Where Sleeping Dogs Lie (2019)


Thick as thieves.

 (2019) Crime Drama (1091Jesse Janzen, Dustin Miller, Tommy Koponen, David J. Espinosa, Jillian Rohrbach, Brett Rickaby, Atim Udoffia, D. Brad St. Cyr, Jeanne Young, Bobby Real, Courtney Conklin, Stacey Hall, Tyler McDaniel, Doug O’Neill, DeeDee Avert, Brian Barnes, Robyn Colburn, David Jon Foster, Christa Hewitt, Michelle Kuret, Melinda Rayne, Bunny Stewart. Directed by Josh Pierson

 

They say crime doesn’t pay, but you couldn’t prove that from the movies. For every Dog Day Afternoon there’s a The Sting. No, if you are a movie buff, the message you’re likely to get is that when in need of quick cash your most effective option is a criminal act.

Jeff (Janzen) finds himself in just that position. He owes the local crime boss – incongruously named Bunny (Udoffia) – more than 100 grand, and having just gotten out of the joint, he doesn’t have that kind of scratch on him. However, he’s been boinking the sexy blonde wife (Rohrbach) of a crooked land developer named Bob (Espinosa, the poor man’s Dennis Farina) and the two are in the process of divorcing. Tracy (the said sexy blonde soon-to-be ex-wife) is positive that Bob has hidden some of his assets – a half a million dollars’ worth – in the house in cash so that he doesn’t have to pay it to Tracy. Jeff hits upon the idea of robbing Bob and paying off his debt.

He enlists the help of his brother Barry (Miller) and best friend Tim (Koponen), convincing them that the job will be an easy one, in and out and nobody getting hurt. Of course, you know that’s not going to happen. Bob turns out to be home unexpectedly and the cash? Nowhere to be found. Now it turns into a test of will; how badly does Jeff want the money and how far is he willing to go to get it. For Bob, it’s how much is he willing to take to keep it. Which one will emerge on top?

This is one of those movies where the director wears his heart on his sleeve. You can tell what kind of movie he wants to make – a smart, sexy caper comedy with snappy dialogue and humor that doesn’t lie in one-liners but in bizarre and outlandish situations. He wants this to be high octane with not much time spent on exposition, so much of that is done via flashback.

The problem with inserting flashbacks into a film is flow. Caper comedies, particularly, need good flow and that’s not easy to achieve. The problem here could be in editing, but I don’t think it was – I think it was in preparation. You need to know what your film looks like before you shoot it and if you’re ambitious enough to want to do a movie that relies as heavily on timing as this kind of movie does, you’d better know the timing down to the second. Unfortunately, we end up with a movie that’s rather choppy and goes into a flashback just as we’re getting into the story.

The performances are mainly okay although not dazzling. Janzen, who reminds me of a young Kevin Bacon crossed with an Entourage-era Kevin Dillon, shows the most potential as the sad-sack loser who is not nearly as brilliant a criminal mastermind as he thinks. He alone gets the sense of pacing in the dialogue.

There are a few plot holes – if this was supposed to be an “in and out job” where nobody gets hurt, why bring guns? Also, it’s never clear why Tracy tells Jeff about the cash stash. Still, those are minor issues that more experience behind the typewriter will help eliminate.

You get a sense that this film could have been better than it was. Hopefully, we can chalk it up to being a learning experience for Pierson because he does show some potential here. I think with a little more seasoning, he is certainly capable of making some memorable films. Unfortunately, this isn’t one.

REASONS TO SEE: Janzen reminds me of a cross between Kevin Bacon and C. Thomas Howell.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film has the pacing of an engine in need of a tune-up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, violence (some of it unintentional) and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature-length film for writer-director Pierson after having made eight short films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
What Men Want

Hope Gap


She strolls while he snores by the seashore.

(2019) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Screen Media) Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Alysha Hart, Kadrolsha Ona Carole, Nicholas Burns, Rose Keegan, Ryan McKen, Nicholas Blane, Ninette Finch, Derren Litten, Sally Rogers, Steven Pacey, Joel MacCormack, Jason Lines, Finn Bennett, Anne Bryson, Tim Wildman, Susan Tune, Joe Citro, Dannielle Woodward. Directed by William Nicholson

 

Not every marriage is eternal. Some come to an end prematurely; some after a short amount of time as the couple discovers that marriage was a terrible idea for the two of them, while others occur after years of marriage.

Grace (Bening) and Edward (Nighy) are days away from their 29th anniversary. Outwardly, they seem as comfortable together as two old shoes, but there are cracks showing. Edward is distracted, almost shut down; he barely acknowledges Grace. She badgers him, trying to get some sort of reaction from him. She senses something is wrong, but can’t fathom what it is.

Edward manages to coax their adult son Jamie (O’Connor) to their seaside home in Sussex from London. However, he has an ulterior motive; he tells Jamie that he has fallen in love with another woman and is leaving Grace. At first, Jamie is dumbstruck; he can’t believe it. But eventually he is convinced that Edward means to go through with it. And so Edward does.

Grace still loves Edward and is sure that this is just a phase, and that he will soon come to his senses and come home, but it becomes apparent that Edward is gone for good. She gets alternately despondent, angry and bitter. Jamie is caught in the middle, serving as mediator and messenger, soon realizing that he is slowly developing the same malaise that overtook his father, while as he gets to see his mother as a person rather than just a parent, understands that he never really knew her at all.

Movies about divorce are not uncommon, and often prove to be fodder for some compelling films (i.e. Kramer vs. Kramer, An Unmarried Woman, last year’s Marriage Story). Some critics have complained that there isn’t a lot here that’s original, which I suppose has some merit until you realize that this is based on the divorce of writer/director Nicholson’s parents. I imagine it seemed terribly original to him.

What the rest of us are left with are a quest for insight; how would we handle this? Would we ever do something like this to our partner? Could someone who seemingly have the perfect marriage just watch it collapse around them? For this kind of movie to work it has to be relatable; it has to have a frame of reference that makes it compelling to the viewer. I don’t know that the insights raised here are going to resonate deeply with everyone.

That’s where some wonderful performances come in. In Bening and Nighy, we have two often underrated pros who are both about as good as anyone in the business. Nighy plays Edward as the very definition of “doddering,” he seems lost in his own home, a schoolteacher who is obsessed with historic events that happened over two centuries ago (Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow) and seems to be more in tune with the past than he is present.

I often forget how good Bening is until I see her latest film, and then I fall in love with her (as an actress) all over again. Despite a kind of dodgy British accent, she nonetheless nails her role here, giving Grace depth and edge. Often, she is almost intolerable to be around; she is confrontational, occasionally bitchy and uncompromising but it becomes clear that she is as lost in her own way as Edward is. Bening can convey more with a single glance than most actors can with pages of dialogue.

On top of the terrific performances there is some lovely cinematography of windswept beaches and the charming coastal village of Seaford where this was filmed. American audiences, though, may find it ponderous and slow-moving, the curse of the short-attention-span-afflicted Yank. In our defense, we watched too many music videos and video games growing up to accumulate the patience to, say, read a book, let alone watch a movie that requires some concentration as well as some commitment. But, sad for us Americans, the best films almost always require both.

REASONS TO SEE: Bening and Nighy are both masters of their craft.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow and ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on and expanded upon Nicholson’s play The Retreat from Moscow which in turn is based on his parents’ own divorce.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mentor

South Mountain


The happy family in twilight.

(2019) Drama (Breaking GlassTalia Balsam, Scott Cohen, Andrus Nichols, Michael Oberholtzer, Nala Gonzalez Norvind, Macaulee Cassaday, Guthrie Mass, Midori Francis, Violet Rea, Isis Masoud. Directed by Hilary Brougher

 

The stillness of a mountain retreat can sometimes hide the sounds of hearts breaking. This impressive film of a woman evolving after a major blow to her self-worth raises a question: why isn’t Hilary Brougher not getting the kind of attention that is usually reserved for can’t-miss phenoms – because she is certainly that.

Lila (Balsam) lives in a pleasant home in the Catskills. She is an art teacher and her husband Edgar (Cohen) writes screenplays. At a barbecue attended by friends, including her bestie Gigi (Nichols) who is battling breast cancer has come over for an early summer barbecue, as Lila and Edgar’s daughters Dara (Norvind) and Sam (Cassaday) – from Sam’s previous marriage – are getting set to leave Dodge for the summer. In the midst of this, Edgar takes a business phone call in the couple’s bedroom. Lila is a bit put out by this.

You can only imagine how put out she’d be if she knew the real reason for the call; Edgar has been having an affair with Emme (Francis) who is at that moment giving birth to their son. Shortly thereafter, Edgar informs Lila that he’s started a new family and he’s moving out.

We discover this isn’t the first time that Edgar has messed around on Lila. It isn’t even the first time he’s fooled around with Emme. We are informed that the last time Lila found out about Edgar’s peccadillos, she had something of a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Lila assures Gigi that she’s fine, and then shortly after when Edgar arrives to move out some of his stuff, Lila allows her rage to manifest in an unexpected way.

For the most part, Lila is fairly reserved but she has her moments when she boils over and her true feelings come to the fore. She ends up having an affair with Jonah (Oberholtzer) – a very handsome young man who looks like he could be a lost Skarsgård brother – which ends almost as quickly as it begins. Eventually Lila realizes that she needs to pull herself up by the bootstraps and figure out who she is, who she wants to be and how she’s going to get there. For the first time, her focus is strictly on her own needs.

Brougher benefits from some beautiful cinematography courtesy of her husband, Ethan Mass which shows off the idyllic Catskills during a languid summer season. There is also a familiarity about the family home; it belongs to Brougher’s mother and the actors playing two of the children in the movie are her own.  All of this adds up to making the movie feel especially intimate.

Balsam is not normally a lead actress, although she has had a fine career making the most of smaller roles. She does look a little awkward in the scene where her and Jonah feel the sparks fly but other than that her performance is spot-on and raises some legitimacy for the idea that she should be getting larger roles. She is certainly the glue that holds together the picture here.

If I have a beef with the movie, it’s that it occasionally feels like it’s cheating a bit, sinking into clichés regarding Lila’s sexual life. I get that women react to this kind of blow in different ways but there are a couple of moves that Lila makes that seem out of character for her but I suppose that if my wife left me after multiple infidelities I’d probably act a little bit out of character also.

The movie is coming out on VOD at the perfect time. We’re headed into the summer and the heat and the sweet summer wind are perfect backgrounds for this film. Also, given that people are being forced to look for entertainment a little bit harder right now while the quarantine is still pretty much in effect, perhaps that will lead to people discovering this gem who ordinarily would not have. That can’t be a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is impressive.
REASONS TO AVOID: Descends into occasional predictability.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of sexuality, some brief nudity, profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Balsam is the daughter of legendary actor Martin Balsam and actress Joyce van Patten.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen of Hearts
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Postcards From London

Maria by Callas


The legendary opera diva Maria Callas interviewed by David Frost.

(2017) Documentary (Sony ClassicsMaria Callas, Fanny Ardant, David Frost, Edward R. Murrow, Barbara Walters, Elvira de Hidalgo, Joyce DiDonato, Aristotle Onassis, Omar Sharif, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Rudolf Bing, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, Bernard Gavoty, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean Cocteau, Brigitte Bardot, Vittorio De Sica, Catherine Deneuve, Grace Kelly. Directed by Tom Volf

 

Maria Callas’ star has faded. Even to people my own age she’s just a name that may or may not be familiar and to those younger than myself, not even that. Those who remember her may remember her as the epitome of the operatic diva, a woman whose talent made her a household name and whose lifestyle made her a legend.

When diva behavior is caricatured with furs, an adoring sycophantic entourage and small dogs, they are really discussing Callas who developed the persona for real. However, she was more than just a caricature and Volf uses interview footage – much of it unseen since it first aired – and the diva’s own words through letters and an unpublished autobiography to paint a portrait of the artist.

Born in New York to Greek immigrants, she was sent (unwillingly) to Athens to study operatic singing and after the war became a rising star, a star that blazed in the 1950s and early 1960s. She famously had a long-term affair with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis who would then in a shocking turn of events (at least to Callas) marry the widow of the former U.S. President, Jacqueline Kennedy. The betrayal devastated her, although she apparently continued a romantic relationship with him after he married Jackie.

Her life was a lonely one despite the wealth and fame; she had a love-hate relationship with the press and with her relationship with Onassis a defining moment for her, she would not marry again (she did marry an Italian impresario but the marriage ended when she felt he exerted too much influence over her career). That she was bitter is obvious through her words here.

This is an intimate look at an artist who has largely been forgotten, which is the nature of fame; it is indeed fleeting. How many famous people who dominate the headlines now be remembered in 50 to 70 years? For many, the answer will be not at all.

The movie glosses over a lot of the less pleasant aspects of her life, and tends to be unwilling to identify various people talking to and about Callas, so you may find yourself having to Google images of some of these folks. The filmmaker presents Callas as a woman who was largely imprisoned by her fame and gave more to her art and to her lover than she received back from either, a viewpoint that I think is a bit condescending. From everything I’ve been able to find out about the woman, she was very much in control of her life and her career; she was strong-willed and temperamental to the point that people tended to walk on eggshells around her.

I don’t think this is a complete view of the opera star, although watching her rapturous expression as she is singing an aria may well tell you everything you need to know about her. The film also tends to gloss over some of her less admirable qualities, as well as to the very obvious weight loss which may have contributed to the vocal issues that plagued her later on in her career, which only the opera fan may notice from her performances here. Still, this is an excellent introduction to her work and her life and maybe even to her personality as well.

REASONS TO SEE: A must for opera fans and history buffs. Some wonderful archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Skips over the less wonderful aspects of her life.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some vague sexual references, mild profanity and mild adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film by Volf.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Sling TV, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Vie en Rose
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Front Runner

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

Uncut Gems


New York is Adam Sandler’s town; you’re just living in it.

(2019) Crime Drama (A24Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Eric Bogosian, LaKeith Stanfield, Judd Hirsch, Idina Menzel, Kevin Garnett, The Weekend, Jonathan Aranbayev, Jacob Igielski, Noa Fisher, Paloma Elesser, Keith Williams Richards, Tommy Kominik, Louis Anthony Arias, Sean Ringgold, Jeremy Sample, Benjy Kleiner, Josh Ostrovsky, Sahar Bibiyan, Lana Levitin. Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie

 

There are certain people who just live for the rush. That high that comes from risk that leads to reward. These are the people who have their bookies on speed dial, who haunt the sports book at casinos in Atlantic City and Vegas.

Howard Ratman (Sandler) is one of those guys. A jeweler in New York City, his picture is what you’ll see on Wikipedia when you look up the word “hustler.” He always has some scheme going, some bullshit story that explains away the absolute crap that he pulls. His long-suffering wife (Menzel) is close to having had it; his mistress (Fox) who also works as a clerk in his store seems to be the only one who sees anything worthwhile in him. His kids certainly don’t. Most of his employees think he’s a jerk and of course the people he owes money to are about ready to drop him out of a window – preferably from a floor in the double digits.

He has some high hopes in a raw opal mined in Ethiopia that he has been trying to import (illegally) that will fetch him over a million in auction. He also has a thing for celebrities, including basketball legend Kevin Garnett – the movie takes place in 2012 when KG was with the Boston Celtics fighting in the playoffs against Philly. Howard wants to sell him some bling; KG has taken a shine to the opal. He borrows it (using his championship rings as collateral) and has a monster game, which Howard bets heavily on. He is juggling chainsaws, trying to move money around to satisfy the bookies who are sending increasingly irritable muscle to collect. Howard, though, is making moves, knowing that every move he makes may be his last.

It is not surprising that Martin Scorsese is one of the producers for this movie; the film has a gritty Mean Streets-kind of feel. The Safdie Brothers, who are best known for Good Time, know how to create characters who are basically unlikable but casting them so perfectly that you end up rooting for them. There is little to commend in Howard but because it is Adam Sandler playing him, you can’t help but hope the guy makes it through even though the odds are against him.

Sandler, who emerged from Saturday Night Live as a movie star with plenty of charisma and charm, has been suffering through a series of truly bad movies over the last years but his performance here cements his reputation as a dramatic actor of depth and talent. He’s got a legitimate shot at the Best Actor Oscar this year and he simply owns the screen from the moment he steps on it – even when it’s his colon that is the subject (don’t ask).

The big issues that keep this from getting a perfect score start with the score; it’s bad. I mean, the kind of bad that would ruin a lesser movie. It’s like Vangelis and Raffi had a love child and the proud parents gave him a toy synthesizer. Also, the Safdies sometimes seem far more concerned with style over substance. They displayed that more in their previous films, but perhaps their association with Scorsese has tempered that tendency. It detracts from the movie when they get into “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” mode.

The last 20 minutes of this movie are incredible, edge-of-your-seat kind of stuff. The tension that the Safdie brothers have built really pays off and it’s almost impossible to look away from the screen as things come to a head. This is not a movie for the faint of heart; those sorts are liable to get palpitations watching Howard try to survive and win his last bet.

This isn’t an easy movie to love but you might just end up doing it. I find myself thinking more highly of it now than I did when I walked out of the theater. This is the kind of movie that is going to have some pull in the Oscar conversation this year and while it may be a bit of an underdog for some of the bigger awards, it is certainly one of the best movies of the year regardless.

REASONS TO SEE: Possibly Adam Sandler’s finest performance. The lasts 20 minutes are absolutely riveting. A totally unexpected ending.
REASONS TO AVOID: Most. Annoying. Soundtrack. Ever.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a plentiful of f-bombs, along with a fair amount of violence (some of it startling), some sexual content and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house used for the exterior of Howard’s Long Island home is the same house used for the exterior of Freddie Mercury’s home in Bohemian Rhapsody.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Owning Mahowny
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

Broken Ghost


Most teen angst can be relieved by soulful guitar player.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All About Nina


The comedian is hard to spot.

(2018) Dramedy (The Orchard) Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Common, Chace Crawford, Camryn Manheim, Jay Mohr, Mindy Sterling, Angelique Cabral, Clea DuVall, Kate del Castillo, Beau Bridges, Nicole Byer, Todd Louiso, Victor Rasuk, Pam Murphy, Sonoya Mizuno, Melonie Diaz, Elizabeth Masucci, Cate Freedman, Grace Shen. Directed by Eva Vives

 

Some movies are pretty much what you expect them to be. They chug along, doing what you imagined they’d do, making the plot points you expected from them, following a tried and true formula. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’ve seen plenty of really entertaining movies that were also formulaic. Then again, there are movies like All About Nina that are motoring along at a brisk pace, fulfilling every one of your expectations to the point where you think you’re going to give a mediocre review. Then one scene comes along, elevates the movie into something special and blows all your preconceptions out of the water, leaving you breathless.

Nina Geld (Winstead) is a stand-up comedian who has been banging her head against the wall of male hegemony in the stand-up business. Her act has a lot of anger in it as she reaches across taboo lines like diarrhea and menstruation and keeps on going until she can find another line to cross. She is involved in a relationship with a married cop (Crawford) who beats her up from time to time. Her life is, in a nutshell, going nowhere.

She decides to shake things up a bit and heads out to Los Angeles to try and get a special on the Comedy Prime network. Supported by her very pregnant agent (Cabral), Nina moves in with a sweet New Age sort (del Castillo) and soon begins to make some noise in the L.A. comedy clubs. Her self-destructive impulses however have followed her from New York; too much drinking, too much sex with the wrong guys…that kind of thing. Then she meets Nate (Common), a contractor who takes an interest in her as she does in him. Suddenly there are possibilities. The network is interested in her as well but it all comes crashing down, leading her to a confessional standup session where everything comes out.

That confessional standup sequence is alone worth seeing. It is one of the most mind-blowing, heart-rending sequences I’ve seen in a film this year. Winstead is not a stand-up comic but she does a credible job with her delivery here. She also brings an animal intensity to the role that gives Nina the kind of edge that we rarely see in movies since the ‘70s. She’s been on a roll of late and hopefully we will start to see her in the kind of prestige roles she is well-suited for.

Common also excels here. He’s a bit on the Zen side in terms of being calm, cool and collected in the face of Hurricane Nina but he’s such a good boyfriend type that one wonders why he hasn’t gotten more romantic lead roles before now. Hopefully this will lead to a good many more of that sort of parts and I’m sure there are plenty of ladies who’d agree with me on that point.

The movie can be difficult to watch; Nina has a self-destructive streak a mile wide and can be unpleasant to be around. She is bitchy at times and a rage bomb at others. Her stand-up routine is not for the faint of heart or of stomach and those who are offended by profanity might as well give it up – there are sailors who would blanch at the filth that comes out of Nina’s mouth both on and off stage. However, if you have the stomach for it and the patience for it, this is a movie that has been slowly rolling out around the country that deserves a look if it’s playing anywhere near you.

REASONS TO GO: One scene elevates this movie into something special. Winstead and Common deliver solid performances.
REASONS TO STAY: A good deal of L.A. stereotypes infests the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some of it graphic. There is also brief violence, nudity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Vives’ feature film debut. She is known previously for writing the story for Raising Victor Vargas.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Roosevelt
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Church

Murder on the Cape (Murder on Cape Cod)


A romantic and picturesque image does not a great movie make.

(2017) True Crime Drama (Vision) Josh Walther, Jade Harlow, Heather Egeli, Tim Misuradze, Chris Lazzaro, Kevin Cotter, John Clayton, Sarah MacDonnell, Bragan Thomas, Bryce Egeli, Christina Egeli, Tobias Everett, Lisa Hayes, Alison Hyder. Directed by Arthur Egeli

 

This film, which has made some film festival appearances before moving on to various streaming and VOD services, is based on the real-life murder of fashion writer Christa Worthington. The crime has been the subject of a 48 Hours investigation and more recently a video podcast by the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 revisiting the crime.

As with most true crime films some of the details are changed but we’ll get to that in a moment. In Murder on the Cape fashion writer Elizabeth Baldwin (Harlow) has moved from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the quiet and picturesque New England fishing village of Denton Harbor (a fictional town standing in for the real location of Truro, Massachusetts). Mike Luna (Walther), an unemployed fisherman who is delivering firewood to help make ends meet for his family, brings some to Baldwin who takes a liking to the handsome and burly Mike.

Mike is married to Nancy (H. Egeli) who is supportive but is running out of patience. Mike insists that he’s a fisherman and that’s what he’s meant to do; when a job working for the town police department monitoring the shellfish population and making sure that people have the proper permits to harvest them. Mike considers it a humiliating job but after a dust-up with Nancy he admits that he needs the work and does what he has to.

He runs into Elizabeth when her neighbor Peter Benedict (Misuradze) inadvertently violates town policy and gets hypothermia in the process. Although Peter has ideas about developing a romantic relationship with Elizabeth, she only has eyes for Mike. Flattered by the attention, he begins an extramarital affair with the beautiful writer.

Eventually the inevitable happens and he gets her pregnant which leads to a series of complications. Then when Elizabeth turns up brutally murdered, the list of suspects is long but only the town’s ne’er-do-well drug dealer (Lazzaro) knows the truth about who really murdered Elizabeth Baldwin.

The cinematographer Jonathan Mariande acquits himself nicely with some beautifully shot footage mainly in picturesque Provincetown, Massachusetts. One gets a real sense of the charm of a New England village and of the pace of life on the Cape.

The titular murder doesn’t take place until near the very end of the film and there is no focus on the police investigation that followed – if you’re interested in that (and the story is an interesting one) it wouldn’t be a bad idea to find the footage from the various network newsmagazines that covered the murder. The Egelins and co-writer Ian Bowater focus more on the circumstances of the star-crossed lovers (the real person based on Mike Luna was a prime suspect early on in the case; one doesn’t get that sense from the movie) and on the economic upheaval that brought poverty to much of the fishing community in Denton Harbor. That’s fascinating material. However, those who are familiar with the case may be aware that there are some very significant differences between real and reel in this case.

Unfortunately they torpedo what could have been a much more interesting film by focusing on the more prurient aspects of the affair. The dialogue is a bit clunky and the actors look uncomfortable reciting it. This comes off as a made-for-TV film in a lot of ways and not in ways that I would especially be pleased about. The movie doesn’t really add a whole lot to the genre but there are enough entertaining elements to make it worth checking out if you happen upon it.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is lovely showing off Provincetown very nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels very much like a Lifetime TV movie with somewhat stiff acting and clunky dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, some disturbing images and an off-camera murder.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Arthur Egeli and his wife Heather who co-wrote the film knew some of the people involved in the Christa Worthington murder including the woman based on the character that Heather plays.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Foxcatcher
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Family I Had

Blood Stripe


Kate Nowlin canoe, can you?

(2016) Drama (Tandem Pictures) Kate Nowlin, Rusty Schwimmer, Chris Sullivan, Rene Auberjonois, Ashlie Atkinson, Tom Lipinski, Taliesin Cox, Ken Marks, Greta Oglesby, Sunde Auberjonois, Mason Jennings, Jeremy Johnson, Louis Jenkins, Reed Sigmund, Emily Zimmer, David Clay, Scotty Nelson, Benson Ramsey, Kristen Gregerson. Directed by Remy Auberjonois

 

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing to slog on with no end in sight, Hollywood as well as independent filmmakers have seized upon the return home of combat veterans as a theme with varying degrees of quality. In all honesty, the question I ask myself when viewing one of these is “What, if anything, new does this film bring to the subject?”

A nameless Marine, referred to in the credits only as Our Sergeant (Nowlin) – I suppose in an attempt to make her something of an everywoman – returns home to Northern Minnesota. Picked up by an in-law from the airport, she receives a somewhat muted welcome home from her husband Rusty (Sullivan). It is clear from the get-go that she has got a lot of issues, from an overreaction when she gets an overenthusiastic hug from a drunken male guest at her welcome home party to her constant insistence that she’s fine when she clearly isn’t, she eats little, sleeps hardly at all and drinks heavily. She runs obsessively and mows her lawn in the middle of the night. When Rusty hesitantly asks if she shouldn’t see someone, she says tersely “There’s a wait.” As it turns out, there’s a 129 day wait at the local VA, a situation which has fallen off the radar of late.

She acquires a job working on a highway repair crew but is given little to do. One fine day, she just seems to snap; she stares off into the distance while a co-worker talks to her, a haunted expression on her face and without a word turns and walks off the job, climbs into her husband’s truck and just drives away.

Where she winds up driving to is a summer camp that she attended as a kid. It’s off-season now and the tranquil waters of the lake shore are quiet, the sounds of children vanished with the heat of the summer. The caretaker, Dot (Schwimmer) has a load of work to do and only an aging handyman with a bad back to help her. She takes on the Marine giving her room and board in exchange for her efforts lugging and lifting. When Dot compliments her on her work ethic, the Sergeant says “Nobody ever drowned from sweat,” attributing the quote to a drill sergeant.

The hard work and lovely scenery seems to bring some solace to the tortured soul of the Sergeant and when a small church group led by elderly pastor Art (Rene Auberjonois, the director’s father) she finds further solace with one of the younger parishioners (Lipinski) who acts as their fishing guide. He also has a troubled past of his own.

Still, she can’t outrun her demons; a pair of hunters who blare Metallica from their car stereo everywhere they go trigger a defensive reaction in her and she ends up reconnoitering their home to see what they might be up to. Attempts at intimacy with the fisherman end up disastrously and calls to her frantic husband range from cold to crisis. Can this woman ever find peace?

The movie, co-written by Remy Auberjonois and Nowlin (who are husband and wife in real life), doesn’t give us a lot of background into Our Sergeant which is both maddening and admirable. We don’t know what trauma caused her breakdown and there aren’t the obligatory flashbacks to show us definitively what put her into that state. We surmise that she was either tortured or sexually assaulted (or both) from the scars on her back and her general reaction to men but there are no absolute answers which lead us to make up our own narrative as to her past.

Nowlin is a real talent and she captures the bearing and posture of a Marine minus the swagger. We can absolutely believe she’s been to war and acquitted herself with honor. We can also believe that she’s been through hell and is haunted by demons that we civilians can’t even imagine. Her expression during the breakdown scenes tell us everything we need to know.

Cinematographer Radium Cheung also acquits himself well, giving us some beautiful vistas of the northern Minnesota lake country as well as some interesting shots during the final third of the movie that help us see inside the protagonist’s head. This is a lovely movie to see visually.

The subplot about the Metallica boys seemed unnecessary and contrived; the writers had already established that Our Sergeant had a touch of paranoia about her. It seems to inject elements of a thriller into what was already a fine drama; they should have left it with the drama which seemed to be much more in their wheelhouse.

The character of Our Sergeant is central to the film in any case and she’s a fascinating if enigmatic character indeed. Schwimmer and the elder Auberjonois both deliver solid supporting performances as does Lipinski even though the romantic chemistry seems a bit forced and again feels like it was a tangent that the filmmakers should have avoided. What we’re more interested in is Nowlin’s character and whenever the focus came off of her the movie suffered.

This was an award-winning entry at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival and only last month did it get a brief theatrical release. It will likely show up on some streaming service or another at some point; it is worth seeking out when it does because movies like this one which fly even a little bit out of the box should always be supported and in any case there is enough quality here to recommend it.

REASONS TO GO: There is some lovely cinematography. Nowlin does a bang-up job.
REASONS TO STAY: I’m not sure the metal-head hunters’ subplot was absolutely necessary. The romance doesn’t work very well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, some violence, disturbing adult themes and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blood Stripe refers to the red stripe on the trouser leg of the dress uniform of the United States Marine Corps.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lucky Ones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
All Eyez on Me