Bliss (2021)


Skating through life.

(2021) Science Fiction (Amazon Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper, Jorge Landeborg Jr., Ronny Chieng, Steve Zissis, Josh Leonard, Madeline Zima, Bill Nye, Slavoj Zizek, DeRon Horton, Eugene Young, Dayne Catalano, Adam William Zastrow, Lora Lee, Darin Cooper, Roberto Montesinos, Kosah Rukavina, Tanya Alexander, Debbie Fan. Directed by Mike Cahill

In a speech in 1977, science fiction author Philip K. Dick posited the idea that the world we live in is not reality but a computer simulation, predating The Matrix by more than a decade. But what is reality, exactly? If our senses can be manipulated, who’s to say that what reality is may not necessarily be what we perceive it to be?

The reality that Greg Whittle (Wilson) lives in isn’t too appealing. He works in a phone bank whose drones endlessly apologize to callers for whatever technical difficulties they may be experiencing without offering any sort of solution to fix it. Greg is a professional apologist and he’s not even that good at it; much of his time is spent daydreaming, doodling a beautiful palatial mansion that he could never possibly afford to live in unless he had a rich trillionaire uncle that he didn’t know about.

His doodling hasn’t gone unnoticed and he is called into his boss’ office where his employment is terminated. However, when Greg accidentally kills his boss, he panics, hiding the body and running across the street to a bar for a cocktail to calm his nerves. There he meets Isabel (Hayek), an apparently  homeless woman with a fantastic story; the reality that Greg is in is a computer construct and most of the people, including Greg’s boss, aren’t real. Because Isabel is real, she can manipulate the computer program by ingesting yellow crystals through the nose, and to prove it to him, manipulates reality to make it appear as if what happened to Greg’s boss was a suicide.

At last, Isabel takes Greg into the real world, accessed by means of ingesting the much rarer blue crystals – so rare that they are unable to get the full dosage needed for both of them to remain in the real world. There, Greg finds a Utopia where poverty has been eradicated, labor is done mainly by mechanical means and most people live a life of leisure devoted to artistic and scientific pursuits. The home that Greg has been doodling turns out to be the place where he lives. But because they were unable to get the full dose of blue crystals, Isabel and Greg need to return into the computer-generated world to acquire a full dosage – plus there’s the matter of Greg’s daughter Emily (Cooper) who isn’t real, but whom Greg is devoted to nonetheless. In the end, Isabel and Greg are only able to gather enough blue crystals to send one of them back to Utopia. Which one will stay?

Bliss is meant to be a 103 minute mindfuck, meant to make you try to figure out which reality was real and which was the simulation – or maybe both of them are simulations. Or maybe both of them are real. You can get a real headache trying to keep it straight.

It’s a great premise, but unfortunately the execution is weak. For one thing, there seems to have been some fudging on the science and the economics; for example, one of the reasons poverty has been eliminated was that asteroid mining brought an influx of new wealth into the global economy, but if you study economic history (as in 17th century Spain, for example) you will realize that kind of influx of wealth tends to bring ruinous inflation that actually wrecks the economy. And the likelihood that those who made trillions of dollars from the ining enterprise would then donate an annual salary of half a million dollars a year to every living adult is so unlikely to occur as to be virtually impossible.

Also, while Wilson and Hayek are both talented individually, they don’t mesh well together here. Wilson’s laid-back persona almost necessitates some kind of balancing counter-performance and so Hayek seems compelled to get almost shrill in order to bring some energy to the proceedings. And considering that they are supposed to be soulmates, you never feel any sort of attraction between the two of them. I give points for Wilson doing the type of role he doesn’t take on very often, but unfortunately it isn’t enough here.

The ending, which I won’t reveal here, also feels largely unearned and unsatisfying. This is a movie with plenty of good ideas, but they don’t seem to have been thought out very well. Cahill has a tendency to overexplain (we spend an inordinate amount of time hearing about the various efficacies of the crystals and why they need to be snorted and not eaten) and at times it gets in the way of the story. Sometimes, it’s better to just say “this is the way things are in this world” and let the audience fill in the blanks.

REASONS TO SEE: Wilson tackles a role outside his comfort zone.
REASONS TO AVOID: The science doesn’t appear to have been very well thought-out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of violence and some scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cahill studied economics at Georgetown; while a student there he struck up a friendship with future actress Brit Marling.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews; Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Matrix
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Cowboys

Take Me to Tarzana


Making plans over a single generic beer; now THAT’S living the high life!

(2021) Comedy (GravitasJonathan Bennett, Maria Conchita Alonso, Samantha Robinson, Oliver Cooper, Kahyun Kim, Andrew Creer, Owen Harn, Kent Shocknek, Chris Coppola, Kimberly Joy McBride, Betsy Hume, Bob Wiltfong, Henry Brooke, Desiree Staples, Emanuel Hernandez, Denny Nolan, Andrew J. Rice, Ivan Ehlers, Kevin Dembinsky, Elle Vernee.  Directed by Maceo Greenberg

 

These days, big corporations and in particular, Big Tech make big targets. So do creepy, misogynist bosses. We all know that everyone hates all of those things. Well, ALMOST everyone.

Miles (Creer) works at Teleplex, a data mining company. It’s a far from ideal working environment, with a boss (Cooper) who is as abusive as they come and with unreasonable expectations. People are worked like the wage slaves they are and Miles can barely afford to live in the apartment he rents, despite having what most woud consider a stable job.

His cubicle is next to Jane (Robinson), one of those incredibly beautiful girls who always seem to be absolutely unobtainable. She has crosses to bear of her own; that same boss, Charles, consistently demeans her and she seems to have to work twice as hard as the men to earn any sort of respect.

But things are a lot worse than Mies thought they were; in fact, Charles has hidden cameras all over the building including under Jane’s desk and in the women’s bathroom, the better to perve on all the gals in the office. When he brings this to Jane’s attention, rather than go to the police or even to HR, she wants to get back at Charles in a more meaningful way. They enlist Miles’ party animal friend Jameson (Bennett) to help dig up the real goods on the company but when they get the dirt on Charles, they discover that the hidden cameras are only the tip of the iceberg.

As far as workplace comedies go, the top of the pyramid is the 1999 Mike Judge movie Office Space with which this film shares some thematic elements in common. I think, however, that Greenberg is loathe to have his own film compared to that classic comedy; for one thing, he shifts tones about two thirds of the way through the film in what can only be described as a jarring and unexpected manner. From that point, the movie falls off the rails in a big way.

That’s a shame, because up to that point it’s pretty enjoyable. I might have wished for edgier comedy, but the leads of Robinson and Creer are pretty nifty. Both are very likable and although Miles is a bit on the wishy washy side, Jane is a strong, powerful woman whom you wouldn’t want to cross. The character of Jameson, though, seemed to be somewhat unnecessary to me; he’s meant to provide comic relief but his Spicoli-like antics really don’t do anything to make the film better.

All in all the movie is mostly likable but that shift from workplace comedy to faux thriller really dooms it. I wouldn’t try to talk you out of giving this a try from your local streaming service for a weekend pizza and movie night on a cod winter evening, but then again I think you could probably do better as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Creer and Robinson have much potential.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor needs more edge.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug references and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the directing debut for Valadez.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Office Space
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Judas and the Black Messiah

The Go-Go’s


They got the beat.

(2020) Music Documentary (Eagle RockBelinda Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Margot Olaverra, Ginger Canzoneri, Elissa Bello, Pleasant Gehman, Miles Copeland, Kathleen Hanna, Sting, Terry Hall, Lee Thompson, Lynval Golding, Chris Connelly, Dave Robinson, Paula Jean Brown, Richard Gottehrer, Stuart Copeland, Jann Wenner, Martha Quinn. Directed by Alison Ellwood

 

What the hell is wrong with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? More to the point, why aren’t the Go-Go’s in it?

This is a band that has never truly been taken seriously. Even at the height of their fame, they were written off by critics as a lightweight pop band, conveniently ignoring the fact that they were trailblazers. They didn’t have a Svengali behind them as the Runaways, who have received far more props from the critical community. They achieved their success on their own. Maybe it’s because they flamed out so quickly, but there are bands in the Hall that have had shorter careers than they.

The Go-Go’s emerged from the L.A. punk scene that gave us bands like X, Motels, The Germs, and the Minutemen, among others. Jane Wiedlin, the manic pixie dreamgirl guitarist for the band, talks candidly of her own depression which led to a suicide attempt at 15; she was rescued by a punk scene that empowered her and inspired her to join a band with vocalist Belinda Carlisle.

The nascent group were more enthusiastic than accomplished. Early footage of them shows a band that can barely play their instruments, but even though their music is very different than what it would eventually become, that pop sheen can still clearly be heard. They eventually added guitarist Charlotte Caffey who turned out to be a talented songwriter who gave them their first hit single, “We Got the Beat,” inspired by a viewing of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.

They became better, growing a following. They added a new drummer, Gina Schock, who turned out to be a world-class skin-pounder. And then when original bassist Margot Olaverra, who resisted the band’s shift from pure punk to a more pop-oriented sound, became ill, they recruited former Textones guitarist Kathy Valentine to take her spot. Valentine, who had never played bass before at the time, recalls learning the entire set of her new band in a two-day cocaine-fueled binge.

An early milestone was an invitation to tour England as an opening act for the Specials and Madness, two ska revival bands who the Go-Go’s opened for in L.A. It turned out to be a difficult tour; the Go-Go’s didn’t play ska music and often got booed off the stage, or spat upon by white nationalists who were fans of the ska movement (which is kind of ironic, when you think of it; most of the ska bands at the time were integrated and the music itself was based on music from Jamaica). It did get them attention enough from Stiff Records, the influential English independent label which then released “We Got the Beat” as a single. During the tour, Wiedlin became romantically involved with Specials frontman Terry Hall and the two wrote another song that would become a signature of the band: “Our Lips are Sealed.”

Miles Copeland, manager of The Police, signed the band to his fledgling IRS Records label who released their debut album, Beauty and the Beat. Jet-propelled by the two singles, it rose to number one on the charts and established the group as a major hitmaker. From there, they got on the rock and roll treadmill of touring, making a new album, touring, rinse, repeat.

Like other bands in the industry, the group was beset by the usual problems; squabbles about royalty payments, drug use (Caffey hid a burgeoning heroin addiction from the band, even as she continued to write the majority of their hits), Even as the Go-Go’s were becoming one of the biggest acts in rock and roll, the seeds of their implosion were planted; they fired their longtime manager Ginger Canzoneri for a more corporate management team, and eventually Wiedlin left the band. They replaced her briefly with Paula Jean Brown, but the chemistry of the band had already been affected. Six months after Wiedlin left the band, the rest of the group called it a day.

Ellwood has assembled a pretty standard rockumentary with plenty of interviews. The band is remarkably candid about their own foibles with the exception of Carlisle who while forthcoming about her own drug habit in the past, doesn’t mention it here and only obliquely refers to the role her own ego played in the schisms that ultimately broke the band apart. Ellwood does a good job of capturing the bond that still exists between the band (as the documentary was being completed, the band recorded their first material together in nearly two decades). She’s less successful at offering context of how the band was affected by their era – and how they affected succeeding eras. Only Bikini Kill’s outspoken Kathleen Hanna really remarks on the influence the band had on female musicians that came afterwards.

It’s hard to understand why this band hasn’t gotten the credit that is due them. Their music was never outwardly political or topical and thus became timeless; they sang about love and lust and loneliness; the things we all relate to. They did it with a relentlessly cheerful beat and irresistible pop hooks. There is skill involved in all of that but the band ended up being marginalized by everyone except their fans.

Nobody really took them seriously back then, a head-scratching attitude that continues to this day. There is the fact that they are all very attractive women and there is a tendency to look at attractive women as incompetents who get by on their looks rather than talent. It could be the mere fact that they are women, but when I think back to the recent documentaries on Joan Jett and Hanna, women whose music was more aggressive than that of the Go-Go’s, and the critical reception to both of those who hailed the subjects of those films as innovators and trailblazers. Well, so were the Go-Go’s but even now I don’t see the same type of acclaim being accorded them. Perhaps a more strident documentary was needed to maybe force people to listen. This band deserves better. They always have.

REASONS TO SEE: Puts the spotlight on a group that never really got its due.
REASONS TO AVOID: More or less a standard rock doc.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references, profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Go-Go’s were the first (and to date, only) all-female group to play their own instruments and write their own songs to have a number one album on the Billboard charts.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV,  Fubo, Google Play, Showtime, YouTube.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Reputation
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Little Fish

The Little Things


The darkness and the dimly lit.

(2021) Crime (Warner Brothers) Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Michael Hyatt, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales, Isabel Arraiza, Joris Jarsky, Glenn Morshower, Sofia Vassilieva, Jason James Richter, John Harlan Kim, Frederick Koehler, Judith Scott, Maya Kazan, Tiffany Gonzalez, Anna McKitrick, Sheila Houlahan, Ebony M. Mayo. Directed by John Lee Hancock

 

Any good homicide detective will tell you that the secret to catching a killer isn’t rocket science. It’s good hard work and paying particular attention to the little things. The devil is, after all, in the details.

This crime thriller, set in the 1990s (director John Lee Hancock wrote it back in 1993 but was unable to get it made until recently) and features no less than three Oscar-winning actors. You’d think that would bring the quality level up a notch, but keep in mind that Warners chose to release this in January – never a good sign.

A serial killer is targeting women in the Los Angeles area (what else is new?) and detective Jim Baxter (Malek) is stumped. One of Los Angeles’ most successful police detectives, he utters platitudes at press conferences but is no closer to solving the crimes than when he came on the case. Meanwhile, over in Kern County to the northeast of the City of Angels, former L.A. police detective (and current Kern County deputy sheriff) Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) has been assigned by his boss to collect some evidence held in Los Angeles critical to a case in Bakersfield. Deacon, who left  L.A. under less-than-ideal circumstances, eventually gets sucked into Baxter’s case (to be honest, Deacon doesn’t resist very hard) which may have a link to a case that Deacon worked on years before that was never solved.

With Deacon on board as an unofficial advisor, the two at-first reluctant partners zero in on a suspect – Albert Sparma (Leto) – a serial killer’s name if I ever heard one – who seems to be a slam dunk at first. He taunts the detectives and is creepy enough to set off any cop’s radar. But is he the killer? And can the two mismatched detectives stop him before he kills again?

Considering the calibre of talent both behind and in front of the camera, it’s a bit surprising that the end result of this movie is less than stirring. Certainly it’s no fault of Washington or Leto, both of whom deliver scintillating performances. For Washington, this kind of role is old hat yet still he manages to bring a certain amount of freshness to the part. Leto may be one of the best actors at playing creepy, brings a braggadocio to his role that is refreshing.

Of the three main cast members, only Malek feels out of place. His sunken-eyed thousand-yard stare bespeaks someone with PTSD, not the well-adjusted family man his character is made out to be. The murky cinematography doesn’t do him any favors other than to highlight his ghoulish pallor. We know he’s capable of great performances, but his character is so underwritten that it’s almost criminal. If you’re going to cast someone like Malek in your film, you should better utilize him.

The plot feels like a pastiche of a fair number of era-specific crime thrillers; back in the Nineties, these sorts of movies were commonplace and often boasted A-list actors. As those types of films have largely fallen out of favor, we don’t see this kind of turbocharged cast in a thriller these days. I just wish they had a better film to work with.

REASONS TO SEE: Denzel is riveting (as usual) and Leto turns in a marvelous performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little on the sitcom-y side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, disturbing images and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leto was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance here.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through 2/2821)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seven
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Go-Gos
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The Night


The first rule of horror movies – don’t look behind you.

(2020) Horror (IFC MidnightShahab Hosseini, Niousha Noor, George Maguire, Michael Graham, Elester Latham, Armin Amiri, Steph Martinez (voice), Kathreen Khavari, Gia Mora, Leah Oganyan, Lily V.K., Ali Kousheshi, Amir Ali Hosseini, Hana Rahimzadeh, Sam Tarazandehpour, Boshra Haghighi, Sara Fuqua. Directed by Kourosh Ahari

 

Sometimes, we lose our way. Not just metaphorically, but literally – and not unusually, both at once. Finding our way back home is hard enough when our GPS is faulty. Sometimes, we have to fight through demons of another kind, too.

Babak (Hosseini) and Neda (Noor) have been enjoying an evening out with their friends. Party games, good food and the company of their friends should be the recipe for a pleasant evening, but it is obvious there is some tension between them. Babak has had maybe a little too much to drink and the couple, along with their infant daughter, are getting ready to head back home.

But Babak is probably in no shape to drive, and Neda’s license has been suspended so Babak definitely doesn’t want her driving. So the Iranian-American couple head through the twists and turns of Los Angeles late at night and get lost. Oh, they have a GPS but it’s acting wonky. Running low on gas and definitely in the kind of neighborhood you don’t want to run out of gas in, they decide to pull into a hotel and sleep it off until morning.

The Hotel Normandie seems ordinary enough from the outside, but an unsettling encounter with a homeless man (Latham) does nothing to alleviate Neda’s already frazzled state of mind, and while the obsequious night manager (Maguire) seems courteous enough, there’s just something off about him.

They check into their room and right away it’s rough sledding. Their daughter is being fussy, and for good reason; there is an uncommon amount of unsettling noise to be heard, from the footsteps in the room above to the child plaintively calling out for his mother and the loud knocking noises. At first, they chalk it up to their own state of mind but soon they begin to see things that causes them to realize that there is something very wrong at the Hotel Normandie which like another famous California hotel, is the kind where you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

From a technical standpoint, this is an amazing piece of work. Sound is utilized in a powerful fashion, and not just for jump scares (although there are a few of those). There is also a very effective use of light and shadow and cinematographer Maz Makhani does an excellent job of creating a creepy vibe (the Hotel Normandie, incidentally, is a real hotel and was used as a filming location for the movie). It might surprise you to know that the cast and crew were largely Iranian or Iranian-American and although most of the dialogue is in Farsi, the locations were all right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Both Hosseini and Noor need to be at the top of their game because they are in virtually every seen either separately or together. There must be enough chemistry together to convince us that they are married, but enough discord between them to remind us that the marriage is in trouble. Even the soundtrack is calculated to rachet up the tension without using horror movie tropes – or at least not many.

The movie may be paced a little bit slower than most American audiences are used to, but Ahari is like a master chef here, layering clues and subtle hints to give you a picture, but never makes it obvious what’s cooking; it is left to the viewer to figure out what it all meant and whether what you saw is what you think you saw.

=Unfortunately, that can work both ways – for and against a film. There’s a maddening feeling like you’re seeing only a portion of the movie and that critical pieces are being left out. Even after the strong ending, and although much of what is happening is explained, I still left the film feeling like I’d seen an incomplete picture, like there were important things just out of frame that I should have been able to see. While I like the feeling now more than a week after I viewed the film, at the time I didn’t appreciate it at all.

This is an impressive work, albeit a flawed one. The scares are mainly subtle and the horror rarely overt, although new parents will certainly chime in when I say that a fussy baby can be a horror show all its own.

REASONS TO SEE: An atmospheric horror film with terrific sound and cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting can be over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sequences of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first American-made film to be invited to screen in Iran since the Iranian Revolution.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Followed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Riding the Rails

Tiger Within


The eye (and teeth) of the tiger.

(2020) Drama (Film ArtEdward Asner, Margot Josefsohn, Diego Josef, Taylor Nichols, Luke Eisner, Julie Dolan, Jade Weber, Joey Dedio, James C. Victor, Mikul Robins, Zachary Mooren, Frank Miranda, Csynbidium, Angelee Vera, Mark Dippolito, Sabastian Neudeck, Sam Thakur, Liam Fountain, Ryan Simantel, Jonathan Brooks, Linda Rich, Charee Devon, Erica Piccinnini. Directed by Rafal Zielinski

 

Once in awhile, you encounter a film that has its heart in the right place, but lacks the execution to pull off its intentions. That’s this Tiger to a “T”.

Casey (Josefsohn) is an angry 14-year-old girl from Ohio whose parents are divorced. She lives with her feckless mom (Piccinnini) in Ohio along with mom’s unsavory boyfriend (Brooks); she decides it’s time to head to L.A. to be with her Dad (Victor) except that he has a new family of his own and his shrewish wife wants no reminders of his old life anywhere near her daughters. Overhearing her stepmother’s tirade, she walks off and decides to make her own way in the City of Angels.

Easier said that done and she ends up sleeping in a cemetery, where she is discovered by Samuel (Asner), a Holocaust survivor leaving a stone on the memorial to his wife. Even though she has a swastika spray painted on her black leather jacket, he takes pity on her and buys her a meal, which leads to an offer for a place to stay. Casey has been brought up to believe that the Holocaust was a hoax and the swastika is largely for shock value, which in the early 80s (when this was apparently set – more on that later) might have worked but even at that point there were plenty of people utilizing Nazi symbology for shock value.

The two end up forging a bond that is surprisingly strong; she sees in him the parental guidance that she never had; he sees in her the child he never got to raise (his own offspring were killed in the camps during the war). Together, they turn out to be really good for each other.

The makings for a good movie are definitely here. Unfortunately, there are some script choices that tell me that writer Gina Wendkos doesn’t trust her own story; for example, she tacks on an unnecessary and pointless romance for Casey – after we’ve seen her employed as a sex worker (!) in Hollywood. There is also precious little character development and the story often relies on predictable tropes that give the viewers death by cliché.

Asner can be a force of nature as an actor, but he has mellowed somewhat since his Emmy-winning days as Lou Grant. It might well be age, but he is far more subtle here. While I thought his German-Yiddish accent a little over-the-top, he does his best to dispense wisdom to a young woman who isn’t always receptive to it. On the other hand, there’s Josefsohn who has the thankless task of playing a belligerent punk chick with a chip on her shoulder and making her relatable. That Josefsohn pulls it off is impressive; that she holds her own with Asner is not only a testament to her talent but also a tribute to Asner’s generosity as an actor.

The film seems to be set in the early 80s, but there are a lot of anachronisms (all the cars are modern and the Los Angeles location looks contemporary. Making a period piece is a lot more than hitting the thrift store; you need to see to all sorts of details, otherwise the viewer is pulled out of the illusion. The problem is that if the film were set even a few years ago, for Samuel to be married with children in the concentration camps would put him well over the century mark in years. Still, considering Asner’s actual age, they could have set the film just after the millennium turned and it likely would have been acceptable.

The movie’s themes of forgiveness, family and education are certainly laudable, but the movie is really about the relationship between Samuel and Casey; the extra stuff is just padding and just cluttered up the story. If only the filmmakers trusted the story and the characters to be compelling, they might have made a compelling film. Instead, we get a well-intentioned miss.

REASONS TO SEE: Josefsohn has some real potential.
REASONS TO AVOID: A few lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some sexuality – involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Asner was 90 when the movie was filmed: Josefsohn was 14.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Reader
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wonder Woman 1984

Girl Lost: A Hollywood Story


Eighties flashback alert.

(2020) Drama (Breaking GlassDominique Swain, Cody Renee Cameron, Serena Maffucci, Moxie Owens, Leah Ann Cevoli, Psalms Salazar, Elizabeth Lamboy-Wilson, Emily Cheree, Christina Veronica, Thomas Haley, Mark Schaefer, Ryan Vincent, Natalie Fabrizio, Abby Latip, Leah Schaefer, Misha Suvorov, James Seaman, Corey Shane Love, Michelle Maylene. Directed by Robin Bain

 

There is a question that bedevils those that want to bring to the screen a portrayal of social ills, like sex trafficking; how do you bring that to the screen to decry exploitation without being exploitative yourself? It’s an extremely fine line and many well-meaning filmmakers are unsuccessful at navigating it.

The movie – a sequel to a 2016 movie in which the director starred – follows the stories of Hope (Owens) and Baby Girl (Salazar), the former a starry-eyed teen looking to escape an intolerable small town life with the promise of the glamor of being a model and actress, the latter a single mother with few options to feed, shelter and clothe her daughter. They are both enticed into the world of prostitution by Paige (Cameron) – Hope’s childhood babysitter – and Paige’s girlfriend Destiny (Maffucci), who are both out to make as much money as possible so that they can maintain a party hearty lifestyle.

While the exploiters turn a blind eye to the realities of the situation, the exploited deal with the psychological and physical fall-out of their profession (and not their chosen profession), falling into a spiral that they cannot escape from without outside intervention. It is the sad reality that a large number of young women have found themselves trapped in all over the globe.

Those who see prostitution as a victimless crime might come away with a different impression after seeing this. Certainly, there are some women who enter the game with both eyes wide open, and enter the trade with a plan to get out once they’ve made enough money and in fact choose to become sex workers. For many others, it is the only way out of desperation, or at least they have been convinced, either by others or themselves, of that idea. I remember a friend of mine in college who told me that if she flunked out of school (which she was in danger of doing at the time) that she would have no other choice but to become a hooker, because she had no other skills or work experience. Fortunately, she managed to stay in school. Not everyone is so fortunate, whether because of economics or other situations – not the least of which is drug addiction, which is an expensive proposition.

The question I asked earlier about walking the fine line is very applicable here because, in my opinion, Bain isn’t totally successful at walking the line between exploitation and drama. The ratio of sex acts to fall-out is probably higher than it should be; I get the commercial necessity of titillation in order to draw in an audience in order to get one’s message across, but that message is diluted by the erotic content in this case. It is further diluted by turning the story into a soap opera-esque miasma that is heavy on the suds and light on character development. It doesn’t help that the dialogue and acting are about at the level of a Cinemax late night skin flick.

That’s a shame because I think that the intentions of Bain are honorable. I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that she is out to call attention to a situation that year after year, continues to be ignored by society in general while the lives of hundreds of young women are destroyed, often ending in drug overdoses, murder or suicide. Happy endings, for these women, are exceedingly rare.

REASONS TO SEE: Definitely for those who loved lurid 80s softcore teen hooker porn.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes what could be a serious subject and turns it into a turgid soap opera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of sexuality, some nudity and drug use, as well as plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Craven’s day job is as a professor of film studies at Marlboro College in Vermont.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Angel
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Mark of the Bell Witch

The Estate


Dirty deeds done very expensively.

(2020) Comedy (Stone LaneChristopher Charles Baker, Eliza Coupe, Greg Finley, Heather Matarazzo, Eric Roberts, Lala Kent, Allan Graf, Ezra Buzzington, Alexandra Paul, Cohen Prescott, Kyle Rezzarday, Aubyn Philabaum. Directed by James Kapner

 

It is said that the very rich aren’t like thee and me. Their outlook is much different and their moral compass always points towards where the money is. We like to think that they didn’t get rich by being nice; sometimes, those stereotypes aren’t far from the mark.

George (Baker) is the very gay son of Marcello (Roberts), a very rich man. He and his dad’s latest trophy wife Lux (Coupe) have been exiled to one of Marcello’s L.A. mansions on what they both consider a pittance of an allowance, enough money just to survive but not really enjoy their wealth. The two do a lot of commiserating about Marcello’s cruel penurious tactics.

At a dive bar where George is trying to pick up some random guy for sex (as is, to be fair, Lux), the two of them meet Joe (Finley). Joe claims to be a hitman living off the grid. The three of them hit it off and Joe offers to rid Lux and George of their mutual problem – Marcello. Of course, the problem is sex – both Lux and George find Joe very attractive and Joe swings both ways. The plan to take out daddy/hubby turns into a series of double and triple crosses as Joe turns out to be a whole lot smarter than either one of them thought.

This is meant to be a black comedy, and at times there is the sharp, biting humor that you would expect from one of those. Unfortunately, a lot of the humor is of the sit-com variety, kind of safe and not quite as outrageous as the filmmakers seem to think it is. Still, there are plenty of twists and turns and the kind of plotline that will make even the most jaded pessimist roll their eyes with delight.

The performances here are strong across the board, particularly from the esteemed veteran Eric Roberts who once again seems to be having more fun than just about anyone else in the film. Sadly, he’s not in the movie nearly as much as I might have liked but that’s a necessity of the plot. Not all that long ago, he would have been perfect for the role of Joe.

My biggest issue with the movie is that it tends to reinforce negative gay man stereotypes; the cattiness, the promiscuousness, the shallowness; while I’ve no doubt that there are gay men who fit that stereotype (it had to come from somewhere, after all), it doesn’t do the movement any favors to portray them this way. I don’t know if it is my liberal conscience being triggered, but I had less of an issue with the rich being portrayed as grasping, greedy and amoral. All in all, I think the film would have benefitted with fewer stereotypes.

I saw this movie while it was playing the Newport Beach Virtual Film Festival and the film is still making its way around the festival circuit. It’s likely to get picked up by an indie distributor and end up on VOD in the not too distant future, so keep an eye out for it then.

REASONS TO SEE: Eric Roberts gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO AVOID: Reinforces negative gay stereotypes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual situations and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film as a director for Kapner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eat the Rich
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Hearts and Bones

Chop Chop (2020)


Live can’t come to the door, she’s all tied up.

(2020) Thriller (GravitasAtala Arce, Jake Taylor, David Harper, Mikael Mattsson, Jeremy Jordan, James McCabe, Mike Thompson, Nicholas Correnti, Natasha Missick, Lizzie Chaplin (voice), Jazmine Jordan, Theresa Byron, Emily Katter, Paul Syre, Mandy Martino. Directed by Rony Patel

 

Most couples appreciate the quiet evening home alone. Someone cooks dinner, maybe a movie (and microwave popcorn) out on the couch, and then to the bedroom for *ahem* the main course. Sounds like a pretty good night to me.

And that’s what Chuck (Taylor) and Liv (Arce) have in mind. Then, there’s a knock on the door. There’s a guy there named Teddy (Harper), delivering the pizza they ordered. Except, they didn’t order any pizza – Chuck made dinner, so Liv tells Teddy thanks but no thanks, and shuts the door, and goes back into the living room.

And that’s where she finds Teddy waiting for her. “I have abilities,” he says, almost modestly. He also has a bag of bloody severed heads. Now, that’s as promising a beginning for a movie as it gets, thinks I. Sadly, Chop Chop doesn’t quite live up to that early promise.

When Teddy attacks Liv, Chuck comes to the rescue and ends up killing Teddy. However, instead of calling the cops – technically, they were defending themselves which isn’t illegal, even in California – they decide to dispose of the body themselves, calling in some favors from some shady underworld types. When a cop (Jeremy Jordan) stumbles on what’s going on, the couple have to shove him in the trunk as well. And all these underworld sorts are, inexplicably, trying to kill Liv and Chuck. I mean, WTF, right?

Along the way, they meet all manner of killers and fend them off as best they can before they end up being captured and set up for torture…but by that point, you’ll be wondering why you’ve stayed with the movie even this long. The story is told in such an incomprehensible manner that you can be forgiven if you think that the chapter heading for the first scene, Teddy, actually refers to Chuck – it isn’t until a little later that you find out that Teddy was the dead serial killer. The one with abilities…that are never explained, or referred to. And let’s face it, Liv took them pretty much in stride. Do lots of people that she knows have abilities?

Another flaw of the film is that nearly all the action takes place off-camera, or is so brief as to be blink-and-you-missed-it. I’ll give Patel the benefit of the doubt and assume that was for budgetary reasons, but it may well be inexperience, or an attempt to set his thriller apart from the glut of them on the market. I will give him that the concept is solid.

However, he changes tone regularly to an almost maddening degree. The movie starts out as kind of a noir thriller, moves into a romantic comedy at one point, and then shimmies into torture porn at the end before finishing up as…well, that I’ll keep to myself. The really maddening thing is that there is a ton of potential here, but the decisions made by the person sitting in the director’s chair as well as the person at the laptop banging away the script (the same person, by the way) just about guaranteed the movie wouldn’t succeed. I think the movie could have worked as a kind of extreme action version of a noir Nick and Nora Charles-type of thing. That’s a movie I’d love to see – John Wick meets The Thin Man. Hollywood, get on that one, wouldja?

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is an intriguing one.
REASONS TO AVOID: Clumsy storytelling vies with questionable directorial decisions for the most damaging aspect to the film’s success.
FAMILY VALUES: This is plenty of violence and profanity, bloody images, some sexual content, and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for Patel, who was born in India but currently resides in Los Angeles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Funny Games
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness!

LX 2048


Driving with the top down in a hazmat suit – how very 2020!

(2020) Science Fiction (QuiverJames D’Arcy, Anna Brewster, Delroy Lindo, Gabrielle Cassi, Juliet Aubrey, Gina McKee, Jay Hayden, Linc Hand, Ronin Zaki Moshe, Majus Motiejus Prokopas. Directed by Guy Moshe

 

You can tell the state of a society by how it perceives the way the world will end. Our society, chronically depressed and stressed, turns out apocalyptic movies that have no explosions, no meteors, no heroic astronauts…just a world where everyone plays on a virtual Realm waiting for things to come to a close.

Adam Bird (D’Arcy) sees the end coming sooner. He works for a virtual reality hardware firm that supplies the hardware necessary to enter The Realm, the virtual reality utopia that everyone is plugged into. He can see the company’s future and it is grim – the hardware will soon be rendered obsolete by an implanted chip that will do the same thing faster, more efficiently, and less expensively. Adam is a voice crying in the wilderness – quite literally. He’s the only one to actually go into the office. Most people work from home and attend meetings via The Realm (sound familiar?)

But that isn’t even the worst news in Adam’s day. His doctor (McKee) has informed him that his heart is failing, and soon. But no worries – he has three kids and because he and his wife Reena (Brewster) bothered to procreate (most people don’t) he is eligible for Premium 3 insurance, which in the event of the death of either him or his spouse provides for a clone replacement, with all their memories intact. The two spouses even get to tweak their genetically enhanced replacement mates with characteristics that are more in tune with what they want – more attentive, sexier, less annoying and so on.

It’s a pretty bleak world – one of the reasons nobody goes out to work is because sunlight has become toxic, likely due to the erosion of the ozone. The population copes by taking state-mandated tranquilizers – LithiumX – which numbs them to the fact that life has become an absolute cluster muck. And Adam being something of a rebel, refuses to take his medication. So when Reena catches him having a go at a virtual sex doll, she blows a gasket and tosses him out on his tush. But with the company in danger of failing, Adam knows he has to figure out a way to keep it afloat long enough for the insurance to cash in and support his estranged wife and children.

There’s an awful lot of concepts thrown into the mix here, and one has to give the filmmakers credit for trying to tackle them all. There’s an intelligence to the movie that is more often than not missing from science fiction movies, and that’s refreshing. That doesn’t mean the movie is always successful in what it’s trying to do.

D’Arcy actually does a pretty bang-up job as Adam, and the movie totally rests on his shoulders so that’s a good thing. Often, he is having conversations with people who are online; we aren’t invited to The Realm so mostly what we see is Adam shouting in an empty conference room. It is a bit disconcerting, but I suspect that given the situation we’ve all been in the past several months we all feel a little bit like that’s exactly what we’re doing.

The problem here is that Adam is not really a pleasant guy. There’s a reason everyone’s on Lithium; it’s just too much for the psyche to handle, and Adam with everything going on – his marriage failing, his health failing, his business failing, the world failing – is losing it and not just a little bit. He’s desperately trying to have a conversation with Reena trying to express his fears but she isn’t having it, and so his attempts to reach out degenerate into shouting matches and vicious put-downs. “I can’t believe I ever loved you,” he cries out during one such exchange.

The movie tries to take a sharp left turn late in the movie but this is ill-advised. There really is enough going on to keep the discussion group going for ages without throwing in a final twist. The last 20 minutes virtually (no pun intended) undoes all the goodwill that the first eighty minutes generated. That’s a shame because despite being a low-budget affair, the production design is pretty aces – it looks like it has a budget probably 10 to 20 times what it actually had, and the ideas that it’s grappling with are very relevant right now, with climate change, online addiction, drug addiction, the deterioration of relationships in an increasingly plugged-in world and the ethics of medical technology exceeding our maturity to handle them.

I almost forgot to mention Delroy Lindo who has a small but crucial role as a reclusive scientist, and all I can say is that even his less visible roles are intriguing. Delroy Lindo is undeniably a cool mofo, and we are reminded of that every time he pops up onscreen.

In any case, this is a movie with lofty aspirations that occasionally achieves them, but ultimately shoots itself in the foot when it tries to insert a twist that wasn’t really needed. Fans of thoughtful science fiction will find much to chew on here. Those who prefer their movies a little bit less crammed with ideas might find it indigestible.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of great ideas – almost too many.
REASONS TO AVOID: The characters are all so contemptible it’s hard to root for any of them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexual content..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: D’Arcy is best known for his work in the MCU playing the human Jarvis in the Agent Carter miniseries.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gattaca
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Artist’s Wife