Ema


Meet Ema.

(2019) Drama (Music BoxMariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Santiago Cabrera, Josefina Fiebelkorn, Giannina Fruttero, Paola Giannini, Antonia Giesen, Susana Hidalgo, Paula Hofmann, Mariana Loyola, Paula Luchsinger, Eduardo Paxeco, Cristián Suárez, Catalina Saaedra. Directed by Pablo Larrain

In this post-#MeToo world, I think it’s safe to say that the concept of femininity is changing. We are seeing less and less of the traditional female attributes of acceptance and submission, as a society that has largely been misogynistic has forced women to stand for themselves and become more aggressive.

Ema (Di Girolamo) is the perfect example of that. A reggaeton dancer in the Chilean port city of Valparaiso, she is enigmatic, her on-again, off-again relationship with her husband Gaston (Bernal) who is also her dance group’s choreographer almost defiantly off-again at the moment. They are the parents of an adopted pre-teen boy named Polo (Suárez) who after a disastrous time in their home has been returned to the adoption agency, after he set a fire in their home that badly burned her sister’s face. The dead cat in the freezer is also attributed to Polo.

Her adopted son’s penchant for burning things might come from Ema, who prowls the streets of Valparaiso at night with a gang of girls from her troupe, setting cars, traffic signals and other things on fire. Ema sees herself as above conventional morality – assuming she recognizes any sort of morality at all – and has hatched onto a plan to get her son back, even after she herself had decided to return him. The plan, half-baked as it is, includes getting to know Polo’s new adoptive parents and seducing the both of them. Ema uses her body as a means of getting what she wants. I guess that passes for empowerment.

Larrain, one of Chile’s premiere directors with such movies as Neruda, No and Jackie under his belt, goes the experimental avant garde route here and your enjoyment of this will depend very much on your tolerance of such things. There really isn’t a story as such here; this is more of a character study through a series of incidents.

Part of the issue lies with Ema herself, and herein lies my dilemma as a reviewer. Di Girolamo delivers an outstanding performance, ice-blue, red-hot and alternately vulnerable and distant. She can be vicious, generally lacking any sort of impulse control, and has that arrogant artist thing down pat. We are riveted by her, enthralled by her abject freedom but then repelled by her utter disregard for nearly everybody else. If Polo is, as he is made out to be, a psychopath, Ema is absolutely self-absorbed to the point of psychosis. I’m not sure if that’s meant to be a commentary on the current generation or not.

Bernal, one of Latin America’s most gifted actors, is largely wasted here, given little to do other than react to whatever is going on with Ema, but after all, the name of the film is NOT Gaston. He does the best he can, as does Cabrera as Polo’s new adoptive father.

The visuals are striking, as are the dance sequences which look competitive to what you would find in New York. Those who are more into the visual side of film than anything else will enjoy this. Those who are looking for a story…not so much. This is a movie to be admired, but not loved.

REASONS TO SEE: Ema is a complicated character. Stylized and at times visually stunning.
REASONS TO AVOID: I admire the movie more than I like it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made it’s debut at the 2019 Venice Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Her Smell
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Sleepwalkers

Exit 0


Is it paranoia when everyone is out to get you?

(2019) Suspense (Breaking GlassGabe Fazio, Augie Duke, Federico Castelluccio, Peter Greene, Kenneth McGregor, Daniel O’Shea, Ariel Eliaz, Boomer Tibbs, Ashley Jordan, Tara Rose Schreiber, Lindsey Axelsson, Kevin Ebner, Cash Kortum, Terry O’Brien, George Lind, Yara Mulder, Mary Anuzzi Voigt. Directed by E.B. Hughes

 

There is a fine line between madness and sanity. We all push the envelope of that line from time to time, whether it is obsession with a sports team, or the puzzling madness of doing the same thing time after time and expecting a different outcome. We all have some soft of insanity in our DNA.

Billy (Fazio) and his girlfriend of nearly a year Lisa (Duke) are heading up to the seaside town where Billy grew up for a weekend romantic getaway. We see that there are already cracks in the relationship; Lisa spends an inordinate time on our cellphone, Billy is paranoid as to who she’s texting. At a rest stop, Billy notices that there is a mysterious black car following them, but doesn’t think anything particularly sinister about it.

Once at the hotel, things really start to get creepy. While Lisa is taking a bath, Billy unpacks only to find a mysterious videotape. Being curious, he plays it and to his horror watches a young couple being stalked by a pair of men who rape and the wife and then murder the couple in the very hotel room in which he’s staying. Not wanting to freak out his girlfriend, Billy keeps the disturbing information to himself.

He does call the police, but when skeptical Det. Muller (Castelluccio) shows up the tape mysteriously disappears. Billy decides to spend the day doing touristy things with Lisa. While on a tour of the local lighthouse, tour guide Charlie (O’Shea) informs the couple that the inn in which they are staying is well-known as being haunted.

Then the videotape shows back up again, but this time it is blank. Muller begins to suspect that Billy has some mental issues and talks to Lisa about it. Meanwhile, Billy grows more and more paranoid. Are he and Lisa being stalked by the same people who murdered the couple? Is there a malevolent ghostly presence in the Inn? Or is Billy losing his mind?

There are a fair number of suspense movies that utilize the “is-it-or-is-it-not-paranormal” card, and for that kind of film, Exit 0 tends to follow the formula pretty dang closely. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it tends to rob the movie of any major surprises. We are then left to rely on the actors ability to inject some personality into the movie to make it unique and while the actors do try their best, at the end of the day they don’t quite pull it off.

I’m not sure where they filmed this but Hughes and company do a good job of creating a creepy environment. Still, it isn’t quite enough to overcome the somewhat tired script. It does come close, though.

REASONS TO SEE: The old hotel is suitably creepy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much on the formulaic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some sexuality, some violence and a scene of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film for Zonana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Strangers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
M.O.M. (Mothers of Monsters)

Juliet, Naked


Love triangles are inherently awkwward.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Roadside Attractions) Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd, Jimmy O. Yang, Megan Dodds, Lily Newmark, Azhy Robertson, Ayoola Smart, Lily Brazier, Johanna Thea, Georgina Bevan, Paul Blackwell, Janine Catterwall, Michael Chapman, Ko Iwagami, Karol Steele, Steve Barnett, Lee Byford, Florence Keith-Roach. Directed by Jesse Peretz

 

Sometimes to make a relationship work, we go along to get along. That’s all well and good but it can leave us in a rut that is anything but comfortable but we accept that it’s the way that things are and we just accept our situation. What do we do then when that which put us in that rut in the first place kicks us out violently?

Annie (Byrne) is in one of those ruts. She is certainly a go along to get along kind of gal; she curates a local museum in an English seaside town because her father left it to her to do. She lives with her boyfriend Duncan (O’Dowd) essentially because she’s used to him; they’ve been together for eight years in a kind of stagnant inertia-free relationship. He works as a professor of Film and TV studies at a local college when he’s not taking Annie for granted or ignoring her needs.

In fact it can be said that he has more passion for a forgotten indie rock musician named Tucker Crowe (Hawke) than he does for Annie. Crowe was a singer-songwriter of enormous potential having released a well-regarded album called Juliet chock full of loved-and-lost songs that bespoke a soul that had something to say when he exited a tour mid-set and dropped out of sight. The blog that Duncan runs endlessly discusses with other Crowe fans the minutiae of the few songs released to the public and reviews bootleg tapes of live Crowe performances from back in the day. There are some who believe that Crowe is in fact dead and gone

It turns out he’s alive and well. A demo tape of Crowe’s original album titled Juliet, Naked makes its way to Duncan but is intercepted by Annie who gives it a listen. She sees it as a naked cash grab by someone trying to live off of past glory and posts it in response to Duncan’s worshipful review of the piece. As it turns out the real Tucker Crowe reads the review and Annie’s stark response and he appreciates the honesty. It turns out he is coming to England to visit an estranged daughter, one of several progeny from a variety of post-rock star lovers, most of whom he hasn’t had much contact with. The only child of his that he spends any time with is Jackson (Robertson), possibly because Jackson’s mom (who has a new beau) allows Tucker to live rent-free in her garage.

It turns out that Crowe has struck up an e-mail correspondence with Annie and the two are developing a relationship. It also turns out that Duncan has messed up big time and Annie has asked him to leave. And it turns out that Duncan has difficulty believing that the other man in Annie’s life is the object of his obsession.

If you guessed that this sounds like something Nick Hornby would write, give yourself a pat on the back – it’s based on a novel by the prolific English writer. If the plot doesn’t give it away, then the terrific soundtrack that includes songs by Red House Painters and Hawke himself covering the Kinks criminally overlooked “Waterloo Sunset” should seal the deal.

Hawke has been on something of a roll for the past five years, turning in one outstanding performance after another. In fact, ever since Boyhood I can’t think of any movie he’s been in that he hasn’t been outstanding in. He is a fair enough singer as well, performing original songs written by luminaries like Connor Oberst for the soundtrack.

Byrne isn’t really well-suited to play dowdy but she does a credible job of it. However, the real revelation (sort of) is O’Dowd who essentially steals the movie. His hangdog look and oblivious demeanor is perfect for Duncan. O’Dowd strikes the right notes as the comic relief and has moments of actual pathos during the course of the movie which he proves quite adept at. Duncan isn’t the most likable of characters but O’Dowd imbues him with enough charm that we don’t end up loathing him, although we end up cringing at his actions.

The movie can be a bit talky in places and there are rom-com clichés in abundance. However, the movie finds humor in the ordinary (despite the extraordinary premise) and those moments really are the best ones in the film. It seems to me that rom-coms are making a bit of a comeback after a few off years following a period when we were inundated by cookie cutter romantic comedies that led to a bit of a pushback by the moviegoing public who demanded (and got) better romantic comedies. This isn’t a game changer by any standard but it is a solid and entertaining entry into the genre which in 2018 isn’t a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO GO: O’Dowd steals the show. The soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few rom-com clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Byrne was six months pregnant during shooting. Her condition was covered up using shots medium shots and close-ups and strategically placed props.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Song to Song
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Blood Fest

The Lost City of Z


Charlie Hunnam suffers some slings and arrows.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street/Amazon) Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Edward Ashley, Angus Macfadyen, Clive Francis, Pedro Coello, Matthew Sunderland, Johann Myers, Aleksandar Jovanovic, Elena Solovey, Bobby Smalldridge, Tom Mulheron, Daniel Huttlestone, Nathaniel Bates Fisher, Franco Nero, Louise Parker. Directed by James Gray

 

As a species we have an urge to make known the unknown, to travel to uncharted places and make them charted. We also have a yen to leave a legacy, something that cannot be taken away from us no matter what life brings us afterwards.

Percy Fawcett (Hunnam) was such a man. A British army officer at the turn of the 20th century, he chafed in a career that was stalled due not to his own devices but because of his father’s indiscretions. Finding himself at a crossroads, he accepts a commission from the Royal Geographic Society to chart the area near the Bolivia and Brazil border to mediate a dispute between the two countries but not for nothing also to keep the flow of rubber to British industry.

Taking with him his assistant Henry Costin (Pattinson) he discovers a mysterious and alluring wilderness of rich culture and danger. The natives aren’t exactly pleased to see him and they show their displeasure with blow darts and arrows, forcing the intrepid crew into piranha-infested waters. More importantly for Percy’s future, he discovers some artifacts – pottery shards and such – of a civilization rumored to have been extremely advanced and from which the modern natives were descended. They inhabited a vast city which Fawcett referred to as Z (pronounced Zed by the English) and when he returned home he spoke about it. The results were not scientific curiosity but outright disbelief and ridicule. The British intelligentsia couldn’t believe the “savages” capable of any sort of advanced civilization.

Fawcett wants to return and find his lost city but World War I intervenes. When he finally goes a second time, he brings along James Murray (Macfadyen), a veteran of Arctic expeditions whose reputation allows the financing to fall in place but Murray is woefully unprepared for tropical conditions leading to a frustrating end of the expedition. Furious at the RGS for taking Murray’s side, Fawcett quits in disgust and raises the capital himself to mount a third expedition, this time taking his grown son Jack (Holland) with him. The results of that expedition would evolve Percy from laughingstock to legend.

Gray is a director with the kind of visual sense that characterize directors like Zhang Yimou and Werner Herzog. The movie is beautiful, mysterious, and breathtaking. When the first expedition is under attack, Gray shoots it in a way that the audience can feel the arrows whizzing by and the panic setting in as the positions of their attackers are hidden by the dense forest. This may be the most beautiful movie from a cinematography standpoint that you’ll see this year or maybe any other; cinematographer Darius Khondji should be given all the praise in the world for his efforts.

The script is lyrically written and the characters are all fleshed out nicely, giving the actors a great deal to work with. Sienna Miller, as Fawcett’s ahead-of-her-time wife with feminist leanings does an amazing job; you can see her inner spark slowly dimming over the course of the movie as she realizes that her husband, who had encouraged her independence, didn’t fully mean it and that she had in many ways wasted  much of her time on a man who was never there, although to her credit the real Nina Fawcett never gave up hope for her husband and son even when the rest of the world did.

The one tragic flaw of the movie is Hunnam. On paper he seems an ideal choice for the role; dashing, handsome and patrician. He never really creates a sense of Fawcett’s obsession; he thunders like a bull elephant from time to time but he doesn’t really pack the screen presence needed to really make the part memorable. It is interesting to note that Brad Pitt was at one time attached to the role but couldn’t make it work in his schedule; I think Pitt might have realized another Oscar nomination (and maybe a win) had he gotten the part. Hunnam is merely adequate which is a shame. It also should be said that Pattinson, nearly unrecognizable in a full beard and an actor I’ve never really connected with, delivers a superb performance here.

The fate of Percy Fawcett has been the subject of much speculation over the decades and the book this is based on presents one theory which is hinted at (but not shown in too much detail) onscreen. It is also worth noting that in recent years evidence has been discovered, not far from where Fawcett was last seen, of a vast network of roads and settlements that might just be Fawcett’s Lost City of Z. I am sure that wherever Fawcett is, he is smiling. I think he is likely smiling about this motion picture about his life as well. It is a very strong movie that is worth seeking out on the big screen, where it most deserves to be seen. This is a real-life adventure worthy of Indiana Jones.

REASONS TO GO: One of the most beautifully photographed films you’ll ever see. The subject matter is fascinating. The era is nicely captured.
REASONS TO STAY: Hunnam is a bit too low-key in the lead role. The movie is a tiny bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, a bit of violence (some of it involving war violence), brief profanity and some native nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Holland had to wear a fake mustache for the movie as he was unable to grow one of his own.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fitzcarraldo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 2017 Florida Film Festival coverage commences!

Nocturnal Animals


It isn't always ghosts that haunt us.

It isn’t always ghosts that haunt us.

(2016) Thriller (Focus) Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, India Menuez, Imogen Waterhouse, Franco Vega, Zawe Ashton, Evie Pree, Beth Ditto, Graham Beckel, Neil Jackson, Jena Malone. Directed by Tom Ford

 

Regret follows us through life like the shadow of a hawk paces a wounded groundhog. The road not taken sometimes is the road we should have taken – but once we make that turn, that off-ramp is gone for good.

Susan Morrow (Adams) is the curator of an art gallery who has just opened a new installation, involving overweight, middle-aged naked women dancing suggestively in pom-pom and drum majorette outfits. It has brought out all of the shallow, self-involved, condescending L.A. art whores. In other words, it’s a great big success.

Not so successful is her current marriage to Hutton Morrow (Hammer), a venture capitalist whose venture has overwhelmed his capital. The failing business has put an intense strain on the marriage, for which hubby compensates for by fooling around. Men!

Out of the blue, Susan gets a manuscript from her first husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal) whom she had surmised was teaching college and had given up on the writing career that had attracted her to him in the first place. Their break-up was about as brutal as the end of a relationship can get. Now he has written a novel and dedicated to her, claiming in a note that she inspired him to write this – even though their marriage ended nearly twenty years earlier and they hadn’t spoken since.

As she reads the manuscript, she is oddly affected by it. It is a brutal story of a somewhat mousy man named Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) driving down a dark deserted Texas road with his wife Laura (Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) when a quartet of Texas rednecks run them off the road. They finagle the wife and daughter into his car after repairing the flat tire on it and drive off with her; Lou (Glusman) drives Tony off into the desert and leaves him there. Later on Lou returns with the gang’s leader Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson) who try to entice Tony back but he hides in terror. They drive away.

Tony makes it back to civilization and calls the cops. The laconic Texas Ranger-type detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) takes over the case. Eventually they find the nude corpses of his wife and daughter, dumped near where they had dropped off Tony. Andes promises that they will get the guys who did this.

As the years go on, the dogged Andes eventually figures out who done it but Andes has a bit of a time sensitivity going on – he is dying of cancer. It is unlikely that based on the fairly flimsy evidence that they have that Ray Marcus and his gang will ever be brought to justice. That leaves revenge, but does the weak Tony have the stomach for it?

There are three distinct stories here – the novel, which takes up most of the movie and is a kind of Texas noir; Susan’s current story in which her life is filled with disappointment, regret and sadness, and the back story of Edward and Susan – how they met and how they broke up. All three tales are put together into a cohesive whole and show that Ford, who is better known as a fashion icon, is also a marvelous storyteller.

This is not an easy role for Amy Adams, who is so lacquered up with make-up that she almost looks like art herself. It isn’t one of the most emotionally forthcoming performances of her career, which makes it all the more impressive; she does an awful lot with an awful little here. Gyllenhaal continues to make a case for himself as being one of the most distinguished actors of our time. There is a great deal of nuance in his performance; his character is perceived as weak but he isn’t in the traditional sense. There is a strength that comes through particularly later in the film.

There are also some stellar supporting performances. Shannon as the crusty detective is all tumbleweeds and BBQ brisket as the Southwestern law man, while Laura Linney is virtually unrecognizable as Susan’s patrician snob of a mom. Both of them dominate the screen when they are on, Linney unfortunately for merely a single scene.

The ending is deliberately vague and will leave you with a WTF expression on your face. My wife and I had decidedly different reactions; she loved it and thought it perfectly suited the movie. I felt that it was inconsistent with how the character behaved and felt petty and vindictive. I also had problems with the opening credits that played lovingly on the nude women; it felt exploitative to me.

Ford, who made his Oscar-winning debut with A Single Man may need to dust off his tux again come February but this is less of a slam dunk than his first film. I think that there is a possibility that there will be some Oscar consideration here, but there is some heavy competition coming its way despite this having been a fairly down year for Oscar-quality films. How the Academy reacts remains to be seen, but this is definitely a must-see for those who want to make sure they get an opportunity to see every film that is likely to get a nomination.

REASONS TO GO: Ford deftly weaves three different stories together. The film boasts fine performances from top to bottom.
REASONS TO STAY: The opening scene and ending are absolute deal-killers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, graphic nudity, a pair of offscreen rape-murders, menace and salty language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Focus paid $20 million for the distribution rights for the film at Cannes, the highest ever paid for any film at any festival to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Words
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Stagecoach: The Story of Texas Jack

The People Garden


Pamela Anderson perfects the pensive look.

Pamela Anderson perfects the pensive look.

(2016) Drama (FilmBuff) Dree Hemingway, Pamela Anderson, Franҫois Arnaud, James Le Gros, Jai Tatsuto West, Liane Balaban, Denis Akiyama, Geneviéve Brouillette, Donno Mitoma, Elina Miyake, Jaymee Weir. Directed by Nadia Litz

 

The forest is, in our psyche, a primal and frightening place. In the forests of our imagination, ghosts lurk and monsters dwell waiting to shred our flesh. While there are some who think they have the woods tamed, there are places that we cannot go without emerging from it completely changed for the rest of our lives.

Such is the Aokigahara forest at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan. The Japanese consider it an unfriendly place; people have been going there to commit suicide for a very long time but only now has it become better known to Westerners largely due to the fact that three separate movies have been released this year with it as the setting; this is the third of them.

The somewhat bizarrely named Sweetpea (Hemingway) is traveling to Japan. When she arrives in customs, she’s asked the reason for her visit and she bluntly responds “To break up with my boyfriend.” Her boyfriend is Jamie (Arnaud), a rock star who has inexplicably chosen the Aokigahara as the setting for his latest music video.

Sweetpea is picked up by Mak (West), a young Japanese forestry worker who is told to “keep an eye on her” and then inexplicably leaves her at the edge of the forest with a crudely drawn map and police tape to help her find her way if she gets lost. Only with the help of a young schoolgirl who doesn’t speak a word of English – isn’t it convenient when a young schoolgirl wanders through when you’re lost in a forest – does she make it to the set.

When she arrives there, the director (Le Gros) and the producer (Brouillette) inform her that Jamie has disappeared, but nobody seems overly concerned. Sweetpea, who doesn’t yet know the nature of the forest (which everyone has apparently agreed not to inform her about) does some searching boyfriend but doesn’t find him.

Eventually it becomes clear that he has a relationship with Signe (Anderson), the aging 90s sex symbol who is co-starring in the video with him. It also becomes clear that something far more sinister is afoot than a rock star taking some personal time in the woods. Will Sweetpea find Jamie in time to break up with him?

I was of two minds of this movie. The story structure is a little bit vague; Sweetpea is an enigma, none of her backstory revealed. We have no idea why she wants to break up with Jamie, only that she does. Her past is shown in two segments in which she white-person dances with Jamie while they exchange soulful looks and private smiles. Hemingway, daughter of Mariel and great-granddaughter of Papa, doesn’t have the screen presence yet to give the audience a reason to care with so little information offered.

Litz makes good use of the bucolic setting and thus we have a very pretty film to watch. She also keeps the atmosphere reasonably tense without letting the tension become the entire focus. There is an air of surreality here that adds to the overall feel that something isn’t quite right. Unlike the most well-known Aokigahara-set film, there is nothing supernatural here, at least not overtly so.

While the movie is only 80 minutes long, the pacing is slow enough that it feels almost stifling. The fact that Sweetpea is so dissolute and whose main expression is the 1,000 yard stare adds to the feeling of lethargy that sometimes takes over the film. It is only in the last 20 minutes of the movie that it feels like there’s any energy whatsoever and the movie could have sorely used more.

REASONS TO GO: The forest itself is intensely beautiful even in the creepiest moments. The subject is quite fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit dissolute in places and slow-paced throughout.
FAMILY VALUES:  Profanity abounds here and there’s a bit of smoking as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  None of the forest scenes were filmed in Japan; instead, the forests of British Columbia subbed for this Canadian production.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forest
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Hell or High Water

Dark


Hey, I'm walking here, I'm walking here!!

Hey, I’m walking here, I’m walking here!!

(2015) Suspense (Screen Media) Whitney Able, Alexandra Breckenridge, Michael Eklund, Brendan Sexton III, Benny Ash, Redman, Eunice Ahn, Steel Burkhardt, James Dinonno, Kristopher Thompson-Bolden, Anita Valentini, Rose Wartell. Directed by Nick Basile

 

On August 4, 2003, New York City suffered through one of the worst blackouts in the city’s history. Anyone who hasn’t lived through a blackout will not understand what a big deal they are. They often happen in the middle of summer when temperatures are high, so your home gets gradually hotter and hotter. There’s no refrigerators so no cool drinks; there’s no TV, Internet or or radio unless you’re on a battery-operated device and once those batteries die, there’s often no way to replace them as batteries quickly sell out and most markets. You can’t cook if you have an electric stove (and often if you have a gas one) and once the sun goes down, no light except for candles. Plus, plenty of people will take the opportunity to be assholes and looters. It’s not pleasant at all.

Kate Naylor (Able) already has problems enough. A former model, she’s working as a yoga instructor and lives with photographer Leah (Breckenridge) – in fact, she’s recently moved in with her into a Brooklyn loft. She hasn’t quite unpacked yet which irritates Leah, but then a lot about Kate is irritating. For one thing, Kate smokes a ton, even though Leah is after her to quit. Kate’s also got kind of a temper and a bit of a masochistic streak, shocking her girlfriend when she asks her to choke her during a sexual encounter early in the movie.

When the blackout hits, Leah is out of town and things between the two women are disintegrating despite Leah’s best efforts to make it work. Kate seems disinterested in meeting her halfway and when she has the opportunity to pick up a Canadian biker (Eklund) during the blackout, she does so. She also fends off the advances of neighbor John (Sexton).

As the darkness deepens, Kate lights up some candles, poses for some self-portraits in lingerie, listens to tunes on her boombox and looks at old photos of old affairs. She begins getting restless, especially once she’s finished all the booze in the loft. She gets dressed up in a slinky dress and goes out to a local tavern that has a generator, and gets trashed. Once she gets home, she hears noises and sees disturbing things, like someone rattling her doorknob. Her sanity begins to erode. But then, her sanity was not too stable to begin with.

The concept of a woman alone in the darkness is not a new one as a subject for suspense movies, but this is the only one I know of in which the heroine is mentally ill. Able, who is a fine actress just starting to get some intriguing roles, gets the lion’s share of screen time and she does a pretty good job. For the most part, Kate’s issues are not easily seen unless you spend a couple of hours with her, particularly in a stressful environment.

The problem with Kate is twofold. For one thing, she’s such a bitch that it’s hard to really relate to her or root for her. That’s the double-edged sword of having someone with emotional or mental issues as your lead character; your audience isn’t going to relate to them unless they have similar issues. They may find the point of view fascinating (as Kate’s is from time to time) but after awhile the charm or lack thereof dissipates. This isn’t a knock against Able’s performance, just the way the character was written.

The movie does drag a little bit, particularly through the middle when Kate is alone in her apartment, taking pictures of herself, taking a bath and slapping herself in the face. After a little while, you may want to join her. Sorry, that was just impossible to resist.

Sound is very important in the movie and Basile makes good use of it (he also gets points for using a Dead Can Dance song on the soundtrack). There are a few jump scares but Basile uses the sounds of the city to portray the normalcy, then as the blackout rolls in, the sounds change and become much more threatening. It’s a masterful piece of the storytelling puzzle that is rarely used this well.

I also thought that the relationship between Kate and Leah was portrayed in a manner that really rung true. These two don’t sound like a Hollywood couple; they are the kind of couple that exists in the real world, far from perfect but definitely with at least a spark there. These are people probably sitting at the table next to you in the coffee shop or the bistro.

There was a minor quibble for me in the plot; during the blackout, Kate ends up drawing herself a bath. However, from a logical standpoint, she lives at least two or three stories up. How did the water get there? Most buildings use pumps to get the water up to the higher floors. That wouldn’t be working in an electrical blackout. Just saying.

There was enough to recommend this film but only just; the use of sound and Able definitely are the things to look for here. I would have liked Kate to be more relatable but that’s more of a personal preference. I’m sure there are plenty of film buffs who wouldn’t have a problem with it. Oh, and with Joe (Gremlins) Dante as an executive producer on this, there is definitely a pedigree. All in all, a promising indie film that is flawed but mildly recommended.

REASONS TO GO: Really awesome sound. Realistically depicts the dynamics of a relationship that is falling apart.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit. The lead is too unlikable to relate to.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity, a couple of sex scenes as well as further sexual content, drug us and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Basile’s first feature film that’s not a documentary.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wait Until Dark
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Bridgend

Bellflower


A little backseat canoodling.

A little backseat canoodling.

(2011) Action (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Evan Glodell, Jessie Wiseman, Tyler Dawson, Rebekah Brandes, Vincent Grashaw, Zach Kraus, Keghan Hurst, Alexandra Boylan, Bradshaw Pruitt, Brian Thomas Evans, Britta Jacobellis, Caesar Flores, Chris Snyder, Dan Dulle, Jon Huck, Jet Kauffman, Josh Kelling, Ken Bailey, Mark Nihem, Joel Hodge. Directed by Evan Glodell

When all you have to look forward to is the end of the world, you’ve got problems. That’s the situation that Woodrow (Glodell) and Aidan (Dawson) find themselves in, however. Woodrow, an introspective quiet sort, and Aidan, a more outgoing sort, are best friends who moved to Los Angeles from Wisconsin. In fact, they live in one of the more squalid areas of Bellflower, a mostly-poor suburb of the city and spend their days drinking and creating weapons for an apocalypse that they are certain is coming soon.

During a cricket-eating contest at a bar, Woodrow is bested by Millie (Wiseman) and the two hit it off. While Aidan is flirting with Millie’s best friend Courtney (Brandes), Woodrow is arranging to take Millie out on a date to the worst place he’s ever eaten which will involve a trip to Texas. As it turns out, Woodrow really knows his bad eating establishments.

When Woodrow gets back, Aidan gets to work on the Medusa, a tricked out Pontiac Skylark that he is outfitting with all sorts of goodies including flamethrowers and smoke screens. From this vehicle, he very reasonably deduces, the two of them can rule the post-apocalyptic wasteland. However, Aidan is annoyed that Woodrow is spending more time with Millie than with him, and Courtney is feeling the same about Millie.

But things are not rosy in Bellflower. Woodrow is getting to be controlling and paranoid – and with good reason as it turns out as he surprises Millie having sex with her roommate Mike (Grashaw) in his own bed. He and Mike scuffle and Woodrow eventually flees from the scene on his motorcycle only to be hit by a car. He suffers brain damage in the incident.

Afterwards things get strange. Woodrow returns home, depressed and mostly staying in bed while Aidan gamely works on Medusa without him. Another confrontation with Mike leads to a situation which may turn out to be Woodrow’s own personal apocalypse, or indeed may be a product of his damaged mind. Things can get weird when you don’t know what’s real and what’s imagined.

This is a first feature on a microscopic budget which has an awful lot going for it. First and foremost, this is a great looking film. Glodell custom built his own cameras that give the film a distinctive look that is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. Had this been released by a major studio, it would have won an Oscar for cinematography. Of that I’m certain. Nonetheless it is as unique looking a movie as you’re likely to ever see.

 

The problem I have is that the characters are so bloody awful that you don’t really want to spend any more time with them than you have to and that can be a problem. Aidan is the closest one to being a decent human being and he can be a complete jerk at times. The violence in the movie escalates and gets pretty disturbing with a consensual but rough sexual scene, a suicide and a severe beating. That this may be a product of Woodrow’s injuries is beside the point; we are left having to wallow in the squalor and we don’t smell pleasant when it’s over. The story just kind of peters out at the end with a coda that is meant to raise doubts as to what’s real but by that point you don’t really care.

The Medusa, also custom built by the filmmakers, is a cool car and for those of a certain age it might inspire some ideas of their own. I’m not sure that it’s street legal but in a perfect world it would be making the rounds at car shows across the country and attracting big crowds.

I can’t say that this is a great movie because at the end of the day it doesn’t have all the elements needed to be great. It is, however a very promising first film with a lot going for it. I would say check it out but keep your expectations kind of low; it’s worth seeing for the look of the film but not for spending time with any of the fairly lowlife characters.

WHY RENT THIS: Very cool car. Shot and edited beautifully.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The characters are mainly unlikable and the story doesn’t really go anywhere.

FAMILY VALUES: Violence, much of it disturbing as well as a good deal of sexuality and nudity. The language is colorful throughout and there’s some drug use just to top it all off.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the functions of the car displayed during the film are real; the car was custom built by the filmmakers and friends, and has two working flamethrowers, smoke screen, a bleach drift-kit, adjustable rear suspension and three surveillance cameras, all controlled from the dashboard.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an outtakes real and a featurette involving a dashboard cam on the car that shows it being put through its paces.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $168,226 on a $17,000 production budget.

SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD/Streaming, Amazon (rent/buy), iTunes

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle Mile

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Expendables 3

Men in Black 3


Men in Black 3

Will Smith: 21st Century cool even in the 60s.

(2012) Science Fiction (Columbia) Will Smith, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Emma Thompson, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alice Eve, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mike Colter, Bill Hader, David Rasche, Michael Chernus, Keone Young, Cayen Martin, Lanny Flaherty. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

 

Men in Black is an iconic film from the 90s, one which helped establish Will Smith as the superstar he is today. It has been 15 years since that film came out and ten since its sequel. Does the world need a third, or care about it?

Judging from the early numbers, it does. Agents J (Smith) and K (Jones) are doing what they do best, taking care of aliens violating the law in and around the Manhattan area, but they are both getting too old for this sh….stuff. The two are like a couple that has been married so long that there’s no longer any passion; and J is frustrated that he doesn’t know the close-mouthed K any better than he did when they first met.

On the moon, one of the most dangerous and nastiest aliens to ever be arrested by the MIB organization – Boris the Animal (Clement) – has been imprisoned for forty years, his arm shot off by Agent K at the time of his arrest. He has his first visitor in 40 years – a pen-pal girlfriend (Scherzinger) who brings him a cake that appears to be mostly organic. Not that a file baked into it would do any good – his cell is solid steel. However, there’s a nasty little surprise in the cake that helps him get out of the lunar hoosegow.

Back on Earth, the MIB are mourning the late Zed who is eulogized by O (Thompson), the new leader of MIB, in an alien language that sounds something like seals mating. J and K are continuing to be catty to one another like that previously mentioned old married couple. The next morning J comes to work – and K has been dead for 40 years. He’s also got an insatiable craving for chocolate milk, which according to O is a sure sign of temporal displacement.

But that’s the least of their worries now. The Earth is under attack by the Boglodites, the race of Boris the Animal which should have been impossible because his race died off 40 years early when K had captured Boris and enacted the ArcNet shield around the Earth, preventing the Boglodites from invading back then and causing them to starve to death as a species.

O and J deduce that Boris the Animal must have gone back in time and killed K, leading to the events that were now transpiring. It’s up to J to go back to 1969, rescue K, allow him to put the ArcNet shield up and restore the space-time continuum to where it belongs.

Once in 1969, J discovers that it’s not that easy. Trying to ambush Boris at Coney Island (where J knows he’ll be, owing to the file on the killer stating that he would murder an alien named Roman the Fabulist), unfortunately, J is too late and winds up being captured by the younger K (Brolin) and the 1969 MIB team. It takes a little bit of convincing but J manages to get K to understand that he’s from the future trying to prevent an invasion of Earth – although J leaves out the part that he is also there to prevent K’s death. They are aided by Griffin (Stuhlbarg), a gentle alien who lives five-dimensionally and is able to see every possible future. Now that’s a big help, although it would be, as Griffin himself puts it, a pain in the ass.

However, that is easier said than done. K has no idea what an ArcNet shield is, or how to erect it. There are two Boris the Animals out to murder K, who to J’s astonishment, has a romantic link with the young O (Eve). Plus in order to save the world, J and K are going to have to get through one of the tightest security nets in the history of the United States.

It’s nice to see Smith back on screen again (it’s been three and a half years since he’s been in a movie) and especially in a role that is so identified with him and let’s be frank – a role he does better than anybody else. His chemistry with Jones is scintillating but what’s surprising is that Brolin steps right into the role as the young K and not only mimics Jones perfectly, but also in terms of the chemistry with Smith – it’s almost indistinguishable between the actors. That’s part of what makes the movie worth seeing.

The movie holds up pretty well with the second (although not as well with the first). Rick Baker returns to make plenty of oddball aliens, including Boris the Animal (who has a little spider-like thing that resides in his remaining arm which is able to shoot out fang like darts that can be lethal). I can’t help think about what’s missing from the other films – notably Frank the Pug (who only shows up as a painting in J’s living room), the worm aliens (who make a brief cameo) and Rip Torn as Zed, whose funeral is near the beginning of the film. These were part of the indelible charm of the first two movies and their absence is noticeable.

Other than the time travel element, this is really business as usual for the franchise. Strangely, the filmmakers opt not to use the 60s as much more than a background for the movie (other than a scene set in the Factory of Andy Warhol (Hader) who turns out to be an MIB agent) which is a wasted opportunity; the setting could have enhanced the film a lot more than it did. In some ways, they could have easily set the past sequences in any decade from that standpoint. I would have liked to have seen a bit more use of the time period as a part of the movie.

Don’t get me wrong; this is fine summer entertainment and anyone who chooses to go see it is not going to leave disappointed unless they’re incredibly anal about time travel continuity and the franchise in general. Of course, if you didn’t like the first two films in the franchise, chances are you aren’t going to like this one either since it pretty much is more of the same. Which, to my mind, is a good thing.

REASONS TO GO: Brolin does a great job of channeling Jones. Will Smith is, well, Will Smith. Touching coda.

REASONS TO STAY: Not quite as memorable as the first MIB.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s just a little bit of sci-fi violence and a smidgeon of sensuality – mostly implied.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The mother and daughter in K’s apartment (after he disappears from the timeline) that J gets chocolate milk from are an actual mother and daughter.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The film got decent reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Files: Fight the Future

CHRYSLER BUILDING LOVERS: Will Smith makes his leap into the ’60s from one of the gargoyles at the top of the Chrysler Building.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: A Town Called Panic

Missing Pieces


Missing Pieces

Mark Boone Jr. looks off into a confusing future.

(2012) Drama (Contraction Entertainment) Mark Boone Jr., Melora Walters, Alana Jordan, Taylor Engel, Daniel Hassel, Victoria Mullen, Joyce Liles, Hannah Hughes, Jocelyn Druyan, Jackson Pyle, Jeremy Windham, Emana Rachelle, Carlissa Arrow. Directed by Kenton Bartlett

Love is not the easiest thing in the world to understand or come to grips with. We just know when we’re in it and we don’t always know when we’re out of it. Sometimes, it ends sooner for one participant than the other; sometimes we have to go to extraordinary lengths to figure out why.

David Lindale (Boone) is not your ordinary average guy. He’s a big hulking dude who looks like he might rip your head off of your neck but a look at his eyes shows that he’s really just a big teddy bear who has a few light bulbs short of a chandelier. It’s not his fault – an accident left him a bit fragile from a mental standpoint – but if David seems a little slow on the uptake he still follows his own path of logic that is at least a different way of thinking.

Delia (Walters) is his girlfriend and she’s had enough. David has been getting worse in his confusion and his well-intentioned but ultimately inappropriate actions, and she wants to call it quits. David tries everything he can to get her to stay but she is adamant; it’s time for the both of them to move on. David is nowhere near ready to and that leads him to an act that may on the surface seem very crazy and spontaneous but in truth took a good deal of planning; he kidnaps two young people – Maggie (Engel) and Daylen (Hassel) – and puts them in a situation where they must learn to rely on each other. What will become of what David considers to be a social experiment?

This movie, first and foremost, is a labor of love. Bartlett only picked up a video camera for the first time a mere three years from the time he finished this movie, and clearly this project means the world to him. He got a number of friends and professionals to lend their talents gratis for the movie and you get a sense that the cast and crew had complete buy-in regarding the project.

Bartlett did quite a few things right here. For one thing, he cast the main roles to near-perfection. Boone, who has had minor roles in Batman Begins and Memento (both Christopher Nolan films) makes a terrific David. He has a mournful pair of eyes that sits in the body of a man who you wouldn’t necessarily see as sensitive at first glance. Boone does a lot of acting with those eyes and gets across his frustration in failing to understand what is happening and why. He’s not stupid – he’s just confused. The difference is huge and important here.

Walters, Engel and Hassel all do bang-up jobs in roles that could have easily been clichés (and would have been in a studio film) but bring some humanity and personality to their parts. That makes for a compelling character study and to my mind, that’s essentially what this film is.

Now to the bad news. This is told in a non-linear fashion (as was Memento) and while that’s an ambitious, ballsy move, it is also incredibly difficult to pull off and Bartlett doesn’t quite do it – the beginning of the movie is confusing at times. It is worth hanging in there for however.

Again, this is clearly a labor of love. The intent of the moviemakers was not to get headlines in Ain’t It Cool News or to be on everybody’s lips at Sundance, but to make a quality movie and get people to see it. They have an uphill climb ahead of them and I do wish them well. However, they managed to get some theater space in Birmingham in September and played a night in Los Angeles; I’m sure they will be making the festival rounds next year.

They were kind enough to provide a review copy for me and while I can’t laud them as the best thing since sliced bread, I can say that if you take a chance on this movie and give it a viewing (and if you hurry, they’re available on prescreening.com (link below) until mid-November 2011) you may well be pleasantly surprised. This movie got made for all the right reasons and there is enough here to make it worth your while. If you love movies, this is a film after your own heart.

REASONS TO GO: Well-acted with a story that is unique and compelling.

REASONS TO STAY: The narrative is told in a non-linear fashion and the beginning of the movie is often hard to follow.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult situations and language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie had 588 people volunteer their time at no charge for various duties on the production.

HOME OR THEATER: This will be awfully hard to find in a theater; it should be much easier to find either on Netflix (eventually) or on prescreen.com.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Chasing Amy