The Rental


Beware of dark shadows.

(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight) Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss, Anthony Molinari, Connie Wellman. Directed by Dave Franco

 

The Internet Age has given us, among many other ostensibly helpful programs, Air BnB; the ability to rent out our homes as vacation properties. Millions take advantage of the program, which is kind of a crap shoot; when it works out, you’ll find yourself in a much more comfortable environment than a hotel, and generally for a lot less. When it doesn’t, you can end up in an absolute dump – or with an owner who might not be altogether benevolent.

A pair of 30-something couples – start-up entrepreneur Charlie (Stevens), his hot-tempered and less successful little brother Josh (White), Charlie’s wife Michelle (Brie) and Josh’s girlfriend Mina (Vand), who also happens to be Charlie’s business partner. With a big project looming on the horizon, Charlie and Mina figure a weekend of R&R would be just the thing before several months of long hours and stressful deadlines become the norm for both of them. They find what looks like an ideal seaside home.

There are some issues; when Mina tries to rent the property, she’s turned down. When Charlies tries again an hour later, his rental is accepted. Mina, who has a Middle Eastern last name, cries racism and confronts the caretaker Taylor (Huss) with her accusations; he neither confirms nor denies them, but informs her that he isn’t the owner but the brother of the owner who is rarely home to use the property.

Although the property seems absolutely perfect, with a hot tub overlooking the ocean and all the modern amenities, there is a feeling that something is off. For one, Taylor comes off as kind of a racist creep. For another, there’s the locked door with an electronic lock which just smacks of “something to hide.” As the weekend wears on, the underlying tensions between the two couples begin to surface as the bickering and accusations start. When Mina discovers a closed circuit miniature camera in the shower head, she realizes that they are being watched, and that someone is getting their jollies watching the two couples take molly, fool around and bicker. There’s someone watching them and that generally isn’t a good thing.

Franco, who co-wrote the film with mumblecore legend Joe Swanberg, sets the film off as a slow burn, gradually building the tension until the climax, although that climax takes off in an unexpected direction, like an RC airplane with a faulty rudder. What starts off as an amazing psychological horror film and character study ends up during the last 20 minutes as a more traditional visceral horror film which is somewhat disappointing.

Disappointing because the movie shows the vulnerability of renting from a site like Air BnB; we put out trust in homeowners based on a few good ratings. If those owners turn out to be homicidal maniacs, we have no way of knowing or preparing and certainly no way of protecting ourselves. It’s a chilling thought and one the movie exploits early on before turning itself into a standard slasher film, complete with a too-long coda setting the film up as a potential franchise.

As an actor, Franco relates well to his cast and they do good work here. Most surprising was White, who gives Josh a nuanced character; unselfconfident after his violent temperament had landed him in trouble with the law earlier in life especially given his brother’s financial and personal success, he still has a hair-trigger temper which surfaces late in the film. Most of the rest of the way he seems like a genuinely sweet guy with difficulty believing in himself.

Slasher fans will find the movie a little too slow-developing for their tastes (unless they love psychological horror films that build gradually as well) and the frenetic ending will disappoint fans of psychological horror. Nevertheless this is a strong debut from Franco and while it isn’t likely to have the impact that his brother James’ debut did, it makes for some marvelous summertime genre viewing.

REASONS TO SEE: A true slow burn. The cast is terrific, but White is a real find.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is just too ludicrous to ignore.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is profanity, drug use, sexuality and graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alison Brie is married to Dave Franco, who is making his feature directing debut here.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crawlspace
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Exit Plan (Selvmordsturisten)


A cold and clinical beauty.

(2019) Suspense (Screen MediaNikolaj Coster-Waldau, Tuva Novotny, Robert Aramayo, Jan Bijvoet, Sonja Richter, Solbjørg Højfeldt, Slimane Dazi, Lorraine Hilton, Kaya Wilkins, Johanna Wokalek, Peder Thomas Pedersen, Mette Lysdahl, Vibeke Hastrup, Anders Mossling, Per Egil Aske, Kate Ashfield, Christine Albeck Børge. Directed by Jonas Alexander Arnby

 

Sometimes, just coincidentally, more than one movie gets released at about the same time with a similar theme or subject matter, like Armageddon and Deep Impact. This week, there are two movies dealing with assisted suicide, or Death with Dignity (the previously reviewed Here Awhile is the other one). This is the second.

But whereas Here Awhile dealt with the subject as a straightforward drama, examining how the intention of ending one’s life affected those around them, this is something else. Max (Coster-Waldau) is an insurance investigator, although judging from his personality he might have been better suited to be an insurance company accountant. He has a pair of glasses and a moustache, and you think that a hunk like Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) would rock that look. Think Stephen Root in Office Space and you’ll understand nobody could rock this look.

A client of his company, Alice Dinesen (Richter) who most definitely did not have a farm in Africa, wants to collect the life insurance from her husband Arthur (Mossling), who has been missing for more than a year. The only evidence she has that he’s gone is a video that was mailed to her by the Hotel Aurora in which her husband announced that he was taking his own life and that by the time she receives the video he will be dead. Alas, there is no body so the company is not willing to pay – no corpse, no cash, as they like to say in the life insurance biz.

Max is only too happy to look into the hotel, because he has some thoughts in that direction as well. You see, Max has an inoperable brain tumor that is growing larger by the day and soon he will be looking at a loss of identity and dignity. After overhearing his significant other (Novotny) tell a friend that she doesn’t know how much longer she can put up with Max (she’s unaware of his medical condition), he decides he will take advantage of the hotel’s services.

At first, it seems like he’s made a good choice. The hotel is absolutely spectacular, nestled in the mountains of Scandinavia, a modern steel and glass beauty with comfortable Danish design. There are hot tubs for soaking, massage therapists, gourmet meals in a restaurant with a spectacular view, tea laced with opium – all the amenities of a five-star hotel. They offer a passing away experience that is painless (or painful, if that’s what he wants) in the environment of his choice. Sounds like a killer deal.

But Max is beginning to have second thoughts and things turn sinister. He is told “You can leave, but you cannot escape” which sounds to me like writer Rasmus Birch was listening to The Eagles’ “Hotel California” on an endless loop when he wrote this. He begins to see things that may or may not be there – or is that his tumor asserting itself? Or something else?

The writer and director made some odd choices for this film. For one, they take the charismatic Coster-Waldau, a handsome man with a charismatic screen presence, and reduce him to a milquetoast. Fans of Jamie Lannister are going to be throwing things at the screen, although to be fair I’m sure the fact that this role is as far from Jamie as it’s possible to get was part of the appeal for Coster-Waldau.

It’s also got terrific set and production design; the hotel is cold, clinical with odd warm accents but there is no feeling of humanity here. The hotel staff are largely smiling automatons who make the adjective “pleasant” a pejorative. The natural beauty around the hotel is nice as well, but the whole screen tone has a wintry feel, which I do believe is on purpose.

The movie has some high aspirations to examine the relationship between life and death, and the morality thereof. There are some hints of paranormal elements, but they never really come to fruition unless you decide that the fairly ambiguous ending means something along those lines (I’m being purposely vague here as not to spoil things) but if you take into account that a man with a brain tumor might not be the most reliable narrator, well, you do the math.

I have to say that although there were things I liked about the film, I do believe that in the end its reach exceeded its grasp. I don’t think the movie was a failure per se, but suffice to say that I don’t think that it was successful in what I believe it was aiming for. They swung for the fences but ended up legging out an infield single, in other words.

REASONS TO SEE: Possessed of a cold, sterile beauty.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too clinical.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coster-Waldau and Aramayo were both members of the sprawling Game of Thrones cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews, Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark City
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Velvet Buzzsaw

This Teacher


Sign of the times.

 (2019) Thriller (Breaking GlassHafsia Herzi, Sarah Kazemy, Kevin Kane, Lucy Walters, Gabe Fazio, Lev Gorn, Lawrence Novak, Rebekah Del Rio. Directed by Mark Jackson

 

We don’t always get to choose how we are defined. We may see ourselves one way,  but the world insists on putting its labels and prejudices on us. A beautiful French Muslim girl, therefore, is looked at as a hijab-wearing potential terrorist despite the fact wshe doesn’t wear a hijab nor does she seem interested in detonating bombs.

Hafsia (Herzi) has taken up her friend Zarah’s (Kazemy) offer to visit her in New York, paying for Hafsia’s plane ticket. Zarah is now an actress, living with Heath, a much older rich white man (Fazio) and essentially turning her back on her past, drinking, wearing revealing dresses and Westernizing her name to Sarah. Hafsia, for her part, has remained provincial, a cashier in a bakery who, as Zarah tells her partner late one night, smells bad, like the world Zarah fled. Zarah is unaware that Hafsia can hear her.

With the reunion between the two childhood friends going catastrophically, Hafsia arranges to rent a cabin in upstate New York, taking Zarah’s identity as well, professing to be a nurse (the profession Zarah was in before she came to America) and living the rustic life in the woods, with no electricity and an outhouse in the back. Her mental state, always fragile, begins to unravel. She meets a couple – teacher Rose (Walters) and cop Darren (Kane) – in an adjacent property and is cajoled into drinking with them. Thus she begins an education into what being a Muslim in America in the third decade of the 21st century entails.

Herzi gives a marvelous performance; sometimes she seems so withdrawn that her physical body language makes it appear as if she’s scrunched into herself. Other times, she is shrieking in fury. Never do her actions feel forced, but there are times, particularly during the third act when she is let down by a script that is too strident by half.

Jackson clearly has a bone to pick with the attitudes of Americans at this time in history (not that I blame him), so when Hafsia attends a party that Zarah and Heath throw, she encounters the kind of subtle, condescending racism that is most often displayed by people who probably don’t think of themselves as racist at all. It’s what you might call “white liberal rednecks” in action.

There’s some lovely cinematography and the score is pretty decent; the problem here is that third act when the movie loses the good will it’s built up and instead of making points that resonate, turns into essentially a diatribe against white Christian privilege and while I don’t have an issue with that – there’s an awful lot of that going around lately – I found it literally to be oppressive in a different way. There is a point when if someone screams at you long enough, you just stop listening and it all becomes background noise. I fear that this film has reached that point.

REASONS TO SEE: A gripping performance by Herzi.
REASONS TO AVOID: The last half hour is just off the rails.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexual situations and frank sexual discussions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Executive producer Reed Morano, best known for his work producing A Handmaid’s Tale, was Director of Photography on Jackson’s last film War Story.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Woman Under the Influence
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Sharkwater Extinction

The Feels


Girls just want to have fun…and talk about their feelings.

(2017) Dramedy (Provenance) Constance Wu, Angela Trimbur, Jenée LaMarque, Ever Mainard, Josh Fadem, Lauren Parks, Kárin Tatoyan, Doug Purdy, Frankie Wass, Luna Wass. Directed by Jenée LaMarque

Ah, the orgasm. One of life’s few pleasures we don’t have to pay through the nose for. Perhaps for that reason, men chase orgasms like they get a sizable gift card at Bass Pro Shops if they catch them. As for women..Well, read on dear reader.

A group of old friends are gathering at a rented home in California’s Wine Country to celebrate the upcoming marriage between Andi (Wu) and Lu (Trimbur). Gathered there ar Andi’s best friend and sole male Josh (Fadem), filterless chef Regular Helen (Mainard), Lu’s sister Nikki (LaMarque) who is straight and enduring marital issues that her sister doesn’t know about, YouTube singing sensation Karin (Tatoyan) and Vivien (Parks) for a weekend of drinking and partying in general.

As it sometimes happens when old friends get plastered things bubble up to the surface. It turns out, Lu has never experienced an orgasm, something that sends Andi’s confidence plummeting. Andi wonders if there’s something wrong with her, if Lu doesn’t find her attractive, if she is truly making Lu happy. As the weekend continues, all of the women will find their own issues coming to the fore but surrounded by friends, what could go wrong? Welllllll…

Very often Hollywood tends to give the lesbian community short shrift, relegating them to supporting roles or comedy relief. Very rarely are any films told from a lesbian point of view even in independent films as this one is. While it may seem to be aimed at the Lesbian filmgoer market at first glance, The Feels actually can and should be assimilated by any audience. This is a very accessible film.

The problem here is that the premise turns into a soap opera by the middle of the film and drama is manufactured rather than earned. While early on there is legitimate conversation going on, characters get to speechifying as the movie progresses. I understand that much of the dialogue was improvised; that may not necessarily be a bad thing but things feel forced in places. I think the film would have benefited from more established dialogue.

Also to the negative side, the movie is interrupted periodically with bizarre interview/confessional sequences as the characters talk about their first orgasms and other milestones in their sexual past. One of them drops the bomb of sexual assault in her confessional but the movie just glosses over it as if it didn’t matter. Now I understand these sequences were completely improvised but ignoring something like sexual assault is the wrong thing to do, particularly given the current atmosphere. Maybe the filmmakers are trying to get across the point that the sexual assaults of women are generally turned a blind eye on by society but I don’t think this is the way to do it. Either it shouldn’t have been mentioned or it should have been discussed. The one thing a film mainly by women shouldn’t do is ignore a mention of sexual assault. Of course, I might be overreacting a tad but I think it’s important.

To the positive side, the cinematography is beautiful and the actresses here seem genuine particularly stand-up comic Mainard who brings most of the comedy here. Her character is so likable and refreshing that I wanted to spend more time with her than any of the other ladies which isn’t to say that the actresses aren’t interesting but their characters don’t feel all that well-developed. One gets the sense that the cast was working with the outline of an idea rather than anything fleshed out. I have some pretty interesting friends and we’ve had some amazing discussions but gathering them for a weekend to talk about life and sex and turning the camera on them wouldn’t make a very good movie. Sadly, this one didn’t either although there were some things worth checking out – just not enough for me to recommend it much.

REASONS TO GO: It’s refreshing to see lesbians given the front and center of a film.
REASONS TO STAY: Despite their best intentions the story turns into a soap opera in the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some drug use and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The ensemble of actresses are close friends in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Florida Film Festival coverage continues