Together


Apparently the pandemic CAN be used as couples therapy.

(2021) Drama (Bleecker Street) James McAvoy, Sharon Horgan, Samuel Logan. Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin

 

The pandemic is, in some ways, a screenwriter’s dream. It is a situation everyone on the planet is affected by, something we all can relate to. As more and more movies come out set during lockdowns and quarantines, the question becomes whether we are exploring the topic too soon (as even now we are suffering through a surge in Delta variant cases) or whether what we have to say at this point is premature.

A brief rant before I commence – I have always found the trope of not naming the characters to be more pretentious than anything. Yes, I get that they are supposed to be “everymen” and “everywomen” for the sake of the narrative, but it’s more or less a cop-out these days. Give your characters names, and not just for the convenience of the critics either – it’s disrespectful to the audience. End rant.

An unnamed couple (grrr!), played by Horgan and McAvoy, are thrown together by the lockdown in England. They are an upper middle class couple who couldn’t be more different; he’s a conservative entrepreneur who doesn’t have much use for what he calls “the chattering class,” while she’s a progressive liberal who is an executive for a non-profit. But they have a young ten-year-old special needs kid named Artie (Logan) together, and – not for nothing – they hate each other’s guts. The only thing keeping them from going their separate ways is Artie.

The movie takes place from day one of the English lockdown into the spring of 2021. Things are divided into chapters which are delineated by what day of the lockdown it is, and how many deaths from COVID have been recorded in England by that date, which seems to be a not-so-veiled swipe at the Boris Johnson administration (it gets not-so-veiled during a Horgan monologue later in the movie).

Most of the dialogue is delivered at the camera, as if you’re a friend or relative on Zoom, and the couple are making their case for why the other one is the reason the marriage is in trouble. That is punctuated with often heart-rending monologues – in Horgan’s case, the absolutely horrific treatment her mother receives in a care home, while in McEvoy’s an encounter with an anti-masker that causes him to rethink things.

The acting here is superb. Given dialogue that is worthy of Aaron Sorkin. There is some snappy repartee and plenty of back-and-forth between the couple, who are often talking over each other in the way that couples do. That gives the film a kind of naturality that brings more authenticity to the movie than it otherwise might have. The screenplay was originally meant to be a stage play, but the practical complications of mounting a stage production during a pandemic led this to be turned into a movie, but it still retains some of its stage-y qualities. You don’t really notice them, however, because the acting and writing are both so damn good.

I’m not sure if this will end up being a time capsule of this period in history, or something that speaks to deeper truths in relationships. I tend to subscribe to the latter; there is a timelessness about the issues between the couple that are only framed by the pandemic rather than are caused by it. I was completely blown away by the emotional resonance that the film brought and recommend it thoroughly as one of the best movies of the year. If ever you needed an excuse to get out to the theaters, this movie is it.

REASONS TO SEE: Superior writing and direction. Natural performances from Morgan and McElroy, who is particularly impressive. A powerful, emotional time capsule of 2020-21.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so sure using a pandemic as couples therapy is appropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in only ten days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scenes from a Marriage
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
The Fatal Raid

Till Death


Some men see women as little more than ornaments.

(2021) Thriller (Screen Media) Megan Fox, Eoin Macken, Callan Mulvey, Jack Roth, Ami Ameen, Stefanie Rozhko, Julian Belahurov, Lili Rich, Teodora Djuric. Directed by S.K. Dale

 

We all know the traditional wedding vows; to love and cherish, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, till death do us part. With a 50% divorce rate (or thereabouts), the final part isn’t so much of a factor anymore but for some it still holds true.

You would think Emma (Fox) has The Life. Married to a handsome, wealthy and connected lawyer named Mark (Macken), she was a photographer who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and became collateral damage in a botched robbery attempt. Mark was the lawyer who represented her, and eventually the two married. Bad idea.

It turns out Mark was far from the white knight Emma thought he was. He is a control freak of the highest order, and sees his wife as a reflection of his own manhood and power. He wants her to look a certain way, act a certain way. It’s no wonder that she has taken part in an extramarital affair with Tom (Ameen), a colleague of her husband’s. However, she decides to call things off with Tom, using the fact that its her wedding anniversary as a reason.

Mark appears to be completely ignorant of the affair, showering Emma with gifts and a surprise; blindfolding her and driving her out to their lake house, even though it is the middle of winter. After a night of romance and wine, she wakes up to a cold house and handcuffed to her husband. Then comes a shocking event – and everything in her world has suddenly become a life-or-death survival situation. And to make matters worse, Mark has invited a few other guests to the party.

The plot doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but then again, it is at least kept pretty simple. The real surprise is Fox. She has always been known more for her beauty than her acting ability, but slap my britches and call me Sally, she actually does a commendable job here. While her performance here is occasionally erratic (as in line delivery mainly), for the most part she does a great job as a woman who has been intimidated and emotionally abused into numbness, who is then placed into a situation where she must fight or die.

It was less believable that Emma, wearing a flimsy nightie and no shoes, seemed to not be that affected by the cold, even when out in the snow and on the frozen lake. You would think that she might shiver, a little. But that might just be chalked up to Hollywood shorthand; Emma is strong enough to stand up to Mark and the two hit men (Mulvey, Roth) he’s sent out to finish her off, a little chill isn’t going to bother her much.

In fact it’s when the two hit men (who have a connection to the story that’s a little far-fetched) arrive in the movie that things really begin to take off and the movie really hits its stride. Dale shows a deft hand with some of these sequels and might well have a future in bigger budget action/thriller films down the line. As far as now goes, however, he’s brewed up a nifty little film that you might keep an eye out for – even if you’re not particularly fond of Megan Fox, as I was not. This might just change your mind about her.

REASONS TO SEE: Fox shows some range.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stretches believability to the breaking point.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, gruesome violence and some grisly images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Dale’s feature film debut; previously he has only directed short films.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gerald’s Game
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Meander

The Believer (2021)


When love becomes toxic.

(2021) Horror (Freestyle) Aidan Bristow, Sophie Kargman, Billy Zane, Susan Wilder, Lindsey Ginter, Robbie Goldstein. Directed by Shan Serafin

 

Sometimes, the person you married isn’t the same as the person sitting next to you at the dinner table. You thought you knew them better than you know yourself, but suddenly you’re not so sure. People change, after all…and not always for the better.

Lucas (Bristow) and Violet (Kargman) are in that kind of a marriage. The two of them are at loggerheads over something Violet did that Lucas is having a hard time dealing with. Then again, he’s an unemployed physicist who following a broken foot has seen his health decline inexplicably. So, too, is his mental health, to the point he is seeing a psychiatrist, the unorthodox Dr. Benedict (Zane) to try and piece together what happened.

What happened, we find out, was an abortion that Violet performed without Lucas’ knowledge or approval. Since then, she has begun to obsess over demons and possession, and the pragmatic scientist she married is having a hard time matching the calm and rational woman he married with the robotic but deranged woman that won’t allow him to touch her anymore.

Then again, Lucas doesn’t appear to be much of a prize either, but we’ll get to that. Right now, Violet’s parents Charlotte (Wilder) and Gus (Ginter) have dropped over for a surprise visit at just the absolute worst time. There’s a problem with that, though – Violet insists that her parents are both dead and these people are not who they say they are. What is going on? Is Violet right? Or has she lost her mind? Or is something far more insidious, far more sinister going on?

Shan Serafin has crafted a psychological horror film that does a good job of keeping the viewer off-balance and heightening a sense of unreality. Lucas is definitely an unreliable narrator, particularly the more you witness his sessions with Dr. Benedict which may or may not be real. Serafin does some moderate borrowing from other films, including Rosemary’s Baby and Misery, both of which, ironically, started out as books.

But borrowing from other sources isn’t the movie’s greatest sin. Kargman is a bit too much the icy, emotionless blonde (although she’s a brunette) to be memorable here, while Bristow flails away but his character has too many unlikable moments to build a viewer connection. Zane is virtually unrecognizable as the therapist, so it falls to Violet’s parents/not-parents to be the characters here you’ll most remember, with their false bonhomie, fake smiles and sinister undertones.

The movie relies too much on jump scares, particularly in the second half, and when things really start to get unwound in terms of Lucas’ sanity, the movie starts to fall apart some. The movie’s final scenes aren’t harrowing enough to really keep your interest. There are some good things here, but overall the movie is unsatisfying and could have used a bit of tweaking.

REASONS TO SEE: Sets up a nice sense of unreality.
REASONS TO AVOID: When things get trippy the film loses cohesion.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, some sexuality and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Serafin in addition to directing and writing screenplays has also written horror novels.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gaslight
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Boss Level

I Am Woman


Hear her roar.

(2019) Music Biography (Quiver)Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald, Matty Gardarople, Jordan Roskopoulos, Molly Broadstock, Gus Murray, Dusty Sorg, Rita Rani Ahuja, Michael-Anthony Taylor, Scout Bowman, Liam Douglas, Coco Greenstone, Gregg Arthur, Nicola Frew, Shakila Zab, Katerina Tsompanis, Frank Violi, Maddison-Cleo Musumeci. Directed by Unjoo Moon

It is hard to overstate the importance of Helen Reddy to pop culture. Most people know her through her iconic “I Am Woman,” essentially the unofficial anthem of the women’s movement, but in the mid to late 70s she had a string of hits that made her one of the most popular performers in the world.

It wasn’t always that way. When Reddy (Cobham-Hervey) won a singing contest in her native Australia, the prize was a recording contract for Mercury Records. She arrived in New York City with her three-year-old daughter in tow, only to discover that the misogynist executives at Mercury had no intention of honoring the contract. One must wonder how many heads rolled after Reddy achieved her international superstardom.,

She decided to give it a go in the US and moved in a roach-infested apartment, paying the rent (barely) with cocktail lounge singing gigs. She was befriended by fellow Aussie and influential rock critic Lillian Roxon (Macdonald) who championed her career. At a rent party, she met Jeff Wald (Peters), an aspiring talent manager. She eventually married him, and the expectation was that he would manage her career and get her that elusive record contract, but he needed to establish himself first.

Frustrated by his lack of support, she finally forced him to work harder to get her signed which finally happened. After a couple of minor hits, “I Am Woman” came out in 1974 and swept the charts, winning her a Grammy (where she famously thanked God, because “she makes all things possible”) and began a string of hits including “Leave Me Alone,” and “Angie Baby.”

In the meantime, her close friend Roxon had passed away after a severe asthma attack and hubby Jeff had blown most of her fortune on cocaine. She eventually would divorce him, and her career came essentially to an end, although that really isn’t covered in the film.

In fact, a lot of things aren’t covered in the film. Moon is apparently a friend of Reddy (whom she met at an awards show) but delivered a very basic version of her biography. We see none of her ex-husband’s attempts to sabotage her career after their divorce, nor do we see much of her creative process. Mostly what we see is her early struggles and then her marital problems later on. You’re given a sense of her status of a feminist icon, but we never get a sense of what Helen herself thought of this.

Cobham-Hervey has a good deal of presence in the role of Reddy but it oddly doesn’t manifest in the concert footage. For the most part, Cobham-Hervey performs with a bemused smirk on her face; I never saw Reddy live myself but I understand she was a dynamic performer in her heyday. There’s no sense of that here, nor of her flinty sense of humor which characterized her entire career.

I also think it was a major mistake for the production to use Aussie performer Chelsea Cullen to dub Reddy’s voice – people are coming not just to see a biopic on her life but to hear her music as well. While Cullen does a decent job mimicking her phrasing and style, I think most people watching the movie are going to miss her actual vocals. If you’re going to make a biography of a singer, you should get the rights to use their actual voice. See Bohemian Rhapsody for an example.

This is the kind of movie that will end up being damned by faint praise. The heart is in the right place, but the execution is lacking. This feels like a Behind the Music version of a pop icon’s life story, and it leaves the viewer feeling distinctly unsatisfied. However, Reddy’s importance both to pop music and to pop culture make this a worthwhile venture, albeit one that could have been a much better film.

REASONS TO SEE: Cobham-Hervey has great presence as Reddy in the non-performance sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Cobham-Hervey is strangely distance in the performance sequences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Unjoo Moon and cinematographer Dion Beebe are married in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Redbox
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Runaways
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Hollywood Fringe

The Children Act


Move over, Judge Judy – here comes Judge Emma Thompson.

(2017) Drama (A24Emma Thompson, Fionn Whitehead, Stanley Tucci, Jason Watkins, Ben Chaplin, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Vansittart, Rosie Cavaliero, Anthony Calf, Nicholas Jones, Andrew Havill, Angela Holmes, Micah Balfour, Chris Wilson, Anjana Vasan, Paul Jesson, Eileen Walsh, Hilel Patel, Daniel Eghan, Michele Austin, Paul Bigley, Deborah Rock. Directed by Richard Eyre

 

.The things that make a judge a wise and diligent arbiter are the same things that destroy a marriage. The cost of making the right call weighs heavily on the bench.

That’s the message in this 2017 adaptation of a 2014 Ian McEwan novel. Oscar winner Emma Thompson stars as Fiona Maye, a justice in the High Court presiding over cases involving children. Fresh off of giving a hospital the right to separate conjoined twins that will result in the death of one of them, she is given the task of a boy just shy of his 18th birthday who is refusing a blood transfusion that would save his life. He was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness who believes that the blood is where the soul resides and that the mixing of blood is blasphemy. Even though refusing the treatment would kill him, the boy – Adam (Whitehead) – holds that his religious beliefs are more important.

At the same time, her academic husband Jack (Tucci) has become fed up with the lack of intimacy in their marriage and, frankly, the lack of presence by his wife. He wants to have an affair, even though he professes to still love his wife. Fiona is having none of it. Jack leaves.

Fiona throws herself into the case as a way of keeping the demons at bay. She elects to take the highly unusual step of meeting with Adam in his hospital bed and finds him to be charming and articulate. The two even end up singing a duet together of a folk song based on a Yeats poem. But Fiona has a difficult decision to make; does the boy’s religious beliefs supersede medical facts? The children’s act, which places the welfare of the child as the paramount factor in any judicial decision in England, holds the key.

Thompson has long been one of my favorite actresses and even though this is one of the least approachable characters she has ever played, Thompson still imbues Fiona with humanity and intelligence. Her relationship with her husband is less symptomatic of her personality than her relationship with her clerk Nigel (Watkins). His obsequious nature is at odds with her blunt personality, and yet his devotion to her is absolute.

At the center of the film is the relationship between Fiona and Adam and that’s where the movie slips a little. Whitehead makes Adam almost too good to be true; it is only after Adam begins to feel more strongly towards the judge that Fiona begins to shy away which leads to an ending that is frankly a little maudlin which is definitely at odds with the rest of the film. Eyre and screenwriter McEwan (who adapted his own novel) have the courage to take on some thorny issues and handle them with equal attention to both sides of the coin. That’s a rarity in films today.

Even though the movie slips into preposterous mode near the end, it is still a smart, well-written drama that utilizes the talents of its star rather nicely. You don’t have to be familiar with the intricacies of British law in order to enjoy this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Emma Thompson is a force of nature here. Tackles some real thorny issues equitably.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam near the end. The Adam-Fiona relationship seemed a bit forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a single sexual reference and some adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitehead starred with Thompson’s ex-husband Kenneth Branagh in Dunkirk.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, GuideDoc, Hoopla, Kanopy, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews, Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Most John Grisham adaptations.
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

Colette


A woman in a man’s world determined to succeed on her own terms.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Robert Pugh, Sloan Thompson, Arabella Weir, Máté Haumann, Ray Panthaki, Al Weaver, Virág Bárány, Dickie Beau, Kylie Watt, Janine Harouni, Jake Graf, Joe Geary, Rebecca Root, Julian Wadham, Eleanor Tomlinson, Polina Litvak, István Gyurity, Karen Gagnon, Alexandra Szucs. Directed by Wash Westmoreland

 

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who went by her last name as a pen name (Knightley), was one of the most successful women in the history of French literature. She emerged from La Belle Epoque as a virtual rock star, and her stubborn refusal to live on any other terms but her own remain an inspiration to women – and men – even today.

Colette, a simple girl from the Burgundy countryside, ends up marrying Parisian roustabout Henry Gauthier-Villars (West) who is better known to Parisian society as Willy. He is known for biting and acerbic theater reviews, essays and short stories but the problem is that he hasn’t written a word of any of that. He has an army of writers who supply hi with the material which he passes off as his own.

The most talented of these is his wife and her Claudine novels take Paris by storm. Relegated to a background role by her egotistical husband, at first she is content to write her novels but as Willy’s gambling debts and lavish lifestyle take a toll on their finances, he begins to resort to outrageous measures to force his wife to meet publishing deadlines, such as locking her in a room. His serial infidelity also begins to upset her; she responds by doing the same thing he does – sleep with other women. She also prefers to dress like a man, which was illegal in France at the time and was quite the scandal.

Eventually she manages to win her independence from Willy but it isn’t easy and it isn’t without pain. The real Colette was an admirable woman and this screen version can only scratch the surface of who she was, Knightley’s fine performance to the contrary. Her chemistry with West palpably sizzles, and the two make one of the best dysfunctional couples you’re likely to see on the screen for some time.

Westmoreland has a keen eye and fills the screen with sumptuous scenes of lush countrysides, lavish salons and decadent theaters. There is a lot of sex in the movie – ah, those lusty French! – which to be honest begin to get in the way of the story. It’s a bit on the long side and some of the decadence could surely have been cut out; we get the picture, after all.

This is a pretty decent biography, but it doesn’t do her justice at the end of the day. There are some fine biographies of her extant and you would do better to pick up one of those. It’s not really Westmoreland’s fault; a movie can only do so much justice to a life in just under two hours. Still, it is dazzling to look at and not just because of Knightley’s lustrous beauty.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot, both exteriors and interiors.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really do justice to the subject.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film to be directed solely by Westmoreland, who until then had always co-directed with his partner Richard Glatzer, who died of Charcot’s disease in 2015.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coco Before Chanel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
A Star is Born (2018)

A Simple Favor


Cocktails and besties, the perfect combination.

(2018) Suspense (Lionsgate) Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Eric Johnson, Jean Smart, Sarah Baker, Gia Sandhu, Kelly McCormack, Glenda Braganza, Linda Cardellini, Andrew Rannells, Rupert Friend, Joshua Satine, Ian Ho, Glenda Braganza, Danielle Bourgon, Andrew Moodie, Bashir Salahuddin, Aparna Nancheria, Gia Sandhu, Katherine Cullen. Directed by Paul Feig

Da Queen will tell you that I love a good whodunit. Da Queen will also tell you I despise a lazy one. A Simple Favor falls somewhere in between; I don’t love it but I don’t hate it either.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is a suburban supermom who has a mommy vlog full of life hacks for moms and so on. Her son (Satine) is a school chum of the son (Ho) of Emily (Lively), a high-powered public relations VP for a high-powered New York fashion firm led by the aptly named Dennis Nylon (Friend) who never met a wardrobe he couldn’t insult, especially if it didn’t involve his own clothing line.

Stephanie and Emily bond over martinis and quickly become besties, sharing their deep dirty secrets – Emily’s marriage to struggling writer Sean (Golding) is crumbling. Emily’s job is demanding more and more of her time and Stephanie is only too happy to pick up both boys from school, but then one night, Emily doesn’t come to pick up her boy – nor does she show up the next day. Stephanie fears the worst.

But Stephanie is a bit of an amateur sleuth and when the police don’t seem to have any leads on the whereabouts of Emily, Stephanie takes over looking for the lost item as any proper mom would. And what she finds…isn’t what she expects.

Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids, isn’t afraid to inject some humor – okay, a lot of humor – into the neo-noir thriller. Sometimes, the movie seems almost schizophrenic at times. The tone varies from light to dark and sometimes in between. The chemistry between Lively and Kendrick absolutely works; they both look like polar opposites but it isn’t hard to see what draws the two characters together. The humor works well, but surprisingly it’s the thriller portion that’s less successful; the denouement isn’t hard to figure out in advance and the movie definitely loses narrative steam during the last third. Still, the things that work in A Simple Favor work very well; the things that don’t can be overlooked.

REASONS TO SEE: Kendrick and Lively have excellent chemistry.
REASONS TO AVOID: More or less mindless entertainment, appearances to the contrary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexual content and some graphic nudity, drug use, violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the character of Emily is a heavy drinker, Blake Lively (who plays her) has been a teetotaler all her life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Vudu. YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone Girl
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Searching

Firstborn (Pirmdzimtais)


Even in Latvia, a stroll in the dark could end up costing you dearly.

(2017) Thriller (ArtsploitationKaspars Znotins, Maija Dovelka, Dainis Grube, Kaspars Zale. Directed by Aik Karapetian

What does it mean to be a man? In this era of #MeToo and renewed focus on rape culture and patriarchy, the book is being rewritten on the subject. Once upon a time, men were required to be providers and protectors, to rid the house of any creepy crawly spotted by the wife and to repair anything that requires it in the house. These days, on top of all of that, they are also required to not know where anything is in the house, to never ever ask for directions no matter what the cost and be able to anticipate whatever mood our mate is happening to experience at that particular moment.

All kidding aside, the nature of masculinity is changing and while that is on the surface a very good thing, what does that do to expectations? Francis (Znotins) is not, by any measure, a very masculine man. An architect, he is the very definition of a man who wouldn’t hurt a fly – possibly because he’s terrified the fly might turn around and beat the crap out of him.

As introverted as Francis is, his wife Katrina (Dovelka) is the polar opposite. Pretty much feminine by every standard, she is outgoing – the life of the party – and a beauty in any beholder’s eyes whereas Francis is a skinny and slight man who has a face that can only be described as ordinary. It is hard to figure out what she sees in him and by appearances she’s beginning to wonder too.

The two have been trying to get pregnant for some time without success. They go to a small party with friends who have a pretty amazing kid and Katrina is beginning to feel like her opportunity to have one of her own is rapidly passing her by. She has a little too much to drink and as the couple walk home, a passing motorcyclist (Zale) reaches out and tries to grab her purse unsuccessfully. She yells at him, prompting him to come back. He assaults both Francis (taking him out with a single punch) and Katrina, violating her with a tire iron. Humiliated and traumatized, she gives her assailant the purse.

Her relationship with Francis goes from barely cordial to much worse. It is clear she feels like he didn’t protect her when he was required to and to be honest, he doesn’t disagree. When he sees her getting chummy with the police detective assigned to the case (who happens to be an old flame of Katrina’s) he decides to find the mugger himself, and force him to return the bag and apologize to his girl. You can imagine that this is going to go all sorts of bad and it does but not in the way you’d think.

There is really not a lot of subtlety here; Karapetian makes no bones about what his interest is here. Francis undergoes something of a transformation from a meek, mousy sort to one full of toxic masculinity who begins to take out his insecurities on Katrina, even after he finds out she’s finally pregnant. There follow a lot of twists and turns, some of which any regular viewer of thrillers will be able to suss out in advance.

Karapetian is actually quite brilliant behind the camera particularly in terms of his shot composition and his framing. Whether filming in dimly lit apartments (one has to wonder if Francis and Katrina are paying their electric bill) or in remote snowy landscapes, the look of the film is distinctive. It doesn’t hurt that both Dovelka and Znotins deliver strong, believable performances. During the initial encounter with the motorcycle-riding thug, the danger is palpable and the scene is terrifying in a realistic way that directors of Hollywood thrillers often get wrong. This one feels like it could have happened exactly as depicted.

The film does take its time in getting to its denouement and maybe some American viewers will find this a bit too long for their tastes. There are some scenes in the middle the movie didn’t need to be honest. Still, as thrillers go this one is top notch and it is likely to get thinking audiences doing just that; it certainly will make for some interesting discussion. I’m not sure I agree with Karapetian’s point of view completely but I give him props for having one.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot and framed.
REASONS TO AVOID: Runs a little too long and moves a little too slow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (some of it brutal), sexual situations, profanity, nudity and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Karapetian was born in Armenia but raised in Latvia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Straw Dogs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Captain Black

Destination Dewsbury


Would you pick these men up from the side of the road?

(2018) Comedy (Random) Matt Sheahan, David J. Keogh, Dan Shelton, Tom Gilling, Helen Rose-Hampton, Michael Kinsey, Kevin Dewsbury, Maurice Byrne, Denis Khoroshko, David McClelland, Leslie Davidoff, Michael Fawbert, Margot Richardson, Filip Mayer, Velton Lishke, Sharon Heywood, Sharon Spink, Val Punt, Lauren Woods, Graham Daw, Jane Hollington, Anna Dawson. Directed by Jack Spring

 

Some of my readers in their teens and twenties (assuming I have any) are going to have a hard time relating to this but the friends you are inseparable with in your youth tend to drift away as you get older. Very rare is the case where someone other than family is involved on a regular basis in your life from the time you’re in school to the time you’re middle aged. Still, the fact is that we bring our younger selves with us wherever we go and we tend to revert to them when in the company of friends from our youth. This is particularly true with men.

Peter (Sheahan) has watched his life collapse around him in a matter of a few days. His wife has essentially thrown him out, claiming he’s simply not man enough for her – and she has a point on that score. Peter, who is also our semi-reliable narrator, has a spine with the consistency of Jell-O. He is teaching school where he and his mates once attended and he is something of a joke.

That is, until Richard (Byrne) arrives in his classroom to tell him that his son is dying. Richard’s son Frankie (Kinsey) was something of a ringleader for the boys, by far the coolest of the lot and a good friend to them. Peter is shocked – he just spoke to Frankie a couple of months earlier until Richard gently reminds him that it was actually two years ago. In any case, Frankie won’t likely last the week and he wants to see his old friends again one final time.

Therefore, it is on Peter to get the band back together. He knows essentially where he can find them; Gaz (Shelton) has a young family with a daughter who is suspiciously dark-skinned (he and his wife are both white as a December snowbank) while Adam (Keogh) is a banker who is deep in debt to the Russian mob and has been rescued from suicide by Peter’s appearance. Adam is something of a human teakettle – always blowing up at any provocation real or imagined and who can’t complete a sentence without at least one F-bomb in it. He’s an aneurysm waiting to happen. Finally, there’s Smithy (Gilling), a portly man living with his mum who is reduced to speed dating but can’t escape his own awkward nature around women.

The crew decide to head up to Dewsbury, a town up north where Frankie has moved to. This being a comedy, you can bet that things won’t go anywhere near as planned – not even in the same country really, although British critics in their droll manor say that “mishaps ensue.” Those mishaps will include a dropped cell phone in a toilet overflowing with…well, you can fill in the blanks there. Also, a night at a swinger-oriented hotel which sends Peter screaming like a girl into the night. There are also Russian mobsters hunting down Adam with an eye for some spectacular violence, and a bus miscue that sends them careening off-course from the get-go. There is also a veritable cornucopia of bodily fluids and solids that are likely to send the four-year-old in you into helplessness. All that is missing is a sequence of fart jokes.

That kind of humor may not be your cup of tea unless you live with a bunch of toddlers, or essentially have no shame whatsoever. That isn’t the whole of the sort of humor you’ll find here but if you’re looking for wicked Oscar Wilde-type wit, you’re on the wrong bus. This is Benny Hill with an R rating and a penchant for toilet humor.

Initially I really found this unpalatable as the four friends are mainly stereotypes with little development and the humor is a little too low-brow for my taste but a funny thing happened on the way to a scathing review – the film got better. During the last half hour when the boys/men actually arrive in Dewsbury the movie abruptly shifts gears and we begin to see the people inside the stereotypes, particularly in the case of Adam who is devastated by his friend’s terminal condition. All the men seem to grow in some sort of way with the odd exception of Peter – the erstwhile protagonist and narrator – who seems the same essential sad sack he was when the opening credits unspooled. Still, the director and writers manage to explore the nature of male bonding as we age which is a worthy subject indeed.

There are a couple of fight scenes involving the mobsters that take place in dimly lit environments which makes it hard to figure out what’s going on, but other than that the movie is well-shot and makes good use of the locations in suburban England. The film ends on a sentimental albeit bizarre note but nevertheless it’s a good reminder that a good journey is all about reaching your destination – but it is made all the better in the company of friends.

REASONS TO SEE: Improves dramatically during the last third.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much toilet humor and the fight scenes are badly lit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, violence and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spring was only 21 when he directed this, his first feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon,  Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wild Rose

DriverX


After midnight, he’s gonna let it all hang out.

(2018) Drama (Sundance Selects) Patrick Fabian, Tanya Clarke, Desmin Borges, Travis Schuldt, Melissa Fumero, Oscar Nuñez, Nina Senicar, Iqbal Thebal, Max Gail, Josh Fingerhut, Jennifer Cadena, Camille Cregan, Kyra Pringle, Blake Robbins, Alison Trumbull, Tiffany Panhilason, Caitlin Kimball, Anne Moore, Heather Ankeny, Kristina Jimenez. Directed by Henry Barrial

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the workplace is changing. At one time, a single family member – usually the male – was able to support his family from working a job that he would likely stay at for most of his life. People were loyal to their employers and quite frankly, their employers were loyal to them.

Inflation changed all that and soon women were forced to enter the job market rather than their traditional role of staying home and taking care of the house and children. Both parents were working often long hours, giving them less time with the kids and less time for themselves. People were less loyal to their employers as they moved readily to better paying jobs elsewhere when the opportunity arose.

Employers were also less loyal to their employees, ending pensions in favor of 401k plans and slowly but surely cutting down on health care benefits, going for less expensive plans as the price of health insurance skyrocketed. To make matters worse, the availability of jobs that pay decently have dropped in favor of contract work, job sharing and gig employment, forcing a lot of people to work two or more jobs in order to make ends meet. The fact of the matter is that people are a commodity that have become less valuable over time.

Leonard Moore (Fabian) is a victim of a changing economy. He once was the owner of a thriving record store – back in the day when records came on vinyl – and stayed with it until the bitter end when even compact discs were rendered obsolete. Unemployed, he’s a stay-at-home dad whose wife Dawn (Clarke) is the breadwinner but who is getting stressed as the home insurance bill is coming due and they simply don’t have the funds to cover it. As most homeowners know, if you can’t get homeowner’s insurance, your mortgage company will foreclose. People can and have lost their homes because of a high insurance bill.

When his extensive vinyl collection proves not to be the financial windfall he was hoping for and an interview with a social media firm ends up fruitless, he does what a lot of people do – he takes up using the family Prius as a taxicab for a (fictional) ridesharing service called DriverX. Leonard stays home with the kids while his wife’s at work and when she gets back home, heads out into the streets of L.A., generally well into the night only to return home after his wife has fallen asleep.

He meets all sorts; drunken millennials riding from party to party and often ralphing in his car or on it which he dutifully cleans up; rude folks who belittle the driver or talk as if he isn’t even in the car and women who come on to him with a thought of a late night cable TV-like experience in the back of his car.

The service is so stingy that riders are unable to tip him, leaving him to rely on good ratings to get customers. Customers complain there’s no complimentary bottled water or charging cords for their phones. Although he is a friendly enough person, that doesn’t seem to factor in to how others relate to him. The middle-aged Leonard also finds it hard to relate to his Millennial customers, most of them more tech-savvy than he and few of them understand him either, seeing him as a relic with an encyclopedic knowledge of bands not relevant to themselves.

Writer-director Barrial based the film on his own experiences as an Uber driver and there is a feeling of genuineness that comes out of it. While there may be a few too many drunken Millennial scenes to do the movie any good – one gets the sense that Barrial isn’t too enamored of that oft-criticized generation – there is a lot of genuine insight into the older generations ability to adapt to a changing world. While the younger passengers are adept with their smart phones and seem to know what to expect from their tech, older passengers seem to struggle and often need instruction from Leonard to get to where they’re going.

Fabian, best known for his work on Better Call Saul, is an engaging presence. It’s a rare opportunity for this veteran character actor to get a lead role and he handles it nicely. The chemistry between Clarke and Fabian is a little weak but then again, their characters are having some fairly serious marital issues so it makes sense that the bond between them feels wonky. Clarke has the unenviable job of playing a bit of a bitch – she rarely gets any sympathetic moments. Few women in the film do, coming off as drunken hoes or cast-iron bee-yatches. A couple of sympathetic female characters would have been nice.

There are some nice cinematic moments as Leonard cruises the post-midnight streets of the City of Angels, his face aglow in the neon “X” that he displays to let all and sundry know he’s a DriverX drone. Although this is essentially a serious drama, there are some light hearted moments as well, as when Leonard gets into a fender bender and tries to resolve the insurance in paying for the damage; the office of DriverX has seemingly no human presence and when he finally speaks to a human being, she is as robotic as the machines that glide about the quiet, dark office of the app giant. I suppose that makes as proper a metaphor for modern society as any.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting points are made about the gig economy, the generation gap and the role of technology in the workplace. Fabian has an engaging screen presence.
REASONS TO STAY: There is more vomiting here than any film needs. There are not many sympathetic female characters here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actresses who play Leonard’s daughters are sisters in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taxicab Confessions
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer