Older


As we grow older, life and love grow more complicated.

(2020) Romance (Rialto/Indie Rights) Guy Pigden, Liesha Ward Knox, Astra McLaren, Harley Neville, Samantha Jukes, Michael Drew, Michelle Leuthart, Louise Higgins, Jay Simon, Simon Ward, Peter Coonan, Melanie Bevan, Kelvin Taylor, Carey Lee. Directed by Guy Pigden

 

For the most part, we are all dragged kicking and screaming into maturity. When we are young, we are self-indulgent, self-centered and all about hanging out with friends, feeling good, and putting off responsibility just as long as humanly possible. Sooner or later, though, we are faced with the reality of growing up and becoming an adult…of getting older.

Alex (Pigden) hasn’t yet gotten there. An aspiring filmmaker, his one film was soundly rejected by critics and public alike, and he has retreated into a kind of rut, living with his Mum (Leuthart) and Dad (Drew), getting high, jerking off, and hanging out with a dwindling group of friends including Henry (Neville), his best friend from childhood who has started to make that climb into adulthood. He is living with his fiancée Isabelle (Jukes) and had a baby with her. Suddenly, Alex and Henry aren’t on the same page anymore.

At Henry and Isabelle’s wedding, Alex reconnects from a couple of women from his past – model Stephanie (McLaren), whom Alex has had a thing for since high school, while Jenny (Knox) was his partner in crime along with Henry. Alex is very interested still in Stephanie and it turns out she has some interest in him, while he enjoys hanging out with Jenny. Both relationships eventually lead to sex, which eventually leads to complications. All of the parties in this triangle are aware that they are far from exclusive with one another, and that’s fine with them – Stephanie doesn’t seem to have much of an emotional connection to Alex and while Jenny certainly has one, she’s no more interested in building a future with him than he is. She’s content to run her coffee shop, hang out with Alex and other partners on occasion – that is, until one of those annoying real life complications hits her smack in the face, giving Alex – who up until now has been quite the likable bloke – the opportunity to do something utterly stupid, and damn near unforgivable.

For his part, Alex is also dealing with real life events that have left him forced to sort out who he is and more importantly, who he wants to be. Alex, at 29, now realizes that maturity is beckoning whether he wants it to or not; and while he can choose to ignore it and continue to exist in the comfortable rut he has lived in for years (and that’s always an option), the consequences of that choice may be more than he can bear.

Pigden, who also wrote and directed the movie, actually comes off as extremely likable despite the immaturity that is basic to the character and other than one incident alluded to above (note to all young men – the question he asks Jenny (and you’ll know what it is when you hear it) is one that you should never EVER under any circumstances whatsoever ask a woman you have any feelings for)you’ll find yourself enjoying his company which is a good thing because he’s in nearly every frame of the film.

While I don’t object to flashbacks per se, the way they are utilized here in what is essentially a linear narrative comes off as overuse which, I admit, might just be a personal taste thing on my part. He also utilizes a kind of romcom type of template particularly near the end of the movie that veteran movie buffs might find off-putting. There is also a fair amount of nudity, sex, and what some would consider bad behavior but might for a segment of society just be another Friday night, so if that kind of thing bothers you, be aware.

But most of all, this is a movie that hits al the right notes. It’s the kind of movie that bores into your brain like that song you can’t forget and as time goes by, you regard it more fondly than you did the first time you experienced it. Pigden has written that this is a personal film for him, and you can tell that it holds an awful lot of meaning for him. While not strictly autobiographical, enough of his life experiences have been included to give the movie a whole lot of authenticity. I imagine that you might not have had this on your radar – unfortunately, the film received little publicity or fanfare which is sadly the case for most indie films – but this is a jewel worth seeking out, particularly if you are of an age where your twenties are in jeopardy of becoming your thirties and you’re wondering if that’s all there is. Spoiler alert; it isn’t, and movies like this can take the sting out of getting older.

REASONS TO SEE: Snappy dialogue and smart soundtrack. Pigden is extremely likable for the most part.
REASONS TO AVOID: Relies on flashbacks a little too much. Uses a few standard romance tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, sex, and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes from Alex’s horror film are actually Pigden’s award-winning short No Caller ID.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, Roku, Tubi, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Second Chance
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Dead of Night

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

Narco Soldiers


(2019) Crime (GravitasRafael Amaya, Carolina Guerra, Octavio Pizano, Ricardo Chavira, Ivo Canelas, Cody Kasch, Roger Cross, Carlos Naveo, Hector Anibal, Omar Patin, Axel Mansilla, Iban Marrero, Anika Lehmann. Directed by Felix Limardo

 

The world is often a strange place, particularly now. Movies reflect that, particularly now. How else do you explain Narco Soldiers? It is, in fact, a movie about how drug cartels can contribute to national pride.

Danny (Amaya) is a hired killer for a cartel run out of Puerto Rico by The Sarge (Cross). Now a free agent, he hooks up with Don Toribio (Chavira) to become a middle man in the Mexican and Colombian cartels. But Danny’s buddy Teo (Pizano), has a different idea; to create a cartel right there in the Dominican Republic. As his high-end girlfriend Marisela (Guerra) puts it, the Dominican has long been a place where other nations came to exploit with no benefit at all to the Dominicans. The cartels are just the latest in the long line.

As it turns out, Marisela is the brains behind the operation and she’s as ruthless as they come. Together, Teo, Marisela and Danny become a force to be reckoned with and build a cartel of their own. However, along the way they make enemies and you know what they say; the bigger you are, the harder you fall.

I like the Latin point of view here; most times, we get a more European look at the cartels, an American infiltrator or some such. Here, we see the bosses at the top. The problem is that they don’t really give them characters so much as roles; one is the muscle, one is the brains, one is the heart. We never get a sense of complete human beings behind the parts.

The script is also deeply predictable and even the action scenes don’t really add very much. That’s not to say that the action is done badly – it’s not – but there just isn’t anything that stands out. The plot is somewhat convoluted, but again, there’s a very “been there, done that” feeling to it. In fact, that could be the film’s epitaph; it’s okay, but nothing special. And it could have been.

REASONS TO SEE: Comes with a Latin point of view that is refreshing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very basic and workmanlike.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence and profanity, drug references, sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amaya is best known for his work in the Mexican TV show Lord of the Skies.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scarface (1983)
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mothman Legacy

Life Itself (2018)


Ah, to be young, in love and expecting a child!

(2018) Romance (AmazonOlivia Wilde, Oscar Isaac, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabel Durant, Lorenza Izzo, Jake Robinson, Adrián Marrero, Kya Cruse, Charlie Thurston, Gabby Bryan, Jordana Rose, Caitlin Carmichael, Bryant Carroll, Carmela Lloret. Directed by Dan Fogelman

 

Life Itself (not to be confused with the 2014 Roger Ebert bio-documentary) has some mighty tall aspirations. It means to show us through all the pain and suffering through life, we can find solace in that love finds us because it is destined to. I’m sure there are plenty of lonely people who would take exception to that theory.

Will (Isaac) and Abby (Wilde) are a young couple who met in college, fell in love, got married and are expecting a child. Or, at least, they were; we see most of that through flashbacks and we meet Will during a therapy session with a sympathetic psychiatrist (Bening) who is trying to guide Will through the ruins of his life after Abby leaves it. We meet their daughter Dylan (Cooke), a petulant young girl who fronts a punk band but is hiding great pain and not hiding it very well. We also meet Rodrigo (Monner), a young boy traumatized at a young age and brought up by a mother (Costa) who is afflicted with cancer and two fathers – his biological dad (Peris-Mencheta) and the wealthy landowner (Banderas) for whom his father works and who has been part of his life since the beginning. We also meet Elena (Izzo), the narrator who has connections with nearly all of these people in some way.

This is a movie that is riddled with sorrow; plenty of the folks I just introduced you to meet tragic ends, but there is also a lot of joy in the relationships with spouses, parents and caring friends. It feels like Fogelman has tried to cram way too much into the movie which helps to give it the feel that it’s going on too long. Some astute viewers will note that Fogelman has become well-known for the TV show This Is Us which this resembles in tone and construction which is probably why my wife likes this movie so much.

Most critics don’t, however, and I count myself among them. Like life itself, the movie has problems and triumphs in equal measure. There are some nice performances – Costa, Isaac, Wilde and Patinkin stand out, and Jackson in what amounts to a cameo at the very beginning of the movie might have caused problems by making viewers think this was going to be a different kind of movie than it actually was. Frankly, I thought that Fogelman should have stuck with the Sam Jackson movie; it’s a much better one than the one he actually made.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some form of catharsis throughout the movie for you to hold onto. There certainly is, but the tone shifts are so abrupt and violent that we are left feeling curiously off-balance, which is kind of what we watch movies to get away from. Life Itself is too much like life itself in many ways and I don’t think most of us love life itself enough to want to watch a movie about it.

REASONS TO SEE: Jackson is incandescent in his brief appearance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Excessively maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a bit of profanity, some sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fogelman listened extensively to Bob Dylan’s 1997 Time Out of Mind album in order to set the mood of the film which blends love and melancholy. In fact, the track “Love Sick” plays over the opening credits.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews: Metacritic: 21/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Is Us
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The House With the Clock In the Walls

Synonyms (Synonymes)


Dance like nobody’s watching.

(2019) Dramedy (Kino-LorberTom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevilllotte, Urla Hayik, Olivier Loustau, Yehuda Almagor, Gaya Von Schwarze, Gal Amitai, Idan Ashkenazi, Dolev Ohana, Liron Baranes, Erwan Ribard, Yawen Ribard, Iman Amara-Korba, Sébastien Robinet, Damien Carlet, Ron Bitterman, Christophe Paou, Valentine Carette, Catherine Denecy, Léa Drucker. Directed by Nadav Lapid

 

People relocate for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, employment dictates location. In other instances, it is to move closer to family or loved ones. Sometimes, though, it’s to get away from something.

Yoav (Mercier) falls into the latter category. Traumatized by a stint in the Israeli Defense Force, he leaves Israel forever and emigrates to Paris, so bitter at the country of his birth that he refuses to speak Hebrew, even to fellow expats. The thing is, his French is a bit incomplete so in order to help him learn the language he buys himself a French-Hebrew dictionary that he obsessively reads synonyms from in order to increase the depth of his ability to communicate.

When he arrives in Paris, he finds himself in an apartment that is utterly devoid of furniture; it is a beautiful and cavernous apartment but lacks amenities. He gets into the bathtub fully naked intending to enjoy some private time rubbing one out but his efforts are disturbed by noises coming from the other room. Completely naked, he bolts out to find that all his possessions – including all of his clothes – are gone. Naked, he screams for help but nobody is apparently home. He gets into the bathtub and falls asleep, chilled to the bone.

His neighbors Emile (Dolmaire) and Caroline (Chevillotte) find him and take them to their apartment and warm him up. Emile, though much smaller than Yoav, gives him clothes that miraculously fit. They end up serving as tour guides and mentors and both of them are sexually attracted to him. In the meantime, Yoav finds work as a security guard at the Israeli embassy and goes through a series of incidents ranging from the surreal to the odd.

Lapid has a good grasp of the absurd and he utilizes it nicely, such as Yoav’s boss (Loustau) telling him about a regular event in which Jews are matched up in underground fights with neo-Nazis, or the war tales that Yoav spins for the ever-fascinated Emile. Lapid borrows heavily from New Wave cinema, particularly from Godard and some of what he borrows are things he should have left alone. The kinetic camera movement is nice but the ultra-close-ups and whip pans get annoying after a while. It is a definite case of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome.

Mercier is a revelation. A fairly new actor, he is an enormous presence and the longer the film goes on, the more engaged the audience becomes with his story. Certainly, there’s an element of the surreal to his story, but it doesn’t warp reality overly much and Mercier in a fish out of water role that could easily devolve into clichés and tropes gives the character a freshness that is engaging. I also liked Chevillotte a good deal and her chemistry with Mercier is palpable but I wish the character had been fleshed out a bit more.

The movie ends on a high note – the final shot is a doozy – so hang in there with the movie which despite it’s excesses actually makes some poignant points about cultural identity and finding yourself in a strange land. This is a solid winner that cinema buffs should keep an eye out for.

REASONS TO SEE: Very literate and intelligently written. Mercier has a ton of presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Look ma, I’m directing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic nudity, some mild violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is loosely based on Lapid’s own experiences emigrating to Paris.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: 84/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cairo Time
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The First Purge

Mickey and the Bear


The obligatory uncomfortable car ride shot.

(2019) Drama (UtopiaCamila Morrone, James Badge Dale, Calvin Demba, Ben Rosenfield, Rebecca Henderson, Rob Grabow, Gabriel Vega, Katee Ferguson. Directed by Annabelle Attanasio

 

Recently, director Martin Scorsese stirred up an Internet hornet’s nest when he disparaged Marvel films (and their like). He spoke about the films he grew up watching and quite frankly, this one from first-time director Attanasio would be the sort of film that he would dig.

Mickey (Morrone) lives in the small Big Sky town of Anaconda, Montana. Her mother has recently passed away due to cancer; the toxic waste from mining operations there have decimated the population of the town. Mickey’s dad Hank (Dale) is an ex-Marine who came home with a drinking problem, a severe case of PTSD and wild mood swings that his medication isn’t really regulating anymore. Mickey is his sole caregiver and support; she works after school in a taxidermy shop and supplements his veterans benefits with the little income she can make. Hank is chronically unemployed, and an object of pity in the town; he is not only a vet but a widower. He is essentially given a pass for his bad behavior, which is growing steadily worse.

Mickey has a boyfriend, Aron (Rosenfield) who professes undying love for Mickey, but steals her father’s Oxycontin and seems most interested in her female parts than in any other part of her. Mickey is trapped in the small town, unable to leave because her father couldn’t survive without her, but sees any sort of hope for a life of her own slipping away from her.

But there are some bright spots. New kid at school, Wyatt (Demba) – a transfer from the UK – sees potential in her and encourages her to go out and seek it. VA psychiatrist Leslee Watkins (Henderson) takes an interest in her and sees that the situation she’s in is not likely to improve…ever. Mickey is beginning to take tentative steps out of her situation but then her father drags her right back into the nest.

Attanasio is one of the new breed of female directors who not only has something to say but knows how to say it in a compelling manner. It’s hard to believe this is her first feature; it’s even harder to believe that she was only 25 years old when she made this. It’s directed with such assurance that you would think that the person behind the camera had decades of experience in the director’s chair. I’m excited for the future of this young woman.

It doesn’t hurt that she has a pair of actors giving career-defining performances. Dale, a veteran character actor, has never been better. He walks a tightrope between portraying Hank as an utter bastard and an object of pity. Hank is neither; he is prideful and his mood swings can lead to violence. At the same time, there’s just enough charm to allow us to see what he must have been like before he went off to war. This isn’t a textbook PTSD performance; it’s more true to life.

The revelation, however, is Morrone. With a limited resume behind her, there was no reason to believe she had this kind of performance inside her but quite frankly, it’s Oscar-worthy. Mickey is strong and vulnerable; making a terrible decision one moment and standing up for herself the next. She is, in short, a young woman who has seen far too much of life for a girl her age; it has caused her to grow up way too fast, but she is still at the end of the day only 18 years old.

Most of the other performances are strong as well, although Demba looks way too old to be a high school student. The Montana landscape is shown off nicely while the town is basically the working-class kind of place that has been hit particularly hard by the economic hardships that have caused them to embrace outsiders in politics. There’s a quiet desperation in the town that is heartbreaking; elitist liberals would do well to take notice.

Attanasio keeps the mood tense; one never knows when Hank is going to erupt. It’s a slow burn rather than an explosive conclusion. At the end of the day, the only flaw here is that the ending feels a bit more cliché than the rest of the film. Even though the final image of Mickey is hopeful and inspiring, it doesn’t really jive with the tone of the film.

The movie is currently playing in New York and opening in Los Angeles later this week; at the end of the month, it will start playing nationwide. Keep an eye out for it; this is a very strong movie that cinephiles should want to experience for themselves.

REASONS TO SEE: While Badge does a good job, Morrone is incredible. Gritty Americana at its finest.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little too pat, too predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of profanity, scenes of drug abuse, some sexual situations and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Attanasio is best known as an actress on the CBS drama Bull; she left the show following the third season in order to shoot this movie, her directorial debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Princess of the Row
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society


Wheels keep on turning.

(2018) Drama (NetflixLily James, Michael Huisman, Jessica Brown Findlay, Glen Powell, Matthew Goode, Tom Courtnay, Katherine Parkinson, Clive Merrison, Bernice Stegers, Penelope Wilton, Kit Connor, Bronagh Gallagher, Florence Keen, Andy Gathergood, Nicolo Pasetti, Marek Oravec, Jack Morris, Stephanie Schonfeld, Pippa Rathbone, Rachel Olivant, Emily Patrick. Directed by Mike Newell

 

In 1946, England was still picking itself up and dusting itself off after the war. In London, the ruin of the Blitz was still very much in evidence and while there was an attitude of starting fresh, the pain and horror of the war wasn’t far from the surface.

Author Juliet Ashton (James) is making a tidy amount off of plucky war-set stories that are popular but bring her no intellectual satisfaction. A fan letter from a book club in picturesque Guernsey, a Channel Island that had been occupied by the Nazis during the war (a fact that this ignorant American wasn’t aware of) leads her to visit the club to perform a reading. She is captivated by the beauty of the island but even more so by the people, particularly those in the club. Although she is engaged to a flashy American diplomat (Powell), she finds herself drawn to farmer Dawsey Adams (Huisman). She is also drawn to the mystery of Elizabeth McKenna (Findlay), once the heart and soul of the club but whose absence nobody seems to want to talk about.

Mike Newell is one of the UK’s most capable directors with movies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral as well as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one of the better installments in the franchise, to his credit. He does a marvelous job of evoking the post-war Era and gathering together an even more marvelous cast. James is never more attractive than she is here, and nearly all of the ensemble cast has some wonderful moments, particularly veterans Courtnay and Wilton, particularly Wilton who is much undervalued as an actress. There are sequences here where the raw emotions brought on by survivor’s guilt are communicated without theatrical hysterics. It’s a nuanced and brilliant performance that very nearly steals the show.

The romantic elements of the movie are a bit too sweet, leaving one with an unpleasant taste in the mouth – I truly wish that the plot had revolved more on the tale of Elizabeth McKenna than on the romance between Dawsey Adams and Juliet Ashton which came off like a British period soap opera only less interesting. I can’t not recommend a Mike Newell film however and the strong performances in this one make it a perfect candidate to Netflix and Chill.

REASONS TO SEE: The era is recreated beautifully.
REASONS TO AVOID: Contains more than a little bit of treacle.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are somewhat adult; there are also some sexual references and occasional mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James, Findlay, Good and Wilton also have appeared in the hit PBS series Downton Abbey; one of the filming locations for the show also doubled as exteriors for Guernsey (the Charterhouse in cases anyone is keeping score).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man Who Went Up a Hill & Came Down a Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Jim Allison: Breakthrough

A Faithful Man (L’homme fidėle)


Sometimes tenderness can be found in a teacup.

(2018) Romance (Kino-LorberLouis Garrel, Laetitia Casta, Lily-Rose Depp, Joseph Engel, Diane Courselle, Vladislav Galard, Bakary Sangarė, Kiara Carriėre, Dali Benssalah, Arthur Igual. Directed by Louis Garrel

 

Occasionally, life blindsides us. We go along, thinking things are just peachy keen when out of the blue we are hit in the face by some event destined to change our lives forever. Sometimes though, the path we are on is merely a detour rather than an entirely new road.

Abel (Garrel) is a college student living with his girlfriend Marianne (Casta) in her Paris apartment. The two have been friends since high school and as far as Abel is concerned things are going swimmingly well. That’s when she corrals him just before he’s headed for class with a “got a sec?” conversation that turns out to be a little more than a brief “Oh, and by the way…” subject. It turns out that Marianne is pregnant…and Abel isn’t the father. His best friend Paul is…and Marianne means to marry Paul and raise his son with him. Which means Abel has ten days to move out.

Abel takes it remarkably well but then again, the French are certainly more civilized than we Americans when it comes to matters of the heart. An American might have pulled out an AR-15 and shot her in the face and then gone out to hunt down her family…and Paul’s. Fortunately, this isn’t that kind of film.

Flash forward nine years later and Paul has passed away suddenly, Abel has lost contact with both Marianne and Paul over the intervening years and become a journalist. Hearing about his former best friend’s demise, Abel decides to pay his respects and strikes up a conversation with Marianne and eventually giving her and her son Joseph (Engel) a ride home from the cemetery. Eventually Abel and Marianne begin meeting for lunch and before you know it, voila! Abel is back living with Marianne and Joseph.

Joseph is none too pleased with this development and tries to convince Abel that his mother – in collusion with her doctor lover (Galard) – poisoned Paul. He’s fairly effective at it too – Abel ends up conducting an investigation of his own. And just to complicate matters (too late!), it turns out that Paul’s little sister Eve (Depp) has had a massive crush on Abel over the years and now that she’s grown into a woman, thinks that she would be the perfect mate for Abel and that Marianne, who already has proven that she doesn’t really love Abel that much by giving him up a decade previously, should just give him up. Marianne then suggests that Abel move in with Eve and find out whether his heart lies with Eve or with Marianne. Ah, France!

Garrel – a third-generation actor and second-generation director – has delivered a brief but punchy romance that has elements of a comedy (although the comedy is bone-dry here) as well as some genuinely moving moments that while not the lightest and frothiest of French romances, certainly has the sophistication of one. I don’t know if I personally could forgive a former girlfriend who dumped me for my best friend with whom she had been having an affair for a year and even resume a romantic relationship after my friend kicked the bucket, but then again I’m not French. I don’t have the grace to get past my hurt and anger.

Garrel makes for a smoldering romantic lead. As a director, he has a few fine moves, such as when he says in a voiceover “I never knew how to talk to children” and then goes right out and displays why in a conversation with Joseph who is playing him, as Danny DeVito might say, like a harp from Hell. It helps that the script was co-written with frequent Luis Brunel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, who has amongst his credits The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

The three leads of the triangle – Garrel, Casta and Depp (yes, she’s Johnny’s baby girl) – all perform ably here, particularly Depp who gives Eve dignity without desperation, obsessiveness without creepiness. In the end, Eve is cursed by getting exactly what she wants and isn’t that usually the way?

In any case, I will freely admit that Gallic romances are the finest in all of cinema, and while this isn’t the finest example of the genre, it certainly is a solid one. This is still making the rounds of art house cinemas and should be available to stream in a few months as of this writing. Those who love French films should check it out as should lovers of movies of all flags.

REASONS TO SEE: Nobody understands affairs of the heart like the French.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some might find the comedy a bit on the dry side.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Garrel and Casta are married in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paris Can Wait
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Stuck

Seaside


Victim or villain?

(2018) Suspense (Gravitas VenturesAriana DeBose, Matt Shingledecker, Steffanie Leigh, Sharon Washington, Jana Lee Hamblin, Haley Talbot, Bob Olin, Brandt Leeds, Victoria Blake, Jennie Vaughn, Jennifer Mekanas. Directed by Sam Zalutsky

 

The thing about soap operas is that they aren’t very subtle. They are lots of other things – outrageous, sometimes cheesy, sometimes erotic, often implausible but they generally aren’t boring. Those things work well in the soap opera oeuvre; outside of it, they can be deadly.

Daphne (DeBose) is leading a double life. She lives with her mother Angela (Washington) who is on the cusp of losing their home. Angela is disabled and somewhat broken. Daphne also has a boyfriend, Roger (Shingledecker) who is fabulously wealthy but whose father would disinherit him in a heartbeat if he knew that Roger was dating the daughter of his ex-nanny. Oh, didn’t I mention that Angela used to work for Roger’s dad?

In any case, Daddy dearest soon passes away and Roger isn’t exactly in mourning. Gleeful might be more accurate. He’s virtually rubbing his hands in anticipation of the millions he’s about to inherit and that’s when his dad plays one last cruel prank on his son; he leaves him a beach house on the remote Oregon coast and leaves the cash to any heirs Roger might sire legitimately.

So Daphne and Roger move to the beach house which Daphne keeps secret from Angela. In fact, she kept Roger secret from her mom. But no time for that now – Roger is ready to settle down and tie the knot. Only Daphne is beginning to see some disturbing signs; Roger is drinking more and more heavily and getting more verbally abusive by the day. Susanna (Leigh) shows up and it turns out that she and Roger used to be an item until Susanna got pregnant at which point Roger dropped her off at the local abortion clinic and high-tailed it out of town.

So with Daphne beginning to get more and more unsettled about Roger’s past and more importantly, her own future, Daphne soon begins to show that she’s not so helpless as she led Roger to believe.

This is quite the potboiler and maybe the world needs more of those. Cinematographer Philip A. Anderson tends to keep things in muted colors and the sky looks like there’s always a storm on the way but it never quite arrives. What the movie lacks is dramatic tension; there are plenty of twists and turns as you would expect from a decent thriller, but some strain the boundaries of incredulity and most are of the evil twin variety.

The cast here mainly have stage experience and little in front of the camera and it shows. The acting tends to be pretty broad and overdone. Good film acting requires more subtlety. DeBose shows some real potential as a lead actress, although she is given a fairly thankless role. The more we see of her with feckless Roger who oozes entitlement from every pore, the more we wonder what the hell she sees in him in any case.

I have to admit that there were some moments that worked well in the film but overall it doesn’t have that edge-of-the-seat feel that a good suspense movie generates. I can give it a mild recommendation and it isn’t too hard to find on a variety of streaming choices, but I can’t really say it’s worth the effort to track it down.

REASONS TO SEE: Blanche gives a solid performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Has a bit of a soap opera feel to it.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s profanity, drug use and some sexual situations here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeBose ws nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and has been cast as Anita in the upcoming Steven Spielberg remake of West Side Story.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Long Lost
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Heiresses

Them That Follow


(2019) Documentary (1091) Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan, Kaitlyn Dever, Dominic Cancelliere, Annie Tedesco, Bradley Gallo, Katherine DeBoer, Brooks Roseberry, Erik Andrews, Connor Daniel Lysholm, Catherine L. Albers, Kami Amore, Chris Breen, Logan Fry, Christine M. Pratt, Ramona Schwalbach. Directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage

It is said that faith can move mountains, but in the mountains of Appalachia faith is much more than that. Faith is everything; one’s devotion to God must be absolute. There are no other alternatives. In some rural churches, faith is a life or death equation.

Mara (Englert) is the pretty young daughter of Pentecostal preacher Lemuel Childs (Goggins). Lemuel is part of the snake handler sect which requires his flock to prove their devotion to God by allowing a venomous rattlesnake to be draped around their neck. If the snake leaves them alone, fine; that’s God telling you that your faith is sufficient. However, if the snake elects to sink its fangs into you, you’ll undergo an agonizing slow death unless you can fight off the venom. With the help of friends or family praying away, anyone who succumbs to the snake bite does so due to a lack of faith, not to a lack of medical care which the congregation eschews.

It’s a highly patriarchal society in which women are made to wear ankle length skirts, perform roles of cooking, cleaning and child-rearing and to be absolutely submissive to their husbands. They are not even supposed to drive, making this a kind of Saudi America. If the Muslims hadn’t claimed the burkas first, I wouldn’t be surprised if the women of the congregation were made to wear them.

Mara is at an age where she is ready to be married. Daddy has picked out intense Garret (Pullman), a member of the parish and a true believer. However, Mara is kind of sweet on Augie (Mann), the son of local gas station/market owner Hope (Colman) who is known more commonly as Sister Slaughter. She was a bit of a hellraiser in her youth but her husband Zeke (Gaffigan) has essentially calmed her down. As for Augie, he is anything but a true believer; in fact he’s an atheist. His mother tolerates it pretty much as you tolerate the drunk uncle in the family.

Mara and her good friend Dilly (Devers) are inseparable, especially since Dilly’s mom abandoned her in fleeing the church and community which isn’t especially tolerant of free thinkers, particularly among the women. However, Mara is carrying a secret of her own and when it gets out it could rock the entire community to its core.

The feel here is authentic Appalachia; although the movie was filmed in Ohio it feels more like West Virginia. The gorgeous cinematography from Brett Jurkiewicz helps set that particular mood, as does the set design – Lemuel’s church is in a converted barn with only a neon cross to differentiate it from other barns. The life of the mountain folk here are pretty simple and uncomplicated; there are no television sets and things move at a fairly slow place, like the land the Internet forgot.

In fact, one of the drawbacks to the film is that the pacing is maddeningly slow particularly through the first two thirds of the movie. It does pick up speed towards the end, though so if you can sit through the first hour, you should be golden the rest of the way.

However, there’s still the performances of Goggins and Englert to enjoy; the two of them have a real chemistry and they both embrace their roles with gusto. Colman, who is a recent Oscar-winner, sounds a bit uncomfortable with the Southern accent, but she is solid as well as are Pullman and Mann as Maras two suitors. Gaffigan, a gifted comedy actor, shows off his dramatic chops nicely here.

The movie is largely about how far you are willing to take your faith before it becomes unhealthy. It’s hard not to see comparisons between these cultish Pentecostals and modern Evangelicals who seem to be grabbing the headlines lately. The directors respect the faith of the characters here which is nice to see; too often Hollywood tends to be either dismissive of characters with faith, or in the case of Christian cinema, too proselytizing. Some of the snake scenes are pretty horrible to watch and the sensitive sorts might want to take a pass on it, or at least watch it those scenes with eyes tightly shut and a trusted friend to tell you when to open them up again.

I’m not sure why anyone would think that God requires you to prove your faith by taking a rattlesnake to your breast, but some believe that it is so. The movie isn’t going to give you any answers in that direction but it is going to show you characters with strong faith and strong convictions – not to make them look evil, or backward but if anything to remind us that some good people sometimes believe in things that the rest of us might not understand – or accept.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is gorgeous. Englert and Goggins deliver incendiary performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Moves at a fairly slow and languid pace.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity, an attempted rape and some disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lewis Pullman is the son of actor Bill Pullman who memorably played the President in Independence Day and its sequel.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apostle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
ZZ Top: That Lil’ Ole Band from Texas