Wakefield


Bryan Cranston’s glamour shot.

(2016) Drama (IFC) Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O’Mara, Beverly D’Angelo, Ian Anthony Dale, Monica Lawson, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Ellery Sprayberry, Victoria Bruno, Isaac Leyva, Fredrick Keeve, Bill Timoney, Alexander Zale, Hal Dion, Eliza Coleman, Derek Weston, Angela Taylor-Jones, Tommy Otis, Cameron Simmons, Scott St. Blaze, Carinna Rossignoli. Directed by Robin Swicord

 

Haven’t we all at one time or another wanted to be observers in our own lives, to see how those we are closest to react if we were to disappear from their lives? Frank Capra made in some ways the ultimate version of that fantasy with It’s a Wonderful Life but while the message was uplifting and positive, some suspect that the reality would be much darker.

Howard Wakefield (Cranston) is a successful New York litigator. He has a big house out in the suburbs, a beautiful wife Diane (Garner) and two great kids Emily (Bennett-Warner) and Ellen (Lawson). But that’s just the veneer. Scratch the surface a bit and you come to discover that his marriage to Diane is crumbling. They use jealousy as a means of keeping the home fires burning; she flirts with someone, they argue and then they have great sex – until the great sex part begins to stop. The kids are unenthusiastic about being around him on those few occasions when he’s actually around.

One night he returns home from his commute to find a power outage. At his front door is a raccoon sniffing around the garbage where his wife has thrown out his dinner, tired of waiting for him to come home. He chases the raccoon into the garage where it bounds up to the loft above the garage. He scares it back out again but discovers that a round window above the garage gives him a perfect view of the inside of his house. Fascinated, he plays voyeur for a bit until he falls asleep.

When he wakes up with a start, he sees his wife sending the kids off to school and then toddling off to work as if nothing happened. Incensed, he decides to play out the string a little longer. He raids the house for food and moves into the garage loft. Soon she goes from cavalier to genuinely worried. The police are called.

Weeks go by and Walter begins to experience a kind of liberating freedom. He no longer has any responsibilities, no need to conform to what’s expected of him. When a memorial service is held at the house for the missing Walter, he is bemused that one of the lawyers at his firm is trying to put the moves on Diane. He begins to reminisce about his life with her, how they met – and how he stole her away from his best friend Dirk Morrison (O’Mara) by blatantly lying. All’s fair, right?

But as weeks turn into months and the weather grows cold, he begins to experience something unexpected – loneliness. Being a voyeur has its limits and there’s no doubt that the liberation he’s experienced has lost its luster. To make matters worse, Diane has reconnected with her old flame Dirk who has taken Walter’s place at the Thanksgiving table. Walter realizes that the things he took for granted are the things that made his life worth living but is it too late for him to re-enter his life and live once again?

There is a dark almost Russian feeling to the movie that reminded me of the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. There’s an almost absurd element to the drama – does anybody really think that it wouldn’t be noticed that a wild-eyed bearded man was living in the loft above their garage? – and I found that rather pleasing.

Bryan Cranston has since breaking out in Breaking Bad become one of America’s most reliable actors. Yes, he’s done a few forgettable movies but he’s generally always memorable in them (with a few exceptions). This is all him – much of the movie is Walter’s voice-over narration – and he’s in virtually every frame of the film. It’s quite a burden to shoulder but Cranston carries it like it’s a bag full of Styrofoam. He’s very likely to get nominated for an Oscar this year – probably not for this one but for the much buzzed about Last Flag Flying – and you can see why in this film why he’s a threat every year to make the Oscar shortlist.

Garner and O’Mara are mostly glimpsed from a distance. This is all Walter’s point of view so often we don’t hear what either one is saying. They largely use body language to get across what their character is feeling. I have to award kudos to Swicord for sticking to her guns and to Garner and O’Mara for going along with her plan. It couldn’t be easy for either actor to sign up for a film where they had so little dialogue but both are an integral part of the movie’s story nonetheless.

Howard isn’t a very likable character to say the least. Most of the time in his narration he is full of nasty little asides about various people in his life. Some of his zingers are dang funny but you realize that there is a kind of nastiness to him that he might just get off on demeaning others. One quickly comes to the realization that the problem in Howard’s marriage…is Howard. The man himself takes much longer to come to that conclusion than the audience does.

This is an interesting character study but the movie isn’t really an essential one. With a performance as mesmerizing as Cranston’s is here one has to recommend it on that basis alone but frankly this won’t be one of the more stellar indie films this year in terms of quality. It’s solid though and definitely worth seeing if you can manage it but if you can’t it’s not a great loss either. Still, the central theme of going out of ourselves to get to truly know ourselves is well-handled and there is quality here. Definitely keep an eye out for it and check it out if you can.

REASONS TO GO: This is Cranston’s show and he makes the most of it. There’s a Dostoyevsky-like vibe to the film. It’s an interesting character study.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit on the mean-spirited side. It’s interesting but not essential.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the E.L. Doctorow short story of the same name that appeared in the January 14, 2008 issue of The New Yorker which was in turn based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne story of the same name published in 1835.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost Dad
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Alien: Covenant

David Lynch: The Art Life


Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

(2016) Documentary (Janus) David Lynch. Directed by Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm

 

David Lynch is one of the most celebrated, iconoclastic and cerebral directors in cinematic history. From his breakout in 1977 with Eraserhead, his filmography has an impressive list of films including Elephant Man, Dune, Mulholland Drive, Wild at Heart, Blue Velvet, The Straight Story and of course the legendary TV series Twin Peaks which he has just resumed with a sequel on Showtime. While he hasn’t made a narrative feature film since 2006 (Inland Empire), he has remained busy with a plethora of short films (most of which can be found on his website) as well as writing music and painting.

This documentary is mainly directed by longtime admirer Nguyen and the hero worship is evident. Nguyen emulates the style and the pacing of a Lynch film which I suppose is appropriate; therefore rather than getting a straight documentary film that tells Lynch’s story as a filmmaker, we get the director himself narrating the story of his childhood, adolescent and young adult years essentially leading up to Eraserhead. We see that his first love is painting (which he continues to do to this day) and that he lived a fairly normal, suburban life in the 50s and early 60s as his research scientist father moved them regularly to states in the Pacific Northwest and Big Sky country.

Lynch speaks very warmly about his mom who once she discovered his talent at drawing refused to buy him coloring books although she bought them for his siblings. This had the effect of forcing Lynch to use his imagination and coming up with his own pictures rather than filling in the blanks for someone else’s.

So where does the darkness that fills almost all of Lynch’s art, both cinematic and painting, come from? Lynch, notoriously reticent, is cagey about that. He discusses an incident in which he and his siblings were playing outside after dark when a naked woman, bleeding from the mouth, staggered onto the cul-de-sac on which he lived and sat down on the curb and wept. Lynch talks about not knowing what to do, and apparently the incident stayed with him; it sounds very much like a moment out of his own films.

Lynch had a love of painting and when he discovered that the father of one of his school chums was artist Bushnell Keeler, he knew he had a calling. Keeler encouraged him, allowed him to rent space in his workshop and when David’s father threatened to throw him out after the two argued about a curfew, Keeler came to the rescue and assured the elder Lynch that his son was working hard on a passion, something he wished his own son would do. Keeler also helped get Lynch into the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where Lynch began to thrive.

If you’re looking for a movie that is going to explain the influences on Lynch’s cinematic career, or explore his methodology and inspirations, you’ve not going to find it here. The film ends essentially with Eraserhead and none of his other cinematic works gets so much as a mention here. In true Lynch style, we get next to nothing of what we want to know and instead have to make do with what he’s willing to tell us. That may drive less enthusiastic fans bonkers but his diehard followers will nod sanguinely and enjoy the ride.

This is the rare documentary that isn’t a parade of talking heads. There’s only one here – Lynch himself – and we see him throughout, wreathed in a fog of cigarette smoke (Lynch is more or less a chain smoker and has been since youth), an everpresent glass of Coke at his side. Mostly he paints on-camera although from time to time he plays with his toddler daughter Lula (to whom the film is dedicated) or stares off contemplatively into the distance. This is a bit of a double-edged sword. The film isn’t cluttered but at the same time we get no other viewpoints. We see images of his brothers, his sister, his friends (like the inimitable Jack Fisk) but we don’t hear from them. Everything in this movie is through Lynch’s eyes, or the eyes of the filmmakers.

Consequently we’re left to gaze at Lynch painting, smoking and reminiscing. He can be a charming raconteur but there are times he starts an anecdote, pauses, then says “I can’t talk about that right now” and moves on. Like the painting he is working on, it is left intriguingly but infuriatingly unfinished for the audience. Sadly at least for my part, I found this somewhat boring after awhile. It was the cinematic equivalent of reading a Wikipedia entry and served to make one of the most interesting filmmakers extant actually boring. That’s unforgivable as far as I’m concerned.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers do an admirable job of making this look and pace very much like Lynch’s own work.
REASONS TO STAY: This is very much for Lynch fans. We get no other point of view other than Lynch’s own.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity, some art nudity and a whole lot of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was funded through a Kickstarter campaign; those who gave money at a certain level were awarded Producer credits.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny
FINAL RATING:4.5/10
NEXT: Fate of the Furious

Krampus


Krampus asks Krista Stadler if she knows a good manicurist.

Krampus asks Krista Stadler if she knows a good manicurist.

(2015) Horror Comedy (Universal/Legendary) Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Maverick Flack, Luke Hawker, Gideon Emery (voice), Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel, Leith Towers, Mark Atkin, Gareth Ruck, Trevor Bau, Felicity Hamill, Kelly Lily Marie, Ivy George, Sophie Gannon. Directed by Michael Dougherty

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas is a time for family which can be a double-edge sword. Most of us love nearly all of our families, but there’s always that one uncle or cousin or aunt that drive us straight to the liquor cabinet. Sometimes, we’re the ones that drive our families there.

For Tom (Scott) and Sarah Engel (Collette), there are plenty of cabinets for that bus ride. The two are having a bit of a tough go; Tom is a workaholic dad who has been drifting away from his wife, who is a bit tightly wound to put it charitably. Neither one seem to notice that their son Max (Anthony) is having a hard time with believing in the Big Fat Man. Only Omi Engel (Stadler), Tom’s mother who speaks mostly German, seems to have bonded with the young boy. Teen daughter Beth (S.L. Owen) is more focused on her boyfriend Derek (Towers).

Making the mix even more volatile is the arrival of Sarah’s sister Linda (Tolman) and her Tea Party/NRA husband Howard (Koechner) and his bullying brood of Stevie (L. Owen) and Jordan (Samuel) as well as overeating Howard Jr. (Flack) and worst of all, abrasive Aunt Dorothy (Ferrell) whom Sarah would most fervently wish back to Oz.

After a dinner in which the tension around the table boils over, Max has had enough. He tears up his letter to Santa, which brings a strange and extreme weather front to town, snowing everyone in. However, that’s not the worst of it; the family is being stalked by Krampus (Hawker, voiced by Emery), a German folk tale who is a little more real than you might think. He’s after the naughty and the nice, and he has a bunch of minions, ranging from a serpentine Jack-in-the-Box monster to maniacal gingerbread men to a vicious angel and homicidal toys, to do his dirty work. A lump of coal simply won’t do when you’re Krampus.

This is a fun mix of terror and laughter which since the studio didn’t do press screenings and most of the press it has received is mostly negative actually surprised me. Of course, Dougherty directed the much underrated Trick ‘r Treat and that should have alerted me to the fact that this was a lot more than a cookie cutter holiday horror flick. Krampus is certainly far from that.

Part of what makes this better is that Scott and Collette make very relatable characters; in particular Scott is likable as all get out. You get the sense that he’s trying to be a great father and a good husband, but the responsibilities are just weighing him down. Similarly, Collette’s Sarah is going all out to make it a memorable Christmas, but is met with either indifference or intense criticism and she’s at her breaking point. Few actresses in Hollywood can play high-strung without getting shrill, but Collette manages that, skirting Bette Davis territory without entering it.

Most of the other characters are holiday comedy tropes; the drunken aunt with the foul mouth who essentially doesn’t give a fart about the kids, the horndog boyfriend, the naive daughter who doesn’t get that the boyfriend only wants to get into her panties, the overbearing oafish uncle, the henpecked aunt, the nightmarish cousins who could every one of them use a good kick in the most painful of places. Koechner, Ferrell and Tolman all do credible job but have little to hang their craft on.

Dougherty does a real good job balancing the humor and the gore – in fact, the gore is kept to a minimum, relying more on the creatures (mostly CGI) for the scares. Krampus himself is a woodcut come to life, looking terrifying and had I seen something of that as a child, my bladder control would have been shot for life. However, not all of the creatures fare as well, some being resolutely non-scary and others are too obviously CGI. The snake-like Jack-in-the-Box was the one that was the least successful, but the gingerbread men are absolutely non-threatening.

It must be said that the ending was a little bit convoluted and while I give Dougherty props for at least going a bit out of the box for it, I did find it unsatisfying and disappointing compare to the rest of the film, taking the rating down a notch in the process. Still in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this as entertainment and while this is no Bad Santa, it is definitely solid filmmaking that re-confirms Dougherty as a talented filmmaker who has bigger and better things in store for the moviegoing public. Certainly he’s the most promising horror film auteur you’ve never heard of, which is something of a shame because I find his movies as entertaining as anything else that is coming out in the genre over the past five years or so. Hopefully that will change after this one.

REASONS TO GO: Funny and/or scary when it needs to be. Scott and Collette are solid.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending’s a disappointment. Some of the creatures miss the mark.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images, horror violence, foul language and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The bell ornaments that Krampus hands out say Gruss vom Krampus which translated means “Greetings from Krampus.”
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill continues!

Dark Skies


Things that go bump in the night.

Things that go bump in the night.

(2013) Sci-Fi Horror (Dimension) Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, J.K. Simmons, L.J. Benet, Rich Hutchman, Myndy Crist, Anne Thurman, Jake Washburn, Ron Ostrow, Tom Costello, Marion Kerr, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Josh Stamberg, Tiffany Jeneen, Brian Stepanek, Judith Moreland, Adam Schneider, Jessica Borden Directed by Scott Stewart

6 Days of Darkness 2015

In one’s home, one feels secure, safe as if locked doors and a deadbolt can keep the outside world at bay. The terrors of the outside world however are insidious and some of them can’t be deterred by a closed door or a security alarm.

Daniel Barrett (Hamilton) is an unemployed architect unable to find a job in a recession-era environment. His wife Lacy (Russell) is a real estate agent in a market when NOBODY is buying houses. They are surviving on her meager income and the bills are rapidly becoming an issue that is affecting their relationship.

Their kids Jesse (Goyo) – the eldest – and Sam (Rockett) – the youngest – are aware that their parents are under some strain but don’t really know why. And then some odd things begin to happen. They find the refrigerator door open and all the vegetables eaten. The canned and packaged food is stacked up in a neat pile on the kitchen table. The chandelier over the table begins projecting strange symbols on the ceiling.

The incidents begin to escalate. Sammy has some kind of seizure during a soccer game. Lacy witnesses hundreds of birds flying into their home and killing themselves. Lacy sees an alien figure standing over Sammy’s bed who disappears when she turns on the light. As the incidents get worse and worse, Lacy does some research and comes up with a single cause – U.F.O.s. She consults an expert (Simmons) who tells them that these cases usually end up in child abduction.

That night, which happens to be the Fourth of July, Daniel and Lacy load up for bear, sealing up their home and awaiting an alien onslaught. But how can you fight an enemy you can’t see – and whose motivations you don’t know?

There have been plenty of alien abduction movies ranging from Communion to The X-Files: Fight the Future. Where does this one stack up on the list? Somewhere in the middle. Director Stewart, whose background is in visual effects, manages to set a great suburban environment where everything is normal – at least normal for this time and place. At first the villains are purely financial – bill collectors and the possibility they might lose their home bring in modern horror we can all relate to.

But as the movie goes on, it slowly begins to come off the rails until it builds to a climax that is to put it mildly disappointing. I can’t stress enough that this is a movie with enormous potential that you watch with a stupefied catatonic expression on your face as it completely blows it.

Keri Russell is a really fine actress and normally she can be relied upon to keep a film centered but here, she – like everyone else in the cast – overacts almost to the point of parody. All the gestures are wild and overbearing; all the dialogue delivered like they’re pronouncements rather than lines. I have never seen a movie in which there was such universal scene chewing as this one, or at least none that I can remember.

The two actors playing the kids – Royo and Rockett – are completely unconvincing and as wooden as a treehouse. I get that having children put in jeopardy is part of the movie’s whole reason to be, but at least make the children believable. I can’t believe they couldn’t find better juvenile actors than these.

The most major failing however is that this sci-fi horror movie isn’t as scary as it could be. For one thing, we never see the aliens clearly. If you’re going to have an alien movie, the least you can do is show us the aliens. And as the ending dives over the cliff of futility, the sense of jeopardy that the director worked so hard to establish disappears entirely. By the end of the movie you’ll be hard-pressed not to check the time.

The first half of the movie is actually pretty terrific and if they’d maintained the momentum they set up, this could have been a horror classic. Instead we get a movie that is a bit of a mess. There are definitely some features worth exploring here but overall this is fairly unsatisfying and despite a decent cast, falters in nearly every important way.

WHY RENT THIS: Establishes a sense of normalcy. Hits close to home.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Abundant overacting. Not scary enough.
FAMILY VALUES: Situations of terror, a fair amount of violence, some sexual material, a little bit of drug use and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dark Skies was also the original title for Sharknado.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.4M on a $3.5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu , M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire in the Skies
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial


Drew Barrymore has worked with stranger co-stars than this.

Drew Barrymore has worked with stranger co-stars than this.

(1982) Science Fiction (Universal) Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert Macnaughton, Drew Barrymore, K.C. Martel, Sean Frye, C. Thomas Howell, Erika Eleniak, David O’Dell, Richard Swingler, Frank Toth, Robert Barton, Michael Darrell, David Berkson, David Carlberg, Milt Kogan, Alexander Lampone, Rhoda Makoff. Directed by Steven Spielberg

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Some movies become ingrained in us, a part of our childhoods – or a reminder of it. Few films fulfill that function as this one, which many consider to be Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus. While as a movie critic I would tend to say that this wasn’t the best film he ever made, it might well be the most perfect family film ever made. You be the judge.

An alien scientific expedition collecting botanical specimens in Northern California are interrupted by the appearance of government agents; they flee in their spaceship. In the chaos, one of their members is left behind. The extra-terrestrial – E.T. – finds a hiding place in a shed in a suburban yard.

One of the residents of the house, Elliott (Thomas) discovers the alien. He forms a bond with the creature that is both emotional and psychic – they feel what the other is feeling. Eventually he lets in his five-year-old sister Gertie (Barrymore) and older brother Michael (Macnaughton) in on his secret. His mother (Wallace), recently separated from their dad, is left blissfully ignorant.

Eventually it turns out that E.T. is getting seriously ill – and so is Elliott. E.T., knowing that he’ll die if he doesn’t get home, constructs a make-shift communications device that will allow him to “phone home” using a Speak N Spell, a foil-covered umbrella and other household items (the device, constructed by science educator Henry Feinberg, supposedly worked). When E.T. and Elliott become close to death, the government agents finally appear, led by a man with an impressive key ring (Coyote). However, when it appears that E.T. has expired, it turns out that love is a wonderful thing that can make miracles happen.

The film was a sensation when it was released in my senior year at Loyola Marymount, and would briefly become the all-time box office champion until Spielberg himself surpassed the mark with Jurassic Park nearly a decade later. It remains a favorite among families and is one of the all time home video best-sellers.

Part of what is marvelous about E.T. is how believable the kid actors are. In an era when cutesie kids were the norm rather than the exception, Thomas, Macnaughton and Barrymore were exceptional here. They acted like real kids and never seemed to be “forcing it,” never even seem to be acting. In a movie where no adult face other than the mom’s is seen until nearly an hour in, you need to have good juvenile actors for it to work for all audiences and fortunately for Spielberg, he got three good ones (both Thomas and Barrymore went on to exceptional careers, Barrymore in particular). Coyote has to convey both menace and elicit sympathy and he does so. Despite the scariness of the government agents, there really is no villain here – a nice message.

Of course, the real star here is E.T. himself, a creation of Italian sculptor Carlo Rambaldi. While primitive by today’s standards, E.T. lived and breathed for the children of the era and while today the technology is a bit dated and the look of E.T. less than scintillating, for its time though the movie looked amazing.

Like many Spielberg movies, there is a definite suburban feel to it. Spielberg was one of the first directors to make his films in a suburban setting (the original Poltergeist which was filmed concurrently with Spielberg acting only in a producer’s role was the flip side of E.T. – whereas E.T. was a suburban fairy tale, Poltergeist was a suburban nightmare) and remains one of the best for conjuring a suburban vibe. That works as a double-edged sword here; the movie has a kind of safe feel to it that kids from poorer environments might regard with a puzzled expression, and the cast is as lily-white as can be. The only (illegal) alien here is E.T. himself. I imagine Donald Trump would want him deported.

E.T. is a part of our cultural landscape – lines like ”E.T. phone home” and the image of kids on bicycles flying in front of the moon are familiar to nearly everybody in the Western world as is John Williams’ iconic score. There aren’t many movies that can be said to be beloved but this is certainly one of them. Likely everyone reading this has this movie wrapped up in childhood memories – if not their own then in the memories of their own children growing up. E.T. is one of a select few that can say that.

WHY RENT THIS: An iconic film that recalls childhood. Charming and heartfelt.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit dated and a little bit suburban.
FAMILY VALUES: Some peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The doctors and nurses who work on E.T. are actual emergency room personnel. They were told to work on the puppet as if it were an actual patient so that their dialogue would seem authentic.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some on-set video diaries, a featurette about the 2002 cast reunion, two featurettes on the iconic John Williams score, a Special Olympics TV PSA, and several photo galleries – all on the Blu-Ray edition. The Blu-Ray has the original theatrical version; the 2002 Anniversary edition has a digitally enhanced version of the film which got jeers from audiences and critics alike for the additional CGI which frankly was distracting.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $792.9M on a $10.5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Kensho at the Bedfellow

What We Do in the Shadows


A flat portrait.

A flat portrait.

(2014) Horror Comedy (Unison/Paladin) Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham, Rhys Darby, Jackie van Beek, Elena Stejko, Jason Hoyle, Karen O’Leary, Mike Minogue, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Ian Harcourt, Ethel Robinson, Brad Harding, Isaac Heron, Yvette Parsons, Madeleine Sami, Kura Forrester. Directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement

When you get a bunch of people together to live in a single flat, usually it’s for economic reasons – after all, shared costs are less. When you do though, it is imperative that you try to find people with shared interests and common backgrounds. Without something to hold the group together, harmony disappears and you get chaos and anarchy.

In an unassuming suburban flat near Wellington, New Zealand live four gents who tried to head off conflict by gathering because of one common characteristic – all four of them are vampires. When a documentary crew arranges to follow them about and try to get an idea of their daily routines (all of them wearing a crucifix for safety), we are given an insight to just how ordinary the undead truly are.

That’s the premise for this hilarious comedy from the guys behind the cult HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords. Jemaine Clement plays Vladislav, a 16th century despot with a penchant for torture whose confidence was shattered after the humiliating defeat at the hands of his arch-nemesis known only as The Beast. Taika Waititi (both of whom co-wrote and co-directed) plays Viago, an 18th century dandy who pines for the human woman who got away and conducts flat meetings on the chores chart.

Brugh is Deacon, a 19th century aristocrat who finds that doing dishes is beneath his status as a vampire and has let them pile up over five years. Finally, Fransham is Peter, who is 8,000 years old and really doesn’t say much of anything. The four of them are doing their best to remain inconspicuous and blend in, particularly when they go out looking for victims to feed on.

One of them, Nick (Gonzalez-Macuer) is accidentally changed into a vampire. He’s pretty delighted by it, telling all and sundry that he’s a vampire, much to the consternation of Deacon, Vladimir and Viago (Peter doesn’t really say much of anything). However, he does bring into the group Stu (Rutherford), a computer programmer who is a cool guy who gets accepted into the group more than Nick himself. Also hanging around is Jackie (van Beek), a familiar who runs most of their errands during daylight (they have quite a spectacular reaction to it) and does their bloody laundry in the hopes of someday getting eternal life for herself, although she feels her biological clock ticking – as in she’s in her mid-30s and doesn’t want to spend eternity as a middle aged woman. All of this is leading up to the biggest social event of the year for vampires witches and zombies – the Unholy Masquerade but this year’s event has put the house into a quandary. This year, the Guest of Honor at the ball is none other than The Beast.

This mockumentary is absolutely laugh-out-loud funny in a lot of places and you don’t necessarily have to be a vampire movie fan to get the jokes, like when the dim-witted police officers come to the home to investigate neighborhood complaints of smoke coming out of the windows and shrieking, and end up lecturing them on the lack of smoke alarms in the house.

Of course, it DOES help if you know at least a little bit about vampire lore but most of it you can figure out. Some of the funniest sequences involve a run in with the flatmates of a pack of werewolves whose canine scent is offensive to the bloodsuckers. When Viago sneers “Why don’t you sniff your own crotches” to the pack, one of them shamefacedly says “We don’t smell our own crotches; we smell each other’s. It’s a form of greeting.”

The tropes here are classic vampire, which is a good thing because I think most horror fans appreciate it more – the Twilight series is pretty much left out of it as are most of the Young Adult vampire mythologies, as well as modern stuff like the Buffyverse and the kind of Gothic vampire works of Anne Rice. No, this is more or less Bram Stoker and Hammer horror on display which to me anyway is a very good thing.

Most horror spoofs are godawful at best but this doesn’t fall into that category and Clement and Waititi both carefully avoid falling into that trap. Most of the humor comes from the ridiculousness of the everyday situations the flatmates find themselves in. While some of the sequences work better than others and the humor can be a bit dry, overall it works extremely well. The effects are nifty enough for a micro-budgeted indie which means not a lot of CGI and more practical effects, which also makes a case for those who prefer their horror more of the throwback variety. While it must be cautioned that those with weak stomachs for gore might find some of the scenes here pretty bloody, this is definitely tonic for a time of year when most of the cinematic offerings are particularly cringeworthy.

REASONS TO GO: Really funny in places and never descends into spoof. Classic vampire stuff.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places and a bit droll throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language, plenty of blood, some unsettling images and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hill where the vampires have a run-in with the werewolves was also used in the filming of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vampires
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Lazarus Effect

Mama


So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (Universal) Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat, Morgan McGarry, David Fox, Dominic Cuzzocrea, Christopher Marren, Ray Kahnert, Hannah Cheesman, Julia Chantrey. Directed by Andres Muschietti

The bond between a mother and her child is something that simply can’t be broken. It is stronger than diamonds and carries its own gravitational pull that makes a black hole look like a refrigerator magnet. That bond is there for life – and some say, beyond.

This story starts with murder, of a man who loses it and kills his estranged wife and ex-partner and kidnaps his two children. He takes them, not quite intentionally, to a dilapidated cabin in the remote woods of Virginia called oddly enough Helvetia (with Mad Men-era retro furniture) where he intends to shoot them, and then himself. However fate – in the guise of a malevolent presence – intervenes.

Five years later, the two girls are still missing and their Uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau) is still looking for them although his funds are running low – he’s been utilizing the inheritance from his successful brother. Lucas apparently “draws things” although it’s never really established whether he draws paintings or cartoons or whatnot. Anyway his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain), a rocker chick who plays bass in a punk-edged indie rock band, is a little put off by her boyfriend’s obsession especially since she can’t get pregnant herself.

However quite accidentally Burnsie (Fox), the tracker that Lucas has hired for the task, stumbles on the cabin and finds the girls – Victoria (Charpentier), now eight and her sister Lilly (Nelisse) who is six. The two girls are nearly feral although Victoria seems to be recovering her ability to speak. Lilly, in particular, is nearly mute, moving in an eerie spider-like motion.

It’s nothing short of a miracle that two such young children could survive in an isolated cabin on their own for so long but nobody seems to be questioning that. In fact, their psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfus (Kash) thinks that in a stable home environment that the girls might achieve some normalcy. While Lucas’ Aunt Jean (Moffat) is anxious to get custody, Lucas is actually much closer to the girls and with some help from Dr. Dreyfus gets the judge (Kahnert) to agree once the University arranges for a nice suburban home for Lucas and Annabel to move into.

But things aren’t all My Little Pony in suburban Virginia. The girls are both extremely traumatized and look at Lucas and particularly Annabel with some wariness. They refer to an invisible entity they call Mama who looks after her – and apparently she’s dropped by the ‘burbs to keep an eye on her girls. And after Lucas is removed from the picture, it is up to Annabel – who neither wants the job nor thinks herself able to do it – to take care of two very difficult children.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the horror film. Annabel begins to bond with the two girls (in particular with Victoria) and this Mama doesn’t like at all, not in the slightest. Dr. Dreyfus isn’t much of a help – he has his own agenda which isn’t necessarily in the best interests of the girls. And Mama isn’t recognizing any agenda but her own which isn’t good news for Annabel or  the girls.

This is based on a short previously directed by Muschietti and was produced by fan favorite and all-around good guy Guillermo del Toro. Spanish horror tends to be really atmospheric and Muschietti has a flair for it, making the cabin look anachronistic and genuinely creepy. Everything from the movement of the actors which isn’t quite natural to the suburban setting which is deceptively ordinary contributes to the overall vibe that things aren’t right a’tall.

Enjoy Chastain in this role folks, because you won’t see her in this kind of movie ever again – or at least it’s very unlikely you will. Right now if I had to name the best actress working in Hollywood right now, today, this moment, it would be Jessica Chastain. She has that chameleon-like quality that Meryl Streep possesses that allows her to take on virtually any kind of role and not just make it hers but make it unique as well. Here she’s channeling her inner Joan Jett and gives Annabel a gamine like quality that is endearing with the immature feel of a teenage boy who hasn’t quite grown up yet. Annabel grows up a great deal during the course of the movie and Chastain makes those changes organic. You don’t often go to see a horror movie for the acting performances but this is one of those exceptions where you should.

Coster-Waldau, so excellent as Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones on HBO is solid here, reminding me a little bit of Viggo Mortensen. He plays the dual role of Luke and his doomed brother and wisely lets Chastain take center stage. He’s a terrific actor in his own right and has all sorts of leading man potential. In addition, the two young juvenile actresses do extremely well – Charpentier as the emotional center reaching for the mundane and Nelisse as Lilly who has one foot in the spirit world wherein Mama dwells.

Mama’s backstory is nothing to write home about and when she is revealed she isn’t all that impressive but when she moves through the floor or ceiling it’s chillingly effective. Mama needs to elicit a certain amount of sympathy from the audience but in this case she doesn’t really inspire enough which is a hard feat I know but it would have made the movie exponentially more effective. As it is given Chastain’s performance this is a horror movie mainstream audiences should go see.

REASONS TO GO: Creepy in all the right places. Jessica Chastain is the best actress in Hollywood right now period. Nice ghostly effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Story a little bit convoluted. Final look of Mama is a bit of a letdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some pretty scary images some of which are pretty disturbing, some thematic issues and a few nasty scares.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally scheduled for a Halloween 2012 release, the movie got bumped up to January which proved to be a smart move as it recouped its entire production and marketing cost in its opening weekend, debuting at number one at the box office.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. Although the reviews are somewhat mixed, there are more positive than negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Woman in Black

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Sorcerer and the White Snake

The Joneses


The Joneses

David Duchovney is justs a material girl trying to live in a material world.

(2009) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) David Duchovney, Demi Moore, Amber Heard, Ben Hollingsworth, Gary Cole, Chris Williams, Lauren Hutton, Glenne Headly, Christine Evangelista, Rob Pralgo, Tiffany Morgan, Joe Narciso. Directed by Derrick Borte

Our society has devolved into one in which the old truism “whoever dies with the most toys wins” has taken on a new meaning. The crucial signposts of life have become the things we acquire – the shiny new sports car, the state of the art electronics, the high end golf clubs, the designer clothes. Our pursuit of the trappings of success has overcome our pursuit of excellence, making keeping up with the Joneses more than just a spectator sport.

Into a wealthy suburban enclave move in Steve Jones (Duchovney), his impossibly gorgeous wife Kate (Moore), his gorgeous daughter Jenn (Heard) and his handsome son Mick (Hollingsworth). They don’t just have the outer trappings of success – they embody it.

However, what you see on the surface – behind the beautiful home, the flashy car, the nice clothes – is something completely different than what is underneath. There are problems in the perfect family. In fact, they aren’t really a family of all.

What they are is revealed in the trailer, which is another case (see Dream House) of a marketing department robbing a film of its maximum impact. For that reason, I’m leaving the plot description a little thin, other than to say that what the movie is really about is America’s obsession with consumerism and how it robs us of our soul.

Duchovney is perfect for the role of Steve. He has a dry delivery that just hints of the smarmy while remaining acerbic and eventually, empathetic. For a role that could easily descend into self-parody and completely turn off audiences, the very likable Duchovney turns it into a role that audiences will identify with as his character is forced to confront the fall-out of his actions and put his familial loyalty to the test.

Moore has never been one of my favorite actresses, but it has to be said that she can play the driven executive-sort better than nearly anybody and that’s the place she goes for this part. She makes a good foil for Duchovney and I must say the 40-something Moore looks amazing.

That’s neither here nor there though. What I liked is that first-time writer/director Borte takes a terrific concept and uses it to look at an issue that is subtle and seldom explored onscreen, with surprising insight and humor. There is an element of parody to it, but it also hits somewhat uncomfortably close to home.

When it comes right down to it, we tend to be sheep moving from one trend to the other, fickle consumers with an eye to what’s the latest and greatest, not realizing that these things are going to be obsolete in less time than it takes to bring it home from the store. Still, keeping up with the Joneses is as American as apple pie. We just should take a good look at the Joneses and ask why we should aspire to keep up with them.

WHY RENT THIS: A witty, smart commentary on materialism. Duchovney’s dry delivery serves him well here. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie’s plot twist is given away in the trailer. The final reel is a bit predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some drinking and teenage drug use, a bit of sexuality and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Borte is the brother of professional surfer Jason Borte; both were born in Germany but raised in Virginia.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7M on a $10M production budget; the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Three Musketeers (2011)

This Narrow Place


This Narrow Place

Sammy Sheikh and Jonathan Stanley affect Motor City tough guy poses.

(2011) Drama (Self-Released) Sammy Sheikh, Jonathan Stanley, Sayed Badreya, Anthony Azizi, Lonette McKee, Val Howard, Rita Khori, Oscar Brown, Mike Batayeh. Directed by Sooney Kadouh

 

Anger can only take you so far. When you are wounded as deeply as it’s possible to be, your first instinct is to lash out. Sometimes that may take you on a journey you never intended it to.

Hassan (Sheikh) is on a mission. His little brother died in a bombing in Beirut. He has entered the United States illegally to plant a bomb, using parts manufactured at the same plant where the bomb that killed his brother was manufactured. While stuck in an unsavory part of town, he meets Chris (Stanley), a drug addict who lives on his own in Detroit. Chris gives Hassan a ride to the home of Hassan’s Uncle Aziz (Badreya).

At the urging of his aunt, Hassan invites Chris over for dinner and weaves a tale about his attending Wayne State, where Hassan’s sister Nadia (Khori) is also attending (Nadia has been staying with Aziz for some time). As Hassan spends more time with Chris, he begins to see a side to America and Americans that he hadn’t planned on. The drug addict and would-be bomber begin to form an unlikely friendship, to the point where Hassan begs Tina (Howard), Chris’ drug connection, to “let him go.” Chris also develops affection for Nadia, not a welcome thing to her conservative Muslim family.

However with terrorist Faoud (Azizi) breathing down his neck, Hassan must make a choice between carrying out his plans and avenging his brother, or letting his rage go and perhaps creating an entirely different legacy for his brother and himself.

There are a lot of “fish out of water” buddy movies out there but this is unusual in that both the main characters are fish out of water, as it were. Hassan is from a completely different world; the life of a suburban Detroit family is like an entirely different planet to him. He is conflicted by his need to avenge his brother and by his own decency. He genuinely wants to help Chris kick his habit and uses the fasting of Ramadan to help him find some self-discipline.

Chris lives on the fringes of society, shunned by his own family who have declared him dead in order to deal with his situation. As the family life he never knew begins to give him new strength, he begins to change – becomes less the hustler, less the hedonist and finding more important things to focus his attention on.

There are some grungy neighborhoods on display here, both in Detroit and Beirut – I suspect the filmmaker was trying to draw a line between the two. There are also some nice neighborhoods and families that are welcoming and caring. The two worlds are in the same city but completely alien to one another. It’s hard to imagine they exist so close together.

Both Sheikh and Stanley are engaging, charismatic performers. It is their job to carry the film and it is their relationship that drives it. I’m not familiar with either actor, but I would venture to say that not only do they have good chemistry together they also individually do striking jobs to make their characters memorable and realistic.

They have a surprisingly good supporting cast. Often in indie movies, the acting chops begin and end at the leads but here, it’s uniformly there from top to bottom. That’s simply gold for a young director trying to establish a reputation.

I was a little bit unsure of the kicking of Chris’ drug habit; it seemed a little bit too pat and too clean and as we all know kicking that kind of habit is generally horribly painful. I also have to admit the ending was a little bit to the Hollywood side, but that’s all right; I liked it anyway. Indie movies often try to go out of their way to make their endings dark and depressing, but this one would probably have made a studio marketing chief sigh blissfully – and there’s not necessarily a bad thing. I do think that they could have used a bit of a trim on some of the subplots – was it really necessary to visit Chris’ mother and discover that he’s literally dead to her? – but all in all this is a pretty well-crafted movie with enough strong moments to make it recommendable to anyone, even those who might not necessarily be indie film fanatics.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances from the leads and an interesting story. I liked the ending although it might have had some “Hollywood” overtones to it.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the subplots could have been trimmed or cut altogether.

FAMILY VALUES: Some drug use, some foul language and a bit of violence.

HOME OR THEATER: Worth seeing in either venue.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Dog Sweat

A Serious Man


A Serious Man

You may think you're on top of the world, but you've still got to fix the antenna.

(2009) Dramedy (Focus) Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Adam Arkin, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolf, Jessica McManus, Alan Mandell, George Wyner, Michael Lerner, David Kang. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

There comes a time in all of our lives in which our suffering seems greatly magnified. We all experience the dark winter of our souls at some time or another. It’s enough to make even the least devout look heavenward and wonder why. Not all of us get to be Job, but most of us share in his troubles.

I’m sure Professor Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) would tend to agree with that. He’s a middle aged professor of physics, living a comfortable existence in a middle class subdivision in a Minneapolis suburb in the late 60s. He has applied for tenure and has been assured that there is no reason he shouldn’t get it. His son Danny (Wolf)  is about to undergo his bar mitzvah.

When we feel the weave of our lives is at its strongest is usually when it unravels. His wife Judith (Lennick) wants a divorce. She no longer can take the lack of inertia in Larry’s life and has taken up with his best friend, Sy Ableman (Melamed). Personally, I think if your best friend is named Sy Ableman you’ve got problems to begin with.

His son is having difficulties concentrating in class and has been experimenting with reefer. His daughter Sarah (McManus) is stealing money to save for a nose job. His ne’er-do-well brother-in-law Arthur (Kind) has taken up residence on his couch (when Sy and Judith urge him to leave their home and take up in a local motel, Arthur comes along with him as a sort of hideous luggage set Larry can’t get rid of) with a variety of ailments, including a cyst in need of drainage. Arthur believes he is close to uncovering the secret of the universe which apparently has to do with surviving without working.

A Korean student (Kang) who has clearly failed a test offers a bribe which turns into a means of blackmail. Larry’s oversexed neighbor who sunbathes in the nude has become not so much a sexual fantasy so much as a sexual nightmare that further emasculates him. To top it all off, the tenure which seemed to be a sure thing is now in jeopardy due to anonymous libelous letters that urge the university regents not to grant Larry tenure. It’s enough to make Larry go scrambling first for the shrink, then to the rabbis. Yes, plural.

The Coen Brothers are some of the most gifted filmmakers of the past 20 years, with a string of movies that aren’t just well-made but are among my favorites. Certainly when you go down the list of their films – Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men – and that’s just a partial list, there’s bound to be at least one or two that you’re fond of as well.

Here, the Coens explore their own inner Jewishness and certainly their own background as they were raised in a similar suburb of Minneapolis during the same time period here. I’m not sure if Aaron is a surrogate for the brothers but he might very well be.

I’ve always admired the Coens for their quirky sensibility and their offbeat humor and both qualities are in evidence here, to even greater effect. Those who prefer their storytelling done straight up will probably find the Coens an unpleasant taste, too Dr. Pepper in a world of colas.

This is a movie to my mind that is about the nature of suffering and the sheer randomness of it. It is appropriate that this is set in a Jewish background for if any ethnic group knows suffering, it’s them. There is plenty of sardonic humor but also a sense of bewilderment as if nobody involved with the movie can quite believe what’s going on in it.

Stuhlbarg, who has mostly been a stage actor throughout his career, does an extremely solid job here in what is essentially his first motion picture lead role. He captures the sense of being adrift on a sea of troubles with nothing but a life preserver to keep him afloat. Mostly he is surrounded by character actors whose names you may or may not recognize but whose faces you’ll immediately know.

There is a whole lot of kvetching in the movie, perhaps more than is necessary but then I’m just a goyim and I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to get it. That’s all right, too. This isn’t essential to the Coen Brothers catalogue in the sense of entertainment, but if you really want to get to know the filmmakers, I suspect this will be the film that comes closest to allowing you in. As Roger Ebert said, this is clearly a labor of love and one that would only be allowed to be made by someone who has won an Oscar. The movie is filled with parables that don’t really clarify anything but then, most parables were meant to be mysterious anyway.

WHY RENT THIS: While offbeat, Coen Brothers movies tend to be well-made and interesting, and this one is no exception. Stuhlbarg, a relative unknown, gives a solid performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is very rooted in its Jewishness, which may make certain parts of the movie difficult to follow or relate to for non-Jews. The movie also meanders a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language, a certain amount of sexuality and even a bit of brief nudity. Some of the thematic elements will go zooming over the heads of younger teens and the less mature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filming in Bangkok during the September 19, 2006 coup d’état. The armory department claims they fired the only shots of the coup. Filming was only interrupted for six hours.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an educational tool that helps with the Yiddish and Hebrew phrases that are peppered throughout the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31.4M on an unreported production budget; given what appear to be a pretty meager budget, I’d say the movie was probably a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Pink Panther 2