Darkest Hour


When you’re Winston Churchill, you can ride on the tube smoking your tube of tobacco.

(2017) True Life Drama (Focus) Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Richard Lumsden, Malcolm Storry, Hilton McRae, Benjamin Whitrow, Joe Armstrong, Adrian Rawlings, David Strathairn (voice), David Bamber, Paul Leonard, Mary Antony, Bethany Muir. Directed by Joe Wright

 

Perhaps more than any figure of his time Winston Churchill remains in the eyes of Britain as an enduring hero, a steadfast bulldog who led England when she alone faced down the might of Hitler’s war machine in the year before the United States joined the fight.

In 1940, the war is going disastrously for Great Britain. Neville Chamberlain (Pickup), the Prime Minister who infamously declared “Peace in Our Time” after negotiations with Adolph Hitler essentially handed Poland to the Nazis, is about to be forced out of his position. Who will replace him? Lord Halifax (Dillane) suggests Winston Churchill (Oldman), a former First Lord of the Admiralty who’s Gallipoli Campaign during the First World War had been so mishandled that he left the position in disgrace.

However, he was politically astute and was one of the few candidates that the opposition would accept. Halifax suspected the notoriously blunt Churchill would fumble this position as well at which time Dillane and his faction that urged surrender to the Nazis could come in and negotiate a peace tht Britain could live with. As mind-blowing as that sounds, it actually happened.

Churchill has other ideas. Although aging and infirm as the result of lifelong smoking and drinking, he was still a firebrand who was one of the great orators of the 20th century although that was a part of his skill set that Chamberlain and Halifax didn’t reckon on. Churchill was prescient enough to realize that the Americans would eventually enter the war although that didn’t look likely at the time as conversations with President Roosevelt (Strathairn) brought Churchill to the brink of despair. With his army trapped at Dunkirk, his navy neutralized by the U-Boats of the Nazis and his RAF completely outclassed by the Luftwaffe, Churchill knew he was days away from having most of his fighting force annihilated, leaving the road open for Hitler to invade.

He was also sensible enough to know that there could be no negotiations for peace. “When will you learn,” he roars at Halifax and his allies, “That you can’t negotiate with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” His relationship with King George VI (Mendelsohn), who detested him, was dysfunctional and only the steadfast support of his wife Clemmie (Thomas) – who also isn’t afraid to scold him from time to time – and his personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (James) was all he had to see him through. Nonetheless, his true strength came from someone unexpected – the British people themselves. This would lead to one of the defining moments in the War – and in British history as a whole.

This is very much Churchill’s story and as such it’s very much Oldman’s show and to his credit he responds with maybe the defining performance of an already lustrous career. He has been the odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar since the first reviews came out in September following the movie’s debut at Toronto, and although there have been some great performances since the same sentiment prevails on the eve of the Oscar telecast this weekend. Whereas most of the previous performances of Churchill have either run perilously close to parody or focused on an aspect of the man, this is really the first onscreen performance that has captured Churchill as a complete, complex man. Blustery almost to the point of bullying (his first encounter with Layton reduces her to tears) but also possessed of an almost romantic soul, Oldman’s Churchill possesses an enormous ego but also a unique appreciation for the people of Britain that no other Prime Minister has possessed before or since. If anyone other than Oldman’s name is called on Sunday I should be very surprised.

Thomas does a game job being the yin to Churchill’s yang but she’s a lone tree against a hurricane. Nobody can stand against a performance like this and Thomas wisely doesn’t try. James also provides moments of genuine calm and compassion.

Maybe the most moving scene is one that didn’t actually happen in real life – Churchill taking a Tube from Downing Street to speak at Parliament rather than riding in his limousine. He takes the time to talk to the working people riding along with him and to his surprise they not only support him but urge him to fight for their survival, giving him all the motivation he needs. However, it should be said that while there’s no record of Churchill ever riding the subway, he was known to leave Downing Street to talk to the British people around London to find out what they were thinking and feeling. It is during this scene however that we realize that even though the movie is about Winston Churchill, it is also about the British people maybe even more so.

The movie is a bit long and takes a long time to get to the climactic speech that is the emotional payoff for the film but Oldman’s performance is just so engrossing that one doesn’t mind so much that we get to watch more of it. I will say that there are some CGI bombers and war scenes that aren’t very convincing; it might have been better to use newsreel footage rather than construct a nice but ineffective shot of a British soldier looking up to the sky through a hole in the roof of a house in Dunkirk and the camera rising to follow his gaze to Nazi bombers but because of the mediocre CGI the scene loses all of its power.

The movie is a strong one but one wonders how it would have been without Oldman in the cast; not quite so compelling I believe. Still, performances like this should be savored and encouraged. Oldman has given us a performance that comes in a very long while; you would be remiss if you are a film buff and miss this. Chances are you’ve already seen it but for those who haven’t, what on Earth are you waiting for?

REASONS TO GO: Oldman is the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor for good reason. This is a movie that makes as effective a use of pauses as any I’ve ever seen. The complex relationship between King and Prime Minister is highlighted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is way too long. The CGI is poor and actually unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic material is on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Hurt was originally cast to portray Neville Chamberlain but had become ill in the final stages of the cancer that claimed his life – which ironically Chamberlain was also stricken with during the period portrayed here. Hurt never made any readings or filmed any scenes but the movie is still dedicated to him.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Churchill
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Oh Lucy!

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Doctor Strange


He's a magic man, he's got the magic hands.

He’s a magic man, he’s got the magic hands.

(2016) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian, Alaa Safi, Katrina Durden, Topo Wresniwiro, Umit Ulgen, Linda Louise Duan, Mark Anthony Brighton, Meera Syal, Amy Landecker. Directed by Scott Derrickson

 

It was Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey who once said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Of course, that’s assuming that there is no magic but then again if there was such a thing it would likely end up being explainable by scientific theory once we understood it. Then again, there’s always the possibility that magic is real.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is one of the top neurosurgeons in the world. He has saved literally thousands of lives and lives in a Greenwich Village apartment that is more palace than apartment although it is somewhat sterile in many ways. Dr. Strange is a bit of an egotist, something that has made his relationship with Dr. Christine Palmer (McAdams) fall apart, although they are still fond of each other – it’s just that Strange is just a little bit fonder of himself.

A terrible car accident puts paid to all of that however. His hands – those marvelous, life-giving hands – hae been badly injured. He can barely hold a scalpel anymore and has zero control over his nerves. His hands shake like an epileptic at a disco revival. He has tried every surgical option and drug known to man but nevertheless his situation remains unchanged.

Desperate, he discovers the case of a man named Jonathan Pangborn (Bratt) who was told he’d never walk again by plenty of doctors, including Strange himself. Amazingly he was not only walking but playing basketball. When asked what his secret was, Pangborn sends Strange to Kathmandu to find a particular order of monks. While searching the streets of Kathmandu for it, he runs into Mordo (Ejiofor), a disciple of the person Strange is looking for. Mordo takes Strange to The Ancient One (Swinton), an ancient Celt who reigns as Sorcerer Supreme, a title of respect and the latest addition to the McDonald’s Value Meal menu.

Despite being unable to accept on faith the powers of the Ancient One being a man of science, Strange nevertheless manages to convince her to train him in the mystical arts, although she’s reluctant at first. She thinks he’s an arrogant close-minded twit and she’s essentially right but arrogant close-minded twits are people too, no?

And she’s in need of all the help she can get. One of her former disciples, Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), has essentially gone mad. He wants to create a world without death and in order to do that, he has to summon Dormammu – an ancient creature from another dimension that predates the Gods and who wants to wipe out all life in our universe. So a world without death is a world without life, right? Those tricky old god bastards!

Kaecilius is a powerful sorcerer and Strange is just learning his way around. As Kaecilius races to destroy all the wards that protect our dimension from beings like Dormammu, Strange discovers that he has been chosen by a pair of powerful artifacts – and that the way to beat a god is to think like one.

After a couple of subpar Marvel offerings, it’s nice to see that they’re back on track with a movie that sums up everything right about the Marvel films. Firstly, this is a movie about characters and not superpowers. Steven Strange is an interesting human being full of human frailty despite having the power to warp reality itself. Cumberbatch does a marvelous job of capturing the good doctor that I remember from the comic books, although I have to admit that he sounds a little bit strange with an American accent. Ouch.

The special effects here are pretty impressive, although they do borrow heavily from other sources. Certainly the reality warping takes a page right out of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and some may find that to be a bit of a cop-out, but at least it’s utilized in a more physical way than Nolan did. The spells look almost scientific in nature just as you’d expect a man of science to relate to casting magic spells. All in all, some of the best effects we’ve seen yet in a Marvel film and that’s saying something.

The relationship between Strange and Palmer doesn’t generate a lot of heat; there’s more of a bromance between Mordo and Strange. Ejiofor is a reliable performer who always seems to get the most out of every role he tackles. Swinton is simply put one of the strongest actresses working today; the role of the Ancient One, who in the comics was an elderly Asian gentleman, was rewritten extensively to suit Swinton who is none of those things (elderly, Asian or a gentleman).

The action is pretty much non-stop once it gets going, although it takes a little while to. In essence, once again Marvel has done it – created an entirely different superhero movie that retains the feel of the comic book, the consistency of a shared cinematic universe but able to retain individual identities for each film. Any franchise filmmaker will tell you how extraordinarily difficult that is. In any case, it’s a fitting lead off to the holiday blockbuster season. I can’t think of a single reason why anyone who likes entertaining movies shouldn’t see it.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are mind-blowing. The story and characters are as good as any in any Marvel movie. One of the best supporting casts of any Marvel movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The film seems to exist on its own plane outside the rest of the Marvel movies.
FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find plenty of violence and carnage, some mind-bending changes of perspective and a car crash sequence that’s rather intense.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The appearance of the comic book character was based on actor Vincent Price and even had the middle name of “Vincent.” In recent years the character’s look has been modernized, with a goatee replacing the pencil mustache he’d had since his inception.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shadow
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Amanda Knox

Body (2015)


Pretty little liar.

Pretty little liar.

(2015) Thriller (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Helen Rogers, Alexandra Turshen, Lauren Molina, Larry Fessenden, Adam Cornelius, Dan Brennan, Kimberly Flynn, Ian Robinson, Jack Brenner, Mike Keller. Directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen

Florida Film Festival 2015

We all make mistakes in life but some can’t be taken back. When you make a really awful mistake, sometimes one bad decision can lead to a cascade of them.

It is the holidays and Holly (Rogers), Cali (Turshen) and Mel (Molina) are bored. They’ve been at Mel’s house having a holiday feast and have been playing Scrabble. Like most young college-age women, they want to do something fun and smoking weed with Mel’s younger brother (Robinson) just isn’t it.

Cali then manages to convince her friends to move the party to her Uncle’s house which turns out to be a McMansion of the cavernous sort. The girls continue drinking, play vintage arcade games and horse around. However as Holly explores the house, it becomes clear that the family that lives there is Asian and Cali is most decidedly a blonde and blue-eyed Caucasian. When confronted, Cali admits that the house doesn’t really belong to her Uncle so much as to a family she used to babysit for.

The girls then decide to put an end to their festivities and leave but before they can get out, the groundskeeper (Fessenden) surprises them. A struggle ensues and Holly accidentally sends the hapless man tumbling down the staircase to the bottom where he lands with a sickening crack.

Now the girls have done something that can’t be undone. Cali becomes the alpha female and convinces her friends that while what happened was bad, it need not destroy their lives. They cook up elaborate plans to hide the body but before they do they discover that, in the immortal words of Monty Python, he’s “not quite dead yet.” Now faced with a moral dilemma, they find their moral compass is spinning like a top.

Berk and Olsen, who also co-wrote the movie, have the three girls representing Freud’s concepts of the id, the ego and the superego. Cali is a shoot first and ask questions later kinda gal, whose only instinct is for self-preservation. Holly is the voice of reason, often drowned out by Cali’s hysterics. Mel basically floats in the breeze, going in whichever direction seems to be convenient at the moment. The dynamics between the three change with Holly or Cali asserting dominance and Mel’s support going to whoever seems to be in charge at the moment. It leads to some pretty gruesome acts by the ladies, complete with primal screams in case the Freudian overtones weren’t enough.

The girls are all fine actresses, veterans of a variety of indie projects. They do pretty well here, as does Fessenden who is one of indie cinema’s most recognizable names and faces. Some of the supporting cast doesn’t do as well, with one actor whom I won’t embarrass doing a noticeably awful job.

As thrillers go, the suspense level isn’t super high, but I think that the changing dynamics of the three leads is more the point than creating an edge of your seats thrill ride. This is more of a cerebral thriller although there are visceral elements to it (as when Helen tries to manufacture elements that a sexual assault occurred) which may be squirm inducing for some.

It’s a fairly short film, so the action is compact. The filmmakers do a lot with a little and that’s heartening. As first features go, this isn’t half bad but what bothers me is that there really isn’t anything terribly new or original here, although this kind of movie is generally done with male leads for which I give the filmmakers points. However, the plot is definitely something you’ll have seen before.

REASONS TO GO: Gender roles are a bit different than is the norm for this type of film. Love the Freudian aspects.
REASONS TO STAY: Not all of the acting is stellar. The escalating violence is a bit disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES: Bloody violence, teen drinking and drug use and a surfeit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Premiered at this year’s Slamdance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stuck
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Imperial Dreams

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues


The news team discusses the size of their paychecks.

The news team discusses the size of their paychecks.

(2013) Comedy (Paramount) Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, James Marsden, Christina Applegate, Kristen Wiig, Dylan Baker, Meagan Good, Harrison Ford, Greg Kinnear, Judah Nelson, Josh Lawson, Fred Willard, Chris Parnell, Bill Kurtis (voice), June Diane Raphael, Tom Clark, Jennifer Gullick, Aubrey Drake Graham. Directed by Adam McKay

One of the characters that established Will Ferrell as one of the top comedy stars of the first couple of decades of the 21st century was Ron Burgundy, the conceited and laughably ignorant local news anchor of San Diego, the classiest city in the U.S. That was nine years ago. Since then a sequel has been clamored for but never realized until now.

Burgundy (Ferrell) has been absent from the San Diego news scene, having moved on to a higher profile news job in New York City, co-anchoring with his wife Veronica Corningstone (Applegate). The lead news anchor and the most respected newsman in New York, Mack Tannen (Ford) – no relation to Biff apparently – is preparing to retire and has decided to promote Veronica to replace him. As for Ron, Mack fires him due to his sloppy performance on air.

This causes a good deal of friction between Ron and…well, Ron and he leaves Veronica and their son Walter (Nelson). He languishes back home in San Diego until he is approached with an offer to work at GNN, the world’s first 24 hour news channel which is being fronted by an Australian billionaire named Kench Allenby (Lawson).First however he’ll have to reassemble the old Channel 4 news team. Sportscaster Champ Kind (Koechner) owns a fried chicken franchise that uses a cut-rate meat that isn’t chicken to skimp on expenses. Reporter Brian Fantana (Rudd) is considerably more successful as a photographer of cats. Sadly, Brick Tamland (Carell) is dead except he isn’t as he shows up to his own funeral. Of course, there is a school of thought that Brick was scared all along.

Once in New York, Ron and his team are assigned to the graveyard ship while arrogant Chicago anchor Jack Lime (Marsden) gets the primetime spot. Jack taunts Ron and his team and as a result Ron bets Jack that he’ll get higher ratings. Jack, knowing it’s a slam dunk, agrees.

The news team are desperate. There’s no way they can beat Jack Lime; even if Jack has nothing important to report he’ll still kick their butts by virtue of the timeslot he has. Then Ron has an epiphany; rather than telling people what they need to know, why not tell them what they want to hear? The concept turns out to be a huge success and broadcast news will never be the same. Ron’s attempts to reconcile with Veronica fall flat – she’s dating a psychologist (Kinnear). Ron’s boss, Linda Jackson (Good) takes a rather aggressive interest in him and the two start dating, if you can call lots and lots of casual sex dating.

But those who ride high fall further and Ron’s ego, never a small thing, is inflated beyond tolerance. However a tragedy will strike that will be the biggest obstacle Ron has ever had to face in his career. Can he do it and can he make it up to those he has wronged around him?

I had high hopes for this movie, being a big fan of the original Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. However this doesn’t even get close to measuring up to that movie. The jokes are for the most part old and make you feel uncomfortable more than laughing and most of the best jokes are outgrowths from the first movie (like the news team rumble). I’m not the most politically correct person in the world but I guess I don’t find sexism and racism real funny, even if you’re making the person with those sentiments look ignorant.

The first film had more cohesion while the sequel seems to be more of a series of gags strung together in a rough storyline. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that tried so hard to be funny. The first film didn’t have to try.

While I like the characters from the first film and the chemistry they possessed, they seem kind of tired and stale here and there doesn’t seem to have been much – if any – further development except that Brick develops a romance from fellow eccentric Chani (Wiig).

Maybe my problem is more that while the first movie had some heart and soul, this one seems to be talking down to us more – as if they realize that the first movie was a comedy classic so they don’t have to try at all here and anything these characters do and say is funny so laugh if you want to be cool. The vibe here just was unpleasant and I came away wishing that I hadn’t seen the film. It’s almost bad enough to make me wish that I hadn’t seen it because the first movie that I loved so much has been tarnished by this one.

REASONS TO GO: Some gags work.

REASONS TO STAY: Mostly unfunny. Feels recycled. Drags on too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some drug use, a fair amount of foul language and some comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paramount initially passed on a sequel, citing the budget being too much for them initially but then abruptly changed their minds. Will Ferrell announced the sequel was greenlit in character as Ron Burgundy on the Conan O’Brien show.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grown-Ups 2

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Wolf of Wall Street

In a World…


Fred Marino offers a skeptical Lake Bell the world.

Fred Marino offers a skeptical Lake Bell the world.

(2013) Comedy (Roadside Attractions) Lake Bell, Rob Corddry, Alexandra Holden, Eva Longoria, Ken Marino, Demetri Martin, Fred Melamed, Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman, Michaela Watkins, Geena Davis, Stephanie Allynne, Melissa Disney, Olya Milova, Corsica Wilson, Yelena Protsenko, Charly Chaikin, Janicza Bravo, Jason O’Mara, Talulah Riley, Don La Fontaine, Jeff Garlin, Amy Vorpahl. Directed by Lake Bell

If you’re reading this, chances are you like movies enough to pay attention to the trailers. One of the most notable phrases in a trailer is “In a world…” which actually was the trademark of a single man – Don La Fontaine, who essentially for 20 years was the voice of movie trailers. Although there were certainly other voice over artists who worked major studio releases, La Fontaine was The Man pretty much up to his death in 2008.

However, it is true that nearly all the voices you hear shilling movies in their trailers are men – the lone exception being Melissa Disney (who in a nice bit of gracia is given a small role here by Bell) whose voice was once heard extolling the virtues of Gone in 60 Seconds. Carol Solomon (Bell) would like to be the next Big Voice. She is pretty talented too, able to switch to just about any sort of vocal style you can name. In order to better emulate them she likes to record people, sometimes surreptitiously sometimes not to the point where she has been barred from the high end hotel where her sister Dani (Watkins) works as a concierge. However, it’s a nearly impossible field to break in to for a woman so Carol makes due with gigs as a vocal coach helping celebrities like Eva Longoria speak with a believable accent.

What makes it doubly hard is that her father, Sam Sotto (Melamed) is one of the bigwigs in the industry and due to receive a lifetime achievement award. He’s not a candidate for father of the year by any stretch of the imagination – his voice may be sonorous but his soul is not. Carol has been sleeping in his spare room for awhile but Sam kicks her out so that his girlfriend Jamie (Holden) – whom Carol and Dani deride as a groupie – can move in. Carol moves in with Dani and her husband Moe (Corddry).

The “In a world” trailer line is going to be brought back for Hollywood’s hottest property – a quadrilogy called The Amazon Games and while the producers want Sam to do it, Sam magnanimously steps aside so that his good friend and protégé Gustav Warner (Marino) can get the gig but Gustav – whose ego may be even greater than Sam’s – contracts laryngitis and is unable to make the recording session for a temporary track to show the executive producer. Carol is helping Longoria re-record her dialogue in a nearby studio and the engineer, Louis (Martin) suggests that Carol do the temp track.

It turns out that the executive producer is so taken by Carol’s performance that she wants to use Carol for the final track and based on that Carol begins to get work on other trailers as well. Gustav is throwing a party for Sam and his impending award so Carol kind of has to go. Louis is eager to go with her as her date but is too shy to ask her. At the party Gustav hooks up with Carol, not realizing who she is.

Will Carol end up with the selfish Gustav or the shy Louis? Will Moe and Dani be able to overcome their marital problems? And who will be the one to warble the immortal words “In a world”?

This is one of those movies that earns the laughs that it gets. This isn’t one of those “throw everything and the kitchen sink at the screen and see what sticks.” The humor is carefully crafted and a collaboration between Bell, the writer and director of the film and her actors, taking advantage of their strengths as comic actors as well as of their physical appearances.

Bell’s ability with accents and mimicry is part of what stands out about her performance on the surface but if you look a little deeper you’ll find that this is a very layered character who can be selfish and oblivious to the needs of others – obviously the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – and also there’s a great deal of insecurity there as well. She desperately wants to be part of the elite of the industry whose voice is instantly recognizable even if her face isn’t. Somehow, I think the ladies of 20 Feet from Stardom might understand her pretty well.

Bell also shows some skills behind the camera as well, shooting this more in the style of a drama rather than a comedy – Woody Allen is a master of this and Bell delivers a movie that Allen would likely be proud of. However, I think that as a writer she might be most talented of all – this is a smart script that allows each character enough time and space to develop a real personality. They’re not perfect and they’re just flawed enough to be realistic without being annoying. She doesn’t fall into the indie “quirkier-than-thou” trap which a lot of independents tend to do, mistaking neuroses for personality.

Melamed is perfectly cast as the unctuous Sam, full of fake bonhomie and ego but even so there is love in him. Even Gustav, the erstwhile villain, has some redeeming and interesting features. Corddry gets a somewhat different kind of role to play – Moe is less sure of himself and much nicer than what we usually see out of Corddry.

This is really a very good movie, worth seeking out. Bell has always been one of those actresses who does solid but not really noticeable work mainly in second banana roles. Here she is front and center and shows that she is worthy of consideration for higher profile parts – like this one. In a world where the worthy are rewarded for their toil, it would be sure to happen. Seeing as this is planet Hollywood, that is far from a sure thing.

REASONS TO GO: Deceptively funny. Bell is magnificent in front of and behind the camera.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit too Hollywood of an ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of foul language including some sexual references and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was the winner of the award for Best Screenplay at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: All the Light in the Sky

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1

Good Neighbors


Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

(2010) Psychological Thriller (Magnolia) Jay Baruchel, Scott Speedman, Emily Hampshire, Xavier Dolan, Gary Farmer, Kaniehtiio Horn, Pat Kiley, Michelle Lanctot, Jacob Tierney, Anne-Marie Cadieux, Clara Furey, Diane D’Aquila, Sean Lu, Kevin Tierney, Nathalie Girard. Directed by Jacob Tierney

We like to think we know our neighbors. We hang out with them, invite them into our homes, share confidences with them, sometimes we even have their backs and expect that they have ours. But how well do we really know them?

Louise (Hampshire) lives in an apartment building in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace district. She works at a Chinese restaurant as a waitress. When one of her co-workers disappears under suspicious circumstances, she suspects it’s the work of a serial rapist and murderer who has been terrorizing the district. She begins to follow the case in the newspaper obsessively.

She’s kind of a cold fish who lives with her cats and generally eschews human contact in favor of feline contact. One of the few exceptions is Spencer (Speedman), a paraplegic who lives on the ground floor of the building. He lost the use of his legs in an automobile accident that claimed the life of his wife. Like Louise, he’s a bit obsessed with the same serial killer. He can be randomly cruel and disarming literally in the same sentence.

Into this mix comes Victor (Baruchel), a somewhat socially awkward school teacher just returned to Montreal after spending time in China. He develops an instant crush on Louise and lobbies hard to develop a friendship with Spencer.  Victor’s attempts at romance begin to take a creepy turn – he refers to Louise as his fiancée even though the two of them haven’t even been on a date yet.

When an abusive alcoholic woman in the building turns up dead, signs point to the work of the serial killer and it becomes apparent that he may well be among them in their own building. Is there safety in your own home when there is already a killer living there?

Canadian director Tierney has a fine hand with suspense and knows how to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. This isn’t a generic thriller in which the identity of the killer is revealed at the end of the film – in fact, this isn’t a whodunit in the sense that you find out surprisingly early who done it.  It becomes more of a cat and mouse thriller, although at times you’re not sure who the cat is and who is the mouse.

As far as I can make out, there is a highly Freudian aspect to the film; Louise, Spencer and Victor represent the superego, the id and the ego which I think is a terribly innovative idea, although I wish they’d have been fleshed out just a teeny bit more. The characters are a bit on the one-dimensional side, although Baruchel, Speedman and Hampshire all do pretty well with what they’re given.

Some of the violence and sex here is pretty graphic and disturbing in places, so those who are susceptible to such things might think twice before streaming, renting or buying this bad boy. And while I understand the motivation to keep things more or less in the apartment building, you have this incredibly beautiful city (Montreal) which is even more beautiful in many ways in the dead of winter and choose not to use it which completely mystifies me. Cinematographer Guy Dufaux shows a really good eye in some of his shots but  sadly doesn’t get to exercise it as much as I would have liked.

However despite some of the film’s flaws, the engineering of it is so masterful and the suspense layered on so perfectly that I can overlook some things that don’t work as well. Overall this is a taut, well-paced thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and a nice little hidden gem worth seeking out on Netflix, Blockbuster or whatever source of streaming you choose to patronize.

WHY RENT THIS: Skews the genre somewhat. Nicely suspenseful despite telegraphing identity of killer too early

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessarily claustrophobic. Character development is a little bit one-dimensional.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly intense violence and just as intense sexuality as well as some fairly explicit nudity not to mention a plethora of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title was Notre Dame de Grace named for the district in Montreal where the action takes place and where the movie was filmed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7,072 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pacific Heights

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Redemption Road