Submission


Stanley Tucci clearly has a position of power over Addison Timlin…or does he?

(2017) Drama (Great Point Media) Stanley Tucci, Addison Timlin, Kyra Sedgwick, Janeane Garofalo, Peter Gallagher, Jessica Hecht, Ritchie Coster, Colby Minifie, Alison Bartlett, David Pittu, Henry Stram, Juan Castano, Matt Ballard, Ashley Trawinski, Stephanie Berry, Devin Norik, Kenneth De Abrew, S.J. Son, Nicole Orth-Palavicini, Malika Samuel, Deaven Brooks, Barbara Spiegel. Directed by Richard Levine

 

In an era which has seen the #MeToo movement grow into a national tidal wave of women standing up to name those who have raped, harassed or committed sexual misconduct against them, movies like this one stand out as a bit of a dinosaur.

Ted Swenson (Tucci) toils at a bucolic college campus in Vermont teaching creative writing courses which mainly consist of students reading their works aloud in class and the other students criticizing them, generally with banal cruelty. Ted is married to Sherrie (Sedgwick) who as a medical doctor is likely responsible for their beautiful split level home, although Ted had a bestselling novel years ago based on his own experiences growing up with a radical father who self-immolated in protest of the Vietnam war.

The follow-up however has yet to surface and his agent (Gallagher) has more or less given up on him, so Ted lives in this kind of literary hell in which he listens to badly written purple prose week after week without any let-up. The, one of his students – Angela Argo (Timlin) who has been one of the most vocal and vicious critics – finally after some liberal ego massage gets Ted to read the first chapter of her novel Eggs and he realizes at once he is looking at genuine talent.

Her novel is insightful and extremely erotic, a tale of a student who has become sexually obsessed with her teacher. Of course, Ted surmises that the teacher character is based on him and the student on her – Angela makes it perfectly clear that it is the case. However, Ted makes some ill-advised decisions after Angela continues to shamelessly manipulate him and puts everything at risk – his job, his reputation, and his family.

I guess in a way we can see this film as a way the patriarchy thinks about these sexual misconduct cases. We’re supposed to be sympathetic to Ted and yet he puts himself in a position where he can be seduced and doesn’t seem to realize that the whole thing is being orchestrated by Angela as a means of getting Ted to submit her novel to his agent. She seems sweet at first but sweet turns into demanding turns into seduction turns into accusatory. Angela is supposed to be the villain here but quite frankly, cases like this are far more rare than male authority figures using their power to manipulate vulnerable women into situations where they feel forced to have sexual relationships they don’t want.

The movie is based on a novel written back in 2000 by Francine Prose called The Blue Angel which in turn is loosely based on the Marlene Dietrich film of the same name which Angela is watching during the course of this film in a charming meta move. Movies of this sort are not uncommon – anyone remember the Demi Moore/Michael Douglas film Disclosure? – in which women are shown to have the upper hand in sexual politics although clearly that isn’t the case. It is the type of attitude that allowed the Harvey Weinsteins of the world to flourish.

While the subject is accidentally topical, the plot is predictable and cliché. The movie is saved by Tucci who gives his usual strong performance, although his voiceover narration particularly in the beginning of the film is particularly grating. The collegiate setting particularly in the beautiful countryside of New England is somehow comforting and gorgeous at the same time. That’s the college I’d want to have tenure at.

Watchable mainly because of the strong cast, Submission fails on a number of levels. From a political correctness standpoint, it comes off as somewhat of an anachronism in an age when we are beginning to stand up and take notice of the treatment that women have had to endure in relative silence for decades. Moreover, the way the story is told is rife with clichés and worse yet doesn’t particularly add anything to the narrative. I’m not against the idea of a story about an amoral seductress manipulating a naïve professional for her own ambition but this is the wrong time for that kind of story to be told. I’d much rather see movies that illustrate the reality of what women in the workplace have endured and continue to endure even today.

REASONS TO GO: Tucci is always a treat to watch. As it turns out the plot is very topical. The collegiate vistas are oddly comforting.
REASONS TO STAY: Viewers may get the sense that they’ve seen this all before. Cliches abound throughout the film. The narration is a bit grating.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some strong sexual content, nudity and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Angela watches the classic Marlene Dietrich film The Blue Angel which gave the source novel its title.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Elegy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Chasing Great

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Wish Upon (2017)


Love at first sight.

(2017) Horror (Broad Green) Joey King, Ryan Phillippe, Ki Hong Lee, Mitchell Slaggert, Shannon Purser, Sydney Park, Elisabeth Röhm, Josephine Langford, Alexander Nunez, Daniela Barbosa, Kevin Hanchard, Sherilyn Fenn, Raegan Revord, Alice Lee, Victor Sutton, Albert Chung, Michelle Alexander, Natalie Prinzen-Klages, Nora Prinzen-Klages. Directed by John R. Leonetti

Who hasn’t ever dreamed of having an Aladdin’s lamp, granting us wishes that would make our lives better? Most of us have those dreams without remembering that these stories generally have things turn out much worse for the heroes than they anticipated.

Claire Shannon (King) has had a rougher life than most. As a young girl (Revord) she witnessed her mother (Röhm) hang herself in the attic. The event so traumatized her that she never rode her little pink bike again, leaving it where she left it that horrible day to rust in the weeds. Her father (Phillippe) has a bit of a screw loose; he’s a dumpster diver and a hoarder. At school, Claire is an outsider bullied by Darcie Chapman (Langford) and the other popular kids. She hangs around fellow outsiders June (Purser) and Meredith (Park).

One day her father finds an old Chinese music box in the trash near some sort of Chinese temple and decides to make a gift of it to his daughter. At first it seems harmless enough but that day had been particularly horrible for Claire in regards to the bullying and she exclaims impulsively “I wish Darcie Chapman would just rot!” Not an unheard of sentiment for a high school teen but in this case Darcie develops a severe case of necrotizing fasciitis, meaning she is literally rotting. On the negative side, Claire’s beloved dog is attacked and eaten by feral rats.

After a couple of other wishes come true, Claire puts two and two together and realizes the music box is somehow granting her wishes. It takes her a little bit longer to add the third “two” and realize that for each wish granted, someone close to her dies and for the most part in an inventively gruesome way. She enlists her token Chinese friend Ryan (K.H. Lee) and his cousin Gina (A. Lee) to help translate the characters on the music box and what they discover is unsettling. It seems that Claire only gets seven wishes and once she uses them all, the diabolical music box will claim her soul. The terrifying thing is that she’s already used up five wishes and the now not-quite-right in the head Claire seems perfectly willing to use her other two up…

A lot of different movies have utilized the MacGuffin of a wish-granting device with varying degrees of success. Most of them are influenced to varying degrees by the short story “The Monkey’s Paw” which really is the standard setter for the perils of granting wishes. Most of us have seen at least a few of them, enough to know that wishes rarely turn out the way we expect them to. That’s at least the life lesson that the original author wished to impart.

Whoever wrote this movie probably should have taken that to heart. There are some interesting elements here, like the rather convoluted (in a good way) death scenes which brings an overall Final Destination vibe which is, in my opinion, a good thing since I have always found those movies clever in a morbid kind of way. In other words, my kind of movie.

King is at least age-appropriate for the casting (she was 16 years old during filming) but is hung out to dry by the writing, which really makes her character hard to relate to. I do get that the music box is somehow influencing Claire to use its powers but that isn’t made as clear as it could be other than her Gollum-like “Mine! MINE!” sequence when Ryan tries to convince her not to use the box again. King seems to have a good deal of talent but her character is just so selfish and unlikable that even by the film’s end as a viewer I really found myself taken out of the film, thinking “well she deserved what she got.”

The death scenes and the music box itself are pretty nifty, I admit and are the film’s saving graces. They are plenty clever and the music box, which becomes more shiny and new with each use (another little detail I admired) plays some pretty eerie music and the movement of the device is well-done so kudos to whoever constructed the music box itself.

The rest of the supporting cast is essentially pretty meh, although Phillippe as usual is the consummate professional, giving an effort to go above and beyond playing a role that frankly is a bit different than we are used to seeing from him. His performance here reminds me that we don’t see him in important roles as much as we should.

I would say that overall the movie is pretty much just average. It’s neither bad nor good which isn’t going to win it a lot of people seeking it out when it becomes more generally available. I know I’m damning the film with faint praise but I really can’t do otherwise. It’s definitely another case of a good concept squandered by a derivative plot and weak character development.

REASONS TO GO: The wish box sequences are pretty nifty. Phillippe is actually pretty decent in an unusual role for him.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is extremely derivative. King doesn’t distinguish herself in the lead role.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and disturbing images, adult thematic elements and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie borrows elements from the W.W. Jacobs short story “The Monkey’s Paw.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wishmaster
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
More Six Days of Darkness

The Lazarus Effect


Olivia gets a little Wilde.

Olivia gets a little Wilde.

(2015) Horror (Relativity) Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Sarah Bolger, Evan Peters, Donald Glover, Ray Wise, Scott Sheldon, Emily Kelavos, James Earl, Amy Aquino, Sean T. Krishnan, Ator Tamras, Liisa Cohen, Jennifer Floyd, Bruno Gunn, Scott L. Treiger. Directed by David Gelb

There was a horror movie back in the 60s that was somewhat ironically titled Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things. In the decades since, we have learned that adults pretty much shouldn’t either.

Zoe (Wilde) and Frank (Duplass) are young doctors in love. Well, actually they’re more like medical researchers than actual MDs but you get my drift. Along with young researchers Clay (Peters) and Niko (Glover) they have created a formula that, with judiciously applied electricity (shades of Frankenstein) can extend the life of the dying, allowing doctors more time to repair what is killing the patient and saving lives. They bring in a comely videographer named Eva (Bolger) to document their impending breakthrough.

Except it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. Instead, it revives a dead dog. Brings it right back to life, and even cures the cataracts which were the cause that the dog’s owner had their pet put down for in the first place. Cause to celebrate, no?

Well, not quite yet. For one thing, the dog is moody, refuses to eat or drink and is mostly lethargic except for bouts of absolute mother humping menace that have the researchers freaked out, particularly the e-Cig puffing Clay who is normally the prankster of the bunch. He’s a little freaked out by the pooch who certainly looks to have a bit of the devil in him.

Well, their research also has the effect on the marketplace as well. The small pharmaceutical company which underwrote their research at the university has been gobbled up by a bigger one who really want their Lazarus formula. The smarmy CEO (Wise) shows up to collect it, which because Frank, the author of the grant proposal, didn’t read the fine print on the contract, is entitled to lock, stock and barrel, although the comely videographer manages to spirit Fido away before the vivisectionists get hold of him.

Frank is quite properly cheesed off about the whole situation and in a fit of pique, decides to recreate the experiment while their equipment is still in the lab. So late one dark and stormy night – well, it’s a night anyway – they sneak into the lab and attempt to revive one last frozen but dead dog.

But something goes horribly wrong and if you’ve seen the trailer, you know exactly what it is and without going into too much detail, they are forced to conduct human experiments a little sooner than they had intended to. However, what they don’t realize is that the Lazarus formula plucks the soul right out of the afterlife and if that afterlife happened to be Hell, then the thing that comes back isn’t quite human and isn’t quite happy about it. A childhood trauma becomes the basis of a hell all of the team is going to go through, alive or not and before the night is over there will be a lot more bodies available to use the Lazarus serum on.

This is a short but sweet little thriller clocking in at well less than 90 minutes which is a good thing because I don’t think the story could have sustained a whole lot of extraneous business. Most of the action takes place at the lab (although a few scenes take place in the lobby of the building, in the office of the dean and in the apartment that Zoe and Frank share) which may be the most underlit medical lab in the history of college research facilities. You half expect the Boogie Man to reside here on a permanent basis.

Duplass, who has become something of an indie film darling for the movies he’s co-directed with his brother Jay (Baghead, The Puffy Chair) as well as his television work on The League and more recently the HBO series Togetherness. He’s actually pretty charismatic as an actor and he works really well with Wilde, who has been on the verge of breakout stardom for awhile now. In a lot of ways it’s frustrating to watch Wilde who is so very good in most everything she does and she’s just so close to making the next level but the right role to put her over that hump eludes her. This isn’t the movie that will do it, although she is very, very good in it.

The movie was made for next to nothing and relies more on practical effects than on CGI for the cool factor. Horror fans are going to find this a bit light on scares, although there are a couple of good ones. What is to be commended is that there is a great deal more character development than is typical for low-budget horror movies. What is to be condemned is that the film’s plot relies overly much on smart people – these folks are educated after all – doing dumb things. Even the scientifically challenged like myself could have told Frank and Zoe that their bright idea of recreating the experiment so that they could prove that the research was theirs would end badly.

There’s stuff here to like, but there is also a lot of stuff here to not. My big problem is that the atmosphere of fear that is vital to any horror film just isn’t pervasive enough. I can forgive a movie that starts slowly and builds to a roller coaster of a climax, but The Lazarus Effect is more of a kiddy coaster that could have used a few inversions and taller lift hills to give its audience a better ride.

REASONS TO GO: Duplass and Wilde make an attractive pair. Does a whole lot with a little.
REASONS TO STAY: Smart people doing stupid things. Not as scary as I might have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: Gruesome subject matter, intense horror violence, some sexual references and a surprisingly small amount of merely mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was actually filmed in 2013 and was scheduled to be released by Lionsgate. However, internal management changes at the studio led to the movie being shelved for a year and a half with Lionsgate selling the U.S. distribution rights to Relativity although they did retain the overseas rights.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flatliners
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Home of the Brave

The Skeptic


The Skeptic

Tim Daly is being haunted by Tiger Woods.

(IFC) Tim Daly, Tom Arnold, Zoe Saldana, Edward Herrmann, Robert Prosky, Andrea Roth, Bruce Altman, Lea Coco, Sarah Weaver. Directed by Tennyson Bardwell

We all believe in something; some believe in the spiritual, others in the rational. Some believe in nothing at all, but even that is believing in something.

Bryan Beckett (Daly) falls into that category. Then again, he’s a lawyer so I suppose that goes along with the territory. He believes only in what he can see, what he can touch and what he can hear, and even those things he doesn’t necessarily trust. His wife Robin (Roth) has begun to suspect that he doesn’t believe in marriage either, so she asks him to leave so he can maybe get a handle on whether he believes they should continue in their relationship or not.

He kind of wants to but then again, what is marriage anyway but a contrivance of the ecclesiastical and secular authorities to put an intangible relationship into some kind of quantifiable box and quite frankly, Bryan is all about the tangible baby and those who think otherwise are nutcases and idiots.

His aunt certainly qualifies as a nutcase. As she has come to the end of her life, she has come to believe in the supernatural to a great extent. When she dies suddenly, she leaves Bryan her house. Bryan sees it as an investment opportunity, but when Robin kicks him out, he uses it as a cheap bed for the night.

As you can guess, he begins to experience things he can’t quite explain. He hears people whispering but there isn’t anyone there. He sees fleeting images of a mysterious woman but again, he is alone. His partner and best friend Sully (Arnold) thinks he’s cracking up and needs a vacation. Eventually Bryan contacts the founder (Altman) of a paranormal investigative group that his loony tunes aunt had been involved with and is surprised to find him as skeptical as he. However, he does introduce Bryan to a sexy psychic (Saldana) who believes there is something malevolent in that house. Bryan thinks its hogwash. Is he right and just imagining these things, or is she right in which case he’s in mortal danger?

This is a movie that tries very hard not to pander to the baser instincts of the horror genre and in general it succeeds. Director Bardwell is out to create a mood of tension and spine tingling creepiness and when he succeeds, the movie is at its best. However, he necessarily has to temper the chills with the cold water splash of reality and the juxtaposition of the two is a very difficult tightrope to walk and he doesn’t always succeed completely.

Daly who was such a promising lead in “Wings” has had a checkered film career. He does a reasonably good job of playing the rational lawyer who’s more than a little bit of a cold fish. Unfortunately, his character as written tends to make it difficult for the audience to identify with him and root for him; he’s so good at portraying the unemotional, detached part of the character that at the end of the day there’s no emotional bond for the audience to hang onto. The central premise of the movie makes it nearly impossible for you to really root for the main character.

The end is a bit of a letdown and one that you can see coming early on. After watching The Skeptic I found myself not really caring that I’d seen it; it has some things going for it, enough that I can recommend it for those who like supernatural horror movies as well as psychological thrillers. However, I don’t see general audiences caring enough about the main character to make this movie a must-see.

WHY RENT THIS: A traditional haunted house movie that doesn’t involve teenagers is quite refreshing. Bardwell delivers a very creepy atmosphere in places

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This lacks in visual frights compared to more extravagant fair like The Haunting in Connecticut. The ending is a bit of a letdown.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing and frightening images, as well as some sexuality and a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the final film role for veteran character actor Robert Prosky.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Grown Ups