Stella’s Last Weekend


Ollie is certainly no angel.

(2018) Dramedy (Paladin/The Orchard) Nat Wolff, Alex Wolff, Polly Draper, Paulina Singer, Nick Sandow, Julia Macchio, Julia Abueva, Leo Heller, Lisa Darden, Patricia Squire, Will Cooper, Norm Golden, Simon Maxwell, Joseph Satine, Shawn Allen McLaughlin, Kelly Swint, Adam Enright, Christopher Halliday, Alex DiMattia, Kareem Williams, Courtney Leigh Goodwin, Harriet Weaver. Directed by Polly Draper

 

Personally, I’ve never had a brother. I grew up with a sister who was less than a year younger than I (my parents believed in getting the childbearing phase out of the way quickly). I know from experience with my sibling though that we talk in our own peculiar shorthand. In-jokes that mean nothing to the world at large never fail to elicit smiles from one or both of us. There are still jokes that I can reduce my sister to helpless tears of laughter with while outsiders look on in puzzlement. It’s that way between siblings.

Ollie (A. Wolff) and Jack (N. Wolff) are that way as well. Jack is returning home from college where he is studying Marine Biology to witness the last days of the beloved family dog, Stella. Their mother Sally (Draper) has decided to throw a farewell party for the dog, much to the bemusement of her sons and the confusion of her boyfriend Ron (Sandow) whom the boys mercilessly rib and whom they appear to despise. He seems like a high-strung traditionalist who can’t understand why kids of today don’t respect their elders the way his generation used to. Believe me, Ron, I hear you.

Ollie is also picking this weekend to introduce his family to his new girlfriend Violet (Singer), an aspiring ballerina: “Violet, this is everyone I love. And Ron.” Ollie is head over heels in love with Violet and confesses to his brother that she sent him some racy pictures on Snapchat of her underboob. Jack realizes that he’s met Violet before and that the two of them had a mini-fling which ended with her not returning his calls. He’s been obsessing with her ever since and now she’s apparently in love with his brother. He’s trying to step aside in favor of his brother but his feelings for her are too strong and as it turns out, she still has feelings for him.

Ollie is blissfully unaware of the drama going on alongside him. He’s too busy needling the mean girls in her ballet class, skewering poor Ron and doting on Stella who is gamely trying to live out her last days with as much dignity as she can muster, but the pain is beginning to get to be too much, which Sally acknowledges in a truly poignant moment. However, when the secrets the boys have been hiding from their mom and each other comes out, it tears a big hole in what was a close-knit family. Can they recover?

Ollie is an expert in put-downs and his potty mouth sometimes drives Ron to pulling out what little hair he has left; Ollie has no compunction at nailing Ron to the wall over his comb-over. Alex plays Ollie as a high-strung, energetic kid with a terrific brain – he’s already outdoing Jack in the courses that are leading Jack into a career in Marine Biology. Ollie is witty and quick-witted; the punch lines come rapid fire between the two boys. He is also capable of being a first-class asshole. Jack, on the other hand, is quieter, less acerbic and no less quick witted; he can hold his own with his brother but is generally less talkative with others. I can’t vouch for how the two interact off-camera but their banter sometimes sounds overly scripted; it’s hard to come up with the perfect comeback at every opportunity and Ollie seems to do so effortlessly. It’s possible he’s that quick but not likely and so the heart of the film, the byplay between the brothers starts to sound forced and unnatural.

Despite the clever dialogue, the chemistry between Nat and Alex is genuine as you would expect between siblings. The affection between the two is genuine and even when things break down between the two, everything that happens in their relationship feels authentic; at times though the audience clearly feels like outsiders witnessing a conversation they weren’t meant to hear.

There are some genuinely poignant moments as I alluded to above; there are also some really funny one-liners, mostly courtesy of Ollie. There is definitely chemistry between the brothers; after all, this isn’t the first time they’ve acted together before (some might remember them from the Naked Brothers Band show they did about a decade ago) and the affection is obvious. Still, at times the dialogue seems to be a bit forced and the events a little too contrived.

Stella’s Last Weekend turns out to be a bittersweet relationship movie that to its credit doesn’t coast too often. The film earns most of its emotional responses which is to be envied in a day and age when most movies are lazy about their emotional manipulation. The movie isn’t always successful but when it is, it is. Unfortunately, when it’s not it’s not.

REASONS TO GO: There is some nice family bonding moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers are trying too hard to make it witty and cute.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, crude gestures, some sexual content and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wolff brothers are Draper’s sons in real life; the dog that played Stella is also the family dog (who is alive and well as of this writing).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Only Living Boy in New York
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
London Fields

Advertisements

Equals (2015)


Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart have the blues.

Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart have the blues.

(2015) Science Fiction (A24) Nicholas Hoult, Kristen Stewart, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver, David Selby, Scott Lawrence, Aurora Perrineau, Nathan Parker, Rebecca Hazelwood, Kate Lyn Sheil, Bel Powley, Yu Hwan Park, Vernetta Lopez, Seth Adams, Dennis Shin, Jessica Lois, Tom Stokes, Teo Yoo, Kai Lennox, Rizwan Manji, Toby Huss, Hannah Grace. Directed by Drake Doremus

 

We are creatures of the heart and the mind. We use our feelings nearly as much if not more than our logic. That often gets us into trouble, both on a personal basis and as a species. Some say that much of the conflict we experience is an effect of the heart, not the mind. These same people think we would be much better if we could switch our emotions off.

In a post-Apocalyptic future, that is precisely what has happened. Silas (Hoult) lives in a park-like city of glass and chrome and emotions have essentially been eliminated at a DNA level – well, sort of. People have to take a regimen of inhibitors to keep their feelings suppressed which at some point stop working. When that happens, people develop something called Switched Off Syndrome – yes, S.O.S. Silas is in the early stages of that. There is no cure and those who get to the latter stages of the disease are generally shipped off to The Den, where they undergo rehabilitation but apparently nobody ever returns from it. S.O.S. is essentially then a death sentence.

Silas works at an electronic publishing firm which seems to specialize in fiction and non-fiction about interstellar colonization. One of his co-workers is Nia (Stewart) who clearly is having some issues coming to grips with her emotions – literally. She clenches her fists and plays with her hair whenever some sort of feeling overtakes her. Their co-workers are too polite to mention anything but they certainly notice. Silas has also noticed Nia but for far different reasons; he notices the sensuality of her lips, the softness of her hair, the curve of her neck.

In this highly ordered society where everyone dresses in white (except for law enforcement which predictably wears black), love is not only discouraged but illegal (they never get into how people reproduce in this environment). And of course, that’s just what Nia and Silas fall in. They begin engaging in sexual relations, also highly forbidden. Silas has been attending a support group for S.O.S. sufferers and meets there a woman (Weaver) who gives him an alternative, albeit a dangerous one. Do he and Nia have the courage to see this through?

Emotionless dystopia-set films are nothing new. George Lucas established himself as a visionary filmmaker even before he explored a galaxy far, far away with THX-1138, which shares many of the visual elements with this film. You would hope then that this film would add something new to the sub-genre and in some ways it does; the film takes the point of view two people learning to feel things for the very first time and in some ways, it is all about the role emotions play in the human experience. Of course, that’s what most of these films are about so it’s not mining any new territory there either.

Fortunately the cast here is solid. Hoult is in the process of becoming an actor that I look forward to seeing in everything he does. He’s got lots of charisma not to mention a good deal of range; he plays comedy and drama equally well. Here he’s called upon to be cold and almost diffident, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Stewart is an actress who isn’t the most expressive as actresses go, so this ends up being right in her wheelhouse. In response, she actually gives – quite ironically – one of her best performances ever. There’s no denying that she’s a beautiful woman and that beauty is used here as a weapon in the film’s arsenal; it’s easy to see why Silas would get interested.

The problem in portraying a society without emotions is that your movie can get kind of bland and colorless and the production design’s color palate – which is essentially variations of white – doesn’t help with that. While the future is beautiful in its own way, it’s also pretty boring. Yes, people talk about fairly high-brow subjects but at the end of the day however thought-provoking the conversation might be, it loses any meaning because there’s no emotional resonance. You might as well have a Macbook having a conversation with a Microsoft Surface Book. They might come up with some salient points but they also won’t be terribly relatable to who we are as people either.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are very cool. Hoult has become one of my favorite actors and Stewart delivers her best performance yet.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally, it gets too high-brow for its own good. The film is so low-key and emotionless that it actually becomes bland in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Not only is there some sensuality and a bit of partial nudity, there’s also some adult thematic content and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Weaver and Pearce previously starred together in Animal Kingdom.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Island
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru

The Fog (2005)


The Fog

Driving Miss Daisy, this ain't!

(2005) Supernatural Horror (Columbia) Tom Welling, Maggie Grace, Selma Blair, DeRay Davis, Rade Serbedzjia, Kenneth Welsh, Adrian Hough, Sara Botsford, Matthew Currie Holmes. Directed by Rupert Wainwright

One of the most underrated of John Carpenter’s movies was his follow-up to Halloween, 1980’s The Fog. Although there were cheesy elements to it (heck, that wasn’t uncommon for any horror film of the era), it still was a genuine creepfest and still gives me the chills whenever I watch it even now, a quarter of a century later.

When they announced the remake of it, I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic. I’ve found most of the horror movie remakes of classic ’70s and ’80s scare flicks to be uneven at best – few have really done little more than to update the stories for a more modern audience. I didn’t hold out hope for much better from this.

Antonio Island is celebrating the centennial of their founding, but there is a terrible secret harbored by the remote Northern California seaport and it is born on the fog. Nick Castle (Welling), a charter fishing boat operator, has to put up with a ne’er do well first mate named Spooner (Davis) and a boat that has seen better days. Still, they manage to make ends meet, but while on a charter their anchor dredges something up from the bottom – artifacts of a bygone age that have been at rest for a hundred years.

Back on shore, Nick is surprised to encounter an old flame, Elizabeth Williams (Grace) walking to town from the pier. She had left suddenly five years ago without really resolving things between them, and he had been hurt by it. He was just now beginning to get involved with the pretty single mom DJ Stevie Wayne (Blair) but now he is torn.

In the meantime, Spooner has taken out Nick’s boat to party with a couple of bikini clad girls and Nick’s cousin Sean (Holmes). But a heavy fogbank is headed their way unbeknownst to them, and moving against the wind. Before you can say “bad things are going to happen,” bad things happen.

Spooner survives the mayhem, but is considered primo suspect number one for the murder of the other three. His story is completely whacko about ghost ships and fog banks, so his friend Nick goes out to find out what’s going on. He and Elizabeth discover a startling truth – that the town was founded on blood money stolen from a colony of lepers who were then burned alive on the ship that they thought was going to take them to a new home. That kind of thing can piss a ghost off.

The effects are much more sophisticated than in the original fog, but then again they don’t use nearly as many effects as you would think they might, director Wainwright wisely allowing the natural setting of the fog-shrouded town to create an atmosphere of creepiness that carries the film. The problem is that the characters are a bit faceless. Welling is a good-looking lead, but he doesn’t really carry the film like you think he might. He does better in his role as Clark Kent in “Smallville,” but here he seems a little bit passionless.

Grace and Blair are both lovely to look at, but Grace is given not a lot of character by the script; she exists mainly to move the plot along. Blair has a bit more to chew on as a character, and takes advantage of it. I’ve always wondered why we don’t see more of her in the movies – she was certainly marvelous in Hellboy.

There are a lot of plot holes in the script – for example, they clearly state that they are celebrating the hundred year anniversary of the town’s founding, and they clearly link the founding of the town to the nefarious acts with the lepers, but they also clearly state that those events took place in 1871 and it is even more clear that the movie is set in contemporary times, not in 1971 which would be accurate. Whoops.

Still, despite all that, I liked the movie, I liked the atmosphere that was created, I liked Blair and I really liked the climax of the movie. It’s certainly far from perfect, but it’s a nice evening’s entertainment, particularly if it’s a dark and stormy evening. 

WHY RENT THIS: Atmospheric to the max. Blair is a particularly good performer and easy on the eyes, as is Grace.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Weilling is unaccountably bland. Cheese factor a little high for modern horror fans.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, a little sensuality and enough bad language to be…bad.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debra Hill, the co-writer of the original movie and given a producer’s credit here, died shortly before filming began.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a nice feature on the special effects which show how good-looking effects can be accomplished on a tight budget.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $46.2M on an $18M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Country Strong