Bridgend


Deceptive beauty.

Deceptive beauty.

(2015) Drama (Kimstim) Hannah Murray, Josh O’Connor, Adrian Rawlins, Patricia Potter, Nia Roberts, Steven Washington, Scott Arthur, Aled Llyr Thomas, Elinor Cawley, Jamie Burch, Mark Charles Williams, Adam Byard, Natasha Denby, Leona Vaughan, Liam Dascombe, Josh Green, Rachel Isaac, Phil Howe, Martin Troakes, Jane Davies, Rob Page, Judith Lewis. Directed by Jeppe Rønde

Florida Film Festival 2016

When a teenager dies, it’s a tragedy. With their whole life ahead of them cut short, it’s devastating to their family and their friends. When a teen takes their own life, it can feel even more tragic. Those left behind can feel like they’ve failed somehow. But what happens when teens kill themselves in droves?

That’s what really happened in Bridgend County in Wales. Starting in 2009 and through 2013, more than 75 teens took their own lives – most by hanging – without leaving a suicide note. To this day, what prompted these mass suicides remains a mystery. There was an excellent documentary in 2013 about the case but this is a fictionalized look at the affair.

Sara (Murray – fans might recognize her from Game of Thrones) and her policeman dad Dave (Washington) who is widowed have moved from Bristol to Bridgend to start a new life. As a policeman, Dave is investigating a rash of teen suicides. At first, Sara doesn’t really feel like she fits in with the working class kids in town but her beauty and compassion catch the eye of Laurel (Cawley) who invites her to the local reservoir to hang out with a group of kids, led by co-alphas Jamie (O’Connor) and Thomas (Arthur).

As Sara gets more involved with the group, her father begins to get terrified. Sara is already at that age where she’s distancing herself from her dad, and drifts closer to the disaffected teens and further from her father. And as her friends begin to die off one by one, her romance with Jamie takes on a more intense tone.

Speaking of tone, that’s one thing this movie has plenty of. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck films things through a blue filter, underlighting interior shots to give things a more menacing and darker look. The blue serves to give the movie an overall depressing feel. That’s sight; as for sound, Mondkopf, an artist specializing in electronic trance, gives the score a dreary electro feel, instilling a sense of foreboding throughout.

There are two ways a movie like this can be made palatable; one is to give insight as to why a group of teenagers would all fall into lockstep and kill themselves. To be honest, Rønde doesn’t really address this. There are all sorts of theories as to why the real kids did this and to be fair, I can imagine that the filmmaker didn’t want to tread on the graves of the dead by putting motivations that weren’t necessarily there. You don’t get a sense that there was any peer pressure going on, only that these kids were essentially unhappy.

Secondly, the characters could be interesting people that you care about what happens to them, but again, that proves not to be the case here. These are kids who most adults wouldn’t want to spend even five minutes with. They come off as spoiled, whiny and full of angst and ennui. There is a melancholia sure, but with the rituals that these kids use to honor their dead it begins to come off as creepy posturing. The kids don’t come off as anything other than people who simply fell into line like sheep and gave up far too soon.

Rønde is a little self-indulgent with his direction, doing so many cutsie things that the audience is drawn out of the movie and paying more attention to the moviemaker. I call this “Look, Ma, I’m Directing syndrome” and Rønde has a nasty case of it. And the ending. Oy vey, the ending. I won’t go into details here, but it’s a colossal cop-out.

The events in Bridgend are apparently still taking place to this day, and quite frankly I think there is an important movie that could be made here. Certainly this is in many ways a cautionary tale for parents that their teens are at risk, but the filmmakers don’t say anything much beyond that. I found this to be a frustrating movie that at the end of the day, was enormously unsatisfying when it didn’t have to be.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautiful cinematography and along with the electronic score creates a foreboding mood.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much self-indulgence and spoiled behavior. Never really gets into the psyche of the “gang.” Too many scenes in which you’re conscious that the director is “directing.”
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some violence, sexual content, nudity and profanity, all involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed entirely in Bridgend County, Wales where the events that inspired the film actually took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Towns
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Family Fang

Life After Beth


Dane DeHaan explains to a hungry Aubrey Plaza that he is contractually entitled to first crack at the craft services table.

Dane DeHaan explains to a hungry Aubrey Plaza that he is contractually entitled to first crack at the craft services table.

(2014) Horror Comedy (A24) Dane DeHaan, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Matthew Gray Gubler, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Anna Kendrick, Eva La Dare, Alia Shawkat, Thomas McDonell, Allan McLeod, Paul Weitz, Michelle Azar, Jim O’Heir, Rob Delaney, Adam Pally, Elizabeth Jayne, Jenna Nye, Garry Marshall, Bechir Sylvain, Bonnie Burroughs. Directed by Jeff Baena

“Til death do us part” is an intense statement. The vow signifies that we will remain with that other person until one of us is called to the Choir Invisible. What happens though, if death doesn’t part us exactly?

Zach Orfman (DeHaan) is mourning the unexpected death of his girlfriend. Both are in high school although summer vacation was in full flower. She’d gone hiking in the Southern California hills by herself and had been bitten by a snake. The poison did her in.

A young romance tragically curtailed is hard enough to endure but Zach had the extra added bonus that the two of them had been having problems. Zach was the kind of guy who didn’t do things he didn’t want to do particularly and while Beth (Plaza) – the said late girlfriend – wanted to go hiking with him, and learn how to dance the flamenco, Zach wasn’t interested in either, or a thousand other things the young and vivacious brunette wanted to try out. So she had brought up the concept of splitting up, which Zach definitely didn’t want to do. While they were in this state of flux, she had decided to go hiking by herself since nobody would go with her and…well, you know the rest.

So Zach was dealing not only with the death of his beautiful young girlfriend but also with his own inadequacies as a boyfriend and it was proving very difficult for him to accept. His parents (Reiser, Hines) weren’t particularly helpful, being a little bit too distracted with whatever it was successful L.A. types are distracted with to give a thought to their brooding son. His older brother Kyle (Gubler) had plenty of time to devote to Zach, considering that he had the high exalted position of security guard for the gated community Beth’s parents Maury (Reilly) and Geenie (Shannon) lived in. Kyle seized the opportunity to make life miserable for his younger brother – after all, what else are older brothers for?

So Zach had taken to spending more time with Maury and Geenie, the three of them united by their numbing, overwhelming grief. They all understood what the others were going through and Zach found it somewhat therapeutic to go through Beth’s things, wearing a ski scarf of hers even though, as I mentioned, it was the dead of summer.

Then one day he goes over and rings the doorbell but there’s no answer. It’s weird because he can hear people inside. He checks the window – and sees a fleeting glimpse of Beth walking around the house. He pounds on the door and tries to get in but just in time his brother turns up and escorts him out of the development. There’s another thing older brothers are for.

Of course, nobody believes what he saw but Zach knows what he saw. He’s so sure that he breaks into their house and comes upon Beth, big as life and still breathing. At first he’s furious, convinced that Maury and Geenie were pulling a fast one, but no, they’re just as mystified as he. She had just shown up at the door and had no clue that she’d died. And Maury, quite frankly, wants it to stay that way.

Zach is determined to do all the things with Beth he’d never done – including sex, which is at the top of the list and Beth is quite frankly horny as all get out. She has no memory of the break-up – as far as she’s concerned everything has always been hunky dory. Except something’s not quite right. She’s prone to these rages and tantrums that were completely unlike her. And then again, she’s stronger than you’d expect for a slip of a girl. And gets sunburned really easily. Zach is sure she’s a zombie – Maury doesn’t want to entertain the concept. But yeah, she is and Zach is totally cool with it. At first.

Equal parts zombie apocalypse and romantic comedy, Life After Beth could be accurately deemed a Zom-com (catchy, no?) and given the popularity of the living dead these days I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a whole lot of them shuffling down the pike, arms outstretched and grunting.

There are a lot of things to like. DeHaan and Plaza make an odd couple but just the sort you’d find in your local high school, the sort who get drawn together in history class and make it official in drama club. DeHaan gives the character equal doses of gravitas, confusion and hormonal overwrought drama. If some teenage boy from your neighborhood had the same circumstances in his life, my guess is he’d act pretty much the same way as Zach does. As for DeHaan, his career has been taking off in the last few years, may not be available to do these smaller films much longer.

The same goes for Plaza. She’s been attracting a lot of notice in Parks and Recreation over the past few years and has quietly done some really strong work in roles large and small in offbeat films. I wouldn’t be surprised if she became the next big comedic actress a la Tina Fey and Kirsten Wiig, but I would be even less surprised if she became far more versatile than that. She captures Beth’s somewhat demanding nature and is able to convey fear, tenderness, sexuality and rage often turning on a dime to do so. She gives an assertive and assured performance, the kind that commands attention. It’s a safe bet that her work here is going to get her noticed for higher profiled roles.

The humor here is scattershot as it is for most comedies and occasionally swings and misses. There are some nice quirky touches – the only thing that calms Beth down is smooth jazz, a type of music that in her first life she used to despise. It becomes kind of a running joke throughout.

While the supporting cast is good, the last half hour of the movie turns into a kind of kitschy episode of The Walking Dead or more to the point, George Romero on an acid trip. Fun and funky is one thing but it doesn’t mesh as nicely the comedy and horror aspects do in the first hour. Still, this is some fine entertainment and Chris Hardwick and his Talking Dead nation are going to enjoy this one as much as I did.

REASONS TO GO: Will crack you up in places. Captures teen angst perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy and horror aspects stop working together well in the last third of the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of foul language and some gore and comedic violence, some nudity and sexuality as well – and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Dane DeHaan’s first comedic role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fido
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Drop

If I Stay


A dream that is a waking nightmare.

A dream that is a waking nightmare.

(2014) Romantic Fantasy (New Line/MGM) Chloe Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley, Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard, Aisha Hinds, Stacy Keach, Liana Liberato, Gabrielle Rose, Jakob Davies, Ali Milner, Gabrielle Cerys Haslett, Lauren Lee Smith, Adam Solomonian, John Emmet Tracy, Chelah Horsdahl, Christine Wiles, Arielle Tuliao, Sarah Grey, Aliyah O’Brien. Directed by R.J. Cutler

There is a fine line between cathartic and manipulative. We can generally use the former, but we usually get the latter instead. One doesn’t necessarily mind being manipulated though, as long as it’s done for a good cause.

Mia Hall (Moretz) – no relation to Monty – has a great life. She lives in Portland, Oregon with exceptionally cool parents. Dad (Leonard) was a member of a seminal alt-rock band from the 90s and Mom (Enos) was and is an artist. She has a little brother (Davies) she adores and has discovered a talent for playing the cello that might just get her into Julliard if she isn’t careful.

Even better, she has a boyfriend named Adam (Blackley) who fronts his own indie rock band that looks like it might be getting signed to one of those hip indie labels – not those un-cool dinosaur major labels that haven’t been relevant since the iPod came out, mind you. Because everything connected with Mia’s life is unmentionably hip.

It all changes in an instant. A car crash on a snowy road leaves Mia hovering between life and death. Her body is in a coma, tubes sticking out of every which way (and she manages to look angelic in her coma, rather than like the gaunt entity most coma patients tend to look like. Of course, most coma patients don’t have a Hollywood make-up man to help them look their best while they’re fighting for their lives.

However, Mia’s spirit is running around, flashbacking like crazy and going through a period of terrible angst. You see, Adam and Mia had just split up when the crash occurred. She might be waking up with nobody in her life except her heartbroken grandpa (Keach) to take care of her. Does Mia want to stay in a life that would be intolerably painful, or does she want to slip into oblivion?

Based on a young adult novel, the movie neatly sidesteps any spiritual discussions although we are at times treated to bright lights which indicate some sort of afterlife I suppose, although Mia doesn’t see any dead people which is proof positive that M. Night Shyamalan didn’t make this movie. She doesn’t have any encounters with anyone in fact – she is all alone even though she is surrounded by everybody including a sympathetic nurse (Hinds) who implores her to fight.

Moretz has emerged into a bright young talent with all sorts of cinematic presence. She needs to expand her emotional repertoire a little bit but otherwise she is fully capable of being an A list star for the next 30 years if she chooses the right roles. She has the most impressive doe eyes in Hollywood at the moment and the camera loves that but she has a tendency to be a better actress when she lets loose a little bit more than she does here. Mia is fairly closed-off and that kind of role doesn’t suit Moretz as well.

I did like Leonard and Enos very much as Mia’s folks. They are down-to-earth and still clearly in love with each other. They are perhaps a little too cool to be true – I can’t imagine there’s a teen who sees this film that wouldn’t want them as their own parents. While I loved the characters a lot, I ended up wondering if it would have served the movie better if they had been a little less perfect.

I did like the irony that while Mom and Dad love the hip rock that the kids love, Mia rebels against them by going full-on classical. Alex from A Clockwork Orange would have made a fine Droog out of her no doubt although I’m not sure Mia would have loved the ultra-violence as much as she loves good ol’ Ludwig van.

There was a really good, insightful movie to be had here but having not read the book this is based on, I’m not sure if it is the fault of the source material or the screenwriter that interpreted it. The basic question is whether or not life is worth living in the face of intolerable pain and rather than talk to the target audience as if they had brains and ideas in their head, the filmmakers opt for the easy way out and go with the slam dunks instead of the three point shots that would have made this truly memorable. One of the big mistakes that I think the movie makes is at the very end it tells you how she chooses. I think had they left her final choice ambiguous – did she stay or did she leave – the movie would have been far more powerful.

Cheap tears can make the viewer feel good but when all is said and done, the viewer is more than an emotional marionette. Give them credit for being thinking people who can handle tough questions and complicated concepts. While I realize that most people are lazy and will choose spoon-fed nearly every time out, maybe if they had the option to go to movies that engaged not just their hearts but their heads we might all end up surprised.

REASONS TO GO: Moretz is rapidly becoming a strong leading lady. Enos and Leonard as the indie rocker parents are wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing ending. A little bit too manipulative for my taste. Needed a dose of reality particularly in the characters who were largely caricatures.
FAMILY VALUES:  A little teen sexuality, some fairly adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moretz had a very difficult time learning the cello. At last a cello-playing body double was enlisted and Moretz’ head inserted into the frame digitally.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heaven Can Wait
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: When the Game Stands Tall

I Believe in Unicorns


This is what every Disney princess longs for.

This is what every Disney princess longs for.

(2014) Drama (Animals on Parade) Natalia Dyer, Peter Vack, Julia Garner, Amy Seimetz, Toni Meyerhoff, Justin Hall, Sam O’Gotti, Johnny Sequoyah, Eric A. H. Watson. Directed by Leah Meyerhoff

Florida Film Festival 2014

I am not a teenage girl. I have never been a teenage girl. I will never be a teenage girl. On the surface, I’m exactly the wrong guy to review this movie. However, I do have the benefit of having a wife who was once a teenage girl and her insights have been very helpful in writing this.

Davina (Dyer) is not your typical teenage girl – if there is such a thing. Her mom (T. Meyerhoff) is confined to a wheelchair. She’d been diagnosed with a debilitating disease and with her marriage on the rocks, she hoped a baby might make her husband stay. It didn’t.

So Davina is her mom’s caregiver on top of having to deal with normal teenage stuff – boy craziness, needing to find herself in a world that doesn’t necessarily want you to do anything more than conform, the fear that nobody will find you attractive, the fear that somebody will. On top of that she cooks and cleans and takes care of her mom’s needs. To escape her life, she has an active imagination in which unicorns exist and do battle with monsters, but she needs more than a fantasy life. Something has to give.

In a local park, Davina observes a skater boy named Sterling (Vack). He’s really cute. A hunk, even. She envies his free spirit. He admires her beauty. She’s a virgin but doesn’t necessarily want to stay that way. A tipping point is reached. She and Sterling run away, destination anywhere but there.

Now, I will be the first to tell you that in many ways the female teen audience has been underserved. Hollywood seems content to give them Twilight clones and while that might be plentiful box office, it doesn’t really give them any insight into themselves, into the things they are going through. You know, life. Sure there are occasional movies with bitchy cheerleader cliques and high school angst but those movies have a tendency to lack any sort of reality, or even empathy.

So you’d think I’d be breaking out the champagne and party hats for a movie like this and to an extent, but that isn’t the case. I’d really, really like to, because I think the movie can be valuable to parents and their daughters, but I have a few issues with it. I will be the first to tell you that some of them might be a little unfair.

Seeing as many films as I do, you get a sense of some of the cliches that independent films are rife with. One of them is the confusion between child-like and childish. Now your definitions may vary but I define the former as possession of the wonder that a child experiences and the latter as doing whatever occurs to you without thought of consequence. While I get that the characters here are little more than children, their behavior is completely childish. It can get grating, particularly when they get all indie-cute and start running around fields like maniacs, laughing and acting childish. I wouldn’t mind so much if I hadn’t seen the same kind of scene in dozens of indie films in the past couple of years alone. I found these scenes distracting and annoying and veteran filmgoers probably will too.

I do think that the unicorn sequences which are mainly stop-motion animation are clever and imaginative and they are likely some of the most memorable things about the film. Vack plays Sterling a little bit too much with dude-ness which may irritate anybody outside the California state lines, but Dyer does a bang-up job as Davina and even though she too got on my nerves with her actions sometimes, so would any teenager I hung out with for more than an hour.

So it will come as no shock to you, dear reader, that my wife loved this movie much more than I did. I fully intended to give this a much more scathing review but she prevailed upon me with some fairly logical points and said in her gentle but firm way that just because I’m not the audience this film is meant for doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid experience for someone else. Fair enough, but that then leads to the conclusion that this movie isn’t for everybody and I honestly think it could have been. I’m not saying have the young kids act like responsible adults – that wouldn’t be realistic – but make them less cliche indie film characters. Then maybe it becomes less of a film for a certain age and gender bracket but one we can all share – and perhaps learn from. Even so, this should be mandatory viewing for teenage girls and those who love them.

REASONS TO GO: Teen girls will find this compelling. Some interesting images. Unicorn animations are fun.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies on indie sass. The immaturity of the leads may be grating on some. More childish than child-like.

FAMILY VALUES:  Occasional swearing, teen drinking and partying as well as some frank teen sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Toni Meyerhoff, who plays Davina’s mother, is actually the director’s mother and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis shortly before her birth. She has been in a wheelchair ever since and the director’s experiences growing up as her mother’s caretaker was the inspiration for this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirteen

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Yellow