DTF


Fun in the sun in L.A.

(2020) Documentary (GravitasAl Bailey, “Christian,” Neil Jeram-Croft, Nathan Codrington. Directed by Al Bailey

 

Finding love has never been easy, other than once parents made arranged marriages for their children so the kids really didn’t have to do anything but show up at the wedding, then endure thirty years of marriage to someone they may or may not like. Later, when that wasn’t an option anymore, we hung out in bars, dated people from school, work and church, did whatever we could to meet that perfect someone. Sometimes, a friend or relative would make an introduction.

The digital age would make it easier, you might think but anyone who is a recent veteran of the dating wars will tell you it’s, if anything, harder. Dating apps more often than not hook you up with people who have fibbed about themselves, and finding love in the age of Tinder has become something of a minefield.

Al Bailey, an English filmmaker, had introduced his friend, a long-haul Scandinavian airline pilot who is called “Christian” – not his real name for reasons that will become eminently clear in a moment – to the woman that Christian eventually married, but after her tragic death, decided to make a documentary about the difficulties airline pilots face in finding love. He proposed to follow Christian around on a series of dates made through Tinder in a series of cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Hong Kong. Al was hoping that one of these dates would lead to lasting happiness for his friend.

That was the documentary he set out to make. What he ended up with was something very much different as Al realizes that the happy-go-lucky party guy that was so much fun to hang out with was a very different person than he thought he was. Far from looking for love, Christian turns out to be an amoral hedonist with absolutely no empathy for the women he uses so long as they provide him with immediate gratification (DTF is internet-speak for “Down to Fornicate” – except they don’t mean fornicate) and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. Christian also has a drinking problem and turns up to work hung over from time to time, which concerns Al (and you as the viewer no doubt) greatly. As Christian proclaims this party lifestyle is common among airline pilots, Al makes a half-hearted attempt to investigate it but doesn’t really turn up anything concrete. I would tend to guess that it’s more a Christian problem than an industry problem; otherwise there would be a whole lot of mainstream media exposes trumpeting the state of affairs. That’s the kind of story that sells advertising – just not from the airline industry.

The more that goes on, the worse Christian’s behavior gets, leading to an incident in Las Vegas that completely changes the tenor of the film. Those who have lived with or been close to addicts are likely to find it unsurprising and sadly familiar terrain, but for those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid such issues, it might be a bit jaw-dropping. From there, the end is pretty much inevitable.

Bailey is a fairly affable guy and he makes someone that the audience can identify with, dancing merrily with Hare Krishna disciples early on in the film but as the tone becomes darker, the lighter side of Al becomes more like a stern parent as he struggles to rein in the irresponsible behaviors of Christian who often leaves Al and his crew hanging.

Some may be tempted to find alternate modes of travel the next time they have somewhere to be, but again, let me stress that there is no evidence that this kind of behavior is widespread in the airline industry; obviously, given the kind of stress pilots are under to begin with, it’s understandable how some pilots might traverse the primrose path into alcoholism and substance and sex addiction, but one shouldn’t view Christian as anything representative of airline pilots. Hopefully, his employers will have gotten wind of his behavior by now and taken steps to get him the help he needs, or fired his ass if he was unable to stick to it. Addiction is a morass that destroys everything in its path, including careers and friendships, and the movie is as stark a reminder of that as I’ve ever seen.

REASONS TO SEE: A sobering look at addiction. The documentary evolves as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a little hard for those with addicted loved ones to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity including crude sexual references, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmaker and his subject have not spoken since filming ended.
 BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Courage to Love
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me

A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story


Thanks to Bruce Brown, summer never need end.

(2020) Documentary (1091) Bruce Brown, Chad McQueen, Hobie Alter, Mert Lawwill, Jack O’Neill, Kenny Roberts, Wingnut Weaver, Jack McCoy, Don King, Dana Brown, Gordon “Grubby” Clark, Troy Lee, Gerry Lopez, Chris Husband, Mark Martinson, R. Paul Allen, Syd Cole, Wing Lam, Pat O’Connell, Henry Preece, Jose Angel, Wade Brown, Cathi O’Neill, Joey Cabell, Nancie Brown. Directed by Dana Brown

 

In the late 50s and early 60s, surfer culture was a heck of a lot different than it is today; less stoners with long hair on fiberglass boards and more cleancut Beach Boy types with wooden boards. Bruce Brown was a part of that scene and documented it with his seminal documentary The Endless Summer which has rightfully become a classic. He followed up that with On Any Sunday which documented motorcycle racing and riding, again back when most people thought everyone who rode a bike was automatically a Hell’s Angel. Both of his documentaries were not only groundbreaking, they helped popularized two separate sports – surfing and cycle racing – and Brown, perhaps sensing he had done more than most men cold accomplish in two lifetimes, retired from filmmaking until twenty years later when he helped his son out on a sequel to The Endless Summer.

After Bruce’s beloved wife Patricia died of cancer, he went into a tailspin, rarely living the farmhouse in which he and his dog Rusty – perhaps the epitome of a free-spirited mutt – spent most of their days. In 2014, eight years after his wife’s passing, his children convinced him to get out and visit some of his most cherished friends on what they euphemistically called “The Heroes Tour,” as most of these people were heroes to Bruce in one way or another. Bruce finally relented and agreed to go – provided he could bring Rusty along.

And thus Bruce went to visit several of his friends throughout the country, including surfing legends Hobie Alter, Henry Preece, Jack O’Neill and Grubby Clark. He also headed over to the homes of motorcycle riders like Mert Lawwill, Kenny Roberts and Chad McQueen, son of legendary actor Steve McQueen who had become close friends with Bruce after Bruce got him to help finance On Any Sunday. Not only were these men great surfers and riders, they were also innovators who invented the fiberglass board, the neoprene wetsuit and other things that helped make them wealthy.

Most of the men and women that Bruce visited on that trip are gone now (Alter had terminal cancer at the time Brown visited him), but their contributions remain. Best of all, we get to remember them as young, beautiful and strong from their appearances in Bruce’s surfing and riding films. Bruce himself is an engaging character and watching him interact with his friends is kind of comfortable; none of them seem to mind that the camera is there. The only time things get uncomfortable is when Bruce is talking about his late wife and abruptly tears up; it is clear that she was the love of his life and that he is horribly lonely without her. His pain is palpable in that moment.

Because the film is directed by Bruce’s son, it can be forgiven if the movie feels a bit hagiographic; this is intended mostly as a tribute from a son to his father and his father’s friends, and to chronicle a life well-lived which is not always an easy thing to accomplish, particularly these days. Don’t go looking for objectivity here, because you won’t find it – nor should you.

But mostly, this is a feel-good movie as the lion in winter visits his friends, reminiscing about the good times and kidding around with each other as if no time had passed at all. These were the beautiful gods of the beach and the track, whose smiles lit up the screen and reminded us that it is more important to do what you love because out lives, as rich as they can be, are also terribly short.

REASONS TO SEE: A story of a life well-lived. Kind of like a home movie – in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: When Brown speaks about his late wife, it can be hard to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bruce Brown passed away in 2017, three years after most of this movie was filmed; his son still lives in the farmhouse along with Bruce’s dog Rusty.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dogtown and Z-Boys
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
DTF

Greta (2018)


Besties being stalked by a very disturbed woman.

(2018) Thriller (FocusIsabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Zawe Ashton, Stephen Rea, Jeff Hiller, Thaddeus Daniels, Raven Dauda, Parker Sawyers, Elisa Berkeley, Jane Perry, Brandon Lee Sears, Arthur Lee, Rosa Escoda, Jessica Preddy, Nagisa Morimoto, Graeme Thomas King, Aneta Dina Keder, Frankie Verroca, Angela Dál Riata. Directed by Neil Jordan

 

Isabelle Huppert, with 140 (and counting) films to her credit over a distinguished nearly 40-year career doesn’t appear to be slowing down in either quantity or quality. She elevates what is a fairly typical and predictable thriller into a decent, fun time.

She plays the title character who is befriended by Frances (Moretz), a sweet but naïve young woman trying to make it in New York after the passing of her mother. Greta is similarly alone, her daughter studying overseas in Paris. As time goes by and Greta begins to show signs of possessiveness, Frances makes an unnerving discovery that causes her to try and cut ties with Greta. However the lady won’t take no for an answer and soon the two are involved in a cat and mouse game which just proves the adage that in any cat and mouse game, the mouse is over-matched.

This is the second time Huppert has played a deranged piano teacher (the first was in the aptly-titled The Piano Teacher) and she is no less delicious here. Although Moretz is adequate as the scream queen, Huppert is clearly having fun and with veteran director Jordan behind the camera, we are treated to a visually arresting film in which every sequence seems carefully considered. Oh, and Maika Monroe does surprisingly well with the comic relief best friend role, having done the scream queen thing herself on occasion. She is certainly an actress with great things ahead of her.

The problem is that the script is about as predictable as political diatribes in an election year. Anyone who has watched any horror/suspense film over the past few years is bound to figure out where this is going, even if they haven’t seen or don’t remember the trailer. And as with any thriller that is lazily written, there are way too many jump scares, some predicated on musical cues that become tedious and obvious before too long.

The reason to rent this bad boy is the visual aesthetics of Jordan and the performances of Huppert and Monroe (and to a lesser extent, Moretz who is a fine actress in her own right – just not so much here). You could do worse than renting this one – but you could also do a lot better.

REASONS TO SEE: Huppert is delightful as the villain.
REASONS TO AVOID: An unsurprising, typical potboiler.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence as well as a few disturbing and creepy images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moretz and Monroe previously worked together on The 5th Wave.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Single White Female
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
CRSHD

Disappearance at Clifton Hill


Trying to pretend an alien isn’t eavesdropping on their conversation.

(2019) Suspense (IFC Midnight) Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, Eric Johnson, David Cronenberg, Marie-Josée Croze, Andy McQueen, Noah Reid, Dan Lett, Aaron Poole, Paulino Nunes, Elizabeth Saunders, Mikayla Radan, Addison Tymec, Tim Beresford, Janet Porter, Clyde Witham, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Kris Hagen, Connor Lucas-Loan, Devon Hauth, Alanis Peart. Directed by Albert Shin

 

Coming home again is never easy. It’s even harder after a beloved parent dies and you’re there to dispose of her worldlies. How difficult must it be on top of all that when it is the scene of a traumatic act that has shaped your entire life?

Abby (Middleton) is in that latter situation. Her mother is gone and her mom’s one asset, the Rainbow Hotel in the seedy tourist trap area of Niagara Falls known as Clifton Hill, needs to be sold to pay off debts. Fortunately, there’s a taker; Charles Lake III (Johnson), the head of the Charles Lake Corporation (a.k.a. CLC) which owns most of the run-down tourist attractions in town – hell, he owns the town!

What has haunted Abby her entire life was the occasion of seeing a terrified one-eyed boy beaten and kidnapped before her very eyes. When she tells her sister Laure (Gross) what she saw, Laure doesn’t believe her. Laure probes to be justified as Abby embarks on what could charitably be called a checkered life.

But now the events of that Thanksgiving weekend have resurfaced to haunt her and Abby is determined to get to the bottom of it and prove once and for all that she wasn’t crazy. She identifies the boy as Albert Moulin, the son of a pair of second-rate magicians (Nunes, Croze) who at the time were the big dogs in the small pond.

She finds an unlikely ally in Walter Bell (Cronenberg), a local historian/conspiracy theorist/podcaster/line cook at a local themed restaurant called the Flying Saucer Café. Walter also worked with a group called the Diving Bells who recovered bodies from the Falls. “Ever seen someone who jumped into the gorge?” he inquires in a soft but intense voice, “It’s like they swallowed a live hand grenade.”

Bell leads her in the direction of Lake, who has a checkered past of his own and an apparent taste for small boys. Abby is sure that Charles had Albert killed and decides to go out to prove it, which isn’t a very good idea considering that he owns the hotel her mother built and he has the police force and City Hall in his pocket. Still, Abby feels compelled to vindicate herself after all those years in the eyes of her sister, but the cost of vindication could be unbearably high.

Shin is a talented young Canadian director who is very clearly influenced by the work of fellow Canadian director Cronenberg. Casting him here was a stroke of genius because Cronenberg is actually a pretty talented actor as well. He plays Walter as quirky but never a parody of the paranoid conspiracy theorist. His laconic delivery is on the low-key side but it actually adds to the character’s allure.

Middleton, who most know from the Downton Abbey series (I wonder if the character’s name was an intentional in-joke or just a coincidence) gives Abby just the right amount of edge to make the audience call into question her veracity as a narrator. That is really at the heart of the movie; can a congenital liar be believed? Obviously, the audience is rooting for yes, but the final twists of the movie call into question even that.

The score by Alex Sowinsky and Leland Whitty is the kind of dissonant jazz that William S. Burroughs would have loved and serves to keep the audience off-balance. Shin excels at that and it is the movie’s greatest strength. On the weakness end, there are too many extraneous bits of business and characters refer to what are apparently important events that aren’t explained until later. It’s maddening and makes it feel like the filmmakers were winging it ore than they actually did.

All in all, though, it’s a pretty decent thriller that utilizes its Niagara Falls location excellently, even if we get no cliché shots of the famous “horseshoe” falls. Middleton makes an appealing lead and Cronenberg makes a compelling addition. If you’re looking for a good thriller, you could certainly do much worse than this.

REASONS TO SEE: Shin takes his cues from David Cronenberg’s early work; it’s therefore fitting that he cast the legendary director in his film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little bit jumbled, particularly towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled Clifton Hill when it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year, but the name was changed when it was picked up by a distributor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes:69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deep End of the Ocean
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Maria by Callas

Senior Escort Service


In the twilight of our lives.

(2019) Comedy Doc (Random) Shaina Feinberg, Dave Hill, Chris Manley, Marshall York, Naomi Blecher, Paul Feinberg, Mary Feinberg, Evan Kaufman, Hannah Maria Wood, Ikechukwu Ufomadu, Jeff Seal, Marguerite Stern, Chris Roberti, Prudence Lipkin, Meg Griffiths, Jon Cunningham, Hannah Roze, Montalto Sweet Manley, Daniel Lipkin, Melissa Dougherty. Directed by Shaina Feinberg

 

Death, as has been noted in these pages and elsewhere, is a fact of life. Sooner or later, we all have to deal with death – our own, at the very least. Most of us will see our parents pass away at some point in our lives.

New York filmmaker Shaina Feinberg’s father Paul has passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. One moment he was doing push-ups, then later he’s found dead in his apartment. Shaina, who was close to her dad, is having a hard time dealing with it.

She decides to make a movie about her grief and includes her friends and family, discussing their stories about ghostly encounters with loved ones, dealing with their own grief and generally supporting one another. There is some genuine warmth throughout, interspersed with the kind of ribbing that people who really like each other will share. Three of her friends, including her husband, follow her around throughout like a kind of Greek chorus.

The title isn’t about what you might think it is. In the last couple of years of his life, Shaina’s dad wanted her to create a website with that name – not anything sexual, but a kind of means of hooking up people willing to take seniors from point A to point B and offer platonic companionship while doing it – such an encounter is used as a kind of linking device.

Blessedly short at 60 minutes, the movie is kind of a stream-of-consciousness affair, leaping from one point to the next sometimes with whiplash-inducing abruptness. Feinberg is the very image of the manic pixie dream girl and makes for a compelling guide. Interest in her friends will vary as determined by what you find interesting in people.

There are some moments that are touching and moments that are downright weird. Much is made about singing her father’s favorite song, Leonard Cohens “Hallelujah” at the grave-site but as Feinberg wryly notes, they can’t afford the licensing fee of ten grand. They get around it by humming bits of it and uttering a line or two of the lyrics. You’ll get the drift if you’re not familiar with the song (which is one of the most beautiful Cohen ever wrote, by the way).

I can’t really recommend this because it’s so scattered. Sure, there are some insights but in trying to keep things light it sometimes reduces the impact of them. The film could have used a bit of structure and maybe a bit of self-editing. At the end of the day, this is something like a podcast with delusions of grandeur (which most podcasts have anyway) or more to the point, a home movie with a theme.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some interesting observations. Feinberg is fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very disjointed and almost aimless. Morbid and full of non-sequiturs.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult themes and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a follow-up to Feinberg’s short film Shiva, which followed the same format and also dealt with her grief over her father’s passing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play  PlayStation, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
What They Had

After Parkland


This is what grief looks like. as Victoria Gonzalez remembers her boyfriend Joaquin Oliver.

(2019) Documentary (Kino-LorberVictoria Gonzalez, Sam Geif, Andrew Pollack, David Hogg, Rebecca Boldack, Manuel Oliver, Anthony Gonzalez, Dillon McCooty, Emma Gonzalez, Lauren Hogg, Brooke Harrison, Patricia Oliver. Directed by Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman

 

The massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day, 2018 has had a kind of staying power in the imagination. 17 students died that day, and 50 more were injured. Nearly every student and family of those students were affected in a real way by the crime.

While other school shootings have come and gone in the national consciousness – when did we become so blasé about them that they have become just another news story? – Parkland has lingered in the public eye, largely because the students, rather than grieving privately, decided to become activists to create sensible gun laws. They have taken on the NRA and the Republican Party and while they have made some slight inroads, their goals of banning military-style semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 have yet to materialize.

But even that isn’t necessarily what After Parkland is about. The movie which began as a Nightline assignment, is about how the survivors went about rebuilding their lives and carrying on as best they could. Senior David Hogg became one of the faces of the Parkland shooting for his outspoken criticism of the federal government for failing to act and helped create a foundation that organized events like March For Our Lives which many readers may have participated in. However, the film is more intimate, choosing to assume that we all understand the politics. We see how the shootings affected his younger sister Lauren, who lost four friends in the gunfire. We see his mother gruffly fending off the news media as David walks in from the parking lot to the first day of school two weeks after the shooting.

Much of the film revolves around Joaquin Oliver, a 17-year-old who was one of those who didn’t survive. We see his father Manuel, who fled the political turmoil of Venezuela only to lose his son to senseless violence in America, continuing to coach Joaquin’s basketball team in honor of his son’s memory. We see Joaquin’s best friend Dillon McCooty, who tries carrying on, wearing his uniform number in his memory and taking it upon himself to will his team to a championship. We also see his girlfriend Victoria Gonzalez hide her devastation; “I’m good at putting up a front,” she remarks offhandedly as people remark on how well she’s handling it. In a particularly touching sequence, McCooty takes her to the prom, trying to make it as special as possible for her. We get to know Joaquin through home movies and the testimony of his friends better than any of the victims.

We also meet Andrew Pollack, father of Meadow who also died in the tragedy. He testifies before such figures as President Trump and Education Secretary DeVos, Pollack’s rage at the government’s failure to protect his daughter in a school setting barely contained. He tells us that he used to have a great life, but now he can’t smile anymore. He almost dares the filmmakers to ask him anything; “If I can take the death of my daughter, I can take anything.” He sets out to build a park playground in his daughter’s honor. He also sidesteps politics, saying firmly but politely that school safety and not gun control is his central issue.

Some might disagree with his focus, but it’s really hard to given what he has lost. Filmmakers Taguchi and Lefferman admirably remain in the background, generally just following their subjects around or letting them vent to the camera. While the activism is certainly a part of the story – it feels to a large extent that it is a coping mechanism for some – this is a movie about people, not politics. This will likely elicit a few tears and much sympathy and even some empathy. I know that some of us try to avoid anything that reminds us of these sorts of tragedies which have continued to occur in the wake of Parkland. I can certainly understand wanting to turn away, but a part of me thinks that maybe we should face it and wallow in it. Maybe if the outrage reaches a sufficient level, change will be forced to occur. If that could happen, maybe the 17 lives snuffed out almost before they started might not have been lost in vain.

REASONS TO SEE: Raw and very powerful. Shows the immediate aftermath of the shooting and how it affected those who lost friends and family. Uses the survivor’s own words to tell the story.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a trigger for those who have been affected by a school shooting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, adult issues dealing with grief and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: More than 100 venues around the country, including the Enzian here in Orlando, are taking part in a one-night only special screening of the film. Various organizations will be participating, hoping to start a dialogue that will lead to meaningful change –  there will also be voter registration being conducted. For those who can’t make these special screenings, the movie will be available for streaming on Hulu starting February 19th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber on February 25th.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Song of Parkland
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Suspiria (2018)

The House With a Clock In Its Walls


Welcome to the dark ages.

(2018) Young Adult Fantasy (UniversalJack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Colleen Camp, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo, Braxton Bjerken, Vanessa Anne Williams, Ricky Lynn Muse, Charles Green, DJ Watts, Aaron Beelner, Joshua Phillips, Christian Calloway, Caleb Lawrence, Dylan Gage Moore, Eli Roth, Alli Paige Beckham. Directed by Eli Roth

 

I don’t know why Hollywood has such a problem with adapting young adult fantasy franchises from their original book form. Other than the Harry Potter series, every attempt has led to movies that ranged from dreadful to dull and were more often than not, both. This first book in a series from author John Bellairs fares no differently.

Young Lewis (Vaccaro) has been orphaned. It’s 1955, so he has been sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black) in Michigan. Jonathan lives in a mansion that you just know is haunted – all it lacks is hitchhiking ghosts – that is stocked with odd magical creatures, like a chair that is too eager to please and a garden topiary shaped like a griffin that – I kid you not – craps mulch.

Then again, Lewis is a bit of an oddball himself so he fits right in. Along with their prim and proper neighbor Florence (Blanchett) who carries on a platonic friendship with Jonathan, they are investigating the mystery of a ticking clock in the walls of the house that could well signal an apocalyptic cataclysm enacted by the fully evil previous owner (MacLachlan) who is definitely dead but certainly not gone. Jonathan is a warlock and Florence a witch but are they powerful enough to stop the evil machinations of a much more powerful magician?

Eli Roth, who helped popularize torture porn with films like Hostel back in the 90s, might at first seem like an odd choice for this kind of movie until you realize that before he started his run of blood-soaked horror features he was directing animated shorts for children, so he isn’t without understanding of the kid mentality. That’s why it’s sad that the film falls victim to the same trap most of the other failed young adult franchise adaptations fell into – talking down to their audience. Kids are definitely not dumber versions of adults; they’re just less experienced. Sure, you can make ‘em laugh with vomiting jack o’lanterns as Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke (who helmed the superior Supernatural series on the CW) do but that is disrespecting your audience. If you wonder why the Potter series succeeded where so many others failed, look at the way they developed their characters and respected their story as well as their target audience. Studios don’t seem inclined to do that these days, I’m afraid.

Blanchett is a ray of sunshine as Florence and she gets many of the best moments in the film. Black does his best, but he’s a much more effective performer when there’s a bit of an edge to his game. Vaccaro is likely a nice kid, but he’s playing a boy who is supposed to be grieving and the scenes in which he’s called upon to cry for them are just appalling. I don’t blame him; I blame the casting director who put him in a terrible position.

The effects are passable and the movie is loaded – perhaps overloaded – with them. It lacks character development, substituting quirks for characters, and humor that will appeal to parents as well as kids. Toilet humor is the refuge of the faithless, and it is clear that the filmmakers had no faith that their audience could handle humor that’s above the level of a three-year-old.

REASONS TO SEE: Cate Blanchett is absolutely terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Simplistic plot and passable effects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some scary content, fantasy violence, rude humor and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film directed by Roth not to receive an R rating in the U.S.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Fubo, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Showtime, Sling TV,  Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Goosebumps
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Collette

A New Christmas


Life is rarely like a movie poster.

(2019) Holiday Romance (Cinedigm) Prashantt Guptha, Grace Wacuka, Preeti Gupta, Aurora Heimbach, Carl Garrison, Swati Bhise, Harbinder Singh, Vivienne Kjono, Paula Rossman. Directed by Daniel Tenenbaum

 

For most of us, the holidays are a time of great joy – but not for all of us. For some, the holidays are a bitter reminder of what we have lost and how alone in the world we can be.

Kabir (Guptha) falls into the latter category. He is ornery and tends to snap at his friends and loved ones who are trying to reach out to him. As we discover, his beloved mother Aasha (Bhise) died suddenly and unexpectedly during the Christmas season a year earlier. Kabir still hasn’t been able to get over the pain of his loss, despite the best efforts of his pretty wife Shivaani (Gupta). He has essentially put his medical studies on hold and is in danger of losing his place in school. His friend Paddy (Garrison) who gave his mom a job when she needed one is also met with resentment when he tries to point out that Christmas was Aasha’s favorite time of year, causing Kabir to stomp off in a huff. Someone clearly needs a hug.

While at Washington Square Park he meets up with Kioni (Wacuka), a vivacious Kenyan applying for film school in New York and is taking in the holiday sights while she’s in town. Kabir isn’t any kinder to Kioni than he is to his friends, but at least he feels remorse and offers to show her around some of the Christmas sights in town, ranging from ice skating at Rockefeller Center to the gaudy Christmas light displays in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. As time goes on, he and Kioni discover that they have a lot in common. However, his friendship with Kioni brings a stark reminder to Shivaani about past indiscretions and suddenly his marriage is hanging by a gossamer thread. He begins to realize that he is taking for granted the things and people he does have, but after spending so much time and energy pushing them away, is it too late to embrace them again?

Well, it’s a Christmas movie so you do the math. There is definitely a New York feel to the film, from the varying ethnic groups that make up the main actors to the locations where Kabir takes Kioni – including for a slice of authentic New York pizza which made me terribly jealous. There is nothing quite like New York pizza.

But I digress. Even though the movie is only an hour and twenty long it feels heavily padded with the various city travelogue scenes, some of which are repeated more than once. The plot is also wafer-thin and I found myself thinking this would have made a much more effective short film, OR the writers could have developed the characters a little bit further. Personally, I would vote for the latter.

The movie is rescued by the chemistry between Guptha and Wacuka which is completely believable. In some ways, you root for the two to get together but the movie, as with real life, doesn’t work that way. Kioni gives Kabir the motivation to choose to live life again rather than dwelling on his loss. Before you wonder if Kabir is like the ultimate mama’s boy, let me assure you he is not; it is the circumstances around his mother’s passing that has made him so reluctant to let go of the pain. In many ways, he’s punishing himself for reasons you’ll just have to rent the movie to find out.

There is some charm here, and when Guptha and Wacuka are together onscreen the movie is humming on all cylinders. However, the movie does the other characters a disservice by failing to give them the same kind of depth that the two leads are given and it does end up hurting the film. I would say this film is a cut above most Hallmark Channel Christmas movies mainly because the relationship at it’s core is so realistic, but it could have been a lot better. The film is currently playing in select theaters around the country and on a smattering of streaming services.

REASONS TO SEE: The chemistry between Guptha and Wacuka is natural and unforced.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels like this would have worked better as a short; too much padding.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Guptha is best known for his work in The Tashkent Files.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Holiday
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Midnight Family

The Boy, The Dog and the Clown


Two-thirds of the title characters.

(2019) Family (Cinedigm) Adrien Lyon, Gabriel Dell Jr., Kiki Del Vecchio, Kenny Johnston, Jennifer Christopher, Mitzi Lynton, Michael Gandolfini, Khorr Ellis, Foxy the Dog. Directed by Nick Lyon

 

When you are a certain age, the world is full of possibilities. The impossible is possible because you haven’t yet learned about boundaries and limits. Magic is real because you haven’t learned differently. Experience teaches us that there are things that are not real but until then, everything could be.

Adrien (Lyon) is a ten-year-old boy who is at that age of possibility, but he’s already received one major body blow; his father passed away. The two had been close and his mom (Del Vecchio) worries about him. One day while wandering on the beach by Santa Monica Pier he meets a sad clown walking his dog. The clown doesn’t speak per se, other than to make a series of gibberish noises but he manages to communicate his sadness to Adrien. It’s an emotion Adrien understands all too well and he helps the clown turn his frown upside down without a sound. In return, the clown performs a magic trick for Adrien, making a butterfly appear in his hand.

Adrien is entranced and begins to hang out with the clown regularly. Of course his mom is wary but the clown seems harmless enough and when Adrien asks if his new friend can join them on a camping trip for his birthday, mom says yes. They are joined by his Uncle Steven (Johnston) and Aunt Michelle (Christopher). Steven is a psychologist who is concerned about the clown and Adrien’s seeming belief that magic is real (the clown conjures butterflies that nobody else but Adrien can see, and when Uncle Steven sends Adrien and his new friend on a snipe hunt, Adrien actually captures a snipe although – again – only Adrien and the clown can see it.

When the dog runs after a squirrel into the woods and Adrien chases after it and gets lost, pandemonium ensues. Adrien is in a desperate situation with dark coming on and bears wandering around nearby. It will take some real magic to get Adrien back home safely.

Nick Lyon is best known for directing direct-to-cable movies for The Asylum, a production group that specializes in genre B-movies, some of which are fairly violent. This is as far from that kind of film as you can get; there is definitely a family tone here and the movie is suitable for all ages in that regard.

What I really like about the movie is the mythic feel to it; not in a Disney-esque sense but in the kind of children’s books that I myself read as a child. The clown is not the scary kind of clown (except in a couple of scenes which adults might find creepy) for the most part unless you have a fear of clowns which isn’t uncommon.

The problem here is mainly with the performances. It sounds like everyone is reading their lines rather than saying them. It doesn’t help that some of the dialogue is stiff and unnatural. That really hinders the movie from displaying any charm which a movie like this desperately needs to be successful.

I wanted to like the movie more than I did. It’s not that it’s a bad movie; there’s a lot going for it here, particularly in the concept. I liked Dell as the clown; at least he has energy. So does the younger Lyon as Adrien but the rest of the adult cast is just flat. It’s like community theater on-screen and while that’s a hoot when it’s your own community, it gets to be like watching someone else’s home movies after awhile.

REASONS TO SEE: Contains an interesting mythic quality.
REASONS TO AVOID: Weak Performances throughout the cast.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adrien is the son of the director and the inspiration for the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Knives and Skin

Midsommar


Even hippies can do horror!

(2019) Horror (A24Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe, Henrik Norlen, Gunnel Fred, Isabelle Grill, Agnes Rase, Julia Ragnarsson, Mats Blomgren, Lars Väringer, Anna Ǻström, Hampus Hallberg, Liv Mjönes, Louise Peterhoff, Katarina Weidhagen, Björn Andrésen, Rebecka Johnston. Directed by Ari Aster

Ari Aster, with just two films under his belt (his first being last year’s acclaimed Hereditary) has become in a short time one of the leading names in horror films. His newest is very different from his last…in fact, very different than any horror movie you’re likely to see.

A group of American grad students in anthropology take up an invitation from jovial Swedish student Pelle (V. Blomgren) to attend a summer festival in a small Swedish commune above the Arctic circle. Among those going is Dani (Pugh) who is still grieving from an unimaginable tragedy, and her self-absorbed boyfriend Christian (Reynor) who in fact has tired of her emotional neediness and is looking for a way out of the relationship. His pals Josh (Harper) and Mark (Poulter) are also not keen on having the fragile Dani along on their boys’ trip to the land of beautiful blondes.

Josh at least has the excuse that he’s writing his graduate thesis on the rituals and culture of the region but soon those rituals begin to take a sinister turn. Making all of them additionally crazy is the fact that the sun never really sets at that latitude at that time of the year. As the tension builds with each ritual growing more bizarre and bloodier than the last, it becomes clear that Dani has an important role to play – assuming she survives the nine-day festival.

Aster does a masterful job of building the tension, the feeling that all is not quite well here. While the movie does run a little bit long in my opinion – my attention began to wane near the end – you almost don’t mind because of the palpable sense of dread, interspersed with scenes of unexpected graphic and bloody violence.

While some have complained that the central relationship between Dani and Christian isn’t really fleshed out, I would argue that it doesn’t need to be. We know all we need to know and we can focus on the more meaty material within. Aster did a bang-up job on research and while the movie was filmed mostly in Hungary, it does a great job of conjuring up rural Scandinavia.

I don’t want to get into too much detail about what happens during the course of the film – the less you know, the more impact it will have – and giving it a more thorough review might well spoil some of the surprises therein. However, suffice to say that this is not only one of the best horror movies of the year, it is one of the best films of the year period. If you aren’t the squeamish sort, this is worth checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: A very creepy vibe. Clearly well-researched. Swedes are batshit crazy! Increases the “something is rotten in Sweden” tone exponentially.
REASONS TO AVOID: Just a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing images, ritualistic violence, graphic nudity, sexuality, brief drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the Swedish spoken in the film is deliberately not subtitled, giving the audience the same set of isolation and confusion that the English-speaking characters must have felt.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wicker Man
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Day 4 of Six Days of Darkness!