99 Homes


These days a man's home is the bank's castle.

These days a man’s home is the bank’s castle.

(2015) Drama (Broad Green) Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Clancy Brown, Tim Guinee, Nicole Barré, Yvonne Landry, Noah Lomax, J.D. Eyermore, Cullen Moss, Jordyn McDempsey, Ann Mahoney, Judd Lormand, Deneen Tyler, Donna Duplantier, Wayne Pére, Cynthia Santiago, Juan Gaspard, Nadiyah Skyy Taylor. Directed by Ramin Bahrani

It wasn’t that long ago that the economy tanked in the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Homes were being foreclosed upon at rates unheard of since the Great Depression. Families were displaced, the rich got richer and in essence nothing has changed since then other than the banks are being more circumspect somewhat, but none of the regulations that had kept this from happening before have been reinstated.

Taking place in 2010, the events in 99 Homes are said to have actually happened although I’m unclear whether they took place in the Orlando locale the film is set in. Dennis Nash (Garfield) is a construction worker who discovers that the builders of the development he’s working for have run out of money and that the past two weeks he’s been working are going to go unpaid.

His childhood home, which he lives in with his mother (Dern) and grew up in is underwater and he’s several payments behind. The bank isn’t terribly interested in anything but foreclosure and his trip to court has left him reeling; the judge, overwhelmed with the number of foreclosure cases, simply rubberstamps the bank’s request and sends Dennis packing. Dennis is told he has 30 days to appeal.

A few days later realtor Rick Carver (Shannon) shows up at Dennis’ door and without so much as a fare-thee-well tosses him, his son Connor (Lomax) and his mom into the street along with all their stuff. He is forced to move them into a skeevy hotel which is mostly filled with other evictees, some of them who’ve been there two years or more. He needs to find work now more than ever but there simply isn’t any to be had, the construction business hit hard by the fact that banks aren’t making business loans so there is nothing being built.

When he discovers that some of his tools are missing, he goes back to Carver to demand their return. Carver, impressed with his moxie, puts him to work doing a particularly disagreeable job on a foreclosed home whose previous owners let their displeasure be known in a rather spectacular way. Carver, admiring Nash’s work ethic, hires him on to do odd construction jobs and then to snatch air conditioning units from foreclosed homes that the banks will pay Carver money to install “new” units, which of course Carver simply has Nash reinstall the old units. Shifty, no?

Eventually as Nash continues to help Carver do his dirty work, Carver puts him to work doing the work that Nash is most wary of – presiding over foreclosures. Nash is sympathetic to the victims but soon becomes good at it and continues to help Carver with his chicanery. He even helps Carver set up a deal that will make them both unimaginably rich.

The issue is that Nash has a conscience and it’s beginning to get pricked, particularly in the case of a particular homeowner (Guinee). And when it all comes to a head, will Nash choose money or conscience?

This is a movie that captures the Great American Nightmare circa 2015 (yes, it’s still the Great American Nightmare). It’s a story that’s all too tragically common and will hit an emotional resonance that will touch even those who haven’t had money problems in their lives.

Garfield takes a role that he’s really more suited to than the teenage costumed superhero that he has been playing most recently. He’s still not the commanding screen presence that he might be but he’s a talented actor in his own right. What shines here though is Shannon as the slimy real estate agent whose greed and cynicism are palpable. He has a speech in which he talks about America bailing out winners that sounds like something Trump would say. I daresay that the orange-haired Republican Presidential candidate would probably like this movie for all the wrong reasons.

Dern, who has become one of the best actresses that is always getting notice but never getting noticed if you catch my drift, is once again magnificent here. She is the movie’s conscience and there are few actresses who can pull it off without being maudlin but Dern accomplishes it. She probably won’t be more than an afterthought for a Best Supporting Actress nomination here but that’s more because the script goes off the rails at the end.

Yeah, the ending. Let’s talk about it. What bugs me about Hollywood endings is that you establish a character, establish their credibility and then as the movie ends suddenly they change and act a completely different way than they’ve acted throughout the film. That’s not the way real people act and audiences know that. If you’re going to be charitable through the first 85% of the movie, the audience is going to expect you to be charitable the last 15% too. You have to follow your own internal logic. This movie doesn’t do that.

Still, it’s a fine movie that for the most part covers an issue that faces all American homeowners even those who think they’re well off. Other than that 1% we’ve heard so much about, most Americans are only a single paycheck away from financial issues and once you’ve got those it can be excruciatingly difficult to climb out from under them. The game is rigged that way and nobody wants to talk about it. Thank goodness for filmmakers like Bahrani who do.

REASONS TO GO: Real life horror. Terrific performances by Shannon and Dern.
REASONS TO STAY: Inexplicably bad ending.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language including some sexual references and a brief scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Garfield has worn facial hair in a film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Margin Call
FINAL RATINGS: 7/10
NEXT: All This Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records

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Poltergeist (2015)


A show of hands.

A show of hands.

(2015) Supernatural Horror (20th Century Fox/MGM) Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kennedi Clements, Kyle Catlett, Saxon Sharbino, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Susan Heyward, Nicholas Braun, Karen Ivany, Patrick Garrow, Doug MacLeod, Eve Crawford, L.A. Lopes, Soma Bhatia, John Stoneham Jr., Kathryn Greenwood, Molly Kidder. Directed by Gil Kenan

Remaking a movie is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to horror movies. The trick is to stay true to the original material while making it fresh and original enough that fans of the original feel like they’re seeing something new as opposed to a shot-by-shot rip-off. Add to the mix that it is an iconic film like the 1982 haunted house classic Poltergeist, which was originally directed by Tobe (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Hooper and produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg and you’ve got yourself a tall order.

Taller still because most of your target audience will have seen the original except for maybe a few disdainful Millennials who don’t watch “old” movies, and yet it is that crowd who may enjoy this movie the most as they will see it without the baggage that the rest of us take into the multiplex with us. It is hard not to compare the movie to its source material, and yet it is at the same time somewhat unfair until you remember that the filmmakers knew what they were getting themselves into.

Many of the original elements remain; a modern family in a modern suburban home (in this case, in Illinois) that has a bit of a history, beset by paranormal activity of increasing malevolence. A little girl disappears and can be heard from the television set. Paranormal researchers who are blown away by the level of phenomena they witness. A psychic who may well be the only hope to get the little girl back.

Gil Kenan was a pretty odd choice to direct this; he has mostly directed family-oriented fare like the Oscar-nominated Monster House and the kid-centric fantasy City of Ember. The original Poltergeist had kids in it of course, but the focus was on the parents, Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams. Kenan chooses to make the middle child, Griffin (Catlett) the focus and to enhance his character with all sorts of neuroses and anxieties. The kid needs some Valium, or at least some therapy which his mother actually vocalizes at one point. Having a kid who jumps at every bump in the night in a house that is haunted by angry spirits seems a little cruel.

Rockwell and DeWitt, who play the parents, are underwritten compared to their two youngest, Catlett and Clements (the Heather O’Rourke of this movie). There are tantalizing bits of business; DeWitt’s character is a writer working on a book, but we never see her even attempting to write. Rockwell’s character has been laid off from John Deere and at one point there’s an indication that he has a drinking problem, but that’s never explored. They seem to be good parents and decent people but we don’t really get to know them very much.

Rockwell in many ways carries the movie; he’s a rock-solid actor who can be as likable as anyone in Hollywood, although he tends to portray characters with a collection of tics and quirks that are largely absent here. In the one scene that he and DeWitt get to show some intimacy (before kiddus interruptus, something every parent is familiar with) they display genuine chemistry together but for the most part they are reduced to reacting to one scare or another. DeWitt is likewise a terrific actress who is in my opinion somewhat underrated. Once again, she doesn’t really get to show what she can do in a role that is more cliche than character.

Harris and Adams play the psychic and the paranormal researcher respectively and unlike the original they have a past. Harris in particularly with his Irish accent is entertaining, which considering he has to fill the late Zelda Rubenstein’s shoes is a considerable achievement. Mostly, though, they – like the parents – are second bananas to the kids and the CGI.

There are some decent enough scares here, a few of them telegraphed by the trailer but they don’t come close to living up to the original. See, I’m doing it too – and everyone involved had to know that there was no way in figurative and literal Hell that this was going to live up to the original, right? Which begs the question; why remake this at all?

I’m not saying that there isn’t a way that a remake of Poltergeist couldn’t be a terrific film on its own merits or even live up to the original, but this one flatly doesn’t. The pacing is weak, the scares aren’t as scary and it simply isn’t a thrill ride like the first one was. There are certainly some things that are worthwhile about the film; they modernize it nicely although I suspect that will date the movie somewhat in years to come. Some of the CGI effects are nifty. The adult cast is solid; I sympathize with Rockwell, Harris, Adams and DeWitt who give it a good college try, but making a family friendly film out of a horror classic which seems to be what the studio and the filmmakers were shooting for is a half-baked idea at best. This is one movie that should have been one of those Cedar Point roller coasters that turn you upside down and backwards and dropped us down insane hills and into dark tunnels; instead, we got a kiddie coaster.

REASONS TO GO: Sam Rockwell is solid. Some good scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Haunted by the original. Relies too much on Clements and Catlett.
FAMILY VALUES: A bunch of frightening images and scary moments, some foul language and a sexually suggestive scene.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Adams previously starred together in the 1998 indie film Happiness.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING; 6/10
NEXT: Lawless

Meskada


It's the sweet tender moments that make life bearable.

It’s the sweet tender moments that make life bearable.

(2010) Mystery (Red Flag) Nick Stahl, Rachel Nichols, Kellan Lutz, Norman Reedus, Jonathan Tucker, Grace Gummer, Laura Benanti, James McCaffrey, Michael Cerveris, David Aaron Baker, Michael Sirow, Kerry Bishe, Rebecca Henderson, Kathy Searle, Charlie Tahan, Max Antisell, J.D. Rosen, Johnny Hopkins, Rachel Heller. Directed by Josh Sternfeld

In 21st century America, the difference between haves and have-nots is like night and day. In rural Meskada county in the Appalachians, the difference is even greater.

Noah Cordin (Stahl) is a cop in upscale Hilliard. The people who live there are the well-to-do of the county. Noah himself hails from Caswell, the proverbial other side of the tracks. Blue collar and proud of it, Caswell has been hard hit by the recession; work is hard to come by although trouble is not.

During a home burglary in Hilliard, a young boy is killed. The boy’s mother, Alison Connor (Benanti), sits on the county planning commission and she is putting a whole load of pressure on Noah and his partner Leslie Spencer (Nichols) to crack the case quickly and bring her son’s killer to justice. The school of thought is that the killer must hail from Caswell and signs are definitely pointing in that direction.

In truth, the killer does hail from Caswell – a couple of low-life losers named Eddie (Lutz) and Shane (Tucker) did the robbery. They didn’t intend to kill the boy, it was just a wrong-place-wrong-time kind of thing. The case soon pits town against town and Noah is forced to call into question his own loyalties – to the place he came from, or the place he’s making a life in.

This is a movie that had enormous potential – a nice socio-economic premise wrapped in a murder mystery (although it’s not much of a mystery – for whatever reason the filmmakers decided to let us in on the identity of the killers from the get-go so any tension was blown right out of the water). Given the current political climate that has our country increasingly turning into class warfare, there is a certain amount of resonance in the idea.

Unfortunately it isn’t executed as well as it might be. Sternfeld has assembled a pretty impressive cast, many of them unknowns or barely-knowns when it was filmed but were shortly to gain prominence in their craft. Stahl is probably the best-known in the cast at the time of filming although Reedus, who played Noah’s roommate who briefly comes under suspicion for the crime and knows a lot more than he lets on, has probably surpassed him due to his involvement in Walking Dead – and not undeservedly so as Reedus is a big reason for that show’s popularity.

The cast does a fine job but the framework they’re in is almost damaged. The editing is almost choppy, as if someone had gouged out great hunks of celluloid with an Exacto knife. It feels like there are some important expository scenes missing and some of that exposition is done rather clumsily with one character basically saying “tell me about so and so” and another dutifully doing so. There is a certain artlessness here that can be charming in certain films but here it feels like I’m watching a rough cut rather than a finished product.

However, it must be said that the rough cut I watched was better than a lot of finished products. Stahl is one of those actors who seems to never fail to give an outstanding performance but never seems to get a role that will really get him the notice he deserves. Noah’s anguish is palpable as he knows what desperation can drive people to but observes the ugly side of privilege as well. Along with Stahl and Reedus, Gummer as Eddie’s barmaid/girlfriend, Nichols and Kerry Bishe as Noah’s wife all do some fine work.

I’m not sure what happened here. It’s possible the filmmakers wanted deliberately to create a movie in which the audience was put off-balance but it’s also possible that budget constraints reared their ugly head. Sternfeld’s only other directing job thus far was Winter Solstice, a very strong and moving film.  He can and has done better than this.

I’m all for leaving an audience to fill in the blanks off a basic framework, but that framework needs to at least support some meat on its bones. I shouldn’t leave a movie wondering what I missed, at least in terms of the information I’m being given to reach whatever conclusions that might be had. I liked some of the things that Meskada did and I liked a lot of the things that it attempted to do – I just wish I’d liked the movie overall just a bit more.

WHY RENT THIS: Pretty good cast, many of whom were largely unknown at the time of filming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing and choppy, as if large scenes were cut or went unfilmed.

FAMILY VALUES: Bad language and violence and plenty of both, with a scene of sexuality thrown in for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sternfeld teaches filmmaking at the NYU Film School and Tisch School of the Arts.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lantana

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Much Ado About Nothing