Anthem of a Teenage Prohet


In a world where appearance is everything, posing is a natural extension of life.

(2018) Drama (SP Releasing) Cameron Monaghan, Grayson Gabriel, Peyton List, Juliette Lewis, Aaron Pearl, Richard de Klerk, Alex MacNicoll, Alex McKenna, Patti Allan, Beau Daniels, Sebastian Greaves, Joshua Close, Jasmine Sky Sarin, Danny Woodburn, Alex Lennarson, Malcolm Craig, Jaden Rain, Spencer List, Robert W. Perkins, Raj Lal. Directed by Robin Hays

 

Being a teenager is nothing resembling easy. Coping with a world whose rules shift almost daily and are confusing even on a good day coupled with raging hormones that make rational thought nearly impossible make it no wonder that teens are synonymous with angst. When you throw in some supernatural abilities, things get even more complicated.

Luke Hunter (Monaghan) is a fairly typical teen in a small Michigan town in the mid-90s. He gets from place to place via skateboard, hangs out with a group of friends who listen to rap but dress like grunge, smokes way too much, drinks when he can, gets stoned when he can and generally tries to figure out who he is and what he wants to do with his life.

One afternoon while hanging out with his friends including his boyhood friend Fang (Grayson) who likes to climb things and golden boy Stan (MacNicoll) who is the boyfriend of Faith (P.List) whom he has a fairly serious crush on, he has a vision. Stoned out of his mind, Luke blurts out that one of them is going to die the next day, hit by a truck with out of state plates. “Blood on the sidewalk,” he murmurs while everyone looks at him in amusement. Luke’s really baked isn’t he ha ha ha.

But nobody is laughing the next day when Luke’s prediction comes horribly true down to the smallest detail. The looks change from amusement to suspicion and downright fear. When a reporter overhears one of the incredulous teens blurt out that Luke had predicted the tragedy and later broadcasts it on the air, Luke’s life becomes something of a media circus.

Luke withdraws further into himself despite his supportive ex-hippie mom (Lewis) and somewhat clueless dad (Pearl). Faith, suffering through the loss of someone she cared about, is drawn to Luke who is going through the same thing. However, it’s not quite the same thing; Faith is not in the media’s eye as Luke is, nor is she an object of fascination in the same way Luke is. He doesn’t know what to do and ends up lashing out. Not to mention that he gets another vision about someone who is going to die.

Some may be drawn to this movie, which is based on a novel by Joanne Proulx, by the supernatural element but those folks are bound to be disappointed as that element is definitely played down. This is much more about surviving the teenage years than about dying during them. We are witnessing Luke’s emotional growth which isn’t always pretty. Luke is a complex character, one who is a talented artist, who adores his mother (as much as any teen boy would be willing to admit to) and pretty much just wants to be left alone to find his own way, also pretty much like all teen boys.

Monaghan is best known for playing a Joker-like character in the Fox Batman show Gotham but this is an entirely different performance here. Far from being manic, Luke is a bit of an introvert and Monaghan captures that personality well, from the distrust of others to the banter he has with those he does let inside. Given the diversity of performances in the two I’ve seen of him so far, I think that it isn’t being premature to say that this actor has enormous potential. Time will tell whether he can acquire the roles that will allow him to realize it. My one problem with him is that he tends to pose a little too much; it doesn’t look natural.

The writers and actors do a great job of capturing the swagger of boys on the cusp of becoming men. They think of themselves as invincible and their lack of life experiences don’t bother them – they revel in their inexperience in many ways. They are young and un-bloodied by life until the death of one of them catches them all up short.

While the swagger is perfectly depicted, the dialogue is less successful. It’s not that the dialogue isn’t intelligent and snappy – it is both those things – but it is not the way teen boys in the mid-1990s talked. It is more like the way boys in 2018 talk, from the rhythms of their speech to the expressions they use. Kids tend to use a lot of slang and jargon, which is a way of setting their own generation apart. You get none of that here.

While the film borrows its tone from a few disparate sources (one that I noticed was Final Destination minus the macabre deaths) other critics have name-checked the work of John Hughes and Gus van Sant. While the movie is a little bit on the long side, it is a very different teen movies. It doesn’t talk down to its intended audience and it tackles some fairly serious concepts. I don’t know how many teen boys will want to see this movie – this isn’t the kind of movie they typically choose to see – but this is a movie about them and one they would no doubt recognize. That may work against the film as its niche audience may somewhat ironically be disinclined to see it. Still, it is a worthwhile watch for those who want to understand teens a little better.

REASONS TO GO: The film nicely captures teenage boy swagger.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue sounds more like 21st century than mid-90s.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, teen drinking, smoking and drug use, some violence and dangerous behavior.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the time of filming, Monaghan and List were dating.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Project Almanac
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
An Acceptable Loss

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Nerve (2016)


Isn't it hip to stroll into a party fashionably late?

Isn’t it hip to stroll into a party fashionably late?

(2016) Thriller (Lionsgate) Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Juliette Lewis, Miles Heizer, Kimiko Glenn, Marc John Jeffreries, Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker, Brian Marc, Ed Squires, Rightor Doyle, Josh Ostrovsky, Eric D’Alessandrio, Samira Wiley, Albert Sidoine, Chris Breslin, Wesley Volcy, Damond McFarland, Deema Aitken, Michael Drayar, Kim Ramirez. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

 

In this age of instant Internet gratification, it seems sometimes that those of a certain generation are fame-obsessed. They document every aspect of their lives, as if they were famous; some achieve a kind of fame on YouTube or Instagram or other websites with videos, music and art. Some even become mainstream media sensations as well.

Vee (Roberts) – short for Venus but nobody calls her that – is a high school senior in Staten Island and if there is a metaphor for boredom that’s better than that, I don’t know what it is. She is a bit of a milk-toast, unwilling to take chances. She’s been accepted at Cal Arts but is too afraid to tell her clingy Mom (Lewis) the news. Instead, she prepares to go to college locally with her mother as her “roommate.” You can imagine how enthusiastic she is at the possibility.

Her best friend Sydney (Meade) is much more of a risk-taker. She introduces Vee to an online game called Nerve in which you sign up either as a player or a watcher. Players are given time-sensitive dares to perform on camera of increasing difficulty and danger with cash awards increasing the more dangerous the dare. Watchers pay $19.99 for 24 hours and can suggest dares to be performed and follow their favorite players; the most popular players end up in a tournament of champions where the players can win big money – and everlasting fame.

Vee impulsively signs up as a player after she is embarrassed in front of the guy she’s crushing on. Despite her nerd friend Tommy’s (Heizer) misgivings (and let us not forget that he is crushing big time on her) she goes on her first dare – to kiss a stranger in a diner for five seconds. That stranger turns out (perhaps non-coincidentally) to be Ian (Franco), another player. Vee and Ian are thrown together in another dare which involves trying on ridiculously expensive clothes in Bergdorf’s before they are forced to leave the store in only their skivvies – although the clothes they were modeling mysteriously turn up for them to wear outside, bought and paid for.

As Vee’s popularity grows, the dares begin to get more and more serious – including riding on a motorcycle at 60 MPH with the driver blindfolded – and her popularity grows, becoming an instant Internet sensation, which infuriates her friend Sydney who has always been the attention-getter in their relationship. Still, as the stakes get higher and higher Vee discovers that leaving the game isn’t an option for her – and what seemed to be harmless fun has become something far more sinister. How far will she go to take the game down?

Let’s get something straight right off the bat; this movie is seriously aimed at an audience that is likely no older than 20. It is aimed at a generation that thinks anyone over that age is hopelessly techno-illiterate, hopelessly uncool and hopelessly clueless. The arrogance of youth is in perfect representation here; the feeling of invincibility that comes with someone who has a 1 or a 2 in front of their age (single digits only, wise-asses).

The look of the film is part of that. It’s cool and slick, almost like live action anime. This is the prettiest B-movie you’re likely to ever see; the lighting is superb. Roberts and Franco are perfectly cast; Roberts the good girl with a bit of a dark side and Franco the wisecracking player who’s kinda cute and kinda sweet. Both actors play what are essentially archetypes (and I don’t know if the characters come off that way in the Jeanne Ryan-penned young adult novel) and sadly, have about zero chemistry together. You never get a sense of attraction between the two of them which is one of the main faults of the movie. Perfectly cast individually yes, but the two actors can’t seem to forge a connection that is perceivable on the screen.

A lot of the stunts that the players are supposed to do don’t really generate a lot of tension; crossing between buildings on a ladder which plays to Sydney’s fear of heights seems almost anti-climactic. You never get a sense of jeopardy The same goes with the motorcycle stunt. By the time the final confrontation comes with the “evil” player TJ (Baker) there doesn’t seem to be any sort of tension whatsoever. Joost and Schulman are excellent directors visually, but this won’t go down as one of their best works. Something tells me that there are better things down the road for these guys. I certainly hope so.

REASONS TO GO: The look of the film is very cool and modern.
REASONS TO STAY: A very shallow look at fame, a very shallow subject. None of the stunts were really all that convincing.
FAMILY VALUES: The film espouses risky and dangerous behavior as entertainment, condones teen drinking, drug use and sex. There is also some brief nudity and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley appeared in Orange is the New Black as a romantic couple.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gamer
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Tallulah

New Releases for the Week of July 29, 2016


Jason BourneJASON BOURNE

(Universal) Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Styles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, Bill Camp. Directed by Paul Greengrass

One of the world’s most dangerous and wanted men, Jason Bourne, had escaped into the shadows. The CIA couldn’t find him and frankly, had stopped looking. But something has drawn him back out again; he can remember his past – all of it. And now, he is searching for something that those who run the covert corners of the CIA can’t figure out, but one thing’s for certain – it will be bad news for anyone who gets in his way.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Spy Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, and brief strong language)

Bad Moms

(STX) Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Christina Applegate. Motherhood in the 21st century isn’t what it used to be; women these days not only have to put the needs of their kids and their husbands first, but also have to balance a career and an ever narrowing list of restrictions that make their lives more difficult and complex. It’s quite frankly, exhausting and when one mom rebels and goes on an epic binge, she and her friends will run smack dab into the PTA Stepford Mom who rules the local brood with an iron oven mitt.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for sexual material, full frontal nudity, language throughout and drug and alcohol content)

Café Society

(Lionsgate/Amazon) Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carell, Kristen Stewart, Parker Posey.  In the Golden Age of Hollywood, a Bronx-born kid with ambitions for a high society life goes to work for his high-powered agent Phil, which his life with his bickering dysfunctional family may or may not have prepared him for. Certainly nothing prepared him for the beautiful assistant that he’s lost his heart to but when things don’t go as planned, he returns to New York to run a nightclub for his gangster brother and settles into a new life – until the love he lost walks into his club one night.

See the trailer, clips and an interview here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking)

Dishoom

(Eros International) Nargis Fakhri, Akshay Kumar, Jacqueline Fernandez, John Abraham. Two men, devoted to the same girl, are devastated when they lose her to a third man. Things go from bad to worse when they discover that her fiance is an evil man with evil plans. They determine to rescue her, even if it might mean their lives.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks

Rating: NR

Life, Animated

(The Orchard) Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind, Gilbert Gottfried, Jonathan Freeman. A family whose young son is born with autism is heartbroken when he is unable to communicate coherently with them. However, they find a way using their son’s love for Disney animated movies to communicate, which allows him to function in a relatively normal environment. As he prepares for life on his own, the challenges that face him continue to require the love and support of those around him. Look for the review of this film later today.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, and language including a suggestive reference)

Nerve

(Lionsgate) Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Juliette Lewis, Emily Meade. A high school senior is tired of playing things safe and watching life rather than living it. She decides to take on the popular online game Nerve, a game of escalating dares. At first it seems to be good clean fun but as the dares escalate, she finds herself trapped in a game where the stakes grow higher and higher and the dares grow more and more dangerous. She will definitely never be the same – if she can somehow survive the game.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard (Opened Wednesday)
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material involving dangerous and risky behavior, some sexual content, language, drug content, drinking and nudity – all involving teens)

New Releases for the Week of December 4, 2015


KrampusKRAMPUS

(Universal/Legendary) Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler. Directed by Michael Dougherty

Holidays are the time for families to come together, but some families should remain far apart. Young Max has such a family and tired of the squabbling and the dysfunction, he finally reaches his breaking point and turns his back on Christmas. Little does he know that his anti-Christmas behavior has awakened a demonic presence, hell-bent on punishing those who don’t believe in the Christmas spirit. Now this fractured family must truly come together if they are to survive the night.

See the trailer and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Holiday Horror Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of horror violence/terror, language and some drug material)

A Royal Night Out

(Ketchup) Sarah Gadon, Bel Powley, Emily Watson, Rupert Everett. As Europe celebrates the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth are allowed outside the walls of Buckingham Palace to join the festivities. However, the two headstrong ladies ditch their military escort and find the first flush of romance and intrigue.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content and brief drug elements)

Chi-Raq

(Roadside Attractions) Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes. As the murder rate in Chicago skyrockets above the military casualties in Iraq, the death of a child caught in the crossfire of a murderous gang war sparks the women of Chicago to stand up and say enough. They vow to withhold sex from all men in Chicago until there is peace. Spike Lee’s latest joint is based on the classic Greek play Lysistrata. Catch the Cinema365 review of the film right here tomorrow.

See the trailer, clips  and a Q&A with Spike Lee here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use)

Jack of the Red Hearts

(ARC Entertainment) Famke Janssen, AnnaSophia Robb, Taylor Richardson, Sophia Anne Caruso. A streetwise teenage girl is desperate to get her younger sister out of the foster care system. Conning her way into a suburban home as a live-in helper for an autistic 11-year-old girl, she finds herself able to communicate with the child in ways nobody else can. She also finds a mother figure in the girl’s mom. But when the law finally catches up with her, she’ll have to choose between saving her own hide and saving someone else.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs

Rating: NR

Janis: Little Girl Blue

(FilmRise) Janis Joplin, Cat Powers, Juliette Lewis, Dick Cavett. Janis Joplin remains a cultural icon, one of the first women to become a rock star (as opposed to a pop star which most women were relegated to prior to Joplin). Her gigantic voice was augmented by her reputation as a free spirit. Her death at 27 insured her status as a legend. This Amy Berg-directed documentary was given unprecedented access to the Joplin family and shows a side to the singer that few have ever gotten to see.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

The Letters

(Freestyle) Juliet Stevenson, Max von Sydow, Rutger Hauer, Priya Darshini. Some have characterized Mother Teresa of Calcutta as a modern day saint and indeed the Vatican is looking into canonizing her even as we speak. However, the woman behind the selfless commitment to the poor and forgotten of the Calcutta slums revealed in her letters reveal a troubled and lonely woman who actively questioned her faith and even whether or not she’d been abandoned by God.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Cobb Plaza Cinema Cafe, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for thematic material including some images of human suffering)

The Second Mother

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) Regina Casé, Michel Joelsas, Camila Márdila, Karine Teles. This frothy Brazilian concoction considers a hard-working domestic whose daughter comes to live with her in her employer’s estate. Her arrival puts the class distinctions in the household which mirror those set in place for generations into complete disarray.

See the trailer and stream the full movie from Amazon here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for some language and brief drug use)

New Releases for the Week of October 23, 2015


Steve JobsSTEVE JOBS

(Universal) Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Sarah Snook, Adam Shapiro. Directed by Danny Boyle

One of the brilliant visionaries of our time, Steve Jobs became the guru of technology although he was never an engineer so much as a marketing genius. Under his leadership, Apple became a juggernaut of a company, spearheading the personal computer revolution as well as creating markets for the iPhone, iPad and iPod. His personal life was more tumultuous as he was as a boss a demanding taskmaster and sundered personal relationships in his quest to change the world and gain market share. This driven man has already gotten a biopic and now a second, more prestigious one is coming along that has already garnered rave reviews and Oscar buzz for Fassbender in the title role.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language)

A Brilliant Young Mind

(Goldwyn) Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan. A brilliant British math prodigy who is unable to navigate social behavior due to his autism finds comfort in numbers. Taken under the wing by an unconventional math teacher, he earns a spot on the British Math Team. There, while training in Taipei with the Chinese team, he meets a young Chinese girl and begins to develop unexpected feelings for her. The director based this fictional film on his own documentary about the training of the British math team.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: NR

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

(Magnolia) Henry Beard, Matty Simmons, Bruce McCall, P.J. O’Rourke. If you look at modern American comedy both on television and in the movies, the roots go back to National Lampoon magazine. Founded by a couple of Harvard grads who had worked at the venerable Harvard Lampoon, the magazine became a breeding ground for some of the most brilliant comedians and writers of our time. A favorite from this year’s Florida Film Festival, the film has since received distribution through major indie Magnolia and makes it to the Enzian for a brief run; read my Festival review of the film here.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: NR

Jem and the Holograms

(Universal) Juliette Lewis, Molly Ringwald, Aubrey Peeples, Stefanie Scott. A young woman becomes an internet sensation when her sisters leak a video of her playing an original song onto a website. She soon becomes a global superstar and is made to jettison her band, which is made up of her other three sisters. Needing to make things right, she and her sisters soon go off on an adventure that she never expected to find. Based on the 80s Saturday morning cartoon.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, a featurette, a music video and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Musical
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for thematic material including reckless behavior, brief suggestive content and some language)

The Last Witch Hunter

(Summit) Vin Diesel, Elijah Wood, Rose Leslie, Michael Caine. For centuries, the evil creatures of the night – source of our most horrific legends – were battled by valiant witch hunters. When the Witch Queen is slain by Kaulder, the best of the witch hunters, she curses him with immortality, separating him from his beloved wife and daughter in the Afterlife. Now, hundreds of years later, he continues battling what few rogue witches are left, the last of his kind. When the Witch Queen is resurrected, an epic battle will ensue on which rests the future of the human race.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a music video and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror Fantasy Action
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for scary and intense creature action and images, and for some rude humor)

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

(Paramount) Chris J. Murray, Brit Shaw, Ivy George, Dan Gill. The most successful found footage franchise in history comes to an end as a pair of brothers find a box of videocassettes in their new house, as well as a camera that allows them to see the spirit world. When a daughter of one of the brothers opens a portal to the ghost dimension, all hell will literally break loose as all the loose threads from the previous films in the series will be tied up at last.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cityplex, AMC West Oaks
Rating: R (for language and horror violence)

Rock the Kasbah

(Open Road) Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel. A washed up manager of rock performers is abandoned in Afghanistan by his last remaining client, then in a cave outside Kabul discovers the most amazing voice ever. Determined to help the beautiful woman who possesses that voice reach her dreams of winning Afghan Star (the local version of American Idol), he enlists a motley crew of allies to help him overcome cultural prejudices and take his new client all the way to the top. Incredibly, this is based on actual events and is directed by Oscar winner Barry Levinson.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence)

Victoria

(Adopt) Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski, Burak Ligit. The winner of the prestigious Silver Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival, this ambitious film was shot in a single night all in one take. It concerns a party girl who meets three guys and a night of wild fun turns into a bank robbery. Sebastian Schipper directs.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Crime Thriller
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: NR

August: Osage County


The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham, Will Coffey, Newell Alexander, Jerry Stahl, Dale Dye, Ivan Allen, Arlin Miller, J. Alan Davidson, Maria Swindell Gus. Directed by John Wells

In the dusty heat of Oklahoma in the dog days of August, tempers can flare and people can be driven to the despair of unrelenting heat and no air-conditioning. Then again, a family can duplicate those same conditions – unrelenting heat and no saving grace of air-conditioning.

Violet Weston (Streep) has cancer of the mouth that causes her intense burning pain. She pops pills like others pop Tic Tacs. She is a feisty curmudgeon who speaks her mind, even if what she has to say is unpleasant – which it often is. There are hints of racism in her and enough self-righteous judgmental pronouncements to fill up several evangelical Christian sermons.

When her husband Beverly (Shepard) disappears, her kids come running home which in at least two cases, is a place they really don’t want to come back to. Karen (Lewis) has flitted from man to man and seems to have found one that she can stick with, slick Steve Huberbrecht (Mulroney) who is going to marry her in a few months and take her on the honeymoon she always wanted – Belize. Barbara (Roberts) is shrill, angry and frustrated; her husband Bill (McGregor) is separated and carrying on with a younger woman and her 14-year-old daughter Jean (Breslin) is withdrawing into a world of pain, pissed off at both her parents but particularly her mom.

Only Ivy (Nicholson) stayed near home and she is worn to the bone, ready to take off with her secret fella to New York City and away from Violet’s grasp. Also coming to the house are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and Mattie Fae’s husband Charlie (Cooper). Mattie Fae is on the surface the adoring aunt but she treats her own son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch) like an absolute nincompoop which he just might be; he certainly is a jumpy sort. Taking care of Violet is Johnna (Upham), a Native American who watches the chaos around her without comment.

Into this volatile environment comes the revelations of family secrets that will either draw this dysfunctional group closer together or break them apart forever. The specter of abuse will rear its ugly head and the skeletons in the closet will do their ugly heads before it’s all over.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who has written Killer Joe among others), the movie gets the big screen treatment by director John Wells (known primarily for his small screen work on series like E.R. and The West Wing). Wells does an excellent job of setting the time and place – the acrid, soul-burning prairie heat of Oklahoma, the beautiful but run-down Victorian home of Beverly and Violet and the sunset vistas. He also manages to capture the claustrophobia that can happen at an awkward family dinner.

There are some tremendous performances going on here, by Roberts and Streep in particular (both of which garnered Oscar nominations) although some may find them over-the-top. These are two women, mother and daughter, who are more alike than either would care to admit and both are at the end of their ropes. The disappearance of Beverly has left them with no buffer and with neither Ivy nor Karen willing to get in between them their confrontation becomes inevitable. Both characters aren’t very likable – probably Chris Cooper’s Charlie is the only one who is – and neither one is likely to inspire you to share a meal with them, especially if fish is on the menu.

They both have a great deal repressed inside them and it boils over, leading to a family crisis of dramatic proportions. Drug abuse is part of the issue but there is also a good deal of “truth telling” which is often the refuge of those who wish to be cruel and get away with it which is pretty much where both Barbara and Violet are at. The interesting thing is that this movie really isn’t about Violet so much although Streep’s performance puts her front and center, but the movie is about Barbara – that’s one of the reasons that the controversial closing scene focuses on Barbara. Da Queen, for her part, thought that last scene unnecessary. I for one thought it brought better closure than the original ending which features Johnna consoling Violet on a staircase.

Those aren’t the only fine performances. Cooper gets some wonderful scenes in, as well as Nicholson whose drawn and beaten down demeanor belies the inner strength she possesses. Martindale’s performance is just the opposite; this wonderful character actress plays a woman who is tough and loving on the outside but wounded terribly on the inside. I also thought Cumberbatch was extraordinary as the wimpy, indecisive and overly sensitive son of Charlie and Mattie Fae. The rest of the performances were pretty much adequate.

Some of the scenes are uncomfortable, particularly as family secrets from way back begin to emerge from necessity. Violet, sometimes as malevolent as a cobra but often as vulnerable as a prairie dog caught in the gaze of a predator, rules the roost with an eye that misses nothing.

I know that not everyone shares my regard for the movie. It has often been criticized for having over-the-top performances and for violating the spirit of the original play which was a dark comedy. There are still elements of that here but this is definitely a drama. As for the performances, I think they are also by necessity over-the-top – the people being portrayed here are in the middle of a stressful family crisis who are dealing with repressed emotions that boil over. Of course they’re going to get loud. People get loud when they melt down.

At the end of the day this is the kind of movie that can be hard to watch, particularly if your own family has issues. For me the dynamics of the Weston clan are certainly far from normal but at the same time there was a certain amount of resonance. There is love but this is a family disintegrating and one wonders just how much it was the alcoholic Beverly that held them together. This is at turns fascinating and repulsive, like watching a snake swallow its prey. You learn something of nature in watching it but in doing so you learn something of yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Scintillating performances. Exceedingly well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: About as dysfunctional a family as you’re ever likely to meet. Occasionally uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of swearing including sexual references, some mature situations and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abigail Breslin had a temperature of 103 degrees when she auditioned for the role of Jean Fordham.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ordinary People

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lone Survivor

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation


Norman Rockwell or Norman Bates?

Norman Rockwell or Norman Bates?

(1989) Holiday Comedy (Warner Brothers) Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Randy Quaid, Miriam Flynn, Cody Burger, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, William Hickey, Nicholas Guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brian Doyle-Murray, Mae Questel, Natalia Nogulich, Nicolette Scorsese. Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechnik

hollynquill-2013

We all have our ideas of what an ideal Christmas is – snow on the ground or fun in the sun. Most of our ideals however involve being surrounded by family. There’s nothing quite like a traditional family Christmas.

Clark Griswold (Chase) believes that with all his heart. He has become reasonably successful and provides well for his wife Ellen (D’Angelo), his daughter Audrey (Lewis) and his son Rusty (Galecki – yes that one). His gift to the family is a swimming pool and although the ground is too hard to start digging, he needs to put the deposit down for it before Christmas. He’s counting on his bonus at work to pay that bonus but it is late in arriving.

Clark is planning on having all the grandparents at his place this year – his own parents Clark Sr. (Randolph) and Nora (Ladd) as well as Ellen’s mom (Roberts) and dad (Marshall). Naturally the two sets of parents take to ceaseless bickering.

Add to the mix the unexpected arrival of cousin Eddie (Quaid) and his family in a dilapidated RV which it turns out the family is living in after Eddie lost his job and was forced to sell the family home. Clark offers to buy cousin Eddie’s Christmas presents this year which Eddie gratefully expects. With senile Aunt Bethany (Questel) and crotchety Uncle Lewis (Hickey), things descend into utter chaos.

With nothing going right, Clark loses it a little bit – all right, he loses it a lot, especially when he finds out that his bonus isn’t what he thought it was going to be. Power grids will be overloaded, sleds will fly as will flaming Santas and sewage will explode before Christmas comes to town.

The third movie in the Vacation franchise broke with formula a little bit. For one thing, the Griswolds weren’t fish out of water in some unfamiliar place – they were in their home base which was being invaded by others. Legendary director John Hughes wrote the screenplay based on his own short story which had been published in National Lampoon (the first movie in the franchise was also based on a short story in National Lampoon). Quite frankly this wasn’t his shining hour.

And yet it was a cut above the odious National Lampoon’s European Vacation. There are some terrifically funny moments (like Clark’s sled ride from hell) but not enough of them. However the funny moments are so hilarious it kind of makes up for it. There’s also a heartwarming element that’s present in most of the other Vacations but more so here than in any of the others.

There are those that consider this a “classic” Christmas movie. I wouldn’t quite go that far but it certainly is one of the more popular ones from the 80s. By this point in his career I was finding Chase less funny than he had been during his SNL days (and I think most people agree) and certainly less funny than he’d been in Caddyshack. Still while the Griswolds weren’t particularly subversive, they did strike a chord with the American public and for many people of a certain generation this is required Yuletide viewing. To each their own.

WHY RENT THIS: When it’s funny, it’s funny.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s not funny often enough.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some rude humor and sexuality, more than a bit of bad language and comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be Mae Questel’s final film. She is best known as the voice of Betty Boop.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition comes in a Christmas tin with a Santa hat, coasters, an “I Survived a Griswold Family Christmas” button and a plastic cup. While no longer available in stores, you might try picking one up on E-Bay or Amazon. Otherwise you’ll just have to make do with the standard Blu-Ray or DVD which have the same features as this more expensive edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $71.3M on a $25M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Christmas With the Kranks

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: More of The Holly and The Quill!