Rewind (2019)


Through the eyes of a child you will see.

(2019) Documentary (Grizzly CreekSasha Joseph Neulinger, Jacqui Neulinger, Henry Nevison, Dr Herbert Lustig, Bekah Neulinger, George Ohrin, Risa Ferman. Directed by Sasha Joseph Neulinger

 

It is almost as American as apple pie; the family gatherings and celebrations being captured on video cameras. Birthdays and vacations, children running around at play, new puppies, old grandparents, good times. That’s what video cameras seemed to be made for – nobody was bringing video cameras to funerals and dental appointments.

Like many kids, Sasha Joseph Neulinger grew up with his father, Henry Nevison (who is himself a documentary filmmaker) with camera in hand, often to the exasperation of Sasha’s mother Jacqui. However, the fun-filled videos of the extended family – grandparents, uncles, cousins, family friends – hid a dark secret. Sasha and his sister Bekah were being sexually abused.

At this point, I’m not going to tell you who was doing the abusing other than to say that at one point Sasha and Bekah’s father came under suspicion and we find out later, was himself a victim of childhood sexual abuse. The case would eventually make headlines, particularly in New York City not only due to the nature of the abuse, but because of the notoriety of one of the accused.

The documentary features interviews with Sasha’s parents and sister as well as his psychologist Dr. Herbert Lustig, the detective who worked the case (George Ohrin) and the prosecutor who argued the case (Risa Ferman). We are taken through a chronological retelling of events, watching Sasha go from a bright and sweet toddler to a kid prone to anger and self-loathing, eventually leaning towards suicidal thoughts. Sasha allows the revelations in the case to come out the same way his parents experienced them, adding to the horror. We can see the guilt and shame in Jacqui’s face; How could I let this happen? How could I not know? A mother’s anguish is pretty much universal.

This is not a psychological study and why abuse happens; this is merely one kid’s experiences with it, and the movie can be quite disturbing in places – young kids who have been through this should probably not watch this, but their parents most definitely should. In fact, all parents should.

We see the places where the justice system fails the kids involved and indeed fails in general; one of the defendants is wealthy and has access to nearly unlimited funds while others involved were working class. I think you can guess how the sentencing would go.

Again, I’m being deliberately vague about some of the details here – not to be coy, but so as not to detract from the impact the film has. It packs a wallop and is deservedly being given praise along the lines of “one of the best films of the year,” which it certainly deserves. This isn’t for the faint-hearted but there are truths in here that every parent should know.

The movie is currently available on VOD on the platforms listed below, but for those who wish to see it, the film will be airing tonight at 10pm on Independent Lens on PBS and can be either viewed on your local PBS station or streamed on their website here.

REASONS TO SEE: Inspiring and important. The use of home movies well-integrated. Stark, harsh portrait of abuse.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get really raw and intense at times and may trigger those who have been through similar experiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some serious adult themes about child abuse, profanity and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18; 90% of those abused know their abuser.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 87/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Three Identical Strangers
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
How To Build a Girl

Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)


Going for that five-fingered discount.

(2018) Drama (Magnolia) Lily Franky, Sakura Andō, Kirin Kiki, Mayu Matsuoka, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki, Sōsuke Ikematsu, Yûki Yamada, Moemi Katayama, Daisuke Kuroda, Kazuaki Shimizu, Izumi Matsuoka, Katsuya Maiguma, Hajime Inoue, Aju Makita, Akira Emoto, Haruna Hori, Momoko Miyauchi, Mami Hashimto, Nobu Morimoto, Mana Mikami. Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda

 

The family unit is the backbone of most human cultures. Woe be unto those who mess with the family; communist regimes in Russia and China tried it without success. But what is it about families that make them so necessary? Can we teach our children morality if we ourselves are less-than-moral? Can we have a loving family in non-traditional groupings?

The Shibata family is what you would call the working poor. Father Osamu (Franky) is a day laborer; mother Nobuyo (Andō) works in an industrial laundry. Auntie Aki (Matsuoka) is a hostess in a peep show, dressing like a school girl and performing sexual acts for lonely men watching behind two-way mirrors. Grandmother Hatsue (Kiki) chips in with her pension check and their son Shota (Kairi) helps out in the family business. What is the family business? Shoplifting.

Osamu and Shota go to local supermarkets and pick up what necessities the family needs via the five-fingered discount. The family can’t afford to put enough food on the table, so they supplement their income as best they can. On the way home from such a trip, Osamu and Shota come upon a little girl named Yuri (Sasaki) hiding under a balcony in a neighboring apartment building. It is an insanely cold night and the girl, already hungry and scared, will certainly not survive the night if left out there. Good-hearted Osamu brings the girl home. Hatsue discovers evidence of abuse on the little girl, but Nobuyo is adamant that the girl be returned to her parents. When they arrive, Osamu and Nobuyo hear a violent fight going on between the parents. Nobuyo at last relents and the girl is brought home, unofficially adopted by the Shibata clan.

It’s not kidnapping, explains Osamu, because they aren’t demanding a ransom. Besides, the little girl has found herself in a loving family that takes care of one another and despite their financial straits, they still manage to enjoy life to the fullest. Shota even deigns to teach the newest Shibata the family trade. However, the idyllic situation can’t last long; things begin to unravel and the secrets at the core of the Shibata family are revealed at last.

The last half hour of the film is a total tonal shift from the first hour and a half, and quite frankly, it was a bit too much for my taste, although I am aware that a lot of critics found that shift to be the best thing about the film. As they say, your mileage may vary.

But this is a very good film, a look at how the working poor survive day t day in Japan, how the bond within a family is maintained even when the grey areas are a bit more widespread than normal. Despite the fact that they steal and scam, the Shibata family to a man (and woman) are good-hearted people who genuinely care for one another. There is almost no judgement going on, which is rare in a family. They accept each other and love each other for who they are. A lot of morally straight families could benefit from instruction from the Shibata family.

Good performances throughout are at the forefront; there are some truly heartbreaking moments and some truly joyous ones as well. Cinematographer Ryûto Kondō makes good use of every shot; there is a lot happening in every frame which means that additional viewings of the film will yield more treasure.

This is very much one of the best films from 2018 and would have gotten a higher rating from me had I liked the ending more. I will say that it is imaginative and will come at you from out of nowhere, which is what I think some folks like about it. I suspect that I will like this movie more the next time I watch it. If so, that’s the mark of a truly great film experience.

REASONS TO SEE: Thought-provoking on the nature of families. Moral dilemma isn’t an easy one to dismiss..
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit of a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, the first Japanese film to do so since 1997.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews, Metacritic: 93/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Little Sister
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Tombstone Rashomon

Before I Wake


Kate Bosworth knows why the butterflies fly.

(2016) Horror (Netflix) Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Annabeth Gish, Topher Bousquet, Dash Mihok, Jay Karnes, Lance E. Nichols, Antonio Romero, Kyla Deaver, Hunter Wenzel, Scottie Thompson, Jason Alan Smith, Michael Polish, Brett Luciana Murray, Natalie Roers, Erika Hoveland, Avis-Marie Barnes, Courtney Bell. Directed by Mike Flanagan

 

Dangerous and even deadly children have long been a horror trope. There is something about angelic little moppets who gleefully cause mayhem and murder that is absolutely horrifying, reflecting our own fears of being bad parents or of being vulnerable to our kids.

Jessie (Bosworth) and Mark (Jane) have been through the worst nightmare any parent can conceive; their son Sean (Romero) died tragically in a bathtub drowning incident. Jessie is no longer able to conceive and there is an empty space in their lives that two years after the accident they are ready to fill with Cody (Tremblay) who has a tragic history of his own. The couple adopts him and their case worker Natalie (Gish) thinks that these two will give Cody a loving home. And they do for awhile.

They soon discover that Cody has a mysterious power, one that has caused him to be abandoned by would-be foster parents. His dreams become tangible. At first it is beautiful as colorful butterfly with internal lights flit about their house. Then, however, it becomes clear that Cody’s nightmares are also punching into the real world and his nightmares can kill people.

Flanagan is considered one of the most promising young horror directors at the moment for good reason. He’s had a string of movies that have been at least a cut above most films of the genre. This one, caught in the morass that was Relativity in 2015 (when the movie was originally supposed to be released) and 2016 has finally seen the light of day thanks to Netflix. Was this worth the wait?

Yes and no. The movie has some incredible visuals, from th butterflies of light to the terrifying Canker Man (Bousquet). It also has a strong performance from Jane who is superb and likable as Mark although his hair choice has to be questioned; his Fabio locks aren’t quite right for the character. However, Bosworth is dreadfully miscast as the heroine. She is pretty like a porcelain doll and she just looks out of place in the movie. To make matters worse, Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard inexplicably make her exploit the young boy’s powers which really made me feel uncomfortable. To be fair, critics have pretty much universally praised her performance so take my criticism with a grain of salt; sometimes even a good performance doesn’t connect with everyone.

Tremblay, who went on to an Oscar nomination for Room is a bit wooden here but also to be fair he was about seven or eight years old when he filmed this. The concept though is pretty original and for the most part Flanagan gets it right until the ending which is a bit lame. This won’t go down as one of his better films but those who follow his career definitely should see it and those who like films like The Babadook will probably enjoy this one as well.

REASONS TO GO: A terrific premise with some nifty visuals. Thomas Jane is extremely likable.
REASONS TO STAY: Kate Bosworth isn’t convincing enough as a horror heroine. The ending is lame.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of terror and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally going to be distributed theatrically by Relativity but their financial woes led to a constant shifting of release dates and finally the film was sold to Netflix where it was quietly released more than two years after the original premiere date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dreamscape
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Big Take

Minding the Gap


Skating can be more than just a passion.

(2018) Documentary (Hulu/Magnolia) Zach Milligan, Keire Johnson, Nina Bowgren, Kent Abernathy, Bing Liu, Mingyue Bolen, Roberta Johnson, Rory Mulligan, Kyle, Eric, Vickie. Directed by Bing Liu

 

Sometimes a film presents itself in such a way that you expect one thing (and those expectations are might low) but are delivered another which is so much more than you thought it might be. Those are the moments of discovery when you realize that you have seen a movie that isn’t just entertaining or enlightening but life-changing.

The movie begins as a suburban skateboarding documentary and to be honest, I’ve seen enough of those. The main protagonists are shredding around Rockford, Illinois and during interviews talk about how they just want to skate, they’re not interested in being a traditional part of society and that they don’t want to be put into any sort of box. These are all things about skate culture that I found repelling, a kind of entitlement that is unearned. As it turned out I was wrong.

We see the last three years of the lives of these skaters, essentially, as Zach – the leader of this group of friends, wrestles with fatherhood as his girlfriend Nina gives birth. Keire, the lone African-American member of the group, feels a sense of belonging with his friends that he doesn’t have with his family and Asian-American Liu – who initially was planning to only be behind the camera – begins to realize that documenting his friends’ lives is opening up some of the rougher parts of his own.

All three of these boys (and Nina as well) are on the cusp of adulthood and they are being dragged into it kicking and screaming. They don’t always act responsibly and they don’t always say or do the right thing. In other words, they are just like all of us at that age. Some of the things they do are destructive, some of the things they do are sweet but in every instance there is a sense of being unsure that they are doing the right thing. Like all of us as we move from childhood to adulthood, they are flailing around in the dark and hoping that they’ll find something to hold onto.

The relationship between Zach and Nina begins to deteriorate. They fight all the time, leading to a screaming match in which Nina threatens to kill Zach. We sympathize with Zach as he seems to be doing his best – working long hours as a roofer – but then we hear Nina’s side of things. Zach, as it turns out, is not the guy we thought he was.

All three of the boys have issues with fatherhood – in the cases of Keire and Bing dealing with abusive fathers. As Keire wryly says early on, “Back then it was called discipline but what it’s called now is child abuse.” Their moms are interviewed as we see the toll that abusive fathers took on them as well and as the movie goes on, how the dysfunctional relationship between Zach and Nina takes a toll on her as well. Everyone in this movie undergoes big changes in maturity as the movie goes on; some for the better, others not so much.

There are a lot of scenes of the guys skateboarding, maybe a few too many but one thing you begin to realize is that skateboarding is not a hobby or even a passion; it’s a release for them. It’s a way for them to deal with their pain and it’s as necessary to their well-being as eating and breathing. The issues I had with skater culture suddenly evaporated as I watched this. Their need for non-conformity made sense now to me. I can’t always condone someone who believes that their way of living is superior to anyone else’s, but I can see why the lifestyle is chosen. In a lot of ways, surfer culture is similar.

This is a movie you should see. You might think “oh, another skateboarding film” but it’s not that. It’s a coming of age film, not in the traditional Hollywood state of mind but as it really happens to all of us. Nobody looks forward to responsibility and stress but nevertheless we want the opportunity to make our own decisions and live life on our own terms. That’s not always possible; circumstances often dictate what our actions must be, but that need for autonomy and to be ourselves remains with us even when you’re as old as I am.

REASONS TO GO: The film goes from being a skate kid doc to an unexpected treasure. I ended up getting a better understanding of skate culture. It’s very powerful in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit on the raw side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some brief drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liu has been filming his friends since they were all teenagers (and in Keire Johnson’s case, 11 years old) and has incorporated some of that home footage into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Street Kids
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Mute

The Family


Introducing the children of the corn.

(2016) Documentary (Starz) Sung Yun Cho, Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, Bill Hamilton-Byrne, Roland Whitaker, Elizabeth Jean Whitaker, Anouree, Nick, Rebecca, Anthony John Lee, Peter Spence, Marie Mohr, Leeanne, Michael Stevenson-Helmer, Fran Parker, Barbara Kibby, Dave Whitaker, Lex de Man, Philippe de Montignie, Raynor Johnson, John MacKay, Margaret Brown. Directed by Rosie Jones

 

The rise of quasi-religious cults in the 1960s and 1970s was a worldwide phenomenon. In Australia, one of the most notorious of these was a Melbourne-based cult known as The Family. Founded by psychologist Raynor Johnson as a means to a healthier lifestyle, he soon fell under the spell of former yoga teacher Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a beautiful and charismatic blonde who had a way of charming everyone around her.

Her idea of family was a literal one; dozens of children were adopted through dodgy means and born to existing members. Hamilton-Byrne preached that she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and that there was a holocaust coming; the kids would rise as the leaders of a post-apocalyptic civilization. She was obviously a wack job but as cults go that doesn’t seem to be too terribly different.

In 1987 the cult’s Ferny Creek compound was raided and six of the children were removed and placed in protective custody and soon the horrifying truth began to emerge. The children had been physically abused, manipulated, and lived in a state of constant fear. Forced to dress alike and have their hair dyed blonde (as Hamilton-Byrne’s was) they were robbed of their individual identities. They were given LSD often without their knowledge or consent and they were often starved as a means of punishment.

One of the officers who was on the raid, Detective Sgt. Lex de Man, was clearly haunted by what he saw and observed. He acts somewhat as a narrative guide but also was a consultant on the documentary. Some of the stories told by the now-adult former cultists are heartbreaking and/or hair-raising. Many of the kids required therapy once removed from the clutches of the cult.

Jones is something of an Errol Morris disciple in terms of her style. There are plenty of interviews buttressed with home movies (which are chilling) and recreations of certain events. Rather than as a typical documentary, she gives it a kind of a 48 Hours spin, presenting the events as an unfolding mystery. For American audiences, it truly is – although the story was huge in Oz back in the late 80s and early 90s, it scarcely made a ripple on various American news sources. The film is slickly made with a brilliant atmospheric score and while the ending doesn’t have the smooth pacing of the rest of the film, there is at least a satisfactory wrapping up although to be fair the issues that the survivors have is ongoing. Believe it or not, the cult still exists today and Jones does speak with a current member for perspective.

The documentary has won awards at Australian film festivals and received a limited theatrical release there last year. Here in the States, it’s available on Starz and on their companion streaming app although for how long is anyone’s guess. It is certainly worth looking into, particularly if you’re into true crime documentaries.

REASONS TO GO: A chilling story of the horrors perpetrated on children within a notorious cult.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit choppy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult content including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The score was composed by Amanda Brown, a former member of the wonderful Australian band The Go-Betweens.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prophet’s Prey
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Winchester

Everything, Everything


Young love is a heady thing.

(2017) Young Adult Romance (Warner Brothers) Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, Ana de la Reguera, Taylor Hickson, Danube R. Hermosillo, Dan Payne, Fiona Loewi, Sage Brocklebank, Robert Lawrenson, Peter Benson, Françoise Yip, Farryn VanHumbeck, Marion Eisman, Allison Riley, Valareen Friday. Directed by Stella Meghie

 

There is something about young love that is intoxicating, not only for those experiencing it but for those around them. We all remember those first throes of our first real love, the high highs, the low lows, the amazing mood swings. Our hormones sizzle our bodies like steaks on a grill and we have no clue how to handle the intensity of our emotions. It’s sweet and horrible and wonderful and bitter all at once.

The movies and television often celebrate this particular event which is common to nearly everyone, but there are some movies that give us a twist on that; the dying teenager finds love sub genre. The tragic element tends to put young girls hormones into overdrive, either in maternal sympathy for the beautiful young boy who is dying or identifying with the beautiful young girl who is dying.

In this case, it’s the latter. Maddy (Stenberg) lives in a hermetically sealed house with filtered air and a sterile environment. She suffers from severe combined immunodeficiency disorder, or SCID. Simply taking a stroll outside could kill her, so for the past 17 years of her 18 years of life she has lived here, watching the world go by through big glass windows.

She wants to be an architect and has designed a diner and a home that she sometimes imagines herself inhabiting. She often feels like an astronaut adrift in space, unable to touch down back on Earth and in her imagination she often sees an astronaut in her creations.

Maddy’s mom Pauline (Rose) is a mother hen, protecting her daughter with almost drill sergeant-like ardor. She’s a doctor who specializes in immune system disorders and she’s responsible for a lot of Maddy’s care. The only two people who ever interact with Maddy besides her mom is the housekeeper Carla (de la Reguera) and Carla’s daughter Rosa (Hermosilla) who undergo a pretty thorough sterilization procedure every time they come in.

Maddy dreams of going to the beach but that seems an unlikely reality until Maddy’s reality is turned upside down by literally the boy next door. Olly (Robinson) moves in and soon the two are trading soulful glasses through the window and then it’s phone numbers. They begin to text and call like well, a couple of teenagers. The two fall head over heels. Carla tries to foster this relationship but Pauline finds out about it and soon, no more Carla.

Soon Maddy and Olly decide that their only alternative is a trip to Hawaii – it turns out that Olly’s dad (Payne) is abusive. Olly is a little reluctant but Maddy is willing to risk everything for a single perfect teenage day at the beach – including her life.

This is based on the young adult romance novel of the same name by Nicola Yoon. I haven’t read it but I’m wondering how similar the plot is to the movie because quite frankly, this feels like too many movies I’ve seen before from Romeo and Juliet to The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to dozens of young adult-aimed movies over the past few years.

One of the things that bothers me is that Olly is literally too good to be true; despite having to deal with his father’s physical abuse, he almost never acts out in ways that most abused kids do. I don’t know Yoon or screenwriter J. Mills Goodloe have spent much time around abused kids but given their tone-deaf portrayal of Olly I’d say the answer is no.

The movie is definitely aimed at a tween/teen crowd, especially young girls. Olly is dreamy/handsome and Maddy is a prototypical spunky teen heroine with a tragic disease.. Oh, and the plot is preposterous, the teen characters are all smart and terrific and the adult characters are all jerks. Not to mention that rules and common sense don’t mean squat when you’re doing what you want to do instead of what you should do. There’s a time and a place for being rebellious but not when it puts your life at risk but I suppose that feels pretty noble and everything.

There’s not a lot of realism here and the big twist is so completely unbelievable that it would have ruined a much better movie than this. As it is I just sat there watching and nodding to myself, muttering “Yup. Of course that’s where they went.”

I wish that Hollywood would stop treating tweens and teens and kids as underage morons. They are capable of figuring things out and I’m convinced that, just like adults, they want good movies and not crappy ones. The fact that they pretty much stayed away from this in droves bears me out. I think that there are better versions of this type of story to be made (and likely a few that have already been made). Teens deserve better than this.

REASONS TO GO: There is some decent cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie suffers from too-good-to-be-true boyfriend syndrome. The plot is predictable and goes completely off the rails once the action shifts to Hawaii.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the book, Olly has a shaved head. In the movie version, Pauline (Maddy’s mom) tells him he needs a haircut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Camera Obscura

The Book of Love


Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen's hair.

Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen’s hair.

(2016) Dramedy (Freestyle/Electric) Jason Sudeikis, Maisie Williams, Mary Steenburgen, Jessica Biel, Paul Reiser, Orlando Jones, Bryan Batt, Jason Warner Smith, Cailey Fleming, Richard Robichaux, Jon Arthur, Russ Russo, Christopher Gehrman, Natalie Mejer, Madeleine Woolner, Alicia Davis Johnson, George Wilson, Ian Belgard, Parker Hankins, Sheldon Frett, Damekia Dowl. Directed by Bill Purple

 

As our journey through life continues most of the people we meet have little or negligible impact on who we become. However, there are those we encounter who become indelible stamps on our personalities, people who leave not just a mark but a book. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we find more than one of those.

Henry (Sudeikis) is the proverbial mild-mannered architect. A decent enough guy, he goes through life largely ignored and content to be that way. However, his lovely wife Penny (Biel) has enough personality for the both of them. She urges him to “Be Bold” when he leaves for work in the morning and throws out his penny loafers in order to dress him in garish purple running shoes to an important business presentation. Gotta admire her chutzpah, no?

It is sadly the brightest lights that often burn the shortest and a car accident claims the life of Penny and her unborn child. Henry is devastated and his semi-understanding boss (Reiser, who not that long ago could have played guys like Henry with his eyes closed) tells him to take some time. Henry uses that time to befriend a street urchin named Mollie (Williams) whose life ambition is to build a raft to sail out to the Atlantic on an intrepid journey not unlike that of Thor Heyerdahl (a real guy – look him up). Henry realizes that he can build a better raft for her and offers his services and his backyard after he accidentally burns down the work shed she was living in and her abusive uncle (Smith) throws her onto the street.

With the help of Dumbass (Jones) – don’t ask – and the barely comprehensible Pascal (Robichaux) who were in the process of performing renovations on Henry’s house when Penny died, the intrepid quartet actually look like they might pull it off. However Henry’s overbearing mother-in-law (Steenburgen) is on his back about the final disposition of Penny’s remains, his boss is on his back about coming back to work and Millie’s abusive uncle is trying to find her after he finds out he won’t be getting the money that supporting her brought in if he doesn’t bring her back to his house. Not to mention that there are no guarantees the raft will even float.

Much of this film is about loss and letting go. Sudeikis spends most of the movie looking soulful and bereaved and he’s not bad at it. Williams, who plays the plucky Stark sister on Game of Thrones (in other words not Samsa) looks to be a real find, despite her somewhat deplorable Cajun accent.  She is one of those actresses who has a boatload of talent but might not get the parts because she isn’t what you’d call “glamorous.” Hopefully she will nab some parts that will make Hollywood sit up and take notice.

Sudeikis is generally known for his nice guy comic roles but this one is a bit more dramatic for him. He’s also a bit uneven in his performance but shows plenty of potential for tackling roles of this nature. Hopefully he’ll get better dialogue than this when he does.

The characters are a bit cliché here, like the upbeat offbeat leading ladies. I didn’t even know there was a generic critical term for them but there is – Manic Pixie Dream Girls. I saw it used in a couple of reviews now. I guess it’s as accurate as any but it is a bit snarky. Still, the characters – like much of the plot – aren’t terribly realistic. In fact, one of the movie’s big failings is Purple’s penchant for implausible plot points and coincidences and the movies emotional manipulation. Critics just hate hate hate having their emotions manipulated but a good cathartic cry when well-earned is good for the soul. Even a critic’s soul, assuming they have one.

REASONS TO GO: Maisie Williams delivers a strong performance and Jason Sudeikis is always charming.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is manipulative (critics are going to hate it) and implausible.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use, a little bit of violence and some fairly adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie that Justin Timberlake has written the score for.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Unfinished Life
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Paterson

Sinister 2


Bughuul reminds us there's no talking in the theater or else he sends these kids after you.

Bughuul reminds us there’s no talking in the theater or else he sends these kids after you.

(2015) Horror (Gramercy) James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco, Tate Ellington, John Beasley, Lucas Jade Zumarin, Jaden Klein, Laila Haley, Caden M. Fritz, Olivia Rainey, Nicholas King, Michael B. Woods, Tory O. Davis, Howie Johnson, Grace Holuby, John Francis Mountain, Nicole Santini. Directed by Ciarán Foy

There are monsters in this world; people who beat their wives, their children. People who create an atmosphere of fear, all so they can feel like a big man. One can run away from monsters like that; but then there’s no running away from the demons that follow you.

Courtney Collins (Sossamon) has separated from her husband with the intention of divorcing him. He is an abusive, evil man who has turned her twin sons Dylan (R.D. Sloan) and Zach (D. Sloan) into a terrified, nightmare-ridden boy (the former) and a mean, spiteful kid (the latter). She has found an old farmhouse with a de-consecrated church in the yard.

What she doesn’t know is that the house was the scene of a horrible crime in which an entire family was slaughtered – chained to the church floor and eaten alive by rats – with the young son missing. Investigating the crime is a Detective (Ransone) who was once a Deputy investigating a similar crime in the first Sinister. It weighs heavily on his mind that he couldn’t save his friend Ellison Oswalt and his family from the same fate; in fact, he was accused and later acquitted of the heinous crime, although he lost his job over it.

Now he has made it his mission to stop the demon Bughuul who is responsible for these murders. Bughuul, through the lost children he abducts, influences a child in a family moving into the home where one of these murders occurs to become his minion; when the family moves out, the child films the gruesome murders he commits. Afterwards, Bughuul takes his soul to join his legion of lost children.

Now the kids are after Dylan, showing him the murder films which stop the nightmares. The Detective is unnerved to find people living in the house – he’d been told it was vacant and had plans to burn it to the ground, stopping the demon’s reign of terror. He grows attracted to Courtney and the feeling is mutual. But with her ex Clinton (Coco) hot on her trail and hell bent on taking the kids back home with him, with no judge or law enforcement official in rural Indiana willing to stand up to the wealthy Clinton, Courtney is caught between hell and a hard place – literally.

Although a sequel pretty much to the first Sinister, this has little in common with the first film. No Ethan Hawke, for one thing – Sossamon is the biggest name in the cast which helps keep the costs low and the profit margin high. Scott Derrickson, who directed the original, is still on board as co-writer and producer but it is Irish director Foy, who has a nifty thriller called The Citadel to his credit, in the chair here.

The first film was incredibly creepy; the atmosphere was much more intense than it is here. There is more a Children of the Corn vibe which is said to be on purpose; Foy had wanted the film to be a tribute to the Stephen King story which spawned a plethora of cinematic stinkers – and has a lot in common thematically with both of the Sinister films. While some might find the homespun Indiana cornfield look frightening, it doesn’t quite do it for me personally.

Ransone does, though. Moving from a background comedy relief character to genuine horror hero, we get the kind of hero we can all get behind; he’s not brawny or a particularly good fighter (he gets beaten up at least twice during the film) but he is smart and sympathetic. He’s a nice guy whom we fear is going to finish last.

The movie’s subtext having to do with abusive husbands/fathers is welcome. Often the physical abuse is given as a reason as why abused kids turn into psychotic serial killers but here it is shown as terrifying as anything the demon can conjure up; there’s a scene where the Collins family is having dinner and Clinton eats first while the others sit in frightened silence, awaiting the signal that they can eat. It’s as stark and scary a scene in any horror movie this year. Sadly, none of the Bughuul stuff can equal it.

Part of the problem is that the kid actors in the movie who take up most of the screen time range from adequate to hard to watch. A movie like this by necessity requires a good number of child actors and that’s a double edged sword; if you can get good ones, it ratchets up the fear factor. If not, it can make your film look amateurish. It doesn’t quite sink to that level, but it certainly isn’t elevated by the performances of the children. And that’s not a knock on the kids, mind you – I don’t think it’s for lack of effort on their part, but they do have an awful lot of burden on their shoulders and that might be a little too much to ask of them.

Another issue I had with the movie is the various snuff films. The death scenes are so elaborate that to a large extent they aren’t believable. Sure, the kids are being helped by a demonic presence but it doesn’t feel like a kid could come up with these complex killing methods, ranging from putting a family on crucifixes and burning them alive to hanging them upside down above a swamp where alligators take their heads off. Gruesome fun to be sure, but not believable gruesome fun.

Even despite the deficiencies this ends up with a slightly higher rating than the first Sinister, largely because the ending of the first one was such a stinker. The ending here is a lot better; and while Bughuul is not the terrifying monster that maybe this franchise needs, the movie is scary enough in a white bread kind of way that it makes the movie worth checking out.

REASONS TO GO: Fairly creepy. Ransone steps up nicely. Like the inclusion of the abusive father.
REASONS TO STAY: Children of the Corn vibe doesn’t work. The filmed death scenes too elaborate. Overreliance on kid actors.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, much of it gruesome; bloody and disturbing images, and some fairly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only returning characters from the first film are Bughuul himself and the Detective, who in the first film was Deputy So & So (he never gets a name); here he is Detective So & So.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Insidious
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mistress America

Joe (2013)


Joe has his sights set on opening that there can of whoopass.

Joe has his sights set on opening that there can of whoopass.

(2013) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Brian Mays, AJ Wilson McPhaul, Sue Rock, Heather Kafka, Brenda Isaacs Booth, Anna Niemtschk, Elbert Evan Hill III, Milton Fountain, Roderick L. Polk, Aaron Spivey-Sorrells, John Daws, Kay Epperson, Lico Reyes, Erin Reed, Dana Freitag. Directed by David Gordon Green

florida-film-festival-2014We are none of us born perfect and some of us come into the world with more obstacles than others to achieve perfection. We still plug away nonetheless, eking out our place in the world and trying to make a life that we can call our own.

Joe Ransom (Cage) is an ex-con with a hair-trigger temper. He is trying the straight and narrow as the boss of a crew that poisons trees so that a developer can come in and snatch the land for rock bottom prices, then raze it and do what they like with it. It’s illegal as hell, but it’s the most honest living Joe can find.

He drinks and smokes too much and from time to time gets into bar fights, particularly with a lout named Willie Russell (Blevins) who shoots Joe in the shoulder in retaliation. Joe takes up with hookers and drives a battered old truck, occasionally running in with the law and getting bailed out by his old friend Earl (McPhaul) who knows that despite the rough edges Joe is basically a decent sort.

One day a young teenage boy named Gary (Sheridan) shows up looking for work along with his father Wade (Poulter). The dad is an absolute disaster; a raging alcoholic who beats his son up and takes the money he earns to buy cigarettes and booze. Gary on the other hand is a hard worker who impresses Joe from the get-go and the not easily impressed Joe takes the boy under his wing somewhat and becomes a mentor to him.

Certainly Gary could easily be headed on the same freight train that his father is riding but even the exceedingly imperfect Joe is more of a role model than his dad. Of course this doesn’t sit well with Wade who meets up with Willie Russell who after further humiliation from Joe is ready for something even more violent.

Cage in recent years has achieved the kind of notoriety that no actor wants – for excessive scene-chewing and taking on roles in movies that are wildly forgettable or worse. Here in one performance he very nearly erases a decade of performances that are simply put not worthy of a man of Cage’s talent. This is the Nicolas Cage whose movies I looked forward to seeing; this is the guy who won Oscars and charmed critics with his offbeat charisma. Those who have been disappointed by his recent run of B, C and D movies can rejoice that he’s finally been given a role deserving of him.

Sheridan continues his hot streak of excellent roles in mainly Southern gothic films. As in Mud he has a first-rate adult actor to work with and one gets the sense that Sheridan is learning well from watching pros like Cage and Matthew McConaughey at work. One gets the sense that he is going to be around for a good long time and may well be the most decorated actor of the 2020s.

Green, like Cage, had a little bit of a career hiccup after a promising start; it seems likely that he knew that he wasn’t doing his best work and took a step back and started where he came from – the indie drama. This is his best work in awhile, the fine Prince Avalanche notwithstanding. He captures the sordid desperation of the very lowest and impoverished classes in rural Texas and allows them their own brand of dignity. These aren’t people you may hang out with or even want to, but Green gives them more respect than other directors might have been willing to in the same position. Kudos to him for that much.

This can be tough going in places. The sordid existence of Joe, Gary, Wade and Willie Russell may be too much grit for some but those willing to stick it out will be rewarded with a real gem of a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Cage’s best performance in years. Gritty and unpleasant but always compelling.

REASONS TO STAY: The ugliness can be overwhelming.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some fairly disturbing stuff including depictions of child abuse and alcoholism, violence, foul language and strong sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Poulter, who passed away two months after filming concluded, was actually a homeless man with a history of alcoholism and violent behavior when cast by Green, who is known for casting local non-professionals in his movies.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mud

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Lunchbox

Fireflies in the Garden


Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

(2008) Drama (Senator) Ryan Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Watson, Ioan Gruffudd, Hayden Panettiere, Shannon Lucio, Cayden Boyd, George Newbern, Brooklyn Proulx, Diane Perella, Natalie Karp, John C. Stennfeld, Philip Rose, Babs George, Frank Ertl, Grady McCardell, Chase Ellison, Michelle Brew, Gina Gheller, Stayce Smith. Directed by Dennis Lee

There are those who say that we cannot escape childhood. Like death and taxes, it pursues us with relentless ferocity and those things in childhood that wounded us remain with us, periodically picking at the scabs.

Michael Taylor (Reynolds) is a best-selling author although what he writes is generally considered “light” reading. His relationship with his father Charles (Dafoe) is strained at best. Charles is himself a frustrated writer who retreated into the halls of academia when his career as a novelist didn’t pan out. A strict disciplinarian with his children but mostly with his son, Charles meets any indiscretion with the most horrific and overreacting punishments imaginable. You can imagine what this academic does when Michael as a boy (Boyd) shames him by plagiarizing a Robert Frost poem and presenting it as his own.

Michael is definitely abused but he has two women in his corner; his gentle mother Lisa (Roberts) and his feisty aunt Jane (Watson as an adult, Panettiere as a teen) who protect him against the worst of his father’s rages and comfort him when their protection is breached.

As an adult Michael has definitely made some errors. He has separated from his wife Kelly (Moss) and continues to have a contentious relationship with his father. When a family tragedy brings the family into the same place, Michael and Charles will have to confront their feelings for one another perhaps for the first time in their lives.

Although set in Illinois, the movie was filmed in Texas and has a kind of Southern gothic feel to it that is almost soap opera-esque. Dafoe is note-perfect as Charles whose anger issues and self-loathing point to deeper waters that the film doesn’t explore but that Dafoe seems to have a handle on. Roberts’ Lisa at first glance seems like the long-suffering wife archetype but it turns out that she has some secrets of her own and not all of them are pleasant. Roberts, normally a star who appears in much higher-profile movies, imbues Lisa with decency and humanity.

Reynolds in recent years has gotten all sorts of flack for appearing in some sub-par films but to my mind is actually capable of some pretty good work. This is an example of him at his finest, showing that Reynolds can really deliver when given the right script.

The jumps between present day and past can be jarring and with all the souls revolving around the story here it can be difficult to distinguish one character from another. Simple linear storytelling might have served the film better, or failing that cutting down on the superfluous characters would at least be helpful.

The pacing here is as slow as a tax refund when you really need it which suits me just fine but some viewers who prefer a more robust pace might find frustrating. Lee does have a good eye and some of the scenes have an artful grace to them, such as when the family is swatting fireflies with badminton racquets or the bookending scenes in which young Michael is forced to walk home in the rain after a transgression in the car and his nephew Christopher (Ellison) runs away from nearly the same spot 22 years later. Despite the star power for this indie feature, there isn’t enough here to really sustain interest over the course of a full film although there is enough promise in Lee’s work to keep me interested in his future endeavors.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Dafoe, Roberts and Reynolds. Some graceful touches.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Multiple actors playing the same role gets confusing. Storytelling is a bit muddled. Languidly paced.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language as well as some sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moss and Panettiere share a birthday.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.4M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Bad Words