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!

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again


They’re with the band.

(2018) Musical (UniversalLily James, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Andy Garcia, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgǻrd, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Cher, Alexa Davies, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Meryl Streep, Josh Dylan, Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, Omid Djalili, Anastasia Hille, Anna Antoniades, Maria Vacratsis, Naoko Mori. Directed by Ol Parker

 

I have to confess that I’ve always had a soft spot for the music of ABBA, the Swedish pop group that lit up the charts in the 70s and 80s. Mamma Mia, the musical that utilized the band’s extensive catalogue of hits to celebrate a young girl’s wedding as she tries to figure out which of three possibilities is her biological father. It was a major hit – in 2008. Ten years almost to the day, the sequel arrives.

In it, Sophie (Seyfried), the bride from the first film, is trying to renovate her mother’s Greek Island hotel. Her mamma Donna (Streep) has passed away and poor Sophie is trying to balance mourning for her mom, getting the hotel ready for opening night and dealing with a rocky relationship (she’s separated from husband Sky (Cooper) although she is pregnant). With nearly everyone from the first film returning, along with Cher as Donna’s estranged mom and Andy Garcia as the hotel’s manager, there is a familiarity about the terrain. There are also flashbacks showing Donna’s shenanigans leading to her coming to the Greek islands and getting involved with three different men. The luminescent Lily James plays the younger Donna and she does a terrific job, but she’s no Meryl Streep and the film feels her absence keenly. Streep does return for the most haunting scene in the film as a benevolent ghost observing her granddaughter’s christening.

The plot is essentially an excuse for the musical numbers which I suppose could be said for some classic musicals as well, but here it seems especially glaring. Part of the reason is that the bulk of ABBA’s better-known hits were used in the first film and much of the soundtrack here is made up of album tracks and B-sides so the movie loses much of the familiarity factor that made the first film charming.

Streep’s scene and Cher’s two musical numbers are both the showstoppers here; most of the other numbers are forgettable and kind of repetitive. Also, the beautiful Greek island location of the first film has been swapped out for Croatia in the second; not quite the same. I just didn’t get the same warm fuzzies I got from the first film, more’s the pity. There’s definitely a market for this and I know my wife and son thoroughly enjoyed this way more than I did; however, I found it to be only minimally entertaining at best.

REASONS TO SEE: Streep and Cher are big highlights
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is terribly flimsy. Streep’s absence is keenly felt throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mildly sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep is distantly related to both Cher (15th cousin) who plays her mother, and James (9th cousin) who plays her younger self.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Movies Anywhere Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jersey Boys
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Little Monsters

A Faithful Man (L’homme fidėle)


Sometimes tenderness can be found in a teacup.

(2018) Romance (Kino-LorberLouis Garrel, Laetitia Casta, Lily-Rose Depp, Joseph Engel, Diane Courselle, Vladislav Galard, Bakary Sangarė, Kiara Carriėre, Dali Benssalah, Arthur Igual. Directed by Louis Garrel

 

Occasionally, life blindsides us. We go along, thinking things are just peachy keen when out of the blue we are hit in the face by some event destined to change our lives forever. Sometimes though, the path we are on is merely a detour rather than an entirely new road.

Abel (Garrel) is a college student living with his girlfriend Marianne (Casta) in her Paris apartment. The two have been friends since high school and as far as Abel is concerned things are going swimmingly well. That’s when she corrals him just before he’s headed for class with a “got a sec?” conversation that turns out to be a little more than a brief “Oh, and by the way…” subject. It turns out that Marianne is pregnant…and Abel isn’t the father. His best friend Paul is…and Marianne means to marry Paul and raise his son with him. Which means Abel has ten days to move out.

Abel takes it remarkably well but then again, the French are certainly more civilized than we Americans when it comes to matters of the heart. An American might have pulled out an AR-15 and shot her in the face and then gone out to hunt down her family…and Paul’s. Fortunately, this isn’t that kind of film.

Flash forward nine years later and Paul has passed away suddenly, Abel has lost contact with both Marianne and Paul over the intervening years and become a journalist. Hearing about his former best friend’s demise, Abel decides to pay his respects and strikes up a conversation with Marianne and eventually giving her and her son Joseph (Engel) a ride home from the cemetery. Eventually Abel and Marianne begin meeting for lunch and before you know it, voila! Abel is back living with Marianne and Joseph.

Joseph is none too pleased with this development and tries to convince Abel that his mother – in collusion with her doctor lover (Galard) – poisoned Paul. He’s fairly effective at it too – Abel ends up conducting an investigation of his own. And just to complicate matters (too late!), it turns out that Paul’s little sister Eve (Depp) has had a massive crush on Abel over the years and now that she’s grown into a woman, thinks that she would be the perfect mate for Abel and that Marianne, who already has proven that she doesn’t really love Abel that much by giving him up a decade previously, should just give him up. Marianne then suggests that Abel move in with Eve and find out whether his heart lies with Eve or with Marianne. Ah, France!

Garrel – a third-generation actor and second-generation director – has delivered a brief but punchy romance that has elements of a comedy (although the comedy is bone-dry here) as well as some genuinely moving moments that while not the lightest and frothiest of French romances, certainly has the sophistication of one. I don’t know if I personally could forgive a former girlfriend who dumped me for my best friend with whom she had been having an affair for a year and even resume a romantic relationship after my friend kicked the bucket, but then again I’m not French. I don’t have the grace to get past my hurt and anger.

Garrel makes for a smoldering romantic lead. As a director, he has a few fine moves, such as when he says in a voiceover “I never knew how to talk to children” and then goes right out and displays why in a conversation with Joseph who is playing him, as Danny DeVito might say, like a harp from Hell. It helps that the script was co-written with frequent Luis Brunel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, who has amongst his credits The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

The three leads of the triangle – Garrel, Casta and Depp (yes, she’s Johnny’s baby girl) – all perform ably here, particularly Depp who gives Eve dignity without desperation, obsessiveness without creepiness. In the end, Eve is cursed by getting exactly what she wants and isn’t that usually the way?

In any case, I will freely admit that Gallic romances are the finest in all of cinema, and while this isn’t the finest example of the genre, it certainly is a solid one. This is still making the rounds of art house cinemas and should be available to stream in a few months as of this writing. Those who love French films should check it out as should lovers of movies of all flags.

REASONS TO SEE: Nobody understands affairs of the heart like the French.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some might find the comedy a bit on the dry side.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Garrel and Casta are married in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paris Can Wait
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Stuck

The Peanut Butter Falcon


Getting away from it all.

(2019) Dramedy (Roadside AttractionsShia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zach Gottsagen, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal, Yelawolf, Jake Roberts, Mick Foley, Raquel Aurora, Michael Berthold, Deja Dee, Lee Spencer, Rob Thomas, Mark Helms, Dylan Odom, Nick Morbitt, Noah Hein, Annie Jamison, Susan McPhail, Karen B. Greer. Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz

 

Some movies have their hearts in the right place. You can tell that there’s a sincere desire to shine a light on the marginalized, or tell a story close to the heart of those telling it. But lofty as those ambitions might be, they are not always realized on celluloid.

Zak (Gottsagen) is a young man with Down’s Syndrome who has been warehoused in a nursing home simply because the state has nowhere else to put him. Abandoned by his parents, he is left to rot amongst old folks waiting to die. Zak makes it from day to day because of a dream – to attend the wrestling school of his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Church) and become a professional wrestler himself.

Although treated kindly by nurse’s aide Eleanor (Johnson), Zak knows that he has to get out of there or risk watching life pass him by with his dreams unfulfilled. With the help of his roommate, crusty old Carl (Dern, who has made a career of portraying cranky old men) and some strategically applied soap, Carl wriggles out of the barred window wearing only his tighty whities and escapes to find his dream.

Tyler (LaBeouf) wants little more than to be left alone and be able to support himself by crabbing on the boat left to him by his older brother (Bernthal) who passed away recently. However, Tyler is one of those guys who is his own worst enemies – drinking too much, drowning in anger issues and playing by his own rules when it suits him, even if his rules supersede the rules of society and decency. On the run with some angry Outer Banks crabbers out for his blood, he and Zak meet and despite Tyler’s initial reluctance, decide to travel together at least as far as Aden, NC (site of the wrestling school) while Tyler high-tails it to Jupiter, Florida afterwards. With Eleanor desperately chasing after Zak, Tyler and Zak find themselves sailing on a raft through the by-waters and estuaries of the Outer Banks in a desperate bid for the freedom that has eluded the both of them all their lives.

This is sort of like Huckleberry Finn by way of the Discovery Channel. The connection between Zak and Tyler is central to the film and to their credit, the two actors manage to carry it off most of the time. The movie never condescends towards Zak’s condition; it is treated matter-of-factly, as the color of his eyes and hairs would be. In a sense, the movie portrays people with Down’s syndrome about as realistically as any movie has ever portrayed them. Again, heart in the right place.

But this is the hard part. I feel like a complete heel for saying this because I think Gottsagen is doing his best, but he doesn’t deliver a compelling performance here. Sad to say, quite the opposite; whenever Zak speaks the film comes to a grinding halt. Lines are bellowed without conviction and you never get a sense of the depth of his obsession with becoming a wrestler. It comes across as an idea that wandered across his radar one day and is just sitting a spell before moving on when supplanted by another. I know it makes it sound like I’m saying that hanging out with people with Down’s Syndrome is annoying and that’s not at all what I’m meaning to convey, but hanging out with this guy with Down’s Syndrome is annoying. I do give the filmmakers kudos for casting someone with Down’s Syndrome to play someone with Down’s and I applaud the effort to bring a marginalized group to the screen in a sympathetic non-comic relief role, but Gottsagen didn’t quite deliver as I might have hoped.

That’s a shame because the cast is marvelous and they all do great work, even Johnson who is often maligned for her work in the 50 Shades of Grey films. Hey, a paycheck is a paycheck and Johnson delivers on the sweet here, although her romance with Tyler comes off as unlikely at best. Still, the movie seems to have a theme of unlikely plot developments.

The cinematography by veteran Nigel Bluck makes nice use of the Georgia wetlands which substitute here for the Outer Banks – apparently the tax incentives are better in Georgia than they are in North Carolina. In any event, the film does its level best to be charming and often succeeds – but often shoots itself in the foot, seemingly taking on a philosophy of The Ends Justify the Means which is a bit disquieting. For those looking for a diversion from the summer blockbusters but can’t wait for the Fall’s Oscar contenders to arrive, this will do in a pinch.

REASONS TO SEE: Never too sweet, never too edgy. LaBeouf reminds us why he was considered one of Hollywood’s up-and-comers not too long ago.
REASONS TO AVOID: Whenever Gottsagen opens his mouth, the movie comes to a grinding halt. Seems to promote an “ends justifies the means” philosophy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the scene where Zak, Tyler and Eleanor jump off the oil rig by swinging on a rope, the actors did the swinging; no stunt doubles were used.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mud
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Brian Banks