The Depths


Men love to manspliain even to other men.

(2017) Drama (Valor) Patch Darragh, Michael Rispoli, Charlotte Kirk, Michelle Ventimilla, Gia Crovatin, Anthony LoCascio, Hampton Fluker, Suzette Gunn, Michael Sorvino, Jennifer Bassey, Lucas Salvagno, Jesse R. Tendler, Randy DeOrio, Wally Marzano-Lesnevich, Leon Gonzalez, Alexander C. Mulzac, Tom Coughllin, Chuck Obasi, Peter Barkouras, Lisa LoCascio. Directed by Jamison M. LoCascio

 

Sometimes in order to be a successful writer you have to go somewhere you wouldn’t necessarily or even want to. You have to explore places that might be abhorrent to you, think thoughts that are alien to you and become people you don’t want to be. Sometimes, to write a great screenplay you have to plumb the depths.

Ray (Rispoli) and Mickey (Darragh) are best friends and aspiring screenwriters. They have been working two years on a screenplay about a pair of brothers who become killers; one repelled by it, the other becoming addicted to it. It seems like a swell idea and they take their completed masterpiece to a powerful producer but he passes on it, advising the two aspiring Oscar winners to “write what they know.”

Ray takes this to heart, arranging for him and Mickey to go on a call with a homicide detective. Mickey though thinks that scrapping the script and starting from scratch is the way to go. The two men get into a disagreement about the direction they want their script to go. The bad blood is fueled by Mickey becoming friendly with Chloe (Kirk), a prostitute who Ray had been seeing but whose relationship had been falling apart because of Ray’s jealousy and combative personality.

Mickey gets fired from his job at a hardware store because he is consistently late (having to do very much with his inclination to party) and decides to go full bore writing his own version of the script. He also gets addicted to cocaine, which is not a good idea when you’re unemployed. With Ray working on his own script, Mickey has faith in his writing skills and creative ideas (which he has a notebook to jot them down in) and believes his script will be the better of the two…until he finds that his precious notebook has been stolen. Things are bound to get ugly from there.

This was the first full-length feature by writer-director-producer LoCascio who also helmed this year’s Sunset. This outing is dramatically different in tone and construction; it’s nice to know that LoCascio isn’t a one-trick pony. There is almost a noir-ish feel to the film although in many ways it’s more street-gritty, sort of like what noir would be if it had been started forty years later.

Although the main cast aren’t household names, they are solid actors all with some strong resumes behind them. Darragh (Sully, Boardwalk Empire) does a good job as Mickey who starts off as a sweet screw-up and gradually sinks into an abyss of coke-fueled paranoia. Rispoli (Kick-Ass, The Rum Diary) goes from being the heavy to being sympathetic. He’s the most Noo Yawk of the two which fits the grittiness of the film to a “T.” Kirk (Vice, Oceans 8) is not only breathtakingly beautiful but also has the right amount of world-weariness and vulnerability to make the brassy Chloe more than just a stereotype.

The last third, as Mickey sinks further and further into delusional behavior becomes a bit more cliché than the rest of the film which is understandable but still drags the overall rating down a tad. The film also shows its minuscule budget pretty obviously, with only a handful of sets but it must be said that LoCascio manages to do a lot with a little. Nonetheless this is the kind of first feature that any director would be proud to have, and with those two films under his belt I think we can expect a lot more from him in the future.

REASONS TO GO: The film is marked by good performances and a strong story.
REASONS TO STAY: The story loses a little cohesion towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, disturbing images, violence, partial nudity and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won Best Narrative Feature at the Manhattan Film Festival in 2017.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nightcrawler
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
 Ready Player One

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Camera Obscura (2017)


She has no idea just how bad her luck is going to get.

(2017) Thriller (Chiller) Christopher Denham, Nadja Bobyleva, Catherine Curtin, Chase Williamson, Noah Segan, Andrew Sensenig, Gretchen Lodge, Jeremy King, Dane Rhodes, David Jensen, Charlie Talbert, Carol Sutton, Lance E. Nichols, Hawn Tran, Cassandra Hierholzer, B.J. Grogan, Jared Bankens, Les Miles, Rebekah Downs, Emily LaGroue, Ashton Leigh, Tammi Arender. Directed by Aaron B. Koontz

We all have a morbid fascination with death. It’s somewhere we’re all going to eventually but we’re not particularly eager to get there. Still, if you knew the place and the manner of the death of a loved one, wouldn’t you do everything within your power to change it?

Jack Zeller (Denham) has seen his share of death. As a war correspondent in Afghanistan, he has been privy to some horrific deaths in his time, enough to make him put down his camera for good once he came home to stay. He’s seeing a therapist (Sutton) regularly and it seems to be helping, but he has become something of a shut-in, refusing to go to work. For his fiancée Claire (Bobyleva) this is unacceptable; she is a realtor but finances are tight and she needs he intended to start bringing some cash in rather than just sit around all day.

On a whim, she buys Jack an antique camera and helps him get a gig taking pictures of houses for her agency. Jack at first has some difficulty getting himself going but once he does he is delighted to have camera in hand again. He is beginning to feel like he’s rejoining society. However, when he takes the film to the local photo lab, something a little odd occurs; the shots are all in black and white despite the fact that Jack used color film. Also there are things in the images that weren’t there when Jack took the pictures; dead bodies.

It doesn’t take long for Jack to figure out that the camera, which he later learns has been cannibalized from various parts, is taking pictures of murders that haven’t happened yet. He also begins to suspect that the camera once belonged to a notorious serial killer. He also finds out quite by sheer accident that while he can’t prevent the deaths from happening, he can change who it’s happening to.

But the bad news is that all the bodies that are turning up in his photos are of his beloved fiancée and that will just not stand. Jack has always been a pretty mellow guy but to save Claire he will do anything – including murder. The issue is though whether there is some supernatural force at work here or if this is all a product of Jack’s deteriorating psyche.

There are some real interesting concepts at work here and Koontz does some of them justice but others not so much. We’ll get back to the latter in a bit but first the good stuff. There’s a real 80s horror film vibe here that I appreciated, from the high concept to the pulsing electronic soundtrack that recalls some of John Carpenter’s films. While Stranger Things is a little bit more accomplished at setting the 80s tone, Koontz does a pretty good job of emphasizing the things that made that era one of the best for horror films in history.

The lead performances are also pretty strong. Denham captures the feeling of a vet who has shut down essentially which make his later activities all the more shocking. Some critics have complained that his performance is too laid back but I disagree; I think he nails the part to near perfection. He also gets the best line of the film; “I’m living in an episode of Goosebumps” which is part of the comic relief the film needs. Koontz again manages to keep the horror element from becoming too overwhelming which is something of a lost art these days; most modern horror directors seem to prefer a constant barrage of frights and action without letup. A little comic relief actually helps emphasize the horrific elements.

On the negative side, I think Koontz does waste a few opportunities. The “demonic vs. psychotic” element is a staple in horror films and Koontz does a pretty good job of maintaining the balance here but in the long run I don’t think he explores the psychotic end as thoroughly as he might have. It’s always more or less something on the edge of our periphery, the question “is it real or is it all in Jack’s head?” but we don’t get enough of a look inside Jack to really get the kind of doubt we need for this to be truly successful. That may be more of a function of budget than creativity but a few background development scenes might have served the film well.

The movie also takes awhile to really get moving. I’m okay with slow builds to over-the-top conclusions but sometimes we just need to get into the meat of the matter a little more quickly. Yes, I know I was complaining that we needed more background scenes just one paragraph ago, but we might have substituted those for scenes of Jack and Claire having dinner with friends, or arguing over money. In any case, in this age of easily bored movie audiences, it behooves a director to ramp up quickly, particularly in genre films.

Although some have listed this as a horror film (and there are plenty of horrific elements in it), I think that calling it a thriller would be closer to the truth. There are definitely supernatural elements and some scenes of extreme violence and disturbing content, but to me this felt more like a thriller, with more emphasis on the non-supernatural elements. That’s just the way I saw it; your experience may vary.

This isn’t a bad film despite the scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. It’s certainly not perfect but there are a lot of positive elements here that enable the viewer to overlook some of the flaws. All in all it’s a promising start for a young filmmaker who has some big things ahead of him I’m quite certain.

REASONS TO GO: The 80s horror film vibe is alive and well here and the soundtrack adds to the vibe nicely. The lead performances are strong.
REASONS TO STAY: The film takes a little bit of time to get going. There are some missed opportunities to explore a damaged psyche.
FAMILY VALUES: There is gore, violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity and a good deal of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although dialogue places the film as taking place in “the Midwest,” it was actually filmed in Louisiana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Polaroid
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sandy Wexler

Gone


Amanda Seyfried wants to have a talk with her agent.

Amanda Seyfried wants to have a talk with her agent.

(2012) Thriller (Summit) Amanda Seyfried, Daniel Sunjata, Jennifer Carpenter, Sebastian Stan, Wes Bentley, Nick Searcy, Socratis Otto, Emily Wickersham, Joel David Moore, Katherine Moennig, Michael Pare, Sam Upton, Ted Rooney, Erin Carufel, Amy Lawhorn, Susan Hess Logeias, Jeanine Jackson, Blaine Palmer, Victor Morris, Ted Cole, Tracy Pacana, Madison Wray. Directed by Heitor Dhalia

Woman Power

The thought of being kidnapped by a serial killer, thrown in a hole and being left there, waiting to die, is something most of us don’t really even consider. The thought of escaping that hole only to have nobody believe you that the ordeal was real is unimaginable.

But Jill (Seyfried) more than imagines it; this is what her life is. She’s certain that there is a serial killer out there, who has dug a large hole in Portland’s Forest Park, some 5100 acres of heavily wooded land in Oregon’s largest city. The police haven’t been able to find any hole, any trace that there are missing women buried there. Jill has a history of alcoholism and mental breakdowns; when her parents died some years earlier she was briefly institutionalized. She is so insistent that this horrible ordeal happened to her that eventually she is sent back to the hospital for evaluation.

A year afterwards, she is still obsessed with it, although less obviously. She works third shift at a diner as a waitress, about the only job she can get given her background. At night she patrols Forest Park, looking for the place she was taken to. She has been operating on a meticulous grid-by-grid method of searching, marking off each grid with a red pen but she still has a long way to go.

After a night of searching the park she returns home to wake up her sister Molly (Wickersham) who wanted to get up early to study for an exam she had  later that day, only to find her bed empty. Jill checks with Molly’s boyfriend Billy (Stan) who informs her that Molly didn’t spend the night, then later on he tells her that she didn’t show up for the exam. Jill gets a bad feeling about the whole thing, and goes to the police.

The cops who had worked her case, Lt. Bozeman (Pare), Sgt. Powers (Sunjata) and Detective Lonsdale (Moennig) are all skeptical, given Jill’s history. They dismiss her claims, looking for reasons that Jill might not have gone to her test, and all of them think this whole scenario is going on inside Jill’s head. Only the newest homicide detective, Peter Hood (Bentley) believes her.

Knowing that she won’t get help through official sources, Jill is bound and determined to find Molly on her own and will do anything, break any law to find her sister who is the only family she has left. She’ll lie, cheat and steal – and if she finds the man who has her, kill – to get her sister back.

This is the kind of movie that should have everything going for it; Seyfried is an extremely underrated actress who shows here that she can take on roles like this and make them work. There’s also the Brazilian director Dhalia who is best known in this country for Adrift and has made some fine films in his native land. Then there’s Portland itself, one of those cities that should have more films made there; it is certainly underutilized.

Seyfried is terrific here. This is the kind of role that is often overplayed and the lead character can go from insistent and focused to shrill and unlikable in an instant. Jill is certainly not without her demons but who among us wouldn’t do the things she does to save a sister? Certainly not me. If Jill is on the ragged edge, it is very understandable and Seyfried makes her actually likable, even in her worst moments. It’s marvelous work and shows that Seyfried is a versatile performer who can do drama, comedy and musicals, all of which she’s done notably in the past.

Now for the bad news; the studio seems to have interfered a good deal on this project, insisting that the movie get a PG-13 rating (the director apparently thought it should be R rated) and made Dhalia’s life so miserable to the point that he considered taking his name off the project. In this particular case, I think Dhalia was right; the movie would have benefitted from being allowed to go to a harder rating. It needed more edge to it.

Worse still, the writing doesn’t do the role of Jill justice. It’s full of logical holes – for instance, how does a girl working a third shift waitress job at a diner afford to hold on to a beautiful home in a nice neighborhood and send her sister to college?  Since she’s going into the woods by herself anyway, why does the killer need to go to such elaborate lengths to get her into the woods?

But worse still, she has the police doing and saying things no self-respecting police department would ever do. I get that the writer, Allison Burnett, wants to completely isolate Jill and force her to take action on her own which is the crux of the whole movie, but certainly there had to be ways that she could have done it that were more imaginative. And I think the movie would have been more effective as well if the audience were left wondering if the whole thing wasn’t REALLY in Jill’s head, right up to the very end.

Still, the beautiful scenery in and around Portland and especially Seyfried’s performance make this worth a look. Granted, the movie got terrible reviews and I can’t say as I blame some of my colleagues for ripping this film a new one, but I can forgive a lot when you get a performance like Seyfried’s in the kind of role – the thriller hero that takes matters into their own hands – that is more of a traditional male bastion. That alone is worth a look-see.

WHY RENT THIS: Seyfried takes a strong role and runs with it. Pretty cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lazy writing. Illogical plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence and depictions of women being terrorized, sexuality, some drug references and brief harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hardware store that Jill shops at in the movie is a real hardware store in Portland and at exactly the location that the film shows it to be.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $18.1M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, VuduiTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kiss the Girls
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Woman Power continues!

This is Where I Leave You


A rooftop tete-a-tete.

A rooftop tete-a-tete.

(2014) Dramedy (Warner Brothers) Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard, Debra Monk, Abigail Spencer, Ben Schwartz, Aaron Lazar, Cade Lappin, Will Swenson, Carol Schultz, Kevin McCormick, Olivia Oguma, Beth Leavel, Carly Brooke Pearlstein. Directed by Shawn Levy

It is well known that you can choose your friends but not your family. Families can be a tricky thing. We may grow up in the same house, have pretty much the same experiences and yet still turn out to be different people. My sister and I were born eleven months apart but I’m sure there are times that she wondered what planet I’d been born on.

The Altmans are gathering for a sad occasion; the patriarch of the family has passed on and their mother Hilary (Fonda) is insisting that the four siblings and their families stay at her house to sit shiva – a Jewish tradition in which the family of the deceased sit in low chairs, host mourners at their home and say prayers for the dead – for seven days. It was their father’s dying wish, she tells them. When it comes to this particular ritual, they may as well have called it seven days in hell.

Judd (Bateman) is a wreck. He caught his wife (Spencer) cheating on him with his boss (Shepard) and apparently the affair had been going on for a year. His sister Wendy (Fey) is married to a prick (Lazar) and is saddled with two small children including a baby. She would have married the love of her life, Horry Callen (Olyphant) but a car accident left him brain damaged and he essentially pushed her away. She still pines for him though.

Oldest brother Paul (Stoll) runs dad’s hardware store now and is trying to get his wife Alice (Hahn) – who used to date Judd before he got married – pregnant. Finally the baby of the family Philip (Driver) is kind of the black sheep/family screw-up who is dating his much older therapist (Britton) but still manages to screw that up too.

They all come for the week, grudgingly. It doesn’t help that Hilary wrote a best-seller based on her kids and overshares on a regular basis. Also in the mix is Penny (Byrne), a high school sweetheart of Judd’s who is still in town. Everyone in the family, Judd wryly observes, is sad, angry or cheating.

I was surprised to discover that this is based on a novel. The reason for my surprise is that the film has kind of a sitcom feel to it, a dysfunctional family trapped in the same house together. Like a sitcom, the whole supposition here is that a week together as a family can cure all the troubles that plague the individual members of the family and make everyone whole again. We all know that when families are forced to stay together usually the opposite tends to be true.

Director Shawn Levy, who has a hit franchise in Night at the Museum, is not the most deft of comedic directors but he does have some touch and having a cast like this certainly doesn’t hurt. Fey and Bateman are two of the most accomplished comedic actors in the movies these days and Driver is heading in that same general direction. When you have Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne and Kathryn Hahn in support you must be doing something right as well.

Strangely though the ensemble doesn’t quite gel; it feels like a bunch of actors reciting lines more than an actual family. You don’t get a sense of closeness from anybody except for Fey and Bateman and even they seem a little bit distant from each other. Still, they capture the squabbling and occasional affectionate ball-busting that goes on in a large family quite nicely.

Of course, most of the family are fairly well-off financially (except for maybe Philip and his girlfriend is apparently quite wealthy) and the problems are definitely of the white people variety so that may put some people off right there. One thing that works about the family dynamic is that nobody really talks to anybody else. Not about the important stuff, anyway. When Judd arrives, for example, only Wendy is aware his marriage has ended. It isn’t until several days in when everybody wonders where his wife is that he finally blurts it out angrily. It illustrates the inherent dysfunction but then again in a family in which your mother has essentially paraded all your secrets out for everyone to see I can understand why some of them might be tight-lipped.

There are enough laughs to carry the movie along more or less and enough pathos to make you feel good at end credits roll, so I can give this a reasonably solid thumbs up. However, the movie is pretty flawed considering the talent working on it so be forewarned in that regard.

REASONS TO GO: Captures the dysfunctional family dynamic. Really great cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat manipulative.  Unrealistic “sitcom syndrome” ending. Ensemble doesn’t quite gel.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of swearing, some sexuality and a fair amount of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the source novel, Judd recalls a childhood incident in which he observes his mother exercising to a Jane Fonda workout video. In the movie, his mother is played by Jane Fonda.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/7/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family Stone
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: A Walk Among the Tombstones

One for the Money


One for the Money

Katherine Heigl poses for another glamour shot while Ana Reeder has a moment.

(2012) Action Comedy (Lionsgate) Katherine Heigl, Jason O’Mara, Debbie Reynolds, Daniel Sunjata, John Leguizamo, Sherri Shepherd, Debra Monk, Nate Mooney, Adam Paul, Ana Reeder, Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Leonardo Nam. Directed by Julie Ann Robinson

 

Desperate times call for desperate measures. When Stephanie Plum (Heigl) loses her job as a lingerie salesperson at Macy’s and goes six long months without a paycheck, she is reaching that desperation level of which I referred.

So when her cousin Vinnie (Fischler) has an opening at his bail bonds business for a bounty hunter. The kicker is that the guy she has to arrest is Joe Morelli (O’Mara) who was the one to – how to put this delicately – deflower Stephanie and then dump her unceremoniously, making him a first class schnook and a reason for Stephanie to jump on board with both feet.

Of course she knows next to nothing about bounty hunting, so she enlists the help of veteran hunter Ranger (Sunjata) who shows her the ropes and seems to be a little sweet on her (although this never goes anywhere in the movie). Of course it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

The trouble is that Joe – a cop – doesn’t particularly want to go to prison and there’s a really good chance he’s innocent. He’s involved with a rather vicious boxer who may have murdered his girlfriend and may be involved with organized crime. The people who are after Joe are serious and lethal, and Stephanie finds herself smack dab in the middle. With the aid of her informants Lula (Shepherd) and Jackie (Bathe) – both prostitutes – a friendly boxing promoter (Leguizamo), her boss’s brassy secretary (Reeder) and her doting grandmother (Reynolds), she has a fighting chance to get out of this in one piece. That is, if Joe doesn’t kill her first.

This is based on the first installment of a series of books by Janet Evanovich that is extremely popular with the mystery-loving set. Heigl is apparently a big fan of the series and is producing the movie as well as starring in it. One suspects that she had a hand in casting herself in the role, which was a bit of a mistake. Heigl excels at breezy romantic comedy roles; her other action pics have been less successful.

In the books, Plum has loads of attitude and plenty of chutzpah, much more than Heigl conveys here. Heigl delivers the wisecracks but without the strength of character that Plum possesses. Heigl portrays her with a bit more vulnerability than I recall from the books. Now I’m not one of those sticklers for movie characters being absolutely identical to their literary counterparts – that’s not always possible or reasonable – but there are core traits that make the character unique and those shouldn’t be messed with.

Evanovich excels at creating unique characters and Ranger and Lula are two of her best. Shepherd makes something of a poor man’s Octavia Spencer but she does the role justice. I’m not real familiar with Sunjata but he is one of the better performers here; I looked forward to all of his scenes in the movie and he seemed to be the most at ease in his role. He didn’t make Ranger a superman, but he did give him that air of confidence that is needed to pull the part off.

Reynolds is one of the reasons to see the movie all by herself. She rarely makes screen appearances and while this doesn’t exactly rate with some of her finest work, it’s always wonderful to see a genuine Hollywood star (in the traditional sense of the word) at work.

The movie has been getting savage reviews and in some ways I can see the point – Robinson, primarily a television director, seems ill-at-ease on the big screen, creating a movie that seems more suitable for an hour-long network show than a big screen franchise. There’s a curious lack of energy here (although not for lack of trying) and while it conveys some of the charm of New Jersey, it adds none of the flavor, like a plate of spaghetti with no sauce.

Still, I found it pleasantly entertaining and while it’s not a movie that’s likely to stick in your memory for very long, it is diverting enough while you’re watching it. If I’m going to pay ten bucks a head for a movie, I at least want to be entertained and this movie delivers in that department. What more do you want?

REASONS TO GO: Way more fun than “Jersey Shore.” Engaging characters.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels more like a TV movie. Lacks energy.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a certain amount of violence, plenty of language, some sexuality (and partial nudity), a bit of drug use and plenty of Jersey attitude.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are 18 volumes currently in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, all of which have a number in the title in some form.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 2% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100. The reviews are as bad as they get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bounty Hunter

GREY’S ANATOMY LOVERS: Heigl, O’Mara, Sunjata and Monk have all appeared on “Grey’s Anatomy,” with Heigl and Sunjata being past or present regular cast members. Robinson has directed several episodes of the show as well.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Big Miracle