Nomadland


This is what mesmerizing performance looks like.

(2020) Drama (SearchlightFrances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, Angela Reyes, Carl R. Hughes, Douglas G. Soul, Ryan Aquino, Bryce Bedsworth, Annette Webb, Teresa Buchanan, Karie Lynn McDermott Wilder, Gay DeForest, Patricia Grier, Makenzie Etcheverry, Rachel Bannon, Brandy Wilber, Suanne Carlson, Roxanne Bay, Sherita Deni Coker.  Directed by Chloé Zhao

 

Many people look at the Okies of the Depression, entire families who put all their belongings in their trucks and tried to find somewhere they could work and believe that those folk were a symptom of their times. What most Americans don’t know is that the economic realities of the 21st century have led to an entire new generation of rootless migrant workers, going from one seasonal job to the next, living out of their vans or in camps.

Fern (McDormand) has been hit by two catastrophes. First and foremost, her beloved husband Bo has died. To make matters worse, the gypsum mine in Empire, Nevada, where they were both employed, has shut down. Empire, being a company town, now has no work and has itself shut down. Fern has been thrown out of her company housing where she has lived for decades. She decides to gather what belongings she can fit and put them in a van where she makes herself as comfortable as possible, getting a temporary job at the Amazon Fulfillment Center for the Christmas rush. She is given free parking in a trailer park, paid for by Amazon. When the job goes away, so will the space.

She befriends a woman named Linda May (May) who urges her to attend a convocation of nomads in Arizona, to be presided over by nomad guru Bob Wells (Wells) who has garnered an impressive following with his pragmatic and imaginative videos of how to survive living out of a van. She tells the child of a close friend in Empire who asks her if she’s homeless, “Oh no, honey, I’m not homeless…I’m houseless!”

She is loathe to head out to Arizona but when finding more work proves fruitless, she changes her mid and drives down there. There she meets Dave (Strathairn), an old man who becomes sweet on her, and Swankie (Swankie), a veteran nomad who is dying of cancer and wants to see as many natural wonders as she can while she still can. Her impending fate doesn’t prevent her from remonstrating with Fern that she needs to be more pragmatic because they are in the middle of nowhere and there is nobody to help them if their van breaks down “You can die out here!”

Fern remains something of an enigma throughout the movie until near the end where we start to get the picture as to why she makes the choices that she does. McDormand, one of the most gifted actresses in the business with Oscars for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and three other nominations. This film will undoubtedly give her a fourth, as she has already won this year’s Golden Globe for the role (the movie also won the Best Motion Picture, Drama Golden Globe at the recent awards ceremony). While Fern isn’t the most talkative person ever, her eyes are often haunted, staring out in the distance, her thoughts kept to herself but her eyes betraying her melancholy. She works hard and makes due without complaining, taking what joys she can where she can – like going skinny dipping by herself in a rock-strewn river in Colorado.

The one false note that the film strikes is the relationship between Fern and Dave. There is a sweetness to Dave, but Fern isn’t having it and that would be fine, except it feels like the relationship seems to be added on just to add romantic tension. The movie doesn’t need it.

Zhao utilizes the magnificent vistas of the prairies, the Rockies and the desert Southwest, taking Fern to a variety of jobs, from working the lunch counter at Wall Drug in South Dakota (a place to which I’ve actually been and it is so much more impressive than the film shows), a beet harvester in Nebraska, and a trailer park hostess in Arizona. She finds quiet moments of peace amongst concrete dinosaurs or under the stars. And despite Dave’s sweet advances, she seems content to remain on her own.

This is a slice of life that most Americans have no idea even exists, but the movie is based on a non-fiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder. While Zhao tends to leave details out of her film, there’s no doubt that this is a perilous way of life, especially now with so may more out of work than when the movie was filmed, let alone when it takes place (approximately 2011). People who have worked hard all their lives and couldn’t quite get ahead find themselves unable to afford a place to live in, forcing the to live from gig to gig. And what happens to them when they are no longer able to drive? It isn’t a question the movie asks but it was definitely on my mind, given that most of the characters in the film or either middle aged or elderly.

There is a lyricism here, a dignity that is all the more apparent because many of the actors in the film are non-professionals; they are actual nomads who live in their own fans. They, too, live with the specter that jobs aren’t guaranteed and that despite their willingness to work, they may get somewhere, find that the job they expected was already gone, and not be able to afford the gas to get them somewhere else. Most of these people have no health care insurance, so when people like Swankie get seriously ill, their only choice is to let nature take its course.

It seems impossible to believe that Americans can live like this in the 21st century; our nation is wealthy and prosperous, or so we’re told, but that’s only if you own the business. For those who toil in those businesses and make money for the 1%, their future may not be all too different than the one Fern faces.

REASONS TO SEE: McDormand gives another in a long line of outstanding performances. Gritty and realistic examination of American economic realities. Rings true as a human story. Honest in every way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The romance between Fern and Dave seemed forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some full-frontal nudity
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zhan interviewed several real life nomads to get some informational background for the film; some of the more articulate interviewees were given roles playing fictional versions of themselves in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Leisure Seeker
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Days of the Bagnold Summer

Some Kind of Heaven


Life in The Villages has a surreal quality to it.

(2020) Documentary (Magnolia) Reggie Kincer, Dennis Dean, Gary Schwartz, Lynn Henry, Anne Kincer.  Directed by Lance Oppenheim

 

Residents of Central Florida, as I am, know about The Villages. The world’s largest gated retirement community, it is the subject of endless jokes and speculation. Known for it’s Disney-esque architecture (including faux Mission-style bridges and shopping-centers complete with fully invented historical backstories) – it wouldn’t surprise me if Disney itself took its cues for its own housing development in Celebration from The Villages, which was built about ten years earlier – and solidly Republican politics, not to mention a fleet of personalized golf carts that even residents who don’t play golf get around town in.

There is also a Disney-esque aura of positivism in The Villages; they have their own television news and newspaper, often devoting their energies to more fluffy news stories (residents can always turn to Fox News for their political news, which many do) and more than one resident describes living in The Villages as living in a bubble.

But while local filmmaker Lance Oppenheim’s documentary hints at the environment of the retirement community, he really doesn’t explore it deeply. Instead, he chooses to tell the story of several of its residents (and one conspicuous non-resident) with almost a set of blinders on to the fact that those living there seem to want to live out their golden years in a monocultural fantasyland that has more in common with the Magic Kingdom than with real life, although as it always does, real life intrudes.

We meet Reggie, an 81-year-old man who has been married for 47 years to Anne. She socializes while he keeps to himself. In fact, it soon becomes apparent that despite Reggie’s odd yoga-like exercise regimen, he seems dedicated to losing himself in a recreational drug haze – mainly cannabis, but also harder drugs. At first Anne puts up with her husband’s eccentricities but as they lead to legitimate legal issues, her patience wanes.

Barbara is a Boston native who moved down to Florida to retire with her husband, who then passed away. Forced to return to work because of money issues, she has lost a lot of the joy of life that animated her when she first moved to The Villages, but her first tentative steps into dating a handsome and kind golf cart salesman seem to be restoring her smile.

Finally, there’s Dennis whom Da Queen nicknamed “The Shark.” A ne’er-do-well from California living out of his van, the octogenarian is eager to land a good-looking widow with money as he trolls the churches and bars, but finds better luck at the pools. He is blissfully ignorant of the adage that when God wants to punish you, He gives you what you wish for.

Oppenheim seems to have watched a good deal of the works of documentarian Errol Morris – the style is unmistakable. There are scenes of golf cart precision drill teams, synchronized swimming, and spotless shopping centers that have fake cracks in the fake adobe walls. It all seems so surreal, but then we get the pathos in the three stories that highlight the issues that still occur despite the best efforts to turn the golden years into a kind of paradise of yesteryear. Local critic Roger Moore likens The Villages to The Village in the British science fiction spy drama The Prisoner and that pretty much sums up the attitudes of Central Floridians to the development.

I have to admit that the movie isn’t what I hoped it would be, nor what it could have been. That’s not really the fault of the filmmaker for not making the movie we wanted him to make; as much as I would have appreciated a deep dive into the reality of The Villages, that film remains to be made. This is a movie about four individuals who find their twilight years as challenging as all those that led up to them, which isn’t necessarily the message most of us want to hear.

REASONS TO SEE: A very Errol Morris-esque vibe. Some of the segments are pretty deranged. A different look at the aged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so much about The Villages as some of the people who live there.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is one of the Executive Producers; the New York Times was a partner in the making of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gates of Heaven
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
NEXT:
The Reason I Jump

The Curse of La Llorona


Can I get an amen?!

(2019) Horror (New LineLinda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola, Irene Keng, Oliver Alexander, Aiden Lewandowski, Paul Rodriguez, John Marshall Jones, Ricardo Mamood-Vega, Jayden Valdivia, Andrew Tinpo Lee, Madeleine McGraw, Sophia Santi. Directed by Michael Chaves

Hollywood has yet to mine the extremely fertile soil of Mexican, Central and South American folklore. Some mythic stories go back thousands of years to the Mayans, the Aztecs and other native cultures. Given how repetitive most Hollywood horror movies are, it would seem a slam dunk to try other sources for scares.

Anna (Cardellini) is a widow whose husband, an LAPD cop, died in the line of duty. She’s a social worker who often works with the cops, particularly close friend Detective Cooper (Thomas) who often supplies her with child endangerment cases. One such involves an apparently insane Hispanic mom (Velasquez) whose children have burn marks on their arms and are discovered locked in a closet surrounded by religious icons. This being a horror movie, it’s not the frantic mom who is responsible; it’s La Llorona, a.k.a. The Crying Woman, a 17th century beauty who in a fit of jealous rage drowned her two children when she discovered her husband had been unfaithful.

Now she’s after new children to replace her own little ones and she’s got her eye on Anna’s two kids (Christou and Kinchen). A kindly priest (Amendola), gun-shy after a recent brush with the supernatural, steers her to an ex-priest turned curandero (Cruz) who means to help Anna out by any means he can. However, La Llorona doesn’t take no for an answer easily.

The film is loosely tied to the Conjuring universe by the priest, who appeared in another spin-off that also didn’t involve the Warrens. This is the only movie to date in the Conjuring universe whose big bad didn’t appear in a previous movie which doesn’t hurt the movie as Chaves does a good job of setting the film up in the opening sequences of the film.

The actual La Llorona apparition is pretty cool, appearing often in billowing curtains or emerging from water. There are plenty of attempts to create a spooky atmosphere but too many jump scares ruin the broth. Cardellini is generally a proficient actress but she’s given little to work with here; her That ultimately comes off as colorless. Cruz fares a little bit better, offering a little comic relief.

The movie feels a little bit too much like a paint-by-numbers horror film trying to check all the boxes off on the scorecard. That’s a shame because there was certainly potential for a really whiz-bang horror film here. They got the technical end right; now if only they had the courage of their own convictions and allowed the main character to scare the bejeezus out of us.

REASONS TO SEE: The creature effects are pretty nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: An overabundance of jump scares as well as an overabundance of child actor overacting..b
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence and plenty of scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amendola reprises the role he played in Annabelle.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of La Llorona
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness 2019 concludes!

Book Club


In any decade, nobody parties like Candice Bergen.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Paramount) Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Andy Garcia, Craig T. Nelson, Don Johnson, Ed Begley Jr., Richard Dreyfuss, Wallace Shawn, Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton, Mircea Monroe, Tommy Dewey, John Shartzer, Ravi Kapoor, Lili Bordán, Marisa Chen Moller, Amanda Martin. Directed by Bill Holderman

 

Four literate ladies have been friends for ages and have seen the curvature of their lives move towards the downward slope. One of the hallmarks of their friendship is their regular book club meetings in which the four women read a book and then discuss it the following week. The membership includes Vivian (Fonda) the somewhat oversexed owner of a boutique luxury hotel chain; Sharon (Bergen), a divorced judge who is notoriously career-driven; Diane (Keaton), a recent widow whose bossy daughters (Silverstone and Aselton interchangeably) want her to move to Scottsdale into a basement apartment even though she’s perfectly happy and capable of supporting herself in Los Angeles and finally restaurateur Carol (Steenburgen) whose husband (Nelson) has been notably absent in the bedroom of late – corresponding with his retirement. The reading of Fifty Shades of Grey inspires them to ramp up their love lives.

This is one of those films that perpetuates the myth that senior sexuality is at best cute and at worst a colossal punchline to a bad joke. Being that I’m climbing towards those rarefied age climes, perhaps I’m a little more sensitive to that sort of thing but with modern medicine allowing us to live longer than we used to, sex drives are correspondingly lasting well into our sixties and seventies, sometimes even into our eighties. While there may be those who still giggle at the thought of Granny and Grampy getting busy, it’s not realistic anymore to expect that they don’t.

At least Holderman, a veteran producer making his directing debut, doesn’t waste the talents of his cast. All of these pros deliver performances that range from strong to terrific. Bergen in particular brought to mind past glories as we’re reminded watching her that there has never been another Murphy Brown and there likely never will be.

The film suffers from having too many characters and not enough backstory; I would have been much happier with fewer but better developed characters in the mix. Still, I’m glad that these ladies are still drawing a paycheck and I would love to see much more of them, albeit in better films than this one. At least it has a killer soundtrack going for it.

REASONS TO SEE: The great cast also gets a great soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The myth that senior citizens having a sexual life is ridiculous is perpetuated here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including sexual references as well as other sex-related content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bergen, Fonda and Keaton all dated Warren Beatty at one time or another.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boynton Beach Club
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Patient 001

The Cakemaker


Bake me a cake just as fast as you can!

(2017) Drama (Strand) Sarah Adler, Tim Kalkhof, Roy Miller, Zohar Shtrauss, Sandra Sadeh, Stephanie Stremler, Eliezer Shimon, Iyad Msalma, Tagel Eliyahu, David Koren, Tamir Ben Yehuda, Sagi Shemesh, Gal Gonen. Directed by Ofir Raul Gralzer

The loss of a loved one is always devastating. Some find themselves having a hard time facing the fact that their loved one is gone. Others feel the need to wrap themselves in everything that reminds them of their late loved one, holding onto it before the memory fades. We all cope with grief differently.

Oren (Miller) is an Israeli businessman whose travels frequently take him to Berlin. His travels to Berlin frequently take him to a café run by Thomas (Kalkhof). It might be for the Black Forest Cake that Oren loves or the cinnamon cookies he takes home to his wife, but as it turns out the connection between the German and the Israeli goes far deeper.

When Oren doesn’t show up at the appointed time and Thomas’ texts and calls to his lover go unanswered, Thomas makes his way to Oren’s Berlin office and there discovers that Oren has been killed in an automobile accident. Gutted, Thomas decides to go to Jerusalem where he finds the café that is being started up by Oren’s wife Anat (Adler). Impulsively, Thomas asks for a job and Anat gives him one as a dishwasher.

However his skills as a baker become much more apparent to the horror of Anat’s brother Moti (Shtrauss) who is deeply distrustful of a gentile and a male one at that in the kitchen. He is concerned that the café’s kosher certification will be threatened. Meanwhile, Anat finds her bond with Thomas deepening, still having no idea of her employee’s relationship with her late husband. Her son Ital (Eliyahu) also begins to open up to Thomas. If the truth should come out, the two will be utterly destroyed.

This is a movie that doesn’t do what you expect it to – and that’s a good thing. I honestly never could figure out where Gralzer was going (he also co-wrote the script) and the choices he made were all good ones. There is a very melancholic air here, understandable considering the subject matter. There are times that Thomas’ actions seem almost creepy but as the movie progresses some sense can be made of them, largely thanks to a flashback late in the film. Still, Kalkhof has a brooding, gentle presence that draws the audience in. Adler is a bit more shrill, but she softens a bit as her character’s relationship with Thomas grows more romantic.

The movie takes it’s time getting where it’s going to which is fine with European audiences but not so much for American filmgoers who are notoriously impatient with slow-paced films. I found the unhurried pace to be actually somewhat soothing; it allows the viewer to process what’s happening. It also allows the filmmaker to linger over some shots of pastries and cakes that are just mouth-watering short of being food porn. My advice is to see this film in a theater that is within walking distance to a nice bakery. You’ll be hungry by the time this is done.

This is an impressive debut for Gralzer and there are few wrong steps taken here. The late-film flashback that explains some of what happened between Thomas and Oren probably should have occurred sooner in the film and the ending was a bit muddled but beyond that this is the kind of rainy day movie that will whet your appetite in more ways than one.

REASONS TO GO: You never know where the film is taking you. The cakes and cookies look incredibly appetizing.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first full-length feature to be directed by Gralzer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carol
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Six L.A. Love Stories

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

Love & Friendship


Kate Beckinsale machinates.

Kate Beckinsale machinates.

(2016) Period Romance (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Kate Beckinsale, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Jenn Murray, Lochlann O’Mearáin, Sophie Radermacher, Chloë Sevigny, Stephen Fry, Jordan Waller, Ross Mac Mahon, Frank Prendergast, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Kelly Campbell, Jemma Redgrave. Directed by Whit Stillman

Woman Power

The role of women has evolved over the centuries, but it still has a long way to go. One woman who has helped it evolve is the author Jane Austen, who wrote about strong female heroines in a period when women were not just second class citizens, but third or even fourth class. It is something of a shame that Austen heroines are to this day still more of an exception than a rule.

Lady Susan (Beckinsale) is a widow with scarcely a penny to her name. In the Regency era, that is a dire situation indeed. Having married into the upper class, she is used to a certain lifestyle that she can no longer afford. Having a scandalous reputation as a temptress (one that has been well-earned to be sure) hasn’t helped her cause. With few options, she goes to her sister-in-law Catherine Vernon (Greenwell) and her good-natured husband Charles (Edwards) to stay with.

Things are tense between the two women, mainly because Susan had opposed the marriage and had done her best to quash it – unsuccessfully. Now the appearance of Susan’s daughter Frederica (Clark) has complicated matters. Susan has been trying to get Frederica married to the extremely wealthy, moderately handsome, sweet-natured but utterly dim Sir James Martin (Bennett) whom she doesn’t love and has been resisting. Susan herself has been courting the charms of Catherine’s younger brother Reginald (Samuel), much to the amusement of Susan’s American friend Mrs. Johnson (Sevigny).

However all of Lady Susan’s plots and schemes may come crashing down about her head. There are people who just plain don’t like her and disapprove of her. It will take all of her wits and intelligence to stay one step ahead of everyone else and succeed in making sure both she and her daughter are able to live in comfort and privilege.

Director Whit Stillman is one of those guys who is well-respected within the film community. He has some really terrific films to his credit, including Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan, both must-sees for any film buff. He seems tailor-made for the works of Jane Austen and true to expectations he nails it with his first foray into the grand dame’s work.

And that turns out to be the case. Stillman gets the essence of the language, making it flow without making it too incomprehensible to modern ears, which is often the case with Regency-era adaptations. He also knows how to bring the best in Beckinsale, who starred for him in Last Days of Disco. She is absolutely superb here, self-confident, manipulative, venal and absolutely seductive. This is the kind of performance that serves notice that you’re not just a B-movie actress, as she has already shown in several other indie films.

There are a couple of other great performances here as well, including Sevigny’s acerbic turn as Mrs. Johnson. Sevigny is an actress who is criminally underused by both Hollywood and the independent film scene. Her appearances are always much anticipated and appreciated by this critic, and she gives one of her best performances here in years. Bennett is also tip-top as the incredibly dense Sir James. He is delightfully funny and provides a fine counterpoint to the very intelligent Susan.

The only quibble I have is that so many of the other roles are played in an almost stilted fashion. That does make Beckinsale’s work stand out but I think it detracts from the rest of the film. I would have liked to have seen a little more personality in some of the other actors.

This is also a lush-looking film, with beautiful locations and sumptuous costumes and wigs. The period is recalled evocatively but in many ways you don’t feel you’re looking at the actual era so much as an idealized version of it. As is often the case in Austen’s work we rarely see beyond the walls of the upper classes – the savage poverty that was also a hallmark of the era. It exists only as a big bad boogieman to terrify those of the upper class who are teetering on the edge of it.

Jane Austen isn’t for everybody. Most audiences find her dull and slow, but there is a lyricism about her work – even the filmed versions of it – that I have found oddly moving and appealing throughout my life, from reading her actual words to the adaptations of those words. I think that she continues to teach us about the reality of who women are – or can be. She has created dozens of role models who can STILL be role models nearly 200 years after the fact. If there is anything more impressive than that, I can’t think of it.

REASONS TO GO: Beckinsale gives a marvelous performance and Bennett is inspired comic relief. Gorgeous costumes and settings. A fine adaptation of a lesser-known Austen work.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too mannered for some. A few of the supporting performances are too colorless to stand up.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements are a bit on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sienna Miller was originally cast as Lady Susan, but had to drop out and Beckinsale was cast in her place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sense and Sensibility
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dark

Legendary (2010)


John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

(2010) Sports Drama (Goldwyn/WWE) Patricia Clarkson, John Cena, Devon Graye, Danny Glover, Madeleine Martin, John Posey, Tyler Posey, Teo Olivares, Kareem Grimes, Christopher Alan Weaver, Robert Bryan, Angelena Swords, Yvonne Misiak, Lara Grace, Patrick Cox, Dennen D. Tyler, Vince Antoine, Andrew Sensenig, Ritchie Montgomery, J.D. Evermore, Courtney J. Clark. Directed by Mel Damski

Sometimes you can’t escape the shadow of your older siblings and parents. Sometimes, you don’t want to. Sometimes, you even need to embrace it.

Cal Chetley (Graye) has an imposing legacy; both his dad and his older brother Mike (Cena) were high school wrestling state champions which is a big deal in Oklahoma. However, his dad passed away ten years ago which his mom Sharon (Clarkson) partially blames on wrestling. Mike has just been released from prison, having made a series of really bad choices.

But Cal, who is somewhat scrawny and bookish, has been bullied mercilessly and thinks joining the wrestling team will give him the skills and self-confidence to deal with those who are tormenting him. His mom is horrified at the idea; even his brother, who is meeting with Cal in secret, isn’t real keen on the idea but reluctantly agrees to give him some private training.

To an extent, the idea works. Cal is able to fend off the bullies and even manages to attract a somewhat goofy girlfriend (Martin) and even impress the coach (J. Posey) to a certain extent. But when Mike’s past catches up to him, will Cal be able to win the state championship and in so doing become legendary?

This came out at a time when World Wrestling Entertainment, the pre-eminent professional wrestling brand, was attempting to market their superstars in movies, following the success of Dwayne Johnson. Cena, a square-jawed all-American sort, was thought to have the charisma and acting chops to pull it off but while he does have a certain amount of magnetism, he didn’t quite have the acting chops to make it past B-movie star status. Films like this one didn’t help his cause.

This is a movie whose heart was in the right place, but that was about all. Clarkson, a previous Oscar nominee, is one of those actresses who never seems to give a bad performance but never really gets credit for being one of the finest actresses working today, which she is. While this is ostensibly about Cal, this is Clarkson’s film; she dominates it. Cena, who was also ostensibly being pushed as a serious actor, is oddly relegated to a supporting role. Maybe the strategy was to bring him along slowly, but it feels like he’s kind of the odd man out here. Glover appears in a kind of “Old Man and the Sea” cameo whose connection to the Chetley family is explained later but feels like a part that was written in hastily at the last minute because a producer said “Hey, we can get Danny Glover; write in a part for him.”

The issue here is that the movie follows the cliches of an underdog sports drama to a “T” and really offers nothing new to the genre. While it’s supposed to be loosely based on a true story, the film feels remarkably manufactures. Other than Clarkson, there’s not a genuine emotion generated here. Even the soundtrack is an autopilot, utilizing a hard rock score during wrestling scenes, and maudlin piano and strings during the more emotional scenes. While Clarkson is an under-appreciated treasure who saves the movie from being unwatchable, this is a movie that justifiably can be said is only legendary in the bargain DVD bin.

WHY RENT THIS: Patricia Clarkson carries the film.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable and cliché plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of wrestling violence, brief nudity and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was released on home video a mere 18 days after it began its limited theatrical release run; at the time that was the shortest span between the two for any film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A blooper reel, a behind the scenes look at Cena recording one of the songs that appear in the film, a fashion photo gallery, a look at the wrestling training that went on for the young actors and a profile of the father and son actors John and Tyler Posey.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $200,393 on a $5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix , iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eddie the Eagle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny

Goosebumps


For Jack Black, the only terrifying thing about this movie are the reviews.

For Jack Black, the only terrifying thing about this movie are the reviews.

(2015) Family Comedy (ColumbiaJack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee, Amy Ryan, Jillian Bell, Ken Marino, Halston Sage, Steven Kreuger, Keith Arthur Bolden, Amanda Lund, Timothy Simons, Karan Soni, R.L. Stine, Caleb Emery, Gabriela Fraile, Nate Andrade, Sheldon Brown, Melissa Brewer, Vivian Kyle, Clare Halstead. Directed by Rob Letterman

In the 90s, kids flocked to author R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. The books were essentially Twilight Zone episodes focusing on monsters that terrified many a kid back in the day. Stine continues to be a prolific author but has moved on to different series, but Goosebumps is the one that started it all.

When young Zach Cooper (Minnette) moves to a small Delaware town, he’s not exactly thrilled. He’s still dealing with the death of his dad a year ago and his mom (Ryan) has found a job as an assistant principal at the high school there. She thinks a new start in a new town might bring Zach out of the doldrums and while Zach puts up a good front, it’s clear he’s hurting.

Then he meets the girl next door and for any teenage boy, the girl next door is excellent tonic. Hannah (Rush) is beautiful and seems interested in him, but her tyrannical father (Black) seems more interested in keeping Zach as far away as possible. Georgia might do.

But Zach and his self-appointed friend Champ (Lee) discover that Hannah’s dad is none other than R.L. Stine and that the manuscripts in his basement, all of which are locked, contain the spirits of the monsters he invented and that unlocking those manuscripts transforms the creatures from imaginary to very real. And those real monsters are out to wreak havoc all over town, led by Slappy (also voiced by Black), a homicidal ventriloquist’s dummy that is seeking revenge against Stine for incarcerating him inside the manuscript for so many years.

The concept is a swell one, especially given the popularity of Stine and how many kids – who are now adults with kids of their own – know all of his books backwards and forwards, and for them and kids who are looking at their teen years with impatience, this is going to be a must-see and although Halloween has come and gone, this is excellent kid fare for that season of the year.

Black is as manic as ever as Stine, although his accent is a little bit bizarre. Black, being the human cartoon that he is, is perfect for this kind of audience and he doesn’t disappoint. He doesn’t get the majority of laughs here – Lee gets those – and Minnette is essentially the protagonist but Black is really the presence here. None of the other actors can really compete with his personality which is bigger than life. Bigger than ten lives, to be honest. Rush is also memorable as the ingenue.

The CGI creatures – and there are a lot of them – range from giant praying mantises, abominable snowmen, murderous garden gnomes, hungry zombies, implacable alien invaders and a gigantic Venus flytrap, among others. Pretty much every monster from the prolific series makes at least a cameo appearance, if you can call the Invisible Boy an appearance. In some ways it becomes sensory overload; a few monsters go a long way but hundreds soon becomes kind of background noise.

Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe does a nice job of setting the mood, and a setting of an abandoned amusement park is both lovely and bittersweet (Zach and Hannah have an encounter there early in the movie). I could have done with a few more moments like that although frankly, that’s not what the target audience is looking for so I can understand why those moments were few and far between.

The humor is pretty much vintage Nickelodeon although there are some clever bits, most involving Lee as the cowardly wingman. The pacing here is a little bit choppy although it generally moves pretty quickly and to Letterman’s credit he gets right into things without an overabundance of exposition. That’s both good and bad; good for those devotees of the book series who want to get right into it, bad for those less familiar with the books who need at least a little bit of explanation.

For the most part this is harmless entertainment and little more than that. This isn’t going to be (and never was intended to be) anything more than a distraction for a couple of hours. And that isn’t a bad thing as far as I’m concerned. For whatever it’s worth, this movie will probably be on a lot of family viewing lists for many Halloweens to come. Not a half bad fate for a movie, don’t you think?

REASONS TO GO: Some scary monsters. Nifty concept.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses something if you haven’t read the books. A little over-the-top in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some creature scares (a few of them intense) and some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real R.L. Stine makes a cameo as a teacher named Mr. Black, who passes Jack Black, as R.L. Stine, in the school hallway.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fright Night
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Documented begins!

Insidious Chapter III


Insidious Chapter III

Stefanie Scott hears something that goes bump in the night

(2015) Horror (Gramercy) Dermot Mulroney, Stefanie Scott, Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Tate Berney, Michael Reid Mackay, Steve Coulter, Hayley Kiyoko, Corbett Tuck, Tom Fitzpatrick, Tom Gallop, Jeris Poindexter, Ele Keats, Phyllis Applegate, Phil Abrams, Erin Anderson, Amaris Davidson, Ashton Moio, Ruben Garfias, Fawn Irish. Directed by Leigh Whannell

When I heard they were going to make a third chapter in this series I have to admit i was skeptical at first. After all, the most interesting character had died in the first chapter and the second was far less credible than the first. There seemed to be nowhere for the series to go.

So when all else fails, try a prequel. In this case, we catch up with psychic Elise Rainier (Shaye) some years before she meets the Lambert family which would be a turning point in her life. She is terrified of the apparition of a bride in black (Fitzpatrick) who has promised to kill her one day. Because of it, she has given up doing readings.

A young teen named Quinn Brenner (Scott) hesitantly takes the bus to meet Elise, who at first wants nothing to do with her, but Quinn is so desperate to make contact with her mother (Keats) who passed away suddenly that Elise takes pity on her and tries her best to help Quinn out. We all know what is paved with the best of intentions.

Soon Quinn begins to see an old man who waves at her. She can’t quite make out his features but he creeps her out, to the point that she fails to get out of the way of a speeding truck and is gravely injured. She survives the accident but both of her legs are broken so she’s essentially bedridden once she gets home. Her dad Sean (Mulroney), already dealing with the loss of his wife as well as a son Alex (Berney) who is acting out not to mention trouble at work, does his best but he’s definitely overwhelmed. He doesn’t have much of a support system, other than a batty old woman (Applegate) and her husband (Poindexter).

Soon unsettling things begin to happen around Quinn, revolving around an old man wearing an old fashioned breathing apparatus (MacKay). Elise knows that there is an entity that wants to kill her out there but she can’t just abandon this young girl to a terrible fate. She decides to get involved, even as a couple of internet ghost busters named Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Sampson) also get involved.

With Whannell taking the director’s chair, the movie moves at a different pace than the first two. It’s a bit more leisurely and some might find it a bit slow. However, I must admit that I have a fondness for horror movies that build up their scares and come by them honestly rather than the quick-paced throw everything but the kitchen sink at the screen style that a lot of popular horror movies have adopted.

There is a ton of background; we find out how Elise’s husband died and how The Further (the other dimension where the dead go) got its name, so fans of the series will enjoy that. The Lambert family makes a brief appearance (not onscreen) early on which semi-sets up the action of the first two chapters. So in short fans of the series will have a lot to keep them happy.

Mulroney as the overwhelmed dad and Shaye are both screen veterans and both know what to do up there. Mulroney is the sympathetic figure who turns into a tiger when he has to fight for his daughter’s life. Sean is initially an unbeliever in the supernatural but after an encounter with the demon he is gung ho “call in the parapsychologists!”

Shaye has made Elise a memorable character who is an unlikely heroine, but kicks supernatural bootie nonetheless. After three films doing the character, she’s really at home in Elise’s skin, which does only good things for the movie. Shaye is one of those character actresses whose face is more familiar than her name, but this is a role that shows she can actually carry a movie on her own.

The reason you go to a horror movie is to be scared however and there are a few really good ones here, at least one of them non-supernatural in nature. However, the movie relies too much on jump scares, which is more like being startled than truly scared. The problem with this is that these scares are done with quickly and you don’t get that atmosphere of terror that a good horror movie creates. While The Man Who Can’t Breathe is pretty scary (and the make-up effects are plenty creepy), he isn’t nearly as frightening as The Bride in Black or any number of horror movie monsters of recent or not-so-recent films.

For those horror fans who aren’t too discriminating or those who loved the first two chapters in the series, you’re likely to go see this anyway regardless of what I say (and in all likelihood have already seen it). Those who are on the fence and looking for something to send shivers up their spine in the summertime, this is pretty much adequate for the task. Those looking for a horror movie that is going to scare the Beejezus out of them should probably go rent The Babadook and see that again.

REASONS TO GO: Mulroney is solid and Shaye is terrific. Some pretty decent scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many jump scares and not enough legitimate ones. Seems to lack the momentum of the first two chapters.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of images that are disturbing and lots of jump scares. There’s also some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whannell, who co-wrote the first two movies in the series and has been the writing partner for James Wan, who directed the first two movies, makes his directing debut here; Wan was unable to take the director’s chair due to his involvement with Furious 7; he does make a cameo appearance as a theater director early in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews.. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Exorcism of Emily Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Jurassic World