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

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Unfriended


Someone just hacked Shelley Hennig's Facebook page.

Someone just hacked Shelley Hennig’s Facebook page.

(2015) Horror (Universal) Moses Jacob Storm, Shelley Hennig, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, Will Peltz, Courtney Halverson, Heather Sossaman, Mickey River, Cal Barnes, Christa Hartsock, Darell M. Davis. Directed by Levan Gabriadze

The world has changed. Now more than ever our lives are wrapped up in social media and the internet. Friday nights for the average teen aren’t hanging out in malls anymore; they’re hanging out in chat rooms, Skyping with your friends, checking out videos on YouTube, listening to tunes on Spotify and often all at the same time.

There is also an ugly side to being a teen, one that has been around forever. It’s the cruelty of youth, the instinct to tear down those things – and people – that don’t fit in with the norm, that don’t march in lockstep to the beat of whatever your clique is marching to. Whether it is slut shaming, outing the gay kid or posting videos of the carnage that is a drunken teen party, kids do things without thinking of what the consequences of their actions can be, not just for those they’re being cruel to but to themselves as well.

And it’s a typical Friday night for Blaire Lily. She’s chatting up her boyfriend Mitch (Storm) and on a Skype conference call with her friends Mitch, Jesse Felton (Olstead), Adam Sewell (Peltz) and Ken Smith (Wysocki). Pretty typical stuff, except what they have forgotten is that it’s the anniversary of the suicide of their friend Laura Barns (Sossaman). She’d taken her own life after a video of her drunken antics at a party had been posted to YouTube, complete with her passing out and soiling herself. The anonymous posting had devastated her world; trolls urged her to take her own life and eventually she did.

Now there’s a mystery caller who has hacked into their call, someone who knows all about their secrets but wants someone to fess up – who posted the video to the net of Laura Barns that led to her death? And the mystery caller has ways of making them talk, like a deadly game of Never Have I Ever that exposes some of their indiscretions to one another as the terrified teens begin to turn on each other. Who is this mysterious caller and what do they want? Blaire is beginning to suspect it’s Laura Barns herself.

Gabriadze has come up with a clever concept that the film is scene entirely through Blaire’s keyboard; we see her cursor moving, typing in responses to the chat, and the video on YouTube and Skype that she’s seeing. In a sense, this is a kind of found footage film to the ultimate degree. The downside is that this is going to get dated awfully fast but for 2015, it will fit in perfectly for the teens of the era.

The other side is that for all the gimmickry – and it is gimmickry, make no mistake – that no horror movie can rise above and become a classic without characters in it that will be memorable, that you want to root for and become genuinely concerned for as they are picked off, one by one. That doesn’t happen here. Perhaps I’m old and jaded but none of these kids stood out at all; all of them were spoiled, shallow and had a mean streak deep down. How can I relate to someone who would post a video of their “best friend” passed out drunk in their own poop on the internet where it will remain forever? Does that sound like someone you want to spend any time with?

And like most horror movies lately, there’s not an adult to be seen. Anywhere. It’s like teen paradise where parents are always absent and they can pretty much do what they want. That’s how you sell movies like that to teens; they’re the heroes, there are no adults telling them what to do and when there are adults around they’re generally assholes or incompetent. No wonder they think we’re all morons. Of course, so often we are from their point of view. Or from anyone’s.

Anyway, this is the kind of horror movie that’s a little short on scares; mostly you’re watching Blaire’s laptop screen. That may sound boring but there is a kind of interactive element to it; the result is that you feel like you’re the one doing the typing and it does bring you closer to the story which is more or less a Ten Little Indians revenge rehash. If only we could have cared about the characters being knocked off the movie might have been more than a passing fancy that in five years will be dismissed as being “so 2015.”

REASONS TO GO: Nice concept.
REASONS TO STAY: More concept than execution. Characters all bland and undistinguished.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity and violence, some sexuality and teen drug and alcohol use as well as a couple of disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the Facebook accounts see in the film actually exist and can be accessed by anyone.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Monkey Kingdom

Ouija (2014)


The spirits present Olivia Cooke with the bill.

The spirits present Olivia Cooke with the bill.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Universal) Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Daren Kagasoff, Bianca Santos, Douglas Smith, Shelley Hennig, Sierra Heuermann, Sunny May Allison, Lin Shaye, Claudia Katz, Vivis Colombetti, Robyn Lively, Matthew Settle, Afra Tully, Claire Beale, Izzie Galanti, Morgan Peter Brown, Bill Watterson, Kathleen Coyne. Directed by Stiles White

It is inevitable in all our lives that someone we love will pass away before we do. It can be difficult to cope with it; we feel the absence of our loved ones keenly and often wish we could speak with them one last time. It is this desire that led to the creation of the Ouija board which is characterized as a board game – but has the reputation for being something much different than that.

Laine Morris (Cooke) is dealing with that right now. Her closest friend Debbie (Hennig) died suddenly and Laine was devastated by the beautiful young girl’s unexpected death. The two had been inseparable since childhood and had both grown to be seniors in high school. The whole world lay before them as it often does for beautiful young girls.

Laine isn’t the only one grieving. Debbie’s boyfriend Pete (Smith), Laine’s boyfriend Trevor (Kagasoff) and their friend Isabelle (Santos) are all hurting. With her dad away on business and Debbie’s mom travelling abroad to deal with her grief, Laine wants to hold a séance with a Ouija board in Debbie’s home where she died. Laine’s sister Sarah (Coto), a bit of a problem child, is brought along.

At first it seems to be a game to some but it becomes obvious that they’ve contacted someone who identifies themselves as “D” which Laine believes as Debbie. However, as the days past, the young people begin to die by suicide as Debbie did and Laine begins to suspect that the contact they made was with someone – or some thing – malevolent. Can they save themselves from the angry spirits and break the contact before all fall victim to it?

Although the Ouija board has been used in movies before, this is the first time that Hasbro – the current owners of the Ouija Board rights – has authorized as the subject of a movie as they did with G.I. Joe and the Transformers. Like nearly all of the movies made with toys as their subject – The LEGO Movie is a notable exception – the movie lacks a human center which is to be expected when the center of the film is made of plastic.

Cooke, a British actress best known to American audiences for her work in the Bates Motel series, is capable but colorless here. In fact, much the same can be said of the largely young and unknown cast, although veteran Lin Shaye shows up in the last third of the film as an institutionalized old woman who knows more about the entity than you might think.

The movie is blessed with terrific cinematography from director of photography David Emmerichs and the mood is kept unsettling throughout. However, the movie suffers from a script that seems cut together from other, better films and the trope is largely a group of teenagers making bad horror film choices. That’s rapidly becoming a pet cinematic peeve of mine; why would teenagers that are portrayed as being sensible and smart then do things no rational person would do except in the throes of panic which the teens aren’t? If you’re going to portray them of sensible, make them act sensibly. It’s lazy writing.

Most of the scares are of the practical nature; there are some CGI moments of eyes turning white which indicates possession by the malevolent entity and other ghostly effects but one must give the director kudos for keeping it real, as it were.

I had high hopes for the film; the Ouija board is a natural for a horror movie and there is a terrific film to be had with the board at the center of it. This isn’t it, however.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely creepy. Beautifully shot.
REASONS TO STAY: Borrows too much from other films. Could have utilized the board better. More “teens making dumb decisions” again.
FAMILY VALUES: Horrific images, supernatural violence and thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a Hollywood remake of a Filipino horror film. There’s also an Egyptian version with a similar plot, although it is not “officially” a remake.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 8% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Annabelle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Birdman

Bully


Bully

Being a victim of bullying is a lonely occupation, as Alex Libby knows.

(2012) Documentary (Weinstein) Kirk Smalley, David Long, Tina Long, Alex Libby, Ja’Meya Jackson, Kelby Johnson, Bob Johnson, Phillip Libby, Maya Libby, Devon Matthews, Barbara Primer, Laura Smalley, Trey Wallace, Kim Lockwood, Londa Johnson, Teryn Long, Troy Long. Directed by Lee Hirsch

 

There is no doubt that bullying is an epidemic problem around the United States; it has replaced parental abuse as the most common source of violence most kids will experience.

This documentary looks into the effects of bullying on five different families. Alex Libby is a sweet natured 12-year-old kid who enters East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa with a mixture of fear and resignation. He has difficulty making friends and is tormented with verbal and physical abuse from bullies who take delight in disparaging his looks, calling him rude names.

Kelby Johnson is a 16-year-old in Tuttle, Oklahoma who was a star athlete and whose parents were active in their local church. When Kelby comes out as a lesbian, she is ostracized, tormented and run over with a mini-van. Her parents find that their conservative Christian friends will no longer speak to them. Her dad offers to move to a larger city to escape the abuse but Kelby, showing great resolve, refuses. She has a support system of a loving family and loyal friends to back her up.

Ja’Meya Jackson has some of that as well but it’s difficult to get a lot of support in the juvenile lock-up facility in Yazoo County, Mississippi. The 14-year-old had been bullied so thoroughly and was so angry and afraid that she took her mother’s handgun on board the school bus in a misguided effort to get the bullies to stop.

David and Tina Long are loving parents. Their sons Teryn and Troy are pretty well adjusted but there is a great deal of sadness in their household. Their eldest son, Tyler Long committed suicide at the age of 17 years old, found by his father hanging in his closet after years of unrelenting bullying in their Murray County, Georgia community and little to no help from school officials after numerous complaints. The Longs are determined to make Tyler’s action count for something.

Kirk and Laura Smalley feel the same way. They have just buried their son Ty who at age 11 killed himself after non-stop bullying. Kirk, outwardly a simple man in a rural community, Perkins Oklahoma, is determined to help other kids who went through the pain his son did and put a stop to bullying. He founds an organization, Stand for the Silent, dedicated to providing a voice for children who are being bullied.

All of these stories (and many others like them) are heartbreaking and inspire feelings of compassion. Watching Alex stoically endure the abuse certainly makes the heart ache for him, not to mention bring forth feelings of admiration for a young man who has an enormous reserve of strength (he also has a great smile that lights up a room). His mother is torn apart by feelings of inadequacy, thinking that she is failing as a mother because she’s not protecting her son.

The truth is that the failure isn’t hers. School districts have long treated bullying as a natural product of growing up. “Boys will be boys,” seems to be the most common response, delivered with a shrug and a pair of “what can you do?” outstretched arms.

There are no easy answers and the film provides none. However there doesn’t seem to be much of a message here beyond “bullying is bad” which is a bit of a no-brainer. There’s no attempt at trying to understand what causes kids to bully. I would be willing to bet that there is something going on in their homes that creates such fear that causes the need to take it out on other kids, because bullying is and always has been an outgrowth of fear. Whether it is fear of something different or fear of being bullied themselves, most bullies are reacting to something. Of course, there is always the occasional sociopath who gets their jollies from inflicting pain but by and large bullying is learned behavior. It doesn’t occur without a cause.

I would have also appreciated more diversity in the stories here. Not that Ja’Meya (whose mother shows great compassion and tenacity) and Kelby (who I also admired for her courage in refusing to run from the bullying) didn’t deserve to have their stories told. However, judging from the film bullying is a small town problem, mostly confined to the Bible Belt and more rural communities.

Bullying is in fact a universal epidemic. It exists nearly everywhere that there are kids, from exclusive prep schools in the Northeast to urban schools in big cities to enlightened communities in California. Hirsch should know that; he was a victim of bullying in his youth in Long Island (as I was in mine in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles). You don’t get that sense here and I think it does a disservice to its own message because of it.

However despite these flaws the message here is still a powerful one, so much so that I’m willing to ignore some of the film’s missed opportunities in order to call attention to it. This is a movie that should be seen by every student in America, and by most of their parents. This should be a topic of conversation at the dinner table. Bullying can be stopped; it takes the unity of students, parents, teachers and administrators in order to do it. Standing up together makes us stronger; it also protects us from bullies who tend to prey on the weak and the defenseless.

Seeing this makes me regret that in my own school days I didn’t stand up for those who were isolated and alone. I wish in my own school days I had befriended those who needed it. It also bears repeating that bullying isn’t always done just with fists or physicality; it’s also done with words. Joking about sexual orientation, physical appearance or socially awkward behavior might be good for a few cheap laughs but you never know how devastating those words can be in someone’s life. Whether in your workplace, your church, your neighborhood or your school, there are usually people who don’t fit in and who whether consciously or unconsciously get excluded. Adult or child, taking the time to reach out to those who don’t fit in seems to me to be the right thing to do and if this movie gets across that message, then it is as important a film as any you’ll ever see.

REASONS TO GO: Excellently captures the effects of bulling on kids and their families. Heartbreaking at times but a message that needs to be seen by kids and their parents everywhere.

REASONS TO STAY: No interviews with bullies or their families to get any sort of insight as to why kids bully. Fails to get across that this is a universal problem that is prevalent in all social stratums and all over the country.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some rough language, depictions of kid-on-kid violence and some fairly adult conversations about teen suicide.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally slapped with an “R” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America for bad language which was appealed by the distributor, arguing that would exclude the audience the movie was intended for. When that appeal was denied the rating was surrendered and initially the plan was to release the movie unrated. However after a large outcry the MPAA relented and the filmmakers edited some instances of bad language (although a crucial scene in which a child is bullied on a school bus was left intact) and the film finally received a “PG-13” rating.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. The movie can be considered to be critically acclaimed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Laramie Inside Out

ELLEN DEGENERES LOVERS: The movie has been championed by the talk show host and was at least partially inspired by an appearance on her show by the mom of Carl Walker Hoover, a young man who endured anti-gay bullying until he was driven to commit suicide at the age of 11 in 2009.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Lady

World’s Greatest Dad


World's Greatest Dad

Sometimes comedy really DOES make the strangest bedfellows.

(Magnolia) Robin Williams, Alexie Gilmore, Daryl Sabara, Mitzi McCall, Henry Simmons, Geoff Pierson, Morgan Murphy, Daniel Glick, Evan Martin, Bruce Hornsby. Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait

When someone dies young, there is a tendency to accentuate the more positive aspects of the deceased’s character and ignore the negative. After all, nobody particularly likes to speak ill of the dead, right?

Lance Clayton (Williams) is a wannabe novelist, one who has written five novels and gotten exactly zero of them published. Still, he continues to try and while he does, he continues with his temporary vocation, a high school English teacher reading poetry to students who could care less.

His son Kyle (Sabara) is a rat bastard. He is hateful to nearly everybody and is sexually obsessed to the point of creepiness. Masturbation isn’t just an occasional pleasure for him; it’s the biggest part of his day. His only friend is Andrew (Martin), a skinny reed of a boy who is much brighter than Kyle.

Kyle regards Lance with roughly the same contempt that a billionaire regards a bum. Still, Lance can take solace in his sexless romance with Claire (Gilmore), who teaches art at the same school but even that soon becomes threatened. Fellow teacher Mike (Simmons) publishes his first story in the New Yorker and suddenly Claire seems to be casting her gaze in Mike’s direction. That’s not too much of a shocker; Claire is remarkably shallow and Mike is much younger and more handsome than Lance.

One night Lance returns home to find Kyle dead. The death was accidental; he had strangled himself while engaging in autoerotic asphyxiation, but despite the harsh relationship he had with his son, he simply can’t bear the truth coming out about the manner in which Kyle, already pretty much despised by everyone, died – whipping his weasel as it were. As a loving dad, he rearranges the death scene, writes a suicide note and puts out the fiction the Kyle hung himself.

The fall-out from this is unexpected. Suddenly the student body and faculty become sympathetic, guilty at the shabby treatment Kyle had been afforded in life. When Lance writes a fake journal purportedly authored by Kyle, it becomes a sensation and Lance suddenly has the literary success that had always eluded him, even if he wasn’t getting credit for it. Now there are appearances on talk shows and talk of movie deals. Even Claire has come back to him with a vengeance.

But it’s all based on a lie, and that digs at him. The strange thing is that the effects of the lie have made things better; people are opening up, communicating and coming out. But can Lance’s conscience live with the deception?

Goldthwait has given us what can charitably be called offbeat comedies (in the form of the alcoholic circus performer Shakes the Clown and the bestiality comedy Sleeping Dogs Lie) and more accurately called button-pushers. As a filmmaker (and before that, as one of the best stand-up comics of the ‘80s) he has pushed the boundaries and forced his audiences to look at unpleasant things in order to deal with issues like trust and fear.

Here he works with his close friend Williams and it’s a good pairing; this is one of Williams’ best performances in ages, maybe going back to Good Morning Vietnam. He handles the pathos of discovering his son’s body with great dignity, and keeps his comedy restrained. I guess it could be fair to say that he’s mellowed with age, but in any case, he’s become a much more well-rounded performer, although I still recall his manic rants with fond affection.

Sabara has the thankless job of playing an utter douchebag, one who is without any positive qualities whatsoever. Not many actors, who as a species tend to crave attention and love, would even attempt a role like this but Sabara does it almost too well, making his early exit a relief in many ways. Gilmore plays the narcissistic shallow Claire with a certain amount of flair, even being brave enough to allow a couple of upskirt photos which become very germane to the plot.

The irony of the film is what I thought worked best about it; that the death of a miserable prick gets him nearly canonized which in turn brings about changes in attitude for the better. There’s a message there about how we choose to see things, and trying to grab something to identify with – one of the running conceits of the movie is how many “close friends” Kyle had after death when in reality his only friend was Andrew all along, and Andrew alone is the only one who gets off scot-free, being literally the only one in the movie who doesn’t exploit Kyle’s death for their own benefit.

There is a level of cynicism here that might give a few viewers some pause, but it would be wise to remember that what is depicted here is human nature nonetheless. I found the movie enjoyable, at its best curiously when it was more serious. It’s not that the comedy is unfunny; it’s just that the movie seemed to find its rhythm when it was looking at grief less cynically. Perhaps there’s hope for me after all then.

WHY RENT THIS: Comedy doesn’t get any blacker than this. Williams gives one of his better performances in years.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sabara is so unlikable it’s actually a relief when his character is killed off. The movie could have used a better balance between pathos and comedy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of vulgar language, some fairly sophisticated and twisted sexuality, drug use and deeply disturbing situations. I would probably restrict this to mature teens only and even then you might want to have the remote nearby in case of emergency fast-forward or full stop.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Krist Novoselic, the former bassist for Nirvana, has a cameo as a newspaper vendor who hugs Lance. The irony here is that one of the tangential themes is teen suicide, and of course Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Coabin committed suicide himself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting music video for “I Hope I Become a Ghost” by the Deadly Syndrome, containing some minimalist surreal animation. Tres cool.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $221,805 on an unreported production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Beer for My Horses