Devil’s Gate (2017)


Bridget Regan is having a bad hair day.

(2017) Horror (IFC) Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Schull, Shawn Ashmore, Bridget Regan, Jonathan Frakes, Javier Botet, Spencer Drever, Adam Hurtig, Will Woytowich, Scott Johnson, Sarah Constible, Beverly Ndukwu, Jean-François Ferland, Jan Skene. Directed by Clay Staub

 

There’s something about creepy old farms that just seem to lend themselves to horror movies Old time farm implements like pitchforks, scythes and rakes become all the more sinister hanging in a barn when someone is being stalked by a creature or a serial killer. American Gothic has more than one subtext, after all.

A local farmer’s wife, Maria Pritchard (Regan) and her son Jonah (Drever) have disappeared and suspect number one is the husband, abusive but devout Jackson Pritchard (Ventimiglia). They’ve owned their piece of land in Devil’s Gate, North Dakota for generations and while Jackson awaits the arrival of angels to make his barren soil fertile the FBI in the person of Special Agent Daria Francis (Schull) to investigate the disappearance.

One wonders who called her in; it certainly wasn’t good ol’ boy Sheriff Gruenwell (Frakes) who not-so-subtly warns her to stay away from Pritchard; reluctantly, he allows Deputy Colt Salter (Ashmore) to accompany her. The Deputy warns the Special Agent that Jackson, whom he went to high school with, is a little bit twitchy and is known for his explosive temper. Still, nobody is prepared for the police cruiser they arrive on the farm in to be struck by numerous bolts of lightning. I mean, lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, right?

Well, it does in Devil’s Lake and more to the point on the Pritchard place. Soon it becomes apparent that Jackson may not be as crazy as everyone thinks he is; there are most definitely some things lurking in his basement. There are also beings coming from the sky but they might not be the angels Jackson thinks they are.

The cast is pretty strong with some TV veterans as well as Ashmore who cut his teeth on the X-Men movies. Surprisingly, Ventimiglia chews the scenery more than I’ve ever seen him do before. He was such a compelling figure in Heroes but here he truly embraces the crazy. A fairly high percentage of his dialogue is shrieked rather than stated and when he’s quiet, it’s because he’s giving a menacing mumble. Beyond that, it’s great to see Frakes in a role that isn’t named Will Riker although it is a bit disturbing to realize that 31 years has passed since he originated that role in Star Trek: The Next Generation and the years are definitely taking their toll.

The actors for the most part do their jobs well but they aren’t given a whole lot to work with; the characters really aren’t developed much as writer-director Staub and his co-writer Peter Aperlo don’t give them much in the way of character development to hang their hats on. There are other compensations however; the creature effects are pretty damn good and reminiscent of the work of Guillermo del Toro. There’s also some nifty storm effects although they don’t really break any new ground there.

It’s not an entirely well-filmed movie though. The cinematography ranges from outdoor shots that are so overlit that they look like the sun’s exploding, or indoor shots that look like they were lit by candlelight. Less extremes on both ends would have been sincerely appreciated.

For the most part this is a fairly entertaining sci-fi/horror creature feature, set on a desolate farm in the middle of nowhere a la Texas Chainsaw Massacre loaded with traps a la Saw and some slimy monsters a la Pan’s Labyrinth. This isn’t a rocket science kind of movie but it is a decent enough thrill ride nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the special effects are pretty impressive. It is good to see Jonathan Frakes in a non-Star Trek role.
REASONS TO STAY: Ventimiglia is more than a little bit over-the-top. The cinematography is either virtually washed out or just  about too dark to see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The town itself is fictional but there is a town in North Dakota called Devil’s Lake.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Exorcism
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
For the Love of George

Advertisements

The Trip to Spain


Tilting at windmills is hard work.

(2017) Comedy (IFC) Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Marta Barrio, Claire Keelan, Justin Edwards, Rebecca Johnson, Timothy Leach, Kerry Shale, Kyle Soller, Margo Stilley. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

 

The Trip movies – first to the North of England, then to Italy – have relied on a formula in which real life actors Coogan and Brydon, bringing only slightly fictionalized versions of themselves to bear, travel for a week in a beautiful, scenic location to tour some of the best restaurants and inns locally after which one of them (Brydon in the first two, Coogan here) write an article about it.

Things have changed somewhat since the first movie. Coogan is now Oscar-nominated actor (and writer) Steve Coogan and the success has most definitely gone to his head as he slips references to Philomena into the conversation whenever humanly possible – and occasionally when it isn’t. Rob has a new child in the family and the squalling baby is enough to get him hastily out of the house and back on the road with Steve.

Other than that, it’s basically business as usual; car drives through lovely countryside, stops at lesser known points of interest (to us Americans anyway) stopping at amazing restaurants where a multi-course meal awaits The two men banter at table, breaking into dueling celebrity impressions with Winterbottom denoting the end of the conversation by breaking away to chefs hard at work in the kitchen followed by a waiter bringing out a magnificent looking gourmet dish at which point the two begin a new conversation

Hey, the formula has worked for the first two movies and I’m generally an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” kind of guy, but a little more variation might have been nice. While it’s true there is a more melancholy, autumnal air in that both men are into their 50s and have begun to suspect that their career aspirations may be passing by the reality of their accomplishments, the basic layout of the film is the same as the other two. It’s like listening to an album with exactly the same cover and layout as two other albums, only the songs are slightly sadder than the first two albums but strikingly similar in melody and lyrics.

The draw for these movies continues to be the byplay between Coogan and Brydon, much of which (I suspect) is improvised. The two snipe at each other in a passive-aggressive manner, but hurl bon mots at one another like grenades. The two have an easy, companionable camaraderie that makes it feel like you’ve dropped by to hang out with a couple of old friends, only they’re eating way better than you are. Suddenly that movie popcorn doesn’t feel quite so gourmet, even with the Parmesan-Garlic powder that has been sprinkled on it.

This is distinctly British and like the other two films is actually a condensed version of a miniseries that was broadcast on British television. Sadly, the complete versions of the shows are not yet available so far as I know in the States; I suspect there are a ton of references ignorant Americans like me will not get. Still, It’s always a good thing when you want more of something rather than less.

The movie leaves open-ended (despite one of the more surprising endings of the series) the possibility that another chapter will be headed our way. The filmmakers are certainly missing The Trip to France and The Trip to Greece, among other places although I wouldn’t mind seeing them in The Trip to America somewhere down the road. Even so these movies, one part comedy, one part travelogue and lots of parts food porn, continue to not overstay their welcome. This is the weakest of the three but it’s still strong enough to make me see where the road takes these two comics next.

REASONS TO GO: The easy camaraderie between Brydon and Coogan continues to be a highlight for the films. The Bowie and Roger Moore sequences are hysterical.
REASONS TO STAY: This is the weakest of the three so far as it feels somewhat formulaic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a hint of sexuality, some adult themes and plenty of food porn.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The song “The Windmills of Your Mind” by Noel Harrison figures in the movie and is played over the end credits; a different version of the song by The King’s Singers was played at the end of the final episode of Coogan’s popular TV series I’m Alan Partridge.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paris Can Wait
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Only Living Boy in New York

Wakefield


Bryan Cranston’s glamour shot.

(2016) Drama (IFC) Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O’Mara, Beverly D’Angelo, Ian Anthony Dale, Monica Lawson, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Ellery Sprayberry, Victoria Bruno, Isaac Leyva, Fredrick Keeve, Bill Timoney, Alexander Zale, Hal Dion, Eliza Coleman, Derek Weston, Angela Taylor-Jones, Tommy Otis, Cameron Simmons, Scott St. Blaze, Carinna Rossignoli. Directed by Robin Swicord

 

Haven’t we all at one time or another wanted to be observers in our own lives, to see how those we are closest to react if we were to disappear from their lives? Frank Capra made in some ways the ultimate version of that fantasy with It’s a Wonderful Life but while the message was uplifting and positive, some suspect that the reality would be much darker.

Howard Wakefield (Cranston) is a successful New York litigator. He has a big house out in the suburbs, a beautiful wife Diane (Garner) and two great kids Emily (Bennett-Warner) and Ellen (Lawson). But that’s just the veneer. Scratch the surface a bit and you come to discover that his marriage to Diane is crumbling. They use jealousy as a means of keeping the home fires burning; she flirts with someone, they argue and then they have great sex – until the great sex part begins to stop. The kids are unenthusiastic about being around him on those few occasions when he’s actually around.

One night he returns home from his commute to find a power outage. At his front door is a raccoon sniffing around the garbage where his wife has thrown out his dinner, tired of waiting for him to come home. He chases the raccoon into the garage where it bounds up to the loft above the garage. He scares it back out again but discovers that a round window above the garage gives him a perfect view of the inside of his house. Fascinated, he plays voyeur for a bit until he falls asleep.

When he wakes up with a start, he sees his wife sending the kids off to school and then toddling off to work as if nothing happened. Incensed, he decides to play out the string a little longer. He raids the house for food and moves into the garage loft. Soon she goes from cavalier to genuinely worried. The police are called.

Weeks go by and Walter begins to experience a kind of liberating freedom. He no longer has any responsibilities, no need to conform to what’s expected of him. When a memorial service is held at the house for the missing Walter, he is bemused that one of the lawyers at his firm is trying to put the moves on Diane. He begins to reminisce about his life with her, how they met – and how he stole her away from his best friend Dirk Morrison (O’Mara) by blatantly lying. All’s fair, right?

But as weeks turn into months and the weather grows cold, he begins to experience something unexpected – loneliness. Being a voyeur has its limits and there’s no doubt that the liberation he’s experienced has lost its luster. To make matters worse, Diane has reconnected with her old flame Dirk who has taken Walter’s place at the Thanksgiving table. Walter realizes that the things he took for granted are the things that made his life worth living but is it too late for him to re-enter his life and live once again?

There is a dark almost Russian feeling to the movie that reminded me of the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. There’s an almost absurd element to the drama – does anybody really think that it wouldn’t be noticed that a wild-eyed bearded man was living in the loft above their garage? – and I found that rather pleasing.

Bryan Cranston has since breaking out in Breaking Bad become one of America’s most reliable actors. Yes, he’s done a few forgettable movies but he’s generally always memorable in them (with a few exceptions). This is all him – much of the movie is Walter’s voice-over narration – and he’s in virtually every frame of the film. It’s quite a burden to shoulder but Cranston carries it like it’s a bag full of Styrofoam. He’s very likely to get nominated for an Oscar this year – probably not for this one but for the much buzzed about Last Flag Flying – and you can see why in this film why he’s a threat every year to make the Oscar shortlist.

Garner and O’Mara are mostly glimpsed from a distance. This is all Walter’s point of view so often we don’t hear what either one is saying. They largely use body language to get across what their character is feeling. I have to award kudos to Swicord for sticking to her guns and to Garner and O’Mara for going along with her plan. It couldn’t be easy for either actor to sign up for a film where they had so little dialogue but both are an integral part of the movie’s story nonetheless.

Howard isn’t a very likable character to say the least. Most of the time in his narration he is full of nasty little asides about various people in his life. Some of his zingers are dang funny but you realize that there is a kind of nastiness to him that he might just get off on demeaning others. One quickly comes to the realization that the problem in Howard’s marriage…is Howard. The man himself takes much longer to come to that conclusion than the audience does.

This is an interesting character study but the movie isn’t really an essential one. With a performance as mesmerizing as Cranston’s is here one has to recommend it on that basis alone but frankly this won’t be one of the more stellar indie films this year in terms of quality. It’s solid though and definitely worth seeing if you can manage it but if you can’t it’s not a great loss either. Still, the central theme of going out of ourselves to get to truly know ourselves is well-handled and there is quality here. Definitely keep an eye out for it and check it out if you can.

REASONS TO GO: This is Cranston’s show and he makes the most of it. There’s a Dostoyevsky-like vibe to the film. It’s an interesting character study.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit on the mean-spirited side. It’s interesting but not essential.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the E.L. Doctorow short story of the same name that appeared in the January 14, 2008 issue of The New Yorker which was in turn based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne story of the same name published in 1835.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost Dad
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Alien: Covenant

Band Aid


There are few things as musically authentic as a garage band..

(2017) Comedy (IFC) Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally, Fred Armisen, Susie Essman, Retta, Hannah Simone, Ravi Patel, Brooklyn Decker, Angelique Cabral, Majandra Delfino, Nelson Franklin, Kailash Banerjee Sukhadia, Vivien Lyre Blair, Colin Hanks, Chris D’Elia, Daryl Wein, Jamie Chung, Erinn Hayes, Jesse Williams, Gillian Zinser. Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones

 

Marriages are complex, fragile things that can sometimes be torn apart by the slightest of difficulties. We take it for granted that married couples will argue, sometimes in toxic ways. Relationship experts tell us that arguments are a healthy thing for couples. Experience tells us that they can also signify the beginning of the end.

All Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Pally) seem to do is argue. The arguments are generated by life’s little annoyances – like a chronically full sink of dirty dishes and a leaky faucet that never gets fixed –  and often lead to big underlying issues. Both of these 20-somethings are suffering from failed expectations; Anna once had a book deal that fell through and now she’s an Uber driver. Ben, a talented artist, designs corporate logos when he can actually get his butt off the couch. There are moments that it’s clear that the two still love each other but those moments are becoming increasingly infrequent.

One early hint that things are terribly wrong between them is that when they are invited to a child’s birthday party, Anna has to get really high just to make it through the party for reasons that become clear later in the film. While she is blissed out, she and Ben give an impromptu rock concert on children’s instruments. Later that night, Anna hits on the idea of starting a band – and using their arguments as inspiration for songs.

Considering that their relationship counselor is moving to Canada (quite possibly to get away from the two of them), it seems like all the therapy they can afford. They locate their dusty guitar and bass and start searching for a drummer; they find one in Dave (Armisen), a neighbor and recovering sex addict who probably couldn’t be more creepy if the writer’s tried (and they did).

They play a couple of gigs and they aren’t half bad. In fact, they’re pretty good. Best of all, the impromptu therapy seems to be working; Anna and Ben are arguing less and the dishes are getting done. They seem to be more kind towards each other. A potential record deal is in the offing. Life couldn’t be rosier.

Then they have the mother of all arguments and at last some of their underlying issues begin to surface. Anna throws Ben out and he shacks up with Dave for a bit before running home to Mama (Essman). But there were things said that can’t be un-said. Can their relationship survive? Should it?

There’s a lot to like here. Lister-Jones, more familiar to viewers through her television work including her most recent stint on the CBS sitcom Life in Pieces, proves to be a promising director. She’s no Sofia Coppola – yet – but she has the wisdom to keep her touch light and the skill to pull it off. She also has a ton of chemistry with Pally; the two make a cute couple, too cute upon occasion but always believable. Their arguments hit the right notes and sound pretty authentic to these married ears.

The dialogue is hipster 101 in some ways; everyone talks like they’re in a sitcom pulling off snarky one-liners. The trouble is, I know a lot of people who talk exactly like Ben and Anna and it’s even more annoying in real life. Some people are also not going to be able to get past that both Ben but especially Anna use drugs heavily t get through the pain and have both become somewhat caught in a very deep rut. Go-getters might have trouble with the couple, as those who have issues with hipsters might.

Still, the movie is surprisingly insightful – the conversation between Ben and his Mom near the end on the nature of women had a lot to say and makes the whole movie worth it right there. I was also fond of the dirty dishes as a metaphor for the relationship; the dishes just stood there stagnant in a pile with the couple just piling new dishes on until one of them thinks to clear out the dishes from the sink. So it is with relationships (and Ben and Anna’s in particular); all the negative stuff gets piled on in the relationship and the heap just gets larger and larger until one of them decides to let go of the negatives.

The tone is pretty light and I liked that the humor which was pretty skewed in places kept things from getting too depressing, but some of the humor is a bit cruel and snarky; if you don’t like those sorts of jokes this movie might not be for you. Do look for the cameos of Uber passengers in Anna’s car. This isn’t going to be top ten material for the year but it is a breezy and engaging film that has a surprising amount of depth at its core. Definitely check this one out!

REASONS TO GO: There are a surprising amount of insights, particularly later on in the movie. The music is pretty decent and surprisingly varied..
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is almost unbearably hipster-friendly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a little drug use, plenty of profanity, some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Decker, Delfino and Lister-Jones all star in the TV show Friends with Better Lives.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Llewyn Davis
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Past Life

Wolves (2016)


Game on!

(2016) Sports Drama (IFC) Michael Shannon, Taylor John Smith, Carla Gugino, Chris Bauer, Zazie Beetz, Wayne Duvall, Jake Choi, John Douglas Thompson, Danny Hoch, Christopher Meyer, John Michael Bolger, Matt Gorsky, Cindy Cheung, Noah Le Gros, Matthew Porretta, Seth Barrish, Ron Simons, Gibson Frazier, Jessica Rothe, Lynn Marocola. Directed by Bart Freundlich

 

We look at young people much the same as we look at the game of basketball. Mostly, we see the grace, the athleticism and the beauty but what we don’t see are the pounding, the punching and the ugliness that go along with the game – or in being young. Those of us who were once young may remember how rough a go we had it but we have trouble tolerating that same roughness in the young.

“Saint” Anthony Keller (Smith) is a star high school basketball player who has a good shot at getting a scholarship to Cornell. He’s a sharp shooter in the New York City high school athletic scene who is lights out from three point land. He is attending one of the toniest private academies in the City, has loving, supportive mother (Gugino) and a father who also once had high school athletic glory advising him. But Lee Keller (Shannon), while outwardly supportive, has a dark side. Most obvious is a gambling problem which has put him deeply in debt with the kind of people you don’t want to owe a nickel to, let alone fifty thousand dollars.

Anthony also has a sweet girlfriend named Victoria (Beetz) but there is definitely trouble in paradise between the two of them. She wants to go to college in California while his institute of higher learning of choice is Cornell in New York. The pressures begin to mount on Anthony, particularly since his father is getting more and more abusive and more and more out of control. During a street basketball game, he meets ex-New York Net Socrates (Thompson) who urges him to believe in himself. He needs to do that more than ever, particularly since the Cornell coach (Porretta) is questioning Anthony’s will to win, particularly because Anthony has a habit of passing to friends rather than taking the critical shot himself.

It all comes to a head as the basketball playoffs progress and the pressure mounts for Anthony to prove himself. With everything that Lee has built crumbling around him and Anthony feeling the pressure for the first time in his life can Lee shrug off his own demons and his own intense jealousy of Anthony’s success? More importantly, can Anthony take the next step from being a great scoring threat to being a potential college basketball star?

The word you’ll see used most commonly to describe this basketball film is ”cliché.” The story is extremely predictable, taking tropes from sports dramas both based on reality and fiction. What Anthony goes through here is nothing we haven’t seen celluloid athletes have to overcome before. I will say that the basketball sequences are actually believable and seem to have actors who can actually play ball and look comfortable doing it. That’s not always the case with sports dramas.

The cast is pretty good though. Shannon is an Oscar-nominated actor who always seems to turn in a performance that just can’t be ignored. He is as intense an onscreen presence as there is in Hollywood and it’s hard to take one’s eyes off him whenever he is onscreen. Shannon gives Lee an undercurrent of passive-aggressive rage that combined with his obvious character deficiencies makes him a compelling – not quite a villain but a flawed antagonist. While there is obviously plenty of father-son love here, there’s also an alpha male contest that flares up, sometimes with catastrophic results. One of the things that really caught my attention was that there is a point late in the film where Lee does something unconscionable – one wonders if it is an accident, male posturing gone out of control or worse still – a deliberate attempt for Lee to change the fortunes of Anthony’s team so that he could win by betting on his son’s team to lose. It is not clear which is the case, but it does make for fascinating consideration.

Most of the other roles are underdeveloped or underwritten. Smith is a fresh-faced talent who hints at having it in him to become a big star, but Anthony as written is either too good to be true or too polite to let his feelings out. He is generally polite and respectful of his elders but he isn’t above taking out an opposing player when his temper flares up. Gugino is a very talented actress who doesn’t get the respect she deserves, at least to my way of thinking. She rarely gets roles that really let her shine and basically she’s the cliché Long-Suffering Mom here. Chris Bauer as a family friend is a little too nice considering that Lee is such a jerk, but then that’s what the script calls for.

I would have liked to have seen this go a little bit more out of the box, but the writer chose to play it safe. Since Freundlich was the writer, he can’t blame the writing for the troubles with his film – well, I suppose he could. I would have liked to see more depth of character and less stereotypes and less of white people rapping (which just looks silly) and less dumb humor (such as an Asian player being chastised for using the “N” word the way the African-American players do). There are some wins in the movie, just enough to make it worth a view but not enough to make it worth spending a lot of time, effort or money in seeking it out.

REASONS TO GO: The brotherhood of athletes on the same team is nicely captured..
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is pretty rote and contains many ludicrous notes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, racial slurs and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wolves debuted at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dark Wind

The Time That Remains


Ozzie and Harriet in Palestine.

Ozzie and Harriet in Palestine.

(2009) Dramedy (IFC) Ali Suliman, Saleh Bakri, Elia Suleiman, Tarik Kopty, Menashe Noy, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Doraid Liddawi, Ziyad Bakri, Avi Kleinberger, Ehab Assal, Lutuf Nouasser, Yaniv Biton, Alon Leshem, Navi Ravitz, Amer Hiehel, George Khleifi, Tareq Qobti, Baher Agbariya, Zuhair Abu Hanna, Alex Bakn, Sanar Tanus, Shafika Bajjali, Lior Shamesh, Ayman Espanioli, Nina Jarjoura. Directed by Elia Suleiman

The third of a trilogy of films by the distinguished Palestinian director Suleiman regarding the Israeli occupation, The Time That Remains is listed as a drama but really isn’t; it has the deadpan delivery of a stone-faced Buster Keaton, an occasionally slapstick comic delivery but the overall tone is solemn and even funereal.

The movie Is delivered in four distinct kinda autobiographical vignettes bookended with Suleiman playing himself but focusing on his father (the movie is loosely based on his father’s journal entries and his mother’s letters to relatives and friends) who was a resistance fighter early on in the occupation, and often supplied and manufactured guns for Palestinian freedom fighters, although your definition of same may well depend on your stance towards Palestine vs. Israel.

Suleiman doesn’t paint the Israeli’s in a particularly flattering light but he isn’t terribly charitable to the Palestinians either; while the movie is certainly political in nature, his points are made subtly although so much so that it is often difficult to discern what he’s trying to say. As an actor, his performance is generally the most compelling of those seen here which are for the most part competent although there are some that rise above.

The middle portions which focus on Suleiman’s father Fuad (S. Bakri) with Suleiman himself played by Hanna as a child and Espanioli as a teenager tend to be slower paced and less effective; only when Suleiman enters the picture, first as the passenger in a cab ride that apparently is aimless, and later as an observer of Palestinian life when he returns to his home to care for his 80-year-old mother, does the movie truly have energy.

This isn’t necessarily for all moviegoers; it requires a certain amount of patience and an eye for subtlety, as well as a fair knowledge of what’s happening in the Middle East. As noted, your appreciation for the film will likely depend on your sympathies for the Palestinian people. Hawkish pro-Israeli viewpoints are likely to be affronted by the movie while those who don’t care much either way are likely to continue to do so. However, those curious about a differing viewpoint, or one taking the Palestinian view may find Suleiman to be a charming, quietly funny and occasionally heart-wrenching filmmaker and this to carry all of those qualities. Recommended.

WHY RENT THIS: Some compelling performances, especially Suleiman himself. A few heart-wrenching moments.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat slow-paced, particularly in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, adult situations and language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.0M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life During Wartime
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Big Short

Chalet Girl


Tamsin Egerton and Felicity Jones have a lot on their plates.

Tamsin Egerton and Felicity Jones have a lot on their plates.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (IFC) Felicity Jones, Tamsin Egerton, Ed Westwick, Bill Nighy, Brooke Shields, Bill Bailey, Georgia King, Sophia Bush, Nicholas Braun, Rebecca Lacey, Tom Goodman-Hill, Jo Martin, Miquita Oliver, Ken Duken, Alex Macqueen, Mike Goodenough, Tara Dakides, Gregor Bloėb, Adam Bousdoukos, Abbie Dunn, Amber Atherton, Jessica Hynes. Directed by Phil Traill

Not everyone has an easy life. In fact, most of us don’t. It can be a matter of circumstance – being born into poverty, in a place where escaping from poverty isn’t an option. Sometimes, we make our own lives hard through poor choices and foolish mistakes. However, sometimes life just serves up lemons. It’s up to us whether to suck on those lemons or make lemonade.

Kim Matthews (Jones) has every reason to make a sour face. She was brought up in a happy, middle class English family and had become a champion skateboarder but all that came to a screeching halt when a car accident that she was involved in took the life of her mother. The trauma of the crash rendered her unable to take on the more daring aspects of her sport, so she is reduced to flipping burgers at a British fast food joint to make ends meet for her and her dad (Bailey). Then, opportunity knocks.

After fruitlessly searching for a better-paying job, she finally nets one – working at an Alpine chalet as a kind of factotum for wealthy vacationers wintering there. She’s a combination waitress, maid, butler, chef and essentially facilitator for Richard (Nighy) and his snooty American wife Caroline (Shields). However, she takes more than a passing interest in their hunky son Johnny (Westwick).

At first, the other chalet girls look down on the less posh girl, particularly Georgie (Egerton) but as time goes by the staff at the resort begin to warm up to Kim as does Johnny, which doesn’t please Caroline. No, not one eensy weensy tiny little bit, especially since his girlfriend is spoiled American rich girl Chloe (Bush) whom Caroline thinks is far more suitable for little Johnny. Well, not so little anymore.

Mikki (Duken), seeing a bored Kim struggling while learning to snowboard, teaches her and realizes she has a natural gift for it. He urges her to enter a competition in which the top prize is $25,000 and after some persuading, she agrees to. Johnny, noticing that Kim has gotten good at snowboarding, pays her additional cash to teach him as well, which doesn’t sit too well with either Caroline or Chloe.

However, the same demons that haunted Kim in skateboarding continue to make her snowboarding difficult. Will she be able to get past her fears and become the athlete she is capable of being? Or will she lose everything to the ghosts of her past?

Like most romantic comedies that are being made today, both in Hollywood and on independent sets, Chalet Girl is fairly formulaic. You have two people from opposite sides of the tracks, both extraordinarily good-looking and surrounded by quirky but supportive friends who are almost as good-looking, who fall in love despite having little in common, then a misunderstanding and/or mistake on the part of one or both tears them apart only to (and this shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to anyone who watches a lot of rom-coms) get back together in the end.

Jones, who has since gone on to bravura performances in films like The Theory of Everything and True Story with high-profile roles in the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One and Inferno, is delightful here. A cross between an English rose and the American girl next door, she’s winsome, a little bit naive, but pure pluck. She is grappling with the demons resulting from the car accident, but she soldiers on nonetheless. She’s the kind of girl that you figure a fella would be crazy not to fall in love with.

Nighy is always reliable and turns in a solid performance here; veteran British comic Bailey also shines in his brief role. The humor here is bone-dry which fans of English humor will enjoy but those who don’t like British comedy may find this not to their liking, although I’m glad to say that I’m a fan. For the most part unfortunately, Traill and writer Tom Williams seem content to follow establish formulas and play it safe at every turn. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – not every film should be an excuse for innovating – but this one feels so forgettable and disposable that it wastes some fine performances and some good chemistry.

WHY RENT THIS: Jones is a charming romantic lead. Dry humor welcome.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Rom-com cliches abound. Takes no chances.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough rough language to merit an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming was briefly interrupted when a snow storm threatened the location in Austria where the skiing sequences were being filmed.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Cast interviews and YouTube “viral videos.”
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.8M on a $10.5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, iTunes, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil Wears Prada
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Brooklyn