Babyteeth


Poolside contemplation.

(2019) Drama (IFCEliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Michelle Lotters, Sora Wakaki, Renee Billing, Zack Grech, Georgina Symes, Emily Barclay, Eugene Gilfedder, Edward Lau, Charles Grounds, Jack Yabsley, Andrea Demetriades, Ashley Hanak, Quentin Yung, Jaga Yap, Priscilla Doueihy, Shannon Dooley. Directed by Shannon Murphy

The world is full of dying teens, or so the movies would tell us. Invariably, the teens so afflicted are spunky, quirky and more lively than kids destined to live long lives. Rarely do we ever see seriously ill kids who actually act seriously ill, with only an occasional nosebleed or a bloody cough. I wonder what it says about humans in general that we are so eager to kill off our young, figuratively speaking.

In this much-lauded Aussie drama, Milla (Scanlen) seems a normal teen with normal teen angst and normal teen attitude – i.e. her parents don’t understand, all adults are morons and NOBODY GETS ME. Her parents, in her case, are seriously effed up – Dad Henry (Mendelsohn) is a therapist whose response is generally to write a prescription for one drug or another. Some of those drugs go to his wife and Milla’s mom Anna (Davis) who is generally stoned out of her mind on Xanax or Zoloft or some such.

Into Milla’s life comes Moses (Wallace) like a bull in a china shop, quite literally – he slams into her on a train platform, because he wants to feel the train. Within moments of that meeting, he’s hitting her up for cash. He’s homeless, a drug addict and a small-time drug dealer – just the kind of boyfriend any girl would love to bring home to Daddy – and of course, that’s exactly what Milla does.

Milla’s folks are appalled by Moses but even though he robs them, there’s still something charming about him and Milla really likes him. When Milla shows up bald shortly thereafter, we realize that her illness is Serious and Anna’s constant self-medication is because she is having trouble reconciling the prospect that her daughter might not be around much longer, but Moses seems to make her happy and so she and Henry allow Moses to stick around, because just maybe he’s the real tonic that Milla actually needs.

Veteran Aussie TV director Murphy, making her feature film debut, has made a film with graceful texture. To her credit, she rarely allows the film to degenerate into maudlin self-pity, which is an issue with other films of this sort. If it feels a bit padded out, that might be forgiven if what’s onscreen holds our interest. For the most part, it does largely due to an absolutely star-making performance by Scanlen who has shown that she has the chops to be an A-list actress. Her chemistry with Wallace is undeniable.

On the negative side, Murphy chooses to end each chapter abruptly rather than seamlessly transitioning. She just stops the scene, often like shutting a door and moving on to the next room. It’s jarring and would have worked better if she hadn’t used it quite so often. d

There is a lot of meat on the bones here, certainly enough to give the average film buff hours of discussion afterwards if so they choose. For me though, it didn’t quite connect; maybe I’ve seen too many dying teen movies and perhaps it didn’t resonate as much in the middle of a global pandemic. The movie probably deserved a higher grade than I’m giving it, but I can’t bring myself to do it; that wouldn’t be fair to my readers. I will say that some of you will likely really connect with this movie, but for one reason or another, I just didn’t. Make of that what you will.

REASONS TO SEE: Scanlen is mesmerizing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too long and too disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual content and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scanlen previously played sickly teen Beth March in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon. AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews, Metacritic: 76/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 6,5/10
NEXT:
The Ghost of Peter Sellers

White Boy Rick


Like father, like son.

(2018) True Crime Drama (ColumbiaMatthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, Bryan Tyree Henry, Bruce Dern, Bel Powley, RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, Eddie Marsan, Taylour Paige, Piper Laurie, Raekwon Haynes, Ishmael “Ishdarr” Ali, James Howard, YG, Danny Brown, Kyanna Simone Simpson, Heidi Sulzman, Lauren Ashley Berry. Directed by Yann Demange

 

The crack epidemic of the 80s that led to the “Just Say No” program was tragic in nearly every sense. There were no real winners – and the biggest losers were those in the poorest communities. Entire cities fell victim to the crime wave that followed the crack. Cities like Detroit, for example.

Young Rick Wershe Jr. (Merritt) has been caught up in a bad crowd. It’s not really a wonder; his dad (McConaughey) sells guns illegally, and you can bet those weapons are not being stored in a glass case. They’re finding use in the criminal underworld. Rick’s best friend Boo (Cyler) has connections with the Curry crime family. Rick, nicknamed White Boy because he is the sole Caucasian amongst the people he hangs with, ends up being recruited by a couple of unscrupulous FBI agents (Leigh, Cochrane) to be an informant – the youngest in FBI history at age 14. As it turns out, this doesn’t turn out so well for Rick or the rest of his family.

Demange, a French director best known for ’71, has the perfect directorial temperament for the urban grit this story demands. He manages to get some strong performances out of McConaughey who plays a lowlife hustler whose life is a series of miscalculations, and Merritt, a fairly unknown actor whose broad Baltimore accent doesn’t distract (too much) from the film.

The movie has a fairly bleak outlook; Wershe spent more than 30 years behind bars for a non-violent drug offense while others with more violent offenses arrested near the same time were released earlier. Now, the film doesn’t mention that when he was arrested Wershe had eight kilos of cocaine in his possession, but even so the punishment seems a little excessive. He has since returned to jail for a separate offense.

This is definitely meant to be a cautionary tale and certainly Wershe was no angel and made some bad choices, although to be fair people who live in the kind of poverty and hopelessness that is part and parcel to living in neighborhoods like that generally have few alternatives. This movie is generally pretty well-made, but doesn’t illustrate that fact perhaps as clearly as it might have.

REASONS TO SEE: Demange sets a great sense of tension throughout. McConaughey gives another outstanding performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the bleak side.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a plethora of profanity, a ton of drug use and references, violence, sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film is set in Detroit, it was actually filmed in Cleveland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes:59% positive reviews: Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of the City
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Between Two Ferns: The Movie

The First Purge


Viewers can now binge the Purge.

(2018) Thriller (Universal/BlumhouseY’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Mugga, Patch Darragh, Marisa Tomei, Luna Lauren Velez, Kristen Solis, Rotimi Paul, Mo McRae, Jermel Howard, Siya, Christian Robinson, Steve Harris, Derek Basco, D.K. Bowser, Mitchell Edwards, Maria Rivera, Chyna Layne, Ian Blackman, Melonie Diaz. Directed by Gerard McMurray

 

The Purge series posits a somewhat fascist American government creating a 12=hour period annually during which all crime is legal, including murder. Those who can afford to leave, do – or they set up their homes as impenetrable fortresses. For the less wealthy, the alternative is to hunker down and ride it out, hoping the crazies won’t find them.

The latest film in the franchise (which has since also added a ten-episode “event” cable TV series, an ad for which appeared mid-credits at the film’s conclusion) goes back to the beginning, when the New Founding Fathers – the only political party standing – have emerged as the de facto rulers after an economic crisis has crippled the United States. Eager to purge the roles of welfare recipients and those getting federal assistance, they enlist a kooky psychiatrist (Tomei) to come up with a plan. The experiment is limited to Staten Island, where the government entices residents to stay by offering $5000 cash if they’ll wear contact lenses mounted with miniaturized cameras, giving everybody’s eyes a bizarre glow.

Nya (Davis) is having none of it. She sees the Purge for what it is – a racist attempt to take out the poor and the dark-skinned. Her ex-boyfriend Dmitri (Noel) is more pragmatic; he’s a drug dealer who is staying only because relocating his product would be too risky. So , with rival dealers seeing the Purge as an opportunity and other segments of the population throwing huge parties, oblivious to the danger that confronts them, and the government sending in hit squads when the violence isn’t enough to capture the imagination of the populous, Nya and Dmitri are going to have a very long night indeed.

There is no doubt that the series is allegorical, accurately predicting America’s turn towards extremism back in 2013 when the series debuted. The MAGA-like hat that decorated the poster was another clue; there’s even a reference to female genital grabbing if that isn’t enough. All in all, I’m not sure if Trump supporters are going to see this as elitist liberalism or a reactionary wet dream and respond accordingly.

The performances of the mostly unknown leads are solid enough and some of the murder scenes are cleverly staged but the movie is absolutely riddled with tropes and stock characters to the point that it becomes depressingly predictable. There are definitely signs that the franchise is losing its steam and doesn’t really have the courage of its convictions any longer. Still, those who appreciated the first three films in the series will likely appreciate this one, although they – like I – may not embrace it as a fitting addition to the franchise.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the murder sequences are extremely effective.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many clichés and way too predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a plethora of often disturbing violence, some sexual content, profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film in the franchise not to be directed by James DeMonaco. Although he did write the screenplay.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews: Metacritic: 54//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assault on Precinct 13
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
A Reindeer’s Journey

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)


You just can’t keep Diane Kruger down.

(2017) Drama (Magnolia) Diane Kruger, Denis Moschitto, Numan Acar, Samia Muriel Chancrin, Johannes Krisch, Ulrich Tukur, Ulrich Brandhoff, Hanna Hilsdorf, Yannis Economides, Rafael Santana, Karin Neuhauser, Uwe Rohde, Siir Eloglu, Asim Demirel, Aysel Iscan, Christa Krings, Hartmut Loth, Adam Bousdoukos, Henning Peker, Laurens Walter, Jessica McIntyre. Directed by Fatih Akin

 

Our lives can be turned upside down in an instant. One moment we are surrounded by a happy, content family. The next – everything is gone. Dealing with that kind of pain is almost inconceivable to most of us but it happens far more regularly than it should.

Katja (Kruger) has that kind of life. She married Nuri Sekerci (Acar) while he was in a German jail for dealing drugs. He has since turned his life around, having become a respected member of the Kurdish community in Hamburg as a tax preparer and translator. Katja and Nuri have an adorable young son Rocco (Santana). While both Katja and Nuri are still a bit rough around the edges, there’s no denying that they are devoted parents.

One rainy afternoon Katja drops off Rocco at Nuri’s office so that she can visit her very pregnant friend Birgit (Chancrin) and share a spa day together. Returning home after relaxing, she is horrified to discover flashing police lights and crowds gathered at the street where she had earlier that afternoon left her family. All that’s left of the office is a charred and obliterated shell. A nail bomb was detonated there and her family was in a microsecond reduced to filleted meat.

At first she is in shock. It can’t be happening and her eyes show her agony. Her mom and her mother’s boyfriend, Birgit and Nuri’s parents have gathered to lend their support and express their own grief. The police seem intent on investigating Nuri’s past indiscretions; Katja believes that neo-Nazis are behind the bombing. Her lawyer Danilo (Moschitto) tends to believe her and in a not-very-smart moment gives her some illegal narcotics to help her cope…and sleep.

Eventually things get sorted and the culprits are caught. Now it’s time for the trial, but the German legal system is much different than our own. For one thing, everybody’s got a lawyer – including the co-plaintiffs, which are normally the families of the victims. Will justice be done? Or will Katja have to seek it out herself?

Kruger, one of the most beautiful actresses in the world, has been a Hollywood fixture for years. Incredibly, this is her first German-language film and she capably demonstrates that she could well be one of the finest actresses in the world as well as being an attractive one. This is the kind of performance that should have been rewarded with a Best Actress nomination but inexplicably wasn’t. It was at least as strong a performance of any of the ladies who did get the nomination. Kruger poignantly shows the numbness of grief, the rage, the despair. Much of it is communicated through her eyes.

Katja isn’t a perfect wife, mother or woman. She makes mistakes and she’s a bit on the raw side. With her many tattoos, her own drug use and an explosive temper, she is flawed enough to bring our sympathy to the fore. She’s never so unbelievably pure that we can’t believe her. Rather, we don’t disbelieve her for a moment. Kruger is raw, authentic and powerful here.

The movie is like a raw nerve being scraped through the first two acts but in the third one it falters. I can’t describe why without really going into details that are best left unrevealed until you experience it; suffice to say that it shifts tone into something  that really the film shouldn’t have become. More than that I will not say.

Fortunately, Kruger’s searing performance outweighs the movie’s faults. This is definitely a bit rough to watch in places – anyone who has lost a friend or family member in an untimely violent way will likely be triggered – but it is honest in not only exploring cultural differences but also in finding the balance between the need to inflict pain and the need to expiate it. This is certainly one worth looking out for.

REASONS TO GO: Kruger delivers the best performance of her career. This is an emotionally wrenching film from beginning to end.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie goes off the rails a little bit during the third act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The home video segments were all shot on smartphones.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Killing Jesus
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Hunting Season

Sollers Point


McCaul Lombardi looks like he just walked in on something.

(2017) Drama (Oscilloscope) McCaul Lombardi, Jim Belushi, Tom Guiry, Zazie Beetz, Everleigh Brenner, Imani Hakim, Wass Stevens, Alyssa Bresnahan, Ashley Shelton, Lynn Cohen, Greg Crowe, Liam Hughes, Pete Papageorge, Michael Rogers, Kazy Tauginas, Grace Doughty, Brieyon Bell-El, Vincent De Paul, Maya Martinez, Hilary Kacser, Marin Ireland. Directed by Matthew Porterfield

Redemption isn’t easily obtained. It requires a genuine determination to change and to make amends which requires hard work on the part of the seeker. Sometimes – often, in fact – even the best of intentions just aren’t enough.

Keith (Lombardi) has just been released from prison and has transitioned from incarceration to house arrest. He has moved in with his father (Belushi) who is wary of his son who had made a lot of mistakes and had hung out with the wrong crowd. A low-level drug dealer for local Baltimore gangs, Keith wants to put that life behind him and make something of himself.

He is not on good terms with his ex-girlfriend Courtney (Beetz) who also has his dog, or at least that’s how Keith sees it (she sees it as she’s got their dog which is at least equally hers). Some of the gang bangers from his past have come back, intimating that he owes fealty to them but Keith turns down the offer to rejoin, angering Aaron (Guiry) who harasses Keith in an escalating series of confrontations.

Keith’s biggest obstacle, however, is Keith himself. He wants to learn a trade that his father would find honorable like air conditioning repair but Keith misses the first class and is late for the second which gets him thrown out of class. He does some odd jobs here and there but he finds that in order to make real money he has to skirt closer and closer to his old life. Lonely, he initiates hook-ups with strippers that he knows which leads to a further falling from grace. And as Keith’s temper begins to get the best of him, he finally crosses the line and may bring his freedom to a crashing halt

This is Porterfield’s fourth film, all of which are set in his hometown of Baltimore. While there’s clear affection for the city coming from the director, it is not unconditional love – he sees its issues clearly and without sentiment. There is crime, racial division and an erosion of the ability of the working class to find jobs and dignity. Most cities have the same types of problems, particularly those that relied heavily on industrial economies in decades past.

Lombardi is a find; he’s had supporting roles in high-profile indies up to now but this is his first lead and he hits a home run. Facially a cross between John Cena and Mark Wahlberg, he carries the latter’s charisma and the former’s physicality. It makes for a very promising performance; keep his name in mind as I suspect we’re going to be hearing a lot more from him.

Beetz, who has a high-profile role in the upcoming Deadpool 2 comes off less impressively. Perhaps her character was written with less to work with than Lombardi’s but she came off flat and without energy for most of the film; I couldn’t for the life of me see what Keith saw in Courtney at all. The chemistry was much stronger between Lombardi and Belushi although to be fair they had a lot more screen time together. While I was disappointed in her performance here – she’s done some compelling work in Atlanta – I’m hoping she does better the next time out.

Jim Belushi has come a long way from The World According to Jim and he shows some pretty serious dramatic chops here. There’s a scene with him and Beetz in which he pleads with her for the sake of his son, made all the more poignant for what Keith is doing at that moment. That scene alone is worth seeing the movie for.

This isn’t the first film to explore the reintegration of ex-cons into society and the hurdles facing them. In many ways, this is a well-trodden path. Keith though is his own worst enemy; he loses his temper when he should keep it, he is passive when he needs to stand up for himself and he does the wrong things for the right reasons – and sometimes, the wrong reasons. He isn’t a guy I’d probably want to hang out with for very long. It is a testament to Lombardi’s charm that the audience still ends up rooting for him. While I wouldn’t say this is Porterfield’s best film yet, it is nonetheless a solid one that is elevated by the strong performances from Lombardi and Belushi.

REASONS TO GO: Lombardi has some potential. There are some sweet and satisfying moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Beetz didn’t impress me at all. The character of Keith doesn’t have a whole lot going for him.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Porterfield and Lombardi visited a state prison to get ideas on how Keith would behave in certain situations.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Small Crimes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
In the Fade

Murder on the Cape (Murder on Cape Cod)


A romantic and picturesque image does not a great movie make.

(2017) True Crime Drama (Vision) Josh Walther, Jade Harlow, Heather Egeli, Tim Misuradze, Chris Lazzaro, Kevin Cotter, John Clayton, Sarah MacDonnell, Bragan Thomas, Bryce Egeli, Christina Egeli, Tobias Everett, Lisa Hayes, Alison Hyder. Directed by Arthur Egeli

 

This film, which has made some film festival appearances before moving on to various streaming and VOD services, is based on the real-life murder of fashion writer Christa Worthington. The crime has been the subject of a 48 Hours investigation and more recently a video podcast by the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 revisiting the crime.

As with most true crime films some of the details are changed but we’ll get to that in a moment. In Murder on the Cape fashion writer Elizabeth Baldwin (Harlow) has moved from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the quiet and picturesque New England fishing village of Denton Harbor (a fictional town standing in for the real location of Truro, Massachusetts). Mike Luna (Walther), an unemployed fisherman who is delivering firewood to help make ends meet for his family, brings some to Baldwin who takes a liking to the handsome and burly Mike.

Mike is married to Nancy (H. Egeli) who is supportive but is running out of patience. Mike insists that he’s a fisherman and that’s what he’s meant to do; when a job working for the town police department monitoring the shellfish population and making sure that people have the proper permits to harvest them. Mike considers it a humiliating job but after a dust-up with Nancy he admits that he needs the work and does what he has to.

He runs into Elizabeth when her neighbor Peter Benedict (Misuradze) inadvertently violates town policy and gets hypothermia in the process. Although Peter has ideas about developing a romantic relationship with Elizabeth, she only has eyes for Mike. Flattered by the attention, he begins an extramarital affair with the beautiful writer.

Eventually the inevitable happens and he gets her pregnant which leads to a series of complications. Then when Elizabeth turns up brutally murdered, the list of suspects is long but only the town’s ne’er-do-well drug dealer (Lazzaro) knows the truth about who really murdered Elizabeth Baldwin.

The cinematographer Jonathan Mariande acquits himself nicely with some beautifully shot footage mainly in picturesque Provincetown, Massachusetts. One gets a real sense of the charm of a New England village and of the pace of life on the Cape.

The titular murder doesn’t take place until near the very end of the film and there is no focus on the police investigation that followed – if you’re interested in that (and the story is an interesting one) it wouldn’t be a bad idea to find the footage from the various network newsmagazines that covered the murder. The Egelins and co-writer Ian Bowater focus more on the circumstances of the star-crossed lovers (the real person based on Mike Luna was a prime suspect early on in the case; one doesn’t get that sense from the movie) and on the economic upheaval that brought poverty to much of the fishing community in Denton Harbor. That’s fascinating material. However, those who are familiar with the case may be aware that there are some very significant differences between real and reel in this case.

Unfortunately they torpedo what could have been a much more interesting film by focusing on the more prurient aspects of the affair. The dialogue is a bit clunky and the actors look uncomfortable reciting it. This comes off as a made-for-TV film in a lot of ways and not in ways that I would especially be pleased about. The movie doesn’t really add a whole lot to the genre but there are enough entertaining elements to make it worth checking out if you happen upon it.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is lovely showing off Provincetown very nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels very much like a Lifetime TV movie with somewhat stiff acting and clunky dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, some disturbing images and an off-camera murder.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Arthur Egeli and his wife Heather who co-wrote the film knew some of the people involved in the Christa Worthington murder including the woman based on the character that Heather plays.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Foxcatcher
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Family I Had

A Different Set of Cards


Sometimes the game can get nasty.

(2016) Crime (108 Media) Adrian Linke, Jutta Dolle, Tim-Olrik Stoneberg, Guido Grollmann. Directed by Falko Jakobs

 

In the scheme of things the outcome of our lives often depends on circumstance. People who are born into poverty, for example, may not have the opportunities of those born into wealth and privilege. Turn over an unfriendly card and you’re a drug dealer; turn over a different card and you’re a police officer. So much of life falls on random chance.

In this low-budget German crime thriller, four people gather to play a game of poker. The narrator, Ben (Linke), watches the other three players like a hawk, trying to get a sense of their technique. One, a bearded badass (Stoneberg), is a trash talker who may slap you as soon as look at you. Another, a nervous bald man (Grollmann), is fearful and nervous; his game shows he can be easily rattled. Finally, a femme fatale (Dolle) is the wild card; Ben can’t really read her style at all.

These four players are actually playing a metaphorical card game; they are players in a drug dealer gone wrong. The badass is the buyer, who is strangely called The Salesman; the femme fatale is the seller, enigmatically called The Unknown. Ben himself is the buyer’s partner, only getting involved if things go south; he is The Accomplice. Finally, the nervous baldy is The Cop who is messing up the deal.

But Ben muses that this scenario could be a whole lot different if the players shifted roles. Ben becomes The Cop, the badass becomes The Unknown, the nervous bald guy becomes The Salesman and the femme fatale is The Accomplice. The outcome changes accordingly. And so it goes, as it turns out.

The concept is an interesting one and the same four actors keep the characters relatively intact even as their circumstances change. Jakobs, who co-wrote, edited, lensed and scored the film – I told you this was a low-budget affair – shows a remarkable confidence both as a writer and a director and manages to pull off what could have been a complete mess in less capable hands.

There is a distinctly film noir tone here – in fact the film was selected for a Los Angeles film noir festival earlier this year but with also a European flair. The use of light and shadow marks this very much as German as for whatever reason German filmmakers seem to be the most savvy filmmakers in the world generally in this aspect of filmmaking. The poker game segments are in black and white, adding to the noir feel.

Jakobs the writer wisely keeps the action to mainly two locations; a darkened room where the poker game takes place and a deserted warehouse where the drug deal segments happen. He also has only four actors in his cast; a lot of young filmmakers could learn a thing or two about putting together a great story in an affordable environment from Jakobs. What budget the film had seems to have been used wisely; the action sequences are well-staged and the gore is also done professionally without being too over-the-top.

Where the filmmaker falls a bit short is in the poker metaphor; it becomes a bit intrusive and feels forced the longer the movie goes on. I would have preferred more of the drug deal segments and less of the players sitting around the card table. However, there is a nice twist at the end which while not super original was at least unexpected and gave the movie what a lot of movies these days lack; a fitting ending.

I was only able to find one other review online for this so it hasn’t gotten a ton of press although it played the American film festival circuit somewhat extensively since its debut last year in Europe. It is widely available on VOD and while the jump cuts that Jakobs uses to distraction may mark this as a green filmmaker trying to establish a style, the things that work here work really well. Jakobs and his cast all have promising futures and I hope to see them all again sometime.

REASONS TO GO: The shifting roles is an interesting conceit. The film has a distinctly Germanic noir feel.
REASONS TO STAY: The poker metaphor gets old after awhile. There is a surfeit of jump cuts.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The English language version of the film was dubbed by the German actors, accents and all.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Memento
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
D-Love

Sisters


Sisters partying like it's 1989.

Sisters partying like it’s 1989.

(2015) Comedy (Universal) Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ike Bairnholz, James Brolin, Dianne Wiest, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, Greta Lee, Madison Davenport, Rachel Dratch, Santino Fontana, Britt Lower, Samantha Bee, Matt Oberg, Kate McKinnon, Jon Glaser, Chris Parnell, Paula Pell, Emily Tarver. Directed by Jason Moore

I’m a big fan of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. For one thing, they’re really, really funny and when paired up, even funnier. As a matter of fact, they might just be the best all-female comedy team of all time. Think about it; how many all-female comedy teams are you aware of? There definitely should be more of them.

So this is their second movie together after the successful Baby Mama and it has kind of a John Hughes-like scenario. Two sisters – Kate Ellis (Fey), a 40ish foul-up who is brash and sexy, and Maura (Poehler), a divorced nurse with a charitable compulsion that sometimes leads to awkwardness – are summoned home to Orlando (although only one scene was filmed here) to their ancestral family home which their parents (Brolin, Wiest) are putting on the market so that they can move into a retirement community and divest themselves of most of their possessions. The girls are meant to clean out their rooms so that the sale can be finalized the following Monday.

Much nostalgia ensues as the girls decide to throw one last blow-out party like the ones they threw in high school…when Maura would be the responsible one and Kate would party hard. With the realization that Maura never got laid in her own bedroom and the window of opportunity closing, Kate decides to snare James (Bairnholz), a hunky neighbor, to seal the deal.

Kate offers to be the designated party Mom and stay sober, which is a new role for her. She does have a teenage daughter (Davenport) but their relationship is rocky. In fact, the daughter has left the nest, exasperated by her mom’s irresponsibility and party party party attitude and she refuses to tell Kate where she is. Determined to prove herself responsible, Kate throws herself full tilt into her new role.

And that’s really it for plot. If you’ve seen one high school blowout party movie, you’ve seen them all and this is essentially a middle aged riff on that. It has that 80s John Hughes movie kind of vibe which isn’t a bad thing at all, but lacks the really laugh-out-loud consistency that Hughes was able to create for his movies. There’s more of a Farrelly Brothers consistency in which everything is thrown at the comedy wall and whatever sticks does, the more outrageous the better. There are more bra jokes in this movie than I think have been in any movie in cinematic history, and some drug humor (although nothing like a Seth Rogen film) for people who don’t do drugs. There is most definitely a been-there done-that feel to things, and while that can make for cinematic comfort food, it really isn’t what you want out of talents the likes of Poehler and Fey.

The good thing is that Fey and Poehler are one of the greatest comic teams in history – not just female, but any. Their chemistry is undeniable and the two play off of each other better than anyone working in the movies today. It’s at the center of the movie (as well it should be) and makes their roles as sisters thoroughly believable. Da Queen, who has a sister, agreed that it was a realistic portrayal of the dynamic between sisters.

There is a cornucopia of supporting roles, from SNL veterans (Fey, Poehler, Dratch, Moynihan, Rudolph) to WWE wrestlers (Cena) to Daily Show stars (Bee) and sitcom regulars (Bairnholz, Brolin). Most of the roles are essentially one-dimensional who are there to add a specific element (angry rival, studly drug dealer, drugged-out class clown, Asian pedicurist) to the proceedings, but like the leads are given very little to do that is really genuinely funny. Bairnholz shows some promise as a comic leading man though, and Rudolph manages to express every annoyed expression that it is possible for a human face to make.

Don’t get me wrong; this is entertaining enough that I can recommend it, largely due to Fey and Poehler, but this isn’t as good as it could and should have been. A pedestrian plot and lack of actual laughs turn this from what should have been a showcase for two of the most talented comedians working today into a just average comedy with too many characters and not enough character.

REASONS TO GO: The chemistry between Fey and Poehler continues. Some fine supporting performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Not enough laugh-out-loud jokes. The plot is too been-there done-that.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of crude sexual content, a fair amount of profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brolin and Wiest also play parents in last year’s indie film Life in Pieces.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Step Brothers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Won’t Back Down

In Bruges


Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell enjoy the magic that is Bruges.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell enjoy the magic that is Bruges.

(2008) Crime Comedy (Focus) Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clamence Poesy, Jordan Prentice, Jeremie Renier, Elizabeth Berrington, Zeljko Ivanek, Mark Donovan, Anna Madeley, Jean-Marc Favorin, Rudy Blomme, Thekla Reuten, Inez Stinton, Ciaran Hinds, Theo Stevenson, Sachi Kimura, Eric Gordon, Stephanie Carey. Directed by Martin McDonagh

My wife is fond of saying that your sins will find you out. She used to say that to our son when she knew he was hiding something from us. With a mom’s unerring nose for a kid’s transgressions, she’d sniff out whatever it was that he was keeping from her. Sometimes, it’s a pity that our mums can’t be with us even as we get older to steer us right.

Ray (Farrell) and Ken (Gleeson) have been ordered to Bruges to cool their heels after botching a job. Of course their chosen profession is contract killing, so who would think of looking for them in a sleepy little tourist town like Bruges, the best-preserved medieval town in Belgium?

The skittish Ray could care less; he’s bored out of his skull and haunted by the results of his sanctioned but unintended mayhem. Ken on the other hand is a little more worldly; he is quite content to sit back, do some sightseeing and enjoy the magic that is Bruges. He knows that in time, his employer will call with instructions and the best thing to do is lay low and make as few waves as possible.

Ray, being Ray, is more interested in hanging out in the pub, finding himself a girl and getting his bones generally jumped. After getting more than a little tipsy one night, Ray and Ken run into a location set for a Dutch movie being filmed in Bruges, with a dream sequence starring Jimmy (Prentice), who prefers the term “dwarf” to “midget.” Ray also meets a beautiful local named Chloe (Poesy) whom he flirts with. She finally agrees to go out to dinner with him.

Meanwhile, their employer Harry (Fiennes) is getting more and more frustrated that he can’t contact his men since they are always out when he calls. He leaves a profanity-laced message with Marie (Berrington), the very pregnant receptionist who happens to be the co-owner of the boutique hotel the men are staying at. When Harry finally gets in contact with Ken, he gives the man instructions that the worldly killer may not want to follow, but at this point, Ken may not have a choice.

The top three leads – Gleeson, Farrell and Fiennes – are three tremendous talents who by themselves individually would entice me into the theater. All three together, well now you’re talking. Gleeson in particular has developed into a marvelous actor who gives a memorable performance nearly every time out. His trademark “gruff with a heart of gold” rough about the edges sorts translates well for Ken.

Farrell has that innate Irish charm that has served him well in both major high-profile projects and smaller independent-minded ones like this one. While Farrell has been somewhat less active in the cinema recently, this one shows him at the apex of his game. His Ray is young and less experienced, virtually jumping out of his skin and bored to tears, failing to see what’s right in front of him. Yet Ray is truly a tortured soul and his sins are just about to catch up with him, but the question becomes is it too late for redemption. Farrell’s soul-searching is particularly poignant and you virtually watch him crumble before your very eyes in one unforgettable scene.

Finally, Fiennes who has Schindler’s List and The Constant Gardener on his resume of award-winning performances doesn’t have a whole lot to do here but makes every scene he is in memorable. He’s one of those actors who makes every line count and uses every nuance in his arsenal to make his character remarkable.

Eigil Bryld’s cinematography is understated, effectively so. Bruges is already fairytale-like in appearance; he uses the town’s charm to his advantage. Carter Burwell’s score is, as always, well-suited to the atmosphere. Although early in his career he tended to be a bit too jazzy for my taste, he has become in my opinion one of the more reliable film composers working today.

Bruges itself is a character in the movie, and its charm is the movie’s charm. I wasn’t that familiar with the town before seeing this movie; now it’s a place I’d like to visit someday. I suppose that would characterize me as more of a Ken sort than a Ray, but history and architecture are two passions of mine. Movies like this one can make a particular place come alive and excite your imagination. Who knew that Bruges would end up on my bucket list?

The movie was sold as a black comedy and it really isn’t when it comes right down to it. This is more of a crime drama with a bit of farce but the tone is black nonetheless. In point of fact, I’m not sure if the writers and director were quite sure what this movie was intended to be, so it turns out to be neither one thing nor the other. My expectations going in from what I’d heard about it weren’t met so I came out disappointed when I saw it initially, but the truly odd thing is when I revisited it recently (I first saw it in theaters back in ’08) is that my opinion of it revised upwards to a near-mediocre score to the much more enthusiastic score you see below.

There is a great deal of charm in the movie and some wonderful performances in it. I think if you go in without the very high expectations I went in with you might wind up enjoying it more than I did. It is definitely worth seeing regardless, if not for Gleeson, Farrell and Fiennes but for the irresistible appeal of Bruges itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous, compelling performances from Farrell, Fiennes and Gleeson. Bruges might just enchant you. Dreamlike surreal quality in some scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wobbles between crime caper and black comedy.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is some explicit violence, a surfeit of profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Both Gleeson and Farrell were nominated for Golden Globes for their performances here; Farrell eventually won the award.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a gag reel, a montage of all the copious cursing done in the film called F***ing Bruges, and a five minute-plus boat trip through the canals of Bruges, further cementing the magic of the place.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.4M on a $15M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seven Psychopaths
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Art of Getting By

Catch .44


Now, that's what I call a catch!

Now, that’s what I call a catch!

(2011) Action/Suspense (Anchor Bay) Malin Akerman, Nikki Reed, Deborah Ann Woll, Forest Whitaker, Bruce Willis, Shea Whigham, Jimmy Lee Jr., Brad Dourif, Jill Stokesberry, P.J. Marshall, Dan Silver, Michael Rosenbaum, Edrick Browne, Christopher Alan Weaver, Amanda Bosley, Ivory Dortch, Kevin Beard, Shelby Schneider, Nikita Kahn. Directed by Aaron Harvey

Some movies look like a good idea on paper. However, once the finished product gets out there, it doesn’t quite measure up. I suspect Catch .44 was something like that.

How else do you explain the outstanding cast for what turned out to be a direct-to-video turkey? The premise, which might have caught Quentin Tarantino’s eye once upon a time before he decided to reinvent the Western involves three gorgeous girls straight out of a Russ Meyers grindhouse movie, three badass chicks in a diner who have a mission for the man they’re employed by – Mel (Willis), an utter irredeemable lowlife drug dealer.

Things go South in a hurry, bullets fly and bodies drop. Whitaker shows up as a hit man to turn the Mexican standoff into a three-way. Who will walk out of the diner alive? Will anybody care which one does? The answer to the latter is likely “no.”

The oddball thing is that the main action of the movie occurs in the first five or ten minutes, then the rest of the movie is essentially a flashback to tell you how all the characters got there which, half an hour in, you’ll slowly begin to realize that rather than using the flashback as a means of giving the characters depth, there’s just a lot of pointless meandering going on and by that time you’ll likely want to switch the DVD player off. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs utilized much the same kind of format but was much more successful at utilizing it than Catch .44 did.

Harvey has a pretty decent visual sense – the movie looks good and he clearly was able to line up a top of the line cast. What he didn’t do was motivate them to perform up to their level of stardom. Whitaker is an Oscar winner and Willis one of the most charismatic stars of the last 20 years, but both of them seem to be sleepwalking. Whitaker affects a nearly indecipherable Spanish/Cajun accent and Willis essentially plays the standard Bruce Willis character, although there’s a surreal moment when someone plays “Respect” from his 80s attempt at rock and roll stardom, The Return of Bruno.

I did like Akerman in the lead role, and to a lesser extent Reed and Woll; Reed’s turn is a bit more sexual than the other two but frankly the script gives us little hint as to who these women are. That doesn’t give us a whole lot of incentive to identify with any of them.

I like the idea of three badass girls in a diner dealing with a deal gone wrong. We need movies like that, but we need good movies like that. Tarantino could have made a masterpiece out of this, as could a number of like-minded directors; Robert Rodriguez, for example. Sadly, this is just a forgettable bit of action fluff that starts out promising, goes nowhere and ends up in the dollar bin at Wal*Mart quicker than you can say “Is that all there is?”

WHY RENT THIS: Three beautiful girls. Nice premise. Great-looking, cinematically speaking..
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit clumsy in its execution. Most of the cast looks like they’re just there for the paycheck. Confusing storytelling.
FAMILY VALUES: A goodly amount of violence and foul language as well as a bit of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Mara and Lizzy Caplan were both originally cast but both dropped out of the movie, to be replaced by Reed and Woll, respectively.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unknown box office on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Killing Jar
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: In Bruges