30 for 30: Rodman: For Better or Worse

Release: Tuesday, September 10, 2019 (ESPN)

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Directed by: Todd Kapostasy

Love him, hate him or indifferent to him you can’t really get away with saying you don’t know who Dennis Rodman is. Few American athletes have received the attention that the former so-called “Bad Boy” has. How much of that has been self-inflicted and how much of it has been healthy is the big question driving this documentary from Emmy-winning director Todd Kapostasy. Rodman’s lived so large and tabloid-friendly he may not even really need a documentary on his life but here goes this anyway.

Rodman: For Better or Worse assumes the shape of a typical cause-and-effect narrative, but it’s also a trip down memory lane by way of rockstar Keith Richards. How Rodman managed to survive his partying days, much less talk to us now coherently, is something of a miracle. Living in the fast lane has taken a toll, and that’s no revelation. Yet there are details about his most unlikely journey from scrawny, un-athletic teen to homeless person to NBA superstar and eventual teammate of Michael Jordan you can’t help but be wowed by.

Because the subject is so colorful, passionate, annoying, impulsive, repulsive — in a word, iconoclastic — Kapostasy feels compelled to spice up the presentation style. Unfortunately a lot of that is to a detrimental effect. He brings in Jamie Foxx to do some seriously distracting fourth-wall-breaking narration and the director further embellishes with a number of cheesy tableaus, all of which is meant to complement and reflect the Rodman persona. What’s more effective is the core interview which takes place in an empty auditorium, which feels something more than an accident in terms of the symbolism.

Rodman, now 58, is seated in a lonely chair center-stage, back turned to where a crowd would be sitting. As he fiddles with his lip ring and utters a series of “umm”s and “uh”s there’s often a heavy silence, like he’s still trying to figure out what went wrong. The crowds and groupies and good times are gone and have been for some time, and so has his considerable wealth. He gave away a lot of his money to people he knew weren’t real friends, doing so in order to keep that part of his identity (“Generous Dennis”) alive for as long as possible. Yet his greatest debt owed is time — to his ex-wives, to his children he’s never really known. Rodman comes across most honest when addressing how he’s not been a good dad. Still, it’s weird hearing the words “it kinda sucked” when describing the experience of becoming a father.

Kapostasy could have scaled down the saga as merely another example of just how unhealthy and fleeting fame is but he recognizes that there is far more to the story than just his tumultuous years in the NBA spotlight. For Better or Worse is divided into three major movements: his childhood, the rise to fame and then the falling away from it and his post-retirement shenanigans, like the time he befriended North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, an episode that Rodman kind of waves away as being “in the past,” and is as cringe-inducing now as it was when his drunken rantings abroad made him the target of vicious (and deserved) criticism.

The documentary is arguably at its most bizarre and fascinating when it revisits a period of transience before he made himself eligible for the 1986 Draft. He spent some time in a small town in Oklahoma, pushing past the misery of his hometown of Oak Cliff (an impoverished suburb of Dallas) — a hell he vowed never to return to. That’s not entirely surprising. His childhood wasn’t exactly a happy time; his father (named Philander, no less) walked out on the family at an early stage. His relationship with his mama was strained, and only grew more so when she threw him out of the house in an attempt to get him to take responsibility for himself. His high school days were marked by bullying and un-athleticism. Team sports at that time did not have a great deal of love for him.

After barely surviving high school his pituitary went into overdrive, giving him a foot of vertical in about a year — thus making him feel like an alien in his own body. Yet as he physically grew he remained emotionally underdeveloped. He tells us how in his early twenties he met his first true friend in Byrne Rich, a 12-year-old from small-town Oklahoma, during a summer basketball camp who was struggling with extreme introversion himself after fatally shooting his best friend in a hunting accident. What he does not tell you however, is that as of 2013 he fell out of contact with the Rich’s — a farming family who took him in when he was struggling, a family Rodman came to call a surrogate — for reasons completely unknown to them and to us all.

The bulk of the middle section focuses on the rise of both the athlete and the “Bad Boy” alter ego. A wide range of guests contribute their experiences being around him, covering him as journalists, being his teammate, his coach, his bodyguard. Throughout the film it’s strange how the subject feels like a passenger and not the driver, but we nonetheless get some insight from a lot of well-qualified people. While Shirley, his mother, addresses what drove Rodman into his shell at a young age (and she doesn’t mince words when describing just how painfully shy and needy her son was), others provide context for the bigger picture, how his turbulent upbringing and emotional immaturity made him ill-equipped to deal with the harsher realities of the business of the NBA. His love of basketball gave birth to a unique court presence that created a fandom all its own, which in turn created a kind of confirmation bias for what little he valued about himself — his ability to entertain and make others happy.

Despite how the film swells with melancholy, especially as it dives into the retirement phase, the experience isn’t a four-quarter beatdown of his character. Interviewees speak just as often to Rodman’s “sweetness” as they do his foibles. Former Detroit Piston Isaiah Thomas in particular has nothing but fond memories of his time playing with a teammate who gave his heart and soul to the team and the game. Even Michael Jordan is impressed with his dedication to the team after nights of throwing down 30+ shots (of top-shelf tequila, that is). No matter how familiar some of the archived footage is, it serves to remind how much of a force Rodman was as a player. His hustle on the court was virtually unmatched. He came into his own not just as a vital cog in some big-time NBA machines (notably the “Bad Boy” Pistons who won back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90 and the indomitable Chicago Bulls of the ’90s) but as one of the most effective defenders and rebounders in league history.

For Better or Worse is definitely more about the journey than the destination. The conclusion feels empty, almost incomplete, and that’s through no fault of Kapostasy. The expensive designer shades Rodman is flashing can’t mask the pain he is in. “You’d think one of the ten most recognizable people would be happy, right?” The silence that follows is indeed awkward. The question is painfully rhetorical. If he can’t answer it, expecting anyone else to do so — or asking a documentary crew who do a good job of sorting through facts and fiction to make something up — is even crazier than his own life story.

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Recommendation: Fandom is no barrier to entry for this 30 for 30. It’s important to note that Todd Kapostasy does a good job of suspending judgment in his approach, making sure all voices are heard — i.e. the women he left behind to raise his own children. The documentary proves how he’s a tough guy to sympathize with, yet at the same time he’s someone for whom you often do feel sympathy. That’s a crazy dichotomy, and even if you don’t like him at all there is no denying he is a fascinating, unique individual. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 102 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.espnfrontrow.com; http://www.sling.com

The Perfection

Release: Friday, May 24, 2019 (Netflix)

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Written by: Eric C. Charmelo; Nicole Snyder; Richard Shepard 

Directed by: Richard Shepard

Thanks to Twitter, The Perfection will be remembered more for its gross-out moments rather than what it’s actually about. The notorious Netflix horror/thriller certainly does get messy and intense, but it is more skin-crawling in terms of its thematic content. The outpouring of “I’m physically ill” tweets has you believing it’s a new Tom Six offering (of The Human Centipede infamy), when really this is closer in spirit to Kill Bill — only with cellists, meat cleavers and gorgeous dresses instead of assassins, katanas and yellow-and-black jumpsuits.

So, what is it about? The Perfection, directed by Richard Shepard and written by himself, Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, is essentially a revenge tale about two exceptionally gifted musicians who come to terms with what they have had to sacrifice for the perfect performance and embolden themselves to seek justice against those responsible for ruining their lives.

Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams) was once a promising talent; in fact she was the very best cellist the Boston-based Bachoff academy had to offer. She withdrew from the program to take care of her terminally ill mother. After her passing Charlotte reconnects with the academy’s leader Anton (Steven Weber) in Shanghai to help him and his wife Paloma (Alaina Huffman) select a new student. There she meets Lizzie (Logan Browning), a prodigy who apparently “replaced” Charlotte, and two shooting stars collide. A night of passion begets a seemingly genuine friendship, with an insanely hungover Lizzie insisting Charlotte join her on a trip through rural China to clear her head.

(Here’s where Twitter goes berserk.)

The admittedly pretty unpleasant bus ride scene is where the writers really begin playing with the fabric of reality, where we learn something new (and again in seemingly every other scene henceforth) about the central dynamic binding Charlotte to Lizzie, and the two to Anton. Where the tango between admiration and jealousy begins. Where, depending on how critical you are of a moment or two of histrionic performance, you either lose your trust and/or interest in the narrative completely or dig into its sordid twists and turns with fervor. The dueling performances of Williams and Browning are the best things about The Perfection, though they’re not perfect.

Though that might be debatable in a psychological thriller that increasingly becomes about the message. As the hysteria leads to an impressive amount of body parts being sliced and diced Williams and Browning ratchet up the intensity to match the environment. Your sympathies are constantly — and compellingly — reconfigured on one side or the other. The subtext is of course less about the historical significance of music than it is about men controlling, dominating and abusing women, and their subjugation to if not irrelevance then Second Place (it is no coincidence — at least, I hope not — that the movie samples/references Mozart, Bach and Handel as opposed to Kassiani, Mendelssohn or Schumann).

In The Perfection a woman’s gotta go to some pretty gnarly extremes to break free of her literal shackles. This is not a subtle message movie, but given its timeliness perhaps we are well past the point of being subtle. However the stylistic flare is sometimes laid on too thick, particularly with the tape literally being rewound to update you on specific developments. Triumphing over the flaws is the intensity of the protagonists’ rage, specifically born out of the roiling, woke wake of serial sexual harassers Harvey Weinstein/Bill Cosby/Larry Nassar (anyone else I’m forgetting feel free to add — and curse as you see fit — in the comments below). For all of its narrative gimmickry and occasionally OTT acting, it would be me lying bald-faced to say the violent comeuppance isn’t perfectly satisfying.

Silence is golden.

Recommendation: So the hysteria surrounding the film itself proves to be, once again, ridiculously overblown. Yeah, it features some gross-out moments in the beginning but more so at the end but I wouldn’t say the aesthetic punishes without purpose. The Perfection is very entertaining, and disgustingly timely. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I made a mistake.”

“Yes, you did.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Wounds

Release: Friday, October 18, 2019 (Hulu — U.S./Netflix internationally)

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Written by: Babak Anvari

Directed by: Babak Anvari

The word ‘wounds’ really makes me feel icky. It’s a trigger for me like ‘moist’ is for others. (Sorry if I just made you wince.) I hate. The word. Wounds.

Masochist that I am, I chose to watch a movie with that as the title. Appropriately it grossed me out, but not always in a good way. It’s a weird, nasty, inexplicable (also not-in-a-good-way) psychological/possession thriller set in The Big Easy, featuring a likable cast including Armie Hammer, Dakota Johnson, Karl Glusman (yes, that Karl Glusman) and the rising Zazie Beetz and costarring cockroaches — thousands of ’em. All of a sudden my college days at 2305 Highland Avenue seem not so bad.

W****s is the second feature length film from British-Iranian director Babak Anvari. I wasn’t entirely bowled over by his previous effort, the 2016 Tehran-set thriller Under the Shadow but unfortunately his follow-up only serves to make that one look superior. The story follows Will, a perpetually boozing N’awlins bartender played by Armie Hammer, as his week goes from bad to worse to just plain disgusting after he takes home a phone left behind at the bar he keeps. It belongs to one of the underage college kids who fled the scene when a brawl broke out between a few of the regulars (Brad William Henke as Eric; Luke Hawx as Marvin — good ole boys with the builds of a former NFL player and pro wrestler respectively).

What at first appears to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of being careless with one’s phone — a creepy scene suggests just how easy it is for the wrong person to unlock all the wonders hidden within our personal devices, no matter how sophisticated the lock screen pattern — evolves into a lackadaisically paced, occasionally head (and armpit)-scratching descent into madness and obsession that finds Will and his girlfriend Carrie (Dakota Johnson) battling forces no one, including the audience, can hope to understand.

A hammered Hammer does well with a script that characterizes men as confrontational bulls incapable of showing affection and maybe even unworthy of it and women as the bane of their existence . . . or at the very least, the source of their emotional w****s. (Aha! I see what you’re doing, Mr. Anvari — your movie title is a double entendre.*) Johnson does what she can as Carrie, but her arc is so rushed in development it’s stunning how anyone could have thought this was sufficient. She’s too good for Will, who prefers living in the moment to moving up to the next level in life. While Carrie’s actively trying to better herself — she’s writing a term paper that bizarrely gets sidelined when she becomes consumed by the mystery of what’s on that stupid phone — Will spends almost the entire movie lusting after his bar friend Alicia (Zazie Beetz), whose boyfriend Jeffrey (Glusman) struggles to assert himself as a tough guy.

Writer/director Babak Anvari, as he proved with his début effort, is good at establishing and sustaining an ominous atmosphere. Events take their sweet time to live up to the vibes telegraphed perhaps too early by the soundtrack but eventually they do, particularly in a memorable, if vomit-inducing climax that leaves as big a mark visually as it does aurally. Anvari also takes advantage of setting, turning the host city of Mardi Gras into a ghost town where oversized bugs seem in greater abundance than people.

However, his inability to elucidate why any of this supernatural/sacrificial gobbledygook matters proves catastrophic. The transformations of our (quite honestly unlikable) protagonists makes less than no sense. Tertiary characters surface in weird ways only to be unceremoniously kicked to the cockroach-infested curb, though the product placement for the Dodge Charger is not to be understated. Frustratingly that shocking, gruesome final scene is far better than anything that has come before it in terms of delivering the horror. In a better movie though it might have been the rule, not the terribly obvious exception.

* Okay, so technically his movie is based on a novella called The Visible Filth. Why, oh why couldn’t they have just stuck with that name?! That’s so much better than . . . ugh, I can’t even type it. 

Recommendation: Cockroaches, cockroaches and, oh, what’s this? More cockroaches. Wounds‘ shock value is more like shlock value. Your time is too valuable to waste on a movie that fails to justify itself. The most shocking thing about this movie is how it attracted a cast this good. Though I wonder how much worse this might have been without it. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.variety.com 

Fractured

Release: Friday, October 11, 2019 (Netflix)

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Written by: Alan B. McElroy

Directed by: Brad Anderson

There’s something inherently off-putting about hospitals and treatment centers. Anyone who has spent some time in them (not to mention contend with their bureaucratic ways) can attest to just how much stress they can bring out in a person. They might even be worse than airports in that regard.

These places inspire angst, distrust and even outright fear, elements apropos of a psychological thriller. To that end, maybe it’s not surprising a great many of these “it’s all in your head” movies set up shop in mental institutions and psychiatric wards. Nine years ago Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island brought us to the Alcatrazian equivalent of an asylum for the criminally insane. Just last year Steven Soderbergh provided a reality check as Claire Foy steadily unraveled in a mental care facility holding her against her will (check out my review of Unsane here). In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, one of cinema’s all-time great villains, gave us one of the most legitimate reasons to fear the institution in a way that is, nearly 45 years later, still waiting to be challenged.

Brad Anderson’s psychological thriller Fractured can’t help but encourage a little déjà vu in terms of the way it messes with your head. It’s perception-skewing plot mechanics and unreliable protagonist aren’t things you haven’t seen in better/more expensive movies. Shutter Island is definitely invoked, but the plot this movie steals the most from is undoubtedly the 1938 Hitchcock classic The Lady Vanishes. However there are some nuances to this environment that help Fractured gain its own modest standing. For one, the super-sketchy way organ donations seem to be handled here at America’s most uncooperative hospital — a familiar place that increasingly feels like a madhouse based on the way everyone, including our everyman “hero,” seems to act. Plus it’s just cool to see the amiable English actor Sam Worthington in a lead role.

Fractured is born in an air of anxiety that makes you feel unnerved from the very beginning. The filmmakers manage to further intoxicate it with strange characters and mounting aggression. The Monroes are driving back home after a lousy Thanksgiving gathering. Stress levels are through the roof of their blue Ford Explorer. However many hours they’ve been on the road you can bet Ray (Worthington) and his wife Joanne (Lily Rabe) have been fighting for the duration. Ray, a former NASCAR driver and recovering alcoholic, is not the man his wife married — a shell of his former self. Their six-year-old daughter Peri (Lucy Capri) minds her own business in the backseat. Soon though she has to pee. And the batteries in her music player are dead. Ray pulls over at a suspect gas station in the middle of nowhere to kill two birds with one stone.

A pivotal event occurs there, an unfortunate accident bad enough for Peri to need immediate medical attention. Ray recalls passing a hospital not too far back and puts his experiences as a professional driver to good use. When they arrive at Kirkbride Hospital his good intentions are rebuffed by an unfriendly staff and an interminable sit in the waiting room. Ray is coming in a little hot with his need-to-know interrogations, yet something’s clearly off about this place. Unusual questions are being asked. Suspicious looking people are coming and going at the back door. A Dr. Berthram (played by prolific character actor Stephen Tobolowsky) insists on taking Peri to the Lower Level to be evaluated for head trauma even though it’s just a broken arm — you know, just to be safe. The family gets separated, as only one visitor is allowed at a time and Joanne goes with her.

When Ray awakens from a nap in the waiting room the drama goes to work in earnest. No one in the hospital has a recollection of Joanne or Peri, only that Ray checked himself in for a head injury. Shift rotations and front desk assistants unapologetically in dereliction of duty only compound the headache. As his behavior intensifies — there’s a really entertaining confrontation in that ominous elevator — Alan B. McElroy’s screenplay tosses into the mix local cops, overzealous security guards and psychologists, building a case against Ray that you, the surrogate couch detective, must either dismiss as a sophisticated conspiracy or embrace as the ugly truth.

Technically speaking this isn’t a flashy movie; the drab interiors and equally blue exteriors are exceptionally unexceptional. I’d argue that the elementary design to some degree works in the movie’s favor. The un-showy style keeps the focus on what matters most, and that’s the human element, the details regarding what’s really fracturing this man who would do anything for his family. Some creative editing allows the mystery to expand and deepen, even as the feeling of “Been here, done that” tugs at the back of your mind. This otherwise generic prescription for low-key horror is given its biggest shot of adrenaline thanks to Worthington’s performance, a convincing evocation of a man clearly dealing with more stress than he can bear.

He’s going down.

Recommendation: Fractured is a by-the-numbers thriller that gets by with a strong performance from Sam Worthington. Despite the number of weird developments that encourage us to draw our own conclusions throughout, ultimately it’s that final frame that will leave viewers talking. The sum totality of the experience isn’t what I would call a Netflix “original” (that feels like a misnomer) but there’s enough going on here to keep you involved from the comforts of your favorite recliner. Kick your feet up and bring your expectations down. 

Rated: TV-MA

Running Time: 99 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.geektyrant.com 

Little Monsters

Release: Friday, October 11, 2019 (Hulu)

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Written by: Abe Forsythe

Directed by: Abe Forsythe

With the horror-comedy Little Monsters, Australian director and actor Abe Forsythe is empowering teachers and children alike, arming them with brains and bravery as they try to survive hordes of flesh-eating zombies — the slow kind, not the fast kind. It’s a really admirable concept that turns tradition on its rotting zombified head, a survival tale that’s more feel-good than feel-dread.

Despite the fact there are many youngsters running around underfoot this is very much a movie for the grown-ups. Little Monsters has a positive message to send about people learning to take responsibility for themselves and for others, but the visual aesthetic is hardly divorced from the gruesomeness native to the ultra-popular genre. When a zombie outbreak occurs in an American testing facility in the Land Down Under and threatens a petting zoo full of tourists and children (and lambs! No!!) things indeed get gory AF. The dialogue is laden with vulgarities and there are moments where adults regress to an embarrassingly infantile state. These are fairly pronounced elements that jettison Forsythe’s savagely funny subversion of the zombie apocalypse well out of family-friendly territory.

Dave (Alexander England) is having a tough time when he and his girlfriend split up. She wants kids, he doesn’t. An amusing montage opens the film showing the couple in a ruthless fight that endures everywhere they go. The wannabe rockstar finds himself crashing on his sister Tess (Kat Stewart)’s couch and right now it’s not possible for him to care less about anything. He’s rude and obnoxious around everyone, including her son Felix (Diesel La Torraca), who is at one point exposed to the humiliation of Dave discovering his ex getting it on with an older man — a man “more in touch with his feelings” than Dave ever was.

In danger of being kicked out of his sister’s place Dave obliges in taking Felix to school the next day, where he meets the effervescent kindergarten teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o). He immediately develops an infatuation with her — so much so he volunteers as a class chaperone on a field trip to a farm/petting zoo in order to spend more time with her. But that ring finger offers a brutal smackdown. Making matters worse, a popular kids show host named Mr. McGiggles (an incredibly annoying Josh Gad) is on site to film an episode. He is also smitten by Miss Caroline. For some reason kids are drawn to this Jared the Subway Guy archetype. His issues are a shade less awful than that admittedly. Mr. McGiggles has a thing for moms — all moms, not just “the hot ones.”

You suffer through this awkward trudge through self-pitying, slapdash character development to get to Little Monster‘s much more entertaining (and bloody) second half, where a once pleasant scene becomes overrun by the hilariously inept, disgustingly gurgly undead. Forsythe, who writes, directs, and appears briefly as a zombie, plays the encounters with these gack-covered extras for pure comedy, while finding little teaching moments here and there as the situation escalates, the group getting pinned down in the visitor’s center, surrounded by a group of sauntering, sloughy-skinned specters.

Nyong’o gets an A+ as her character faces down her worst fears — not of her own mortality (not that that’s ever really in question here) but rather of failing to protect her little ones. She’s also more than a soft-spoken educator, showing off her dulcet tones and ukulele skills. Miss Caroline can also defend herself, evidenced in a tense scene wherein she has to retrieve Felix’s epipen before he goes into shock. Back on the ranch, England’s rather OTT “woe as me, my life is shit” performance breaks into something readily agreeable as he comes into his own as a protector. It’s a pretty radical change but one that’s really welcomed — if anything it’s optimism to offset the insanely obnoxious, frankly embarrassing Mr. McGiggles.

Little Monsters may be pretty clunky in places; the juxtaposition between the plight of the main characters and the cuts to the military personnel arming up for battle is jarring and some of the dialogue is cringe inducing. However one of its absolute strengths is that it doesn’t condescend to the kids. It’s a major spoiler to reveal it, but suffice to say newcomer Diesel La Torraca gets one of the most adorable stand-out moments you’ve seen in a zombie movie. In fact, and in spite of the more annoyingly, patently obvious attempts to go for that R rating, that’s how I’d categorize Little Monsters — an adorable little zombie movie. Yeah, it’s kind of weird to actually write that — but tell me I’m wrong.

Recommendation: Little Monsters is kind of a strange one because while it most definitely is a positive message movie, it’s also outfitted with so much adult language and gory imagery it’s one best to throw on after you’ve put your kids to bed. A fun, Australian-flavored zombie romp that leans far more towards comedy than horror that gives Hulu just a bit more clout. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “It’s part of a game. The zombies are not real.”

“Like f**k they’re not!”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.thedigitalfix.com

In the Tall Grass

Release: Friday, October 4, 2019 (Netflix)

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Written by: Vincenzo Natali

Directed by: Vincenzo Natali

Last year Netflix inadvertently triggered the Bird Box Challenge, which set a new standard for stupidity when it comes to audience interaction/reaction. This year it’s given us another curio ripe for parody in the form of Vincenzo Natali’s In the Tall Grass. A horror film based on a novella cowritten by father-and-son duo Stephen King and Joe Hill, it’s about people wandering into an endless field of grass and, uh, getting something a little worse than lost, their only hope for survival lying in a big chunk of stone planted smack dab in the middle. In the Tall Grass doesn’t quite have the meme potential as Bird Box but it certainly invites mockery in the same way.

There’s a caveat to all this cynicism of course. I have not read the short story upon which the movie is based. Judging by the reviews from those who have, I’m not sure if that’s actually good or bad news. I do know my lack of background changes this review substantially; I can’t decry it as “yet another botched Stephen King adaptation.” Instead I can only review In the Tall Grass for what it is — a slightly above-average Netflix offering whose completely confusing, “let’s make this stuff up as we go along” narrative may or may not be worth your headache.

It’s a Friday, so I’m leaning more towards “is headache worthy.” The premise is nuts, but mostly works if you just go with the flow — and if you bring some of your own grass to the show, too. That can’t possibly hurt. It could make things more confusing, but then this is a maze so whack you can easily get lost in it stone cold sober. The ridiculousness starts with a brother and sister, Becky (Laysla De Oliviera) and Cal (Avery Whitted), pulling off the road in the middle of corn belt USA. They’re en route to the west coast so Becky can find a family to adopt her yet-to-be-born baby. They then hear a cry for help coming from the nearby field, where grass grows high enough to conceal Shaquille O’Neal. A boy named Tobin (Will Buie Jr.) claims he has been stuck in there for some time. Another voice begs them not to come in.

Throwing caution to the wind the pair enter anyway and quickly find that some funny business is going on. Getting separated is not just easy, it seems inevitable and disorientation is taken to a whole other level. I suppose here’s as good a place as any to praise the film for its technical prowess. In the Tall Grass is surprisingly stylish, cinematographer Craig Wrobleski providing a number of effective and dizzying camera angles that make the fields look both beautiful and menacing. Sound designer David Rose is indispensable in providing ambience, the rustling of the blades in the breeze at once soothing and ominous — combined with an eerie score by Mark Korven it really creates an unsettling atmosphere out of very simple elements.

The field is apparently playing for keeps with other lost souls, including a man named Ross (Patrick Wilson) who is the boy’s father. Some time ago he and his wife Natalie (Rachel Wilson) became separated while chasing down their son. He now stumbles across an increasingly panicking Becky, whose pregnancy is causing a great deal of discomfort on its own. Ross attempts to calm her, extolling the virtues of parenthood and then telling her he believes he’s found a way out of this seemingly never-ending maze. Meanwhile an equally disconcerted Cal encounters Tobin, who imparts wisdom in a creepily omniscient manner while burying a dead crow: “The grass doesn’t move dead things.”

In what appears to be the next day, none other than the dude who ran out on Becky arrives at the same field. Guilt has landed Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) here — either that or stalker tendencies, I’m still not sure which. This is where the story gets really gooey, plummeting us into a labyrinth of strange time paradoxes, an ever more hostile environment in which the grass takes on a decidedly more villainous role, where the significance of the rock takes on supernatural overtones. Where people who were literally moments ago discovered as rotting corpses are now alive and well. Where Patrick Wilson transforms from a real estate agent with a fondness for CCR to a David Koresh type with an infatuation with a stone monolith.

It isn’t an exceptionally large cast and the whole game is really just about survival. Yet Natali’s approach does not go as the crow flies. There are so many detours within the brush it can be challenging to keep up with everyone and who’s looking after whom, where loyalties truly lie. It doesn’t help that when things take a turn for the truly nightmarish the literal darkness conceals and consumes identities, obscuring friend from foe and human from, uh, grass people. In the Tall Grass is ultimately that film where the less you think the more you gain. Questions arise at every ill-advised zig and zag, and if you feel so inclined to take notes on the film’s internal logic as events unfold perhaps all of those will be answered by the film’s abrupt conclusion. Sometimes it’s best to not fight against yourself or the fait accompli the movie presents. For the most part the descent into madness is rendered with enough creativity and provocative imagery to make you think twice about entering a corn maze this Halloween.

We’re all losing our heads out here!

Recommendation: I’ve got to think this movie goes down as a bitter pill for those coming in with expectations set by the short story. For me, I’m a big Patrick Wilson fan so that definitely elevated the experience. The acting around him isn’t quite as convincing, but it’s enough to hook you in. The premise in itself is a good hook. But then there are elements like “grass people” that kind of make this movie just as easy (and fun) to mock as it is to embrace as a chilling tale of survivalism. 

Rated: TV-MA

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “Here in the garden of forking paths, you didn’t make any one choice. You made every choice. And they all led back to me.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Short, Sweet and Screamy: “Huluween” Reviews

There’s no denying short films have gotten short shrift on Thomas J. I’ve got a few stashed away here and there (and here, too) but the overwhelming majority of my total output has been focused on feature-length productions. And why not? It’s very difficult to review a short film and not spoil it!

I’ve been given an opportunity to try my hand at it (again), what with the recent advent of Hulu’s “Huluween” Film Fest. (Apparently they did this last year, so this isn’t exactly news.) In the spirit of ultimate customer satisfaction, the streaming platform has inundated us with over 800 Halloween-centric titles, movies and shows alike, and have also curated a collection of seven short spooky stories made by up-and-coming indie filmmakers to get viewers in the spirit of Halloween. What follows are some brief thoughts of those offerings. I’ve sorted the reviews in the order in which I viewed them. See what you think. Have you seen any of them yet? What were your experiences? Which was your favorite?


Undo · 7 mins 9 sec · Directed by Nicole Perlman · An interesting moral conundrum — if you could reverse the flow of time and prevent bad things from happening, would you? I’m off on the right foot with this tense, atmospheric piece about a physicist who is celebrating a major breakthrough with his experiments when suddenly fate comes a-knockin’. Set almost entirely in the confines of his swanky urban home the premise is intriguing, the main character is appropriately strange and a little off-kilter, but some shaky CGI and pretty iffy acting in the moments that matter most take this one down just a peg. (3.5/5)

Swiped to Death · 7 mins 28 sec · Directed by Elaine Mongeon · Here’s a film that provides a surprisingly engrossing build-up — especially for me, he who doesn’t do the whole Tinder thing (and now I really won’t!) — and a duo of convincing performers making nervous/awkward/dark jokes prior to their late-night meet-up IRL. The story twists and twists again, rendering you occasionally psychologically disoriented but annoyingly the execution of its denouement really left me flaccid. (3/5)

The Ripper · 5 mins 49 sec · Directed by Calvin Reeder · Unfortunately there isn’t much going for this clearly low-budget short from Calvin Reeder. The premise finds one of the guitarists in an amateur metal band pressed to perform a solo, something his bandmate demands as they’ve already got a rhythm guitarist. Things take a nutty turn, the band’s superfluous second rhythm guitarist proving he indeed has some hidden talents but none that are particularly useful. The acting is bad, the special effects are even worse. I can’t even really say the “otherworldly” ideas driving the story are worth your time either, and at five minutes that’s rather pitiful. (1.5/5) 

Ride · 6 mins 46 sec · Directed by Meredith Alloway · Spin classes take on a sinister quality in this intense, colorful and energetic short about a young girl who, in trying to make new friends in a strange city, unwittingly signs up for the ride of for her life. Among the more effective shorts in this year’s crop, Ride pummels you with its style, the blaring music engulfing the viewer in a heady trip into the cult-like obsession of one scarily committed group of fitness junkies. Hey, if you can’t keep up, all you’re doing is slowing us down. A dark parody that’s a pure adrenaline rush. (4/5) 

Hidden Mother · 5 mins 21 sec · Directed by Joshua Erkman · Subtlety is key in this highly effective and expertly crafted short film about a recently widowed mother receiving one of the creepiest gifts a sister could ever give you — a photo frame that apparently harbors the presence of a sinister spirit. If the conclusion is the measuring stick by which we judge a short film, Hidden Mother is indeed masterful. However practically every minute here is worth its weight in gold, the atmosphere and tension and the rhythmic, labored breathing making this easily the best of the bunch. (4.5/5)

Flagged · 7 mins 16 sec · Directed by Chelsea Lupkin · When a young woman takes a new position as a moderator for a major social media platform called FriendFollowers, she quickly realizes the job description may have left out some deadly details. Though professionally mounted — the effects here are certainly better than The Ripper — and the multiple locations give the impression the filmmakers are playing with a bit more money than their Huluween ’19 peers, ultimately the film collapses due to its muddled message. I think it’s meant to be a cautionary tale about blindly accepting jobs that seem “too good to be true,” particularly feeding on the insecurity of millennials desperate to secure that reliable 9-5 paycheck. But it could just as easily be a broad swipe at the internet and what it’s doing to us. I dunno. Next, please. (2/5)

The Dunes · 6 mins 21 sec · Directed by Jennifer Reeder · Gorgeously shot and cast with Hot Actors, The Dunes I can only pray to Pennywise was pitched as a comedy because that’s the net effect of this silly little romp. A young couple’s beach date gets interrupted by a disturbing presence, something pulled from The Conjuring universe but sans the creepy veil of shadows and darkness. In that way, the film does a decent job of creating and sustaining a sense of dread in the golden light of evening, but really there’s not much to see (or be scared by) here. (2.5/5)


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.bloodydisgusting.com; http://www.indiewire.com; http://www.syfy.com

In the Shadow of the Moon

Release: Friday, September 27, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Gregory Weidman; Geoffrey Tock 

Directed by: Jim Mickle

I’ll admit that what drew me to the recently released Netflix original In the Shadow of the Moon was not Boyd Holbrook, even though he’s, uh . . . he’s the main dude in it. In this era of super-important and super-niche brand appeal it seems a little silly to volunteer two hours away to a movie heavily featuring an actor you’re not much of a fan of. But I am somewhat drawn to time-traveling narratives and on the surface In the Shadow of the Moon seemed to have me covered. In an ironic twist it was Holbrook I came away thinking more about than anything else.

Director Jim Mickle (Cold in July; We Are What We Are) mixes and mashes genres and ideas in a way that results in a viewing experience that’s very much a tale of two halves.  Set in the city of brotherly love In the Shadow of the Moon begins its life as a grittily compelling — and pretty icky — police procedural, then gives itself over to a time-traveling farce that gets bogged down in increasingly convoluted internal logic and noisy social commentary, the latter updating Minority Report‘s stratagem to target politically-motivated terrorists rather than plain, old murderers.

Taking place over the span of roughly 30 years — 36 but who’s counting? (you should be, that’s who) — the thrust of the narrative concerns the relationship between a devoted cop who eventually finds himself a detective, but loses a lot of other things, and a blue-hooded terrorist bent on righteous retribution, one with the ability to travel backwards in time and who resurfaces on one particular moonlit night every nine years to exact justice on future perpetrators of even worse, broader acts of violence. Key developments are parsed out every nine years across an episodic story broken up into “chapters” — ’88, ’97, ’06, ’15 and finally looping back to the dreaded 2024, where the film begins — drip-feeding clues that appear to draw the detective and the terrorist closer together, even though they’re traveling through time in opposite directions.

For emotional investment, the movie relies on that old gambit of obsession being the hero’s ultimate undoing. Officer Lockhart (or is that Locke? not even IMDb seems to know) devotes years — decades — to a seemingly impossible criminal case, which creates a rift between him and his family (his daughter played at various stages by different actors) and casts him as a hopeless defendant in the court of common sense and reason. His peers, including laidback partner Maddox (Bokeem Woodbine as a Roger Murtaugh type) and Detective Holt (Dexter‘s very own Michael C. Hall), who happens to be Lockhart’s brother-in-law, invariably jump ship well before the hair and old-age makeup transition Holbrook from handsome to “haggard.”

Fortunately the performances and a few adrenaline-spiking chase scenes provide enough of a human heartbeat and broad entertainment to make the journey relatable and not a completely polarizing exercise in political extremism and inflammatory left-wing rhetoric. Holbrook is clearly committed, a proud southerner who found his way into acting by way of Michael Shannon dropping in to his home town (his high school didn’t even have a drama department), and who has used his fashion model looks to get him considerable attention in bit parts and more substantial roles (Narcos; Logan). He remains a sympathetic presence throughout. Opposite him, the striking-looking Cleopatra Coleman as that enigmatic time-traveler doesn’t need to do much to be effective. With a shaved head and the lips to incur the envy of Angelina Jolie, her canvas is easily one of the most unique assets this movie has tucked in its holster.

Blue Hoodies Matter

Recommendation: I left with a better impression of actor Boyd Holbrook, though if you’re here for Dexter you might not leave quite as satisfied a customer. While the rules governing the agency of each of the two leads becomes increasingly convoluted, you have to praise In the Shadow of the Moon for its ambition. It’s certainly one of the better Netflix offerings currently available. I just wish it could sustain the quality of the much better, seedier first half. 

Rated: TV-MA

Running Time: 115 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Month in Review: September ’19

I don’t really know what happened, but in September I found a bit more rhythm and motivation to put up content. Maybe I was starting to feel guilty calling myself a “blogger” by putting up nothing but empty wrap-around posts and the occasional streamed review (see August — that was dire!). I have been one drag-and-drop away from inserting a John Wick gif declaring my triumphant return but the truth is I can’t provide any assurance October will be the same, so I’ll hold off on making anything Official.

It also helped I think that September supplied some really cool new movies, including a pair of potential end-of-year favorites in The Peanut Butter Falcon and Ad Astra — two distinctly different movies that each earned really high scores (4.5/5) for different reasons. The former for its pure entertainment value and winsomeness and the latter for its bold vision, impeccable visuals and an awards-worthy performance from Brad Pitt.

Without further gas-bagging, here’s what happened on Thomas J during September:


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Ad Astra; The Peanut Butter Falcon; Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

Streaming: I Am Mother; Mission of Honor (Hurricane)

Alternative Content: The Marvelous Brie Larson #5


Bite Sized Reviews: Hulu vs Netflix — Fight! 

Body at Brighton Rock · April 26, 2019 · Directed by Roxanne Benjamin · Clocking in at just under the hour-and-a-half mark this disappointingly uneventful “survival” thriller with a millennial lean is one of those rare examples of a movie needing to be just a hair longer for some of the elements to come together in a more satisfying way. Roxanne Benjamin writes and directs her first stand-alone feature film and if there’s one thing distinct about it it’s her style, her unapologetic fandom for “Hitchcock Hour” — the film presented as what could pass for a weekly installment into an anthology of close calls and misadventures. Body at Brighton Rock is defined by atmosphere rather than performance, one that’s both complimented and contrived by a screeching soundtrack provided by The Gifted. Bookended by 60s-style title cards, her story follows a rookie park ranger named Wendy (Karina Fontes), an “indoor type” who wants to prove her worth by doing some actual Park Ranger-ing. Of course the map-misplacing Wendy gets more than she bargains for when she stumbles across a lifeless body away from the trail she’s supposed to be on and when, through a combination of “circumstance” and “incompetence,” her communications devices all crap out on her — the dreaded dead phone icon, no!! — she’s left to fend for herself against “the elements.” I’m using a lot of quotation marks here because a lot of the movie feels superficial, not least of which being these so-called dire circumstances. Nearly 24 hours spent lost in the woods would suck in real life, an ordeal certainly worthy of Facebook status. But 127 Hours this is not. Body at Brighton Rock is, yes, impressively atmospheric and Fontes makes beans and rice out of what little she’s given but cinematic this also is not. It’s too staid in the action department, too plodding in detail — at least to support the ridiculous proposal that is the twist ending, something that’s clearly meant to evoke the Master of Horror and Suspense but ends up evoking more laughs than anything else. (2/5) 

Between Two Ferns: The Movie · September 20, 2019 · Directed by Scott Aukerman · Even as a fan regularly overwhelmed by fits of the giggles by Zach Galifianakis’ tawdry and tacky roast-the-guest web series Between Two Ferns, I’m not sure we really needed it to be stretched into a feature-length movie. Predictably, the movie’s best bits are the bits themselves, with the King of Awkward hosting/”humiliating” the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Keanu Reeves, Tessa Thompson, David Letterman, Brie Larson, Awkwafina, John Legend, Adam Scott, Tiffany Haddish, Chance the Rapper, Paul Rudd, Peter Dinklage, Jon Hamm, Hailee Steinfeld and Matthew McConaughey, as he feeds on both personal and professional insecurities. The plot, as it were, finds Galifianakis and his trusted production crew road tripping across the country in an attempt to secure 10 more episodes so the show host can placate his boss (Will Ferrell) and thereby fulfill his dream of becoming a late night talk show host. In between the ruthless onslaught of just . . . absurdly personal and uncomfortable questioning the movie half-heartedly fumbles around with a search for “true friendship” and “artistic integrity.” It may have been all the beer I was imbibing during, but it’s impressive how these actors manage to keep a straight face during these interrogations. That, I feel, is the entire point of the exercise — watching actors act awkward, and the results are surprisingly homogenous: The downward glances, the lip bites, the eye-rolls. David “Santa Clause on Crack” Letterman’s words of wisdom for Zach are also fairly revealing. Beyond that, Between Two Ferns: The Movie gets a flubbed high-five just for featuring Matt Berninger (frontman of The National) in a brief scene at a bar, singing alongside Phoebe Bridgers on an original duet (“Walking on a String”). (3/5)


What’s your most anticipated movie in October?