Girl (2020)


Axe her no questions…

(2020) Thriller (Screen MediaBella Thorne, Mickey Rourke, Chad Faust, Lanette Ware, Glen Gould, Elizabeth Saunders, Michael Lipka, Tia Lavallee, Paolo Mancini, John Clifford Talbot, Rasneet Kaur, Emma-Leigh Cullum. Directed by Chad Faust

 

There’s a famous saying that when you go out for revenge, first dig two graves. That is particularly true when your vengeance is aimed at a blood elative.

This Bella Thorne-starring vehicle by Chad Faust seems to be intentionally vague. The characters are not given names – Thorne, in the lead, is only known as Girl – which seems to be fitting given the lack of depth in developing the story, which is a bit strange because it seems like a good deal of the dialogue is spent on exposition, which makes it feel like the characters are explaining things to us.

And we need the explanation. Girl heads back to the Pacific Northwestern town she was born in, but left along with her Mama (Saunders) after her abusive father (Talbot) kicked them both to the curb – in Mama’s case, quite literally, as a vicious beating left her with severe back injuries that have rendered her barely able to walk. Dear old dad has failed to provide any child support over the years and Mama, who desperately needs the money, has written him requesting that he pay his share.

Dad has written back, apparently telling Mama where to stick her child support but also proclaiming a desire to kill both mother and daughter. So Bella is on her way to Golden, a town that has seen prosperity pass it by, to do unto Daddy before he does unto her.

Except that someone has beaten her to it. Her father has been viciously beaten to death. You would think that Girl, given that her dirty work has been done for her, would turn around and head back home, but she is curious and angry; who would rob her of her vengeance? What was her dad mixed up in that led to such a brutal end?

As with many small towns in the Pacific Northwest (at least as Hollywood paints it), oddball characters of varying degrees of sinisterness walk the streets. There’s the aptly named Charmer (Faust), a flirtatious sort who meets Girl in a laundromat; there’s the hooker with a heart of gold (Ware), the bartender who may or may not be helpful (Gould) and of course, the town sheriff (Rourke) who just upon sight looks like the sort of guy you’d not want to go to when you need help. And your first impressions would be correct.

Faust seems to be going for a kind of Southern gothic vibe set in the Pacific Northwest – think of it as Twin Peaks had it been written by Shirley Jackson (and if that combination appeals to you, you’re my kind of people). Faust casts the movie well and in particular the title role. Thorne, who cut her teeth on Disney Channel family fare, has long since moved into adult roles, but this is by far her most compelling performance, not unlike that of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. She captures the barely suppressed rage of the character, while expressing a kind of dangerous side like a coiled rattlesnake (Girl is handy with an ax, as it turns out). Thorne is particularly outstanding in her scenes with Rourke and Saunders at the end of the film.

Other than the climax which is well-done, the movie devolves into standard thriller clichés in the last half. Worse still, the film score is intrusive and more than a little obnoxious; if ever a score sabotaged its film, it is this one.

There’s a lot going for the film, mainly in the performances and particularly Bella Thorne’s. Faust, who also wrote the film, needs to work on his dialogue a bit and focus on developing his ideas, which are strong but he doesn’t seem to trust them and ends up taking the easy way out. Still, this is fairly strong B-Movie fare and if you like yourself a good revenge film, this might be what you’re looking for.

REASONS TO SEE: Thorne gives a career-changing performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The score is obnoxious and intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some violence and an attempted rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth film Thorne has appeared in so far this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ravage
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
To Your Last Death

Blackbird (2019)


Taking comfort at twilight.

(2019) Drama (Screen MediaKate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon. Directed by Roger Mitchell

 

Most of us fear dying. We are dragged towards it, kicking and screaming, not wanting to go gentle into that dark night. Some of us, conversely, embrace it, death being a comforting alternative to a life of pain and humiliation.
That’s what Lily (Sarandon) is faced with, entering the final stages of ALS, popularly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” She is already having difficulty doing ordinary things, having lost the use of one arm and nearly unable to walk. She is looking at a future of breathing on a ventilator, being fed intravenously and unable to speak. This is not a future she wishes to endure. She wants to exert the last little bit of control she has over life – she wants to end it while she is still able.

This is a decision that she has debated with her family – her husband Paul (Neill), a doctor who has managed to purchase the fatal cocktail that will send her into sleep one last time; her eldest daughter Jennifer (Winslet) who inherited her mother’s control-freak nature without inheriting her warmth; younger daughter Anna (Wasikowska), the family black sheep, whose on-again off-again paramour Chris (Taylor-Klaus) is apparently on-again with her and has accompanied her to Lily and Paul’s extravagant beach house in the Hamptons. So, too has Jennifer’s husband Michael (Wilson), a reciter of minutiae so irritating that Anna has dubbed him “Mr. Dull,” and their son Jonathan (Boon), who has clearly spent a lifetime not living up to his mother’s expectations. Then there’s also Liz (Duncan), Lily’s long-time best friend (dating back at least until college) whose presence Jennifer deeply resents.

Lily clearly expects a sweet send-off, in the bosom of a loving family ready to send her off with love and joy, but she apparently hasn’t met her own children. Anna is so self-absorbed that she threatens to put a stop to Lily’s plans in order to get to know her mother better before she goes; Jennifer can’t help but criticize every little detail in everyone else and she and Anna are at each other’s throats. Paul takes the high road, but he simply wants peace and knows he’s not going to get it, particularly when a late revelation calls into question everything.

The film has an understandably elegiac tone, borrowed from the Danish film it is remade from (Silent Heart) whose screenwriter Christian Torpe also penned the English-language version. Even the warm tones of Mike Eley’s cinematography doesn’t disguise that we are observing a life in winter, awaiting its end. Then again, this isn’t a movie about death so much as it is about the dynamics of family. This is a family that has had a comfortable life, but has profited little by it.

The attraction here is the cast, and they don’t disappoint. Sarandon has played the dying mom before (Stepmom) and experienced pro that she is, refuses to turn her illness into Camille-like histrionics. She is making her best effort to die with dignity, but she is flinty enough to call her family down to breakfast by grumping “Get down here – I’m going to die today!” Winslet plays a character that is recognizably Lily’s daughter – strong, strong-willed, and yes, a control freak, but she chooses to exercise it by tearing down.

Neill has been one of my favorite actors over the years and his quiet dignity makes his part all the more poignant. Wasikowska, Duncan and Taylor-Klaus manage to hold their own against the Oscar-winning leads and Wilson does a surprisingly good job in a rare straight dramatic role for him. Boon, a relative newcomer, also is impressive in his scenes as the straight-shooting grandson.

This is hard to watch at times in the sense of dealing with a loved one. I found myself wondering if I would be as sanguine if it was my mother who was purporting to end her own life with dignity. I’d like to think I’d support her decision if she felt it was the right thing, but I can’t help wondering if I would handle the situation gracefully. Chances are, not.

This is a movie that inspires reflection, and that is definitely not a bad thing. That said, it isn’t always an easy watch and requires much of its viewer. Also, not a bad thing, but it can be more than the average viewer might be willing to give. Still in all, it is worth the effort to watch if for no other reason for the stellar performances of its cast.

REASONS TO SEE: Some wonderful performances from Sarandon, Winslet and Neill. Lovely cinematography. The family dynamic is the focus of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kind of a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some brief sexual material, drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers initially wanted Diane Keaton in the role for Lily, but eventually Sarandon was cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Here Awhile
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story

Black Water: Abyss


This big reptile is a croc.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Outpost


With their backs against the wall came their finest hour.

(2020) True War Drama (Screen Media Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones, Orlando Bloom, Milo Gibson, Bobby Lockwood, Celina Sinden, Jacob Scipio, Jack Kesy, Taylor John Smith, James Jagger, Alexander Arnold, Cory Hardrict, Will Attenborough, Scott Alda Coffey, Kwame Patterson, Fahim Fazli, Jonathan Yunger, Jack DeVos, Alfie Stewart. Directed by Rod Lurie

 

The War in Afghanistan has gone on longer than any armed conflict in U.S. History. In some ways, it has been a war of attrition with few pitched battles. One such was the Battle of Kamdesh on October 3, 2009 when 53 American soldiers in the remote Combat Outpost Keating in a valley surrounded by three mountains – not an idal defensible position, as any student of combat will tell you – were attacked by more than 400 Taliban fighters.

That war has come to the forefront of our consciousness lately – no easy task, given the circus of news that continually grabs our attention whether we  want it to or not – when the New York Times reported that intelligence sources revealed that the Russian GRU – their military intelligence arm – was bribing Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers.

The film is based on a non-fiction book co-authore by CNN anchor Jake Tapper. Director Rod Lurie – himself a veteran of the Army and a West Point graduate – understands the mind of the soldier, and clearly shows an affinity for them, getting the banter down pretty much pitch-perfect. We are basically flies on the wall at the camp for the first hour of the film, observing the regular attacks by Taliban sharpshooters, and getting a sense that the men are making the best of things, but are aware of the danger they are in; one analyst dubbed the camp “Camp Custer” because he thought it likely to be the site of a massacre down the line.

We meet some of the soldiers stationed there, from competent base commander Benjamin Keating (Bloom) to Ty Carter (Jones), who is not well-liked and doesn’t really take things all that seriously, or Clint Romesha (Eastwood), who has reservations about what they’re doing there and occasionally voices them to superior officers with varying amounts of acceptance, and Broward (Patterson), the rigid officer whose strict adherence to the book might just get them all killed.

The trouble is that we don’t really get to know most of the characters here, so when the attack comes during the second half of the film, it is hard to keep track of who’s who, who has survived and why we should care. It robs the movie of some of its effectiveness because of it.

But that’s not to say that this isn’t an effective movie – it is very much that. I honestly believe that this is the best depiction of combat since Saving Private Ryan despite having a budget that likely wouldn’t have even paid for the pyrotechnics on the Spielberg film.

Lurie and cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore utilize hand-held cameras to good effect here; they capture the chaos of the battle really nicely The movie, which was supposed to bow at SXSW earlier this year, instead gets a limited release in a handful of select theaters and a VOD release (see below for platforms). That’s heartbreaking in a way; this is a movie meant to be an immersive experience, with a fabulous sound system, a ridiculously big screen and a minimum of distractions. Reviewing it on less ideal circumstances takes away from the film’s impact. Hopefully, once the pandemic begins to ease off a bit, we will get to experience this film the way it was meant to be – in a theater with a huge screen, a sound system that will blow your cloths off, a dark room and a bucket of popcorn in your lap.

Beyond that though, we are at a critical juncture in American history. We are weary of the politics, the pandemic, the economy, all the ills that make our futures both individually and collectively less certain. We need heroes, and this film provides some real-life ones – this was the first battle in more than 50 years that produced more than one Medal of Honor winner. Incidentally, the movie doesn’t end with the battle; it features a coda in which one of the survivors faces his grief and his guilt. It’s as powerful a moment as you’re likely to see in the movies this year and has earned this movie a spot as one of the best films of the year so far.

REASONS TO SEE: The best depiction of combat since Saving Private Ryan. The ending is incredibly powerful. Look no further to see an account of what heroism looks like.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s not a lot of character development here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of war violence with some grisly images, a staggering amount of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several of the men who took part in the battle appear in variously important roles in the film, including Medal of Honor winner Ty Carter (played in the film by Caleb Landry Jones) and Daniel Rodriguez, who plays himself.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Prince (El principe)

Exit Plan (Selvmordsturisten)


A cold and clinical beauty.

(2019) Suspense (Screen MediaNikolaj Coster-Waldau, Tuva Novotny, Robert Aramayo, Jan Bijvoet, Sonja Richter, Solbjørg Højfeldt, Slimane Dazi, Lorraine Hilton, Kaya Wilkins, Johanna Wokalek, Peder Thomas Pedersen, Mette Lysdahl, Vibeke Hastrup, Anders Mossling, Per Egil Aske, Kate Ashfield, Christine Albeck Børge. Directed by Jonas Alexander Arnby

 

Sometimes, just coincidentally, more than one movie gets released at about the same time with a similar theme or subject matter, like Armageddon and Deep Impact. This week, there are two movies dealing with assisted suicide, or Death with Dignity (the previously reviewed Here Awhile is the other one). This is the second.

But whereas Here Awhile dealt with the subject as a straightforward drama, examining how the intention of ending one’s life affected those around them, this is something else. Max (Coster-Waldau) is an insurance investigator, although judging from his personality he might have been better suited to be an insurance company accountant. He has a pair of glasses and a moustache, and you think that a hunk like Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) would rock that look. Think Stephen Root in Office Space and you’ll understand nobody could rock this look.

A client of his company, Alice Dinesen (Richter) who most definitely did not have a farm in Africa, wants to collect the life insurance from her husband Arthur (Mossling), who has been missing for more than a year. The only evidence she has that he’s gone is a video that was mailed to her by the Hotel Aurora in which her husband announced that he was taking his own life and that by the time she receives the video he will be dead. Alas, there is no body so the company is not willing to pay – no corpse, no cash, as they like to say in the life insurance biz.

Max is only too happy to look into the hotel, because he has some thoughts in that direction as well. You see, Max has an inoperable brain tumor that is growing larger by the day and soon he will be looking at a loss of identity and dignity. After overhearing his significant other (Novotny) tell a friend that she doesn’t know how much longer she can put up with Max (she’s unaware of his medical condition), he decides he will take advantage of the hotel’s services.

At first, it seems like he’s made a good choice. The hotel is absolutely spectacular, nestled in the mountains of Scandinavia, a modern steel and glass beauty with comfortable Danish design. There are hot tubs for soaking, massage therapists, gourmet meals in a restaurant with a spectacular view, tea laced with opium – all the amenities of a five-star hotel. They offer a passing away experience that is painless (or painful, if that’s what he wants) in the environment of his choice. Sounds like a killer deal.

But Max is beginning to have second thoughts and things turn sinister. He is told “You can leave, but you cannot escape” which sounds to me like writer Rasmus Birch was listening to The Eagles’ “Hotel California” on an endless loop when he wrote this. He begins to see things that may or may not be there – or is that his tumor asserting itself? Or something else?

The writer and director made some odd choices for this film. For one, they take the charismatic Coster-Waldau, a handsome man with a charismatic screen presence, and reduce him to a milquetoast. Fans of Jamie Lannister are going to be throwing things at the screen, although to be fair I’m sure the fact that this role is as far from Jamie as it’s possible to get was part of the appeal for Coster-Waldau.

It’s also got terrific set and production design; the hotel is cold, clinical with odd warm accents but there is no feeling of humanity here. The hotel staff are largely smiling automatons who make the adjective “pleasant” a pejorative. The natural beauty around the hotel is nice as well, but the whole screen tone has a wintry feel, which I do believe is on purpose.

The movie has some high aspirations to examine the relationship between life and death, and the morality thereof. There are some hints of paranormal elements, but they never really come to fruition unless you decide that the fairly ambiguous ending means something along those lines (I’m being purposely vague here as not to spoil things) but if you take into account that a man with a brain tumor might not be the most reliable narrator, well, you do the math.

I have to say that although there were things I liked about the film, I do believe that in the end its reach exceeded its grasp. I don’t think the movie was a failure per se, but suffice to say that I don’t think that it was successful in what I believe it was aiming for. They swung for the fences but ended up legging out an infield single, in other words.

REASONS TO SEE: Possessed of a cold, sterile beauty.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too clinical.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coster-Waldau and Aramayo were both members of the sprawling Game of Thrones cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews, Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark City
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Velvet Buzzsaw

Blood and Money


The Great White North (almost).

(2020) Thriller (Screen MediaTom Berenger, Kristen Hager, Paul Ben-Victor, Bates Wilder, Erica McDermott, Mark Sivertsen, Brian Duffy, Melissa McMeekin, Jimmy LeBlanc, Catherine Portu, Gary Tanguay, Ryan Hornchick, Ace Gibson, David J. Curtis, Lisa Lynch. Directed by John Barr

 

We all have actors who we are fans of even as they fly under the radar of everybody else. For me, that’s Tom Berenger, who has been a terrific if underused actor for decades, resonating in films like The Big Chill, Platoon, Major League and Sniper. He’s also been in his share of B-movies, including this indie thriller.

Jim Reed (Berenger) is an ex-marine, living in a dilapidated custom-camper. Once upon a time he had a family, but that all comes to an end when his daughter dies in a drunk driving incident when he was at the wheel. His wife and son were never able to forgive him for that; Hell, he’s never been able to forgive himself for that.

He lives in the North of Maine and its deer hunting season and he’s particularly anxious to bag himself a buck. You see, Jim is vomiting blood and passing out; he knows he’s sick but he’s loathe to do anything about it. He mainly wants to be left alone, coming in to town to load up on supplies and hang out with Debra (Hager), a waitress who reminds him of his late daughter. She’s in a marriage to an alcoholic husband (LeBlanc) and wants to get out.

The talk of the town is a recent violent casino robbery in which five thieves got away with over a million dollars in cash. There’s a manhunt going on for them, but that’s of no mind to Jim, who basically is all about getting back to hunting.

Back out in the wilderness, he thinks he’s bagged his buck but it turns out to be a woman. Jim is absolutely distraught about the situation but when she dies, he flees the scene. He later finds out she as one of the gang that robbed the casino. So, Jim returns to the scene of the shooting and takes the big duffel bag full of money. Of course, it goes without saying that the surviving members of the gang want their ill-gotten gains back.

Berenger will be 71 at the end of the month and while he moves gingerly like a 71-year-old man, he still has the presence he did when he was younger. Berenger plays the silent type as well as anybody, and he gives Jim Reed a world-weary patina that just screams “Get off of my lawn.” He look utterly at home in the snowy wilderness of the north woods of Maine, and the cold temperatures match the cold demeanor of Reed.

Barr, in addition to directing, also co-wrote and shot the film as director of photography, and as a writer he makes a great cinematographer. The snowy vistas are harsh and beautiful, setting the tone for the thriller nicely. However, the plot is pure bargain bin; we’ve seen this movie before and done better, despite the best efforts of Berenger.

All in all, it adds up to a fairly pedestrian thriller that won’t give you any surprises or shocks, but is worth looking into for the beautiful pictures as well as for the performance of the lead.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful scenery.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kind of a typical plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is both violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Barr’s feature-length debut as a director. He’s been a cinematographer on 20 other projects.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews, Metacritic: 37/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cliffhanger
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music

Hope Gap


She strolls while he snores by the seashore.

(2019) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Screen Media) Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Alysha Hart, Kadrolsha Ona Carole, Nicholas Burns, Rose Keegan, Ryan McKen, Nicholas Blane, Ninette Finch, Derren Litten, Sally Rogers, Steven Pacey, Joel MacCormack, Jason Lines, Finn Bennett, Anne Bryson, Tim Wildman, Susan Tune, Joe Citro, Dannielle Woodward. Directed by William Nicholson

 

Not every marriage is eternal. Some come to an end prematurely; some after a short amount of time as the couple discovers that marriage was a terrible idea for the two of them, while others occur after years of marriage.

Grace (Bening) and Edward (Nighy) are days away from their 29th anniversary. Outwardly, they seem as comfortable together as two old shoes, but there are cracks showing. Edward is distracted, almost shut down; he barely acknowledges Grace. She badgers him, trying to get some sort of reaction from him. She senses something is wrong, but can’t fathom what it is.

Edward manages to coax their adult son Jamie (O’Connor) to their seaside home in Sussex from London. However, he has an ulterior motive; he tells Jamie that he has fallen in love with another woman and is leaving Grace. At first, Jamie is dumbstruck; he can’t believe it. But eventually he is convinced that Edward means to go through with it. And so Edward does.

Grace still loves Edward and is sure that this is just a phase, and that he will soon come to his senses and come home, but it becomes apparent that Edward is gone for good. She gets alternately despondent, angry and bitter. Jamie is caught in the middle, serving as mediator and messenger, soon realizing that he is slowly developing the same malaise that overtook his father, while as he gets to see his mother as a person rather than just a parent, understands that he never really knew her at all.

Movies about divorce are not uncommon, and often prove to be fodder for some compelling films (i.e. Kramer vs. Kramer, An Unmarried Woman, last year’s Marriage Story). Some critics have complained that there isn’t a lot here that’s original, which I suppose has some merit until you realize that this is based on the divorce of writer/director Nicholson’s parents. I imagine it seemed terribly original to him.

What the rest of us are left with are a quest for insight; how would we handle this? Would we ever do something like this to our partner? Could someone who seemingly have the perfect marriage just watch it collapse around them? For this kind of movie to work it has to be relatable; it has to have a frame of reference that makes it compelling to the viewer. I don’t know that the insights raised here are going to resonate deeply with everyone.

That’s where some wonderful performances come in. In Bening and Nighy, we have two often underrated pros who are both about as good as anyone in the business. Nighy plays Edward as the very definition of “doddering,” he seems lost in his own home, a schoolteacher who is obsessed with historic events that happened over two centuries ago (Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow) and seems to be more in tune with the past than he is present.

I often forget how good Bening is until I see her latest film, and then I fall in love with her (as an actress) all over again. Despite a kind of dodgy British accent, she nonetheless nails her role here, giving Grace depth and edge. Often, she is almost intolerable to be around; she is confrontational, occasionally bitchy and uncompromising but it becomes clear that she is as lost in her own way as Edward is. Bening can convey more with a single glance than most actors can with pages of dialogue.

On top of the terrific performances there is some lovely cinematography of windswept beaches and the charming coastal village of Seaford where this was filmed. American audiences, though, may find it ponderous and slow-moving, the curse of the short-attention-span-afflicted Yank. In our defense, we watched too many music videos and video games growing up to accumulate the patience to, say, read a book, let alone watch a movie that requires some concentration as well as some commitment. But, sad for us Americans, the best films almost always require both.

REASONS TO SEE: Bening and Nighy are both masters of their craft.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow and ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on and expanded upon Nicholson’s play The Retreat from Moscow which in turn is based on his parents’ own divorce.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mentor

The Jesus Rolls


Nobody rolls a ball like Jesus.

 (2019) Dramedy (Screen Media) John Turturro, Bobby Cannavale, Audrey Tautou, Susan Sarandon, Pete Davidson, Christopher Walken, Jon Hamm, J.B. Smoove, Sable Boykin, Tim Blake Nelson, Margaret Reed, Michael Badalucco, Sonia Braga, Gloria Reuben, Nicolas Reyes, Ken Murach, George Sheanshang, Tonino Ballardo, Matt Lake, Kathryn Kates, Rosa Gilmore. Directed by John Turturro

The Dude abides, but Jesus saves, or so some would have it. The Big Lebowski was a 1998 Coen Brothers cult hit that may have had the most interesting characters in a single cast, so much so that more than 20 years after it was released it is getting its first spin-off. Don’t count on many more happening.

Jesus Quintana (Turturro) is released from Sing Sing on a sex charge that is, to put it mildly, suspicious. The warden (Walken) sends Jesus on his way, Jesus having led the intramural team to the state bowling championship (in one of the film’s most amusing moments, he is literally played out by the Gipsy Kings, who are also behind bars). He is picked up by Petey (Cannavale), his best friend and also an ex-con.

The two promptly go on a spree of petty crime, with temperamental French hairdresser Marie (Tautou) in tow. On a kind of misdemeanor-laden road trip, they go forth to look for America. Along the way they meet a hairdresser with a gun (Hamm), another ex-con (Sarandon), a black market doctor (Nelson), an overzealous convenience store security guard (Badalucco) and Jesus’ sex worker mom (Braga).

And that’s pretty much it, as far as plot goes. The movie is somewhat based on the French director Bertrand Blier 1974 comedy Going Places with Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere as a couple of sex-addicted lowlifes on the run, but with the Jesus character from The Big Lebowski in the main roll. Known in the earlier film for licking the ball before he bowls, that scene opens the way for a bowling session with Jesus in which he most definitely licks the ball. Take from that whatever you will.

This is one of those movies where a lot of decent actors make cameo appearances for a few moments and then we move on to another Merry Prankster bit with Turturro and Cannavale, whose character gets shot in the huts by a vengeful hairdresser who cares more for his vintage Duster than for his employee. The movie is mostly a series of stolen vehicles and chases with interludes of sex and not just what the beautiful Tautou either.

The movie suffers from a noticeable lack of the Coen brothers; they are masters at characterization and snappy dialogue. Here, the movie seems forced, rushed and poorly planned out, a very disturbing issue indeed. It’s not nearly as funny as it could have been, or should have been. Turturro is a fine actor, but as a writer he’s no Coen.

Turturro has evidently been thinking about bringing this character back to the screen for some time; I don’t know if anyone was clamoring for a Jesus Quintana spin-off other than Turturro but I suppose if you wait long enough, everything comes back into style.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s John Effin’ Turturro.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as funny as it could be.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a ton of profanity, plenty of sexual content, some nudity, and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Turturro has been trying to get a spin-off film about the Jesus Quintana character made since 2005; after several aborted tries he came up with a script that everyone was satisfied with.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic:  44/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes

Robert the Bruce


The once and future King.

(2019) Historical Drama (Screen Media)  Angus Macfadyen, Anna Hutchison, Zach McGowan, Gabriel Bateman, Talitha Bateman, Brandon Lessard, Diarmaid Murtagh, Emma Kenney, Patrick Fugit, Melora Walters, Shane Coffey, Daniel Portman, Seoras Wallace, Kevin McNally, Jared Harris, Nick Farnell, Gianni Capaldi, Mhairi Calvey.  Directed by Richard Gray

 

In Scotland Robert the Bruce is a national hero, able to do what William Wallace could not – give the Scots their freedom from English rule – but it didn’t come easy.

Some ten years after the execution of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce (Macfadyen) is King of Scotland, but uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. That’s because other Scottish nobles, particularly the clan of John Comyn (Harris), also are claimants to the throne of Scotland. After an ambush at Greyfriars’s Church leads to the death of Comyn, Scotland is in chaos. The English, with whom Comyn had allied, have put a price on Robert’s head of 50 gold pieces. The unceasing wars against the English have led to a divided country; some support their King who is promising freedom, other weary of war that has claimed so many husbands, sons and brothers.

Pretty Morag (Hutchison) has lost a husband to the wars and a brother as well. Raising her own son Scot (Bateman) as well as her nephew Carney (Lessard) and niece Iver (Bateman), they live on a remote farm in the mountains. Robert, hounded by foes on every side, is ready to give up. He dismisses his few loyal remaining men, including his best warrior James Douglas (Murtagh) who thinks it is folly for Robert to be without protection. He is soon proven right as Robert is attacked by three of his own men, including treacherous Will (Fugit) and badly wounded. Scot finds him in the woods and the family of Morag bring him to their farmhouse to tend to him, much to the displeasure of Scot who blames Robert for his father’s death.

They know they are risking death and their uncle Brandubh (McGowan) is sniffing around the farm – he is looking for Robert, who he has discovered is in the vicinity, but he is also hoping to woo Morag who had married his brother. Even as Robert gets better, the king knows he is in dire peril and dragging this good family in with him. Can he escape and take the family who saved his life to safety?

In all honesty, I don’t know how apocryphal the story is. It could be pure fiction, or based on folk tales, or based on fact. I honestly couldn’t tell you, but I do know Macfadyen – who played the role memorably in Braveheart previous to this and co-wrote the script – has been trying to get this movie made for more than a decade. The 56-year-old actor is playing the King in a period when he was in his mid-30s; this Robert is more world-weary than the one he played in Braveheart and less fiery-eyed. There are moments, particularly near the end of the film, where we see the old Robert the Bruce and thse moments are welcome.

The elephant in the room is Mel Gibson, and I’m sure he wouldn’t be too pleased to be called an elephant. One of the things that made Braveheart such a classic, beloved film was the presence of Gibson, who was at the time at the top of his game and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and possessed of enormous charisma before later events derailed his career. Macfadyen is a terrific actor and he has plenty of screen presence, but I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you he’s no Mel Gibson and the movie feels the lack of that kind of star power.

It also feels a lack of Scotland in it. The movie was largely filmed in Montana which is a beautiful state, but it doesn’t have the same look as the Scottish Highlands. The largely American cast also has difficulty with the hard-to-master Scottish accent. Either it’s laid on too thick or not thick enough. Mostly, though, actors drop in and out of it willy-nilly.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments in this film that are worth waiting for. There isn’t a ton of action here in the two-hour film, and American audiences may have a hard time with that. It is not a fast-paced film either and American audiences will REALLY have a hard time with that. Still, if you are patient, there are some scenes that come close to recapturing the magic of the Oscar-winning Braveheart but it never quite does. This isn’t a sequel so much as a spin-off and it doesn’t have the budget to recapture the battle sequences of that film, so Robert the Bruce doesn’t have the epic scope of the previous movie. Still, the character is a big part of Scottish history and proud Scots will not want to miss this, nor will those who love that craggy land.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some moments that are pure magic.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too slow-paced for this type of movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and mayhem.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mhairi Calvey, who played the wife of Robert the Bruce here, played a young Murron, the eventual wife of William Wallace, in Braveheart.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Braveheart
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
True History of the Kelly Gang

The Sonata


Candlelight can be romantic – or terrifying.

(2018) Horror (Screen Media) Freya Tingley, Simon Abkarian, James Faulkner, Rutger Hauer, Catherine Schaub-Abkarian, Matt Barber, Christopher Brand, James Kermack, Myster Jo, Aurélija Pronina, Andrejs Zikovs, Maija Cipste, Artürs Ghoss, Laine Ligere Stegrévica, Janis Libietis, Jurijs Krüze, Atis Afréds Brasmanis, Olga Svecova, Aleksandrs Mihailovs, Alina Vasiljeva. Directed by Andrew Desmond

Music has an almost mystical hold on our imaginations. We define ourselves by it, link it to memories both dark and lovely, use it to buoy our spirits or help us carry out repetitive or boring tasks. We arrange ourselves into tribes according to the kind of music we like. Music is essential to who we are.

Rose Fisher (Tingley) is a concert violinist who may have a brilliant career ahead of her. She has yet to achieve her full potential which has led to a rift between her and her manager Charles (Abkarian), who is a recovering alcoholic. When the news that Rose’s estranged father has died, she fields the news with the same frosty demeanor that you’d adopt if you were told that you’re short change for the bus.

Charles is surprised to discover that Rose’s pa is none other than Richard Marlowe (Hauer), once a composer who was poised to remake classical music with his brilliant compositions – until he essentially withdrew from public life to a run-down French chateau. His name had sunk into obscurity – those who even knew who he was had assumed he had been dead for years. However, Marlowe had been busy in the last years of his life, creating a violin sonata that apparently was written with Rose in mind and might be his most brilliant work yet.

He also left Rose the aforementioned chateau with the obligatory nosy housekeeper (Schaub-Abkarian) which Rose doesn’t really want; she is much more interested in selling the Gothic abomination. However, when she discovers the new sonata, she also discovers a mystery; the sonata is dotted with strange symbols and appears only half-completed. As Rose looks into the piece, she discovers to her dismay that the symbols are Satanic in origin and as she begins to have horrific nightmares and unexplained occurrences make her waking hours no picnic either, she realizes that dear old dad had a much more sinister purpose with his piece than just tormenting his daughter with it.

The chateau makes for an excellent supernatural horror film setting, with plenty of sinister cherubic statues, appropriately foggy woods, and dark corners for apparitions to leap out of. Desmond gives us a concept that has all sorts of fascinating connotations; using music as a conduit to other realms. It makes sense if you understand how a really great musician is transported when in the midst of playing, and transports us along with them. There is power in that, a kind of power that sadly goes largely unexplored here.

Tingley, best known for TV series Hemlock Grove and Once Upon a Time, isn’t given a whole lot to work with. Rose is at various turns arrogant, cold, obsessive and vulnerable. She’s not really a damsel in distress, but she’s not really a terribly strong woman either. When we first meet her, she is informed of her father’s death and has a reaction that is guaranteed to be the very opposite of endearing. To make matters worse, Tingley gives us a rather stiff performance, making me theorize that she was uncomfortable with the role. That’s just conjecture, of course.

This is one of the great Rutger Hauer’s final performances and it is a brief one; he mostly appears in brief snatches – pointing to the woods, glimpsed in mirrors and around corners, and has no dialogue other than during a vintage interview. It really is rather a waste because he has more presence than anyone else in the film. I wish the filmmakers had utilized him better.

A film about music needs a good score and fortunately this film has one. Composer Alexis Mangaud makes a suitably creepy tone but also makes the music lovely for the most part – some of it is atonal and dissonant but by the film’s end it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the music, even if you’re not a classical music aficionado.

The film suffers from some rookie mistakes; an over-reliance on jump scares, plot points that lead nowhere, and generally unlikable characters who have little depth to them. Still, there’s enough here to make this a fairly solid horror opus perfect for rainy nights, autumn afternoons as the sun is dying in the sky, or just to creep you out when you’re alone in the house. Sometimes, that’s all a movie really needs to be.

REASONS TO SEE: A truly fascinating idea.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tingley gives a fairly stiff performance.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some unsettling adult themes, gruesome images, terror, profanity, and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Desmond’s feature film debut; it is also the second-to-last film from the late Rutger Hauer to see the light of day (there’s one more coming out later this year).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Papillon (2018)