie is going to hinge on how well his co-star Lieberher can hold his own with the star. The surprising answer is, rather well. Lieberher is absolutely convincing as the kind of wallflower that Oliver is, and while Oliver is clearly wise beyond his years, he’s not the kind of precocious kid actor who never lets you forget he’s pretending to be someone else. Instead, Lieberher kind of inhabits the role and makes a fine foil for Murray throughout.

The rest of the supporting cast is pretty strong as well, McCarthy and Watts in particularly impressive in roles that aren’t typical for them. McCarthy is more of a straight woman here, although she does get a few zingers off. But she shows that when she’s not being cast as a boorish slob, she can be extremely likable and sympathetic. Watts turns the traditional “hooker with a heart of gold” role on its ear, making Daka acerbic and sometimes as curmudgeonly as Vincent but despite the Natasha Fatale-style accent, the character comes off as real and believable. Chris O’Dowd is also impressive as a teacher at St. Patrick’s, a priest who is more worldly than you’d expect.

The movie does tend to go for the schmaltzy cliches a bit too eagerly with the ending becoming a bit too sitcom for my liking. I also have to admit that there are a few plot points like the loan shark that don’t really get resolved; they just seem to fade from view.

Still, any movie with a performance like this from Bill Murray is worth seeking out and St. Vincent is certainly one that you should. It’s funny, there’s plenty of pathos and while parts of it are sitcom-like, there is at least a heart here that hits you unexpectedly rather than clubbing you over the head throughout. This is a gem of a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Murray’s a hoot and Lieberher does an impressive job of staying with him.  Fine supporting performances by Watts and O’Dowd, and McCarthy is excellent in a very different kind of role for her.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit cliche and occasionally boggles the mind with sitcom sugary sweetness.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult thematic material some of which involves sexuality, alcohol and tobacco use and a plethora of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one point, Jack Nicholson was rumored to be taking the title role but eventually it went to Murray.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grumpy Old Men
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: John Wick

Saint Ralph


Saint Ralph

Adam Butcher wistfully ponders why he chose a bowl haircut over something less dorky.

(2004) Drama (Goldwyn) Adam Butcher, Campbell Scott, Jennifer Tilly, Gordon Pinsent, Shauna MacDonald, Tamara Hope, Frank Crudele, Michael Kanev, Chris Ploszczansky. Directed by Michael McGowan

Sometimes we want something so desperately that we are willing to abandon reason to get it. This is particularly true of the very young, particularly when they are faced with something so terrible they can’t comprehend it.

Ralph Walker attends Catholic school in the industrial town of Hamilton, Ontario circa 1953. He’s a bit on the wild, undisciplined side, but the stern Father Fitzpatrick (Pinsent) forbears somewhat, because he’s aware that the boy’s father has deserted the family and his mother (MacDonald) is seriously ill. Still, he is being cared for by his grandparents, so a little leeway is thrown the boy’s way.

Not so from the general student body, which treats the scrawny, awkward Ralph like the local whipping boy. To make matters work, Ralph – being 14 years old – is discovering just how serious puberty can be. I won’t say every waking thought is taken up with sex, but maybe two out of three. When an occasion of self-abuse at the public pool lands the boy in hot water, Fitzpatrick orders the punishment/penance (this is a Catholic school, after all) to be running on the cross-country team. A little physical exertion might just exhaust the impure thoughts out of the boy, or so the thinking went.

The cross country coach, Father Hibbert (Scott) is a former marathon champion himself, and doesn’t see much in the way of potential in Ralph. After all, Ralph doesn’t seem to inclined to apply himself and is woefully out of shape. The kid is very close to losing his place at the school, wandering directionless through life.

That’s much truer than anyone knows. The reality is that there are no grandparents. Ralph is on his own, subsisting on canned goods his mother had left. There is nobody to take care of him while his mother is ill, so he just makes do. His days are made up of school, then visits to his mother and a sympathetic nurse (Tilly) while he dreams of a young girl named Claire (Hope) that he encountered on a baseball diamond while smoking in between classes. That was Ralph smoking, by the way, not Claire.

Then things get worse. His mom falls into a coma and her prognosis looks bleak. It will take a miracle for her to recover, and Ralph feels heavily the responsibility to manufacture one. A chance remark by Father Hibbert (“The Boston Marathon is the most prestigious footrace in the world. It would be a miracle if someone on this team won it, so put it out of your minds”) sets off a lightning bolt in the 14-year-old. This could be precisely the miracle his mother needs! 

Ralph sets out to train for the marathon. At first, his attempts are pretty laughable, because he simply doesn’t know how. He gets a book from a former marathon champion to help him train, but it turns out that the champion wound up in an asylum shortly after writing the book and most of the information is useless. Ralph remains an object of ridicule, but there is something different about him now. He is focused, possessed with this idea of winning the marathon. Although Father Fitzgerald is now suspicious of Ralph’s living arrangements and is looking into the phantom grandparents, Father Hibbert sees the boy’s determination and agrees to train him. 

Still, it looks like the goal Ralph has set for himself is insurmountable. His first race ends in disaster, and Ralph is depressed. However, he trains hard and actually wins a local marathon. Now he’s getting support and respect from the community, but there are still many obstacles. His house burns down while he is sleeping one night; he barely gets out alive. Now with no place to live, Boston just weeks away and his training far from complete, it looks like Ralph’s miracle is just too far out of reach.

This Canadian production has a great deal of warmth and heart, which while not necessarily missing from similar American movies, is at least in short supply. The movie chugs around without getting overly schmaltzy or self-conscious, and juvenile actor Butcher holds his own, although Scott does a very nice job as the sympathetic ex-marathon running priest, while Tilly is sympathetic (not to mention dang hot in a nurse’s uniform).

There are some extended conversations with God who resembles a young Sid Caesar, and some television-styled montages (this movie was made for Canadian TV and then released theatrically in the States), and a Godawful version of Leonard Cohen’s beautiful “Hallelujah” sung by Gord Downie of the Canadian cult band the Tragically Hip. Right song, wrong singer.

Still, there is a bit of charm and not a little bit of Catholic angst. As a former Catholic school survivor, I can admit to finding the parochial school sequences a little too close to home, in a good way. There isn’t anything life-changing about Saint Ralph but as family movies go, this is a pretty solid one. Director McGowan not only evokes the period but also the surroundings, and does it well. As a former marathoner himself, he understands the motivations of the long-distance runner and the proverbial loneliness that is required, but also the triumph of a race well run.

WHY RENT THIS: More heart than you’ll find in any ten movies. Authentic place and time. Fine performances by Butcher and Tilly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Made for Canadian TV and has television production values.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of sexual content and yes, even a little partial nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Race Around the Bay, which Ralph is depicted winning, is an actual event and is the oldest structured road race in North America, predating the Boston Marathon by three years.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4M on an unreported production budget; the film probably made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Last Lions