A Banquet


Food for thought.

(2021) Psychological Horror (IFC Midnight) Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Ruby Stokes, Lindsay Duncan, Kaine Zajaz, Richard Keep, Deka Walmsley, Rina Mahoney, Jonathan Nyati, Walter van Dyk, Andrew Steele, Adam Abbou, Finn Bennett, Dylan Clout, Selena Thompson, Kevin Marshall, Hannah Zoé Ankrah, Suzie Voce, Kharlis Ubiaro, Leon Finnan, Charlie Roberts, Polly Turner. Directed by Ruth Paxton

 

=Mother-daughter relationships are often complicated, layered things, particularly when the daughter is in her difficult teen years. When the behavior of the daughter becomes disquieting, maybe even self-destructive, the question has to be raised if the impetus is psychological, or a cry for attention – or something far worse.

Holly (Guillory) has a lot to cope with, having two teenage daughters. She has been through the wringer; after nursing her terminally ill husband, she is rewarded with witnessing (along with her older daughter Betsey (Alexander)) his grisly suicide. Such a traumatic event is bound to leave some scars; for Holly, it has led to her drawing inward, isolating her family in a dark, cave-like home. For Betsey, it is becoming somewhat nihilistic, or at least fatalistic, and adopting the accoutrements of goth. Only younger daughter Isabelle (Stokes) seems relatively unaffected.

But at a party one night, Betsey – who has gone outside to get some air – is lured into the nearby woods by a mesmerizing blood-red moon and by sibilant whispers. When she returns home, she has changed; the sight of food makes her deeply nauseous, causes bouts of violent resistance and makes her skin tingle. At first, Holly attributes her daughter’s behavior to a severe hangover, but when the condition persists over several days with Betsey refusing to take even so much as a single pea in sustenance, Holly begins to suspect that something deeper is at play. When medical doctors write it off to “something viral,” and psychiatrists make little headway, Betsey begins to insist that she witnessed something in the woods; a vision of something coming. She now believes her body belongs to a higher power and shouldn’t be desecrated with food.

Into this equation comes June (Duncan), Holly’s mom who is understandably skeptical of Betsey’s condition, thinking it as an attempt to get attention. June has her own demons, having had to raise a mentally ill daughter (not Holly), and as Holly begins to believe that maybe something supernatural is going on, particularly when it is discovered that Betsey hasn’t lost so much as a pound since this whole thing began. June and Holly begin to butt heads. Betsey, in the meantime, has attained a kind of serenity. Is the apocalypse really coming?

This is the kind of horror movie that doesn’t have any “gotcha” scares, nor does it really provide anything that terrifies other than the general situation. The horror is psychological in nature and revolves around the relationships between the four women in the family. This is not a movie that you can watch passively; it requires that you pay attention and the filmmakers expect you to work at least as hard as they did making the film, not an unreasonable request, but for a lot of movie buffs, it may be more than they are willing to give.

This is particularly true in the first half, which moves at a very slow pace. Things to pick up in the second half, as the tone gets weirder and weirder, and some very strong performances (particularly by Duncan, a veteran actress who has been known to steal a scene or two during a distinguished career) and some very deeply layered characters and storylines.

With a production setting that actually parallels the themes of the film, it is clear that a great deal of thought went into the making of this film. Paxton is a brilliant new voice, whose next project I’m eager to see. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but anyone who has ever had a contentious relationship with a parent, or loved (or been) a teenage girl, there is a lot to unpack here – and like the conclusion of any trip, is sometimes more satisfying to ponder it afterwards than it is to actually be on the journey.

REASONS TO SEE: The second half of the film is truly gripping…
REASONS TO AVOID: …But the first half of the film is terribly slow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sensuality, drug use and some disturbing images (including an on-screen suicide).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for Bull, who has a passel of award-winning shorts to her credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saint Maud
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Brighton 4th

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain


Artist Louis Wain paints what he sees.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Amazon) Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Sharon Rooney, Aimee Lou Wood, Hayley Squires, Stacy Martin, Phoebe Nicholls, Adeel Akhtar, Asim Chaudhry, Taika Waititi, Crystal Clarke, Daniel Rigby, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barratt, Dorothy Atkinson, Nick Cave, Olivia Colman (voice), Jamie Demetriou, Sophia Di Martino. Directed by Will Sharpe

 

The line between madness and genius is a thin one indeed. It is often difficult to realize that the line has been crossed once we have moved to the wrong side of it.

Louis Wain (Cumberbatch) was a talented illustrator who worked in London in the late 19th century. In 1881, his sister Caroline (Riseborough) hired a nanny for her four younger sisters. Emily Richardson (Foy) came into the household and soon Louis was enchanted. The sole breadwinner for his family including his mother (Nicholls) and five sisters, he had never had a thought for marriage before, and this particular one was scandalous, seeing as Miss Richardson was about a decade older than he, and from a different class strata.

Nevertheless, the two were married, and although their happiness would be short-lived, she did give him a gift that would have repercussions long beyond her years; a stray cat named Peter, soaking wet in the yard of their cottage. As Wain struggled with his grief, he found himself becoming fascinated with cats as a subject for his work – anthropomorphic cats who frolicked on two legs, smoked cigars, served tea, and smiled with big eyes. The drawings and cards of Wain became unbelievably popular, and it is no exaggeration to say that his work helped change the minds of Victorian England as to the place of cats in their household; once thought useful only for catching vermin, they began to be considered as companions and pets, a position they occupy (but don’t necessarily enjoy) to this day.

In the meantime, Louis’ sanity was beginning to slip away. His obsession with electricity and its power began to color his thinking. He began to hallucinate, sometimes horrifically. Ass Louis, a somewhat naïve businessman, had never copyrighted his images, they were copied left and right, leaving Louis nearly destitute. He was committed to an asylum, although once the appalling conditions of his commitment became known, no less a personage than H.G. Wells (Cave) would lead a plea for funds to be raised so that he might live out the remainder of his years in nicer surroundings, which happily turned out to be the case (he would die on July 4, 1939).

Although Wain has largely been forgotten over the years, his images presaged the obsession with cats and their behavior which have helped make the Internet the gigantic waste of time that it is today (I write this unironically, knowing that you, my dear reader, are taking this in on the net). Still, his story is a fascinating one and his impact fairly important. In his time, he influenced cartoons, animation and even cinema. Some of his later images were almost psychedelic in nature, and pop art certainly owes him a debt.

Cumberbatch portrays Wain with an earnestness that would befit Hugh Grant, albeit with less stammering. The cast is impressive, in particular Foy, who gives Emily a certain radiance and who pairs well with Cumberbatch, and Colman, whose narration is at times hysterically funny.

Sharpe and cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson use a bright and colorful palette to frame their story, which is fairly unusual for movies set in Victorian England, which is often portrayed as grimy and grey. Sharpe also ratchets up the poignancy, particularly in the second half. I found myself well-affected by the film, although I would have liked to have seen a coda at the end and perhaps speeded up the pace a bit in the first half. This is definitely a film for cat lovers, as well as for fans of Cumberbatch, who is at his best here. I would daresay that also those who are interested in learning more about artists who have been shoved off to the side as time has gone by should profit well by watching this.

REASONS TO SEE: Highly recommended for Cumberbatch fans and cat lovers.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a little while to get moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult thematic material, as well as some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Colman and Foy have appeared as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Munich: The Edge of War

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road


Brian Wilson , in many ways, carried the Beach Boys.

(2021) Music Documentary (Screen Media) Brian Wilson, Jason Fine, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Linda Perry, Gustavo Dudamel, Don Was, Steven Page, Nick Jonas, Jakob Dylan, Jim James, Mark Linett, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Bob Gaudio, Probyn Gregory, Andy Paley, Taylor Hawkins, Darian Sahanaia, Stephen Kalioich, Melinda Ledbetter. Directed by Brent Wilson

Without a doubt, the musical legacy of Brian Wilson is right up there, as Los Angeles Philharmonic Musical Director Gustavo Dudamel opines, with Schubert and Mahler. He has been described as “Pop’s Mozart” and while the man himself would probably squirm at such descriptions, they aren’t wrong.

Wilson, the man who wrote most of the big hits of the Beach Boys and produced their greatest records, also has struggled with mental illness, exacerbated by his drug abuse in the late Sixties and Seventies. Before that, he was churning out incredible songs extolling Southern California as a kind of paradise of warm sand, sunshine, beautiful girls in bikinis, and clean-cut guys in hot rods. It was a different era – for many, this sounded like heaven on Earth and the Beach Boys sold it like aggressive real estate agents. The Los Angeles chamber of commerce should have pictures of these guys up on their wall; they helped bring a lot of business and industry to California because they brought a lot of people to the Golden State.

He comes off here as a gentle soul, uncomfortable with talking about himself, nervous and anxious about any sort of interview. The fact that his friend and Rolling Stone writer Jason Fine is conducting the interviews probably helps some. Fine drives the former Beach Boy around Los Angeles to points of interest on the Brian Wilson tour; to the site of the house he grew up in Hawthorne – long since demolished to make room for a freeway, although a plaque stands at the site marking it as a California Historic Landmark. He also takes him to Paradise Cove, where the covers to some of the early Beach Boys albums were photographed – there’s a plaque there, too. Fine also takes him to various houses where he lived during the heyday of the band, and to his brother Carl’s home – he generally doesn’t get out of the car, except at the Deli where they have lunch (and run into Vanna White, a former neighbor of Wilsons and their brief chat occurs off-camera; ah, Hollywood).

We listen to a long of the songs that Brian and the Boys made famous (and a few less famous ones), and listen to the expert opinions of fellow greats Springsteen and Sir Elton John, both who admit being mesmerized by the music and inspired by it. John even admits to cribbing a few of Brian’s studio tricks for his own albums. Don Was, the veteran producer who also directed the 1995 documentary Brian Wilson: I Wasn’t Made For These Times, listens to “God Only Knows” from the magnificent Pet Sounds album and shakes his head in wonderment and delight. “I’ve been doing this (producing music) for forty years and I still can’t tell you how he did that,” listening to the intricate instrumentation, some of which he can’t identify – “A flute with reverb, maybe?”

But maybe the most emotional moments, even as director Brent Wilson (no relation) looks at the abusive of Brian’s father Murry, and his psychiatrist Eugene Landy, are reserved for Brian’s relationships with his brothers, both gone. He listens, for the first time he says, to Dennis Wilson’s overlooked gem of a solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue and is impressed. “I wanna hear it ALL,” he says when asked if he wants to hear more. He also is brought to tears talking about his brother Carl (who passed away in 1998 from cancer, and asks Fine to turn off the song on which Carl is singing. “I can’t listen to this anymore,” he says quietly. Dennis drowned in 1983.

This isn’t a documentary that is going to reveal much more about Brian than is already out there – you probably need to go to I Was Not Made For These Times if you want more of that. But this is a sweet and affecting documentary that reminds us that although Brian may not like being identified as a genius, he nevertheless has produced some of the greatest music of his time and we are all the better for it.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some strong and powerful moments here. Lots of really good insights throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nothing really revelatory here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wilson has been diagnosed with schizoactive disorder, and continues to hear voices in his head to this day.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Feast

Dangerous (2021)


Generic tough guy wanted.

(2021) Action (Lionsgate) Scott Eastwood, Kevin Durand, Brenda Bazinet, Mel Gibson, Famke Janssen, Tyrese Gibson, Brock Morgan, Ryan Robbins, Chad Rook, Jayce Barreiro, Emmanuel Addo, Leanne Lapp, Al Miro, Destiny Millns, Atlee Smallman, Brendan Fletcher, Matthew Che’z, Jack Mitchel, Matt Brown (voice), Grant Vlahovic, Alvin Tam. Directed by David Hackl

In general, the apple rarely falls far from the tree. For people with famous parents, that’s less of a blessing and more of a curse as they seek to distance themselves from their progenitors and carve a niche of their own. Once in a while, though, exceptions come along.

Dylan Forrester (Eastwood) – and you’ll call him “D” if you know what’s good for you – has been paroled from jail. A remorseless, emotionless killer, he’s an ex-Navy SEAL who has done some very bad things. Word comes that his brother Sean (Che’z) has unexpectedly passed away. He decides to head to Guardian Island off the coast of Washington State, where Sean was opening a bed and breakfast on the site of an old Naval base, to attend the funeral. But before he can do that, he finds a stranger in his apartment which generally is a pretty unhealthy situation, particularly for the stranger. FBI agent Shaughnessy (Janssen) – who caught D the first time around – arrives to find the bloodied stranger tied up in a bathroom but to her puzzlement, still alive. D was not known for leaving people alive.

She heads off to the coast to get herself to Guardian, but he’s got a serious head start on her. But D arrives to find he’s not welcome, particularly by his mother (Bazinet) who refers to her surviving son as “that thing” and makes it clear she’d much rather that her good son, a former history professor, and D had switched places.

But the happy reunion (oh, how I snark!) is interrupted by the arrival of a band of mercenaries under the command of Cole (Durand), for whom D used to ply his trade (you can tell Cole is the chief bad guy by his really awful haircut). And while his crew poses and preens in generic tough guy poses, Cole is after one thing – a treasure that Sean had discovered on the island – the legendary Yamashita gold trove.

In the meantime, D is on the phone to his hard-drinking therapist Dr. Alderwood (M. Gibson) who assures him that he needs to continue taking his meds (enough lithium to keep the entire city of Seattle singing the Mister Rogers songbook for a week) and doing his exercises so tht he is no longer a cold-blooded killer. That is, until the good doctor figures out that there are bad guys involved, at which time he lets loose the dogs.

The action sequences are pretty generic; executed competently, but not particularly creative and nothing, in the end, to write home about. Eastwood come closest here than any other movie I’ve ever seen him in to channeling his father, down to the Dirty Harry growl and snarl, even including the quips – after stabbing a baddie in the leg, he grunts “Femoral artery. You’ll want to keep pressure on that.” And when said baddie expires a moment later in a pool of blood, he adds “Too late.”

The casting of Mel Gibson is marvelous, considering he basically invented the good guy with serious mental problems in the Lethal Weapon franchise. There’s another Gibson in the cast – Tyrese, of the Fast and Furious franchise, but he is only on screen briefly and is gone a little too soon for my liking.

This is just a cut above mere entertaining and the interplay between Eastwood and Mel Gibson makes it that way. There are an awful lot of B-level action movies out there, and most are pretty forgettable, but this one is just a bit better. Don’t be afraid to give this one a shot.

REASONS TO SEE: Eastwood channels his dad more than in any other movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty standard by-the-numbers low-budget action film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity in fairly large measures.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Yamashita gold is an actual urban legend, about gold supposedly stolen by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War and hidden in caves, tunnels and/or underground complexes in cities around the world.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews; Metacritic: 30/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assault on Precinct 13
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
One Shot

The Invisible Man (2020)


Don’t look now…

(2020) Thriller (Universal) Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie, Renee Lim, Brian Meegan, Nick Kici, Vivienne Greer, Nicholas Hope, Cleave Williams, Cardwell Lynch, Sam Smith, Zara Michales, Serag Mohammed, Nash Edgerton, Anthony Brandon Wong, Xavier Fernandez, Amali Golden. Directed by Leigh Whannell

 

One of the unexpected side effects of #MeToo is that women are beginning to take back horror. Until recently, they were cast mostly as victims waiting to be slaughtered by a monster or a human monster. Yes, the final girl thing was a bit of a sop, but it was clearly understood that putting women in jeopardy had a sexual element to it. Horror films were often an allegory for how women were perceived in our culture; virtuous and plucky (final girls were almost never sexual) or sexy and not too bright, or at least prone to panicking when the chips were down, playing right into the killer’s hands – often literally.

That’s changing, as yesterday’s horror review illustrated, and it’s even more true of this film, inspired VERY loosely by the 1897 novel of H.G. Wells. Cecilia Kass (Moss) is trapped in an abusive relationship by a controlling billionaire who keeps her under 24/7 surveillance. Pushed to her absolute limit, she plots her escape, aided by her sister Emily (Dyer) who picks her up when she flees from the high-tech home she shares with her domestic partner Adrian Griffin (Jackson-Cohen), just barely getting away. Emily drives her into San Francisco where she bunks with her good friend James (Hodge), who happens to be a cop, and his teenage daughter Sydney (Reid).

Then word reaches her that her ex has committed suicide, and his creepy brother Tom (Dorman) gives her the news that he left her a sizable inheritance, enough to help Sydney with her college plans and to give her some financial relief. Too good to be true, right?

Right. Soon strange things begin to happen, merely annoying at first and growing exponentially more disturbing. Cecilia gets the feeling she’s being watched, and her paranoia only increases. Soon she seems to be coming unhinged, unglued, or at the very least, having a complete breakdown. But WE know that there is something else going on. After all, we saw that knife floating around by itself. We saw the footprints in the carpet. Is it Adrian’s ghost, or something more tangible – and ultimately more terrifying?

As horror films go, this one is long on tension but short on scares. In fact, I think it would be justifiably be considered more of a thriller than an out-and-out horror film, although there are definitely some horrific elements – they are just few and far between.

Whannell seems more intent on making a point than creating a legitimately scary movie. Fortunately, he has one of the best in the world at playing emotionally fragile characters in Elisabeth Moss (who will always be Zoey Bartlet to me) and she gets to exercise that particular skill to near-perfection here. She is certain that something sinister is going on and tells her circle of friends so, but nobody believes her. It’s no accident that her last name is Kass…could be short for “Cassandra.”

She gets some good support from Hodge (who will always be Alec Hardison to me) as the kindly but skeptical cop and Reid (who will always be Meg Murry to me) as the savvy teen. Dorman (who will always be John Tavner to me) lends sufficient creepiness as the late tech billionaire’s brother.

Part of the problem is that we don’t get much of a sense of who Adrian is. He’s essentially brilliant, vindictive and cruel, but we never really get to know much more than that. I tend to like a little more depth to my villains, even if they are ostensibly dead for most of the movie. Plus, there are few scares and that is a bit of a letdown, considering Whannell’s pedigree (he has been involved with two major horror franchises) and the fact that this is using the title of a classic horror movie. The audience can’t help but expect a horror movie when they sit down to watch.

Jilted expectations aside, the movie does a fair job of making its points about how women are portrayed, and although at times Moss can get a bit shrill she still makes a decent enough heroine, particularly in the mega-satisfying denouement. However, I can’t honestly say that the movie made a connection with me and thus I can’t in good conscience give it anything more than a very slight recommendation which is being damned by faint praise indeed.

REASONS TO SEE: Nobody is better than Moss than getting women on the edge of hysteria.
REASONS TO AVOID: The villain was not really developed properly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some pretty intense violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was originally intended to be part of the Dark Universe, Universal’s classic monster-oriented shared cinematic universe, but after the box office failure of The Mummy, the concept collapsed and Universal opted to go with individual stories rather than having a shared background.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Cinemax Go, DirecTV, Google Play, HBO Max, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hollow Man
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Continuing Adventures of Six Days of Darkness!

Man in the Field: The Life and Art of Jim Denevan


Even sitting down to a meal can be a work of art.

(2020) Documentary (Greenwich) Jim Denevan, Marcus Samuelsson, Deval Patrick, Damani Thomas, Jane Rosen, Catherine Panip, Hans Haveman, John McCarthy, Linda Butler, Sean Baker, Dina Brewster, Matt Lackey, Paul Kulik, Nion McEvoy, Danika Markegard, Jason Weiner, William Fox, Randall Graham, Andrew McLester, Tish Denevan. Directed by Patrick Trefz

 

It is true that art can come in all shapes and forms. It is also true that art can be found sometimes where you don’t expect to find it.

Jim Denevan is an artist. His canvas is nature. He began by drawing geometric shapes and patterns in the sand. His art is extremely impermanent; the tide and wind can wash it away in moments. His art, however, is no less beautiful for that; there is a kind of elemental magic in it, as you might find from a shaman conducting a ritual, or a sorcerer constructing a spell. Either way, his work has a powerful effect on the viewer.

Denevan also has a passion for food and eating, and he felt that we as a species needed to get closer to the sources of the food we eat. From this sprang his organization, Outstanding in the Field. Outstanding in the Field conducts these elaborate events where tables are set up in specific, exact ways, generally in places where food is sourced – farms, ranches and orchards. Local chefs are called in, sometimes some fairly well-known ones, who prepare a menu and then supervising the preparation of the meal. Jim acts as a kind of a host and facilitator, making sure that things are set up properly so that the guests have the kind of experience he envisions. Sometimes things go like clockwork (rarely) but most times they don’t; windy conditions means place settings are blown all over hither and yon; rain can cause the event to be relocated indoors; beach-set Outstandings can end up with waves crashing into guests.

But Jim perseveres and does these hugely popular events year after year (for those interested in signing up for a future event, point your browser here). The film shows smatterings of various events, interspersed with some of Jim’s art, drawn on beaches, deserts or in fields. Mostly we’re hearing from farmers, chefs and former guests who sing the praises of the event, as well as a few art curators who sing the praises of Jim’s artwork. That’s to be expected.

My issue with the way that the filmmaker chooses to make his film is that he shows brief clips from a variety of Outstanding events from all over the world with almost zero detail about the event itself. I think it would have been far more interesting to see how one event was put together, from the menu planning to the set-up to the execution. Then, we could have gotten more of a feel for the experience. The way it’s done is more like flipping through the pages of a magazine article without stopping for more than a few seconds on any page and expecting to gain an understanding from that. It doesn’t work. I could have gotten as much information from a list of past events run by the organization.

We also don’t see much about what drives Denevan to make his art until the very last 20 minutes or so when he begins to talk about the mental health issues of his family and how it affected him. It’s pretty intense stuff, and seemed to be included as an afterthought, but it is really the most illuminating segment in the film. Yes, I think Denevan’s endeavors are worth a documentary, but it feels like we just skimmed through the surface here rather than doing a deep dive into either his life or his art. A little more effort and detail might have made this a better movie.

REASONS TO SEE: Shows how hard and food can collide.
REASONS TO AVOID: The filmmaker goes skipping from event to event without a whole lot of detail.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a frank discussion of mental illness.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Three of Denevan’s brothers were diagnosed with schizophrenia within the same year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: ;As of 9/26/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Song of the Butterflies

An Amityville Poltergeist


Parris Bates is feeling blue.

(2020) Horror (Breaking Glass) Parris Bates, Rebecca Kimble, Conor Austin, Airisa Durand, Jon Ashley Hall, Natalie Lucia (voice), Calvin Morie McCarthy, Alex Onda, Jason Reynolds, Sydney Winbush. Directed by Calvin Morie McCarthy

 

Making a movie is no easy task. It is a collaborative effort, requiring many hands of talented technicians, imaginative creative people and of course wonderful actors. Movie sets can be a battleground where egos run rampant, or a carnival where the absurd reigns supreme. Sometimes, a movie set can be incredible fun when everything is clicking. They can also be unbridled chaos when everything is not.

Jim (Bates) is a college student who, like most college students, is in dire need of an infusion of cold, hard cash. His best friend, stoner Collin (Austin) recommends he sell his own blood plasma which neelde-phobic Jim is loathe to do, Instead, he gets a job housesitting for $500 a day, which seems a little excessive for sitting around the house. It sure beats working.

However, the elderly homeowner, Eunice (Kimble) warns Jim that she’s not concerned with people breaking in to the old house. She’s much more worried about what’s already inside. As her son (Hall) takes her away for a brief hospitalization, one wonders if the old lady might better be served with a different kind of hospital. However, as Jim starts to hear inexplicable noises, he realizes the old lady might not be as crazy as she sounds – and as the incidents grow more frightening and more violnt, he also realizes that $500 per night was way not worth it.

I have to be honest; I’m generally a sucker for a good haunted house movie. This isn’t one. For one thing, I have to admit that I was not thrilled that the movie has nothing whatsoever to do with the Amityville franchise – it’s not even set there – and there isn’t a poltergeist in the film (not really). Then again, if truth in advertising laws were applied to movie marketing, there’d be a lot of Hollywood executives with criminal records.

For some reason, the filmmakers filmed the movie as if it were filmed in perpetual twilight. Even the scenes set at night have a bluish tinge to them, like the only lighting came from a TV screen. The film photo above isn’t from a brief moment in the film – the entire movie is lit like that. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision to do that or sheer incompetence, but either way, I suspect most will get tired of the effect and tune out quickly. If the lighting doesn’t get you, though, the writing will. The plot is difficult to follow with way too many flashbacks, and while I’m guessing the screenwriters (Hall, who played the son, and McCarthy, who directed, co-wrote the script) were trying to blur the line between dreams and reality, they blurred it a little too much and after awhile I wouldn’t be surprised if some give up on the film long before the final credits run.

That isn’t to say that the movie is entirely without merit. The makeup effects by Zach Smith are pretty good, and Parris Bates has some potential, although his character is a bit on the whiny side. But the movie feels awfully amateurish, and while horror fans tend to be a bit more forgiving about such things, they do require some big scares and there just aren’t any.

I take no joy out of savaging a film like this. Generally, I wouldn’t run a review for a movie I disliked as much as this one because I generally feel that making a movie requires passion and commitment and I don’t doubt that the filmmakers have both of those things, and as I said, there are some redeeming features here so it isn’t entirely a waste of your time, but if you’re looking for a real good haunted house movie, there are just too many excellent ones out there (including The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist as well as literally dozens of fine indie budget films) to make it easy to recommend this at all.

REASONS TO SEE: Bates has a certain amount of appeal.
REASONS TO AVOID: Underlit throughout with a curiously blue tint. Poorly acted and terribly written.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some nudity, a fair amount of drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director McCarthy makes a cameo appearance as a pizza delivery guy early in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Turning
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Knocking (Knackningar)


What is real and what is not?

(2021) Suspense (LaskCecilia Milocco, Albin Grenholm, Ville Virtanen, Krister Kern, Alexander Salzberger, Charlotta Akerblom, Kristofer Kamiyasu, Christina Indrenius Zalewski, Naida Ragimova, Bengt Braskered, Karin Holmberg (voice), Tobias Almborg, Bill Hugg, Maria Norgren, Nilla Hansson, Karin de Frumerie, Emil Almén, Meliz Karige. Directed by Frida Kernoff

The mind is a powerful and mysterious instrument. It can pick up on the smallest clues, but it can make up things out of whole cloth. When it isn’t functioning properly, we cannot trust the sensory input we receive from it. What, then, does one do to distinguish what reality is?

Molly (Milocco) has suffered an awful tragedy. One moment she is napping on the beach, smiling at the whisper that her partner is going for a swim, the next her life has been completely upended. So much so that she has spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. Now, though, she is about to be released to try and resume a normal life. An apartment has been arranged for her in a high-rise on the edge of an unnamed city in Sweden. It is spacious, not particularly new but at least it has potential. There is a nice balcony with a view.

Molly settles in with what possessions she has and is urged to make of it a home. She tries gamely, looking for décor but seems a bit unsure as to what appeals to her. And there is a persistent knocking noise coming from one of the apartments above her. Maybe it’s someone hanging a picture, but the knocking is irregular and lasts too long. Maybe someone is dancing on their floor at night?

Molly goes upstairs to inquire of her upstairs neighbors – all men – as to what the source of the knocking is, but nobody else seems to hear it. There are also strange stains appearing in the ceiling. Molly begins to suspect that the rhythmic knocing could be morse code – someone might be trying to communicate with her. And the idea forms that there is someone being held captive – a woman. Other clues begin to arise – bloody clothes found in the dumpster, loud arguing, glimpses of abusive behavior by one of the men living above her. Molly calls the police, but they are less than helpful and given Molly’s history, fairly certain that what’s going on is all in Molly’s head. As the knocking becomes more insistent, Molly grows more desperate to find the source. She is absolutely convinced that there is a badly injured woman calling out for help the only way she can and Molly is just as certain that she’s the only hope the woman has of rescue.

Kernoff has some admirable instincts as a filmmaker. She creates an atmosphere that is slightly off-kilter, letting the viewer know that there’s something that’s not quite right. Is it Molly? Is it something sinister? We’re never really sure until the end and that’s some masterful filmmaking. Kernoff also makes magnificent use of light and shadow. Early on much of the light is reflected off of other surfaces – mirrors, windows, floors. Molly often tries to hide within shadows; behind the curtains of her apartment which are generally drawn, always in a kind of half-light that visually illustrates Molly’s fragile mental state.

She is aided by an extremely strong performance by Milocco who is on-camera virtually every moment, most of the time by herself. She carries the movie with confidence; the more certain Molly grows, the less certain the audience is. That’s in part good writing but also Milocco’s instincts that help create that dichotomy.

One of the underlying messages is the way women are marginalized by men. That’s not to say this is anti-man; Molly is generally treated like a well-meaning but foolish child who is given a pat on the head and reassurances that her concerns will be looked into – sometimes by other women as well. Our patriarchal society in general tends to believe women less often than men. It is why so many women are hesitant to report instances of sexual assault; often they are disbelieved, even asked if they might have misinterpreted what happened to them. To an extent, olly is treated as an unreliable witness in the film not only by the various men in the movie but also by Kernoff herself; we all have that kernel of doubt in our heads right up until the very last moments of the movie when that doubt is resolved.

Molly, like most victims of trauma, lives partially in those moments of trauma. Throughout the film, Molly returns again and again to that day in her head when tragedy befell her. We never see the event actually take place; we assume what has happened. It is as if Molly can’t bring herself to face the actual event. We hear a scream and we surmise. It’s very effective and from a psychological standpoint, quite an accurate representation of what trauma and tragedy does to the hyman psyche.

The movie is not without flaws. Although at a compact 78 minutes it doesn’t ask for an unreasonable investment of time, the pacing is kind of jerky; it does build to a climax but there are also some moments that seem inert compared to others that passed before it. During a freak-out near the end of the film by Molly, a GoPro is placed on Molly facing her so as she moves in almost a whirl of angry, frustrated movement – a tarantella of ranting – we are treated to Milocco’s facial expressions as she rages at the upstairs neighbors, insisting that there is something terrible going on – but the camera movement becomes dizzying and a bit intrusive. Molly’s world is spiraling around her, I get the visual representation but the end result is that I had to look away from the screen until the scene was done, missing the nuances of Milocco’s performance.

Although the movie does contain some horror tropes – the knocking itself sounds like it’s coming straight out of a haunted house movie – this isn’t a horror movie at all. It’s more of a psychological thriller. Given the strength of Milocco’s performance, the nuances of the film’s message and the overall unsettling tone, this is a worthwhile film to seek out. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the major indies picked this one up for release in the fall or winter. If you’re not already watching the Sundance festival virtually (where it premiered), this is one to keep an eye out for on your own local festival or when it eventually gets a national theatrical/VOD release, which I’m pretty certain it will.

REASONS TO SEE: Kernoff does a fine job of setting an unsettling mood. Milocco gives a bravura performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing is a bit uneven.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel by Johannes Theorins.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gaslight
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Night

Elyse


In 2020, catatonia might be viewed as a blessing.

(2020) Drama (GravitasLisa Pepper, Anthony Hopkins, Aaron Tucker, Tara Arroyave, Fran Tucker, Julieta Ortiz, Griffin Thomas Hollander, Donat Balaj, Anthony Apel, Danny Jacobs, Everett Kelsey, Connor Garelick, Natalia Tucker, Susan Papa, Brittani Ebert, Riccardo Spinotti, David M. Jackson, Daisy Barber, Annette Dugan, Diana Arroyave. Directed by Stella Hopkins

 

Some movies are just slam dunks as far as critics are concerned. They are easy reviews to write; the words just flow. Some are much harder to articulate though.

This turgid melodrama stars Pepper as the titular character, a well-coiffed, well-dressed wife of a wealthy lawyer (A. Tucker), living in a gorgeous modern house where her adorable son (Hollander) is looked after by a solicitous nanny (Ortiz). But all is not perfect in paradise. Elyse suspects her husband – baselessly, it turns out – of having an affair with the nanny’s daughter Carmen (T. Arroyave) who works at her husband’s firm. She also has a very dysfunctional relationship with her patrician mother (F. Tucker).

At a dinner party, fueled by too much drink, she has a meltdown. Her husband, concerned over her increasingly volatile behavior, wants her to see a psychiatrist, a Dr. Lewis (A. Hopkins) who had some success with one of the other lawyers in his firm. Elyse agrees and actually develops a bond with him. However, not all is what it seems and to quote David Byrne, “You may ask yourself, is this my beautiful house?”

 

This is something of a family affair, with the director being married to one of the stars, and also related to two other actors by blood (her maiden name is Arroyave). There is also a mother/son team of actors playing mother-in-law/son-in-law here. That’s all very cozy, but it feels very much like this was cast largely from people the director knew and was comfortable with, rather than getting the best actors for the roles. It shows particularly in the lead roles where, with the exception of the one Oscar winner in the cast, the performances are uniformly stiff and uninspired.

But then again, the dialogue is truly dreadful. You can’t ask an actor to say a line like “This house is an empty shell…of vanished dreams” and expect him (Aaron Tucker, in this case) to make it sound like something a real human being would say. You know a film is going to be pretentious when the opening voice-over narration quotes The Wizard of Oz and you know that the film is about mental illness. I mean, Zoinks! Home viewers may end up banging on their TV in frustration as the first half of the film is in black and white with occasional splashes of color in a ham-fisted attempt at symbolism. Even when the main crux of the plot unfolds – it’s not a spoiler to say that Elyse is actually catatonic and in a mental hospital with Dr. Lewis trying to reach her and bring her back into consciousness – there is little to surprise the viewer and a whole lot to make them want to watch something else.

Still, Anthony Hopkins – who also produced the film and scored it – is a reliable factor and worth watching even in a bad movie, and trust me gang, the rating for this would be a hell of a lot lower if the Oscar-winning actor wasn’t present. Believe it or not, I take no joy out of trashing a film; I know that nobody goes into making a movie with the intent of making a bad one, but sometimes, despite the best intentions, that is exactly what is produced. However, Hopkins fans don’t have to feel bad about his lot – in a couple of weeks, his new film The Father will be coming out and that might well be one of the best films of a year that most of us will want to forget anyway.

REASONS TO SEE: Anthony Hopkins is always a treat.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue is simply awful.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Stella Hopkins has been married to star Anthony Hopkins since 2003.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Woman Under the Influence
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Farewell Amor

Cured


LGBTQ rights are human rights.

(2020) Documentary (Story Center) Barbara Gittings, Dr. Frank Kameny, Kay Latusen, Lawrence Hartmann, Ron Gold, Dr. Richard Pillard, Charles Silverstein, Richard Socarides, Don Kilhefner, Rick Stokes, Dr. John Fryer, Gary Alinder, Richard Green, Sally Duplaix, Harry Adamson, Robert Campbell, Dr. Saul Levin, Evelyn Hooker Directed by Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer

In an era when progressive politics have taken a beating and there seems little for liberals to feel good about, one thing that is a case close to the heart of every self-respecting leftie is LGBTQ rights. It wasn’t that long ago where staying in the closet meant survival; people who came out were hounded, their careers were ruined, they became pariahs and outcasts. Gay men and women weren’t allowed to be teachers; many of them weren’t allowed to attend church. They certainly weren’t allowed to marry people of the same sex.

Part of the issue was that homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. Gay men and lesbians were treated using psychotherapy and sometimes more barbaric methods, including shock treatment and aversion therapy. The monolithic American Psychiatric Association, comprised mainly of older white men – had decreed it so and in their official manual of mental illnesses. This label perpetuated discrimination against the LGBTQ community and early leaders such as Dr. Frank Kameny of the Mattachine Society and Barbara Gittings of the Daughters of Bilitis realized until this changed, they would never be able to achieve equality in this society. To make this change meant they had to change the minds of the APA and with doctors like Charles Socarides at the forefront, there didn’t appear to be much chance of that.

However, as those leaders looked into it, the case for the APA began to look extraordinarily thin without nearly any backing evidence. In the meantime, researchers were discovering evidence using approved scientific methodology that homosexuality was far from being a mental disease but a healthy expression of sexuality.

The fight wasn’t an easy one and those early pioneers were risking everything to be involved in the fight. It was a serious career risk to even be identified as an ally of homosexuals and people could end up without a career, or worse. But some people did step out of the shadows and into the light, and they did pay the consequences but for the most part, these people became heroes in the early gay liberation movement and helped pave the way for the kind of acceptance that the LGBTQ has gotten from mainstream America that was unthinkable even a decade ago. While there is still plenty of way to go, this documentary shows in a well-thought-out manner how that fight took shape, with plenty of archival footage, interviews both contemporary and recent with those that took part in changing the mind of the APA (which finally happened in 1973) and those descended from the principals who are no longer with us, like Barbara Gittings’ partner Kay Latusen, and Richard Socarides, the son of the psychiatrist most vehemently against declassifying homosexuality as a mental illness – and, ironically, gay himself.

The movie celebrates people of courage both gay and straight who are largely forgotten by the mainstream society, but nevertheless are as important to the LGBTQ equality movement as Dr. Martin Luther King and Rep. John Lewis were to the African-American civil rights movement. Given that the gains of the last ten years are threatened by a strengthening conservative and evangelical segment of our society, these people should be remembered in order to inspire others to step forward and take up their torch.

The film recently played Outfest, the most prestigious LGBTQ-centric film festival in the world. It is also scheduled for Outshine, the Miami LGBTQ film festival in the coming week. While the movie doesn’t have a distributor (yet), it will continue to play festivals and special screenings. Keep an eye out for it.

REASONS TO SEE: Told in a methodical and intelligent manner. Reminds us of some forgotten heroes. A timely reminder of how far the LGBTQ movement has come.
REASONS TO AVOID: Needed to clarify the direct line from declassifying as a mental illness to the right to marry triumph for those whose sense of history is not acute.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some disturbing imagery of shock therapy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The American Psychiatry Association first classified homosexual as a mental illness in 1952.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: For the Bible Tells Me So
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Centigrade