Lazar


A tearful embrace.

(2015) Crime Drama (108 Media) Vedran Zivolic, Natasha Petrovic, Dejan Lilic, Goran Navojec, Violeta Sapkovska, Krassimira Kuzmanova, Vlado Jovanovski, Alexander Sano, Ivo Zhelev, Toni Mihajlovski, Ivica Mojsovski, Kiril Anastasov, Igor Angelov, Goran Trifunovski, Bereda Reshit, Vladimir Tuliev, Aleksandra Balmazovic, Mitko Apostolovski, Zorica Stojanovska. Directed by Svetozar Ristovski

 

As the world’s filmmakers are beginning to turn out some truly respectable films, sometimes you find some gems from unexpected places. I know nothing about the Macedonian film industry but after having seen this crime drama from that country, perhaps a little more investigation might be in order.

Lazar (Zivolic) is a young man who works for a gruff criminal named Miki (Navojec). Miki makes a lucrative living smuggling illegal aliens from the Middle East into the European Union. Lazar is pretty much his right hand man in this operation, distracting local policemen by speeding past their patrol cars and then putting on a drunken show while the caravan carrying the illegal immigrants moves undisturbed past the place just vacated by the cop.

Lazar makes enough to support his family, but for his brother-in-law Toni (Lilic) there’s also a pride issue involved; he needs to support his own family. Somewhat reluctantly, Lazar gets him a job as a driver for Miki. Lazar, however, isn’t really paying much attention to this; he’s met a vivacious young student named Katerina (Petrovic) and the dead-eyed young criminal is slowly being brought back to life. The two move in together and Lazar decides that the life he’s been leading needs to stop. He wants a normal life with Katerina.

Miki is skeptical when Lazar tells him he wants to go to school and leave the organization but he convinces Lazar to fulfill his obligations until a replacement can be found; maybe Kona (Sano), who seems to be smart and tough enough to handle it. Lazar is getting increasingly unreliable which is making Miki somewhat upset, particularly when it appears that Lazar’s absence could end up costing Miki a very lucrative alliance with a Greek counterpart. Lazar comes up with what seems to be a satisfactory solution, but it leads to a major screw-up that leaves Lazar and Toni in an impossible situation.

I’ve gotta say that Zivolic has the dead-eye look down pat. His character starts off surly and sullen and somewhat unpleasant but as his relationship with Katerina deepens, we begin to see cracks in the tough guy facade. There is an awful lot of posturing to the point of occasional distraction by all the criminal element in the movie but the essence of the story is sound.

The movie has the same kind of vibe as some classic crime dramas from the 80s and 90s, which is a very good thing indeed. I was reminded of gritty thrillers like To Live and Die in L.A. among others, just in tone mind you. The plots are not at all similar.

Ristovski does a lot with a little which is encouraging. The movie isn’t super original in terms of plot but it is nonetheless effective in telling the story and creating a mood. The actors, particularly Zivolic and Petrovic, do some strong work and the romance between Katerina and Lazar is believable, the chemistry genuine.

This is a nice little gem which overcomes an ending that was pretty disappointing but until it gets to that point gives us a surprisingly good time. This might be a little difficult to find; it’s supposed to be on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Vudu but I could find it on none of those services when I went looking for it. Keep an eye out for it however; it should be on a streaming service soon and once it is should be sought out by any crime movie lover with a flair for the global.

REASONS TO GO: The film packs the vibe of an 80s thriller – a very good thing. A pretty decent sense of suspense is developed.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few mob/crime movie clichés here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some drug use, a bit of violence, some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ristovski also directed Dear Mr. Gacy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drive
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Phoenix Forgotten

The Dinner


Dinner is served.

(2017) Drama (The Orchard) Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny, Charlie Plummer, Adepero Oduye, Michael Chernus, Taylor Rae Almonte, Joel Bissonnette, Onika Day, Miles J. Harvey, George Aloi, Stephen Lang (voice), Robert McKay, Patrick Kevin Clark, Seamus Davey-Patrick, George Shepherd, Emma R. Mudd, Laura Hajek. Directed by Oren Moverman

 

There’s nothing like a lovely, relaxing dinner with friends or family, particularly in a fine dining establishment. Great food, pleasant conversation, maybe a couple of glasses of a really nice wine…all the ingredients for a truly memorable evening. What could go wrong?

Paul Lohman (Coogan) is pretty sure not only that something could go wrong but that it inevitably will. A former history teacher, he’s working on a book on the Battle of Gettysburg, a historical event that carries much resonance for him. He’s always lived in the shadow of his older brother Stan (Gere), the golden boy who became a golden man. A United States Congressman, he’s mounting a campaign for governor with some considerable success. Stan is also working the phones to get a Mental Health bill through Congress.

Paul and his wife Claire (Linney), a lung cancer survivor, is gathering with Stan and his trophy wife Katelyn (Hall), Stan’s second wife, at one of those hoity toity restaurants where food is made to look like art and an obsequious waiter (Chernus) announces what’s in the dish beforehand. The conversation is pleasant enough if not congenial; there is clearly tension between Paul and Stan. But even with the constant interruptions of Stan’s assistant Kamryn (Almonte) there is business between them.

It has to do with Paul’s son Michael (Plummer) and Stan’s son Rick (Davey-Fitzpatrick). The two are, unlike their dads, the best of friends and one recent night the two got drunk and stranded at a party. They went looking for an ATM to get cab fare and instead found a homeless woman (Day). What happened next would be shocking and horrible and could not only ruin the lives of these young boys but that of their parents as well and as the meal goes on and secrets get revealed, we discover the fragility of Paul’s mental state and Claire’s health and the truth behind Stan’s first wife Barbara (Sevigny).

The film is based on a 2009 bestseller by Dutch author Herman Koch, only transplanted from Amsterdam to an unnamed American city in the north. Koch was apparently extremely disappointed in this version of his novel (it is the third film based on it) and walked out of the premiere and declined to attend the afterparty. I can’t say as I blame him.

I have to admit that I was disappointed with this film. It had everything it needed to be an artistic success; a compelling story, a terrific cast and a respected director, among other things. Unfortunately, Moverman chose to overload the film with flashbacks which disrupt the flow of the story and frankly become irritating – as an audience member, I wanted to see more of the dinner itself. However the extremely volatile situation leads to much storming away from the table in a fit of pique. This is the most childish set of adults (with the exception of Stan) that you’re likely to meet. In fact, one of the things I disliked about the film is that none of the main characters has anything resembling redeeming qualities. They are all so unlikable that I don’t think you could get through a meal with any one of them, let alone all four.

It’s a shame because it wastes four strong performances.  Linney in particular does some stellar work as the self-delusional wife who refuses to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that her little angel is a sociopath. Coogan, better known for comedic roles such as The Trip makes for a fine dramatic actor here and rather than playing a mentally ill man for laughs, he makes the role less rote. There is pathos yes and an element of humor but it is a realistic portrayal of a man whose demons are slowly winning the war inside him. Gere and Hall distinguish themselves as well.

The movie feels pretentious at times. There’s an extended sequence where Paul and Stan visit the Gettysburg Battlefield. It is a good looking sequence, shot through filters and utilizing collages and Stephen Lang narration of the various stops on the driving tour but at the end it feels almost like an addendum, not really part of the movie and certainly not needing that length. I get that Paul feels that Gettysburg is an analogy for his own life but it seems to be hitting us over the head with a hammer.

This is a movie I would have loved to at least like but ended up not even able to admire. Moverman would have been better off spending more time at the dinner table than away from it; certainly some context was needed and I’m sure he wanted to stay away from making the movie feel stagey but at the end of the day it ended up shredding the movie like it had been through a cheese grater. This is a bit of a hot mess that can well take a back seat to other movies on your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: The film is organized by course which is nifty. Good performances by the four leads.
REASONS TO STAY: None of the characters have much in the way of redeeming qualities. The overall tone is pretentious and elitist.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing content of violence and cruelty, adult themes and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third onscreen collaboration between Gere and Linney; Primal Fear and The Mothman Prophecies are the other two.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carnage
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Colossal

Wilson (2017)


A dysfunctional family portrait.

(2017) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, Brett Gelman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, James Saito, Bill McCallum, Alec George, Nate Mooney, Paul Cram, Tom Proctor, Katie Rose Law, Roxy Wood, Bruce Bohne, Greta Oglesby, Rachel Weber, Toussaint Morrison, Tonita Castro. Directed by Craig Johnson

 

We all know someone like him; a person with the social skills of a charging bull. Someone who generates awkward silences like our president generates Tweets. You know, that person who stops every conversation dead in their tracks with pronouncements that defy reason or rudeness that defies civility.

Wilson (Harrelson) is that guy. He lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with his dog that he adores but who pisses him off regularly. His only friend is moving about as far away as he can get and taking his shrewish wife with him. Wilson’s dad passes away from cancer soon afterward. With all this going on, Wilson decides he needs to reconnect with the world.

Doing that, he decides, means reconnecting with his ex-wife Pippi (Dern). She’s no saint either, owning what could charitably be charitably described as a checkered past including prostitution and drug abuse. When Wilson finds her, she’s trying to get her life back together working as a waitress. But that’s not all.

When Pippi originally left, she’d told Wilson that she’d gotten an abortion – but psych! It turns out that she’d put the baby up for adoption instead. Claire (Amara) has been raised by wealthy parents but has plenty of issues. Wilson is determined to reach out to the child he never knew he had and establish a connection, dragging a reluctant Pippi along in the process. It could be a good thing but as Wilson is wont to do, he messes things up instead.

This is based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay) and it plays in a lot of ways like a Clowes book; simply drawn and not terribly sketched out. However, I have to admit I went in with low expectations based on a trailer that felt like something I’d seen plenty of times before. In all honesty I was pleasantly surprised; I thought this was going to be one of those social experiments to find out how unlikable they can make the main character and still get some critical acclaim.

Frankly, the critical response has been surprisingly low on this one; the general consensus seems to be that the film is predictable and in some ways it is – Wilson’s journey is pretty much by-the-numbers and yet I left the theater feeling a bit of catharsis. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.

It is definitely a movie that builds. Early on my low expectations were essentially being me and I remember leaning over and whispering to Da Queen “Oh, now I remember why Woody Harrelson is mostly playing support roles these days.” Well, more fool me – as the film progressed, Harrelson took over and while he was still playing a pretty much unlikable no-filter kind of guy, I felt myself beginning to root for Wilson. Hey, a guy that much into dogs can’t be all bad, right? In any case, I was reminded why Woody Harrelson has a filmography that a whole lot of actors in this town would envy. Okay, in Hollywood. EVERY actor in Orlando would envy Woody Harrelson’s filmography.

Yeah, there are places that the film gets a bit sentimental and yes, when Wilson hits rock bottom it’s hard not to get emotional. One thing though that differentiates this from other films of this ilk is that it has a superior cast. Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale (who’s essentially only in one scene) and Cheryl Hines are top actresses who take a back seat to nobody in terms of consistent performances. They add depth to the film and give Harrelson plenty of places to play off of – Dern in particular makes an excellent foil for Harrison. The young Isabella Amara does some fine work here as well; her character is certainly complicated and troubled but is basically a decent girl who hasn’t gotten a ton of love in her life.

The ending is a little schmaltzy but all in all, I did end up liking Wilson more than I expected to. I’m not a big Clowes fan by any stretch of the imagination so that’s a bit of an accomplishment but I’m now very interested in picking up a couple of the man’s graphic novels and giving them another chance. Sometimes, changing your perspective is a right place at the right time kind of thing.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of film that grows on you. Wilson does in fact grow throughout the film which is a bit of a shocker.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too many neuroses on display for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a smidgeon of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The jail scenes were filmed at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility in St. Paul, Minnesota which is a working prison.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Barry

The Last Word (2017)


Even in the movies selfies must be taken.

(2017) Dramedy (Bleecker Street) Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Ann’Jewel Lee, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Sadoski, Gedde Watanabe, Anne Heche, Tom Everett Scott, Todd Louiso, Joel Murray, Yvette Freeman, Valerie Ross, Steven Culp, Adina Porter, Chloe Wepper, John Billingsley, Sarah Baker, Nicki McCauley, Marshall Bell, Marcy Jarreau, Brooke Trantor. Directed by Mark Pellington

 

As we get older we begin reflecting on our lives; the accomplishments we’ve made, the opportunities we’ve squandered. It’s a natural part of the process. For some, however, that’s simply not enough.

For Harriet Lauler (MacLaine) life is all about control. She’s a smart, tough woman who built an ad agency in a small California town into one of the biggest and best, a great accomplishment for anyone but particularly for a woman in the era she was doing the building. In the process, she alienated just about everyone; her husband (Hall) from whom she has been divorced for decades, her daughter (Heche) with whom she hasn’t spoken in five years but the separation between the two had been going on for far longer and eventually her colleagues who couldn’t stand her domineering and belittling. Even her gynecologist and priest can’t stand the sight of her.

As she reads the obituaries of contemporaries, she knows that when she goes her obituary will read like a greeting card and say nothing about what she’s accomplished. To prevent that from happening, she goes to the local newspaper which her company kept afloat for years and commandeered their obituary, perky young Anne (Seyfried) to write her obituary while she’s still alive so that Harriet can make sure it’s up to snuff.

As Anne gets into this daunting task, the frustration grows with both the job and with Harriet whom, in one angry moment, Anne exclaims “She put the bitch in obituary!” This being one of those movies, the two women begin to find common ground and help each other grow. Harriet, hoping to get a “she unexpectedly touched the life of…” lines in her obit also commandeers Brenda (Lee), a cute as a button street-smart urchin, the “at-risk” youth as the kids today call it.

There isn’t anything in this movie you haven’t already seen in dozens of other movies like it. The script is like it came out of a beginning screenwriting class by someone who’s seen a lot of movies but has no ideas of their own. What the movie has going for it is MacLaine. Ever since Terms of Endearment she has owned the curmudgeon role and has perfected it in dozens of movies since. This is more of the same and I frankly can’t see what attracted her to this part; she’s done dozens like it and this character isn’t really written as well as the others. Still, MacLaine is a force of nature, a national treasure who at 82 is still going strong but one should take any opportunity to see her perform, even in a movie like this.

Seyfried is getting a bit long-in-the-tooth for doing waif-ish ingénue roles. She still has those big doe eyes and pouty lips that give her the physical attributes but she is much smarter than parts like this allow her to get. She does get a few good zingers off but her character has so little backbone – and it is sooo inevitable she’s going to grow one by the end credits – you expect her to be blown to kingdom come by Harriet, but that never really happens and it is to Seyfried’s credit she holds her own with MacLaine.

There really is no reason for the movie to have the street-smart urchin in it. Lee in particular is cute enough but she suffers from the curse of child actors – she doesn’t act so much as pretend. The difference is noticeable and you never believe the character for a moment but then again Brenda doesn’t really add anything to the movie that couldn’t have been delivered there by an adult. I suppose they wanted her in there so that she could appeal to the grandchild instincts of the target audience.

I can’t say this was a disappointment because the trailer was pretty unappealing but for the most part this is disposable as it gets. You won’t waste your time seeing this exactly but then again you won’t make the most of it either which, ironically, is the message Harriet is trying to deliver to Anne. Definitely the filmmakers got an “A” in Irony 101.

REASONS TO GO: MacLaine is one of the last of the old-time movie stars and any chance to see her is worth taking.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary child actor alert.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s world premiere was actually here in the U.S. at the AFI Latin American Film Festival last September.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bucket List
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Comedian

Afterimage (Powidoki)


The professor teaches a class of delighted students.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Akson) Boguslaw Linda, Aleksandra Justa, Bronislawa Zamachowska, Zofia Wichlacz, Krzysztof Pieczynski, Mariusz Bonaszewski, Szymon Bobrowski, Aleksander Fabisiak, Paulina Galazka, Irena Melcer, Tomasz Chodorowski, Filip Gurlacz, Mateusz Rusin, Mateusz Rzezniczak, Tomasz Wlosok, Adrian Zaremba, Barbara Wypych, Izabela Dabrowska. Directed by Andrzej Wajda

When it comes to art, the act of creation is a highly personal thing. Style and subject define the artist as an artist and to ask them to create something that isn’t felt, that doesn’t come from the heart is tantamount to asking an artist to slice off a leg and having them serve it up for a backyard barbecue.

Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Linda) is one of Poland’s most notable modern artists. As World War II comes to an end, Poland is going from Nazi occupation to becoming a Soviet satellite state in the Eastern bloc. He had served in the Polish army during the First World War and had lost a leg and an arm in the process. During the Nazi occupation, he defiantly painted subjects that went outside what was permitted and was hailed by Poles as a national hero.

After the war he founded the Higher School of Visual Arts in Lodz along with his estranged wife, sculptress Katarzyna Kobro with whom he has a child, Nika (Zamachowska) with whom he has a relationship that can best be described as guarded. He is teaching eager students that essentially worship the ground he walks on, particularly Hannah (Wichlacz) whose hero-worship might be deepening into something else.

His life is about to turn upside down however. The Soviet state wants art to serve the people and thus wants a style more in line with social realism; Strzeminski has been a champion throughout his career of modernism. When he refuses to adapt his style to Soviet demands, he is fired from the school he founded. Slowly rights and privileges are stripped away from him; his membership in the artist’s trade union is rescinded, meaning he can’t buy art supplies. He attempts to work a menial job essentially painting huge banners of Stalin and other communist icons.  When he is denied even this, he is unable to provide for himself. Most of his art has been taken down from the museums where they have hung for in some cases for 20 or 30 years; he is slowly starving to death and it is a race whether he will meet that fate or whether the tuberculosis which has been exacerbated by his nearly constant smoking will kill him first.

Wajda is one of Poland’s national treasures, a director with a six decade career that have created some amazing films although he remains not well known in the States other than to film buffs. He has an artist’s eye for color and design; his images are often far more than they appear to be, such as when a frustrated Strzeminski flails at store mannequins he’s been hired to dress which symbolizes art flailing away at the commercial.

He is buoyed he by Linda, one of Poland’s most respected actors who plays Strzeminski with a certain dichotomy of often contradictory characteristics; he is an amazing teacher devoted to his students but he dismisses his daughter to an orphanage with a curt “She will have a hard life” by way of explanation. When Hannah declares her feelings for him, he reacts with a stoic “That’s unfortunate” and with two words absolutely destroys her world, and she was one of the few that stuck with him to the very end.

The film posits the question “What does the artist owe more responsibility to, the people or himself?” It is clear which side Wajda was on. I’m not sure I agree completely with him but the man has earned the right to make his stance crystal clear.

The production design ranges from sleek and modern to dingy and colorless. The further Poland falls into Soviet control, the grayer the settings get. Soon the entire city of Lodz becomes dystopian, moving from beautiful European metropolis to soulless Soviet city where conformity is the rule of the day.

Strzeminski often reacts in inexplicable ways which are often detrimental to his own cause, but one admires the fortitude it took to stand up to a powerful and ruthless government that recognizes no other way than the one it endorses which sounds vaguely familiar these days. For those who are big fans of Wajda as I am, this won’t be disappointing. For those who are looking for an introduction to his work it’s one of his best – maybe his very best. The themes he tackles here are pretty much standard for him although the movie is a little bit more mainstream than most of his audience is used to. This is a marvelous movie which you should keep an eye out for once it gets American distribution. In the meantime, look for it on the Festival circuit.

REASONS TO GO: Wajda’s use of color and design is simply amazing. Linda’s performance is more than noteworthy. A work of genius by a master of European cinema.
REASONS TO STAY: The parallels to modern society may hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Wajda’s final film, directed at the age of 89; He died in Warsaw of pulmonary failure October 9, 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Modigliani
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: When the Bough Breaks

Almost Christmas


Danny Glover is never too old for this sh...stuff.

Danny Glover is never too old for this sh…stuff.

(2016) Holiday Comedy (Universal) Kimberly Elise, Danny Glover, Omar Epps, Mo’Nique, Romany Malco, Nicole Ari Parker, J.B. Smoove, Jessie T. Usher, John Michael Higgins, Gabrielle Union, Nadej Bailey, Alkoya Brunson, Marley Taylor, D.C. Young Fly, Keri Hilson, Gladys Knight, Chloe Spencer, Gregory Alan Williams, Tara Batesole, Jeff Rose, Tara Jones, Rachel Kylian. Directed by David E. Talbert

 

Christmas is a time for family. When a family member is taken from us, it can leave an awfully big hole. Sometimes trying to fill that hole can only make it deeper.

Walter Meyers (Glover) is the patriarch of the family and he is gathering his family together for Christmas, but it will be the first one without his wife Grace (Kylian), who passed away recently. She was the one who did most of the cooking and her box of recipes was filled with absolutely magical dishes, in particular the sweet potato pie that Walter adores. Sadly, nobody can find the box and so Walter is left to try to recreate the pie recipe with unfortunate results.

Still, the family does gather – divorced Rachel (Union) who is trying to put herself through law school but the financial means just aren’t there. She and her more successful sister Cheryl (Elise) can barely speak a civil word to one another, but Cheryl’s husband (Smoove) isn’t exactly a catch. Christian (Malco) is mounting a political campaign which keeps his cell phone twittering but also may require him to make compromises that will put him at odds with his father. Finally, there’s the youngest – Evan (Usher) – who’s a college football star. He’s just recovered from an injury in time to play in a holiday bowl game, but continues to take the pain meds he’s addicted to, partially to numb the pain of his mother’s loss.

Also present is Aunt May (Mo’Nique) who has made a career as a backup singer to some of the biggest stars in music but which has kept her on the road for too many Christmases. Now she’s trying to help Walter adjust by providing some exotic meals which the family isn’t quite prepared for, and by keeping the alcohol flowing.

Add to the mix Rachel’s old flame and next door neighbor Malachi (Epps) and a houseful of kids and you have a recipe for chaos. However, the rivalry between Rachel and Cheryl threatens to upend what good feelings there are there and tear the family apart. It would take a Christmas miracle to repair the damage.

In the 70s, we were treated to sitcoms about African-American families like Good Times and The Jeffersons and in a lot of ways this movie owes its pedigree to those pioneering shows; the former in vibe, the latter in layout. The family economic circumstance is (with the exception of Rachel) in the comfortable middle class.  The family is used to a heart-warming Christmas of lots of food, nice presents and a comfortably big home. It’s the kind of Christmas we all dream about.

Most of us want a heavy dose of heartwarming with our Christmas movies and Almost Christmas delivers on that front, thanks largely to Glover whose personality fits this role like a (‘scuse the pun) glove. It is also nice to see Mo’Nique onscreen. The Oscar winning actress is onscreen far less than I would like; she’s an amazingly gifted actress who elevates roles that could be campy and gives them heart, as she does here. While to my mind it is Danny Glover who makes the most of his role, the entire cast is top notch and takes each of their roles and run with them, even though there is an element of cliché to the film. Yes there are family squabbles and crises, but you just know it will end with the family pulling together. Nobody wants to see a Christmas film in which the family implodes.

I would have liked to have seen a little more background context, particularly to the Rachel/Cheryl feud which is never explained, for the most part we get fully fleshed-out characters which is something of a Christmas miracle given the size of the cast. Quite frankly, I expected this to be a rote Christmas movie with really no meat on the bones but I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong on that score. No, this isn’t reinventing the genre to be sure but it does confirm the best aspects of it. For a lot of people this is going to be a perennial Christmas movie. Count me among those people.

REASONS TO GO: This is one of Glover’s best performances in years. This will definitely give you a case of the warm fuzzies.
REASONS TO STAY: Very much a been-there done-that kind of movie. Some of the family dynamics shown here don’t really have any rhyme or reason.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult thematic elements, some brief sexual material, occasional profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third time Usher has played a football player onscreen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gathering
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Office Christmas Party

The Monster (2016)


It was a dark and stormy night...

It was a dark and stormy night…

(2016) Horror (A24) Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Scott Speedman, Aaron Douglas, Chris Webb, Marc Hickox, Christine Ebadi. Directed by Bryan Bertino

 

The things that scare us are often those that hide in the shadows, that dwell in the dark but they aren’t always the most dangerous things. Sometimes what is most threatening is that which is right in front of us.

Lizzie (Ballentine) is entering her teen years with a bigger burden than most. Her mother Kathy (Kazan) is a raging alcoholic with appropriately awful taste in men. Lizzie yearns for a normal life but that is not likely to happen with Kathy who is far from a candidate for the Mother of the Year award. Lizzie just wants Kathy to drop her off at school so she can appear in the school play but the two get into a massive fight which ends up with Kathy essentially telling her daughter to go straight to Hell.

The two simply can’t co-exist any longer so Kathy decides to take Lizzie to live with her father (Speedman) who may or may not be much better, but whatever – Kathy is going to take her daughter in the middle of a rainy night through a lonely wooded road. When a wolf runs out into the road, Kathy spins out the car and wrecks it. However, thank goodness there is a cell signal and she calls for an ambulance and a tow truck.

When the two ladies investigate, they realize that the wolf was in the process of being eaten before they hit it. And when the tow truck driver (Douglas) arrives, it soon becomes crystal clear that they’re being stalked by something that is not anything anyone has ever seen before but there is one thing that is absolutely for certain about it – it’s hungry.

There is room here for a really nifty horror film but unfortunately we don’t get it. The constant bickering between Lizzie and Kathy gets irritating after awhile. Also the backstory is largely told through flashbacks which have a tendency to stop the movie dead in its tracks and interrupt the goings on. These also get irritating after awhile.

Kazan has a very youthful face which is perfect for this role; she barely looks old enough to have graduated from high school herself. She has a pretty thankless role; Kathy isn’t what you’d call admirable although when push comes to shove, she finally reacts like an actual mother but most of the movie tells us that she isn’t really much of a mother to begin with. Why she suddenly becomes one doesn’t feel very organic to me.

There are a lot of things that I call horror movie shortcuts; actions taken by the characters that defy logic. Even when panicked, most people aren’t going to continually venture past the streetlight that seems to be their only protection just to see what’s going on. However, the women’s actions serve to advance the plot but not necessarily the characters. That is some lazy writing right there.

The creature effects are nifty (and non-CGI, refreshing in this day and age) and the filmmakers wisely choose not to reveal too much about the monster. They are undoubtedly familiar with the adage that the imagination is far scarier than anything any filmmaker can come up with in general and the filmmakers use that to their advantage.

There are a few moments here and there that are generally scary and the dysfunctional mother-daughter dynamic might have made for an interesting background for the film, but in the end it’s just another monster hunt and not a particularly innovative one. Generally, I’d wait on this until it becomes available at a bargain streaming fee, or on a service you already subscribe to. It’s nothing to seek out intentionally though.

REASONS TO GO: The creature work is pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic and realism spoil the plot. The mother-daughter bickering eventually got on my nerves. The flashbacks are rather intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a surfeit of profanity as well as some violence and bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was previously titled There Are Monsters.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cujo
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them