Stray (2019)


Empty factories are always creepiest at night.

(2019) Supernatural Crime Thriller (Screen Media) Karen Fukuhara, Christine Woods, Miyavi, Ross Partridge, Takayo Fischer, Saki Miyata, Brandon Brooks, Brian Carroll, Jamiah Brown, Kiran Deol, Eunice Chiweshe Goldstein, Alex Hyner, Nicolas Jung, Fahad Olayan, Geoffrey H. Russell, April Lind, Sonia Jackson, Heather Pache, Cecilia Benevich. Directed by Joe Sill

 

Maybe the most interesting thing about police work is that you never know what you’re going to get when you get on the job. That also may be the most dangerous thing about police work as well.

Detective Murphy (Woods) is getting back to work as a homicide detective after an extended leave of absence. It’s bad enough that her ex-husband Jake (Partridge) is also now her boss but she is immediately called to a grisly murder scene in which a woman has apparently been burned to death, but then the weirdness begins. First of all, the woman isn’t burned – she’s petrified. The body has also been dated as over a thousand years old despite the fact that the victim had been seen just the previous day.

The victim’s daughter, Nori (Fukuhara) is eager to discover what happened to her mother but the victim’s mother (Fischer) is less forthcoming. Murphy’s bad news instincts are on overdrive so she cultivates a relationship with Nori. The two women are linked by tragedies in their immediate past and the two begin to bond. Murphy discovers that Nori has strange psychic powers that manifest when she is emotionally stressed. Not only that but those powers run in the family; her grandmother has them, her mother has them and her estranged brother Jim (Miyavi) has them.

As Murphy chases down the killer it is clear that Nori is the next target and by extension Murphy who has put the girl under her protection much to the dismay of Jake but how does one protect a girl from powers so evil and so strong that they can turn a human being into stone in the blink of an eye?

Sill makes his feature film debut here and it’s really not a bad one. There are elements that really work here and even though this is a low-budget affair, the CGI is actually pretty good. What isn’t as good is the procedural aspects which take a few liberties with logic and common sense.

There are some strong performances here, particularly by Woods who places a deeply wounded and self-medicating burned out cop, a role that normally goes to middle-aged white guys. Adding the feminine factor to the mix (not to mention that Murphy is a total badass) is a welcome deviation from standard crime thriller clichés. The supernatural element isn’t exactly groundbreaking but it does add a nice twist; however, the nature of Nori’s powers are not really clear for the most part and that can be frustrating.

This isn’t a bad film at all and there are some really good moments. Cinematographer Greg Cotton makes excellent use of shadows and darkness and a color palate that goes well with both. While the movie won’t exactly rock your world, it won’t bore you either. Sill definitely someone to keep an eye on and those who like their movies on the eerie side might actually find it a worthwhile pick.

REASONS TO SEE: There is a unique lyricism present here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The police procedural aspect is a little dicey.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fukuhara is best-known in the States for her portrayal of Katana in Suicide Squad.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deliver Us From Evil
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Pahokee

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Broken Ghost


Most teen angst can be relieved by soulful guitar player.

(2017) Thriller (Film Mode) Autry Hayden-Wilson, Scottie Thompson, Nick Farnell, Devon Bagby, Lessard Brandon, John Teague, Joy Brunson, George Griffith, Frank Lotito, Tyler Garrett, Lee Williams, Lexi Anastasia. Directed by Richard Gray

 

One of life’s great truths is that you cannot run away from your problems; they tend to follow you wherever you go, particularly when there’s a viral video involved.

Imogen Day (Hayden-Wilson) has left the building, or at least where she was living before and has moved to rural Montana along with her mother Samantha (Thompson) who has purchased the local pharmacy, and her artist husband Will (Farnell) who has gone on ahead to set things up at their isolated farmhouse.

There is definitely trouble in paradise (or at least Montana); Imogen now wishes to be known as Grace. She is a headstrong girl, but is sight-impaired. She’s not fully blind but most things are a blur to her and brightly lit so that necessitates her wearing sunglasses nearly all the time. She is somewhat suspicious of people and tends to shun them or at least drive them away but with good reason; she was severely bullied at her previous school and is trying to make a fresh start where nobody knows her. Will seems to have developed a porn addiction and an inspiration deprivation; he’s barely able to work on his art and ever since the issues with Imogen/Grace began. He has also had difficulty sexually with his wife. Samantha is severely frustrated and has taken to going out with her employee and friend Cath (Brunson) in the local bar after work.

To make matters worse, it turns out the isolated farmhouse they got for a song was a bargain for good reason; the previous resident, a somewhat eccentric and talented artist, slit the throat of his wheelchair-bound wife and 12-year-old daughter before hanging himself. Now there are some disturbing, unexplained things going on; drawings appear on bathroom mirrors, the television turns on by itself, there are strange noises coming from the attic that might be attributable to raccoons, but the whispers of Imogen’s true name that she hears at night are certainly not the work of raccoons.

The family is beginning to disintegrate from within. The source of Grace/Imogen’s bullying is discovered by new bullies at her new school. Samantha succumbs to her animal needs and has wild sex with a handsome stranger she meets in the bar, and Will finds a disturbing mural behind the wallpaper in Grace’s room. While initially Will denies that the house is haunted, he has begun to accept that it might be but that the spirits haunting the house if there are any seem to be benign. The goings-on in the house begin to mirror what happened previously to the homicidal artist – and there is the matter of a biker turf war that has escalated after the disappearance of two bikers that may or may not be connected with the Day’s home and suddenly Grace/Imogen has all the angst she can handle.

There are some things that work really well in this film and there are some things that don’t. To the good are the performances, particularly that of Thompson who is insanely sexy without being slutty, a desperate housewife who loves her daughter and her husband but sees everything falling apart and feels helpless to do anything about it. Hayden-Wilson has the kind of role that is all too common these days – that of the feisty, headstrong teen girl with a disability but she keeps the role from becoming tired or cliché. While I wonder how many parents would let a kid with vision issues as severe as hers wander around an unfamiliar landscape without someone to keep an eye on her, Hayden-Wilson has the confidence to play Grace/Imogen as the kind of young woman who would inspire parents to trust her that far.

While Gray does a fine job of building up the suspense in the first half of the movie, the pace is exceedingly slow and ponderous which is fine for European audiences but American thriller fans might not have the patience for it, particularly since the second half of the movie is an exercise in lost opportunities as the good will built up in the first part of the movie is all but spent by the time the credits unspool. The ending really is rather preposterous but although the temptation is great, I won’t spoil the elements of it even to give constructive criticism.

In the end this is a movie about loneliness; Grace/Imogen is lonely by choice, thrusting any would-be friends as far away from her as possible. Samantha is lonely in her bed as well as in her marriage and Will is isolated by his feelings of failure both as an artist and as a man. The family is isolated in their remote Montana farmhouse, and within that farmhouse each family member is alone. That’s not a bad metaphor for modern life if you ask me.

REASONS TO SEE: Gray builds up a decent creepy factor during the first half.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pace is very slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sexuality and nudity, some violence and scenes of bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Livingston, Montana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: See No Evil
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Stray

ROMA


Cleo enjoys the view from the rooftops of suburban Mexico City.

(2018) Drama (Netflix) Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Damesa, Nancy Garcia Garcia, Verónica Garcia, Andy Cortės, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Josė Manuel Guerrero Mendoza, Latin Lover, Zarela Lizbeth Chinolla Arellano, Jose Luis López Gómez, Edwin Mendoza Ramirez, Clementina Guadarrama. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

 

Some movies assault our senses frontally; others wash over us like a wave. Roma, the Oscar-nominated Netflix opus from acclaimed Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, is one of the latter types of films.

Set in the upscale Roma neighborhood during the turbulent 1970s and loosely based on the director’s own childhood. Cleo (Aparicio) is the maid and nanny for an upper middle class family, including Sra. Sofia (de Tavira) and the father (Grediaga), a medical doctor. On the surface, life is good for the family; they have a lovely home and enjoy evenings of watching TV together as a family with the maid and the other servant Adela (N. G. Garcia) taking care of the family’s every need.

But when the doctor leaves for a conference in Canada which turns out to be a euphemism for leaving his family for his mistress, things turn upside down for the family. Sofia becomes withdrawn, angry; she relies on Cleo more than ever to run the house. The children begin to act out. In the meantime, Cleo gets pregnant courtesy of her jerk of a boyfriend Fermin (Guerrero) and she goes into labor just as the notorious Corpus Christi massacre of 1971 is underway. The family begins to disintegrate from within.

In many ways the movie feels more Italian than Mexican; the slice of life aspect that sees the dual deterioration of Sofia and Cleo has the fatalistic yet dreamlike – albeit strangely realistic – quality that marks the films of some of the great Italian directors of the 70s through the 80s. Cuarón shoots the film essentially in medium shots nearly exclusively, making u feel like flies on the wall but oddly detached. We are not so much part of the family but spies within. All that’s needed to complete the effect is a gigantic tape recorder.

Shooting in black and white usually produces either a retro or documentary feel but again there is that feeling that we are voyeurs in the household. In fact, I would venture to say that this is reality television in the sense that movies once fulfilled that role. It is at once mundane and beautiful.

While Cuarón is specifically examining his own background in a specific time and place, this movie is equally applicable to virtually any time and place. Not all of us grow up with servants but nearly all of us grow up with challenges in our family, whether it be the sudden loss of a parent, alcohol or drug abuse or simply that the times they are a’changin’, we all know heartache in our lives.

This may be too slow-moving for some. The story unfolds like a rose even though there is more rot than rose to it. Parts of the movie are difficult to follow although Cuarón does tie everything nicely by movie’s end, I suspect that there aren’t a lot of Americans who will be patient enough for the two hours plus running time. Also, most of us are going to see this on television or computer screens at home or in some other distraction-heavy environment. If ever there was a movie that was meant to be experienced in a movie theater, it’s this one. Here in Central Florida, the movie was only available in The Villages which is a real shame. That’s partly due to the onerous rental terms that Netflix set for the film, making it nearly impossible for a theater to turn any sort of profit for running the movie. Maybe at some point kinder heads will prevail at Netflix and they will make the film available for a more reasonable theatrical release. I think the goodwill that such an action would generate among their subscribers (and potential subscribers) would be worth far more what they are profiting from the film currently.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the most beautifully composed shots you’ll see this year. Aparicio is a major find. The cinematography is compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is slow moving and occasionally disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, graphic nudity and adult themes throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie from a streaming service to be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinema Paradiso
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Point Man

Cecil


What do you mean most adults aren’t idiots?

(2019) Family (Vision) Sark Asadourian, Jason London, Christa Beth Campbell, Jenna von Oy, Aaron Munoz, Valerie Jane Parker, Avary Anderson, Susannah Devereaux, Graham Schneider, Maddie Kimrey, Mary Alfred Thoma, Reese Gould, Amiya Harris, Anna Grace White, Robert Gobelet, Jay Dee Walters, Noah Quarles, Kaiden Scott, Drake Light, Sarah Reynolds. Directed by Spencer Fritz

 

Most of us, growing up, have spent time watching movies aimed at kids our age at the time. Those movies were often over-the-top, always kid-centric and often portrayed the adults as essentially idiots whose sole purpose was to make our lives as kids miserable. These movies were mostly essentially meant to empower us, to give us the feeling that we could accomplish anything without the help of our parents. Mainly though we ended up learning that adults were not to be respected and that the only way to get things done properly was to do them ourselves.

The unfortunately named Cecil Stevens (Asadourian) has a lisp, which is not generally not a favorable condition when you’re in the fourth grade. Just saying his own name essentially paints a target on his back. Worse still his mom (von Oy) and dad (London) are having problems and have separated, forcing mom to take Cecil to his super hip grandma’s (Thoma) to live which means a new school. His new neighbor Abby (Campbell) who is also editor of the school newspaper tries to show her new friend the ropes but eventually she hits upon the solution – Cecil will just have to change his name.

Cecil is fine with that and even has a name in mind: Michael Jordan. Seeing as this is 1996, the new name brings Cecil great popularity and everyone wants to change their name to a celebrity. However, the unscrupulous principal (Walters) gets wind of the idea and decides that this is an ideal way to make the money to pay off the loan shark he owes money to, which has led him to cut school programs and funneling the money to the shark. When the newfound popularity goes to Cecil’s head, he is about to learn one of the great lessons of childhood – that actions have consequences.

Setting the movie in 1996, which was likely when the writer/director was experiencing the fourth grade himself, might have seemed a good idea at the time but in retrospect is a misstep; most of the age group this movie is clearly aimed at won’t have any memories of the nineties whatsoever. A more contemporary setting would have been a better idea.

The real problem here is that this is a movie that is severely dumbed down. There’s a whole lot of toilet humor and nearly every adult is an over-the-top caricature, the adult actors chewing scenery like living Cartoon Network characters. This makes the movie unwatchable for just about anyone who is older than seven or eight; even the fourth graders that inhabit this film would have rolled their eyes at this one.

Fortunately, the actors playing the lead kids – Asadourian and Campbell – acquit themselves surprisingly well. They get into their parts and even though they aren’t delivering naturalistic performances, the roles really don’t lend themselves to reality to begin with.

Parents may find the message to be a sound one but they likely won’t be willing to watch this one with their kids without some sort of distraction. Any kids movie which has the moms and dads whipping out the smart phone while the movie is playing is in big trouble.

REASONS TO GO: Asadourian and Campbell actually do a credible job.
REASONS TO STAY: Any viewer over the age of seven will end up being put off by this. The target audience won’t get the 90s references.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of rude humor, adult buffoonery and some mild bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the director’s childhood.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harriet the Spy
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Book Club

Hereditary


Toni Collette practices her Oscar acceptance speech.

(2018) Horror (A24) Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Christy Summerhays, Morgan Lund, Mallory Bechtel, Jake Brown, Harrison Nell, Briann Rachele, Heidi Mendez, Moises Tovar, Jarrod Phillips, Ann Dowd, Brock McKinney, Zachary Arthur, David Stanley, Bus Riley, Austin Grant, Gabe Eckert, Jason Miyagi, Marilyn Miller, Rachelle Hardy, Georgia Puckett  Directed by Ari Aster

There are critics who shouldn’t be allowed to review some genres. Those who abhor emotional manipulation should not be allowed to review romantic comedies. Those who think movies exist only to illuminate and educate shouldn’t be allowed to review Hong Kong action films or superhero films for that matter. There are some who don’t have the patience for kid flicks. and there are plenty of critics who don’t get horror movies at all who should be kept away from horror movies with physical restraints – and I suspect some of them would be just fine with that. Me, I love horror movies so at least you won’t get genre snobbery below.

\Annie Graham (Collette) is burying her recently deceased mother. She is strangely ambivalent about it; her relationship with her mom was strained to say the least. In fact, the only member of the family who is sorry to see the old lady go is the youngest, daughter Charlie (Shapiro) who is as creepy a child as you’re likely to find on any movie screen, theatrical or home.

Annie has kind of a strange job; she’s an artist who builds miniature rooms with meticulous detail. These rooms are largely from her own past and present. Annie is already kind of a high strung sort much to the chagrin of her stoner teenage son Peter (Wolff) and grounded husband Steve (Byrne). When a second tragedy strikes the family, it threatens to send Annie over the edge.

Reluctantly, she attends a grief-counseling group where she runs into Joan (Dowd), a motherly sort who has lost her husband and son to a car accident. She confides in an increasingly depressed Annie that she has discovered a means of communicating with the dead. Given a straw to cling to, Annie seizes it with both hands but as anyone who knows anything about the horror genre knows, it’s never a good idea to contact the dead.

Now, the synopsis above makes this sound like a pretty run-of-the-mill horror concoction but I assure you that it is not. This is one of the most justifiably acclaimed horror movies of this year or maybe even any other year, both by critics who do get horror films and fans of the genre alike (not to mention film buffs and cinephiles). The movie is ingeniously crafted, a slow burn that builds to an absolutely twisted finale that will leave you terrified of turning out the lights for days.

One of the reasons to love this movie is Toni Collette. Horror films rarely generate Oscars for actors but this is one that truly deserves to. Collette’s depiction of Anne’s descent into paranoid madness is the stuff of horror rubbernecking – you simply can’t turn away. Collette has been nominated for Oscars before but this may well be her best performance. I can’t imagine anyone topping it. The rest of the performances are strong, particularly the always-reliable Byrne, the up-and-coming star Wolff and veteran character actor Dowd. Shapiro is also particularly strong but she doesn’t get as much screen time as the others.

Steve Newburn is credited with designing the miniatures; they are exquisite and add considerably to the creepy factor So too does the score which doesn’t take cheap shots with ersatz scares. When the really scary stuff starts to unfold, it’s honest and quite frankly, this movie is scary as fcuk. Seriously, if you are easily frightened or overly sensitive this movie may well be too much for you.

This is not the kind of movie that throws jump scares at you to keep you off-balance. This is a slow-building ticking time bomb that immerses you in an atmosphere that is both normal and not-quite-right. As things begin to go off the rails for Annie, we begin to understand she’s not the most reliable of narrators. Is it really happening? I say yes. Whether you’re on the same page as I am, this is certainly one of the most unforgettable horror movies of the past decade and if you didn’t see it during its brief run this past summer, you NEED to see it this Halloween.

REASONS TO GO: Collette delivers a career-defining performance. The ending sequence is terrifying. It’s very likely to become a horror classic. The dysfunctional family dynamic feels authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: This might actually be too scary for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of graphic violence and disturbing imagery, some drug use and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Wolff, Byrne and Shapiro knew each other from previous film work; Collette alone didn’t know any of the actors that played her family, contributing to her sense of isolation which comes out in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Day Four

Back to Burgundy (Ce qui nous lie)


Juliette (Ana Girardot) is out standing in her field.

(2017) Drama (Music Box) Pio Marmaï, Ana Girardot, François Civil, Jean-Marc Roulot, Maria Valverde, Yamée Couture, Jean-Marie Winling, Florence Pernel, Éric Caravaca, Tewfik Jallab, Karidja Touré, Bruno Rafaelli, Eric Bougnon, Marina Tomé, Hervé Mahieux, Didier Dubuisson, Jean-Michel Lesoeur, Fanny Capretta, Charléne Ferès, Julie Leflaive. Directed by Cédric Klapisch

The movies have long had a love affair not just with wine but with winemaking and it’s hard not to understand why. The lifestyle is so enticing, so slow-paced and quiet that it makes a nearly pure opposite of the hectic, chaotic and often stressful life of filmmaking. Wineries are portrayed as serene and pastoral where seasons come and go with regularity and where patience and time are the keys to a really good Chablis.

Of course, when you think “wine” France must come near the top if not the top of the list. The winemaking regions of France each have their own charm; Burgundy among them. Jean (Marmaï) is from that noted region but left his home to travel the world, bored and dissatisfied with his life which his father (Bougnon) has chosen for him. Jean has since married, had a son and started a winery in Australia. However, he is called back to France when his father falls gravely ill.

There Jean greets his two siblings; Juliette (Girardot) who has been running the winery in her father’s absence, and Jerèmie (Civil) who has married into one of the region’s wealthiest families and whose overbearing father-in-law (Winling) is not at all sure that his son-in-law has what it takes to run his operation. The reunion is a bit guarded; each of the siblings have their own baggage and there is some guilt and resentment bubbling just below the surface.

When their father dies, the three children inherit the land and they must come to a decision; whether to sell the land to the father-in-law for a handsome profit, or continue to keep it in the family where it has been for generations. Juliette has been an indecisive leader who has terrific ideas but lacks the self-confidence to implement them in the face of male disrespect and scorn. Jerèmie must weather the invasive presence of his in-laws and assert himself as a man while Jean is torn between two continents. It is a hard thing to weigh an uncertain future against a certainty of financial gain.

Klapisch has a knack for finding life’s little absurdities in the midst of a more sprawling story. In most of his other films, he intertwines several stories into a cohesive whole; he doesn’t do that so much here but that doesn’t mean that he is above giving the mundane an almost epic scope. He utilizes the beautiful vistas of Burgundy in various seasons, juxtaposing the same scene in winter and summer for maximum effect. He also intertwines the childhood selves of the siblings with their adult selves, occasionally having them interact with one another. Klapisch is marvelously inventive in this way without coming off as “Look, Ma, I’m Directing!”

The story occasionally descends into soapiness, but the characters are interesting enough and the performances strong enough to keep the film from getting maudlin. Marmaï has some definite screen appeal and though he hasn’t got a lot of movies on his resume he certainly shows enormous potential. Girardot and Civil also deliver some strong performances but Marmaï is the one you’ll remember.

The movie has a strong sentimental streak and is heartwarming throughout. Cubicle cowboys in the readership may opt to chuck their office existence and go find a French winery to settle down in after seeing this but then again, it isn’t hard to sell a rustic lifestyle to those who lead stressful lives. This was definitely one of the highlights at this year’s Florida Film Festival and for those who missed it, I recommend very strongly to keep an eye out for it on VOD. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO GO: Klapisch always seems to find life’s little absurdities. The cinematography is breathtaking. Marmaï is a charming lead.
REASONS TO STAY: The film mines some “Lifetime Movie of the Week” territory.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity as well as some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Klapisch makes a cameo appearance as one of the volunteer farm workers near the end of the film receiving instructions on how to harvest the grapes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Good Year
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Most Unknown

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