Murder Death Koreatown


Even the couches are out to get you in Koreatown.

(2020) Found Footage Thriller (Self-Released) Cast unknown. Directed by Unknown

Some movies come to critics with reams of information; pages of publicity notes, director’s quotes, actor and crew bios and so on. Others come to us with much less information to go on. This one came with almost none.

Found footage films are not always received kindly in the critical community and among horror fans in general. There was a time when the market became over-saturated with them and let’s face it, most of them were really bad. The best-known were the original, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, both of which would eventually see sequels made by major studios.

=The film centers around an unemployed man who is shocked to discover that a murder has taken place in a nearby apartment in which a young wife suddenly and without explanation brutally murdered her husband (it is implied although not directly stated that she stabbed her husband to death). The man is seriously shaken by the brutal event so close to home, but there are some things that are troubling him. For one thing, there are blood spatters on the sidewalk away from the crime scene. Also, the arrest of the suspect took place nearly a block away from the crime scene.

He takes out his cell phone and starts talking to people around the neighborhood, filming the interviews. At first, most of the subjects know less than he does. As he looks into it, there are a few people who admit to knowing the slain man and his wife and they are baffled by the event; all of them say that the suspect was a real sweet girl, although a co-worker of the husband noted that he hadn’t been sleeping and he thought that the couple were fighting which was uncharacteristic of them.

=The more that the filmmaker delves into the crime, the more dead ends arise. One theory gets squashed and another one arises, only to be squashed also. Leads don’t pan out; then things get creepy. People he talks to begin to disappear. Mysterious graffiti in Korean begin to appear all around him and the filmmaker begins to get unhinged. His girlfriend begs him to drop the investigation, concerned for his well-being at first and then angry when he ignores her. Strange things begin to happen; he hears voices. He sees things that can’t be real. Is the murder victim trying to contact him from the dead, or is he losing his mind? And who are the mysterious Pastors?

Like most critics, I have grown weary of found footage movies but I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Put simply, it is the best in the genre to come out since the original Blair Witch Project way back in 1999. It’s taut and believable; the interview subjects don’t feel like they’re acting and even though the camera is very shaky (it IS supposed to be cell phone footage), there are some really good cinematic moments of bright blue L.A. skies and the palm trees of Paradise in SoCal.

I give the unknown filmmakers props for having the foresight to keep the story simple and stick with it. Even though the movie leads in unexpected directions, all of those shift changes are organically done and don’t feel forced. It does take a little while to get going and the coda is a bit anti-climactic but there is a powerful payoff in the film’s climax.

Sometimes the best movies come out of left field and this one certainly does. They aren’t re-inventing the wheel here; they’re taking a straightforward story and telling it in a straightforward manner. That’s something Hollywood veterans sometimes have a hard time doing.

The best found footage films make you feel as if you might be watching something real, and this one does. You are left unbalanced; is there something weird happening here? Is there a conspiracy going on? Or is this guy losing his mind? There is a disclaimer in the closing credits (what little there are) that state that “No reasonable person would believe this film or its claims are real…Investigations into this project or its subject is strictly discouraged. There is nothing to find. It’s just a movie.” Even given that disclaimer, I was left wondering if it was real. That’s how the film messes with your head. It truly is creepy AF.

The movie at present has no distribution and has played but once. Hopefully a local film festival near you will find their way clear to show this; ask your local art house to look into it. In the meantime, be aware that this is out there and if it does manage to make its way to a film festival, movie theater that is willing to play indie fare, or a streaming service, for sure check it out. This one is solid gold.

REASONS TO SEE: Maybe the best found footage film since the first one. When clicking it feels very real.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: This is quite a bit of profanity, some gruesome and unsettling images and terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere on Leap Day at the Unnamed Footage Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Disappearance at Clifton Hill

Night School (2018)


Kevin Hart is THIS tall…

(2018) Comedy (UniversalKevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Rob Riggle, Romany Malco, Taran Killam, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Al Madrigal, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Keith David, Anne Winters, Fat Joe, Ben Schwartz, Yvonne Orji, Bresha Webb, Jeff Rose, Donna Biscoe, Owen Harn, Zach Osterman, Janet Metzger, Tim Ware, Miriam Kulick, Curtis Washington, Maria Legarda. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee

 

Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish are two of the funniest and most successful comics alive. You would think that a movie starring the both of them would be funny, no?

No. Hart stars as Teddy, a high school dropout who manages to literally burn his last place of employment to the ground. Desperate to find a job, he just needs a GED in order to win his girlfriend (Echikunwoke) and get a high-paying job at a merchant bank that his friend (Schwartz) has secured him.

Getting that GED won’t be easy. He has to return to his alma mater, whose principal (Killam) is now the nerd that Hart bullied back in the day and the teacher (Haddish) is a no-nonsense sort who isn’t falling one iota for Teddy’s streetwise hustler charm, particularly since it’s obvious that Teddy isn’t planning on putting much – if any – effort into the task.

San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle (who was far more generous than his review than I am) gets the movie’s main problem down quite well; Hart is an aspirational comedian, one who makes his living off playing characters who want to better themselves but sabotage themselves at every turn. Haddish is more of an anarchic comic, one who excels by causing chaos and then resolving it. The two styles don’t really mix well, and the victim here is Haddish whose style is suborned to Hart’s, which turns out to be a colossal waste of her talents.

That doesn’t mean that the movie is without laughs – with the kind of talent in this cast top to bottom it would be impossible not to at least chuckle from time to time. Sadly, though the movie starts out as a ponderous monolithic bore basing most of its comedy on fart, butt and poop jokes, or at least humor on that level. Hart is much better than that. However, I will admit that if you stick with the movie, it does get better as it goes along…just not enough for me to really recommend it.

REASONS TO SEE: Gets better as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable and unfunny. Not enough chemistry between Hart and Haddish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, crude and sexual humor throughout, some drug references and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although hart has written several of his comedy specials, this is his first feature film writing credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft,  Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews: Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Summer School
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
The Predator

Lady Bird


There’s always a little love/hate in every mother-daughter relationship.

(2017) Dramedy (A24) Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, Odeya Rush, Kathryn Newton, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Laura Marano, Andy Buckley, Danielle Macdonald, Jordan Rodrigues, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kristen Cloke, Daniel Zovatto, John Karna, Bayne Gibby, Bob Stephenson, Marielle Scott, Chris Witaske, Suzanne LaChasse.  Directed by Greta Gerwig

 

Adolescence is a difficult period. We all undergo it; we don’t all survive it. We muddle through as best we can as we learn to find out who we are and hopefully, who we want to become. It’s a wonder that any of us live to be 21.

Christine McPherson (Ronan) insists that people call her “Lady Bird.” That isn’t her name; she just likes the sound of it. A high school senior at an all-girls Catholic school in suburban Sacramento, California, she is chafing at the bit to get free of the Great Central Valley and move somewhere sophisticated and cultured i.e. New York. Her mother Marion (Metcalf) would prefer that Lady Bird stay somewhere local, mainly because that’s about all the family can afford. At least Marion can take comfort in that her daughter, who is surprisingly smart, doesn’t really have the grades to get into any schools she really wants to go to.

Lady Bird has a fairly small circle; in addition to her mother with whom she has a contentious relationship, there’s her brother Miguel (Rodrigues) who graduated college but has only been able to find a job bagging groceries and her father Larry (Letts) who is as loving and kind as her mother is critical and demanding. Lady Bird’s bestie Julie Steffans (Feldstein) is, like herself, from the wrong side of the tracks. Julie is, like Lady Bird, on the outside looking in on the popularity scale.

Like most girls her age, Lady Bird is very interested in boys but they mystify her. She doesn’t really know how to act around them or to let them know she likes them. She’s also interested in sex but she wants it on her terms. I think it’s pretty much safe to say that Lady Bird wants to live life in all its aspects on her own terms which at 17 isn’t necessarily an unusual thing. She will explore different aspects of high school life, experience all sorts of different things both good and bad and continue to work towards her goal of going to college in New York, as hopeless a goal as it may seem.

The term “coming of age film” can cover a whole lot of sins but in this case, it is truly apt. We actually see real growth (as opposed to Hollywood growth which is generally unearned) in Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig, riding the director’s chair solo for the first time in her career, does a bang-up job. Although only semi-autobiographical (Gerwig has gone on record that this is more emotionally autobiographical than factually so) there is an air of authenticity to it. If Lady Bird isn’t Gerwig she’s certainly a cousin and that’s not a bad thing.

Ronan and Metcalf both turn in performances that have legitimate shots at Oscar nominations. When mother and daughter are going at it the screen just about crackles with electricity. Marion loves her daughter passionately but doesn’t always express that love in healthy ways. She’s outspoken (like her daughter) and hyper-critical which is definitely not appreciated. Larry does his best to mitigate things but he’s a little intimidated by Marion as well and when he loses his job he clearly begins to doubt himself although that’s an aspect of the story that isn’t explored thoroughly. Then again, it’s not Larry’s story – it’s Lady Bird’s.

In a sense this is also a love letter to Sacramento (where Gerwig grew up and where this is set). Although Lady Bird complains about the provincialness of the city, it’s clear that Gerwig has a great deal of affection for the place. Residents and regular visitors will recognize a lot of different landmarks and local hangouts shown at various times in the film. One can’t complain about a movie with this much love for the capitol of California.

There is a pretty frank portrayal of Lady Bird’s sexuality; she becomes attracted to two different guys during the course of the film and contemplates losing her virginity. The frank discussion of the event is going to feel familiar to most women, although those who find such things distasteful are going to have a difficult time with that particular scene. I suppose it is going to depend on how comfortable you are with sexual discussions.

Gerwig doesn’t get everything right. The ending feels a bit rushed and a little bit of a nonsequitir. Her move from one BFF to another one who is more shallow just so Lady Bird can get closer to a guy she’s interested in comes off as a little bit cliché and maybe a little bit out of character. However, those are relatively minor things and she does for the most part nail the film.

I commented on Facebook that everyone who has ever been an adolescent girl should see this and I stand by that. It is going to resonate deeply with most women who will recognize the situations and the character dynamics. Men are also going to enjoy this because they will also get a chance to laugh at some of the foibles of adolescent girls – and maybe get to understand the women in their lives just a teensy bit better. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

REASONS TO GO: The writing is smart and the characters realistic. You have to love a film that gives Sacto this much love.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending feels a little bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a lot of teen sexuality, some brief nudity and lots of teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lady Bird recently set a Rotten Tomatoes record for the most positive reviews without a single negative review – 164 consecutive positives and counting.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Gangster Land

Strad Style


Danny Hauck in his home studio.

Danny Hauck in his home studio.

(2016) Documentary (1170 Productions) Daniel Hauck, Razvan Stoica, David Campbell, Stefan Avalos, Rodger Stearns, Mary Hauck, Alfredo Primavera. Directed by Stefan Avalos

Slamdance

Dreams come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and some are more realistic than others. Then again, that’s what dreams should be right – to reach for the unattainable, the unlikely, the impossible?

Daniel Hauck is a bipolar man who lives in an isolated farmhouse in Laurelville, Ohio. Since he was a young boy he has been fascinated by violins. More than fascinated, really; it would be more accurate to call it a passion or an obsession than anything else. He doesn’t really have the talent to play them so much but he develops an urge to build them.

Besides that he’s also into custom cars and car clubs but that’s really a hobby that is a bit more expensive than he can afford at present being unemployed with almost no prospects of anything coming along anytime soon. He lives a lonely existence by choice although he does have a computer in which he keeps up with social media.

It’s on Facebook that he meets Razvan Stoica, a concert violinist considered to be one of the best in the world right now, although he is not well-known in the States – yet. The two befriend one another and begin messaging each other. They talk about classic violins and Stoica mentions that he would love to play one of the most famous in the world – Guarneri del Gesu’s (a contemporary of Antonio Stradivari and a fellow resident of Cremona in Italy) Il Cannone, or the cannon, the violin made famous by Paganini. .Daniel, perhaps impetuously, offers to build him a replica of the instrument.

Daniel hasn’t built a violin of this caliber before and he has no training in doing so. Nonetheless, he goes after the project with a certain amount of joie de vivre and learns what he can from the Internet. He also gets the help and support of Rodger Stearns, a local violin maker and woodworker. While his mother Mary and cousin David Campbell give him various degrees of support, Daniel proceeds largely through trial and error using the tools he has and making homemade UV booths and other ingenious ideas to keep the process going.

In the meantime, Razvan has expressed that he wants to play the instrument during a series of concerts in June starting in Amsterdam. Can Daniel overcome the odds and produce an instrument up to the exacting standards not only of one of the greatest concert violinists of our time but also one of the all-time masters of violin making?

Hauck is an engaging subject, often self-deprecating and sometimes raging against the difficulty of his situation and of the task he has set before himself. He is in many ways a perfect documentary subject, candid and open about nearly every aspect of his life. He has a dream yes, and he is determined to fulfill it but like most dreams it isn’t an easy one and it wouldn’t have been hard to abandon it at any time.

Avalos does just about everything on the project, including running the camera, editing, directing, producing and interviewing the subject. It’s very much his show and it shows enormous promise. The cinematography is as good as any I’ve seen for a documentary in the last year or so and not only captures the clutter of Danny’s home but also the stark beauty of the Ohio landscape in winter, the gorgeous Renaissance-era architecture of Cremona, and the sensuous lines of the violin.

There’s an awful lot of instruction going on here as well as Hauck takes us through the making of his violin. He knows what to do – he’s just not always sure how to do it and not everything he does ends up in success. Still, it’s fascinating stuff watching the project go from pieces of wood to a beautiful musical instrument.

I don’t know that this is so much an inspiring story so much as a comforting one – human beings are capable of so much more than we ever think we are and this reaffirms that. I’m hoping that a distributor that knows what to do with good documentaries gets hold of this; it deserves to be seen by a large audience. The logline may sound a bit dry but this is nonetheless a documentary that leaves the audience feeling good after the end credits roll and at a time when so many documentaries are hell-bent on telling us what’s wrong with the world, it’s nice to see what’s right.

REASONS TO GO: Danny Hauck is an engaging and fascinating subject. The film is actually extremely instructive on the difficulties of making a violin.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the editing is a bit jumpy.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Avalos was originally doing a documentary about “new violins” versus “old violins” and met Hauck through the process of researching it. When he discovered Hauck’s story, Avalos elected to focus on that instead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mao’s Last Dancer
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 20th Century Women

The Chaperone


Ariel Winter tells Triple H to suck it.

Ariel Winter tells Triple H to suck it.

(2009) Action Comedy (Goldwyn/WWE) Paul Levesque, Ariel Winter, Annabeth Gish, Kevin Corrigan, José Zúňiga, Kevin Rankin, Enrico Colantoni, Yeardley Smith, Ashley Taylor, Israel Broussard, Darren O’Hare, Lucy Webb, Jake Austin Walker, Cullen Chaffin, Taylor Faye Ruffin, Conner Ann Waterman, James DuMont, Nick Gomez, J.D. Evermore, George Wilson, Kate Adair. Directed by Stephen Herek

Prison can do two things to a person; it can make them even darker, finding more reason to hate society in general, or it can make one long to turn over a new leaf and become a better person. Ray Bradstone (Levesque, better known as WWE wrestler Triple H) has opted for the latter course. One of the best getaway drivers in the business, he wants to make amends to his ex-wife Lynne (Gish) and be a better father to his teenage daughter Sally (Winter). However, when he is released from prison and visits his former family’s home, he is essentially sent packing – neither one wants anything to do with him.

Unable to find work, Ray is in desperate mode when approached by Philip Larue (Corrigan), the leader of the bank-robbing crew Ray used to work for. He agrees to drive one last time but changes his mind at the last minute. This leads to problems for the heist, which Larue blames Ray for. In order to get away, Ray agrees to act as a chaperone for his daughter’s high school field trip to New Orleans, unknowingly taking the loot for the gang along with him. This as you might imagine doesn’t sit well with Larue and in short order they are after the kids and Ray and the ex-con knows that his daughter’s only chance to make it out is for him to take on his ex-gang, but the odds are most definitely against him.

At the end of the last decade, the World Wrestling Federation wanted to expand its brand and determined that a good way to do that was to put its wrestlers in films. Some of them got exposure (The Marine) while others sank without a trace. That initiative continues today, albeit in a much reduced form. While the WWE hasn’t turned out any new actors the caliber of Dwayne Johnson, they have plenty of performers with natural screen charisma.

Paul “Triple H” Levesque is one of those. He certainly shows a good deal of promise in his performance here. While he is something of a raw talent and in need of polish, he has flashes of charm and plenty of presence onscreen. Unfortunately, his natural gifts are given a Russian leg sweep by a script that lacks any sort of inspiration whatsoever. Nearly everything in the movie is by-the-numbers, giving the audience little reason to be invested in the characters or the action.

Even the action sequences are uninspiring. The villains don’t ever feel more than mildly threatening; in the ring Triple H could flex one bicep and they’d head for the hills. And in all honesty, most of the kids here are annoying enough that you wish the villains were better shots. The critics hated this movie, although not as much as the audience which stayed away in droves. It’s likely made at least some of its losses back in home video; I honestly think that while this isn’t great entertainment, it’s at least decent enough and no worse than some of the things that were box office blockbusters. It’s certainly one of those “no harm in taking a look” movies worth checking out if you’re bored.

WHY RENT THIS: Levesque has some genuine charm. New Orleans setting is cool.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cliche-ridden. Virtually no depth.
FAMILY VALUES: There is action violence, some rude humor and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Ray is breaking up a fight at the school, one of the boys in the scene is wearing a “Lemmy” t-shirt. Lemmy Kilmister is the lead singer of Motörhead, the band that plays the ring entrance song for Triple H.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a surprising number of features considering that this is an independently made feature that bombed at the box office. There’s a blooper real, a music video by Ariel Winter, a look at the kids in the film as well as a featurette on the dinosaur exhibit, a video diary by Winter and a photo gallery.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14,400 on a $3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kindergarten Cop
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Chalet Girl

Dark Skies


Things that go bump in the night.

Things that go bump in the night.

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

6 Days of Darkness 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

99 Homes


These days a man's home is the bank's castle.

These days a man’s home is the bank’s castle.

(2015) Drama (Broad Green) Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Clancy Brown, Tim Guinee, Nicole Barré, Yvonne Landry, Noah Lomax, J.D. Eyermore, Cullen Moss, Jordyn McDempsey, Ann Mahoney, Judd Lormand, Deneen Tyler, Donna Duplantier, Wayne Pére, Cynthia Santiago, Juan Gaspard, Nadiyah Skyy Taylor. Directed by Ramin Bahrani

It wasn’t that long ago that the economy tanked in the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Homes were being foreclosed upon at rates unheard of since the Great Depression. Families were displaced, the rich got richer and in essence nothing has changed since then other than the banks are being more circumspect somewhat, but none of the regulations that had kept this from happening before have been reinstated.

Taking place in 2010, the events in 99 Homes are said to have actually happened although I’m unclear whether they took place in the Orlando locale the film is set in. Dennis Nash (Garfield) is a construction worker who discovers that the builders of the development he’s working for have run out of money and that the past two weeks he’s been working are going to go unpaid.

His childhood home, which he lives in with his mother (Dern) and grew up in is underwater and he’s several payments behind. The bank isn’t terribly interested in anything but foreclosure and his trip to court has left him reeling; the judge, overwhelmed with the number of foreclosure cases, simply rubberstamps the bank’s request and sends Dennis packing. Dennis is told he has 30 days to appeal.

A few days later realtor Rick Carver (Shannon) shows up at Dennis’ door and without so much as a fare-thee-well tosses him, his son Connor (Lomax) and his mom into the street along with all their stuff. He is forced to move them into a skeevy hotel which is mostly filled with other evictees, some of them who’ve been there two years or more. He needs to find work now more than ever but there simply isn’t any to be had, the construction business hit hard by the fact that banks aren’t making business loans so there is nothing being built.

When he discovers that some of his tools are missing, he goes back to Carver to demand their return. Carver, impressed with his moxie, puts him to work doing a particularly disagreeable job on a foreclosed home whose previous owners let their displeasure be known in a rather spectacular way. Carver, admiring Nash’s work ethic, hires him on to do odd construction jobs and then to snatch air conditioning units from foreclosed homes that the banks will pay Carver money to install “new” units, which of course Carver simply has Nash reinstall the old units. Shifty, no?

Eventually as Nash continues to help Carver do his dirty work, Carver puts him to work doing the work that Nash is most wary of – presiding over foreclosures. Nash is sympathetic to the victims but soon becomes good at it and continues to help Carver with his chicanery. He even helps Carver set up a deal that will make them both unimaginably rich.

The issue is that Nash has a conscience and it’s beginning to get pricked, particularly in the case of a particular homeowner (Guinee). And when it all comes to a head, will Nash choose money or conscience?

This is a movie that captures the Great American Nightmare circa 2015 (yes, it’s still the Great American Nightmare). It’s a story that’s all too tragically common and will hit an emotional resonance that will touch even those who haven’t had money problems in their lives.

Garfield takes a role that he’s really more suited to than the teenage costumed superhero that he has been playing most recently. He’s still not the commanding screen presence that he might be but he’s a talented actor in his own right. What shines here though is Shannon as the slimy real estate agent whose greed and cynicism are palpable. He has a speech in which he talks about America bailing out winners that sounds like something Trump would say. I daresay that the orange-haired Republican Presidential candidate would probably like this movie for all the wrong reasons.

Dern, who has become one of the best actresses that is always getting notice but never getting noticed if you catch my drift, is once again magnificent here. She is the movie’s conscience and there are few actresses who can pull it off without being maudlin but Dern accomplishes it. She probably won’t be more than an afterthought for a Best Supporting Actress nomination here but that’s more because the script goes off the rails at the end.

Yeah, the ending. Let’s talk about it. What bugs me about Hollywood endings is that you establish a character, establish their credibility and then as the movie ends suddenly they change and act a completely different way than they’ve acted throughout the film. That’s not the way real people act and audiences know that. If you’re going to be charitable through the first 85% of the movie, the audience is going to expect you to be charitable the last 15% too. You have to follow your own internal logic. This movie doesn’t do that.

Still, it’s a fine movie that for the most part covers an issue that faces all American homeowners even those who think they’re well off. Other than that 1% we’ve heard so much about, most Americans are only a single paycheck away from financial issues and once you’ve got those it can be excruciatingly difficult to climb out from under them. The game is rigged that way and nobody wants to talk about it. Thank goodness for filmmakers like Bahrani who do.

REASONS TO GO: Real life horror. Terrific performances by Shannon and Dern.
REASONS TO STAY: Inexplicably bad ending.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language including some sexual references and a brief scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Garfield has worn facial hair in a film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Margin Call
FINAL RATINGS: 7/10
NEXT: All This Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records

What If (2014)


Indie cute OD.

Indie cute OD.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (CBS) Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Rafe Spall, Megan Park, Mackenzie Davis, Lucius Hoyos, Jemima Rooper, Tommie-Amber Pirie, Meghan Heffern, Jonathan Cherry, Rebecca Northan, Jordan Hayes, Oona Chaplin, Adam Fergus, Sam Moses, Ennis Esmer, Mike Wilmot, George Tchortov, Tamara Duarte, Vanessa Matsui. Directed by Michael Dowse

Finding The One is a matter not only of chemistry but of timing. Both of you have to be in the right place to be able to accept someone into that kind of intimacy. Both of you have to be available. It would help a lot if you’re both as attractive, cool and hip as Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan.

Wallace (Radcliffe) is a medical school dropout who has had his heart broken one too many times. He lives in his sister’s (Rooper) attic as a kind of live-in babysitter to her son (Hoyos) and spends a lot of time sitting on the roof of his sister’s house gazing soulfully at the Toronto skyline.

His cynical friend Allan (Driver) gets him to go to a party where he meets Chantry (Kazan). The two hit it off right away and spend much of the evening talking. To Wallace’s surprise (and perhaps disgust) Allan has hooked up with Nicole (Davis) and those two are going at it like sailors on a 24 hour pass in a brothel. Not much chance of that happening with Wallace and Chantry though – she has a boyfriend named Ben (Spall) who is a pretty decent fellow who works for the U.N. Kind of a rough challenge for an unemployed medical school dropout to take on, y’know.

 

Nonetheless Wallace and Chantry become the best of friends and when Ben’s work takes him to Dublin for six months, the opportunity is there although Wallace – something of a wimp – shies away from it even though it is clear to everyone who knows him that he’s hopelessly smitten by the comely young Chantry. And for her part, Chantry’s friends suspect she likes Wallace a lot more than she’s letting on, although she lets her somewhat slutty sister Dalia (Park) take a crack at Wallace which ends up pretty disastrously. However as Chantry begins to question her relationship with Ben and a major opportunity knocks for her which might send her halfway around the world. Wallace has the choice of doing the right thing, or…but what is the right thing in this situation, anyway?

This Canadian-made rom com based on a stage play has the advantage of having some attractive leads but the disadvantage of fairly bland personalities for the both of them. Sure, Chantry is an animator whose scribblings occasionally come to life but this contributes to a cuter-than-thou vibe that over-sweetens this concoction like someone dumping a whole jar of refined sugar into a glass of tea. The animations really add nothing to the movie other than to be a distraction reflecting Chantry’s occasional melancholy. Sure Wallace comes off as cooler than the average bear but with a sweet sensitive side that is apt to get all the indie gals in their vintage dresses and fuchsia hair misty-eyed.

Radcliffe, now a grown-up after we watched him grow up in the Harry Potter movies, is an engaging romantic lead, not conventionally handsome like a Hugh Grant but having the same tripping-over-his-own-feet awkwardness that Grant made into a trademark in the 90s. His character here has little in the way of backbone and tries so hard to do the right thing that he ends up making everybody around him miserable. Sometimes doing the wrong thing is the right thing.

Like a few other critics, I found the relationship between Allan and Nicole far more interesting and would have appreciated much more insight into their relationship, even though they do pull a few dick moves during the movie. Their characters seemed more realistic and more alive than the sometimes walking cliches that are Wallace and Chantry.

That’s not to say that the relationship between the two leads doesn’t have its moments. There’s the slapstick sequence that sends Ben out of a window during a disastrous dinner party but sadly there isn’t enough of that. When late in the movie the two of them “break up” as friends due to an issue that could have been resolved simply with a phone call and seems blown way out of proportion in order to manufacture conflict, I could feel my eyes rolling into the back of my head. This is one of the most egregious of rom-com cliches of the 21st century.

This is basically a movie that has a lot of potential but tries too hard to be charming in a Bohemian way, sort of like Toronto doing the East Village and realizing far too late that they’re far too polite and less pretentious to make that work effectively. I liked Radcliffe and Driver, with a hint of Davis and Spall but after that there is much less to love.

REASONS TO GO: Daniel Radcliffe is awfully engaging.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too cute. A surfeit of indie rom-com cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of sexual references including some brief partial nudity and not an inconsequential amount of profanity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Casey Affleck and Mary Elizabeth Winstead were originally cast as the leads but the producers decided they wanted to go with younger actors instead which is ironic since Zoe Kazan is in fact older than Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: When Harry Met Sally

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Bellflower

Ilo Ilo


Everybody ought to have a maid.

Everybody ought to have a maid.

(2013) Drama (Film Movement) Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Tian Wen Chen, Yann Yann Yeo, Jo Kukathas. Directed by Anthony Chen

Offshoring

Two parents working is an economic reality that is true just about everywhere; it is not a matter of preference but necessity.

Jiale (Ler) is a young boy whose parents both work. His father, Teck (Chen) is a salesman whose product proves to be woefully inferior. That’s never a good situation to be in for any sort of salesman. His mother Hwee Leng (Yeo) who is substantially pregnant, works as an administrator for a business that is laying off employees at a frightening clip. You see, it’s 1997 and the Asian economic crisis has swept into Singapore like a monsoon followed by a tsunami.

As Jiale begins acting out in school, Hwee Leng, called to the principal’s office for what is likely not the first time, realizes that she needs help. She prevails upon Teck to hire a maid. That made is Teresa (Bayani) from the Philippines who left her son back home in order to earn money. However, she is not just to be a maid – she is also to be something of a nanny to Jiale.

At first, Jiale is furious at the intrusion. He finds ways to humiliate and torture Teresa that might have worked had Teresa been as timid inside as she was deferent outside. However she has a surprising core of steel and Jiale is eventually put to heel. In fact, the more time Teresa and Jiale spend together, the closer their bond becomes which doesn’t sit too well with Hwee Leng.

Both Teck and Hwee Leng have a lot on their minds. As Hwee Leng’s pregnancy progresses, she relies more and more on Teresa which bothers her quite a bit. Already with a bit of a patrician attitude to begin with, she continues to put Teresa in her place (which is squarely below Hwee Leng’s social standing) at every opportunity. It is Teck and Jiale who start to open up to the maid who becomes something of a confidant. And while the economic situation worsens for Teck and Hwee Leng grows more and more stressed, Teresa is slowly becoming indispensable for Jiale.

Chen, directing his first feature-length film, based this on his own experiences growing up in Singapore at the time period the film is set in with two working parents and a Filipino maid/nanny (in fact following the film’s Camera d’Or win at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, he was inspired to find her in the Philippines and re-establish contact). The film has that air of realism that often comes with semi-biographical films.

Ler is a pretty natural actor and dang cute on top of that. He is often called upon to be mean, surly and cruel which kids don’t necessarily take to naturally – and as the film progresses, he is called upon to be reflective, open and affectionate. Young Jiale is somewhat spoiled and very spirited and although it might sound like an easy role to play, let me assure you that it isn’t.

Yeo also has a thankless role, but pulls it off. She isn’t necessarily a sympathetic character (which makes one wonder about Chen’s relationship with his mother) but she’s a character who is definitely buffeted by winds outside of her control. Her husband is somewhat weak and doesn’t always act wisely or in the family’s best interests and that weighs upon her, almost forced into the role of being the pillar of the family which may or may not be a role she’s suited for (Hwee Ling I mean). Yeo became pregnant shortly before filming began and her pregnancy was then written into the film. Chen’s own mother was not pregnant during the time that his nanny was there. Incidentally, the pictures over the end credits are Yeo with her actual baby, who was born shortly after filming ended.

The relationships between mother and son, father and son and mother and father are all impacted by the arrival of Teresa, who changes the dynamics of all the relationships in the family. Her relationships with the family members are also very distinct and different from one another. They feel organic and realistic and go a long way to making the film accessible.

While the movie drags in spots and occasionally makes redundant points, the feeling here is of being the fly on the wall in an intimate family setting. We see the toll the financial stress takes on the family – the kind of thing plenty of Americans can relate to in these difficult times. We also see the toll Jiale’s behavior takes on the parents, which any parent from any culture can relate to. There will be those who will find this to hit a little too close to home in places, but at the very least it’s comforting to know that no matter where you live, there are things we all share in common.

REASONS TO GO: Nice complexity to the various relationships. Americans will be able to relate to the issues here.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little forced in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and smoking as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is named for the Filipino province where Chen’s actual nanny was from.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nanny Diaries

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!

About a Boy


Two English gentlemen of leisure.

Two English gentlemen of leisure.

(2002) Comedy (Universal) Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz, Sharon Small, Nicholas Hutchison, Nat Gastiain Tena, Ben Ridgeway, Isabel Brook, Tessa Vale, Paulette Williams, Jonathan Franklin, John Kamal, Victoria Smurfit, Augustus Prew, Peter Roy, Alex Kew, Roger Brierley, Denise Stephenson. Directed by Chris and Paul Weitz

Our Film Library

We all grow up at different rates. Some of us mature early; others are late bloomers. Then there are those of us who never grow up at all.

Take Will Freeman (Grant) for example. 38 years old, confirmed bachelor who has never worked a day in his life. He’s lived off of the royalties of a song he didn’t even write – his father’s hit Christmas tune “Santa’s Super Sleigh.” It keeps him in a comfortable flat with all the latest gadgets, able to eat out nearly every night, keep him in reasonably fashionable attire and pretty much do whatever he wants – or nothing at all. “Every man is an island,” he intones early in the film. “I happen to be Ibiza.”

He takes the same attitude towards human relationships. “I am the star of the Will Show,” he says about his life. “and the Will Show is not an ensemble drama.” He dates women, sure, and shags his fair share – Will Freeman is an incredibly handsome and charming guy. However few of his relationships last more than a few weeks, months at most. He values his solitude and the thing that terrify most of us in the night – that we’ll end up unwanted and alone – is just his cup of tea.

This kind of attitude can lead people to do unsavory things. In Will’s case, he discovers that single mums are a treasure trove for a guy like him. They have gone without sex for a long while so they are appreciative when he gives it to them and they shag like absolute fiends when he does. Then instead of Will having to break up with them, they actually break up with him. It’s an absolute dream. He discovers a support group – Single Parents Alone Together, or SPAT and goes prowling at their meetings, inventing a child – young Ned – who doesn’t exist. Ned’s mum left them both, breaking Will’s heart and of course bringing out the nurturing nature of his prey in the process.

This doesn’t fool everyone. Marcus (Hoult) is the son of SPAT member Fiona Brewer (Collette) who is the mate of the girl that Will is interested in dating…er, shagging. He figures out that Ned doesn’t exist and lacking any sort of father figure, he kind of latches on to Will. The two become somewhat connected when Marcus goes out with Will and his prospective shagmate and when they return home, find Fiona unconscious having attempted suicide. They get her to the hospital in time fortunately.

Fiona is kind of a 21st century hippie who doesn’t realize it isn’t 1972 and worse still insures her son is a laughing stock and a target for bullying. She is also bipolar (at least so it seems from an amateur’s perspective) and prone to bouts of really deep depression. Marcus is terrified that one day she’ll succeed in killing herself and with no backup, nobody else to look after him, he’ll be royally screwed. He winds up spending time with Will because at first he wouldn’t mind Will marrying his mom (which he quickly realizes will never happen) but later because he is scared of going home and dealing with his mom.

For Will’s part, young Marcus is socially awkward and a bit of a bother but there’s something about Marcus that is perpetually endearing and despite everything he grows to actually care about Marcus. In other words, Will is beginning to grow up. And when he meets Rachel (Weisz), another single mum, Will is actually beginning to want something more than a one-night stand. Maybe there’s hope for the boy after all.

This is based on the book by Nick Hornby and is one of a string of great British romantic comedies that came out during the last decade, including Love, Actually and Notting Hill both of which involved Hugh Grant. This had the thankless task of opening against the first episode of the Star Wars saga so it largely fell by the wayside yet still managed to do impressive box office business in spite of it.

Hoult, who has gone on to become a solid actor and potential star as a young man, made his debut here and pulled off a difficult role with amazing deftness for someone who was just 12 years old at the time the film was made. I do believe that most child actors would have made Marcus too sympathetic; Marcus is definitely the author of some of his own misery but is basically a good kid. He can be annoying and he can be pig-headed but he is also capable of great shining moments of sheer gold. His relationship with his crush Ellie (Tena) is also wholly believable.

While Collette gets the thankless job of making Fiona relatively sympathetic, it is Grant who pulls this off with one of the finest performances of his career. Shallow and selfish and occasionally downright mean, he is also another one who is a decent chap at heart who just needed the right boy to pull his decency out of him.

There is no doubt that the Weitz brothers who were previously best known for the first two American Pie movies make this occasionally manipulative and once in awhile a bit cliché. In their defense, we need those bellwether points of reference to let us know what to feel from time to time and there is a certain comfort in them – no shame in that at all. The movie is likable with a soundtrack (courtesy of the indie rock act Badly Drawn Boy) that is indelible as one of the best of the century’s first decade. And yes, likable is sometimes used as criticism but who doesn’t want to hang out with someone who is likable for a couple of hours? Sometimes that’s all we need to feel good about ourselves.

WHY RENT THIS: Hugh Grant at his best. Charming story that is rather moving in places.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally manipulative and cliché.

FAMILY VALUES:  Strong language here and there as well as some fairly adult thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a couple of Badly Drawn Boy music videos, an “English-to-English”  dictionary and the complete lyrics to “Santa’s Super Sleigh” which should have been a holiday classic but isn’t…thank the Great Gazoo!

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: $130.6M on a $30M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love, Actually

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Day 2 of Our Film Library!