The Novice


Practice makes perfect.

(2021) Drama (IFC) Isabelle Fuhrmann, Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry, Kate Drummond, Charlotte Ubben, Sage Irvine, Chantelle Bishop, Jeni Ross, Nikki Duval, Eve Kanyo, Al Bernstein, Robert Ifedi, David Guthrie. Directed by Lauren Hadaway

 

There is a fine line between determination to attain a goal, and obsession. Determination is to be admired; it requires discipline and self-sacrifice. Obsession, though, is terrifying to behold; all logic and reason go out the window in a single-minded quest to achieve that goal, regardless of the cost.

Alex Dall (Fuhrmann) is a college freshman in an unnamed Northeastern university who is majoring in physics – which is not only not her best subject but it is, in fact, her worst. She is on a full ride scholarship, but she works like a demon, taking tests over and over (and sometimes, over) again in a  quest to be the very best. On apparent impulse, she signs up to try out for the novice rowing team.

Alex has absolutely no experience in rowing, nor does she have any in any sport at all. Her body is soft and non-muscular; this would seem to be a lark – except Alex is determined not only to make the novice team but also the varsity. Only two novices are selected by the easygoing Coach Pete (Cherry) to try out for the varsity; naturally gifted athlete Jamie Brill (Forsyth) and Alex.

There she is greeted by derisive and often profane criticisms, and overhears the praise given to Jamie, which inspires her to work harder. On the ERG (stationary rowing) machines, she takes the instructions given to her by Coach Pete – “legs, body, arms, arms, body, legs” – as a kind of a mantra, working out often to the point of retching. She develops sores on her hands, ribs and thighs – some self-inflicted – from her workouts. Her work ethic impresses Head Coach Edwards (Drummond) but her manic attitude serves to turn off most of her fellow rowers, although Jamie and pretty teachers assistant Dani (fashion model turned actress Dilone) who try to figure out the complicated Alex, who perhaps doesn’t know herself what drives her, although later evidence proves that she does and it is revealed to the audience, although I won’t get into it here. But as Alex’s drive descends into mania, her body and mind begin to show dangerous signs of cracking.

First-time feature director Hadaway turns to the director’s chair after a fine career as a sound editor, and bases her debut on her own experiences as a collegiate rower, which lends a good deal of realism and authenticity to the film. There have been films about rowing before – Varsity Blues comes to mind – but few films on obsessive goal-seeking have reached the heights of this one.

Part of the reason is Fuhrmann, who turns in a performance that is already attracting attention. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing her up for major roles in important movies in the next couple of years; she absolutely dominates the screen and has some really nice chemistry with Forsyth. Cinematographer Todd Martin also does some innovative work here, although from time to time Hadaway tends to get a bit cutesy with her framing and camera effects, a sin that first-time directors often commit. When those things happen, we are drawn out of the story and aware that there is someone directing – and there’s no better way to kill a cinematic mood than that.

The Novice has already been nominated for five Independent Spirit awards and Fuhrmann has an outside shot at an Oscar nomination, although she’ll have an uphill battle to get one. This is one of those indie films that isn’t always a pleasure to watch – but when the end credits begin, you are left with the realization you have just watched a terrific movie. This is one you won’t want to miss.

REASONS TO SEE: Fuhrmann gives a career-establishing performance. The cinematography is innovative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally succumbs to temptation to get too artsy, pulling us out of the story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won best American Narrative Feature at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival, where it made its world premiere.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, Xfinity, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Whiplash
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
8-Bit Christmas

Mom and Dad


Nicolas Cage just wants to have a chat.

(2017) Horror Comedy (Momentum) Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur, Robert Cunningham, Olivia Crocicchia, Lance Henriksen, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Samantha Lemole, Joseph D. Reitman, Rachel Melvin, Bobby Richards, Sharon Gee, Edwin Lee Gibson, Brionne Davis, Mehmet Oz, Grant Morrison, Bokeem Woodbine, Adin Alexa Steckler, Lorena Diaz. Directed by Brian Taylor

 

Most parents, at one time or another, want to kill their children. Not literally of course; it’s just that sometimes the frustrations of parenting (particularly with teens) can give rise to a fantasy of genuine mayhem against our offspring. It isn’t something parents like to admit but it is perfectly normal for, once in awhile, for parents to absolutely hate their offspring.

From all outward appearances, the Ryan family seems to be perfectly harmonious. A poster family for suburban bliss, the family is anything but behind closed doors. Father Brent (Cage) is stressed at work and is mystified as to how to handle his two children; mother Kendall (Blair) feels underappreciated and her relationship with daughter Carly (Winters) has completely disintegrated. Carly steals money from her parents, lies to them consistently and is basically the kind of teen that whines consistently about her parents but acts like an absolute bitch to them at every turn. Finally youngest Josh (Arthur) acts out and at 10 seems to have the issues of someone much older. Oh joy, right?

Then something weird happens. All over town, parents get a sudden irresistible urge to kill their own children. Not their grandchildren, not their nieces and nephews, not the neighbor’s kids, just their own offspring. And they aren’t out to off them in humane ways; the more bloodshed and violence, the better.

Carly, knowing her young brother is in mortal danger, rushes home to keep him safe in a rare and unexpected case of actual feelings for someone other than herself, but both parents are home and the two kids have to barricade themselves in various rooms in order to survive. That’s when Brent’s parents (Henriksen, Frank) arrive for a previously planned dinner…

Nobody plays manic like Nicolas Cage plays manic. As such this is pretty much the perfect role for him; he goes from playing father of the month (definitely not of the year) to a crazed homicidal maniac often in mere seconds. Some folks give Cage a whole lot of grief about his career choices but this shouldn’t be an occasion for that. He’s clearly having fun onscreen – he has stated in interviews that this was the most fun he’s had making a movie in more than a decade – and that enjoyment shows through. This isn’t just the most fun he’s had in ten years but maybe his best performance in that time, although there are a couple that give him a run for his money such as his 2013 drama Joe.

Most of the rest of the cast can’t stand up to Hurricane Cage although Blair gives a magnificent effort. Winters plays Carly a bit too well – she’s such a nightmare at the start of the movie that one actively roots for some kind of strange virus that will compel her parents to kill her horribly…oh, good. That makes it harder to buy her abrupt personality change once the carnage begins.

However, the real star here is Taylor, who along with sometime partner Mark Neveldine delivered the Crank films. Like those action comedies, the pacing is breakneck – at least once the mayhem starts – and the mayhem is cleverly done. Some might find it a little bit gruesome and more than a few will be completely affronted by the subject matter.

If you take it in the spirit in which it’s meant, Mom and Dad is an exceptionally entertaining film despite its blackest of black humor. There are some issues with the writing – a lot of the scenes seem disconnected from one another rather than flowing harmoniously as a story. Taylor also uses a fade to black with such regularity that it becomes completely annoying. However, these are mainly minor little faults  in what is a thoroughly enjoyable parental fantasy that may allow parents having a difficult time with their progeny to blow off some much-needed steam.

REASONS TO GO: Cage is at his twitchy best. The gore and violence have a great sense of black comedy. There’s no rhyme or reason to this but there doesn’t need to be. The film starts a bit slowly but once it gets going the pacing is non-stop.
REASONS TO STAY: Carly is such a nightmare teen you hope she gets horribly murdered. The scenes seem to be disconnected from each other.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of violence, some of it extreme; there’s also plenty of profanity, some sexuality and drug content involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed largely in Louisville, Kentucky.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/718: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Crazies
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Get Me Roger Stone