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Shaonian de ni (2019)
courage in youngsters
Greetings again from the darkness. Chinese gaokao is the College Entrance Exams that determine the future of high school students and their families. The pressure is extreme for the kids, and when the film opens, the exams are only 60 days away. One of the students leaps to her death from an upper breezeway to the concrete courtyard below. Her fellow classmates converge on the scene with cell phones recording the tragedy. One girl, Chen Nian, quietly covers up the body. While most assume the pressure of the impending test was too severe for the girl, Nian knows better. The relentless bullies that motivated the suicide have now turned their attention to Nian.
Director Derek Tsang (aka Kwok Cheung Tsang) delivers a beautiful film with compelling characters and a heart-wrenching story. Jiuyue Xi's novel, In His Youth, In Her Beauty" has been adapted for the screen by co-writers Wing-Sum Lam, Yuan Li, Yimeng Xu, and Nan Chen. Filmed in 2018, the Chinese government delayed its release due to concerns over how its society would be perceived, given extreme bullying, class differences, and the extensive use security cameras throughout. Instead, we note the similarities in people, and how young people carry burdens that often go unacknowledged.
Zhou Dongyu gives a terrific performance as Chen Nian. She's an excellent, devoted student who has no one to depend on thanks to a mostly absentee mother who spends her time scamming for money and dodging creditors. Nian has no real friends, and her closest companion was the one whose body lay crumpled in the courtyard. Nian stumbles into a situation that could not be described as a 'meet-cute', and soon she has requested street punk Xiao Bei (played by Jackson Yee) to act as her protector against the bullies, so that she may focus on the exams. Additionally, she's been questioned by the police in regards to the suicide, and Detective Zhang (Yin Fang) takes a particular interest given his knowledge of schoolyard bullies.
The bond between equally adrift and confused teenagers Nian and Bei grows, despite his being a dropout. Are they star-crossed lovers? Is it a budding romance? What makes it interesting is that it doesn't even matter. What does matter is the courage these two youngsters show in the face of adversity. Does it go too far? The third act will leave you wondering just what is the answer to their dilemma. How harshly can you judge those in self-preservation mode when the school motto is "Work Hard. No Regrets"? There is a retro feel to Tsang's filmmaking style, and we are left with the reminder that "used to be" infers a sense of loss ... and we all experience different types of loss. Excellent filmmaking that rightly earned an Oscar nomination.
Greetings again from the darkness. Co-directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing previously collaborated on the horror film, THE GALLOWS (2015), and this time they are working from a script by Jill Awbrey, who also stars. It's Ms. Awbrey's first feature film as a writer or actor. Most people agree that marriage can be challenging, but this one introduces thrills and chills into a relationship that's already navigating in choppy waters.
Writer Awbrey (a Julie Harris lookalike) plays Emma Barrett, who we see in an early flashback as a young woman trapped in a car with two men. We don't see it, but we know what's about to happen against her will. Today's Emma is then seen again in the backseat ... as her Uber driver (Rez Kempton) asks inappropriate questions, and comes across more than a bit creepy as he notes the remoteness of her drop-off and pressures her for a bonus tip. These two scenes remind us of how women must always have their defense mechanism on high alert around men.
Emma and her husband Henry (Bart Johnson, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL) have set up a rendezvous to see if they can rekindle what's waning between them after 9 years of marriage. We get an aerial view of the ultra-modern and ultra-smart house stuck in a cornfield miles from civilization. The terror and mystery begin the next morning when Emma and Henry wake up in different clothes and with missing phones. A "voice" tells them that the secrets of their marriage are no longer secret, and they must "obey". If not, the implanted sensor behind their ear will act as a shock collar, causing extreme discomfort and pain. Emma and Henry both experience this the hard way.
The film appears to be a VRBO home invasion movie wrapped in the contemporary issue of surveillance and security. However, that's only part of the story. The "voice" is pushing the couple into a 1950's version of THE STEPFORD WIVES, replete with veggies in the fridge, modest wardrobes in the closet, and an apron for Emma. She is being coerced into acting like a submissive wife, as if anyone today still fantasizes about a 1950's marriage. It's disturbing to watch as Emma and Henry try to find a way to escape, while not triggering another jolt of pain, and complying with commands from the voice (who seems to be Jigsaw from the SAW series transformed into a marriage counselor).
The objective here seems to be as satire and commentary on male privilege in a male-dominated society ... one where women always carry a bit of fear, despite being so much stronger and forceful than what we saw in 1950's TV series. That traditional marital structure no longer exists, but when combined with a luxurious smart house, does make for an interesting premise in the horror-thriller genre. When save-the-marriage transitions to survival mode on top of fear of being watched and manipulated, the terror is palpable. The only frustration is that so much more could have been done, over and above the twist. Despite the lags, the film does provide 'talking points'.
In theaters and On Demand April 9, 2021.
The Letter Room (2020)
bringing warmth where none exists
Greetings again from the darkness. Richard is a prison guard whose ambitions and progressive ideas have his sights set on a promotion off the daily grind of the cold corridors ... despite an amiable personality that has him as a likable guy amongst the prison workers and the prisoners. In fact, it's that friendliness that drives the warden (Eileen Galindo) to move Richard to the mail room. She presents this as a promotion by bestowing upon him the title of Director of Prisoner Communication.
Oscar Isaac plays Richard in this Oscar nominated short film written and directed by his real life wife, Elvira Lind (BOBBI JENE, 2017). Isaac gives a strong performance and makes Richard a relatable guy - one that seems cheery enough with co-workers, while then going home to watch TV with his dog after warming up leftovers. With a new job that entails scanning incoming and outgoing mail for threats and contraband, Richard is touched by the personal love letters received by Cris (Brian Petsos), one of the death row inmates. Richard is miffed as to why Cris never responds to Rosita (the always interesting Alia Shawkat) and takes it upon himself to find out more ... and yes, this is totally outside the scope of his job.
It may seem odd for a prison to generate warm emotions, but that's part of the brilliance of Ms. Lind's excellent script. In a world where we are currently struggling to find signs of compassion and common courtesy, we watch as this prison guard tries to make things a little better ... and on top of that, interjecting subtle moments of humor add even more of a human touch, while the attention to detail takes us even deeper. This is an excellent story, and in 33 minutes, this world - quite foreign to most of us - becomes something we understand. And it's achieved through the eyes of a lonely guy just trying to do the right thing.
You Belong to Me (2021)
grief results in our disappointment
Greetings again from the darkness. Psychological Thrillers can be quite fun to watch when well-written and well-acted. It's a delicate balance though, since if even one of those elements is lacking, the enjoyment level plummets and the eye-rolling begins. Unfortunately this film from director Vaughn Stein (TERMINAL, 2018) and screenwriter David Murray (his first feature film) is a masterclass in eye-rolling, despite a well-respected and familiar cast.
Oscar winner Casey Affleck (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, 2016) and Michelle Monaghan star as married couple Dr. Philip and Grace Clark. He works at a Psychiatry Institute and she's a local Real Estate Agent. An early scene shows adoring mother Grace driving their young son to hockey practice. Tragedy strikes, and since that night, Philip and Grace barely speak to each other or his teenage daughter (by another mother) Lucy (India Eisley, daughter of Olivia Hussey). All three are grieving in their own way - emotionally isolated from the others. Grace aggressively swims laps day and night in the pool at their stunning modern mansion. Lucy has been expelled from her private school for snorting cocaine during Science Lab. Philip immerses himself in his work with clients, and we know he's smart because he's wearing glasses.
One client with whom Philip takes a special interest is Daphne (Emily Alyn Lind, DOCTOR SLEEP, 2019), a troubled young lady from a troubled family. To help Daphne deal with boyfriend issues, Philip uses unconventional personal therapy, which he then presents as a Case Study for students ... against the wishes of his boss and friend Vanessa (Veronica Ferres). This backfires when Daphne seemingly commits suicide, and her grieving brother James (Sam Claflin, THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY) shows up.
At this point, everyone is grieving and Philip's career begins to crumble as he's blamed for Daphne's suicide. James turns on the charm for Grace and Lucy, and even though the characters don't get it, every viewer will recognize what's happening, why it's happening, and where it's headed. Even this would be fine if things played out in a clever manner, rather than over-the-top and obvious. Even the Rorschach inkblot tests used as artwork in the pristine Clark mansion are cause for eye rolls. Claflin probably has the most fun of any with his role, but it's Monaghan who comes closest to molding a full dimensional human out of her character. Affleck just adds yet another despondent, joyless character to his resume ... though he does get to throw one tantrum while sitting in his car - alone, of course. Fortunately, these actors will assuredly move on to projects more worthy of their talents.
In select theatres and premium VOD on April 2, 2021.
what drives the man
Greetings again from the darkness. Director Espen Sandberg continues his string of movies highlighting the heroes of Norway. Previous movies include MAX MANUS: MAN OF WAR (2008) and the Oscar nominated KON-TIKI (2012), the tale of legendary explorer Thor Heyerdahl. And then to earn some coin, Sandberg also directed PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017). This latest project, written by Ravn Lanesskog, takes on another legendary explorer - this time it's Roald Amundsen, the first to traverse the Northwest Passage, the first to reach the South Pole, and the first to reach the North Pole by plane.
Pal Sverre Hagen stars as Roald Amundsen, and he also played Thor Heyerdahl in Sandberg's KON-TIKI. Hagen bears a striking resemblance to the photos of Amundsen, and utilizes a low key, yet very direct communication style to give us a look at the relentless commitment to achieving his goals. We learn he held grudges - against the Brits and even against his own brother - and used this as motivation. Director Sandberg uses a conversation as a framing device throughout the film. Roald's estranged brother Leon (Christian Rubeck, SWIMMING WITH MEN, 2018) and Roald's lover Bess Magids (Katherine Waterston, THE WORLD TO COME, 2020) share their insights and perspective while awaiting word on Roald's latest excursion. This begins after the opening sequence where we see Roald's prop plane crash land on an Arctic ice shelf.
Of course, this is the story of one of the greatest explorers and adventurers in history, so there is a nice blend of that conversation, some backstory, and a first-hand look at some of Roald's expeditions. The elements are incredibly harsh, but Sandberg never lingers too long on any one piece of this puzzle. It seems he is more interested in what made Roald tick - what drove him to these pursuits at the expense of most relationships. The rivalry with the Brits is clear and we see the humiliation Roald endured after besting Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole. Rather than accolades, he faced criticism and judgment of his methods.
Roald Amundsen was clearly not a man to rest on his laurels, even after being presumed dead on more than one occasion. He was always a body in motion. We see his childhood fascination towards unexplored areas. No map? No problem. Roald's harsh treatment of his brother is explored, and it's interesting to note the differences in how Bess and Leon describe Roald. Amundsen went missing while on an Arctic rescue mission in 1928. He was 55 years old, but looked 20 years beyond that. This film is not hero worship or even a traditional tribute. Then again, maybe it's the type of tribute a man like Roald Amundsen would appreciate. For those who wish to learn more, search out the 6-hour 1985 PBS mini-series, "The Last Place on Earth." Opening in Virtual Cinemas and VOD April 2nd.
Say Your Prayers (2020)
praying for ACT 2 and 3
Greetings again from the darkness. The brothers have chosen to accept the mission they've been given, which is to assassinate outspoken atheist writer, Professor John Huxley. The deed is to be done during the Ilkley Literature Festival where Huxley is a featured speaker. Brothers Victor and Tim are Christian radicals, and not particularly clever. In fact, the terrific opening sequence shows us an execution on a hill - one that displays the tragic effects of mistaken identity.
Writer-director Harry Michell (he played Nick in YESTERDAY, 2019) and co-writer Jamie Fraser (his first feature film) deliver a strong first act that really gets our hopes up. Tom Brooke (PIRATE RADIO, 2009) plays Victor, the high-strung older brother to Tim, who is played by ski cap-wearing Harry Melling (the "Harry Potter" franchise). Victor is prone to violent outbursts, while Tim is the more sensitive type - and a bit slow at times. That contrast between the brothers is a fun element, as is the close bond they share.
Director Michell utilizes a recurring men's choir (breaking the fourth wall) as a way to both drive the story and add a bit of humor. In the first half-hour, the two most obvious comparisons we make are THE BOONDOCK SAINTS (1999) and IN BRUGES (2008). Unfortunately, that's a standard that the film simply can't sustain. It seems to be filled with any number of promising ideas that mostly just fizzle or fade out. A perfect example is the dynamic between the two investigative cops played by Anna Maxwell Martin and Flora Spencer-Longhurst. The banter between these two characters is just never quite as colorful or pointed as we wish.
The supporting cast includes Vinette Robinson as Imelda, one of the festivals organizers who has a close relationship with Professor Huxley. Imelda's time with Tim works well at times. Roger Allum effectively portrays the arrogant atheist author, and Derek Jacobi plays Father Enoch, the priest who raised the two orphans, Tim and Victor, and now has them doing the church's dirty work. The real standout here is the film's editing by Xanna Ward Dixon and Dylan Holmes Williams. The pacing and quick cuts keep us engaged and minimize the shortcomings of the story ... which certainly could have worked with more risk-taking and pushing of the envelope. Not going far enough is film's downfall - and it's quite disappointing given the promising start.
In theaters and On Demand April 2, 2021.
Senior Moment (2021)
where we're going, we don't need a porsche
Greetings again from the darkness. Making concessions to age is something all of us deal with ... even former test pilots - although some of them might be a bit less inclined to adapt. Such is the case with Victor Martin. He's in his 70's and still enjoys ogling beautiful younger women and zipping around Palm Springs in his vintage Porsche convertible. Some might call it cliché or even pathetic, but Victor and his lifelong pal Sal Spinelli are enjoying life.
Director Giorgio Serafini is working from a script by co-writers Kurt Brungardt and Christopher Momenee, and the first thing viewers must overcome is the casting. See, Victor is played by William Shatner and Sal by Christopher Lloyd. Yep, Captain Kirk from STAR TREK and Doc Brown from BACK TO THE FUTURE are the senior citizen buddies living it up. Both actors seem to be having a good time, and seeing the two men on screen together is quite pleasing.
All good things come to an end, and when the city's new DA cracks down on dangerous elderly drivers, Victor has his license revoked and his treasured car impounded. He's frustrated, but by happenstance meets Caroline Summers (a terrific Jean Smart). The two are polar opposites, yet there's a clear connection. She's a former National Geographic photographer who now owns and runs the local Cuckoo Café - so named despite the titular time piece not being in working order. Caroline is a free-spirited former hippie, and her organic diet contrasts with Victor's processed honey buns.
Victor admits he's "still trying to figure out what I'm going to do when I grow up", but he soon realizes his attraction to Caroline has impacted him more than he expected. It's an awkward romance made more challenging by the presence of artist Diego Lozana (Esai Morales) and Caroline's mystical belief in the story attached to the cuckoo clock. The film is loaded with lunacy and is not one that benefits from viewers who prefer thoughtful messages. This is designed to be mostly light-hearted fun with an element of late-in-life romance tossed in for good measure.
As a gift to its target audience, Ruta Lee (SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, 1954) makes a brief appearance, and of particular note is the final screen appearance by Kaye Ballard (she died at age 93). Also appearing in the supporting cast are Don McManus, Joe Estevez, and Jack Wallace. Maja Stojan plays Sonja, Caroline's daughter, Carlos Miranda plays Pablo Torres, and director Serafini's wife, LaDon Drummond makes an appearance as one of Victor's former flings.
The film has faced numerous delays since it wrapped, and lead William Shatner just recently turned 90 years of age. It's rare when a movie involves a broken cuckoo clock and a tortoise photo, but it's even less common for the focus to be on humor and a romance between senior citizens. This is one that plays to its intended audience, and doesn't much care about the rest.
In theaters and On Demand on March 26, 2021.
I Am (2021)
Ela or Lea?
Greetings again from the darkness. This 26 minute short film is written by Florens Huhn and directed by Jerry Hoffman (also an actor). The two previously collaborated on a 2019 short film entitled MALL. This one is a rare science fiction short film, and it combines the emotions of grief and guilt with the concept of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
An excellent Sheri Hagen stars as Noe, a woman living in an A-frame house deep in the forest. We learn she's grieving over the recent loss of Lea, who we believe to be her sister. One day, while on a hike, Noe finds a droid. She hauls it back to her house and repairs it, kicking off an unusual and uncomfortable relationship.
The droid - named Ela (an obvious anagram of Lea) - is quite lifelike, and designed to learn and mimic. For Noe, who suffers from horrendous nightmares, this trait is not much appreciated. It's fine when the two are dancing to music, but gets awkward through haircuts, singing, and vocalization. Are the two bonding or is something more sinister at work? Ela is played well by Melodie Wakivuamina.
We see drones tracking in the sky, leaving us to guess the purpose, but mostly what we witness is a guilt-riddled woman needing to connect ... and sharing "broken heart" stories with a droid, just as if they were besties. How far will we see AI go in our lifetime? The answer likely depends on one's age.
Six Minutes to Midnight (2020)
yet another WWII story of interest
Greetings again from the darkness. I never cease to be amazed at the number of stories connected to WWII that translate so well to cinema. This one comes from director Andy Goddard (known mostly for his TV work) and his co-writers Eddie Izzard and Celyn Jones, and takes place in 1939 England, just prior to Germany invading Poland to start the war. The story was inspired by true events.
Augusta-Victoria College for Girls was located in Bexhill-On-Sea, and served as a finishing school for the daughters of the German elite from 1932 through 1939. We open as the school's English teacher, Mr. Wheatley (Nigel Lindsay), frantically flees when he realizes his undercover mission has been discovered. An artistically filmed sequence on the boardwalk ends with Wheatley missing and his bowler floating off on the horizon. We don't know yet what he uncovered, but Thomas Miller (co-writer Eddie Izzard) is quickly hired as the new teacher by Headmistress Miss Rocholl (Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench).
Teacher Ilse Keller (Carla Juri) puts the girls through their robotic lessons and ensures they listen to Nazi propaganda on the radio. Of course, as in most spy thrillers, no one is as they seem - or at least most aren't. Most of the girls seem indistinguishable from each other, save for dark-haired and bespectacled Gretel (Tijan Marei), who is a true outcast. The girls are referred to as the "Hitler League of German Girls" and are being educated and groomed for the planned new socialist nation.
It doesn't take Miller long to uncover a plan, and almost immediately, he's wrongly accused of murder - sending him on the run. It's no spoiler to reveal that Miller is part of British Intelligence, and in the role, Izzard delivers a more restrained performance than what we are accustomed to (see OCEAN'S TWELVE and OCEAN'S THIRTEEN ... and it's very effective. James D'Arcy as Captain Drey enters about halfway through, as does his partner Corporal Willis (played by co-writer Celyn Jones). This offers us a bit of cat and mouse between Drey and Miller, and they are joined in the fun by Charlie the bus driver, played by the always interesting Jim Broadbent.
The plan to evacuate the girls before the war seems a bit overly complicated, but then my experience planning such war time strategy is admittedly non-existent. Still, the lead characters and the setting make this intriguing enough, and cinematographer Chris Seager certainly has some fun with camera angles. For those hooked on all things related to WWII, it's likely a story you haven't heard much about, if anything. From IFC Films, SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT opens March 26, 2021.
Saul is Wick
Greetings again from the darkness. Revenge movies have long been popular because they let us live out the fantasy of getting even - a chance real life rarely offers. Of course, few of us actually cross paths with Russian mobsters or have a secret life that requires our government personnel file be redacted. But all of the above is in play for director Ilya Naishuller's first feature film since his debut, HARDCORE HENRY (2015), an innovate POV action/sci-fi movie.
While watching this, numerous other movies kept popping into my head, but front-and-center were the JOHN WICK movies. It wasn't until afterwards that I discovered this film's writer was Derek Kolstad, the creator and writer of the first three John Wick movies to date. Knowing that leads to the obvious comparison of leading men - Keanu Reeves versus Bob Odenkirk. Yep, the same Bob Odenkirk who owns the Saul Goodman role from "Breaking Bad" and its terrific spinoff, "Better Call Saul". And nope, he's not as cool as Keanu, but it's the risk of casting against type that prevents this from being same old, same old.
Odenkirk stars as Hutch Mansell, a suburban husband and father, working as a bookkeeper at the shop owned by his father-in-law (Michael Ironside, TOTAL RECALL, 1990). A brilliantly edited opening sequence shows us the daily drudgery of Hutch's life. The rapid cuts tell the story of a man whose existence involves taking the bus to a dead-end job, filling his coffee cup, receiving little respect or affection from family, and yelling at the backend of a garbage truck. Things only get worse when, one night, intruders break into his home. His teenage son (Gage Munroe) springs into action, but Hutch freezes, and is viewed as weak by just about everyone.
It's at this point where Hutch awakens - his secret past coming back to life. Now you might chuckle a bit at the thought of Odenkirk playing a man who once was so dangerous, he was known as an "auditor" ... the last person you want to see at your door. Well, that's not likely to be your last chuckle, because the over-the-top moments are just getting started. Hutch fights a group of thugs on a city bus, and the one that dies just happens to be the little brother of Russian mobster kingpin Yulian, played with gusto by Aleksey Serebryakov (LEVIATHAN, 2014). Like us, Yulian underestimates Hutch, and most of the movie is spent with every living Russian gangster trying to end Hutch.
Hopefully by now you have intuited that Naishuller's movie is cartoonish in nature, and has no sense of realism or logic. If you're not quite sure yet, you should know that 82 year old Christopher Lloyd (as Hutch's ex-FBI father) joins in on the action - and I mean, he actually joins in on the shootouts. Think of "Mayhem" from the Allstate commercials and you get some idea of the exaggerated shoot 'em up/ blow 'em up nature of the action. Connie Nielsen (GLADIATOR, 2000) plays Hutch's wife and RZA plays Hutch's equally-talented brother.
If one squints and twists, there is some insight into today's emasculated male - those more likely to bake lasagna than take down an intruder. But mostly it's just exaggerated revenge action in a way that mirrors John Wick, rather than DEATH WISH (1974) or STRAW DOGS (1971). Director Naishuller gets extra credit for poking fun at the never-ending ammo issue in most action movies, and it might have benefitted from a bit more humor along the lines of the kitty cat bracelet. Fans of the John Wick movies will likely find enjoyment here, but probably "nobody" else ... especially those looking for Saul Goodman cleverness. This film opens March 26, 2021.
Miracle Fishing (2020)
Greetings again from the darkness. Depending on the subject, it's not uncommon for documentaries to utilize archival video footage from 25+ years ago. What is unusual about co-directors Miles Hargrove's and Christopher Birge's film is that it relies almost solely on footage from that era ... and all filmed by an amateur. This is really a video diary of the harrowing episode Miles and his family endured after his father was kidnapped and held hostage in 1994.
Tom Hargrove was an odd blend of agricultural scientist and journalist, and had lived with his family, wife Susan and two sons, in the Philippines for almost 20 years when he took a job with a non-profit organization requiring relocation to Cali, Columbia. One day in September 1994, Tom tried to beat the traffic by taking a back road to work. He was taken hostage at a FARC road block set up for "fishing" - the goal of catching someone of value for ransom. FARC was a guerilla force of the people's rebellion, and used kidnapping-collecting ransom to bankroll their operation.
This situation put the family in a horrendous situation. Tom's son Miles decided to film the process, mostly as a diary for this dad to watch upon his return, though none of them had any idea what they were about to endure for almost a full year. It's difficult to imagine a more stressful time for a family, especially once Tom's company announced they would not pay the $6 million ransom or be involved in the negotiations. With hundreds of kidnapping each year, the Columbian government had no assistance to offer, and the family's FBI contact could only provide tips and guidance.
Miles' video clearly shows the formation of an ensemble support group, including the Greiner's who lived next door. There was strength in the communal approach, and this included both the radio negotiations with the captors, as well as the stress-relieving group dinners. It's fascinating, frightening, and gut-wrenching to watch and listen as the negotiations take place. The tension is nearly unbearable, so just imagine what the family felt at the time. It's as painful to watch the moments of hope as it is the lowest lows. The days and weeks and months of waiting are soul-crushing.
This is a true crime story as seen through the eyes of the victimized family. An ordeal that ultimately lasted 325 days, and required help from so many ... including Uncle Raford in west Texas ... is something that while we see it play out on screen, we can't fathom having to live through. This family learned the definition of "proof of life", and worked daily to maneuver their way through a world they knew nothing of. Miles dedicates the film "For my Mom and Dad", and invites us along for the memories.
Streaming March 25, 2021 on Discovery+
Greetings again from the darkness. Not just another rape-revenge thriller, this film from co-writers and co-directors Dusty Manicinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer is one of the most brutal and unforgiving films I've seen in a while. Emotional pain, regret, bitterness, and compromise worm through every scene and every character.
It begins as a cabin in the woods story. Miriam (co-director Sims-Fewer) and Caleb (Obi Abili) have a strained relationship that appears headed towards a breaking point. They are meeting up with Miriam's sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at his family cabin. There is an underlying tension that prevents the four from every being at ease with each other, though we only get bits and pieces at a time. To further force our concentration, the story is told in non-linear fashion, making it important to focus on hairstyles and details.
One evening by the campfire turns into a turning point in the film and acts as the before and after point. A primal and brutally violent sequence takes up close to half of the film, and it's unlike anything I've previously seen on screen. The practical effects are next level, and Ms. Sims-Fewer is absolutely terrific throughout. A chilling use of music accompanies an odd combination of wolf-rabbit-psychopath, and the filmmakers use shots of nature as connective tissue in a world where sometimes we are the wolf and sometimes the rabbit. Certainly not a film for mass audiences, but it will surely find an appreciative following.
note to self
Greetings again from the darkness. Justine Bateman's first feature film as writer-director acts an education for men and a wake-up call for women. And it's welcome and effective on both fronts. Olivia Munn ("The Newsroom") stars as Violet, a film industry executive whose self-doubts and lack of confidence prevent her from every really feeling happiness. Her inner voice - she calls it "the committee" feeds her bad ju-ju and keeps her obsessed with safe decisions, rather than dynamic ones ... both personally and professionally.
As an example, her inner voice (Justin Theroux) pushes her to date an older, boring film executive for the sake of her career, rather than her screenwriting life-long friend Red (Luke Bracey) who clearly thinks more highly of Violet than she does herself. Violet's boss (Dennis Boutsikaris) purposefully belittles her which causes some of her staff to also show little respect. Violet does have some supporters who recognize the talent and strength within her, but of course, it's Violet who must come to terms with the disconnect between achieving happiness and the way she makes choices.
We see flashbacks to Violet's childhood and understand how the seeds of self-doubt were planted. The supporting cast is excellent and very deep, though some (Bonnie Bedelia for one) only appear briefly. Filmmaker Bateman uses on screen script to let us know what's going on in Violet's mind as it battles with her "committee". It's a trick that serves the purpose well. Some may recall the "Seinfeld" episode where George does "the opposite". Well that sentiment serves Violet well and puts her on the road to recovery ... and to silencing that darn committee. A terrific first feature from Ms. Bateman, and kudos for the closing credits which put the crew on camera.
How It Ends (2021)
check yourself, and your younger self
Greetings again from the darkness. We get glimpses of the meteor that's speeding on a collision course with Earth, but no character ever points it out. In fact, most emit a chill vibe that corresponds to that of the film. The only exception is Liza. Played by Zoe Lister-Jones, Liza simply wants to get trashed and let the world end overnight ... well after she finishes off her morning pancakes (at least a dozen) and glass of wine. Liza's only problem is Young Liza (Cailee Spaeny), her metaphysical younger self who pressures Liza to attend the Apocalypse Party being thrown by Mandy (Whitney Cummings).
In addition to attending the party, Young Liza persuades Liza to spend the day confronting her regrets. This includes meeting up separately with her divorced parents (Brad Whitford and Helen Hunt), as well as a former best friend (Olivia Wilde), and past boyfriends, including her one true love (Logan Marshall-Green). In fact, this trip down Regret Road provides a steady stream of stereotypical California flakes. This means none of the soul-searching ever goes very deep, but playing spot-the-funny-person is a win-win. None of the interactions seem to last more than 2-4 minutes, but it's a blast seeing how many familiar faces pop up during Liza and Young Liza's day of walking. I won't name the others here so that you can enjoy each moment - some more than others.
The film is co-written and co-directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, and it's one of the more entertaining 'pandemic' films so far. For me, the constant roll of quick vignettes never got old, but you should know that as good as the performances are from Lister-Jones and Spaeny, the soul-searching and self-discovery only skims the surface. Still, a chill End of the World party seems perfect, even if a 1980's relic agreed to be a punchline.
Swan Song (2021)
one last go
Greetings again from the darkness. It's never too late. We've all heard the phrase, but is it accurate ... at least mostly? Writer-director Todd Stephens met the real life Pat Pitsenbarger in a small town gay bar, and he turned that person into this engaging story by casting the great Udo Kier in the lead. When we first meet Pat, he's living a life of daily drudgery in a nursing home. He's a curmudgeon whose hobbies are folding (perfectly) the paper napkins he takes from the cafeteria, and sneaking a smoke when no one is looking. We also see how tenderly he treats an incapacitated neighbor. It's not the last time we see his two sides.
Pat was once a renowned hairdresser in Sandusky, Ohio. When he is informed that a long-time former (wealthy) client has passed away, and her dying wish was for Pat to do her hair for the funeral, he sneaks out of the home and begins a road trip down memory lane. Despite Pat spending the time on foot, the film has the feel of a true road trip movie as he crosses paths with many folks - some new and some with ties to his previous life. One of his first stops is the graveyard to visit his life partner who died of AIDS. We realize Pat still grieves.
There is a hilarious stop at a convenience store as he tries to knock off the items on his shopping list for the project. Since he has no money, Pat depends on the kindness of others ... and his own sticky fingers. As he makes his way through town, some folks remember him, while others remind him of how long he's been gone and how much has changed. His house and business may be gone, but his memories remain.
Two folks from his past generate tremendous scenes. Pat confronts Dee Dee Dale (a reserved Jennifer Coolidge) who gets to tell her side of the story of their unpleasant business split so many years ago. Even better is a "conversation" in the park with his old friend Eunice (a superb Ira Hawkins). The two old friends toast the bygone days of their gay club, while also acknowledging the new world of the gay community. It's a touching sequence.
But the most surprising portion of the film occurs at the funeral home, where Pat imagines a final chat with that recently deceased client, Rita Parker-Sloan. What a pleasant surprise (actually shock!) to see Linda Evans back on screen. She is terrific in her brief appearance and we've really missed her over the last 23 years. But this film belongs to Udo Kier, and he kills. Pat is known as "The Liberace of Sandusky" and Kier embraces all that entails. This is a sentimental story punctuated by a spirited performance - and a Shirley Bassey song!
an art-filled threesome
Jerry Jeff Walker made the lyrics famous: "If I can just get off of this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught", but it was Guy Clark who wrote 'em. Co-directors Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield put together a profile of legendary songwriter Clark, but it's also an intimate look at an era, the challenges of the music industry, Clark's enigmatic wife Susanna, and at their friendship with the great Townes Van Zandt.
The film is based on Susanna's diaries and the biography written by co-director Saviano entitled, "Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark". Most documentaries that focus on a musician spend the vast majority of time on the songs, but this is something quite different. Sure, the music is crucial to the story, but this is the saga of struggling artists and poets, and the unconventional and complicated relationships they formed. It's more of a psychological character study than a tribute to the beautiful music.
Background on Guy and Susanna go back to each of their childhoods. We see family photos and videos, and learn Guy was brought up west Texas tough, while Susanna had a large family. Brought together by tragedy, their 40+ year relationship was built on art and a free-wheeling nature not uncommon to the times. Guy became best friends with songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and an unconventional triumvirate was the result when Townes and Susanna became spiritual soul mates.
Vince Gill, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell fill in some details of those early years, and more importantly provide perspective on the commitment to a specific type of songwriting that Guy held precious. There are also clips of interviews with Townes, and we learn just how difficult it was for Guy to achieve success. It came much easier for Susanna, who wrote #1 hit songs AND was an accomplished artist - her painting served as the cover of Willie Nelson's "Stardust" album.
Of course, Guy Clark ultimately achieved both admiration and success with his songs. Jerry Jeff put him on the map, but Grammy awards came later, as did lifetime achievement awards and best-selling albums. The film includes much of Susanna's time with "TR", which is what she called the tape recorder, so we eavesdrop on many conversations - both personal and musical. Clips of Guy's appearances on Austin City Limits in 1977, 1981, and 1989 are a pleasure, but the later years are a bit more difficult. The most challenging part of the story is knowing that Susanna remained bedridden after Townes' death in 1997. Guy passed a few years later: "Texas is callin', callin' me home." With narration from Sissy Spacek (as Susanna), the film is a personal journey that we are privileged to take.
Turn around, look at me
Greetings again from the darkness. Horror director and writer Mickey Keating adds to his oeuvre with a creative twist on the genre that mixes zombies, the depths of hell, and a powerful monster. Using title cards to take us through six chapters and an Epilogue, Mr. Keating has us experience the events through the eyes of Marie Aldrich (played by Jocelin Donahue). However, it's Marie's mother Ava, played by the always interesting Melora Walters (whose career dates back to DEAD POETS SOCIETY, 1989), whom we see and hear from first. She appears near death as she explains that she's accepted that there is no way to run away from nightmares ... they always find you.
Marie receives a letter informing her that her mother's grave has been desecrated and it's an urgent matter that must be handled promptly and without fanfare (do people usually go to the press on such matters?). Marie and her boyfriend George (Joe Swanberg) head to the island where Mom is buried. It's a creepy place that shuts down for the winter. Marie's mother had told her stories of the island and "The Man from the Sea", and how the island residents sold their soul to the sea monster in order to survive the harsh conditions. Reluctantly, the Bridge Man (Richard Brake) allows them to cross the bridge onto the island.
Things immediately seem weird and off-center. Marie finds her mother's damaged grave, but the caretaker is nowhere to be found. Under a time crunch, Marie and George make some bad decisions ... of course, it wouldn't be a horror movie without bad decisions! Not to give away any of the fun, but suffice to say the island is cursed, just as Marie's mom had warned.
Keating creates some nice visuals, and has terrific placement of The Vogues' "Turn Around, Look at Me". One thing that I couldn't help but notice is that Marie runs and runs. She runs a lot. I'm hoping Ms. Donahue agreed to the extra miles before arriving on set. There are enough chills here to keep us engaged, and Keating deserves credit for an original story within a genre that frequently re-treads.
Greetings again from the darkness. Adria Petty, daughter of the late rock legend, Tom Petty, discovered a stash of 16mm film shot by photographer Martyn Akins between 1993 and 1995. The footage chronicles Petty's recording of his 1994 triple platinum album, "Wildflowers" - the album he considered his best and most personal. The found footage, along with insight and perspective from many who were there, allows us to understand why he felt that way.
Mary Wharton directed multiple episodes of "VH1 Legends", and her expertise with musicians elevates this to must-see for any Tom Petty fan ... or even any songwriter who wants to witness the crafting of songs, and the crafting of a sound. See, this was Petty's first time to work with famed rap producer and co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, Rick Rubin. Adria explains what was happening in her father's personal life during this time, and how he wanted something new and different from his work with The Heartbreakers - although most of them worked on this album as well.
In addition to the 27 year old footage, Ms. Wharton includes current day interviews with Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and producer Rubin. Campbell seems mostly bored with the interviews, but Tench spills all his memories. It's really Rubin who brings the most insight and perspective to what Petty was trying to do. The changing of drummers from Stan Lynch to Steve Ferrone is discussed, and we hear Petty explain that he still wants to sing with bassist Howie Epstein. So the songs may sound different, and have special meaning to Petty, many of the musicians are those he was most familiar and comfortable with.
We see rehearsals, recordings, sound checks, and live performances. There are also rare clips of Petty at home. Ms. Wharton provides a unique opportunity to watch an artist at work and how the pieces are assembled to create a masterpiece album that is as strong today as it was on its first release. Tom Petty died in 2017, but lives on in his music, and now in the footage of his musical process.
Language Lessons (2021)
are you there?
Greetings again from the darkness. The use of video chats as a plot device might have been a bit more adventurous 18 months ago, but oddly, the pandemic and our familiarity with this type of communication (out of necessity) actually works to strengthen this interesting film. It's the feature film directorial debut of Natalie Morales, who co-wrote the script with Mark Duplass, and the two co-star as the only characters we see on screen.
Ms. Morales plays Carino, a Costa Rica-based Spanish teacher hired by Adam's (Duplass) husband Will (an unseen DeSean Terry). An awkward first lesson - Lesson #1 of 100 in the package - includes Adam's morning routine of hot/cold dips in the pool and spa in the backyard of his luxurious home. Director Morales labels the lessons throughout, and no, we thankfully don't see all 100. After a personal tragedy occurs, the teacher-student dynamic shifts and becomes more therapy before settling into a strange friendship.
Between lessons, Adam and Carino exchange many personal messages, many littered with entirely too many "I'm sorry" lines in an attempt to avoid overstepping boundaries. Adam is forthcoming with his personal feelings, while Carino bounces between trying to stay professional and wanting to bond. It's clear she is hiding details of her personal life, while rarely discouraging Adam from over-sharing. The frequent personal messages reveal more about each character than the scheduled meetings, but combined they work very well.
The charisma of Duplass and especially Morales allow us to care very much about this relationship. They are both charming, and Morales has the most fun in the drunk birthday song scene. She is to be commended for taking such a simple structure and creating an interesting movie that proves people need connection - whether in person, through masks, or via Zoom.
The Fallout (2021)
my own way
Greetings again from the darkness. Megan Park is an established actress with some memorable roles (WHAT IF, 2013), and although she has directed some short films, this is her first feature film as writer-director. Her subject matter revolves around a school shooting and how it impacts students in so many ways. Rather than creating a project focusing on gun control, Ms. Park instead takes on the various emotions that occur after such a horrific event.
Vada (Jenna Ortega, young Jane in "Jane the Virgin") is a 16 year old high school student who is in the restroom when gunfire is heard. We don't see the shooter, and instead director Park sticks with Vada and Mia Reed (Maddie Ziegler) as they hide in the stall, terrified of what's happening. Mia is the school beauty, and one that Vada and her best friend Will (Nick Ropp) would typically make fun of behind her back. While in the stall, a bloody Quinton (Niles Fitch) joins them.
The three students form an unlikely bond after the shooting, as Will finds a new mission in life as an activist and spokesperson. Vada's parents are played by a skittish Julie Bowen and the always dependable John Ortiz. Vada and Mia both struggle with their emotions, and start to depend on each other. Quinton has serious fallout to deal with, though he and Vada get closer as well. Though she is unable to talk to her parents or deal with her younger sister, Vada does see a therapist played by Shailene Woodley.
It's painful to see anyone have to deal with such a horrific event, but it's so much worse when it's kids who simply aren't mature enough or experienced enough to handle such a burden. Wine, sex, and pot all make up the attempts at self-healing by the students, and the film doesn't shy away from the difficulties they face in returning to school - or returning to anything resembling normalcy after attending memorial services for numerous classmates. Filmmaker Park allows us to experience Vada's slow recovery, and then throws in a gut-punch of an ending that is likely to stun many. A terrific performance from Ms. Ortega and strong filmmaking from Ms. Park makes this one stick with us.
Here Before (2021)
are you ... ?
Greetings again from the darkness. Grief can be the most powerful and dangerous emotion we experience as humans. Anger and joy come and go, but real grief seeps into our marrow and becomes part of our being. Writer-director Stacey Gregg wisely tackles the topic with the assistance of the always excellent Andrea Riseborough (a resume loaded with strong projects) as Laura, a mother who begins to believe that her deceased daughter Josie has been reincarnated as the new neighbors' daughter, Megan (Niamh Dornan).
Ms. Gregg expertly builds tension and doubt through the film's first half, and throws a terrific curve ball in the final act ... one I kick myself and applaud the filmmaker for not seeing it coming. There is an awkwardness between the two families forced together by a shared dwelling wall. That awkwardness only builds as Laura continually oversteps boundaries when it comes to Megan, who seems to know entirely too many details when it comes to Josie's death.
Megan's parents, Marie (Eileen O'Higgins) and Chris (Martin McCann), are from a different socio-economic class than their neighbors, and the uncomfortable connection extends to Laura's husband, Brendon (Jonjo O'Neill) and son, Tadhg (Lewis McAkie). Whether it's in the front yard, at school, or the grocery story, each time these families cross paths leaves us with weird vibes and feeling more confused. Is something supernatural at play here?
The cinematography from Chloe Thomson is superb, and composer Adam Janota Bzowski is pitch perfect is giving us just enough at the right moments. Set in Belfast, this is a gripping thriller with terrific performances throughout. Stacey Gregg makes it look all too easy with her first feature film.
you sir, are no Steve Jobs
Greetings again from the darkness. It's quite possible that many scams originally begin with someone's good intentions. However it's just as likely, and maybe even more so, that many scams begin with only the intention of raking in millions or billions for the founder. The dream of becoming the next Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg is simply too enticing for some. Filmmaker Jed Rothstein profiles the rise and fall of WeWork, or more accurately, its charismatic commander, Adam Neumann.
Offering a nice overview for those unfamiliar, the film uses multiple clips of Neumann speaking so that we get a real feel for how so many fell under his spell. Neumann was an immigrant from Israel, and certainly bought into the ideal of living the American Dream. Labeled a visionary, and always full of ideas, Neumann co-founded WeWork with Miguel McKelvey. They were known affectionately as Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside, respectively, due to McKelvey's focus on operations and infrastructure and Neumann's ability as a salesman and the (and hair) of the company.
The idea of co-working space was not new, but it had never been pitched or marketed the way that Neumann did. He appealed to the rebellious nature of millennials, who couldn't picture themselves in the traditional corporate office environment of the establishment. Neumann capitalized on their FOMO, and rammed home the message of "Do what you love." He preached to the choir with his promise of the next revolution being the "We revolution."
Journalists from Forbes, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal are interviewed, as are former We staff members and clients. Mr. Rothstein does a nice job of tracking the progression of the company via graphics showing valuation each year beginning with a few million in 2012 through a peak of $47 billion in 2018. He also explores how, within a 6 week period, the company went from that peak to near bankrupt.
A business model based on "community" with the goal of changing the way people work and live, turns out to be smoke and mirrors if legitimate business practices aren't followed. That's not to say his communal approach doesn't work, but as so often happens, greed and the lust for power, create the downfall. Rothstein points out that the company's own S-1 filed prior to the planned IPO was the red flag that had previously gone undetected.
This is as much a psychological study of Neumann as it is a business case study. Every time Neumann bristled at being called a "real estate company", we should have known. With his cash infusion from Japan's SoftBank still not leading to traditional profitability, we should have known. When his bizarre actress wife, Rebekah, became more involved with decisions and publicity, we should have known. Hindsight is crystal clear, and by the end, we realize Neumann has more in common with the notorious Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos than with Steve Jobs. The Jesus Complex seems obvious, but as humans we want so much to believe the words of an idealist ... especially a cool one. There is a lot to unpack in this documentary, and it's worth it - even if it helps us learn our lesson yet again.
sing it again
Greetings again from the darkness. Opening Night Headliner at SXSW is a place of honor, and this year's selection was the docuseries from Michael D Ratner (TV docuseries "Justin Bieber: Seasons") highlighting Demi Lovato's personal challenges, of which there are many. The 4-part series was shown straight-through with only chapter slides showing where each new episode begins. Initial scenes show Lovato during her 2018 tour, which was originally the purpose of a documentary. Filming ended abruptly when she overdosed on drugs and nearly died.
In 2020, Ms. Lovato had a new story to tell, and her personal struggles became the focus of the documentary. She promised transparency and honesty, and by all indications, she delivered. Very few celebrities have ever revealed so many personal challenges. By the end of the finale, we've heard about her addictions, the physical-emotional-sexual abuse she's endured, her eating disorder, bi-polar diagnosis, depression, self-harm, and body issues. We also learn of her frequent lies to friends, family, and associates.
Not only does Lovato sit for many interviews, we also hear from her mother, sisters, friends, choreographer, Security Director, Business Manager, and former personal assistant. That's right. One of the things that stands out most here is privilege. The former Disney child star and now global pop star has a support team and resources that most can only dream of. She went to rehab at one of the most exclusive facilities in the world, and after a near-death drug overdose, her famous new manager agrees to sign her, even after a relapse shortly after her rehab stint. Obviously addiction is something many struggle with, but it's quite eye-opening to see the care wealth can attain.
One of the most interesting things to come from this is in the final episode where Lovato admits that "moderation" is her personal approach to dealing with addiction. Despite input from Elton John, Christina Aguilera, and Will Ferrell, Lovato believes she is better off with moderate alcohol consumption and pot smoking than stone cold sobriety. Only time will tell. One thing is for sure ... her voice remains a true gift. Her "comeback" performance at the 2020 Grammy Awards and her singing of the National Anthem at the 2020 Super Bowl are unmistakable in proof of talent. However, we can't help but wonder how the personal admissions will be received by the youngsters who look up to Demi Lovato.
The End of Us (2021)
should I stay or ...
Greetings again from the darkness. Co-writers and co-directors Steven Kanter and Henry Loevner serve up one of the first COVID-19 relationship movies. It's the kind of indie movie that plays well at festivals, but also one that nails what so many have experienced over the past year ... well hopefully sans the break-up.
Ali Vingiano is Leah and Ben Coleman is Nick. They have been in a four year relationship that ends abruptly when Leah gets fed up with carrying an unbalanced load in regards to grown-up things like rent, food, and insurance. See, while Nick dreams of writing a screenplay and getting acting jobs (while taking few auditions), Leah is the grounded one who holds a real paying job. It's easy for us to understand when Leah says 'enough'.
The wrinkle here is that the break-up occurs in the early days of the pandemic. Knowledge is scarce and deaths are mounting. Businesses are closing and a stay-at-home order is issued in California, forcing this newly separated couple to ... well ... not be separated. Nick sleeps on the couch, but the two are together more now than ... well ... when they were together. Tension and stress is as prevalent as Zoom meetings.
It's an unusual situation, and both Leah and Nick have friends they confide in, but moving on is pretty difficult when the proximity is closer than ever before. Petty emotions come into play, as do real ones. Apologies and quasi-apologies are rampant, but we see both change and grow despite the challenges. The lead actors are solid and the script is fresh and spot on. There are some uncomfortable moments, but relatability is the key here. Nice work from those involved.
Introducing, Selma Blair (2021)
no easy path
Greetings again from the darkness. Whether it's navigating the stairs on all fours, getting a boost up to the saddle of her beloved horse, or showing off her glittery turbans and walking canes, the showmanship of actress Selma Blair seems ever-present despite the severe effects of her Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Documentarian Rachel Fleit films the daily challenges faced by Ms. Blair as she comes to grips with the disease and its impact on her career, her life, and her ability to raise her son.
You likely recognize Selma Blair from her most popular movies, CRUEL INTENTIONS (1999) and LEGALLY BLONDE (2001). She admits to viewing herself as a supporting actor, rather than a star, but with 80 screen credits over 25 years, she's certainly worked consistently. But here we see her daily physical and emotional struggles, though her sense of humor is present except for the darkest moments. Cracking wise about Kim Kardashian or Norma Desmond (SUNSET BLVD), and never hesitating to ensure her cane serves the dual purpose of fashion accessory, Ms. Blair keeps us constantly guessing as to whether she is serving up raw emotions or her best performance in the moment.
We can easily forgive her if a bit of her good humor is an act. It seems clear the film is designed to be a "gift" to her young son Arthur, should her life be cut short. Early on, we witness an MS episode when the stimulus gets to be too much. Her physical contortions and impaired speech are difficult to watch, but necessary for us to fully understand the brutality of the disease.
Half of the film is dedicated to her decision to seek stem cell treatment. The process is long and arduous, and we are spared much of the worst that she experiences. Still, it's a weeks-long cycle followed by a two year recovery, with no guarantee of improvement. In fact, no miracle cure or recovery occurs, and Ms. Blair initially seems shocked that she has two years of recovery ahead. It's difficult to believe she had not previously been informed.
Selma Blair's slogan, "We have so much time to be dead", is a terrific message and she's to be commended and respected for opening up her challenges to the camera. It's hopeful that her willingness to do so will help others, while also educating those unfamiliar with this disease. Mommy issues and extra drama aside, this film is quite something to experience.