Being the Ricardos


We all love Lucy.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Amazon) Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, Linda Lavin, Ronny Cox, John Rubenstein, Clark Gregg, Nelson Franklin, Jeff Holman, Jonah Platt, Christopher Denham, Brian Howe, Ron Perkins, Baize Buzan, Matt Cook, Josh Bednarsky, Dana Lyn Baron, Dan Sachoff, Max Silvestri, Renee Pezzotta. Directed by Aaron Sorkin

 

They don’t get much more iconic than Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the real-life husband and wife team that headed up I Love Lucy, perhaps the greatest and certainly the most popular sitcom of all time. At its height, the show could claim 60 million viewers each and every week – when the country’s total population was 160 million, meaning than one out of every two and a half Americans were watching it. Water usage went down when I Love Lucy was on, because people wouldn’t use the bathroom while the show was airing. The show was by every standard a phenomenon.

This new film by Aaron Sorkin charts one week during the show’s second season. The episode Fred and Ethel Fight is the one that was getting made that week and things start with the Monday table read, but the show is in an uproar and for good reason. Over the weekend, a pair of events have happened; syndicated gossip columnist Walter Winchell has accused Ball (Kidman) of being a card-carrying member of the Communist party, a serious career-killiing no-no in the era of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy. A magazine article also shows Arnaz (Bardem), the Cuban émigré, out cavorting with someone who was definitely not Lucy.

With Lucy’s reputation at stake, and her marriage in trouble, it is the show that seems to be what keeps her going. A notorious perfectionist, Lucy endlessly tinkers with the script, much to the annoyance of director Donald Glass (Denham) and the amusement of co-stars William Frawley (Simmons) who played Fred Mertz, and Vivian Vance (Arianda), who played his wife Ethel. Lucy agonizes endlessly over little physical bits of business, from her arranging flowers for the dinner table, to Desi walking up behind her and covering her eyes with a playful “Guess who?”

The film is meant to be a backstage glimpse of a power couple that have never really gotten their due as innovators, savvy business people and forward-thinking producers (Ball and Arnaz were early champions of Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, both which ironically continue to be cash cow franchises for Paramount Studios, which owns the assets of Desliu (the production company that Desi and Lucy founded) today).

The movie follows a time-jumping path that can be confusing at times; there are semi-documentary interviews with the older versions of show runner Jess Oppenheimer (the younger version played by Hale), played by Rubenstein, producer Bob Carroll (Lacy) played by Cox and writer Madelyn Pugh (Shawkat) played by Lavin as an older woman.

We also see flashbacks to earlier points in the careers of both Arnaz and Ball, including their first meeting and eventual romance. The flashbacks do give a little context, but they tend to slow the film down somewhat and are at the end of the day, somewhat unnecessary. Still, Sorkin imbues the film with snappy dialogue (his trademark) and if he isn’t interested in giving us a real appreciation of the human beings that were Lucy and Desi, he does give us a real appreciation of their gifts as performers and behind-the-screen producers.

During this same week, Ball discovered she was pregnant which threw all sorts of consternation into the show; at the time, it was forbidden to even mention the word “pregnant” on the air – viewers of the show may recall the couple’s onscreen bedroom contained separate beds – and Lucy’s stubborn insistence that the pregnancy be written into the show, which despite overwhelming resistance from their sponsor (tobacco company Philip Morris) and the network, was eventually done, leading to some of the most memorable episodes in television history.

Kidman doesn’t particularly resemble Ball facially, but she captures her mannerisms and speech cadence nicely; Bardem is nothing like Arnaz but like Kidman does a good job of capturing the essence of the character. Simmons is memorable as Frawley, and Shawkat and Lacy have a playful relationship, while Shawkat and Kidman have a terrific scene as they discuss the difficulties in being a woman in the entertainment industry; they have improved some since then but not by much.

Kidman has already won the Golden Globe for her performance here and is virtually a shoo-in to be nominated for the Oscar when nominations for the 94th annual Academy Awards are announced on February 8th, 2022. The film is currently playing on Amazon Prime (link below) and may still be in some theaters near you, although to be honest this is a movie in my opinion best seen at home on TV, just like the sitcom was. You can also enjoy the episode that is depicted in the film is available on Hulu and Amazon (for Paramount Plus subscribers) and can be watched on the links therein.

REASONS TO SEE: Kidman captures Ball’s speech and mannerisms nicely. Another terrific screenplay by Sorkin (surprise!).
REASONS TO AVOID: Drags some in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual content, adult themes, period smoking and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Linda Lavin plays the older Madelyn Pugh, who executive produced the TV sitcom Alice that starred Lavin – and in which Desi Arnaz appeared in.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stan and Ollie
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Diane

Off the Rails


A European vacation that has absolutely nothing to do with National Lampoon.

(2021) Dramedy (Screen Media) Jenny Seagrove, Sally Phillips, Kelly Preston, Andrea Corr, Judi Dench, Elizabeth Dormer-Phillips, Ben Miller, Ledwin Vega Paez, Alessio Pecorari, Catalina Florit Llinas, Pedro Victory Ramos, Franco Nero, Martin Shaw, Peter Bowles, Ismael Calvillo Millán, Eva González Corpas, Alex Tejedor Andersen, Jordan Waller, Uve Barker. Directed by Jules Williamson

 

]At a certain age, we begin to reflect more on what came before than where we are headed. We examine the roads not taken, the paths we did take and the reasons we are where we are. These examinations tend to be melancholy and bittersweet, because humans almost universally tend to focus on regrets ahead of the things we did right.

]Three 50-something women – control freak Kate (Seagrove), uber-mom Liz (Phillips) and wise-cracking actress Cassie (Preston) have been hit by bad news; their close friend Anna has passed away. At her funeral, Anna’s mom (Dench) plops three Interrail passes in their hands and commands them to take Anna’s teenage daughter Maddie (Dormer-Phillips) along for the ride, retracing their steps on a holiday taken thirty years earlier, culminating in an appearance at the Cathedral in Parma, Italy, where twice a year the light hits the stained glass just so, creating an effect known as “God’s Disco Ball,” a spectacle they missed the first time around and which is due to appear five days hence.

]This would be a good occasion to reflect on their friendship, the things that have separated (including the fact that one of them slept with the husband of another) them, and the things that draw them closer together. Of course, no holiday ever goes exactly the way its planned, but given the penchant these women have for getting into mischief, it’s a given that getting to Parma on the day indicated is no certain thing.

We’ve seen these sorts of movies before, where the death of a good friend causes those that survived to reconnect and become stronger and closer than ever, but this isn’t quite like that. It’s equal parts road movie and reflection, all held together by a soundtrack of Blondie music – essentially every song Blondie ever recorded appears at one point or another on the soundtrack, some more than once. It actually becomes distracting and gimmicky, and this coming from someone who might just love Blondie’s music as much as these characters supposedly do. File it under “too much of a good thing.”

]The thing about a movie like this is that in order to see any character growth, you have to get to know who the characters are and we never really do, beyond two-dimensional personality quirks. I don’t have an objection to watching middle-aged women act like hormonal teens (heaven knows we’ve seen enough movies with middle-aged men acting like hormonal teens) but this doesn’t serve to empower the women in the film, but rather just makes them less admirable. I would rather have seen these middle-aged women act like middle-aged women. It’s rare enough we see films with women of that particular age group as the focus; why can’t we just let them be themselves? *end rant*

]Dench, in a cameo appearance, just about steals the movie as she is capable of doing every time she steps in front of the camera. Preston, in her final screen appearance, acquits herself the most notably. I’m not sure she realized how sick she was at the time, but it seems ironic that her final role was about saying goodbye; one wonders if she knew that was exactly what she was doing herself.

I really hoped this movie would be better than it is, but too many cliches spoil the plot, and the lack of character development and the surfeit of Blondie music doom it. Something tells me when the filmmakers reach the point that they are looking back at their regrets, this movie will be among them.

REASONS TO SEE: Focuses on a demographic often ignored by the movies.
REASONS TO AVOID: A cliché plot with no memorable characters to rescue it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the last movie Preston made before her untimely death from breast cancer in 2020. The movie is dedicated to her memory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews; Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crossroads
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Triple Frontier

Silent Hours


Chick magnet? Or serial killer?

(2021) Erotic Thriller (Gravitas) James Weber Brown, Susie Amy, Hugh Bonneville, Dervla Kirwan, Annie Cooper, Tom Beard, Vicki Michelle, Elizabeth Healey, Alistair Petrie, Indira Varma, Angela Thorne, Caio Sael. Directed by Mark Greenstreet

It’s no secret that the British do mysteries and thrillers better than anybody else. That is likely because they have a voracious appetite for them; their television programming is absolutely littered with the things. This particular film was actually aired on British television in 2017 as a three-part miniseries, albeit likely a premium service, considering the fairly mature and graphic subject matter.

John Duval (Brown) is an ex-Navy man living in the UK naval town of Portsmouth back in 2002. He makes a post-service living as a private investigator, mainly following wives of canning factory owners, naval officers and the like as their husbands suspect them of infidelity. Spoiler alert; they’re usually right. And what’s worse is Duval’s occasional ability to fall in bed with his client’s wives once the job is done.

In fact, a lot of women are falling into his bed, and they seem to all have a thing for what the Brits euphemistically call “naughty underwear,” while Duval has a thing for a certain canine sexual position with a tendency to spank his partner as he does the nasty. Sexual repression is virtually a cottage industry in the UK.

But as the women that Duval sleep with (including his girlfriend (Healey) and a few others) turn up brutally murdered and dismembered with their bodies displayed in lascivious positions, the police in the form of Detective Inspector Jane Ambrose (Kirwan) have painted a bullseye on Duval as their prime suspect. It’s enough to make someone seek therapy, but Duval was already doing that, sharing with his therapist (Varma) his blackouts and dropping baleful hints of a checkered past. The only way out of the situation for Duval is to find the culprit himself – no matter where the trail may lead.

The two and a half hour runtime for this is about an hour too long for this kind of movie, which isn’t helped by pacing more suitable to a…well, British television show than a feature film. It doesn’t help that the final twist is absolutely preposterous, but by the time you get there – if you haven’t switched the bloody thing off by then – you pretty much don’t care whodunit.

There are some fine actors here; Amie and Bonneville are both veterans who perform admirably and Brown, best known for his work on Coronation Street is adequate as the hard-bitten P.I. but the whole conceit of women throwing themselves at him makes no sense. Perhaps I’m not hanging out with the right kind of women, but the ones I know don’t seem to be sexually attracted to a washed-up ex-Navy guy with no prospects, almost no morals, who sleeps around with anyone who has the right plumbing and drinks too much. Rugged good looks can only take you so far and as you hit your fifties, they take you less far than they used to.

The score is bombastic and intrusive and often drowns out the dialogue which is annoying. But for those who like the old soft-core thrillers that used to air late night on the Cinemax cable network, this might be the movie you’ve been waiting for. There’s undeniably a hefty amount of sex and nudity, not to mention women in seductive lingerie, if that’s the kind of thing that floats your boat. Some judicious editing might have floated mine a bit more.

REASONS TO SEE: Definitely for those who remember “Skinemax” films with some fondness.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way, way, WAY too long for what it is and slow-paced at that.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of sex, nudity, sex, smoking, sex, profanity, sex, violence, sex and gruesome images. Did we mention sex?
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Silent hours” is Royal Naval slang for night hours aboard a ship.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Night Hunter
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Emperor’s Sword

Till Death


Some men see women as little more than ornaments.

(2021) Thriller (Screen Media) Megan Fox, Eoin Macken, Callan Mulvey, Jack Roth, Ami Ameen, Stefanie Rozhko, Julian Belahurov, Lili Rich, Teodora Djuric. Directed by S.K. Dale

 

We all know the traditional wedding vows; to love and cherish, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, till death do us part. With a 50% divorce rate (or thereabouts), the final part isn’t so much of a factor anymore but for some it still holds true.

You would think Emma (Fox) has The Life. Married to a handsome, wealthy and connected lawyer named Mark (Macken), she was a photographer who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and became collateral damage in a botched robbery attempt. Mark was the lawyer who represented her, and eventually the two married. Bad idea.

It turns out Mark was far from the white knight Emma thought he was. He is a control freak of the highest order, and sees his wife as a reflection of his own manhood and power. He wants her to look a certain way, act a certain way. It’s no wonder that she has taken part in an extramarital affair with Tom (Ameen), a colleague of her husband’s. However, she decides to call things off with Tom, using the fact that its her wedding anniversary as a reason.

Mark appears to be completely ignorant of the affair, showering Emma with gifts and a surprise; blindfolding her and driving her out to their lake house, even though it is the middle of winter. After a night of romance and wine, she wakes up to a cold house and handcuffed to her husband. Then comes a shocking event – and everything in her world has suddenly become a life-or-death survival situation. And to make matters worse, Mark has invited a few other guests to the party.

The plot doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but then again, it is at least kept pretty simple. The real surprise is Fox. She has always been known more for her beauty than her acting ability, but slap my britches and call me Sally, she actually does a commendable job here. While her performance here is occasionally erratic (as in line delivery mainly), for the most part she does a great job as a woman who has been intimidated and emotionally abused into numbness, who is then placed into a situation where she must fight or die.

It was less believable that Emma, wearing a flimsy nightie and no shoes, seemed to not be that affected by the cold, even when out in the snow and on the frozen lake. You would think that she might shiver, a little. But that might just be chalked up to Hollywood shorthand; Emma is strong enough to stand up to Mark and the two hit men (Mulvey, Roth) he’s sent out to finish her off, a little chill isn’t going to bother her much.

In fact it’s when the two hit men (who have a connection to the story that’s a little far-fetched) arrive in the movie that things really begin to take off and the movie really hits its stride. Dale shows a deft hand with some of these sequels and might well have a future in bigger budget action/thriller films down the line. As far as now goes, however, he’s brewed up a nifty little film that you might keep an eye out for – even if you’re not particularly fond of Megan Fox, as I was not. This might just change your mind about her.

REASONS TO SEE: Fox shows some range.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stretches believability to the breaking point.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, gruesome violence and some grisly images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Dale’s feature film debut; previously he has only directed short films.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gerald’s Game
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Meander

Gun and a Hotel Bible


It’s never a good thing when your Gideon Bible starts telling you fish stories.

(2019) Drama (Freestyle) Bradley Gosnell, Daniel Floren, Mia Marcon, David Shoffner, George Christopher, Delaney Milbourn, John A. McKenna, Wes Selby, Mark Laird, Zachary Fancey, Jimmy McCammon, Grace Fae. Directed by Raja Gosnell and Alicia Joy LeBlanc

Faith isn’t an easy thing to pin down. We don’t always know how strong it is; faith can come and go on a dime. We think we recognize it, but it is only when we are truly tested that we know whether or not our faith is real.

Pete (B. Gosnell) is facing just such a test. He’d met his wife Cindy (Marcon) in a seedy hotel bar. For him anyway, it was love at first sight. She was one of those women who just lights up a room; so full of life, so full of oy, every eye was on her. So he was surprised as hell when she sat down at his table and in the space of a night extracted his life story. Six months later, they were married. Should have been a happily ever after, right?

But life rarely offers us a happily ever after. The magic went out of the relationship and now Pete has discovered that his Cindy has been coming back to the same hotel every Friday night to meet Leo (Christopher) for an evening of passion. So, Pete has come to the hoteland gotten himself a room for Friday night. He packed light; a backpack, and in the backpack, a gun.

Gideon (Floren), or “Gid” as he likes to be called, has a pretty stationary life. He likes to do things by the book, which is understandable since he is a book – or perhaps more to the point, THE book – the Gideon Bible that is left free in hotel rooms for travellers to read. This particular Bible has been sitting in the same hotel room for six decades. He’s seen his share of tragedies and passions; one of his pages has been torn out by a stoner to use as a rolling paper “Judges. Ironic, huh?”) and on the back a child has drawn her own Picasso-esque masterpiece.

When Pete comes in, Gic strikes up a conversation, being an outgoing, people-loving sort. Gid quickly discovers what Pete’s intentions are and holds a conversation with Pete on the nature of faith, the inequities of translation and interpretation, and navigating right and wrong as he tries to guide Pete in a different direction than the one he’s planning on.

This movie had its beginning as a stage play, and sadly, hasn’t really risen past its beginnings. Most of the action takes place in the confines of a hotel room, and there is a stage-y feeling to the production and to be honest, to the dialogue as well. The rhythms here all scream “stage play” much more than they do “film”. Considering that the two co-stars co-wrote and starred in the sgtage version and co-director LeBlanc directed the original stage version, it isn’t so surprising. Raja Gosnell (Brad’s dad) is a veteran director of feature films; you’d think that he would have added a more cinematic quality to the production, but alas, no.

That’s not to say that this doesn’t have things going for it. The concept is imaginative and the opening sequence when Pete narrates how he and Cindy got together is pretty nifty and the movie tackles some pretty deep subjects. It is one of those rare movies that discusses faith from a rational standpoint, never feels like it’s preaching. I know a few theologians who are going to have some pretty stirring conversations based on this if they ever get to see it.

Gosnell the younger and Floren have a good chemistry and each does a pretty good job with their roles,Pete being scruffy and down on just about everything (as you might imagine) while Gid is a bit of a huckster, optimistic in an “Up With People” kind of vibe, and a little bit too into the Cubs. While the film is a brisk 60 minutes long, your tolerance for watching what is essentially an extended conversation will determine how much you’ll end up enjoying this movie. For me, it was thought-provoking enough to sustain my interest.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a good deal of imagination here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very stage-y; other than the opening scene, lacks a sense of being a film rather than a stage play.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a stage play that debuted at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2018.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTub]e
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Laramie Project
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Museum Town

Farewell Amor


Dance like nobody’s watching.

(2020) Drama (IFC) Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee, Nana Mensah, Marcus Scribner, Brandon Lamar, Joy Batra, Francisco Burgos, Mariam C. Chemmoss, Virginia Hastings, Majah Hype, Joel Michaely, Chrisanthos Petsilas, Howie Sheard, Terrence Shingler, Rayshawn Richardson, Imani Lewis, Kristen Maxwell. Directed by Ekwa Msangi

 

Often we don’t consider the human cost of what goes on in those news snippets on CNN. You know the sort; some correspondent in a utility vest in some country that is at war with itself talking about this militia group or that government army. Caught in the middle are millions of civilians, who often have to flee their war-torn countries to survive. Often, that means families being separated, sometimes for unconscionably long periods.

Walter (Mwine) left the civil war in Angola for the United States, leaving his wife Esther (Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Lawson) – the daughter he barely knew – to try and forge a good life for his family. But seventeen long years passed as the paperwork for their emigration slowly churned through the system. When at last they were reunited at New York’s JFK Airport, they were literally strangers to one another, despite Esther’s exclaimed “Amor!” (the French word for love which can often be taken as “My love”) when first they meet.

They have all changed. Sylvia misses her friends in Dar es Salaam where she and her mother fled to. She isn’t sure how she fits in here in Brooklyn. There is a guy, DJ (Scribner) in her class who thinks she’s amazing. He watches her dancing in the street – she loves to dance – and knows she’s a natural for the high school step dancing team, but she’s not so sure.

Esther has found religion and not just Christianity but a rigid, evangelical Christianity that begins to show through. She disapproves of the decadence in America and her daughter’s desire to be a dancer? “I refused to lose my daughter to America!” she shouts, forbidding her daughter from joining the dance team or to do any sort of activity other than to attend church. It is driving a wedge between Esther and Walter.

As for Walter, he hasn’t been a saint over the past 17 years. While Esther makes friends with a spirited neighbor (Lee), Walter misses the woman (Mensah) who lived with him and was his lover while Esther was in Africa. Esther discovers what Walter had been up to, and is trying to reconcile the old Walter with the new. Will this family survive being reunited?

First-time feature filmmaker Msangi based this on a short film she did several years ago, and she shows herself to be a talent to be reckoned with. This is a film about real people, dealing with real issues. She clearly has an affection for Brooklyn, because she portrays it as a truly wonderful place. She also coaxes some truly affecting performances out of all of her cast members. I can’t recall a movie this year in which the cast was as flawless as this one.

The movie is vibrant, alive with the love of music and dance that Walter and Sylvia (and to a lesser extent, Esther) share. There is also a melancholy of people struggling to figure out how they fit in, where the fit in and feeling alone in a crowd. I think we’ve all gone through that at some point or another, making the movie eminently relatable on a personal level.

Msangi wants us to see the movie from the viewpoint of all three characters, so she divides the movie into three different chapters in which each character is basically the lead of their own chapter. Yes, that does give us an insight into all three of the family members we might not have otherwise had, but it is a little bit of a misstep; we spend the movie going over the same events through the points of view of three different characters and although everyone’s viewpoint is different, it still feels like we’re watching a rerun to a certain extent. I’m not sure how she could have handled it differently to achieve the same aim; I just know that this didn’t work as well as I think she intended.

Still, that doesn’t detract from what is a powerful and essential movie, for sure one that you won’t want to miss. Not only does it give us an insight into the refugee problem, it gives us insight into family dynamics that is different than what we’re used to. I can’t praise this movie enough.

REASONS TO SEE: There is an authenticity here that’s hard to achieve. The music is amazing. Strong performances top to bottom.
REASONS TO AVOID: The Rashomon effect gives us a sense like we’re watching the same movie over and over and over again – because we are.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The United States hosts more international migrants than any other country on Earth, about 19% of the total world’s population.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First They Killed My Father
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan

Black Water: Abyss


This big reptile is a croc.

(2020) Horror (Screen MediaJessica McNamee, Luke Mitchell, Amali Golden, Benjamin Hoetjes, Anthony J. Sharpe, Louis Toshio Okada, Rumi Kikuchi, Stu Kirk, Damien Blewett, J’ Ma, Jarod Woods, Rhys Ward, Isabella Sheehan, Glenn Adams, Julie Selis-Muscat, Vicky Wanless, Lincoln Callaghan, Troy Black, Mary Jane, Adam Lacey, Phillip Davy, Isabelle Rickards, Lynne Rose. Directed by Andrew Traucki

 

Sometimes, you’re not after a movie that’s going to involve you in the lives of its characters. Every now and then, you want a movie that just smacks you in the face with a stupid stick, fills the screen with improbable action and just lets you revel in your baser instincts. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

A pair of Type-A Aussie couples – well, at least that’s half-true – are headed to do some spelunking in the cave systems of Northern Australia. Alpha male Eric (Mitchell) and his wife Jennifer (McNamee) – who would much rather be getting room service in a five star hotel – has taken cancer survivor Vitor (Hoetjes) and his newly pregnant wife Yolanda (Golden) along with cave explorer and Eric’s buddy Cash (Sharpe) to a cave that only recently was discovered when a sinkhole opened up. Do they tell anyone where they are going? NO, THEY DO NOT! Have these assclowns not seen a horror movie ever?

Well, if you think that’s irresponsible, they also choose to ignore an approaching storm. The result? They are trapped in the cave with rapidly rising waters, but that’s really the least of their problems. You see, there’s a very hungry and singularly-minded crocodile swimming around and these five numbskulls have effectively just rung the dinner bell.

There are stabs at plot development, but they just don’t work. When you’re in a survival situation, generally speaking that’s not the time to work out marital issues, but of course, when you’re being stalked by a giant killer croc, what else is there to do? One of the dim-witted croc snacks even expresses shock that they can’t get a cell signal two hundred feet below the ground in the middle of a swamp. No, really? REALLY?!?

Predictably, as the crock picks them off one by one, they race for a way out before the water rises above their safe little ledge. With one of their number badly injured and another pregnant, what chance to these guys have to outwit the croc in its own element?

This is a sequel to the minor 2007 hit Black Water only in the loosest terms in that it’s set in Australia, there’s a crocodile and one of the young people being stalked is pregnant. If you didn’t see it, it won’t affect your enjoyment of this one (or lack thereof). And while I’ve been harsh up to now, there are some elements here that aren’t too bad – the cinematography is lush, whether in the caves or out in the swamps.

We don’t get to see much of the crock, as it mostly swims around in murky waters, but what we do see is pretty impressive. However, the actual deaths are not easy to see, given that the cave environment is so dark, the water is murky and roiling with a thrashing crocodile and an equally thrashing victim. The sounds of the kills might be what get to you, though, if you tend to be faint of heart. In some ways, that makes the death scenes more gruesome than they actually are.

Essentially, this is pretty typical survival horror with a big, mad predator. There are no surprises here, hardly any character development other than one of the girls remarking that her relationship with her fella has been rocky, until near the end when we find out….well, you’ll see. And if you’re not planning on seeing this, I’m still not going to tell you. In any case, if you’re looking for something new to rent, this fits the bill. It isn’t horrible but it isn’t great. It’s just kind of there, like an Appleby’s.

REASONS TO SEE: Some lovely jungle and cave cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stock characters being picked off one by one.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a sequel to the 2007 film Black Water which Traucki co-wrote and co-directed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews, Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crawl
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Perfect Candidate

Marley


The legend.

(2012) Music Documentary (Blue FoxBob Marley, Ziggy Marley, Cedella Marley, Rita Marley, Chris Blackwell, Jimmy Cliff, Cindy Breakspeare, Danny Sims, Diane Jobson, Lee Perry, Constance Marley, Bunny Wailer, Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt, Bob Andy, Edward Seaga, Lloyd McDonald, Nancy Burke, Ibis Pitts, Hugh Creek Peart, Evelyn Dotty Higgins. Directed by Kevin McDonald

 

This re-release of the 2012 documentary is meant to celebrate the reggae icon, who would have turned 75 this past February 6th had it not been for his untimely death. The movie bills itself as the definitive biography of Bob Marley and there is truth in advertising.

Covering Marley’s life from early childhood to his final days, we see the privations of Marley’s childhood and teen years when he lived in poverty. A child of an interracial marriage (his father, whom he rarely saw and died when Bob was young, was white), he was bullied and often ignored by a culture that at the time had strict racial boundaries. If Marley was bitter about being ostracized by both sides of his parentage, he never showed it and instead preached a message of tolerance and brotherhood. He often went to bed hungry, going days between meals.

Along the way, filmmaker Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland) talked to just about everyone who knew him, either in a professional standpoint (Island records chief Blackwell, backing vocalist Judy Mowatt, musicians Bunny Wailer and Jimmy Cliff, producer Lee “Scratch” Perry) and personally (his wife and several of his eleven children, boyhood friends, cousins, and a couple of his extramarital affairs). We don’t hear much from Marley himself – he granted few interviews while he was alive, preferring to let his music do his talking.

Following his rough childhood, he found acceptance in the Rastafarian faith, for which he would eventually become the symbol. Most Americans tend to focus on the dreadlocks and the use of ganja as a sacrament, believing that the followers were blissed-out stoners; many college students in the 70s and beyond had Marley posters on their dorm room walls – not because of the music but because it was a way of proclaiming a love for weed without overtly saying so. Trust American college students to miss the point (and I missed many and still do).

The music is front and center here and we hear both live and studio versions of most of his most recognizable hits. Yes, he sang about “One Love” and “Every Little Thing is Gonna Be Alright” but he also had calls to action like “Get Up Stand Up,” “Buffalo Soldiers” and “Redemption Song.” In researching this film, I came across a quote by a snooty West Coast film critic who sniffed that Marley “wrote the same song 7,000 times” which is ignorant at best. Yes, I understand that the reggae beat can get old if you listen to it long enough, but anyone who thinks that Marley’s catalogue is variations of the same song isn’t listening closely.

At two and a half hours long, the film requires commitment. I’m sure those who dislike reggae will be put off by that alone. However, even casual fans will find a lot to glean here, as the movie is chock full of rare footage and music that rarely gets played on the radio these days. Marley fans will find there’s  lot to celebrate.

For those buying tickets, be aware that with every ticket purchase, fans will receive a download pack for an exclusive Ziggy Marley – who appears prominently in the documentary – song and a chance to win exclusive Bob Marley merchandise. Click on the Virtual Cinematic Experience link below and a portion of ticket sales will go to various art film houses around the country.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely informative. Shows a side of Jamaican culture most rarely see.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit overwhelming for the casual fan.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a fair amount of drug use, some adult themes and violent images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bob Marley fathered eleven children with seven different mothers.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Harder They Fall
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

The Rental


Beware of dark shadows.

(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight) Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss, Anthony Molinari, Connie Wellman. Directed by Dave Franco

 

The Internet Age has given us, among many other ostensibly helpful programs, Air BnB; the ability to rent out our homes as vacation properties. Millions take advantage of the program, which is kind of a crap shoot; when it works out, you’ll find yourself in a much more comfortable environment than a hotel, and generally for a lot less. When it doesn’t, you can end up in an absolute dump – or with an owner who might not be altogether benevolent.

A pair of 30-something couples – start-up entrepreneur Charlie (Stevens), his hot-tempered and less successful little brother Josh (White), Charlie’s wife Michelle (Brie) and Josh’s girlfriend Mina (Vand), who also happens to be Charlie’s business partner. With a big project looming on the horizon, Charlie and Mina figure a weekend of R&R would be just the thing before several months of long hours and stressful deadlines become the norm for both of them. They find what looks like an ideal seaside home.

There are some issues; when Mina tries to rent the property, she’s turned down. When Charlies tries again an hour later, his rental is accepted. Mina, who has a Middle Eastern last name, cries racism and confronts the caretaker Taylor (Huss) with her accusations; he neither confirms nor denies them, but informs her that he isn’t the owner but the brother of the owner who is rarely home to use the property.

Although the property seems absolutely perfect, with a hot tub overlooking the ocean and all the modern amenities, there is a feeling that something is off. For one, Taylor comes off as kind of a racist creep. For another, there’s the locked door with an electronic lock which just smacks of “something to hide.” As the weekend wears on, the underlying tensions between the two couples begin to surface as the bickering and accusations start. When Mina discovers a closed circuit miniature camera in the shower head, she realizes that they are being watched, and that someone is getting their jollies watching the two couples take molly, fool around and bicker. There’s someone watching them and that generally isn’t a good thing.

Franco, who co-wrote the film with mumblecore legend Joe Swanberg, sets the film off as a slow burn, gradually building the tension until the climax, although that climax takes off in an unexpected direction, like an RC airplane with a faulty rudder. What starts off as an amazing psychological horror film and character study ends up during the last 20 minutes as a more traditional visceral horror film which is somewhat disappointing.

Disappointing because the movie shows the vulnerability of renting from a site like Air BnB; we put out trust in homeowners based on a few good ratings. If those owners turn out to be homicidal maniacs, we have no way of knowing or preparing and certainly no way of protecting ourselves. It’s a chilling thought and one the movie exploits early on before turning itself into a standard slasher film, complete with a too-long coda setting the film up as a potential franchise.

As an actor, Franco relates well to his cast and they do good work here. Most surprising was White, who gives Josh a nuanced character; unselfconfident after his violent temperament had landed him in trouble with the law earlier in life especially given his brother’s financial and personal success, he still has a hair-trigger temper which surfaces late in the film. Most of the rest of the way he seems like a genuinely sweet guy with difficulty believing in himself.

Slasher fans will find the movie a little too slow-developing for their tastes (unless they love psychological horror films that build gradually as well) and the frenetic ending will disappoint fans of psychological horror. Nevertheless this is a strong debut from Franco and while it isn’t likely to have the impact that his brother James’ debut did, it makes for some marvelous summertime genre viewing.

REASONS TO SEE: A true slow burn. The cast is terrific, but White is a real find.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is just too ludicrous to ignore.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is profanity, drug use, sexuality and graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alison Brie is married to Dave Franco, who is making his feature directing debut here.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crawlspace
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Tommaso


Meet Tommaso.

(2019) Drama (Kino-Lorber) Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, Anna Ferrara, Stella Mastrantonio, Lorenzo Piazzoni, Alessandro Prato, Alessandra Camilla-Scarci. Directed by Abel Ferrara

 

Self-portraits can be extremely revealing; they can also be the product of an ego run amok. When art imitates life, you never quite know what you’re going to get; unflinching honesty, or fawning self-aggrandizement or something in between.

Tommaso (Dafoe) is an American ex-pat living in Rome with his much younger wife Nikki (Chiriac) and his three-year-old daughter DeeDee (Anna Ferrara). He is six years sober after years abusing alcohol, drugs and anyone unfortunate enough to be in his orbit. He is working on a sci-fi script about a man living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland who learns to love again, attends regular AA meetings, and runs drama classes when he’s not being tutored into learning the Italian language. He seems to dote on his daughter and is deeply in love with his wife, even though sex with a toddler in the house is nearly impossible.

Cracks begin to show in the façade; the more we learn about Tommaso, the more we see that he has a dark side that wasn’t entirely due to the drugs and booze. We also begin to understand that we are seeing events through Tommaso’s lens; not everything we see is real. He sees his wife with another man and soon becomes paranoid to the point where his wife begins to draw away from him. Tommaso has always been a womanizer; he begins to come on to one of his students who isn’t exactly against the idea. However, as much as he regrets the mistakes he’s made in his life and as open as he is to discussing them, he certainly isn’t above repeating them – or making all-new mistakes.

Dafoe as Tommaso is at the center of all the action here and Ferraro couldn’t have put his film in better hands. Dafoe is an actor who seems to be getting better with age, and while he doesn’t have the mystique of a Pacino or De Niro, he is every bit as good. Tommaso is one of his best performances ever, manic and soulful, good-hearted and yet demonic. Through Dafoe, Ferrara is able to ruminate on the nature of happiness and what it means to make yourself a better person – and how truly difficult that is.

Unfortunately, the choice to make this an internal point of view means that we never know if what we are seeing is real, or a dream, or madness. In one shocking scene, Tommaso imagines seeing his daughter crossing the street and getting hit by a taxi. It turns out that was a paranoid delusion, but was it? Maybe the scenes thereafter where the daughter lives are the illusion.

When Dafoe ends up crucified (an obvious nod to The Last Temptation of Christ), I really had to question if this wasn’t a vanity project after all. I’m no psychiatrist but imagining your cinematic avatar in a Christ-like pose seems to be a cry for years of therapy at the very least.

The movie goes off the rails near the end and by that point I was wishing that the film had not been quite so long. Ferrara is a gifted director and maybe this is his way of baring his soul and making amends. I don’t know. But I’m not sure if I’m up to giving absolution after two hours of mea culpas. I’m not sure anybody is, these days.

REASONS TO SEE: Dafoe continues to turn in magnificent performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat pretentious and self-absorbed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as a fair amount of sex and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The wife and daughter of Tommaso are played by director Abel Ferrara’s actual wife and daughter.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broken Embraces
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Serenity (2019)