Centigrade (2020)


Baby, it’s cold outside.

(2020) Thriller (IFC MidnightGenesis Rodriguez, Vincent Piazza. Directed by Brendan Walsh

 

I think one of the basic fears of modern man is being stranded, particularly in the middle of nowhere. We rely so much on our modern conveniences – a working car, the Internet, our creature comforts – that when they’re taken away, we’re at a loss as what to do. In the immortal words of The Clash, should I stay or should I go?That’s what faces young American married couple Matt (Piazza) and Naomi (Rodriguez) when they pull over to the side of the road one night during a blizzard. They are on a European book tour for her latest tome, and were driving to their next stop, a hotel in the hinterlands of Norway. She is very pregnant, nearly ready to give birth and they wake up after sleeping the night away to discover that the car won’t start. They can’t open the doors because of the weight of all the ice and snow. It is dangerously cold, and they have precious little in the way of food and water.

The two have very different ideas as to what they should do next. One of them wants to stay put and wait for rescue, while the other thinks that their best chance of survival rests on getting out of the car and walking to safety. Initially, it’s not much of an argument – getting out of the car is out of the question anyway, so they are more or less forced to stay put but as time goes by and desperation grows, something is going to have to give or all that will be found of them re their frozen bodies, still wrapped in blankets in the car.

Rodriguez and Piazza are both fine actors and they do a decent job. It’s a pity that they weren’t given more defined characters to work with. We really don’t find out very much about them during the course of the 90 minutes we are forced to spend with them, which considering that they are stuck inside a car with nothing to do, seems to be almost criminal. They do bicker, but so do most couples and the stress of a life-or-death survival situation is likely to bring out the worst in both of them.

The production is pretty minimalist which makes sense given the confined quarters the characters are in. Walsh at least is creative with his camera angles, but after a while it isn’t really enough to keep our interest. This is the type of movie that would have been much better as a short than as a feature length film; there’s not enough dramatic conflict to sustain us and we don’t even get the benefit of flashbacks to change the monotony

A word about true stories: the movie claims it is “inspired by a true story,” but I couldn’t find any information anywhere about whose story this was based on. That could mean one of two things (at least that come to mind right away); either the people this happened to were unwilling to grant the rights to their story, or the finished story veered so far away from the truth that the real couple wanted nothing to do with it. For all we know, some friend of the producer might have been stranded in their car on a chilly night and the producer thought “Hey, this could be a great movie if we add a blizzard….and they’re snowed in! Yeah, that’s the ticket!!!” All kidding aside, the words “inspired by” can hide a lot of sins, so take the true story aspect with a grain of salt. One aspect couldn’t possibly be true; no obstetrician on the planet would let a woman as pregnant as Naomi fly to Europe to do a book tour.

This is another case of strong concept, less successful execution. For a movie like this to work, we have to get invested in the characters and without really getting much of a glimpse as to who they are, we haven’t much to hold onto and so our interest wanes. Even though the movie isn’t a long one, the lack of action or character development really made it feel much longer. That might be a little bit cold to say, but given the circumstances I think it justified. Still, the actors do give it their all, so if you like either Piazza or Rodriguez (or both) this isn’t a bad rental, but otherwise this is disappointing to say the least.

REASONS TO SEE: Nicely tense and claustrophobic.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too long for the type of movie it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a pretty good amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rodriguez and Piazza are an actual couple in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews, Metacritic: 42/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lamp Light
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Unfamiliar

15 Years (15 Shana)


If men rolled out of bed looking like this, we’d all be gay.

(2019) LGBT Drama (Breaking Glass) Oded Leopold, Udi Persi, Ruti Asarsai, Dan Mor, Tamir Ginsburg, Lint Balaban, Ofek Aharony, Or Asher, Keren Tzur. Directed by Yuval Hadadi

 

Reaching middle age can be a terrifying proposition. Our entire worldview has to change. No longer are we young and indestructible; we are reaching a point in our lives where we have to take stock and prepare for the future rather than live in the moment. Even though 40 isn’t what it used to be, it still has great psychological significance for most of us.

Yoav (Leopold) has reached and surpassed that milestone. In fact, he’s 42 and outwardly, at least, he seems to have things figured out. A successful architect with a beautiful apartment in Tel Aviv that he shares with his partner of 15 years, Dan (Persi) who is a lawyer. They lack for nothing. They are surrounded by friends. Life is sweet indeed.

Yoav’s best friend since childhood is Alma (Asarsai) who has continued that relationship into adulthood. She is an artist and at the opening of a gallery show for her art, she makes the surprise announcement that she is pregnant. The news floors Yoav; as her best friend, he is offended that he wasn’t the first to know.

Even worse from Yoav’s point of view is that Dan is now thinking of fatherhood for himself and that is something Yoav emphatically doesn’t want. His mother has been dead for a while and his father is dying in a nursing home which Yoav refuses to visit; when on the phone with a representative there, he coldly tells them “Then let him die without seeing me.” That’s just the beginning of a downward spiral for Yoav who begins to resent Alma for her life change and Dan as well for wanting one. Yoav is pushing the two people closest to him away as hard as he can; when his firm loses an important project, the stress is clearly beginning to show. But what’s behind Yoav’s sudden change into jerkhood?

Well, to be honest, we never really find out for sure. Hadadi, who also wrote the film, drops cryptic hints; clearly his relationship with his parents is strained – one wonders if they never accepted their son’s sexuality, but Yoav is convinced he’d make a lousy father whereas Dan is just as sure that Yoav would make an excellent dad.

Yoav is at the center of the film and his relationships with Dan and Alma are the movie’s heart; the relationships are thankfully believable; both Alma and Dan are legitimately hurt by Yoav’s actions which he is unable to adequately explain. When questioned about why he’s behaving this way during a crucial scene, he keeps on repeating petulantly “I don’t know!” which gets tedious but then, I think that’s the point.

Hadadi does a great job to create a character who is unpleasant and barely likable; we get occasional glimpses of a different side to Yoav but mainly we begin to get tired of the man’s self-centered narcissism. Yoav has become so in tune with his own needs that he has ceased giving any thought to anyone else’s. He resents Alma because the change in her life is going to affect him. He resents Dan because he has a life goal that is different than his own. We are left to suss out the reasons for the behavior but at a certain point, we just don’t care. A dick is a dick is a dick, as they say.

The relationship between Dan and Yoav is actually pretty realistic; we don’t often get representations of successful gay men in long-term relationships and even though the one depicted here is crumbling, it certainly doesn’t reflect badly on Dan who is bewildered at his love’s behavior and beyond hurt. Eventually the two split up but it is clear that Dan is very much in love with Yoav. Whether Yoav is in love with anyone besides Yoav is a revelation I’ll save for your viewing – can’t leave too many spoilers, right?

Kudos to Hadadi for portraying gay men with depth and even, in the case of Dan, compassion. I also very much admire that Hadadi never wastes a moment; each scene portrays what it needs to and the n Hadadi moves on to the next one. While there might be a couple of sex scenes that may have been a little bit extraneous, Hadadi also reminds us that not every sexual encounter goes the same way. There are different rhythms, different contexts.

I think if we saw a bit more of what Dan saw in Yoav in the first place the movie would have been more powerful. Nonetheless, this is one of the most powerful pieces of LGBT cinema that I’ve seen in quite a while and it is well worth seeking out if you enjoy the genre or better still, if you just like damn good movies.

REASONS TO SEE: Hadadi wastes no time; every scene is efficiently composed and only precisely as long as they need to be.
REASONS TO AVOID: Yoav is so unlikable that after awhile audiences may not be able to identify with him.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film has to date won three Best Narrative Feature awards at three different Film Festivals, including the Chicago Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Junebug
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Until the Birds Return

Extra Ordinary


Will Forte goes all satanic on your ass.

(2019) Comedy (Good DeedMaeve Higgins, Barry Ward, Will Forte, Claudia O’Doherty, Jamie Beamish, Terri Chandler, Risteard Cooper, Emma Coleman, Carrie Crowley, Mary McEvoy, Sarah O’Farrell, Agatha Ellis, Jon Cheung, Valerie O’Connor, Siobhan Sweeney, Paul Holmes, Eamon Morrissey, Jed Murray, Mike Ahern, Daniel Reardon, Alison Spittle. Directed by Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman

 

I’ve heard that Ireland may be haunted, and that’s my weak attempt at sarcasm. The truth is, you can’t swing a dead cat (although why would you want to) without hitting a ghost, a banshee or some other spook.

Rose Dooley (Higgins) knows all about it and she has the dead cat to prove it (figuratively speaking, PETA – this isn’t that kind of movie). Her father Vincent (Cooper) hosted a paranormal direct-to-VHS series when Rose was a wee lass, before he met a tragic end that Rose blames herself for.

You see, Rose has a special talent; she can perceive ghosts and even communicate with them. After the passing of her father, Rose determined to ignore her gift, although it’s kind of hard to do when sometimes you can’t tell the living from the dead. So, Rose keeps mostly to herself, only her pregnant sister Sailor (Chandler) really having any sort of ongoing relationship with her. Rose runs a driving school in her tiny town which seems to suit her just fine.

Martin Martin (Ward) whose parents must have waned him to get beat up in school, has a different problem. His wife Bonnie may have passed on but she hasn’t moved on; she still picks out the clothes he’s to wear and sends messages like “The Dog has worms” burned into the toast and from time to time hits him in the face with a cabinet door when he shows any sort of sign of defiance. Their daughter Sarah (Coleman) is fed up; she can’t find closure until her mom’s spirit is at rest and she basically gives her pa an ultimatum; get help or I’m gone.

Sarah is aware of Rose’s past and gives Martin her business card. Martin, wary and kind of spineless, signs up for Rose’s driving course – even though he passed his exam years before. When he finally confesses his real reason for seeking her out, she orders him out of her car. Still, Rose feels a connection with the distraught man and eventually agrees to help.

In doing so, she inadvertently puts herself in the crosshairs of dark forces. You see, American ex-pat Christian Winter (Forte) was once a pop phenom, but after his big hit “Cosmic Woman” put him on top was unable to capitalize on the momentum and now has become a has-been staring at financial ruin. He needs a comeback album and makes a deal with the devil, who needs a virgin to be sacrificed. There really aren’t many of them in town though, but Sarah is one and Christian marks her for sacrifice to the demon Astaroth (Murray).

Rose knows that stopping Christian won’t be easy. She needs the ectoplasm of seven ghosts to do it but fortunately Martin has a talent of his own – ghosts can easily possess him, after which he ends up vomiting up (literally) ectoplasm. Unfortunately, the blood moon is approaching and the sacrifice is nigh. Can Rose and Martin figure out a way to save Sarah and also the world?

The Irish are nothing if not charming and this movie has oodles of that. Higgins is extremely likable as is Ward; they make a cute if awkward couple. Ahern and Loughman, who in addition to co-directing the film also co-wrote the screenplay, never let the horror elements (and there are some) overwhelm the comedy, nor do they let the humor go too over-the-top. This is about as laid back as a movie gets.

The special effects are pretty rudimentary although the appearance of Astaroth near the end of the movie is cleverly done. While the movie loses its momentum in the middle section, it grabs it back once Martin and Rose start tracking down ghosts. Ward gets a chance to show off his chops, taking on the persona of the ghost each time he’s possessed, often to hilarious effect. One of my favorite bits of business is that whenever his late wife Bonnie resides in him, an unlit cigarette dangles from his lips as it did with her while she was alive. How did it get there? Who cares, it works!

And that sums up how I feel about the movie. There’s a specific mythology that the movie builds as it goes along, but don’t be intimidated; it makes good sense and the background is accessed in painless ways, often by showing clips from Vincent’s low-budget show. This film is pleasant, inoffensive and should elicit a smile from all but the most jaded of filmgoers. In an age of pandemics, politics and climate change, heaven knows we can all use a bit of inoffensive pleasantness.

REASONS TO SEE: A very droll sense of humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Drags a little bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a bit of sexuality, horror violence and some gross images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Higgins, who plays a driving instructor, didn’t know how to drive before filming started.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost Team
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Workforce

In the Tall Grass


The tall grass can hide almost anything.

(2019) Horror (NetflixPatrick Wilson, Harrison Gilbertson, Will Buie, Jr., Laysla De Olveira, Avery Whitted, Rachel Wilson, Tiffany Helm. Directed by Vincenzo Natali

 

In the endless prairie, the grass can grow higher than, as the song goes, an elephant’s eye. There is something idyllic about tall waving grass on a sweet summer day. The tall grass can hide all manner of things, whether it be children playing hide and seek, couples coupling or something far more sinister.

From Stephen King and his chip-off-the-old-block-of-radioactive-meteorite-that-turns-people-into-killer-mutants son Joe Hill comes hits made-for-Netflix terror opus (which kicked off four straight weeks of original horror movies released each Friday in October). Siblings Cal (Whitted) and his very pregnant sister Becky (De Olveira) pull over to the side of a country road on the way to California (why don’t people ever stick to the interstate in horror movies?) so that she can wrestle with a bout of morning sickness. That’s when they hear a child’s voice calling for help. He can communicate with them, moaning that he’s been lost in the grass for days. Against their better judgment, the two siblings go in – and promptly get lost themselves.

While there they run into Tobin (Buie), the lost kid and eventually his parents the high-strung Ross (P. Wilson) and Natalie (R. Wilson). They also eventually run into Travis (Gilbertson), Becky’s baby daddy whom Cal absolutely loathes and who followed them when they missed a meeting with the prospective adoptive parents of her unborn child. As it turns out, time doesn’t work the same way in the tall grass. And it shifts in physical space as well. Except, as Tobin notes, “it doesn’t move dead things” and soon enough, there are plenty of those about as well.

From simple concepts comes better horror; King has understood this throughout his amazing career and the concept here is fairly simple, although the “rules” of the tall grass tend to get a bit obfuscated the longer the film goes. The first third of the movie however is deliciously creepy and veteran horror director Natali (Cube, Splice) keeps the suspense taut until near the end where things fall apart a bit.

There is some nifty CGI grass effects and less-nifty CGI blood effects and at the center of it all is a stone monolith – isn’t that always the case – that is a MacGuffin that never gets fully explained but then again doesn’t really need it. The film might have benefitted by less connection to the main characters – a sense that this thing has been there a really long time doesn’t really exist, and maybe evidence of pioneers and Native Americans who also found themselves wandering endlessly in the tall grass might have given the film a bit more grounding. However, this is a solid if unspectacular adaptation of the Master’s material and certainly a worthy addition to anyone’s spooky playlist whether at Halloween or just in the mood for a little fear fare.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably suspenseful throughout. Some pretty cool CGI grass effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam about half way through the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, disturbing images, situations of terror and some brief sexual violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Patrick and Rachel Wilson, who play husband and wife in the film, have the same last name although they are not related.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews: Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Children of the Corn
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Rabid (2019)

How It Ends


Theo James gets a glimpse of how it ends.

(2018) Action (Netflix) Theo James, Forest Whitaker, Grace Dove, Kat Graham, Nicole Ari Parker, Mark O’Brien, Kerry Bishé, Aaron Hughes, Lanie McAuley, Josh Cruddas, Aidan Ritchie, Eric Keenleyside, RJ Fetherstonhaugh, Nancy Sorel, Storm Greyeyes, Haig Sutherland, Cory Chetrybok, David Lewis, Charis Ann Wiens, Juliette Hitchcock, Anett Rumanoczky. Directed by David M. Rosenthal

 

How will the world end? Will it go out with a bang or a thud? What will become of those who survive? These are questions that people have wondered about since…well, since there have been people. The movies wonder about it too, offering generally special effects-heavy looks at nuclear holocaust, approaching meteors, deadly plagues and so on and so forth. Sometimes the end of the world is the sound of the power being switched off.

Will (James) is a lawyer in Seattle whose girlfriend Samantha (Graham) is pregnant. They want to get married; she wants him to, in the best traditional sense, ask her father for her hand in marriage. That’s not something Will is especially looking forward to as Sam’s dad Tom (Whitaker) is a very conservative ex-Marine who doesn’t look with much favor upon Will who moved his baby girl all the way to Seattle and worse yet crashed his boat.

The meeting between potential father-in-law and son-in-law goes awkwardly and then falls apart. Will is about to head back home to Seattle and calls Sam to let her know he’s on his way when the phone call is abruptly cut off with Sam uttering a disturbing “Something’s wrong! I’m scared…” before the connection goes dead. Then the power goes off in Chicago and pretty much everywhere.

Tom, being a man of action, determines to drive to Seattle since air traffic is grounded. He gets Will to go with him, reluctantly at first. What they encounter in America’s heartland is nothing short of disturbing, with civilization falling apart, roaming bandits murdering and stealing with impunity and signs that the military has attempted to regain control unsuccessfully. The two manage to get Native American auto mechanic Ricki (Dove) to accompany them West in hopes that she can make it to California. Seattle’s in that general direction after all.

While this movie is beautifully shot (thank you cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg!) it feels like you’ve seen this movie before in a dozen disaster end of civilization films that have come before it. I don’t mind a movie borrowing ideas from other movies – after all, as Shakespeare once said, there is nothing new under the sun – but a movie needs to add something, something that at least reflects a point of view. At first, I thought that would be the relationship between Will and Tom which seems to be at the center of the film. And yes, Whitaker and James both put forth some fine performances which you would expect from Whitaker but James delivers what I think is his best performance so far. The problem is that the chemistry between the two is often cold; there should be more heat between them. After all, Tom neither likes nor trusts Will but grudgingly realizes he needs him if he is to save his baby girl – assuming she’s still around to be saved

There’s just too much typical post-apocalyptic cliché here, with people turning into selfish monsters willing to kill for anything that would allow them to survive for one day longer. There are signs that it didn’t all totally go tumbling down the drain – a small town which has essentially cut itself off from the chaos around it but one gets the sense they probably won’t be able to stand too long intact.

And I have to talk about the ending. I won’t reveal too much about it, only that it’s godawful and abrupt  You are left looking at whomever you are watching the movie with and wondering aloud “Why did I just watch this if that’s all there is?” Of course, you might ask the same question if viewing alone but the answer is likely to be you throwing your TV (or laptop) across the room in frustration. The moral is, don’t watch this alone.

That’s not to say that this is all bad; there are some poignant moments and Dove’s character Ricki actually has some memorable scenes but it gets lost a bit in the march to lawlessness. I think we all get that civilization is a terrifyingly thin veneer and that it won’t take much to strip it completely away. It just gets tiresome to see that concept being demonstrated over and over again with the characters refusing to learn that lesson along the way.

REASONS TO GO: Whitaker is as mesmerizing as always and James delivers his best performance to date.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace is a bit slow and the ending a bit abrupt.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to be directed by Chang-dong Lee since Shi in 2010.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews: Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: On the Beach
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Solo: A Star Wars Story

The Man Who Invented Christmas


God bless us every one? Bah, humbug!

(2017) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Anna Murphy, Justin Edwards, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Ger Ryan, Ian McNeice, Bill Patterson, Donald Sumpter, Miles Jupp, Cosimo Fusco, Annette Badland, Eddie Jackson, Sean Duggan, Degnan Geraghty, David McSavage, Valeria Bandino. Directed by Bharat Nalluri

 

One of the most beloved and most adapted stories of all time is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. What some folks might not know is that Dickens wrote, had illustrated and self-published the work in an amazing (for the era) six weeks. It was a massive hit on the heels of three straight flops which had begun to lead the publishing world to question whether he was the real thing or a flash in the pan. He was on the verge of financial ruin when Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim and company rescued him.

As we meet Dickens (Stevens) the financial pressures have become overwhelming. He and his wife Kate (Clark) are undergoing an expensive renovation of their home complete with plenty of Italian marble; the last three books after the unquestioned success of Oliver Twist have under-performed and his friend/manager John Forster (Edwards) tells him that his publishers are clamoring for a success and an advance is out of the question.

A story told to his children by Irish maid Brigid (Murphy) gives Dickens the idea of a Christmas-set ghost story but he is in the throes of an anxiety-fueled writer’s block that is threatening his entire career. A chance meeting with a grumpy old man gives him the idea of a miser at the center of the story and once he comes up with the name for the character – Ebeneezer Scrooge (Plummer) – he materializes and starts to argue with Dickens on the direction of the book. People who surround Dickens start to become various characters in the novella; a lawyer becomes Marley (Sumpter), a nephew becomes Tiny Tim, a couple dancing in the festive streets of London become the Fezziwigs and so on.

To make matters worse, Dickens’ spendthrift father John (Pryce) and mother (Ryan) drop by for an extended stay. Dickens and his father have a strained relationship at best and the constant interruptions begin to fray the author’s nerves. Worse still, the novella is needed in time for Christmas which gives him a scant six weeks to write and arrange for illustration of the book with one of England’s premier artists (Callow). Kate is beginning to be concerned that all the pressure is getting to her husband who is at turns irritable and angry, then kind and compassionate. She senses that he is going to break if something isn’t done and time is running out.

I have to admit I didn’t have very high expectations for this film. I had a feeling it was going to be something of a Hallmark movie and for the first thirty minutes of the film I was right on target. However a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the movie: it got better. A lot better, as a matter of fact. The movie turns out to be extremely entertaining and heartwarming in a non-treacly way.

Stevens, one of the stars that emerged from Downton Abbey, does a credible job with Dickens although at times he seems unsure of what direction to take him. Plummer could do Scrooge in his sleep if need be but gives the character the requisite grumpiness and a delightful venal side that makes one  think that Plummer would be magnificent in a straight presentation of the story.

This is based on a non-fiction book of the same title that I have a feeling is more close to what actually occurred than this is, but one of the things that captured my attention was the dynamic between father and son. Certainly Dickens was scarred by his father’s imprisonment in a debtor’s prison when he was 12, forcing him to work in a horrific shoe black factory and from which much of his passion for social justice was born.

The entourage of characters from the story that follow Dickens around is delightful. Of course, the movie shows Dickens getting an attitude adjustment and growing closer to his family thanks to his writing of the novella and who knows how accurate that truly is but one likes to believe that someone who helped make Christmas what it is today got the kind of faith in family and humanity that he inspired in others.

This has the feeling of a future holiday perennial. The kids will love the whimsical characters that not only inform the characters in the story but fire up Dickens’ imagination; the adults will appreciate the family dynamics and all will love the ending which is just about perfect. This is the kind of Christmas movie that reminds us that we are all “fellow passengers on the way to the grave” as Dickens puts it and the kind of Christmas movie that Hollywood shies away from lately. I truly wish they would get back to making movies like this one.

REASONS TO GO: A thoroughly entertaining and truly heartwarming film.  The portrayal of the relationship between Dickens and his father is intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Starts off slowly but after the first thirty minutes or so improves greatly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as adult themes in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The majority of the cast are trained Shakespearean actors, many of whom have appeared in a variety of adaptations of Dickens’ work through the years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Big Sick

Blue Jay


What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

(2016) Romance (The Orchard/Netflix) Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson, Clu Gulager, James Andrews, Harris Benbury, Daniel Brooks, Mary Brooks, Bill Greer, Cindy Greer, Ana Iovine, Leo Munoz, Loretta Munoz, Brady Rice, Karen Rice. Directed by Alexandre Lehmann

 

The romances of our youth are often the ones that burn the brightest in our memories. Who among us hasn’t wondered “what if” in regards to what might have  been if the relationship had survived past adolescence?

Jim Henderson (Duplass) is back in the small California town in the Sierra Nevada range where he grew up. He’s there because his mom recently passed away and he’s getting her home ready to go on the market, emptying it of her things….his things too. His mom was something of a pack rat. There’s a melancholy to Jim that isn’t all grief; his eyes have the disappointed look of a man whose life has gotten away from him.

At the grocery store to pick up some condiments for his meager dinner, he runs into Amanda, his old high school sweetheart. At first they don’t recognize each other – it was 20 years ago, after all – but then the memories begin flooding back. They agree to meet for coffee in the Blue Jay Café where they hung out as teens. Although the coffee is terrible, they begin to bond and agree to spend the rest of the day together.

They end up at Jim’s house – well, his mom’s – and while going through her things they find old photos, audio cassettes of them rapping and of play-acting their 20th anniversary (do teens really do that?) and she finds his journal, reading poems he wrote about his feelings for her ages past. The two dance to songs long forgotten but now freshly remembered. They watch the stars…and the married Amanda, in town to visit her pregnant sister, is now not so sure. She is a mother and a wife and has a satisfactory life…or does she really?

Jim is a drywall installer in Tucson now and unmarried. Never married, in fact. But he is finding that his life is changing; there’s an opportunity for a fresh start. But there was a reason the two broke up in the first place. The secret of that break-up and what has been hanging over the both of them all those years is just below the surface, ready to get out at a moment’s notice.

This little indie took me by surprise. I’m a fan of both Duplass (who wrote the script) and Paulson, so I thought it would be pretty good but considering the simple concept I found this to be one of the best-written scripts so far this year. This is a movie that is built in layers; as layers are added, they simultaneously reveal what’s inside. It’s a breathtaking job of script construction and every bit of it feels note-perfect.

Some might find the black and white cinematography off-putting and in fact early on I thought it was a bit pretentious. It looks like a beautiful little mountain town and surrounding areas that they filmed in; it’s a shame they didn’t use the colors of the mountain to their advantage but I also get the sense that they were going for a kind of retro feel, It is no accident that the longer Jim and Amanda spend together, the more they revert to adolescent behavior, dancing wildly and re-enacting their 20th anniversary dinner from the tape they heard.

I was reminded of Thomas Hardy a little bit here. He famously wrote “You can’t go home again,” but he wasn’t just referring to a place. What I believe he meant was that you cannot return to a life and time already lived, as much as you would like to. It is a melancholy truth, one few of us admit to ourselves. Deep down we always believe that we can recreate the magic of our youth but it really amounts to catching lightning in a bottle. The best we can do is make new magic instead.

The ending is bittersweet but absolutely appropriate and the big reveal is a secret so organic you just feel everything that went before it fall into place like dominoes. Again, a sign of masterful writing. This is a gem of a movie that is likely to bring back memories of your own – assuming you’re not making some new ones with the person you’re seeing this with.

REASONS TO GO: Possibly the best-written film of the year so far. The performances Duplass and Paulson are epic. A wonderfully insightful and bittersweet film without an ounce of contrivance to it.
REASONS TO STAY: The black and white cinematography is a bit pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was shot in just seven days.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Sunset
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The White Helmets

Train to Busan (Busanhaeng)


Commuters and zombies and trains, oh my!

Commuters and zombies and trains, oh my!

(2016) Horror (Well Go USA) Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jeong, Dong-seok Ma, Woo-sik Choi, Ahn So-hee, Eui-sung Kim, Gwi-ha Choi, Jang Hyuk-Jin, Seok-yong Jeong, Chang Hwan Kim, Myong-sin Park, Eun-kyung Shim, Soo-jung Ye. Directed by Sang-ho Yeon

 

I have always loved trains. It’s a nice way to travel; just watch the countryside pass by or engage with your fellow passengers. I find the sound of the clackety-clack of the rails soothing. However, the trouble with trains is that you are locked on board with your fellow passengers.

Seok Woo (Gong) is a workaholic hedge fund manager whose wife has walked out. He has custody of their cute little daughter Soo-an (Kim) and she’s caught in the middle of their bickering. It is the little girl’s birthday and daddy remembers to buy her a gift…a Nintendo which she already has. Soo-an wants to visit her mommy who lives in Busan (Daddy works out of Seoul) and she figures she can take the train by herself. Seok refuses to allow that and insists on accompanying her. He’s incredibly busy at work with one of his prize biotech stocks beset by what appears to be a massive worker’s strike but when his daughter insists, he reluctantly agrees to go with her to Busan.

Meanwhile, the last person on the train is a young woman with a strange bite mark on her leg. She is clearly terrified and soon has a seizure and apparently dies as a conductor frantically calls for help. Then the dead passenger suddenly returns to life and attacks the conductor and the two begin spreading the disease through the cabin like wildfire.

It turns out that there is a disease that has spread from a leak at the bio-engineering company that Seok Woo has been championing in his hedge fund. That leak is turning people into zombies and not the slow-moving zombies of George Romero; these zombies turn from human to zombie in seconds and they are fast as blazes, faster than the humans in the train. Darkness confuses them (they only react to humans they can see) and they behave and move in herds. As the number of humans on the train dwindle and civilization crumbling outside the train, is there any hope for those left on board the train that haven’t been turned into zombies?

I would characterize this as a cross between The Walking Dead, World War Z and Snowpiercer. You get the swarming zombies who sometimes pile up on top of each other like ants, but you also get the individual zombies that are ravenous and milky-eyed. The zombies are fast and deadly and as the movie goes on, they get even more dangerous.

This is definitely an action-oriented horror movie. There is some gore but they don’t really linger on it. There’s far more running, chasing, fighting and hiding going on than actual zombie battles, although there is some of that. Mostly, there is some social commentary which puts a cowardly businessman as the bad guy, taking over from Seok Woo himself who initially is selfish and sociopathic, although his love for his daughter and his desire to protect her changes him over the course of the movie. I wouldn’t have minded keeping Seok as the bad guy throughout, having one of those rare instances of the same character being both hero and villain.

We’ve seen a lot of zombie movies and zombie TV shows and it’s no secret that Walking Dead is the most popular show on television right now, but that’s mainly because it’s not about the zombies; it’s about the relationships and it’s about surviving in a world that has been obliterated. This ranks right up there among the best of them. The storyline is plausible and even though there are some cliches that begin to cycle in towards the end, it still kicks ass. After all, what more do you really want out of a zombie flick?

REASONS TO GO: Quite a roller coaster ride, if you like that sort of thing. Irreverent without sinking into satire. A bit of social commentary is sprinkled in.
REASONS TO STAY: A few horror movie cliches can be found, particularly in the third act.
FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of zombie violence and gore, a bit of foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first live action film for Sang-ho Yeon who had previously only made animated features.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snowpiercer
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Dheepan

Tomboy


What determines sexual identity?

What determines sexual identity?

(2009) Drama (Rocket/Dada) Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, Mathieu Demy, Rayan Bouberki, Yohan Vero, Noah Vero, Cheyenne Lainé, Christel Baras, Valérie Roucher. Directed by Céline Sciamma

Sexuality is a complicated thing, particularly now. Our gender identification itself isn’t always what we’re born with; what really determines who we are sexually is what we feel inside.

Laure (Héran) is the older daughter in a young family that moves into an idyllic French suburb one summer. Her younger sister Jeanne (Lévana) adores her; her father (Demy) is kind and loving, her mother (Cattani) expecting a baby in the fall. It’s a wonderful family environment, the kind we all wish we had and all admire.

Laure wears her hair cropped short and could be taken for a boy. In fact, when one of the neighborhood girls, Lisa (Disson) sees Laure, she does just that. Laure plays along, introducing herself as Mikael (or Mickäel as it is spelled in the credits, although not in the subtitles). At first, it’s mainly so she can play with the boys who seem to be having the most fun.

As the summer wears on, Laure’s deception grows deeper and Lisa and her begin to get closer. Lisa kisses her one afternoon and that just seems to intrigue Laure. She takes great pains to conceal her secret, creating a fake penis to put into her swimsuit to make it appear like she has one. When Jeanne discovers what Laure is up to, she kind of likes the idea of having a big brother to protect her. However, school is approaching and Laure won’t be able to keep her secret forever. But is the truth that Laure is not playing a boy but is one inside?

This is a deceptively simple film that Sciamma wisely leaves very open to interpretation. Some critics and viewers immediately describe Laure as transgender or lesbian, but she just as easily could be experimenting. The thing is, we don’t know for sure because Sciamma deliberately keeps Laure’s thoughts to herself. The point is, it is for Laure to determine her sexual identity, certainly not for us as critics and even not for the viewers, although you will simply because that is our nature to assign roles to people.

Héran is an amazing find as an actress. She’s not so much androgynous as she is a blank canvas and everyone who sees her projects their own interpretation onto that canvas. When she wears a dress, she looks very feminine. When she’s in a wife beater and shorts, she looks very masculine. And for a young actress, she shows an amazing willingness to take chances. She’s the center of the movie and everyone reacts to her; she provides a fine means of delivering emotions and thoughts.

The loving family atmosphere might seem a little bit unrealistic to some; there seems to be absolutely no disharmony early on in the film. We do get an intimate look at the family, not just in a sexual sense (although it is never overtly said, it is clear that husband and wife are very affectionate with each other physically) but just in private moments with one another. We see the family dynamic at work and working well and there’s some comfort in that.

The pacing is slow, like an ideal childhood summer day. Some might find it too slow but that’s part of the movie’s charm; it takes its time to arrive at where it’s going and when it gets there, you get to decide where you are. That’s the genius of European filmmakers is that they don’t feel obliged to spell everything out to their audience; they take it for granted in fact that they’re intelligent enough to fill in their own blanks.

This movie doesn’t take any easy shortcuts; it merely presents the events and lets the audience make the decision as to what they are seeing. Is Laure a transgender? Could be. Is she a lesbian? Could be, too. Is she simply trying to fit into a new neighborhood and got caught in a lie? Also could be. What the movie does is force us to examine our ideas of sexual identity and essentially, our rights to form our own conclusions about who we are sexually. That in itself is a powerful message that is all too rarely delivered in our judgmental society.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong performance by Héran. A compelling slice of life that examines sexual identity in a positive way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The very slow pace may put off American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild violence and language as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project came together extraordinarily fast; the script was completed in April 2010, Héran cast less than a month later, and the film was shot in 20 days in August.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.3M on a $1M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go, Hulu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Danish Girl
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Mustang

The Night Before


Kickin' it, old school.

Kickin’ it, old school.

(2015) Holiday Comedy (Columbia) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon, Heléne Yorke, Ilana Glazer, Aaron Hill, Tracy Morgan, Darrie Lawrence, Nathan Fielder, James Franco, Miley Cyrus, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Baron Davis, Jason Jones, Jason Mantzoukas, Randall Park, Mindy Kaling, Lorraine Toussaint, Theodora Woolley. Directed by Jonathan Levine

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas traditions, established when we are young, can sometimes last a lifetime but some of those traditions, particularly of the sort that most wouldn’t consider Christmas-y have a tendency to die out as we mature. When we reach a time in our lives in which we’re making a turning point into adulthood, traditions of all sorts change.

That seems to be happening for a trio of friends who have gone out every Christmas Eve ever since the funeral of Ethan’s (Gordon-Levitt) parents in 2001 when they died in a tragic car accident. His good friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) took Ethan out partying that night to get his mind off his grief, and it became a tradition of sorts; going to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, hanging out in their favorite karaoke bar (and doing a killer rendition of ”Christmas in Hollis”) and searching for the legendary Nutcracka Ball, the Holy Grail of Christmas parties in New York.

Being that this is a Seth Rogen movie, there are also copious amounts of drugs, supplied in this case by Isaac’s wife Betsy (Bell), a good Catholic girl who is days away from giving birth and wants to reward her husband for having been “her rock” throughout the pregnancy by allowing him to have a good time with his buddies, no questions asked.

All three of the boys are on the cusp of becoming men as they hit their thirties; Isaac about to be a dad, Chris – now a pro football player – having the best season of his career although it is suspiciously late in said career….well, that leaves Ethan who is still struggling with adulthood. His failure to commit has cost him his longtime girlfriend Diana (Caplan) whom he runs into at the karaoke bar, partying with her friend Sarah (Kaling). While serving canapés dressed as an elf at a hoity toity Manhattan party, he runs across tickets to the Ball – and knowing that this is their last hurrah, the three intend to send their traditions out with a big bang.

There are celebrity cameos galore, including Rogen’s bromance buddy James Franco, playing himself (and Sarah’s date) sending dick pics to Sarah which Isaac gets to see since the two accidentally switched phones; Michael Shannon plays Mr. Green, a mysterious drug dealer who might be a whole lot more than he seems; former Daily Show regular Jason Jones also shows up as a semi-inebriated Santa who appears at a particularly low point in the evening for Ethan.

The movie is surprisingly heartwarming, and while allusion to Christmas tales like A Christmas Carol and Die Hard abound, this is definitely a Rogen movie (his regular writing partner Evan Goldberg is one of the four writers on the project) although to be fair, Isaac is more of a supporting character to Ethan who is the focus here.

The chemistry between the three leads is solid and you can believe their friendship is strong. Levine wisely uses the comedy to serve the story rather than the other way around which most comedies these days seem to do; there are some genuinely funny moments as the night becomes more and more surreal (it’s also nice to hear Tracy Morgan narrating and make a late onscreen appearance). Of course, being a Seth Rogen movie (as we’ve mentioned) the drug humor tends to go a little bit over-the-top and those who think Cheech and Chong are vulgar are likely to find this one so as well.

The good news is that the performances here are solid and the likeability of Gordon-Levitt gives the movie a whole lot of cred since the characters on the surface aren’t terribly likable. Hanging out with the immature can make for a trying cinematic experience but fortunately the fact that all three of the actors here are so genuinely likable and charismatic saves the movie from being a drudge and actually elevates it into maybe not Christmas classic status, but certainly a movie that might generate some holiday traditions of its own.

REASONS TO GO: Really, really funny. Some nice performances by Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Shannon.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes the drug humor.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of drug humor, lots of profanity, some graphic nudity and a good deal of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and director Levine all worked together in the film 50/50.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knocked Up
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Star Wars: The Force Awakens