Stella’s Last Weekend


Ollie is certainly no angel.

(2018) Dramedy (Paladin/The Orchard) Nat Wolff, Alex Wolff, Polly Draper, Paulina Singer, Nick Sandow, Julia Macchio, Julia Abueva, Leo Heller, Lisa Darden, Patricia Squire, Will Cooper, Norm Golden, Simon Maxwell, Joseph Satine, Shawn Allen McLaughlin, Kelly Swint, Adam Enright, Christopher Halliday, Alex DiMattia, Kareem Williams, Courtney Leigh Goodwin, Harriet Weaver. Directed by Polly Draper

 

Personally, I’ve never had a brother. I grew up with a sister who was less than a year younger than I (my parents believed in getting the childbearing phase out of the way quickly). I know from experience with my sibling though that we talk in our own peculiar shorthand. In-jokes that mean nothing to the world at large never fail to elicit smiles from one or both of us. There are still jokes that I can reduce my sister to helpless tears of laughter with while outsiders look on in puzzlement. It’s that way between siblings.

Ollie (A. Wolff) and Jack (N. Wolff) are that way as well. Jack is returning home from college where he is studying Marine Biology to witness the last days of the beloved family dog, Stella. Their mother Sally (Draper) has decided to throw a farewell party for the dog, much to the bemusement of her sons and the confusion of her boyfriend Ron (Sandow) whom the boys mercilessly rib and whom they appear to despise. He seems like a high-strung traditionalist who can’t understand why kids of today don’t respect their elders the way his generation used to. Believe me, Ron, I hear you.

Ollie is also picking this weekend to introduce his family to his new girlfriend Violet (Singer), an aspiring ballerina: “Violet, this is everyone I love. And Ron.” Ollie is head over heels in love with Violet and confesses to his brother that she sent him some racy pictures on Snapchat of her underboob. Jack realizes that he’s met Violet before and that the two of them had a mini-fling which ended with her not returning his calls. He’s been obsessing with her ever since and now she’s apparently in love with his brother. He’s trying to step aside in favor of his brother but his feelings for her are too strong and as it turns out, she still has feelings for him.

Ollie is blissfully unaware of the drama going on alongside him. He’s too busy needling the mean girls in her ballet class, skewering poor Ron and doting on Stella who is gamely trying to live out her last days with as much dignity as she can muster, but the pain is beginning to get to be too much, which Sally acknowledges in a truly poignant moment. However, when the secrets the boys have been hiding from their mom and each other comes out, it tears a big hole in what was a close-knit family. Can they recover?

Ollie is an expert in put-downs and his potty mouth sometimes drives Ron to pulling out what little hair he has left; Ollie has no compunction at nailing Ron to the wall over his comb-over. Alex plays Ollie as a high-strung, energetic kid with a terrific brain – he’s already outdoing Jack in the courses that are leading Jack into a career in Marine Biology. Ollie is witty and quick-witted; the punch lines come rapid fire between the two boys. He is also capable of being a first-class asshole. Jack, on the other hand, is quieter, less acerbic and no less quick witted; he can hold his own with his brother but is generally less talkative with others. I can’t vouch for how the two interact off-camera but their banter sometimes sounds overly scripted; it’s hard to come up with the perfect comeback at every opportunity and Ollie seems to do so effortlessly. It’s possible he’s that quick but not likely and so the heart of the film, the byplay between the brothers starts to sound forced and unnatural.

Despite the clever dialogue, the chemistry between Nat and Alex is genuine as you would expect between siblings. The affection between the two is genuine and even when things break down between the two, everything that happens in their relationship feels authentic; at times though the audience clearly feels like outsiders witnessing a conversation they weren’t meant to hear.

There are some genuinely poignant moments as I alluded to above; there are also some really funny one-liners, mostly courtesy of Ollie. There is definitely chemistry between the brothers; after all, this isn’t the first time they’ve acted together before (some might remember them from the Naked Brothers Band show they did about a decade ago) and the affection is obvious. Still, at times the dialogue seems to be a bit forced and the events a little too contrived.

Stella’s Last Weekend turns out to be a bittersweet relationship movie that to its credit doesn’t coast too often. The film earns most of its emotional responses which is to be envied in a day and age when most movies are lazy about their emotional manipulation. The movie isn’t always successful but when it is, it is. Unfortunately, when it’s not it’s not.

REASONS TO GO: There is some nice family bonding moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers are trying too hard to make it witty and cute.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, crude gestures, some sexual content and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wolff brothers are Draper’s sons in real life; the dog that played Stella is also the family dog (who is alive and well as of this writing).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Only Living Boy in New York
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
London Fields

Piranha 3DD


Piranha 3DD

It’s The Hoff’s world; we’re just living in it.

(2012) Horror (Dimension) Danielle Panabaker, Matt Bush, Chris Zylka, David Koechner, Meagan Tandy, David Hasselhoff, Ving Rhames, Christopher Lloyd, Clu Gallagher, Gary Busey, Adrian Martinez, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Paul James Jordan, Katrina Bowden, Hector Jimenez, Paul Scheer. Directed by John Gulager

 

A proven formula for box office success has been blood, boobs and 3D. It worked well for Piranha 3D. Would it work as well for the sequel?

It is a year after the events of the first film and Lake Victoria is a ghost town, abandoned and largely a cautionary tale, a subject for solemn-sounding news features (although I have to admit that the documentary images of Lake Victoria make the town look abandoned for thirty years rather than the one year referenced in the narration). The prehistoric piranha with a taste for human flesh are still out there but where? I think we can guess.

A nearby water park has come under new management. Marine biology student Maddy (Panabaker) is a 49% owner in the park after the death of her mom, but the 51% is owned by Chet (Koechner), a sleazy promoter who’s out to turn the family waterpark into a kind of permanent Girls Gone Wild attraction called The Big Wet appealing strictly to the hormonal and the perverted and making sure everybody knows it with a series of tawdry adds with plenty of nudge-wink double entendres. Maddy is understandably perturbed about this turn of events but can do nothing to stop it.

She’s too busy canoodling with Deputy Kyle (Zylka), an arrogant preppy sort who seems to be way off from the type of guys you’d think a down-to-earth scientific type like Maddy would be into but I suppose the message here is never underestimate what a pair of dreamy eyes, a handsome face and a banging bod will do to make a woman’s knees weak and her heart melt. In the meantime nebbish Barry (Bush) pines for Maddy (he has since high school) and works as a mascot for the water park although he can’t swim and is terrified of the water – as it turns out for good reason.

I was pleasantly surprised by this one. There is a kind of underlying lightheartedness that makes me think that the filmmakers didn’t take themselves too seriously with this one – in a good way. Gulager has some underground horror film cred with the Feast trilogy and he proves himself worthy of a larger budget and a major studio release.

I liked that the movie had kind of an 80s vibe to it, although not overtly set in that era. There’s a certain amount of playfulness that was very endemic to the era, not to mention a lack of inhibitions when it came to actresses taking off their tops. There was also a lack of inhibition when it came to gore back then and Gulager doesn’t flinch when it comes to that either.

The movie doesn’t look as murky as the first one did; the producers saw to it that the movie was filmed in 3D rather than converting in post-production which usually yields a much clearer and cleaner image. However, it remains largely a gimmicky effect and to my eye didn’t really enhance the movie much, although admittedly I didn’t see it in a theater (more on that in a minute).

There are a handful of veteran actors with varying degrees of name value in the cast to go along with the largely unknown but plucky young cast. Of the latter, Panabaker has got a few good credits to her name, including a turn in John Carpenters The Ward in which she was one of the film’s acting highlights. Here she’s solid but unspectacular in the smart girl heroine role. For the cameos, Hasselhoff makes the best use, playing himself and referencing his public intoxication arrest from a few years ago to skewer his “Baywatch” image and prove that he might not be a bad sport after all. Rhames and Lloyd reprise their roles from the first film and gleefully overact, while Busey shows up to be fish food in the first reel in what might be a signature of the movie; killing off a well-known actor in the first reel (Richard Dreyfus did the honors in the first film).

The fish, a mixture of CGI and practical effects, are never really convincing. The CGI looks like CGI and the practical effects look like rubber fish being bludgeoned with rocks and filled with air bladders and blood bags. Still, the cheesy factor of the effects may also be a deliberate nod to the era, so you can take it in the spirit given.

Dimension (the genre division of Weinstein) took the interesting step of releasing this on Video On-Demand on the same day the movie got a limited release in theaters, a strategy that has worked well for major indies Magnolia and IFC. I don’t know how the movie is faring in VOD rentals but the box office numbers are weak. Whether this is the wave of the future for releases that aren’t expected to be box office bonanzas remains to be seen.

I’ve read reviewers who have said that this works much better on the big screen than on the home screen and I can see where that might be the case. This is definite exploitation fun that probably appeals most to the young male crowd and those who want to hang out with them. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea but in all honesty for what it is, it really isn’t that bad at all.

REASONS TO GO: Retains a sense of fun. Hoff, Rhames and Lloyd are good sports.

REASONS TO STAY: The dumb factor is pretty high. Gore and CGI are unconvincing and 3D more gimmicky than anything else

FAMILY VALUES: Where to begin? Lots of swearing, a pretty fair amount of gore, plenty of bare breasts, some sexuality and some male nudity. And drug use. And teen drinking. And…

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally set to be filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana during January and February 2011 but this proved to be impractical due to the cold weather and clothing restrictions for the actors; production was moved to Wilmington, North Carolina but resulted in a delay from the original November 2011release date to June of this year.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100. The reviews are nearly universally bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shark Night

TOPLESS WOMEN LOVERS: The water park has an adult pool where women may swim topless. Yes, there are a whole lot of boobs. No, none of the main actresses show theirs.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Speed Racer

Submarine


Submarine

Oliver Tate, like many teens, is a bit fuzzy on bathing.

(2010) Dramedy (Weinstein) Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine, Darren Evans, Osian Cai Dulais, Lily McCann, Otis Lloyd, Elinor Crawley, Steffan Rhodri, Gemma Chan, Melanie Walters, Sion Tudor Owen . Directed by Richard Ayoade

We are for the most part the stars of our own ongoing movie, and often we see ourselves in a different light than how we are actually perceived. The younger we are, often the more pronounced this divide is.

Oliver Tate (Roberts) lives in the Southern Welsh coastal town of Swansea (an amusing note from Oliver preceding the credits on the American release reinforces this) as a 15-year-old boy convinced of his own intelligence and popularity. He imagines a national mourning at his untimely death, and a resurrection to delighted teenage girls, prompting a miasma of hormonal bliss.

When confronted with actual female attraction, in the form of the much cooler and cynical Jordana (Paige) who also has a thing for lighting fires, he adopts a deer in the headlights expression, leading to a kiss which he learns later is meant to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. It backfires and the two are badly bullied with Oliver getting beat up when he gallantly refuses to say publically that his erstwhile lady is a slut. She walks him home and kisses him for real, leading Oliver to determine that she is now, officially, his Girlfriend (capitalized on purpose here).

But all is not sunshine and mince pies. Oliver’s parents are slowly drifting apart, a malaise that has led to a lack of sex (which the ever-spying Oliver determines by the level of the dimmer switch in their bedroom). That malaise is exacerbated by the arrival of new next door neighbor Graham (Considine, in a role that might have gone to Colin Farrell in a bigger budget production) as a would-be new age guru, who also used to be his mom’s Boyfriend. Oliver’s mum Jill (Hawkins) seems disposed towards re-fanning those flames, attending Graham’s lectures slavishly while her husband Lloyd (Taylor) diffidently drowns in depression, a marine biologist sinking into an ocean of emotional dissonance.

Thus Oliver decides he must reverse this trend because a divorce would essentially inconvenience him. However, Jordana is undergoing a crisis of her own – her mum (Walters) is desperately ill and may not survive the surgery she is about to undergo. Oliver decides that Jordana would benefit by his absence (and Oliver is more wrapped up in his own drama in any case) and deserts her at her most crucial moment. Can Oliver reconcile all the relationships around him that are crumbling?

This isn’t your typical teen coming of age movie, at least not by Hollywood standards. Despite being mid-80s set (and with all the pretension that implies), there is an intelligence here that is sorely lacking in the big studio teen movies. The kids here, while they operate essentially independently of their families (as kids that age often do), are still connected with them and are certainly not smarter than their parents although they fancy themselves to be.

Oliver is genuinely fond of his parents and they of him, which is refreshing – the relationship between Oliver and his folks is a complicated one as parent-teen relationships usually are. None of  the protagonists are perfect; they all are flawed in believable ways, from Lloyd’s inertia-challenged existence to Jill’s indecisive neediness to Oliver’s own search for his own niche and his teen-fueled arrogance.

Oliver himself is so prone to doing unintentionally cruel things that at times you get right angry at him until you think “he’s only a boy.” That is the underlying truth about Oliver. His inexperience and his lack of empathy often motivate those cruelties but if you look deep enough, he’s a decent young lad with the potential to be a good man someday. Roberts, whose narration has all the crack-voiced earnestness of a teen trying to fill an adult’s shoes before he is truly ready, is brilliant here.

Hawkins and Taylor, both veterans of English film and television, make a perfect couple. Both on the mousy side, both intellectual and both somewhat permissive in their parental techniques, they seem on the surface to be enabling their spouse’s behaviors but they are in fact well-suited to one another and there is certainly some hope that they’ll work things out (but as the film makes clear, their relationship is on far from stable ground and could go either way). Considine provides comic relief as the libidinous guru who may be self-absorbed but also has a good deal of pain and compassion deep down.

This isn’t a movie for everybody; there are no pat answers and the ending only hints at an uneasy peace; both relationships are fragile and have much work needed to survive, and there are no guarantees that either one will. Still, Oliver for all his posturing is a character you won’t soon forget and perhaps he has enough will to carry both relationships forward. You wind up kind of hoping that he does.

REASONS TO GO: A smart teenage coming-of-age movie blows most of Hollywood’s entries into the subject, not to mention all the smug Disney Channel characters. Directed with an eye towards innovative storytelling.

REASONS TO STAY: Oliver’s incompetency in social situations can be grating at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexuality involved.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ben Stiller, who co-produced the movie (and has championed it throughout its run) cameos as an actor in an American soap opera that Oliver watches early on in the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: This is mostly available in Art Houses in selected locations such as our own beloved Enzian Theater and should be seen there if possible, but at home is certainly ok if it’s not playing anywhere near you.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Resident Evil: Afterlife