Blackbird (2019)


Taking comfort at twilight.

(2019) Drama (Screen MediaKate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon. Directed by Roger Mitchell

 

Most of us fear dying. We are dragged towards it, kicking and screaming, not wanting to go gentle into that dark night. Some of us, conversely, embrace it, death being a comforting alternative to a life of pain and humiliation.
That’s what Lily (Sarandon) is faced with, entering the final stages of ALS, popularly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” She is already having difficulty doing ordinary things, having lost the use of one arm and nearly unable to walk. She is looking at a future of breathing on a ventilator, being fed intravenously and unable to speak. This is not a future she wishes to endure. She wants to exert the last little bit of control she has over life – she wants to end it while she is still able.

This is a decision that she has debated with her family – her husband Paul (Neill), a doctor who has managed to purchase the fatal cocktail that will send her into sleep one last time; her eldest daughter Jennifer (Winslet) who inherited her mother’s control-freak nature without inheriting her warmth; younger daughter Anna (Wasikowska), the family black sheep, whose on-again off-again paramour Chris (Taylor-Klaus) is apparently on-again with her and has accompanied her to Lily and Paul’s extravagant beach house in the Hamptons. So, too has Jennifer’s husband Michael (Wilson), a reciter of minutiae so irritating that Anna has dubbed him “Mr. Dull,” and their son Jonathan (Boon), who has clearly spent a lifetime not living up to his mother’s expectations. Then there’s also Liz (Duncan), Lily’s long-time best friend (dating back at least until college) whose presence Jennifer deeply resents.

Lily clearly expects a sweet send-off, in the bosom of a loving family ready to send her off with love and joy, but she apparently hasn’t met her own children. Anna is so self-absorbed that she threatens to put a stop to Lily’s plans in order to get to know her mother better before she goes; Jennifer can’t help but criticize every little detail in everyone else and she and Anna are at each other’s throats. Paul takes the high road, but he simply wants peace and knows he’s not going to get it, particularly when a late revelation calls into question everything.

The film has an understandably elegiac tone, borrowed from the Danish film it is remade from (Silent Heart) whose screenwriter Christian Torpe also penned the English-language version. Even the warm tones of Mike Eley’s cinematography doesn’t disguise that we are observing a life in winter, awaiting its end. Then again, this isn’t a movie about death so much as it is about the dynamics of family. This is a family that has had a comfortable life, but has profited little by it.

The attraction here is the cast, and they don’t disappoint. Sarandon has played the dying mom before (Stepmom) and experienced pro that she is, refuses to turn her illness into Camille-like histrionics. She is making her best effort to die with dignity, but she is flinty enough to call her family down to breakfast by grumping “Get down here – I’m going to die today!” Winslet plays a character that is recognizably Lily’s daughter – strong, strong-willed, and yes, a control freak, but she chooses to exercise it by tearing down.

Neill has been one of my favorite actors over the years and his quiet dignity makes his part all the more poignant. Wasikowska, Duncan and Taylor-Klaus manage to hold their own against the Oscar-winning leads and Wilson does a surprisingly good job in a rare straight dramatic role for him. Boon, a relative newcomer, also is impressive in his scenes as the straight-shooting grandson.

This is hard to watch at times in the sense of dealing with a loved one. I found myself wondering if I would be as sanguine if it was my mother who was purporting to end her own life with dignity. I’d like to think I’d support her decision if she felt it was the right thing, but I can’t help wondering if I would handle the situation gracefully. Chances are, not.

This is a movie that inspires reflection, and that is definitely not a bad thing. That said, it isn’t always an easy watch and requires much of its viewer. Also, not a bad thing, but it can be more than the average viewer might be willing to give. Still in all, it is worth the effort to watch if for no other reason for the stellar performances of its cast.

REASONS TO SEE: Some wonderful performances from Sarandon, Winslet and Neill. Lovely cinematography. The family dynamic is the focus of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kind of a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some brief sexual material, drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers initially wanted Diane Keaton in the role for Lily, but eventually Sarandon was cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Here Awhile
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story

Star Light


Scout Taylor-Compton looks for guidance.

(2020) Horror (1091Scout Taylor-Compton, Cameron Johnson, Robert Adams, Liana Ramirez, Garrett Westton, Chandler Rachelle, Hagen Mills, Tiffany Shepis, Kevin Jiggetts, Bret Roberts, Geoff Callan, Darryl Phillipy, James M. Jennings, Gregory Dean French, Victoria Graham. Directed by Mitchell Altieri and Lee Cummings

Horror movies are undergoing a kind of renaissance of late; there have been some real game-changers out there. One of the benefits of this kind of quality is that it tends to inspire other filmmakers to do better, taking sometimes cliché ideas and characters and elevating one, the other or both. The average horror buff only benefits from this kind of thing.

Dylan (Johnson) is a fairly typical high school kid; he’s not sure where his future is leading him and his main interests are in playing video games, listening to music – particularly that of his pop crush Bebe A. Love (Taylor-Compton) – and hanging out with friends, much to the disgust of his single mom (Shepis) and her judgmental pastor boyfriend (Jiggetts).

On the way home one night, he literally runs into a terrified girl who has been injured in a car accident. Unsure of what to do, he takes her over to his friend Nick’s (Adams) house, where a few stragglers are left after one of those graduation bashes that occur when the parents have left the area. Dylan’s BFF Casey (Ramirez), hot-headed Monty (Mills), jock Tex (Westton) and slutty Sara (Rachelle) all remain as it soon becomes apparent that the injured girl is Bebe.

But then her handler/driver/manager Anton (Roberts) shows up, demanding that the teens turn over the pop star to him. And he is creepy enough that Dylan says “not a chance in Hell,” not realizing that Hell is a lot closer than he thinks. Anton lays siege to the remote party house. Can Dylan really impress Bebe enough to get a relationship going? Who will survive the night? And what is the thing in Anton’s trunk?

This is a movie that is occasionally frustrating – it establishes some plot threads that seem interesting, but then does nothing with them, for example, but Altieri and Cummings did assemble a pretty fine cast of veterans like Taylor-Compton and Shepis, and some really strong up-and-coming talent, like Johnson and Adams.

The movie starts off with plenty of teen angst as we get the sense that things between Dylan and his mom aren’t too cool, but the movie morphs into an occasionally dazzling horror fest. Roberts makes an extremely creepy villain, and while the twists aren’t exactly world-shattering, the plot keeps humming along and a pretty frenetic pace and the strong performances enable you to care about characters that are essentially teen slasher stock characters – although you won’t believe for a moment that these are high school kids, which is a sin a lot of teen-centric horror movies commit.

By no means is Star Light a game-changing horror movie, but it is solid and entertaining with enough to recommend it to fans and curious souls alike. Yes, there are movies out there that are far more innovative and maybe even more over-the-top but the filmmakers stick to what works and if they don’t take chances, they at least get the execution down properly. Not all horror movies can say that.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances, reasonably scary and utilizes teen angst and slasher film tropes with equal gusto.
REASONS TO AVOID: Most of the characters are kind of stock.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, teen sex and teen drinking, as well as some violence, terror and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Altieri and Cummings are two-thirds of the Butcher Brothers, horror specialist directors (The Hamiltons).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Evil Dead
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Attack of the Unknown

5 Years Apart


In golf, four’s a game; five’s a crowd.

(2019) Comedy (GravitasChloe Bennet, Scott Michael Foster, Ally Maki, Michael Vlamis, Craig Low, Michelle Randolph, Malcolm Hatchett, Chandler Bailey, Samuel Elhindi, Kyle Anderson, Spencer Waldner, John Cahill, Becky Robinson, Christian Pierce, John McKay, Isiah Miller, Judah Miller, Arsenio Castellanos. Directed by Joe Angelo Menconi

 

If you are looking for the most vindictive, vitriolic and vicious blood feuds there are, look no further than the wars between siblings. It’s difficult to hide who you are from someone you grew up with. You know all the dirty secrets, the moments of shame, and the flaws and defects. There also tends to be rivalries, particularly between siblings of the same sex. Family breeds familiarity, after all, and familiarity breeds contempt.

Andrew (Foster) is about to turn 30. He is a successful businessman, the sort of meticulous man who has every moment of every day planned down to the minute. His wife Olivia (Maki) is much the same way. She and Andrew are thinking of starting a family, but it would entail Andrew taking a second job to offset the loss of income from Olivia and she’s not willing to see him overwork himself. They decide to take a birthday weekend at the house of Andrew’s parents in Arizona while the parents are on holiday in Italy.

His younger brother Sammy (Vlamis) is about to turn 25 – in fact, on the same day as Andrew as the two brothers were born five years apart on the same day. He works as a salesman for a bounce house rental company. He and Andrew haven’t spoken in five years after an incident at a Christmas family gathering led to a physical confrontation between the two. Sammy didn’t even show up at Andrew’s wedding and has never met Olivia. As meticulous as Andrew is, so Sammy is carefree and fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants. He had gone to Arizona State but had dropped out – just one of many instances of Sammy not finishing what he started.

Sammy decides to spend the weekend of his birthday at his parent’s house since they are in Italy. On his way there he meets Emma (Bennet) at a bar. The two hit it off and eventually win up doing the horizontal rumba on the living room couch. This brings out Andrew and Olivia who were doing their own wild thing in the bedroom. It also turns out that Emma had been coming out to visit with Olivia – her half-sister, ain’t coincidence a wonderful thing if you’re a screenwriter – so that she could be set up with Mark (Low), an outgoing Aussie who Andrew has a high opinion of. Unfortunately, as it soon turns out, Emma doesn’t.

The two brothers aren’t willing to budge so reluctantly they spend the weekend together in the same house. Sammy goes out of his way to irritate his staid older brother, while it turns out there is some tension between Olivia and Emma as well. Can the two sets of siblings figure out a way to get past their hurt feelings and pride and find a way to forge an actual relationship?

The plot has a sitcom-y element to it which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are some contrivances, sure, but not in a too-in-your-face way that sitcoms sometimes get. Dysfunctional family relationships are not, as we all know, unheard of and in an era where we are being forced to spend more time with our families than perhaps we would normally thanks to quarantine, it’s easy to relate to how horrible they can get.

The cast is young and attractive and they do a pretty decent job here. Some of you may recognize Bennet from the Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show and she is absolutely a lark here; the role plays very well to her strengths as an actress. Although her role on her TV show is more of an action heroine, she has some good comic timing and a flair for light comedy that should serve her well in her future career. She was my favorite part of 5 Years Apart.

For those who are cooped up with family, watching the brothers behave childishly towards each other may not be exactly what the doctor ordered; many of us are getting a heavy dose of that sort of thing in real life to want to watch much more than a smattering of it when we sit down to be entertained – in that sense, the film can be irritating. It is also, worse still, predictable, particularly in the last third.

This is a little bit better than I expected it to be in some ways; also, a little bit worse than I expected it to be in others. The performances are good, the characters are compelling and the chemistry is there. Unfortunately, there is also an abundance of sitcom tropes and a dearth of funny jokes. The comedy is mainly situational and I would have preferred if the filmmakers had gotten away from that a little bit. It gets a mild thumbs up at best, but if you’re looking for a diversion right now (and who isn’t) you could do worse.

REASONS TO SEE: A role tailor-made for Chloe Bennet’s talents.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable and occasionally irritating.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sex, brief nudity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bennet and Maki are close friends in real life and have been for years, but this is the first time they’ve acted alongside each other.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Microsoft, Redbox
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rachel Getting Married
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
At the Video Store

House of Hummingbird (Beol-sae)


A conversation on the landing.

(2018) Drama (Well Go USAJi-Hu Park, Sae-byeok Kim, Seung-Yun Lee, In-gi Jeong, Sang-yeon,  Son, Su-Yeon Bak, Sae-yun Park, Yun-seo Jeong, Hye-in Seol. Directed by Bora Kim

 

The most recent Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards was a Korean film, which gives you an idea just how vital and thriving the film scene is there. Korean directors are unafraid to take chances with oddball humor, or unspectacular thematic material handled in a quiet, reverent manner.

Eun-hee (J-H Park) is 14 years old in 1994, and lives in Seoul with her baker father (I-g Jeong) and her distracted, depressed mother (Lee). Eun-hee has not been doing particularly well at school, being forced to go to “cram school” to get her language grades up. With her best friend Ji-Suk (S-y Park), she goes out to juvenile karaoke clubs, experiments with kissing and occasionally shoplifts. In the meantime, the World Cup dominates her father’s attention as does the bakery which is dangling on the precipice of failure. A North Korean dictator dies, leaving the people of Seoul to wonder if war is coming.

Her cram school tutor Young-jii (Kim) is the only adult that gets the desperately lonely Eun-hee. Betrayed by her friends, marginalized by her parents, ridiculed by her schoolmates and beaten by her older brother (Son) who is under tremendous pressure to pass his exams and get into college which would all but assure him of a decent job.

Eun-hee is used to not being taken seriously, but she has aspirations of being a cartoonist and she might not necessarily be as dumb as she’s made out to be. However, the challenges in her life grow exponentially as a mysterious growth behind her ear might be serious, requiring an operation that could leave her face partially paralyzed. On top of that, her relationship with Young-ii is growing more complicated and a family tragedy rocks her world. It’s nothing, however, to the tragedy that is fast approaching.

Although Bora Kim has been making short films for more than a decade, this is her first feature-length film and it has the taste of autobiography to it. The film has had an acclaimed Festival run, winning awards at both Tribeca and the Berlinale. The film deserves the accolades; this is a smart, affecting film that looks critically at Korea’s patriarchal culture and through Eun-hee tries to find a young girl’s place within it.

There is a realism here that is refreshing; the sexual exploration of Eun-hee isn’t particularly sweet but fumbling and awkward. She is a definite scholastic underachiever (to which I could relate) while at the same time having a definite goal in mind. Seoul, which at the time was undergoing a building spree and had become a world economic center is definitely a character in the film; clearly the director feels affection for it especially in the way her cinematographer Kook-hyun Kang shoots the urban scenes through almost a nostalgic haze.

Kim takes her time telling the story and isn’t afraid to meander a little bit, but that is anathema to American audiences who prefer their storytelling taut and efficient. Kim prefers to allow the story to unfold at its own pace although there are times that I did wish she’d get on with it. Americans, right? In any case, this is an impressive feature debut for a talent who seems destined to be one of the very best in a film scene that is crowded with talented young directors.

The film is currently available via virtual cinematic experience which benefits local art house cinemas and is being handled by the good folks at Kino-Lorber. Click on the link below to find the nearest theater benefiting from its run; for Floridians, theaters currently promoting the film include the Movies of Lake Worth and the Movies of Delray in Miami, the Corazon Cafe and Cinema in St. Augustine and the Tampa Theater here in Central Florida.

REASONS TO SEE: Ji-Hu Park is an engaging lead. A slice of life in the Korean working class.
REASONS TO AVOID: Attention-span challenged American audiences may find it long.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity, sexual situations and domestic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A line about wanting to be a cartoonist in the letter from Eun-hee to her teacher Young-jii was taken directly from director Bora Kim’s adolescent diary.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/126/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seoul Searching
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Cold Pursuit

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

The Mule (2018)


The look you get when everything you’ve spent a lifetime building falls apart.

 (2018) Drama (Warner BrothersClint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Dianne Wiest, Alison Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga, Andy Garcia, Ignacio Serricchio, Loren Dean, Diego Cataño, Daniel Moncada, Victor Rasuk, Ashani Roberts, Lobo Sebstian, Devon Ogden, Cesar De Léon, Richard Herd, Clifton Collins Jr., Jackie Prucha. Directed by Clint Eastwood

 

Clint Eastwood is something of a folk hero, and has made a career playing other folk heroes. His latest is Earl Stone, a man driven to the wall when his business fails and he falls into a job delivering coke for the cartel. It’s the perfect front; on the surface, he appears to be a harmless geriatric and that’s pretty much what he is. But it’s a dangerous game he’s playing, with a magnanimous cartel boss (Garcia) overseeing suspicious and ambitious underlings (Serricchio) and a driven DEA agent (Cooper) all on the hunt after Earl.

Eastwood was pushing 90 when he made this film (he’ll become a nonagenarian on May 31st of this year) but still retains the gruff charm that has carried him through the late stages of his career. While his character is not so admirable – he essentially has alienated his entire family, choosing work over ,loved ones at every turn, is a serial womanizer and a not-so-subtle racist – but Eastwood has always made guys like these seem not-quite-so-bad. He’s also still a skilled director who builds up a strong tension throughout the film; will he get caught? Will that police dog find the drugs? Stay tuned.

Currently on iMDB Eastwood has no projects lined up either as a director as an actor; this is very likely his swan song in front of the camera (although we have learned to never say never in that regards – 2008’s Gran Torino was supposed to be his last acting role but he has appeared in several films since then) as last year’s Richard Jewell is likely his final film as a director. While this film isn’t a disgrace to his legacy, neither does it enhance it much. It’s reasonably entertaining, elevated by the presence of one of the last authentic stars of Hollywood.

REASONS TO SEE: Eastwood is always watchable. A “so bizarre it has to be true” story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the racist remarks Earl says made me a little uncomfortable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Earl Stone character is based on Leo “Tata” Sharp who was also a horticulturist who became a drug mule for the Sinaloa cartel from 2001-2011.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic:  58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Old Man & the Gun
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bombshells and Dollies

The Wretched


When a troubled teen comes to call, don’t always answer the door.

(2019) Horror (IFC Midnight)  John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Azie Tesfai, Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley, Gabriela Quezada Bloomgarden, Richard Ellis, Blane Cockarell, Judah Abner Paul, Ja’layah Washington, Amy Waller, Ross Kidder, Kasey Bell, Harry Burkey, Trudie Underhiill, Sydne Mikelle, Tug Coker, Madelynn Stunekel.  Directed by Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce

 

In this pandemic, we’ve focused on the most vulnerable members of our society – the elderly. However, we sometimes forget the other vulnerable side of society – the children. The Pierce brothers, who have assembled this slick horror yarn together, certainly haven’t.

In the 1980s, a hapless babysitter stumbles on the mother of her charge chowing down on her own kid. Faster than you ca say Dario Argento she ends up locked in the cellar with a hungry mama. Flash forward to now which is when sullen rebellious teen Ben (Howard) is forced to spend the summer with his Dad working the lakeside marina in Michigan with his Dad (Jones) after an incident left him with a broken arm and an exasperated mom.

The only consolation is the perky Mallory (Curda) who works at the marina with him, so Ben battens down the hatches for a rough summer squall, made even rougher when he gets the depressing news that his dad has a new girlfriend (Tesfai). However, that soon takes a back seat to the family next door, whose tattooed mom Sara (Mahler) has taken to scaring her young son (Cockarell) and butchering a deer she accidentally hits with her car on the way home from a walk in the woods. Unbeknownst to her, there was something hiding in the deer carcass, something that has designs on her but more to the point, to feed on her son.

Nobody believes Ben that there is something very sinister going on so in the finest plucky teen fashion he goes about trying to save the town from itself but it isn’t easy because nobody can remember the family next door having a child. That turns out to be really inconvenient – and puts the crosshairs right on Ben.

It’s no accident that the film’s prelude took place in the 80s, because the movie is rooted in the cinema of that era. There are elements of Steven Spielberg fantasy, with the broken family and the plucky kids; it’s an oeuvre that has become massively popular as of late thanks to the Netflix series Stranger Things but other than the intro, this film is also rooted firmly in modern horror.

To the credit of the Pierce Brothers and their cinematographer Conor Murphy, the movie looks like something that a major studio might have put out. Every technical aspect of the film works to perfection, from the mainly practical effects to the score to the sound to the set design. There are some really nice scares to be had here, although there’s a feeling that the Pierce Brothers realized that their budget was such that they couldn’t afford a really decent build-up so they skipped right to the climactic battle. For that reason, the pacing feels a bit off and the ending disappointing.

Still, this is an engaging and – dare I say it – fun summer-style horror film that makes for essential quarantine viewing, particularly for those who love the influences I mentioned. If anyone who loves the horror genre is looking for the next James Wan, we may have found them for you.

REASONS TO SEE: The horror sequences are well-done.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending feels a bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, sexual situations, child peril and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in Northport, Michigan.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fright Night
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Aquaman

Ray & Liz


Liz is not someone that you want to cross.

(2018) Drama (Kimstim/1091) Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Patrick Romer, Tony Way, Joshua Millard-Lloyd, Sam Gittins, Richard Ashton, James Eeles, James Hinton, Andrew Jefferson-Tierney, Deirdre Kelly, Michelle Bonnard, Jamie-Lee Beacher. Directed by Richard Billingham

 

It is very hard to look at our parents with any sort of objectivity. Often, we see them through rose-colored glasses as superhuman beings who can do no wrong, but more often we see them as absolute screw-ups who can do nothing right. We rarely see them as human beings.

Richard Billingham, an art photographer turned film director, has made his career by turning his lens on his family life. This movie is largely autobiographical, looking at his parents Liz (Smith) and Ray (Salinger), who live in Birmingham’s Black Country in Thatcher’s England. Ray is on the dole, having lost his job. The family gains additional income from taking in a lodger, Will (Gittins) in their dump of a home. Liz, deciding that young Rich needs shoes, troops off with him and Ray in tow to the shops, leaving the younger brother Jason in the care of Lol (Way), Ray’s brother who is developmentally challenged.

Liz – who apparently has had issues with Lol in the past – leaves with a stern warning not to get into the booze but when Will arrives home, he sees a golden opportunity and finds the liquor, bringing up a crate full from the cellar. He manages to get Lol drop dead drunk, then paints Jason’s face with boot polish and sticks a carving knife in his hand, then quickly leaves, returning to see the follow up which is a terrifying beating from Liz.

The neglect – leaving one’s child with a mentally challenged individual – proves to be a pattern as we follow the family as the boys age into their teenage years. The family now lives in “council housing” i.e. government subsidized apartments for us Yanks. Studious Richard has a chance to get out but young Jason (Millard-Lloyd) is getting involved with delinquent behavior. Ray has become a raging alcoholic, and Liz self-medicates, smoking like a chimney and doing jigsaw puzzles. After a terrifying night when Jason ends up spending a frigid night in a neighbor’s shed, the authorities are forced to step in.

The whole movie is framed with scenes of Ray in his later years (Romer), living in the bedroom of his council flat, the room infested with flies as Ray’s mate Sid (Ashton) delivering bottles of some sort of carbonated home brew. Ray continues to be deep in the clutches of alcoholism, but now he is utterly alone. He is separated from Liz, who comes around once in awhile to cadge money from him, but there is no love between them that’s apparent. The family has completely disintegrated.

There’s no way around it; this is a bleak film filled with unlovable characters trying to make do in an intolerable economic situation. Liz and Ray seem genial on the surface, but both are completely self-absorbed, caring only about having enough cigarettes, booze and whatever distractions they are into at the moment. Their kids barely get a second thought.

Billingham gives us endless close-ups of the flies in Ray’s room, of Ray’s aged and booze-ravaged face. He seems to take delight in showing Ray’s awful situation; one wonders if he is getting back at his parents for the neglect he clearly feels. I don’t doubt that Liz and Ray were far from ideal parents, but they don’t get a voice in this thing; it seems clear that they are both suffering from depression but that’s not the kind of thing that was diagnosed commonly 30 years ago, and it doesn’t feel like Billingham would have forgiven them for it in any case

Smith gives an unforgettable performance as Liz; she stands out in the cast. Salinger is kind of lost as the less assertive Ray, although the actor has had some impressive performances in his resume. Billingham, with a photographer’s eye, composes his shots artistically and the movie, as bleak as it is and as squalid as the settings often are, is a pleasure to watch from a purely technical point of view. Still, there is so much lingering on the flies and on the anger that one wonders if Billingham wouldn’t have benefited more from a therapist than from a feature film.

REASONS TO SEE: Ella Smith is an absolute force of nature.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many extraneous shots of flies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, some violence, plenty of smoking and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Billingham is a photographer making his feature film directorial debut. His photographic essay Ray’s a Laugh is the basis for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kanopy
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 81/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sorry We Missed You
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Possession of Hannah Grace

What They Had


The bonds between mother and daughter trasncend the years.

(2018) Drama (Bleecker Street) Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Blythe Danner, Taissa Farmiga, Josh Lucas, Sarah Sutherland, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Aimee Garcia, William Smillie, Isabeau Dornevil, Jennifer Robideau, Jay Montepare, An Whitney, Eric Ian, Matthias Kocur, Ruben Ramirez, Annie McKinnie, Darren Sheehan, Ryan W. Garcia, Ann Kabis. Directed by Elizabeth Chomko

 

Growing old sucks. If you don’t believe me, just check out every Hollywood movie ever made about dementia. Better still, talk to someone who has parents or grandparents actually going through it. It’s not as cute as it looks in the movies.

Ruth (Danner) gets out of bed early one morning, leaves her Chicago apartment in the midst of a snowstorm wearing only her nightgown and an overcoat and boards a train When her husband Burt (Forster) discovers she’s not there and can’t find her anywhere, he calls his son Nicky (Shannon) frantically. Nicky in turn calls his sister Bridget (Swank) a.k.a. “Bitty” against the express wishes of his father. Bridget arrives from California with her newly expelled from college daughter Emma (Farmiga) in tow, only to find that her mother has been found.

Nicky is all for putting Ruth in a memory-assistance home which Bridget tacitly agrees with, but Burt is having none of it and Bridget won’t stand up to her dad, who bullied her into marrying a husband (Lucas) that she didn’t love. Nicky, who owns a bar, stands up to his dad but with little effect; the power of attorney over his mom was granted to Bridget, which still rankles Nicky.

As Ruth’s stage six dementia progresses, the kids squabble and Burt pontificates. Bridget initiates an affair with a local contractor (Smillie). Soon it becomes obvious that Ruth is getting worse. Can the siblings convince their dad to see reason before something truly awful happens?

This kind of movie has been done in both movies and on television many, many times before. In terms of content, ain’t nothing to see here that won’t be familiar to those who watch movies that aren’t about spaceships and superheroes occasionally. The tropes that first time writer-director Elizabeth Chomko utilizes are going to be familiar to anyone who’s see any movie involving Alzheimer’s. She also doesn’t give her characters a whole lot of depth.

Given that, the reason to see the movie is the cast and it is a good one. Me, I lurve me some Robert Forster and will essentially see any movie that he’s in for no other reason other than because he is in it. Swank and Shannon are two of the best actors in Hollywood today and with Swank seen much less often onscreen these days, it is a treat to see her work just as it is a treat to see Shannon do his thing. Danner is given a pretty thankless role but she pulls it off with some dignity, despite there being essentially a caricature of dementia patients involved. We don’t see the messy side of it; the screaming, the tears, the recriminations. In that sense the movie is a bit bloodless.

Still, great acting can cover a lot of sins and that’s what happens here. Not an essential movie but certainly one to watch if you need something to watch and you’re tired of shut-off-your-brain Hollywood fare.

REASONS TO SEE: Superior cast.
REASONS TO AVOID: This is nothing you haven’t seen before.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and a brief sexual reference.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chomko’s grandparents – upon whom the couple of Bert and Ruth are based – appear in a photograph in their home.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Savages
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Underneath the Same Moon

Captain Black


Are you talkin’ to me?

(2017) Dramedy (Random) Jeffrey S. S. Johnson, Linara Washington, Georgia Norman, Charley Koontz, Joaquin Camilo, Kirsten Roeters, Liesel Kopp, Mackenzie Astin, Michael Marc Friedman, Reece Rios, Nico David, Carla Tassara, Robert Maffia, Lauren Campedelli, Dylan Lawson, Parvesh Cheena, Scott Krinsky, Ashley Dowling, Katherine King. Directed by Jeffrey S.S. Johnson

 

Superheroes occupy a unique place in our society. They represent the best within us, the desire for justice and goodness, the noblest aspects of our beings and the achievement of the impossible. We mostly all aspire to be heroic in some way, shape or form – and some of us aspire to the super-powered aspect of heroism.

Mike (Johnson) is a manager at a suburban chain restaurant that has a Mexican theme. It’s the kind of place that whenever a patron has a birthday, the staff gather to sing their own version of “Happy Birthday” in a way that people like me cringe at. You’ve probably been to several just like it.

Although Mike seems to be a pretty decent guy, it would be a stretch to say that there’s anything particularly noble or heroic about him. When an obnoxious customer confronts him, he backs down rather than standing up for what’s right. While he’s aware that his neighbor (Kopp) is being abused by her husband, he doesn’t act on it, allowing the abuse to continue even as he bonds with her son (David). He mourns the loss of both his parents but remains estranged from his sister Brie (Roeters).

One night one of his waiters (Camilo) eaves a bag of comic books behind. Intrigued by the four-color covers, he brings them home and becomes immersed in the world of Captain Black, a kind of Batman style of hero, as well as his super sexy partner Kitt Vixen who in one of the movie’s better joke sequences, Mike discovers that there is a porn site dedicated to the character. Still, the mild-mannered restaurant manager begins to find some self-confidence especially as he repeats the Captain’s axiom: “Life is precious. Life is fragile. Be your own ally!” Mike can particularly relate to this given everything happening around him.

For a Halloween party he is inspired to create a homemade Captain Black costume. There he meets a young woman (Norman) wearing a Kitt Vixen costume. The two find a mutual attraction and head out to the garage for a quick, frantic coupling. This seemingly innocent act would turn out to have a profound effect on Mike’s life.

The movie starts off with kind of a suburban vibe, fairly laid back but takes an unexpected turn towards the serious. Johnson, who wrote, directed and starred in the movie, handles both sides of the equation fairly well, giving Mike a good deal of heart but also having him grapple with issues that are very real and very rough. I don’t want to give too much away but suffice to say that the movie will come off as a bit of a warning about one-night stands and the damage that can result from them.

Movies like this have to walk a very fine line; on the one hand it has to deal with a sensitive subject without diluting the impact of that subject but on the other hand, it has to be light enough that the film doesn’t end up drowning in darkness which it could have easily done. The topic is an extremely emotional one and it is handled with emotion, with that emotion given the respect it deserves. It’s a very fine work particularly given that it is the first feature Johnson has done.

I won’t say I was blown away by this film completely; the ending is a bit of a letdown at least for me and some of the supporting characters could have used a bit more depth, but the relationship between Mike and his friend Kris (Washington) is a special, realistic one that enhances the movie rather than detracting from it. It makes me wonder if Washington and Johnson had a friendship outside the movie prior to filming. This is the kind of movie that flies under the radar for no good reason but the lucky ones among us who are willing to take chances may well discover a quality gem. Seek this one out for sure.

REASONS TO SEE: The film starts out unassuming and quiet but turns grim and strange towards the end. Johnson delivers a really good performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending was a bit off-note.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of sexuality and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnson is best-known for being the voice in the T-Mobile commercials for the past six years.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Rondo