Star Light


Scout Taylor-Compton looks for guidance.

(2020) Horror (1091Scout Taylor-Compton, Cameron Johnson, Robert Adams, Liana Ramirez, Garrett Westton, Chandler Rachelle, Hagen Mills, Tiffany Shepis, Kevin Jiggetts, Bret Roberts, Geoff Callan, Darryl Phillipy, James M. Jennings, Gregory Dean French, Victoria Graham. Directed by Mitchell Altieri and Lee Cummings

Horror movies are undergoing a kind of renaissance of late; there have been some real game-changers out there. One of the benefits of this kind of quality is that it tends to inspire other filmmakers to do better, taking sometimes cliché ideas and characters and elevating one, the other or both. The average horror buff only benefits from this kind of thing.

Dylan (Johnson) is a fairly typical high school kid; he’s not sure where his future is leading him and his main interests are in playing video games, listening to music – particularly that of his pop crush Bebe A. Love (Taylor-Compton) – and hanging out with friends, much to the disgust of his single mom (Shepis) and her judgmental pastor boyfriend (Jiggetts).

On the way home one night, he literally runs into a terrified girl who has been injured in a car accident. Unsure of what to do, he takes her over to his friend Nick’s (Adams) house, where a few stragglers are left after one of those graduation bashes that occur when the parents have left the area. Dylan’s BFF Casey (Ramirez), hot-headed Monty (Mills), jock Tex (Westton) and slutty Sara (Rachelle) all remain as it soon becomes apparent that the injured girl is Bebe.

But then her handler/driver/manager Anton (Roberts) shows up, demanding that the teens turn over the pop star to him. And he is creepy enough that Dylan says “not a chance in Hell,” not realizing that Hell is a lot closer than he thinks. Anton lays siege to the remote party house. Can Dylan really impress Bebe enough to get a relationship going? Who will survive the night? And what is the thing in Anton’s trunk?

This is a movie that is occasionally frustrating – it establishes some plot threads that seem interesting, but then does nothing with them, for example, but Altieri and Cummings did assemble a pretty fine cast of veterans like Taylor-Compton and Shepis, and some really strong up-and-coming talent, like Johnson and Adams.

The movie starts off with plenty of teen angst as we get the sense that things between Dylan and his mom aren’t too cool, but the movie morphs into an occasionally dazzling horror fest. Roberts makes an extremely creepy villain, and while the twists aren’t exactly world-shattering, the plot keeps humming along and a pretty frenetic pace and the strong performances enable you to care about characters that are essentially teen slasher stock characters – although you won’t believe for a moment that these are high school kids, which is a sin a lot of teen-centric horror movies commit.

By no means is Star Light a game-changing horror movie, but it is solid and entertaining with enough to recommend it to fans and curious souls alike. Yes, there are movies out there that are far more innovative and maybe even more over-the-top but the filmmakers stick to what works and if they don’t take chances, they at least get the execution down properly. Not all horror movies can say that.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances, reasonably scary and utilizes teen angst and slasher film tropes with equal gusto.
REASONS TO AVOID: Most of the characters are kind of stock.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, teen sex and teen drinking, as well as some violence, terror and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Altieri and Cummings are two-thirds of the Butcher Brothers, horror specialist directors (The Hamiltons).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Evil Dead
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Attack of the Unknown

Babyteeth


Poolside contemplation.

(2019) Drama (IFCEliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Michelle Lotters, Sora Wakaki, Renee Billing, Zack Grech, Georgina Symes, Emily Barclay, Eugene Gilfedder, Edward Lau, Charles Grounds, Jack Yabsley, Andrea Demetriades, Ashley Hanak, Quentin Yung, Jaga Yap, Priscilla Doueihy, Shannon Dooley. Directed by Shannon Murphy

The world is full of dying teens, or so the movies would tell us. Invariably, the teens so afflicted are spunky, quirky and more lively than kids destined to live long lives. Rarely do we ever see seriously ill kids who actually act seriously ill, with only an occasional nosebleed or a bloody cough. I wonder what it says about humans in general that we are so eager to kill off our young, figuratively speaking.

In this much-lauded Aussie drama, Milla (Scanlen) seems a normal teen with normal teen angst and normal teen attitude – i.e. her parents don’t understand, all adults are morons and NOBODY GETS ME. Her parents, in her case, are seriously effed up – Dad Henry (Mendelsohn) is a therapist whose response is generally to write a prescription for one drug or another. Some of those drugs go to his wife and Milla’s mom Anna (Davis) who is generally stoned out of her mind on Xanax or Zoloft or some such.

Into Milla’s life comes Moses (Wallace) like a bull in a china shop, quite literally – he slams into her on a train platform, because he wants to feel the train. Within moments of that meeting, he’s hitting her up for cash. He’s homeless, a drug addict and a small-time drug dealer – just the kind of boyfriend any girl would love to bring home to Daddy – and of course, that’s exactly what Milla does.

Milla’s folks are appalled by Moses but even though he robs them, there’s still something charming about him and Milla really likes him. When Milla shows up bald shortly thereafter, we realize that her illness is Serious and Anna’s constant self-medication is because she is having trouble reconciling the prospect that her daughter might not be around much longer, but Moses seems to make her happy and so she and Henry allow Moses to stick around, because just maybe he’s the real tonic that Milla actually needs.

Veteran Aussie TV director Murphy, making her feature film debut, has made a film with graceful texture. To her credit, she rarely allows the film to degenerate into maudlin self-pity, which is an issue with other films of this sort. If it feels a bit padded out, that might be forgiven if what’s onscreen holds our interest. For the most part, it does largely due to an absolutely star-making performance by Scanlen who has shown that she has the chops to be an A-list actress. Her chemistry with Wallace is undeniable.

On the negative side, Murphy chooses to end each chapter abruptly rather than seamlessly transitioning. She just stops the scene, often like shutting a door and moving on to the next room. It’s jarring and would have worked better if she hadn’t used it quite so often. d

There is a lot of meat on the bones here, certainly enough to give the average film buff hours of discussion afterwards if so they choose. For me though, it didn’t quite connect; maybe I’ve seen too many dying teen movies and perhaps it didn’t resonate as much in the middle of a global pandemic. The movie probably deserved a higher grade than I’m giving it, but I can’t bring myself to do it; that wouldn’t be fair to my readers. I will say that some of you will likely really connect with this movie, but for one reason or another, I just didn’t. Make of that what you will.

REASONS TO SEE: Scanlen is mesmerizing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too long and too disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual content and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scanlen previously played sickly teen Beth March in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon. AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews, Metacritic: 76/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 6,5/10
NEXT:
The Ghost of Peter Sellers

Jinn (2018)


East meets west.

(2018) Drama (Orion) Simone Missick, Zoe Renee, Hisham Tawfiq, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Dorian Missick, Kelly Jenrette, Ashlei Foushee, Maya Morales, Upasana Beharee, Damien D. Smith, Horace Dodd, John Zderko, Emily Adams, Megan Clancy, Kobie Dozier, Matthew Excel, Gabriel Garzaro, Sara Kamine, Mike C. Manning, Fahad Olayan, Che Ladon, Evelyn Smith, Kat Purgal. Directed by Nijla Mu’min

We use the term “coming of age” blithely when it comes to movies, but in reality, it is no easy thing. It is often excruciatingly painful and difficult to manage even under perfect circumstances. As we all know, circumstances are rarely perfect.

Summer Jennings (Renee) looks to have a near-perfect life. A beautiful African-American girl in her senior year in high school, she is in love with dance and is hoping to get in to Cal Arts. Her mother, Jade (S. Missick) has been divorced from her dad for a while, but she has a great job as a local TV meteorologist. Summer has a dance team – a clique, really – and plenty of friends.

Jade feels like she’s missing something in her life and one day decides to go to a mosque. She is received warmly there, particularly by the Imam (Tawfiq) and after an afternoon of prayers and reading the Koran, decides to convert to Islam. At first, with the school talent show coming up, Summer barely notices but the more Jade gets into it, the more zeal she has. She insists that Summer also convert and Summer does, but Summer is exploring her sexuality, as teenage girls will, and trying to fit her new religion into the life she’s used to. Her attraction to Tahir (Harrison), the son of another single mom at the mosque (Jenrette) further complicates things.

First time writer-director Mu’min based the script on her own experiences growing up in Oakland (the story is transplanted to Los Angeles) and in the richly drawn Summer the experience shows. Renee is quite a find, rarely making a misstep in her performance, showing a lot of maturity in her body language and in her choices. She is definitely a talent to look out for.

There is a feeling of authenticity to the relationships Summer has and the choices that she makes. Summer is not always the ideal daughter – she can be casually cruel to her friends and her burgeoning sexuality causes her to make some poor choices, but Summer is basically a decent young girl trying to find herself amidst all the hormones and most teens will certainly see some common ground with their own experiences, particularly African-American girls but I think regardless of ethnic background, there is some insight to be had here even if you are not a teen any longer.

The movie treats Islam with respect, something that is kind of rare these days. It is portrayed here as a kind and compassionate belief system. Yes, Jade does tend to go overboard with the strict adherence but that tends to be true of any convert to a new religion. We do see Jade having to cope with her station’s reluctance to allow her on the air wearing a head scarf, but the anti-Islam hysteria that has swept the nation over the past 20 years isn’t referred to much, just obliquely.

This is a very good film, although it is bound to make a lot of far right sorts apoplectic. The title refers to a mythical creature that changes its form, and refers to Summer, who is throughout the film trying new looks, new hairstyles (you could make a drinking game out of the various colors she dyes her hair). That is another part of being a teenage girl, finding a look that expresses who they are. This movie ought to help some girls, searching for an identity, to bring their choices into focus.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong movie for teens, particularly African-American girls.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tends to lean towards the soap opera side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dorian Missick, who play’s Jade’s ex-husband David, is married to Simone Missick (who plays Jade) in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Plus, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waves
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Rewind

Finding Grace


The picture of teen petulence.

(2020) Faith-Based Drama (VisionParis Warner, Jasen Wade, Kisha Sharon Oglesby, David Keith, Bo Svenson, Erin Gray, Bethany Davenport, London Grace, Braden Balazik, Lucy Harselle, Warren Fast, Gage Maynard, Stacie Fast, Steve Norris, David Raizor, DeeJay Sturdivant, Israel Varela, Barbara Chevalier, Paige Fiser, Lacey Fiser, Avery E. King. Directed by Warren Fast

 

I will admit from the get-go that I’m not a big fan of faith-based films. It isn’t that I don’t believe, or that I don’t think that there isn’t a place for them; clearly there’s a market for them, and I don’t have a problem with Christianity in general. I have to say I’m averse to being preached to, however, and faith-based films have a tendency to be preachy – not all, but most. My biggest problem with Christian films in general, however, is that most of them are awful.

Take Finding Grace, for example. Alaska Rose (Warner) has been acting out ever since her mother left the family, leaving the hard-working Dad (Wade) to raise Alaska and her little brother (Balazik). Alaska is “out of control,” as the judge (Gray) in the film-opening courtroom scene remarks; she has been caught holding a fake I.D. and an alcoholic drink. As she is 18 years old, that means adult jail but the judge decides to be lenient, even though Alaska has enough attitude for ten teens. She ends up with 150 hours of community service. Note: how does one get sentenced to an adult jail for something that isn’t a crime for adults? I….err…umm…

Alaska is assigned to a residential care facility for the elderly. Alaska is assigned to the difficult Mrs. Foster (Oglesby) which works out about how you’d expect; she is also given charge of the talent show, which she is completely disinterested in. In the meantime, Dad’s business is failing and he is only barely holding his head above water; it would take only a small wave to drown the family. They haven’t been going to church recently, either, not since Mom left. Still, Alaska has a good heart and maybe something might click when she lets others in, particularly if she lets God in.

There are a few recognizable names here, mainly in blink and you missed them parts but the talent here is for the most part pretty unknown. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing; I’ve seen unknown casts deliver powerhouse movies in the past, but to do that you need a script that doesn’t feel like it was patched together from fifty other movies, and this one certainly has that feel.

The real issue for me is that the movie doesn’t go anywhere that hasn’t been gone before, many times. It doesn’t add anything particularly fresh, or new. I’ll be honest; I think that Christian audiences have been given short shrift by filmmakers in the genre; they can be just as discerning as secular audiences, and they deserve movies that are interesting and well-acted. This feels more like a sermon based on an Afterschool Special that lasts two hours, and even on my best days I couldn’t last two hours for a sermon. I believe – and maybe I’m wrong – but Christian audiences need more than a message in their movies. They need believable characters. They need actions that make sense. They need a plot that isn’t as predictable as Sunday falling the day after Saturday. I think the time has come to hold Christian filmmakers to higher standards.

REASONS TO SEE: Panama Beach looks like a pretty nice place.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable plot. Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot entirely on location in Panama City, Florida; shortly after filming was completed, the town was devastated by a direct hit from Hurricane Michael, so reshoots were not possible.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Let There Be Light
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
If Beale Street Could Talk

Cotton Wool


Family outings are the best.

(2017) Drama (Cherwell) Leanne Best, Crissy Rock, Kate Rutter, Max Vento, Gemma North, Katherine Quinn, Jason Lamar Ricketts, Emma Charlotte Heyes, Caragh Casserly, Olivia Hargreaves, Megan Grady, Lulu Mann, Will Clay, Edward Buckley. Directed by Nicholas Connor

 

Life can change in the space of a heartbeat. One moment, everything is normal and business as usual. The next, everything is different and our roles have been redefined, not only in regards to each other but in regards to ourselves.

Rachel (Best) is a singe mum in the North of England who works hard to put food on the table and care for her children; nine-year-old Sam (Vento) whom she dotes on, and teenage Jenny (Rock) whom she butts heads with. Remember that moment-to-moment thing? She’s taking laundry downstairs, trying to get her kids shooed off to school and herself to work when she collapses, suffering a massive stroke, Sam begging her to stop being a monster, clinging to the hope that his mum is trying to mess with him rather than think that something is seriously wrong which he knows deep down is true.

When Rachel comes home from the hospital, it becomes the responsibility of Jenny and Sam to take care of her. She has gone from taking care of her kids to being cared for by them. At first, Jenny wants no part of it. She wants nothing more than to be a normal teenage girl, hanging out at the pub with her friends. She abrogates her responsibility, leaving even more of the burden on Sam’s shoulders and fortunately Sam comes through, helping his mum with phonetic exercises trying to get a semblance of speech back for her and more importantly, having the presence of mind to summon help when his mother has a second mini-stroke.

A family friend (Rutter)) sees what’s happening and feels the need to intercede with Jenny, who is absolutely terrified when she realizes how easily her mum could have lost her life. The thought causes Jenny to reconsider her priorities.

The movie is ultimately heartwarming, but it underscores a serious problem with the National Health Service; there are nearly a quarter million caregivers in the UK who are children and of those, a significant percentage is under nine. I’m not sure what the figures are like here in the States, but I can bet that they are just as bad or worse, considering that we don’t have much of a healthcare system.

Best gives an outstanding performance here; the terror in her eyes as she falls to the floor, her last coherent words being “Oh, no!” as she realizes that something terrible is happening to her. Later on, her frustration has to be portrayed largely with her eyes and through tears, reduced to using a speech machine that in a flat operator-like voice says “I don’t feel like a woman anymore” as she confides to the social worker, at last being forced to ask her for help going to the loo.

The movie does get a bit maudlin at times as Sam, well-played by child actor Max Vento, is a bit too good to be true and Jenny a little bit too self-centered to begin with. There is a very real issue here, but the thirty-seven-minute running time isn’t really sufficient time to explore it properly. This is the rare case of a film not having enough time. As a result, Connor (who also wrote the film) is forced to use a cudgel rather than a scalpel.

This short has completed a successful festival run and should be on Amazon shortly. It is well worth seeking out.

REASONS TO SEE: Points out a rather large crack in the NHS that people fall through.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes gets a little maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Best also played the title role in The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24//20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic:  No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Sick
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Robert the Bruce

Anna and the Apocalypse


The apocalypse will have musical numbers.

(2017) Musical (OrionElla Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu, Ben Wiggins, Mark Benton, Paul Kaye, Sean Connor, John Winchester, Euan Bennet, Ella Jarvis, Myfawny Morgan, John McGeachie, Janet Lawson, Ruth McGhie, Kristy Strain, Tyler Collins, Daniel Cahill, Therese Bradley, Jackie Bird, Calum Cormack, Michael Annis, Louise Macphail. Directed by John McPhail

 

Genre mash-ups are a dime a dozen these days, but who would have ever expected a Christmas zombie musical set in Scotland? Think of it as High School Musical being performed in an episode of The Walking Dead.

The tiny Scottish town of Little Haven is home to Anna (Hunt), a high school senior with big dreams and a bright future. That future isn’t what it used to be, however, when a zombie pandemic hits her town, leaving her and her mates John (Cumming), her best friend who wants to be more than that, neurotic American rich girl Steph (Swire, who also choreographed the film) and Chris (Leveaux), an expert on movies and zombie pandemics, to fight their way to school where their loved ones may be holed up.

I don’t know if the world was waiting for George Romero’s Broadway musical, but this would fit the bill in both the positive and negative connotations of the concept. Most of the plot was cribbed from other sources, with the film’s funniest moment directly ripped off from Shaun of the Dead. Worse still, the music is bland and forgettable, lame pop that rarely rises above to be interesting (with Headmaster Savage’s delightfully evil glam number late in the film an exception). If you think Broadway musicals have achieved of repetitiveness born of a lack of creativity, this might well not be the movie for you.

The fresh-faced cast, at least, does their level best to be earnest and they do make fine pop stars as well as Scream Queens (and Kings). The movie’s concept, inspired by a Vine by the late Ryan McHenry (and how much more 2017 can you be than that?) gets an “A” for originality but falls somewhere between ordinary and extraordinary in execution.

REASONS TO SEE: A wildly original concept.
REASONS TO AVOID: The music isn’t anything to write home about.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence and gore, some profanity and brief sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The school in which principle filming took place, St. Stephen’s High School in Inverclyde, Scotland, was demolished shortly after filming took place.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews, Metacritic: 63/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warm Bodies
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Instant Family

The Sleepwalkers (Los sonambulos)


Country living isn’t all its cracked up to be.

(2019) Drama (MeikinCineErica Rivas, Ornella D’Elia, Luis Ziembrowski, Rafael Federman, Daniel Hendler, Marilu Marini, Valeria Lois, Gloria Demassi. Directed by Paula Hernández

Family dynamics are often a fragile thing. They may appear solid and strong on the surface, but cracks may run just beneath the surface, ready to make themselves known at a moment’s notice.

Luisa (Rivas) isn’t looking forward to spending the New Year’s break at her mother-in-law’s country home. While Meme (Marini) is congenial, she is definitely in charge of the purse strings and lets everyone know it. Luisa’s husband Emilio (Ziembrowski) insists and like a dutiful Argentine wife, she acquiesces. Her daughter Ana (D’Elia) is too busy being 14 years old to care, although not too busy to display angst and attitude at every available opportunity.

Also staying at the house is Sergio (Hendler), Emilio’s brother; and Ines (Lois), Emilio’s sister who is nursing a newborn. There is definite tension within the family; Meme is thinking of selling the house which Sergio is all for and Emilio is not. Into the mix comes Alejo (Federman), Sergio’s son and the obvious black sheep of the family. Young, manipulative, seductive, and brutally handsome, his arrival makes a tense situation even worse. Ana becomes interested in the confident, flirtatious Alejo, bringing further discord between mother and daughter. Neither one of them, however, are prepared for what comes next.

Hernandez/ fifth feature might well be her best. This is all about family dynamics and how people within families fall into familiar roles and not always healthy ones. On the surface it appears like a fun get-together where everyone is glad to see each other, but there is much tension hidden from view and it all comes out eventually. Even the stoutest pressure cooker must eventually let off steam.

The ensemble does some pretty good work here, with Rivas showing some real fire as Luisa who is extremely stressed with her relationships with both her husband and her daughter in very precarious positions and her job being threatened. D’Elia manages to perform on the same level; she’s got the petulant teenage daughter thing down to a science. She’s also amazingly beautiful; she is like a Raphael painting of cherubim come to life. Ziembrowski is also solid as the husband trying to understand his wife’s misery and failing spectacularly at it because…well, that’s what husbands do for the most part.

The pace is as slow as a summer afternoon on a particularly hot day; languid, in other words. At times it feels like not much of the story line is getting advanced but when the climax comes it’s pretty explosive and it is definitely worth all the buildup. The title refers to a condition that runs in the family, particularly with Ana who opens the movie by sleepwalking. It can also describe the pace as well.

This is not for those who look at Marvel movies as the height of cinematic achievement (although to be fair there are plenty of people who love Marvel movies that will get into movies like this one) but more for the cinephile, particularly those who are eager to sample movies from other countries and cultures. As much as I complained about the pacing, I kind of liked the way it moved slowly; it allowed me to savor the performances and the relationships that much more.

REASONS TO SEE: The family dynamics here are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very slow-moving and lethargic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, nudity, sexuality and a scene of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival last year and has been shown at prestigious film festivals ever since.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Christmas Tale
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bacurau

M.O.M. (Mothers of Monsters)


Being a mom means knowing how to D.I.Y.

(2020) Suspense (Indie Rights) Melinda Page Hamilton, Bailey Edwards, Edward Asner, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Julian de la Celle. Directed by Tucia Lyman

 

Every mom thinks her child is an absolute angel, right? There’s that unbreakable bond between mother and son that is maybe one of the most beautiful relationships there are. But what happens when a mom begins to suspect that her little angel is in fact potentially a homicidal monster?

That’s the situation that Abbey (Hamilton) finds herself in. Throughout his childhood, young Jacob (Edwards) has had anger management issues and has acted out in troubling ways. Now that he’s a teen, Jacob’s rages have grown in scope and he has begun to take an unhealthy interest in guns and Nazi symbology. His acting out is getting increasingly violent. Abbey is calling out in the wilderness, to school officials who see a different side of Jacob, and a psychiatrist (Asner) who believes that Abbey is the one who’s losing it. And maybe he’s right; living in a constant state of terror is taking its toll.

This found footage film, mostly video confessionals, security cam footage, cell phone footage, laptop cam footage and home movies, is woven together by veteran TV showrunner and first-time feature director Lyman, perhaps not seamlessly but close enough.

She does a masterful job of building up the tension in the film, giving the viewer a feeling that they can’t look away even for a moment. It’s not exactly like a train wreck; it’s more like hearing noises outside your window and staring out to see if there’s something out there. You know there is and you’re just waiting for it to make its move.

The movie does move into a psychological horror mode in the last half which is a bit weaker than the first; the movie would have benefitted by exploring Abbey’s mental state a little bit more as well, because part of the movie’s strength is that you’re never quite certain whether Jacob is the monster his mommy thinks he is, or whether Abbey – herself traumatized by a childhood incident which is only revealed near the end of the film – is the one who is losing her mind. That question is sorta kinda settled in the shocking ending, but not really. You are left wondering which one of the two needed professional help. Maybe both of them.

The film benefits from strong lead performances by both Hamilton and Edwards. Edwards projects menace, occasionally staring at the camera with an utterly blank expression that screams “psychopath,” whereas Abbey seems to be growing more and more brittle as the film goes along, a tribute to Hamilton who manages to be both sympathetic and yet leaving room for the audience to question her own sanity. In that sense, the film is well-written.

The movie has a lot of resonance in an era where kids shoot up schools for no apparent reason other than that they can. I think a case could be made that we’re all suffering from PTSD given the national obsession with guns and how often we have a mass shooting dominating the headlines. Many parents of teens (or parents who survived their children’s teen years) will find some empathy for Abbey, while younger viewers may actually identify with Jacob, whose issues have him taking all sorts of meds and whose dad is not really in the picture, not to mention Abbey can be a bit on the controlling side at times.

Still, this is a powerful movie that flew under the radar but definitely has the chops to be worth your while. It’s not on a whole lot of streaming services at the moment, but that may change once people are clued in to how good this movie is. However, if you’re practicing social distancing with a teen in the house, you might want to think twice before watching this. You could end up with all sorts of paranoid nightmares.

REASONS TO SEE: Genuinely chilling. Leaves you feeling like you can’t look away for even a moment. Strong performances by Hamilton and Edwards.
REASONS TO AVOID: The middle third drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film for Lyman, whose background is in television..
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Need to Talk About Kevin
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Pacified

Sorry We Missed You


It’s a grim prognosis for the working class.

(2019) Drama (Zeitgeist/Kino-LorberKris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor, Ross Brewster, Charlie Richmond, Julian Irons, Sheila Dunkerley, Maxie Peters, Christopher John Slater, Heather Wood, Alberto Dumba, Natalia Stonebanks, Jordan Collard, Dave Turner, Stephen Clegg, Darren Jones, Nikki Marshall. Directed by Ken Loach

 

It has likely never been harder to be a working man now than since the Middle Ages. Making ends meet is nearly impossible; wages have dropped sharply while the cost of living continues to rise. Jobs are not plentiful, certainly not of the kind that pay well enough to live decently. Cutting corners has become a way of life as people traverse the gig economy with tentative steps, knowing that they are much like people walking in a minefield with steel-toed boots.

Ricky Turner (Hitchen) has just lost his job in the construction industry and frankly, he’s sick and tired of working jobs that can be taken away from him at a moment’s notice. He wants to be his own boss and make a wage that will allow his family to have the things they need. However, jobs are particularly scarce in Newcastle, where he and his sweet wife Abbie (Honeywood) live with their teenage son Sebastian, or “Seb” as they call him (Stone) and their brilliant tween daughter Liza Jae (Proctor).

One of Ricky’s mates links him up with PBF, a parcel delivery service who is run by the bullet-headed bulldog-like Maloney (Brewster) who runs his business like a drill sergeant. In the parlance of PBF, they don’t hire employees, they onboard independent drivers. Drivers must supply their own vans, or rent one from the company at an exorbitant rate. However, if Ricky works hard and delivers his parcels on time, he will be making more than he ever did in construction, maybe enough so after two years they can save enough to put a down payment on a house, the dream of many renters.

isn’t quite so enthusiastic. In order to buy a van, they’ll have to sell the car that she uses to get to her job which is as an in-home caregiver to the elderly. She goes to their homes, cooks their meals, bathes them and tucks them into bed. She’s ideally suited for the job, but her clients are all over the map and getting to her appointments on time required a car. Taking the bus will cause her to be late more often. However, in the interest of family harmony, she gives in.

At first, things are sunshine and roses. Ricky does well on his route and becomes Maloney’s fair-haired boy, but there are some troubling signs. For one thing, the constant murderous pace of delivering parcels means drivers never get breaks and must learn to pee in a bottle rather than stopping anywhere for a bathroom break. For another, missing delivery windows and deadlines can lead to a system of demerits, which cost the drivers fines which put them in debt to PBF, forcing them to work more.

To make matters worse, Seb is indulging in some hooligan-ish behavior, skipping school, spray-painting graffiti along the roadsides and eventually getting into more serious trouble, forcing his parents to miss work in order to attend meetings with school headmasters and eventually police officers. Ricky is often so exhausted that he can barely see straight when he drives his van and taking the bus has forced Abbie to work longer hours as well. And despite the promise of better pay, the family is barely holding their heads above water as it is – it will take only the slightest of bumps to drown the lot of them.

Loach is one of the finest English directors of the past four decades and when I say that this is one of his best ever, keep in mind that he has films such as The Wind That Shakes the Barley and I, Daniel Blake on his filmography. Like many of his films, this is a taut, no-frills productions – there’s no score, and few special effects. The brisk pace keeps the story moving and whereas lesser directors might get bogged down in subplots, Loach and his longtime collaborator writer Paul Laverty keep their focus throughout.

It doesn’t hurt that he gets fantastic performances from the entire cast, some of whom are non-professionals and Hitchen and Honeywood exhibit some marvelous chemistry and screen presence. The dynamic for the entire Turner family feels organic and realistic; this could be the family living in the flat (or apartment) three doors down from yours, Ricky the guy down at the pub (or bar) rooting for his favorite team (in Ricky’s case, Manchester United).

The accents are very thick here, as they are in that part of England and so subtitles are necessary; some of the phrases may not be familiar to American audiences, so it might be frustrating to those who aren’t familiar with English idioms. Still, this is a marvelous film that is a triumph for the 83-year-old director who shows no signs of slowing down. This is an accurate portrayal of the problems facing the working class, so much so that it may cut a little too close to home for some. Even so, it should be required viewing for economics and business students who should see what the human toll of the current profits-at-any-cost mindset of business worldwide really is.

REASONS TO SEE: A grim portrayal of the working class circa 2019. The family dynamic feels very realistic. Hitchen and Honeywood do bang-up jobs.
REASONS TO AVOID: The heavily-accented English requires subtitles and some of the idioms used may be difficult to follow for the layman.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, some violence and brief sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The license plate number for Ricky’s van is AK65 JFX.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: DriverX
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Anthem of a Teenage Prohet


In a world where appearance is everything, posing is a natural extension of life.

(2018) Drama (SP Releasing) Cameron Monaghan, Grayson Gabriel, Peyton List, Juliette Lewis, Aaron Pearl, Richard de Klerk, Alex MacNicoll, Alex McKenna, Patti Allan, Beau Daniels, Sebastian Greaves, Joshua Close, Jasmine Sky Sarin, Danny Woodburn, Alex Lennarson, Malcolm Craig, Jaden Rain, Spencer List, Robert W. Perkins, Raj Lal. Directed by Robin Hays

 

Being a teenager is nothing resembling easy. Coping with a world whose rules shift almost daily and are confusing even on a good day coupled with raging hormones that make rational thought nearly impossible make it no wonder that teens are synonymous with angst. When you throw in some supernatural abilities, things get even more complicated.

Luke Hunter (Monaghan) is a fairly typical teen in a small Michigan town in the mid-90s. He gets from place to place via skateboard, hangs out with a group of friends who listen to rap but dress like grunge, smokes way too much, drinks when he can, gets stoned when he can and generally tries to figure out who he is and what he wants to do with his life.

One afternoon while hanging out with his friends including his boyhood friend Fang (Grayson) who likes to climb things and golden boy Stan (MacNicoll) who is the boyfriend of Faith (P.List) whom he has a fairly serious crush on, he has a vision. Stoned out of his mind, Luke blurts out that one of them is going to die the next day, hit by a truck with out of state plates. “Blood on the sidewalk,” he murmurs while everyone looks at him in amusement. Luke’s really baked isn’t he ha ha ha.

But nobody is laughing the next day when Luke’s prediction comes horribly true down to the smallest detail. The looks change from amusement to suspicion and downright fear. When a reporter overhears one of the incredulous teens blurt out that Luke had predicted the tragedy and later broadcasts it on the air, Luke’s life becomes something of a media circus.

Luke withdraws further into himself despite his supportive ex-hippie mom (Lewis) and somewhat clueless dad (Pearl). Faith, suffering through the loss of someone she cared about, is drawn to Luke who is going through the same thing. However, it’s not quite the same thing; Faith is not in the media’s eye as Luke is, nor is she an object of fascination in the same way Luke is. He doesn’t know what to do and ends up lashing out. Not to mention that he gets another vision about someone who is going to die.

Some may be drawn to this movie, which is based on a novel by Joanne Proulx, by the supernatural element but those folks are bound to be disappointed as that element is definitely played down. This is much more about surviving the teenage years than about dying during them. We are witnessing Luke’s emotional growth which isn’t always pretty. Luke is a complex character, one who is a talented artist, who adores his mother (as much as any teen boy would be willing to admit to) and pretty much just wants to be left alone to find his own way, also pretty much like all teen boys.

Monaghan is best known for playing a Joker-like character in the Fox Batman show Gotham but this is an entirely different performance here. Far from being manic, Luke is a bit of an introvert and Monaghan captures that personality well, from the distrust of others to the banter he has with those he does let inside. Given the diversity of performances in the two I’ve seen of him so far, I think that it isn’t being premature to say that this actor has enormous potential. Time will tell whether he can acquire the roles that will allow him to realize it. My one problem with him is that he tends to pose a little too much; it doesn’t look natural.

The writers and actors do a great job of capturing the swagger of boys on the cusp of becoming men. They think of themselves as invincible and their lack of life experiences don’t bother them – they revel in their inexperience in many ways. They are young and un-bloodied by life until the death of one of them catches them all up short.

While the swagger is perfectly depicted, the dialogue is less successful. It’s not that the dialogue isn’t intelligent and snappy – it is both those things – but it is not the way teen boys in the mid-1990s talked. It is more like the way boys in 2018 talk, from the rhythms of their speech to the expressions they use. Kids tend to use a lot of slang and jargon, which is a way of setting their own generation apart. You get none of that here.

While the film borrows its tone from a few disparate sources (one that I noticed was Final Destination minus the macabre deaths) other critics have name-checked the work of John Hughes and Gus van Sant. While the movie is a little bit on the long side, it is a very different teen movies. It doesn’t talk down to its intended audience and it tackles some fairly serious concepts. I don’t know how many teen boys will want to see this movie – this isn’t the kind of movie they typically choose to see – but this is a movie about them and one they would no doubt recognize. That may work against the film as its niche audience may somewhat ironically be disinclined to see it. Still, it is a worthwhile watch for those who want to understand teens a little better.

REASONS TO GO: The film nicely captures teenage boy swagger.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue sounds more like 21st century than mid-90s.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, teen drinking, smoking and drug use, some violence and dangerous behavior.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the time of filming, Monaghan and List were dating.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Project Almanac
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
An Acceptable Loss