The Laureate


Robert Graves has more than Claudius on his mind.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Gravitas) Laura Haddock, Dianna Agron, Tom Hughes, Fra Fee, Julian Glover, Patricia Hodge, Timothy Renouf, Christien Anholt, Indica Watson, Edwin Thomas, Meriel Hinsching, Edward Bennett, Paulette P. Williams, Orlando James, Jamie Newall, Dee Pearce, Daniel Drummond, Ruth Keeling. Directed by William Nunez

 

Robert Graves was one of the greatest writers in England during the Twentieth century. He was renowned for writing classic historical novels (most notably, I, Claudius) but also for being a noted translator of ancient texts and a lauded poet as well.

But in the latter part of the Jazz age, in 1928, Graves (Hughes) was a man suffering from severe PTSD that was a leftover from the First World War (he was wounded so gravely at the Battle of the Somme that he was listed as dead, although he obviously clearly astonished the expectations of the field surgeons and survived). Suffering from writer’s block, he is cheered on by his wife Nancy Nicholson (Haddock), a progressive woman for her time. He is also adored by his daughter Catherine (Watson) who is still young enough to worship her parents.

But when Graves reads the poetry of American Laura Riding (Agron), he feels a kinship between them. Nancy suggests that they invite the American to their rural cottage World’s End to live with them, and Laura accepts.

At first, things seem to be going well. Laura awakens the muse in Graves. Catherine adores her and Nancy embraces her as a sister. But soon, things take a turn for the sexual. Owing to Roberts’ condition, the sex life between the couple has been on hold an Laura at first seems happy to see to Nancy’s needs. But then she sees to Robert, and soon they are not just a couple, but a trinity. And when Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs (Fee) is added to the mix, jealousy begins to rear its ugly head, leading to tragedy…and scandal.

The films is a fictional take on an actual historical incident, and while there are some liberties taken with the facts (although Graves is depicted as suffering from writer’s block, it was nonetheless one of his most fertile periods as a poet) the main parts of the story are pretty much as seen here.

Like many British films, the style is very mannered, so much so that I was reminded of the Merchant-Ivory films of the Nineties – fortunately, in a good way. It helps that the three main leads – Haddock, Hughes and Agron – are extremely capable and turn in thrilling performances here. That’s a good thing because they do get the lion’s share of the screen time, although Fee when he turns up about two thirds of the way into the film, is also mesmerizing.

Part of the problem is that other than Graves, most of the character here are given little depth. The depiction of his PTSD can be a little bit over-the-top but considering the horror he lived through it is quite understandable. Riding is depicted as being severely narcissistic and manipulative, which seems to be a bit one-sided, as contemporary accounts of her also paint her as delightfully humorous and self-deprecating. In fact, humor is sorely lacking in the film overall; anyone who has ever read Graves will tell you that the man has a singular wit and an affection for the absurd.

It is somewhat ironic that the movie, in portraying a pair of women who were for their day quite progressive, doesn’t deign to give them much character development. I would have liked to have gotten to know Nicholson better; she seems to have had the patience of a saint here, and she most certainly had artistic ambitions of her own, many of which came to fruition after she divorced Graves.

In that sense the film might be deemed disappointing and I suspect lovers of Graves will probably be the ones most caught in disappointment, but it definitely has strong points that far outweigh the weak. The complex relationships between the three (and later, four) participants are interesting, and the production values are actually quite solid for a film that had a relatively small budget. And Agron gives a tremendous performance here, one that cinema buffs won’t want to miss. All in all, a very strong film to start out the new year.

REASONS TO SEE: A portrait of a deeply wounded soul preyed upon by a deeply narcissistic woman. Strong performances from the three leads. Recalls the Merchant-Ivory films of the 90s in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The characterizations are paid scant attention to, particularly in the case of the women.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality, adult themes and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although only one child is shown here, Graves and Nicholson actually had four children during the period the movie covers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Agatha
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
What Do We See When We Look Up At the Sky?

Halloween Kills


For Michael Myers, Hell is home.

(2021) Horror (Blumhouse) Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Airon Armstrong, Will Patton, Thomas Mann, Jim Cummings, Dylan Arnold, Robert Longstreet, Anthony Michael Hall, Charles Cyphers, Scott MacArthur, Michael McDonald, Ross Bacon, Kyle Richards, Nancy Stephens, Diva Tyler. Directed by David Gordon Green

 

Of the iconic screen horror slashers, only Leatherface predates Michael Myers, who made his first appearance in the 1978 classic Halloween. Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Chucky and Jigsaw all followed in his bootsteps. But forty years have elapsed since his first appearance and Michael is getting a bit long in the tooth, right?

The movie picks up immediately where 2018’s acclaimed reboot left off. Michael (Courtney) has been left to die in the basement of a burning house. Laurie Strode (Curtis), his sister and the babysitter he went after back in 1978, is being rushed to the hospital with abdominal stab wounds. Officer Hawkins (Patton) is on his way there, bleeding from a stab wound in the neck.

But as firefighters battle the blaze, they discover the one cardinal rule of any horror franchise; the killer isn’t quite dead yet. Michael emerges from the flames and immediately takes out a fire brigade, then exits stage left to commit more mayhem, ostensibly to people both random and convenient. He does have a bit of a plan – to go to his old house, currently occupied by gay couple Big John (MacArthur) and Little John (McDonald) who have tastefully decorated the old homestead which means they are due to be shish kabobbed.

At a Haddonfield bar, Tommy Doyle (Hall) shares his recollections of that fateful night. He was the boy Laurie was babysitting, and the night has left him scarred for life. So he doesn’t react well when the news arrives that Michael is still on the loose. Tommy organizes a lynch mob and leads them into the streets to find Michael, chanting ‘Evil dies tonight,” which makes a mighty fine tagline for a movie poster. It turns out to be the most incompetent mob in history, although I do wonder if there’s any such thing as a “competent mob.”

While Laurie’s daughter Karen (Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Matichak) fret over telling Laurie that the boogeyman still lives, they both grieve for the departed in their own way (Greer has a particularly poignant scene early on in which she washes blood from her hands, scrubbing around her wedding ring). In the meantime, the body count grows and the mob howls for blood (although they occasionally seem to be pointed at the wrong Michael Myers), will a united mob be able to finally put Michael down…or will this Halloween continue unabated?

Well, considering there’s another sequel in the works for next October, I think you can do the math. This is clearly the middle chapter in a trilogy and it has a feel of non-resolution to it. The ending is supposed to be a bit of a shocker (and it is), but what precedes it is a series of kill scenes that really don’t show a ton of originality or flair, with few exceptions (one of the firemen gets eviscerated by his own saw). While Green’s 2018 reboot showed how the 1978 murders affected Strode and her family, the sequel expands to show how it affected all of Haddonfield. That’s admirable, and I think it provides a little social commentary at how deeply stressed out the country has become, but I don’t think that the mob is supposed to be a stand-in for the Capitol insurrection mob. That seems to be a bit of a stretch to me.

The problem with Halloween Kills is a lack of imagination. Forty-odd years on after John Carpenter yelled “action,” slasher movies have run their course and there isn’t a lot of ways to slice and dice a human body. It becomes predictable – and that’s the last thing you want a horror movie to be. Sure, there are plenty of kids who may be new to the genre who might be impressed, but I would be surprised if they hadn’t already seen the classic slasher films by this point and to be fair, this doesn’t compete well with them. It does have its moments, and Jamie Lee Curtis is always a welcome name on a marquee, but she really doesn’t get to do very much, leaving Greer, Patton, Matichak and Hall to do most of the heavy lifting and they do it with varying degrees of success.

So the long and the short of it is that Halloween Kills doesn’t measure up even to the 2018 predecessor. That’s a shame because I can see what the filmmakers were going for; they just didn’t quite get there.

REASONS TO SEE: A respectable attempt to provide some social commentary on the state of things, 2021.
REASONS TO AVOID: A real letdown after the 2018 reboot.
FAMILY VALUES: As you would expect, there’s a ton of violence (much of it gory), some grisly images, a fair amount of profanity and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With her appearance here as Laurie Strode (her sixth), Jamie Lee Curtis passes Donald Pleasance for the most appearances in the franchise as the same character – he appeared five times as Dr. Loomis. The Dr. Loomis who appears in the flashback sequences here is played by Tom Jones Jr., with the voice supplied by Colin Mahan. Pleasance passed away in 1995.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Peacock
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews; Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness, the Sequel!

The Surge at Mount Sinai


Front line health care workers battle COVID and exhaustion.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Jon Bon Jovi (narration), Jessica Montanaro, Larry Kelly, Mary Fowlkes, Mirna Mohanraj, Don Boyce, Rafael Miranda, Lynne D. Richardson, Gina Gandhi, Miriam Merat, Mohammed Khansa, Judith Aberg, Dawn Kelly, Carlos Cordon-Cudo, David L. Reich, Deep Patadia, Andre Cooper, Montano Soares, Veronica Colon, Melissa Nelson. Directed by Jonny Kapps

 

In the Spring of 2020, the United States got their first experience with COVID. The surge went from almost no cases to thousands a day in a matter of days. While there was some warning that the pandemic was coming, it still overwhelmed most hospitals and health-care workers as New York City became the epicenter for the epidemic; from March 11 through May 2, 18,879 New Yorkers died of the disease. That’s one death every five minutes. This documentary, though, reminds us that it isn’t just about those who died – it’s about those who lived, as well.

The Mount Sinai hospital system in New York City is one of the largest in the country and, indeed, in the world. The venerable institution had seen nothing like this since the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and essentially had to pivot on the fly and change strategies. Nurses, dealing with the majority of patient care, printed out brief summaries of the patients on their COVID ward doors so that the nurses could relate to those suffering from the disease as people rather than numbers, and given the staggering numbers they were seeing, it could be forgiven. They were dealing with frightened, sick people who needed comfort as much as they needed medicine and they received both.

We follow in the main a trio of health care professionals, including supernurse Jessica Montanaro, a married mom whose maternal instincts of caring for her patients was put to the test, but she managed to show a human face to all of her patients, including that of Dr. Mohammed Khansa, a colleague at the hospital who was stricken by the disease. Jessica played an instrumental role of keeping his spirits up and believing that he would beat the disease. That belief could mean the difference between life and death for some.

We hear all the time expressions of gratitude for our healthcare workers who served on the front lines against COVID but we really didn’t know exactly why until now. The sacrifices they made – physically, mentally and emotionally – the innovations that were made in giving care, the living with constantly trying to help people who would die anyway, we see the ravages of that to a certain extent and keep in mind this was filmed during that first spike – well before the fall/winter spike. You can bet that an awful lot of the people in this film are currently suffering from burnout and post-traumatic stress.

But you can also bet that most of them are still at it, still serving their patients as best they can. With the advent of the vaccines, things have gotten better, although given how many are choosing not to vaccinate, the rise of new, even more communicable variants and the knuckleheads who think that COVID is just another version of the flu, another surge could conceivably happen. And these are the people who will pay the price for it if it does.

I have to admit that I do have a perspective here; my mom was a registered nurse. She retired more than 20 years ago but had COVID struck back then, it would have been her in the thick of things, giving the kind of care that these nurses and health care workers did. And I’m thankful every day that she didn’t have to.

REASONS TO SEE: Even-handed portrayal of the heroic efforts of front-line healthcare workers. Personalizes COVID in a way few other docs have done. Moving and inspiring. Shows the real value of nurses in the healthcare system.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too soon for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was written and narrated by rock legend Jon Bon Jovi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 76 Days
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Stowaway

Those Who Wish Me Dead


Angelina Jolie is hotter than ever.

(2021) Action (New Line) Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Jon Bernthal, Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, Jake Weber, Medina Senghore, Tyler Perry, Boots Southerland, Tory Kittles, James Jordan, Lora Martinez-Cunningham, Howard Ferguson Jr., Ryan Jason Cook, Laura Niemi, Dylan Kenin, Faith Lynch, Alexander Wagerman, Mason Howell, Calvin Olson, Sofia Embid. Directed by Taylor Sheridan

 
I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of kids in peril movies. Too often Hollywood films that put children in the path of evil adults portray the kids unrealistically, either as much smarter than the adults that are after them, much braver than the adults around them, or much cooler than anyone in a similar situation would be. While kids do come in all shapes and sizes – and personality types, including heroic – Hollywood tends to idealize them in one way or another which can make an entire film ring false.

Forensic investigator Owen (Weber) discovers that the district attorney he works for has been killed in a freak gas explosion. He doesn’t believe it for a moment – after all, Owen discovered some disturbing information about some very powerful people. Realizing that the death was no accident, he gathers up his son Connor (Little) and makes a run for Montana, where his brother-in-law, Deputy Sheriff Ethan (Bernthal) might be able to help.

But there are a pair of vicious hired hitmen on their trail, Jack (Gillen) and Patrick (Hoult) and when they ambush and kill Owen, Connor gets away into the Montana woods. There he meets up with Hannah (Jolie), a smokejumper who is currently working in a fire tower after a mistake on her part led to the deaths of her crew, including several children they were in the process of rescuing. She has been covering up her pain with a surfeit of drinking and one-of-the-boys behaviors that have led to her being sent somewhere where she can get her head together. A fire tower is certainly a place where there isn’t much to distract you.

Unless it’s the sudden appearance of a young, terrified boy on the run from ruthless assassins who have set a raging out-of-control forest fire to literally smoke the boy out and keep the local law enforcement busy while they complete their nefarious task. Can Hannah’s survival skills help her protect Connor from the men who wish him dead?

In all honesty, I have to admit that while these types of pictures tend to not thrill me much, Little actually does a pretty fair job of playing the kid realistically; numb and terrified. However, he is overshadowed by the main stars – Jolie, in a return to the front of the camera (she has spent the last few years concentrating on her directorial efforts) reminds us that her star quality has never left. She continues to be absolute money in the bank when it comes to these sorts of physically demanding action roles. Few other actresses handle physically demanding roles as ably as she does.

And lest we forget Bernthal, the one-time Walking Dead baddie who has been on the cusp of being a big star for awhile. This role won’t push him over the edge in either direction, but he continues to be impressive. I’m hopeful that Marvel makes a new Punisher movie at some point with this guy; he deserves the kind of career push that kind of movie would give him.

The action sequences here tend to be pretty big and well-choreographed. That’s not the problem. The problem here is that the plot is just oh-so-predictable and while the characters are given some backstory, they feel kind of shoehorned into cookie cutter cliches of psychologically wounded leads 101. The roles never really feel authentic and the story never takes an unexpected turn. I’m not saying that moviemakers have to reinvent the wheel with every film – that’s simply not a realistic expectation – but this one is a bit too by-the-numbers for me to give it anything but a mild thumbs up.

The movie was one of those released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max; it is still out in some theaters but is no longer available on the streaming service at the present. It will be made available on most VOD services starting July 2nd and will be on HBO (and by extension, HBO Max) sometime later this year.

REASONS TO SEE: Jolie retains her star power and Bernthal continues to get better with every role.
REASONS TO AVOID: An utterly pedestrian plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sometimes brutal violence and profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicolas Cage was at one time considered for a role as one of the hitmen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now (effective July 2)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Professional
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer

Welcome Matt


Life is a beach.

(2021) Dramedy (Gravitas) Tahj Mowry, G.G. Townson, Jazsmin Lewis, Deon Cole, Adriyan Rae, Aaron Grady, Malik S, Phil Biedron, Andria B. Langston, Janelle Marie, Derrick A. King, Dorien Wilson, Johnny Marques, Bentley Kyle Evans, Ocean Glapion, Leon Pierce Jr., Kenry Hutchinson, Melvin Jackson Jr., David Beeks, Merlin White, Kristen Hurt, Rosetta Tate. Directed by Leon Pierce Jr.

 

During the pandemic, we have all had to face being cooped up inside. For some, that has translated into a fear of going back outside into the world, but as the vaccination process brings us closer to normalcy, it feels hard for many of us to walk out that door and resume our lives.

In Matt’s (Mowry) case, he has an extra built-in reason to stay inside; he’s agoraphobic. He is a young African-American filmmaker who found success with his first film, Life’s a Beach. However, a trauma that took place shortly after his film was released has put him in the throes of the phobia that has rendered him all but dysfunctional. Matt is busy trying to make a film in his apartment, but nobody is buying it. His girlfriend, Samantha (Rae), has grown tired of being home night after night – you can only Netflix and chill so much – and has begun fooling around with another man. Cedric (Grady), Matt’s production partner, has got an offer from the studio to do a sequel to their first film together, but Matt is in no shape to make

Angela (Lewis), his mom, is busy travelling around the world but she wants to see her son get healthy, so she arranges for a therapist to visit him at home. That therapist, Lisa (Townson), has issues of her own – she gets too emotionally involved easily – but she is willing to give it a a try, and while Matt is affable, he isn’t willing to talk about the things that really are bothering him, even though his life is falling to pieces – his girlfriend is gone, his landlord is threatening to foreclose and all anyone wants to see is a sequel to his last film. When he auditions actors for his in-apartment passion project, one of them (Biedron) threatens him with physical harm. No wonder he doesn’t want to go out into the big world.

There are the basics for a good movie here, starting with the lead. Mowry is an extremely likable actor who reminded me of a young Good Morning, Vietnam-era Forest Whitaker with Will Smith’s sly wink that lets the audience know that he’s in on the joke too. He’s very much the best thing about the movie, which is a good thing because he’s in every moment of it. Deon Cole is also impressive as a washed up standup comic who accidentally stumbles into Matt’s apartment and ends up writing his next movie and becoming a source of tough love.

There are a couple of drawbacks here. The humor doesn’t always connect; at times, the jokes feel kind of forced. That would be a lot more glaring if this were strictly a comedy, but the edge is blunted a bit because of the dramatic elements introduced by Matt’s mental illness. However, the agoraphobia isn’t treated realistically which left a bad taste in my mouth, particularly near the end of the movie when Matt finally gets around to discussing with Lisa the nature of the trauma that has kept him a virtual prisoner in his apartment – having panic attacks even when he has to take his trash out to the garbage can. That trauma is mentioned in an almost casual, offhand manner with almost no detail – and just like that, Matt is cured. It really doesn’t work that way – what Matt does is merely the first step in getting better, and the movie does a disservice in portraying Matt’s triumph over his own fear that way.

Still, if you can get past those things, the movie has a lot of charm, much of it due to Mowry, and was a bit of a pleasant surprise for me. It’s not getting a lot of coverage, so you might want to take a chance on this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Mowry is genuinely likable.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor is hit and miss.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual references and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director McCarthy makes a cameo appearance as a pizza delivery guy early in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fear, Love and Agoraphobia
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
City of Ali

Groomed


Gwen van de Pas listens to the point of view of a sexual predator.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Gwen van de Pas, Harriet Hofstode, Laurens, Oprah Winfrey, Andy Hudlak, Jim Tanner, Martijn Larsen, Raimondo, Nicole, Katy, Barbi, Asia, Keith, Dennis. Directed by Gwen van de Pas

 

When a sexual predator chooses a child to abuse, it isn’t a random choice. It is a matter of careful selection, picking someone who is vulnerable. He (for most sexual predators of children are male, although there are some women who follow the same pattern) will befriend them, buy them presents and make them feel special. He will win the trust of their family, who feel comfortable with the presence of an adult in their child’s life as a mentor or an authority figure or even a family member. When the selected child has been properly groomed, the attention grows physical.

For Gwen van de Pas, now a filmmaker living in San Francisco, her groomer was the assistant coach on the swim team that she participated. For the most part, her childhood in the Netherlands was idyllic; a loving family, a safe neighborhood, but she was bullied at school. She was unusually shy, making it hard for her to make friends. This set her up perfectly for her abuser.

She was eleven when she met her abuser and the abuse turned sexual not long after that, and lasted until she was fifteen. For the most part, because she felt the sex was consensual, she didn’t think twice about it. It was only when she and her boyfriend Laurens were discussing the possibility of having a family that she began to have nightmares about the abuse. She began to see a psychologist, Harriet Hofstode.

Deciding she needed to confront her past, she also wanted to tell her story through the medium she had studied and practiced; film. She assembled a team and talked to experts on psychology and sexual predators who taught her a word she wasn’t familiar with: grooming. She began to realize that this was exactly what happened to her.

She goes home to the Netherlands and discusses the event with her parents, with whom she had only talked about it once before. At the time, they had dissuaded her from going to the authorities; her mother explained by way of explanation that she was in a fragile emotional state and was talking about suicide. They were concerned that the process of investigation and trial might push her over the edge. In retrospect, her parents wondered if they had done the wrong thing, putting off dealing with the trauma and allowing their daughter’s suffering to last longer.

Gwen also speaks with other victims, both male and female, identified only with first names; one, abused by her own father. One, by a minister. One, by a priest. She also talked with a convicted but repentant sexual predator who gave her a predator’s eye-view. These interviews seem to be cathartic for all involved.

It is Gwen’s story that is the most personal and emotional. At times, we see Gwen, her father and her boyfriend break down as they relive the horrors of her past and the repercussions of those events. She also re-reads the letters sent by her abuser with an adult eye, getting physically sick as she realizes how she was taken in.

At first, she is sympathetic to the man who abused her as a “wounded soul,” and is loathe to ruin his life but as she discovers more about her abuse – and her abuser – her attitude changes and she realizes that these sorts of predators rarely stop at one victim.

This is a harrowing but important documentary that is raw emotionally and at times very difficult to watch – even if you haven’t been the victim of sexual abuse. Een in that case, you may want to have a hankie at the ready unless you are emotionally insulated to the point of being robotic. If you have a history of being abused, be aware that this might trigger something in you, and for those who have blotted out memories of childhood abuse this might bring them savagely back. You may want to have someone with you as a means of support if you choose to watch this.

I can’t help thinking/admiring the sheer bravery of Van de Pas. This certainly wasn’t easy for her and there are times when her raw emotion is overwhelming; at other times she is forced to comfort her father, who feels guilt at not having protected his baby girl. Those are moments that will stay with you forever, as well they should.

But you should watch this, particularly if you’re a parent or plan to be. Van de Pas is very methodical going through the warning signs and steps of grooming, and what you learn here might save your child, or someone near to you. Perhaps you might recognize the behavior of grooming in yourself, in which case you should seek help from a mental health professional immediately. Whatever your situation might be, this is an extraordinarily important documentary that just might save someone’s life and/or sanity down the road. That life might well be your own – or someone you love.

REASONS TO SEE: Emotionally powerful and wrenching. Important information for parents and teens alike. Van de Pas is unbelievably brave. Her confusion and anger are understandable and normal. Helps understand victim self-blaming.
REASONS TO AVOID: May trigger those who have been through childhood sexual abuse.
FAMILY VALUES: There are strong adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One in ten people have been sexually abused. 80% of them knew their attacker beforehand; nearly 100% of them went through the grooming process with their abuser.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunting Ground
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Godzilla vs. Kong

Happy Times (2019)


Dinner parties can be SOOO stressful…

(2019) Horror (Artsploitation) Liraz Chamami, Michael Aloni, Iris Bahr, Alon Pdut, Stéfi Celma, Guy Adler, Ido Mohr, Daniel Lavid, Shani Atlas, Sophia Santi, Mike Burstyn, Kevin Thomas, Rigo Obezo.  Directed by Michael Mayer

 

What could be more civilized than a gathering of friends and family for a dinner party? Breaking bread with those we care about is one of the nicer parts of being human, something many of us have been missing during the pandemic. However, one look at this dinner party and we might want to embrace social distancing to a much more restrictive degree.

Boorish businessman Yossi (Mohr) and his elegant trophy wife Sigal (Chamami) are Israeli ex-pats living in Southern California. They host a post-Sabbath dinner at their McMansion in the Hollywood Hills, sending the kids away with a heartfelt “Good riddance!” (now, there’s my kind of mom) giving the adults room to party.

Attending the party is Yossi’s business partner, contractor Ilan (Adler) and his girlfriend Noya (Atlas), business executive Avner (Pdut) and his wife Hila (Bahr) who gave up a law career to start a family, and cousin Maor (Lavid) who came stag. Aspiring  actor Michael (Aloni) – Sigal’s beloved cousin who is essentially maligned by the rest of the group – arrives  last with his African-American girlfriend Aliyah (Celma).

Soon, long-simmering resentments begin to leak to the surface and despite Sigal’s best efforts to keep everything sociable, the addition of  black sheep Michael who seems hell-bent on irritating absolutely everybody brings things to a boiling point. Buttons are pushed. Punches are thrown. People are knocked out. Dick pics are taken. Panties are stolen. Accusations are hurled. Bullets fly. Cops arrive. Cops leave. Things get much, much worse.

There is a ghoulish pleasure in watching a dinner party of snobby, shallow rich people turn into a Tarantino climax and you can almost feel Mayer’s glee at staging it. None of the characters onscreen (with the possible exceptions of Aliyah and the rabbi (Burstyn) who shows up in the third act) have any redeeming qualities at all. None of the relationships here seem to be healthy in any way, shape or form except for maybe Sigal and Michael in which there seems to be at least some genuine affection.

There’s a lot of dark humor here, with writers Guy Ayal and Mayer injecting commentary on the shallow nature of Hollywood elites as well as the macho posturing of Israeli men. Even Israeli women don’t go unscathed as the Israeli women here are largely pretty nasty pieces of work with plenty of repressed fury.

There is plenty of blood and carnage, although the murders aren’t particularly inventive. Then again, most of them are crimes of opportunity and passion. Someone gets pushed to the breaking point and grabs whatever is at hand, be it a heavy blunt object or an antique crossbow. Someone even gets stuffed into a kiln.

The mostly-Israeli actors are extremely strong here, with Chamami and Aloni getting the lions share of the moments to remember. However, Pdut has his own share of moments as the businessman hiding PTSD from his time in the compulsory Israeli military service. The movie, though, falls in between niches; it’s not really the kind of horror film that is going to invite raves in the horror film community, and it is a little bit too genre for the arthouse crowd. It also forces the audience to sit through about 45 minutes of a dinner party of unpleasant people before getting to the good stuff, which may try the patience of many. Still, the last half of the movie does move at a pretty good clip, so those who like their mayhem with a side of Jewish gestalt will get their money’s worth here.

REASONS TO SEE: Skewers both shallow Hollywood culture and macho Israeli ethos. A stellar dark comedy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a very long time to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence, gore and mayhem, plenty of profanity, some sexual situations and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Melder.“ from the HAM radio handle that Eva uses, is German for “reports.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Host
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bliss

Hearts and Bones (2019)


Getting the shot.

(2019) Drama (Gravitas) Hugo Weaving, Andrew Luri, Hayley McElhinney, Bolude Watson, Alan Dukes, Melanie De Ferranti, Toni Scanlan, Brandon Burke, Victoria Haralabidou, Fran Kelly, Karim Zreika, Michael Kotsohilis, Jamie Oxenbould, Danielle King, Antonia Puglisi, Aker Shagouk, Jack Scott, Lucy Doherty Nico Lathouris, Simon Melki, Teresa Zaidan, Ava Carofylis. Directed by Ben Lawrence

 

We live in times in which great horrors are visited upon the innocent. In places like South Sudan, Syria, Rwanda, Bosnia, Palestine, Venezuela, and elsewhere, civilians are caught in the crossfire of warring factions. It has gotten to the point where we no longer call photojournalists covering these atrocities “combat photographers” but “conflict photographers” because it is no longer a war, but something worse.

Dan Fisher (Weaving) is a much-admired “conflict photographer” who has been to every trouble spot around the globe in his distinguished career. After returning home to Sydney following a harrowing experience when he came upon the aftermath of an ambush, he is hanging on by a fingernail. He suffers from terrible nightmares; he has been away from home so much that he has resorted to putting a post-it note on his bedside lamp so that he knows where he is when he wakes up. On top of this, he found out that his partner Josie Avril (McElhinney) is pregnant. This does not go over well, as is explained later in the film. Dan is preparing to publish a book of his photographs, and an exhibition of his work is being presented by a local museum.

Through this he meets Sebastian (Luri), a cab driver from the South Sudan who has moved to Sydney with his wife Anishka (Watson) and infant daughter, with another baby on the way. Sebastian has come to view some photographs of a South Sudanese village where he once lived and where his family was butchered when the whole village was massacred.

Sebastian is asking for a lot; he wants to view the pictures, and then have them neither published nor exhibited. One can imagine the reasons for it; those photographs would bring up memories that would be painful. Sebastian also wants Dan to photograph the choir that he is a member of, the type of work that Dan doesn’t do.  But Sebastian has come at a bad time; Dan is in the midst of a panic attack and faints dead away. Sebastian picks him up and takes him to the hospital in his cab.

An unlikely friendship develops between the two men, who both harbor destructive secrets. Those secrets are threatening to tear both men apart, and destroy their lives and relationships. Maybe, though, they can help each other through the minefields of their past and find a future worth living in.

 

This Australian film has been the recipient of all sorts of honors back home, and is only just now making its way here. The movie tackles a lot of themes; how PTSD can occur in not just those who fight in a conflict, but the observers and recorders of it as well, and the difficulties faced by refugees trying to put together shattered lives, often in an environment is hostile to their even being there.

Weaving, the veteran actor best known in the U.S. for his work in high-profile franchises like the Matrix trilogy, the Lord of the Rings saga and the MCU, turns in one of the finest performances of his career, and that’s saying something. Dan is basically a good man haunted by all kinds of demons, some of which we get to see and others that remain hidden in the depths of his soul. Weaving gives Dan a kind of tortured dignity, never overplaying even when Dan is losing control of his emotional calm. It’s a brilliant and ultimately humane performance.

=Luri is a real find. A non-professional, he handles an emotionally wrenching role with the aplomb and confidence of a veteran, and gives a performance that rivals that of Weaving. Both men have excellent chemistry together, and for their characters, it is their wounds that bind them, which plays out in a fascinating way.

The movie is brutal at times on an emotional level; we are dealing with the kinds of pain in all four of the leads that are almost too much to bear, and yet people everywhere somehow manage to survive it, although not always. This is the kind of movie that has nothing subtle about it which is a double-sided shillelagh, The in-your-face nature of the emotional conflict means the viewer must confront that emotion head-on, which isn’t always easy for everyone. Those who have trauma of their own that they are dealing with may find this especially difficult.

Nonetheless, this is one of the finer movies of this peculiar cinematic year. Great acting, a mesmerizing story and earnest motives by the filmmaker make this a movie you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO SEE: Weaving and Luri turn in career-defining performances. Brutal on an emotional level. Effective throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: More of a blunt instrument than a surgical scalpel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, brief violence, adult themes and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Luri hadn’t acted before this film; when he was cast, he was working as a garbage collector.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The August Virgin

Out of the Fight


As American as appletinis.

(2020) Drama (GravitasRandy Wayne, Jordan Jude, Chris Mullinax, Judy Norton, Robert Miano, Carle Atwater, Corie Robinson, Lily Thomas, Ron Chevalier, Tisa Key, Michael Aaron Milligan, Jon-Paul Gates, Paul Sampson, Aaron Mitchell, Rob Wolfe, Beejan Land, Curtis Nichouls, Holdyn Barder, Christopher Heskey, David William Arnott, Russell Snipes, Talia Andrews. Directed by Steve Moon

It’s a familiar story as America continues to deal with the longest armed conflict in its history; soldiers are trained to go out into the field to defend….well, our way of life ostensibly, although I think most soldiers would be hard-pressed to say what our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq has to do with protecting the American way. Superman would weep. Politics aside, we send these young men and women out to fight and die, but those who survive are dumped back into civilian life, often in the grip of PTSD and barely able to cope with life back home.

Jason Pete (Wayne) has served three tours in Afghanistan and has returned home to a loving wife Emily (Jude) and a four-year-old daughter. His body is scarred with wounds received in service, but it is his mind that is more deeply wounded and less apparently so. The VA provices him with a psychiatrist (Norton) but the sessions don’t appear to give him much peace. He turns to drinking and pills to ease his inner pain, but it doesn’t help. A friendly local police officer (Mullinax) tries to guide him through, but will it be enough?

The movie makes us aware – if you weren’t already – that our vets are committing suicide in terrifying numbers. It doesn’t directly address the question, but certainly most of us will hbe thinking it – if we can afford to spend money on new tanks and planes and battleships we don’t need, why can’t we spend the money to give our servicemen and women the post-deployment care they need and deserve? It is truly a national scandal.

It is a truly worthy subject for a film, but the execution is a bit lacking. Much of this is due to the low budget, which is readily apparent in the action scenes. Filmed locally in Alabama with a local crew and cast, there is some inexperience showing in terms of on-camera performances, which tend to be a litte wooden. There are a few relatively well-known names in the cast, including former Waltons star Judy Norton as the psychiatrist (she also co-wrote the script with the director), and veteran character actor Robert Miano as Jason’s commanding officer, but while their performances are more relaxed, there are a number of performers who don’t look comfortable in front of the camera.

The filmmakers talked to more than fifty veterans and their families to get their impressions of how they coped with the return of warriors to civilian life; every one of them, it was reported, had served with someone who had killed themselves, attempted to or was dealing with severe PTSD. I assume they used some of those stories here, and to be truthful, there are some moments that are incredibly gripping and harrowing, but more often than not, this feels like other films on the subject that have dealt with the same topic. I’m wondering if the filmmakers might not have served the subject better by making a documentary and interviewing the various family members on-camera rather than create a drama around it; something tells me the real stories would be far more compelling than this.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers admirably turn their camera on a still very real and serious problem that has yet to be effectively addressed.
REASONS TO AVOID: Standard issue for the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Pete house in the film was demolished after filming was completed to make way for a new road.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: When I Came Home
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Team Marco

The Unfamiliar


Not destined to be a new dance craze anytime soon.

(2020) Horror (Vertical/Dark MatterJemma West, Christopher Dane, Rebecca Hanssen, Harry McMillan-Hunt, Rachel Lin, Tori Butler-Hart, Ben Lee, Guy Warren-Thomas, Beatrice Woolrych. Directed by Henk Pretorius

 

Unlike my wife, I love horror movies. I love a good scare, a terrifying creature, a malevolent poltergeist, a deliciously evil demon, a skilled slasher, whatever the case may be. I even love those psychological horror films where the main character may or may not be going insane. This is one of those.

Dr. Elizabeth “Izzy” Cormack (West) is recently returned to England from Afghanistan, where she was a British army medic. She returns, like many of her peers, loaded with PTSD, but she’s happy to be back in the bosom of her family – husband Ethan (Dane), a collect professor of anthropology, son Tommy (McMillan-Hunt) and daughter Emma (Hanssen). But, as with most horror movies, the idyllic homecoming doesn’t last.

Izzy notices that her family is acting a bit strange and distant. There are also pictures that fly off the wall of their own accord, and strange sounds during the night lead Izzy to believe that she’s either being driven mad by her post-traumatic stress, or there is something supernatural going on in her house. People who hear about her issues are wondering if she’s taking her pills. At last, Ethan decides to take his family on a vacation to Hawaii, where he first began studying the culture of Hawaiian myths. And if you think Hawaiian folk tales have anything to do with what’s going on with Izzy, well, you’d be right.

This might be the most mis-named horror movie in history because everything in the film is likely to feel familiar to anyone who has seen more than a few horror movies. From the jump scares to the creepy psychic to the haunted house tropes (although this isn’t strictly speaking a haunted house movie), there is nothing here that is terribly original. It IS nice that the hero here is a woman and an army veteran; she’s the one who takes the fore, directs the husband to stay with the kids and goes out to face down the villain herself. That’s a nice change.

But there’s little to no character development going on here. Sure, there are a few good scares, particularly in the final act, but for the most part this is ho-hum horror. With so many good horror movies out there (and more coming out all the time), it’s hard to give a movie like this much love. It isn’t that the movie is bad – it certainly is no worse than anything else out there – but it’s just more of the same. If that’s what floats your boat, then by all means give this one a shot.

REASONS TO SEE: Some pretty decent scares.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not particularly memorable.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of terror as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the death of Barry Kramer, the magazine went through a number of different hands; by the 21st century there were legal disputes as to the ownership of the CREEM name and archives. By 2017 the litigation had been settled with JJ Kramer (son of Barry and Connie) taking control of the brand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 17’% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hole in the Ground
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Epicentro