Together Together

Release: Friday, April 23, 2021 

👀 Theater

Written by: Nikole Beckwith

Directed by: Nikole Beckwith

Starring: Ed Helms; Patti Harrison

 

 

 

 

****/*****

More than an acting showcase for its two leads, Nikole Beckwith’s romantic comedy Together Together is a wonderfully subversive effort that reconfigures the way we look at intimate relationships and how they can be formed.

If not wholesale reinvention — structurally this is still beholden to a formula — her sophomore feature film, following 2015’s psychological drama Stockholm, Pennsylvania, proves there are still nooks and crannies to explore within an overcrowded genre rife with trite titles. Written and directed by Beckwith, the story tells of a pair of strangers brought closer together through the shared experience of a surrogate pregnancy and how they reconcile the ephemeral nature of their connection. So the movie builds from an already intriguing and specific place. When you add in the sensational performances from Ed Helms and transgender actor Patti Harrison, you have something pretty special.

The film’s penchant for surprising you begins with the characters. In a career-best performance Helms plays Matt, a 40-year-old app developer who wants to start a family but the pieces just haven’t come together. What reads on paper or might come across in another rom-com as a potential sad-sack is brought to life by Helms as an average Joe with an unyielding optimism that makes you gravitate to him quickly, warts and all. Matt is undeniably an awkward dude, but his bouts of overbearingness and invasiveness come from genuine caring and excitement. His confidence and sense of purpose separate the character somewhat from the archetypal drifter or forever bitter man-child. It’s the fact his search for fulfillment involves having offspring rather than hooking up that makes him a rare breed of male rom-com lead.

Similarly, the pregnancy does not define the woman. Matching the established funnyman stride-for-stride, and in many instances besting him, is Patti Harrison in her début lead role. As Anna, the relative newcomer brings an authenticity that seems effortless. She, a 26-year-old single woman working as a barista, is of an obviously different social sphere and, less obviously but more significantly, a different background than Matt. Her own past is marked by controversial decisions that have led to strained familial relationships. In contrast to Matt’s to-a-fault enthusiasm Anna is more enigmatic and downbeat, not morose or depressive but rather more emotionally conservative despite the chaos under the surface. She also has aspirations beyond helping Matt fulfill a dream, using the money she will make from the transaction to fund her college tuition.

While Beckwith’s story is most interested in the awkward tension between her two principles, she also has an eye on external factors, such as the social norms that compel outsiders to speculate, judge, assume and/or in some way push back against something they view as weird or even amoral. In supporting roles (not all of which are necessarily supportiveTogether Together features the likes of Fred Melamed (In A World. . .; A Serious Man) and Nora Dunn (Pineapple Express; Bruce Almighty) as Matt’s parents, the latter the most overt representation of disapproval. Tellingly, Anna’s parents never appear on screen.

Conspicuous meta commentary on infamous Hollywood perverts notwithstanding, this is a charitable movie that considers a lot of different perspectives, and those who aren’t necessarily supporting the team aren’t made out to be villainous. Others, if not fully-realized characters, are at least enjoyable to be around: Tig Notaro warmly plays a therapist who monitors the not-couple’s psychological and emotional progression across the weeks, while Sufe Bradshaw (Murder Mystery; VEEP) as an irritable technician and Julio Torres, in his first feature film appearance as Anna’s self-destructive coworker Jules, are here to kick the comedy factor up a few notches.

What’s impressive is the way Beckwith keeps the parameters of a more traditional romantic plot in place (the awkward dinner, the moving in together, the “break-up” and reconciliation) while never losing sight of the unique stakes. Rather than feeling like lazy checkpoints the tropes feel entirely plausible and, with the exception of a couple of overly quirky scenes, natural.

Delivered in three distinct acts turned appropriately into trimesters, Together Together opens with an interview as Matt vets Anna as a potential surrogate. These candid minutes are the first uncertain moves in what ends up becoming a complex, difficult and ultimately rewarding dance that the two characters engage in on a journey from strangers to something more than friends but less than lovers. The tricky part is not getting too emotionally attached. As it turns out, that might be even harder for us as viewers than it is for the participants.

We love Lamp.

Moral of the Story: Short, sweet, and as poignant as it can be funny, Together Together doesn’t set a new standard but it comes with a level of humanity that feels really rare in the genre. Even better, there is such great balance from a writing standpoint, neither character or their concerns overshadowing the other. Nikole Beckwith’s compassionate, sensitive direction is not to be taken for granted. Now streaming on Hulu. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 85 mins. 

Quoted: “It’s weird to be perceived as hopeless in this moment when I’m feeling incredibly hopeful.”

Get a taste of the meet-awkward in the Official Trailer from Bleecker Street here! 

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

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

Palm Springs

Release: Friday, July 10, 2020 (Hulu)

→Hulu

Written by: Andy Siara

Directed by: Max Barbakow

Palm Springs, a buzzy new Hulu original starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti and J.K. Simmons, for me has an unusual distinction. This romantic comedy about two strangers stuck in a time loop at a wedding boasts one of the best post-credits scenes I’ve seen in a long time. It seems like such a small thing, not even worthy of mentioning in a review much less in the lede, but the closure it provides is just so satisfying it improved my opinion of the movie overall.

That might seem like a slam against everything preceding it. It’s not. Max Barbakow’s modern reinvention of Groundhog Day is far from perfect but it is very enjoyable and it ends in a way that sends the audience off on a high. Any movie that has the potential to get fresh eyeballs on that Bill Murray classic is okay by me. Palm Springs is perhaps even an homage to it, with lines like “it’s one of those infinite time loop situations you may have heard about” seemingly gesturing in the direction of the late Harold Ramis’ beloved 1993 comedy, or at least, toward a recent history of films inspired by it.

Harder to ignore is the fact the famously goofy 42-year-old positions himself as an intensely cynical, occasionally even unlikable leading man who has to get over himself in order to break free of the barely metaphorical cycle of living without purpose or fear of consequence. Samberg is Nyles, a drifter doomed to wake up on the same day in November ad infinitum. He takes the expression “going through the motions” to a whole new level with his presence at a wedding for Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). His only connection is his high-maintenance girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner), who is in the bridal party.

Groundhog Day fans already know the drill: Nobody else is aware of his situation, and nothing he does seems to change it, not even multiple, technically successful, suicide attempts. After being stuck here for an indeterminate amount of time Nyles’ ability to care has been worn down to a nubbin. Then, during one loop, he introduces himself to Sarah (Milioti), who sticks out like such a sore thumb due to her visible discomfort in seeing her younger, far more successful (and selfless!) sister get her happily-ever-after that it kind of amazes me how Nyles does not pick up on this any sooner.

Mostly this is because the script from Andy Siara prefers giving the former SNL star the space and time to do his sketches rather than worrying too much about internal logic. Not for nothing, there are some really creative inventions as the filmmakers play around with the character’s prescience. A memorable sequence early on has Nyles going through a dance sequence so bizarre no person would possibly be able to pull it off without his “experience.” It also is a really fun way to get the two main characters to initially hook up. Of course, just as things are turning amorous a series of crazy happenings causes Sarah to fall into the same trap Nyles has been stuck in. All I will offer is that it involves a crazy-eyed, face-painted J.K. Simmons wielding a bow and arrow, and a cave of glowing light.

Palm Springs not only asks you to suspend disbelief for a minute (or two, or depending on how cynical you are, maybe 90) but it also seems like one of those movies that would rely heavily on dramatic irony. However it moves surprisingly quickly beyond that, evolving into a quasi sci-fi adventure and thereby making Sarah a more interesting, smarter character. When she comes to accept what’s happened, she proves to be very (and darkly hilariously) solutions-oriented, especially when she learns a little bit more about the guy she’s stuck here with. Time loop movies can go to some dark places and Palm Springs, despite its tropical setting, is no exception.

For a story steeped in the tradition of two icy hearts gradually warmed by shared intimate experiences, we don’t really get a lot of character development. Interestingly Sarah feels like a more fleshed out character than does Nyles. That feels like a first. Generally speaking Palm Springs relies on actor personalities. For example, J.K. Simmons. Every time I see him in a movie — with the notable exception of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash — I just want to kick back with a stogie and a glass of whisky with the guy and just shoot the breeze. Less involved but also fun are Peter Gallagher as the father of the bride and the wonderful June Squibb as an older wedding guest. And though the conclusion is patently predictable, I just cannot deny the warm fuzzy it leaves you with.

I feel ya buddy

Recommendation: Andy Samberg plays one of his more “unlikable” characters that I can recall. I put quotes around that word because it’s just really hard to gauge where his attitude stems from — bad childhood? Too many loves lost? Parental issues? Wtf is his deal? The movie isn’t great on character development. But it is big on mood and ideas, and that’s plenty enough for me to give this a hearty recommendation to fans of smartly done romantic comedies. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t keep waking up in here. Everything that we are doing is meaningless.”

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

Photo credits: IMDb 

Buffaloed

Release: Friday, February 14, 2020 (limited)

→Hulu 

Written by: Brian Sacca

Directed by: Tanya Wexler

Buffaloed is a great example of why I love Zoey Deutch. I haven’t always loved the movies she’s been in — Why Him? (which I’ve seen) and Dirty Grandpa (which I make my life goal to avoid) I like to think are good examples of her good sportsmanship. On evidence of the last several movies the 25-year-old can kick it with just about any crowd, whether it’s slumming it with Robert DeNiro, getting super nostalgic for the 80s with Richard Linklater or turning stereotypes of the valley girl airhead into one of the most memorable aspects of Ruben Fleischer’s zombie apocalypse.

In Buffaloed, a rare kind of comedy that manages to be both crass and endearing, she takes the reins of the leading woman and wields them with such fervor the reins almost break. She plays Peg Dahl, a recent high school grad highly motivated to get out of her rust-belt hometown of Buffalo, a blue-collar community in upstate New York that takes pride in having the best hot wings in the world. And then of course there’s football, which here is a religious event attended by all in the ceremonial garb of blue and red jackets, sweaters and ball caps. As any self-respecting Buffalonian would, she still roots for the home team — scalps tickets, even — but she’s outgrown this place.

In pursuit of her American Dream to make a name (and lots of money) for herself, Peg is overjoyed to learn she has been accepted to an out-of-state college. There’s just the small issue of covering the astronomical cost of tuition. When her initial plan falls apart through a series of unfortunate events, not least of which being the actions taken by the world’s least helpful defense attorney (Adrian Griffin), Peg has to reinvent herself. She does this by becoming the very thing that has been hounding her family for decades, taking a job at a shady collection agency run by a guy named Whizz (played by Jai Courtney, who just oozes sleaze).

While there is certainly an air of Jordan Belfort about the way her character’s lack of scruples funds her meteoric rise from boiler room to head of her own competing agency — a move that puts her squarely in the crosshairs of Whizz and his cronies — the arc that’s most familiar is that of Andrew Garfield in the 2015 economic drama 99 Homes. Director Tanya Wexler makes sure that, even when Peg’s bullheadedness finally catches up to her, she remains a character worthy of redemption despite all the damage she causes.

Wexler, a native Chicagoan, and writer Brian Sacca, himself a born and bred Buffalonian, off-set the familiarity of their themes by creating an experience overflowing with personality and idiosyncratic charm. The spirited performances, not just from Deutch but from a strong supporting cast including Judy Greer as mother Kathy and Sorry to Bother You‘s Jermaine Fowler as a socially awkward detective, often triumph over the movie’s flaws, namely its abrupt tonal shifts and questionable logic.

In attempting to be many things all rolled into one 90 minute package — a critique of capitalism, a farcical family drama, a comedy of criminal ineptitude and an underdog story — Buffaloed isn’t always a smooth ride. Serious scenes often smack up against moments of pure farce in a way that’s jolting. Ultimately it functions best as a showcase for Zoey Deutch’s talents. She does so well with this true-blue New Yorker you totally forget she’s a Cali girl at heart. At the same time, there’s something endearing, almost intentionally meta, about the movie’s lack of refinement. Like the best hot wings, Buffaloed has a good, spicy zing to it that makes it quite enjoyable.

“Sir, I’d like my money back, please.”

Recommendation: For fans of the cast, particularly Zoey Deutch, Buffaloed is kind of a must-watch. This small-town Wolf of Wall Street story is couched in a distinctly female perspective, without going overboard on political correctness or comedic crudeness. It is occasionally a subversive movie, particularly when it comes to certain relationship dynamics. Most all though, director Tanya Wexler should be credited for making a movie about debt collection really entertaining! 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “I had a dream. That John Travolta took off his wig and on his scalp was another John Travolta face. Double Travolta. I could never get that image out of my mind.”

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

Photo credits: IMDb 

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #2

Being quarantined at home may be the perfect time to look back on a movie that explores loneliness and connection. This was obviously not something I planned, but social distancing has a way of making us look at things differently and that includes the way we experience certain movies. That’s what’s happening with me and the classic romantic comedy Lost in Translation (2003) anyway.

I have a lot of love for this movie and I do think the feelings it evokes are intensified by this interruption in normal social life we are going through. Lost in Translation is a bittersweet story focused on two kindred spirits floating through weird periods of their lives. Neither know what they want, and both happen to meet in a foreign city and find something in each other that bonds them in a profound way. Lost in Translation featured a 17-year-old Scarlett Johansson alongside comedic great Bill Murray, who was stepping into a dramatic role for the first time in nearly 20 years. Director Sofia Coppola was completely blown away by the reception her movie received, feeling certain it would be viewed as pretentious and self-serving. It ended up netting her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year.

In rewatching it in preparation for my monthly feature, I had forgotten how fleeting Lost in Translation really is — it’s all wrapped up in about 96 minutes. What happens within that time, however, what is said (and almost as often, what is not said), makes it so hard for me to leave the movie behind. I simply love these characters, especially when they’re together.

Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo. (IMDb)

Character Background: Charlotte is a native New Yorker and recent college grad who is feeling unsatisfied and disillusioned with her marriage to John (Giovanni Ribisi), a celebrity photographer. On assignment in Tokyo, he’s kept busy and away from the hotel room leaving Charlotte alone and with plenty of time to wonder why she ever married this guy. She’s empty inside and her wandering eyes say as much. So she gets out into the city and does some exploring, soon turning acquaintances into friends, such as Charlie Brown (Fumihiro Hayashi). Over the course of about a week she also forms a deep connection with an older man named Bob Harris (Murray), a fading actor who’s staying at the same hotel while he endures a dreadful commercial shoot promoting whiskey. It is through their meaningful conversations and one really fun night soaking up the nightlife that we learn more about her and see her personality open up a bit more.

What she brings to the movie: very little experience for a role that aged her up 4 years from what she actually was. When Lost in Translation started shooting Scarlett Johansson was only 17 and had but a handful of acting credits total. Her claims to fame at the time were a starring role in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001) and a supporting role in the Robert Redford drama The Horse Whisperer (1999). Charlotte is her first adult role as far as the emotional complexities involved and the thematic content. Yes, it is true that Sofia Coppola would not have made this movie had she not been able to get Bill Murray, but Coppola also enjoyed Johansson’s performance in the 1996 comedy Manny & Lo so much she had to land her as a lead in one of her movies (Johansson would pass on Coppola’s début effort The Virgin Suicides, feeling it wasn’t right for her at the time).

In her own words: [on the age difference between her and Bill Murray, who is more than 30 years her senior] “It was hard to relate to one another, but I think what worked is that when the cameras were rolling and [it] actually came time to do the work, we worked really well together.”

Key Scene: I mean . . . there are other choices. There’s a really nice moment when Bob and Charlotte are talking while laying on a bed, having a deep conversation about whether life or marriage get any easier as time goes by. It’s a quiet but important moment that further solidifies their bond. But the key scene is in the way Sofia Coppola brings this wonderful week to a close. The kiss that almost never was, the mystery of whatever it is that Bob whispers into Charlotte’s ear. The sounds of the streets teeming with passing strangers. By the time The Jesus and Mary Chain come in with “Just Like Honey,” it’s very close to a perfect ending. Well, it’s one of the most bittersweet endings I’ve ever seen anyway. I never wanted this story to end, and yet Coppola does it about as gracefully as she possibly could have. According to her, “I just wanted to show a whole relationship just in a few days.”

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: IMDb

Villains

Release: Friday, September 20, 2019

→Hulu 

Written by: Dan Berk; Robert Olsen

Directed by: Dan Berk; Robert Olsen

In terms of competence, small-time criminals Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe) are closer to the Harry and Marv end of the spectrum than they are the Bonnie and Clyde side. These impetuous twenty-somethings are not very good at crime. They are also on the verge of retiring to Florida. Once they rob this convenience store — wearing goofy animal masks, because, why not? — they vow to turn over a new leaf. Soon enough they will literally be selling sea shells down by the seashore. It’s not much of a plan, but it’s a plan nonetheless.

Problem #1: They run out of gas before they can even get out of the woods of Wherevertheyaresville, and are forced into sidetracking to an isolated house where they hope to grand theft auto their way down to the Sunshine State. Justifying their actions turns out to be a pretty fun and rewarding game for those of us watching from afar. These are two kids who make bad decisions but have good hearts; they seem committed to one another and to this idea of living a different kind of life. Once inside the house, they promptly set about snorting coke in order to inspire a plan to relieve the homeowners of their car (or at least enough gas so they can continue on their merry way).

Problem #2: They aren’t exactly expecting to find a young girl (Blake Baumgartner) chained to a pipe in the basement. Mickey wants nothing more than to just GTFO; Jules insists they take the child with them. When they head back upstairs to find the keys to free her they stumble right into George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick) and Problem #3 begins. And it’s a doozy. Small-time crooks must learn how to outwit big-time weirdos whose calm demeanor and southern mannerisms are a thin veneer masking sinister intentions.

Villains is the third feature from directing duo Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, a pair of up-and-comers whose first full-length movie, 2015’s Body, was made on a budget of $50k and filmed in 11 days. Villains is another budget-conscious film but one that gets a lot of mileage out of its simple premise, confined setting and small cast. Berk and Olsen describe it as a creative breakthrough. It’s an impressively ergonomic production. This is indie filmmaking elevated by established acting talent and an addictive combination of offbeat humor and palpable tension. The cast dig into their roles with fervent energy, and skillfully use that energy to create memorable characters who, Sedgwick aside, don’t come with much of a backstory.

Villains may not do anything radical, yet the filmmakers manage to throw in a few interesting wrenches into each party’s plans that make for a fun-filled adventure, one that builds to a violent and satisfying payoff. It’s a spirited good time and while the scales tip decidedly more toward comedy than horror, the murky morality of the whole thing is sure to encourage multiple rewatches.

Hands off the table, please.

Recommendation: It’s the high-energy acting that really sells it. Fans of Bill “Pennywise” Skarsgård and Maika Monroe are strongly urged to track Villains down. Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Donovan are no slouches either. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 82 mins.

Quoted: “What makes you feel good? Ice cream. Mint choc –“

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

Photo credits: IMDb

The Beach Bum

Release: Friday, March 29, 2019

→Hulu

Written by: Harmony Korine

Directed by: Harmony Korine

Spoiler alert for those who demand any lessons or morals be taught in a movie: The Beach Bum is not for you. It’s a hedonist adventure “from the mind of” Harmony Korine, a not-for-everyone kind of filmmaker notorious for creating dreamlike experiences that more or less forsake substantive story for hypnotic style.

His latest once again brings together a wild assortment of famous people: Isla Fisher, Jonah Hill, Zac Efron, Snoop Dogg, Martin Lawrence and Mr. Margaritaville himself, Jimmy Buffett. However The Beach Bum is more notable for being the first time the Gummo director has collaborated with Matthew McConaughey, who plays the titular tropical vagrant, a sun-bleached blondie who goes by the name Moondog. Once a lauded poet he has become human driftwood floating through life in the Florida Keys, getting tangled up in all sorts of situations that are perhaps best left for your own two eyes to try and process. He’s a character who is larger than life but smaller than legend, one who somehow makes James Franco’s gangster seem boring (though I raved about him in my review of Spring Breakers).

The Beach Bum is a bizarre trip full of lows but far more highs — the ones delivered by gas mask bongs, joints the size of a child’s arm and bud-producing trees kept in special rooms. With apologies to Fast Film Reviews’ Mark Hobin, I need to steal a line: The atmosphere is so drugged out you could almost get high by association. This is taken from a review of a certain Paul Thomas Anderson movie from 2014, but it is an apt description of this experience as well. Oh, and There Will Be Boobs. Like, an abundance of them. An anchor-less vessel who frequents the sun-kissed beaches and small tourist traps freckling the tropicana, Moondog just can’t help but be around and/or in between them.

If there is a story to be deciphered here it’s how Moondog draws upon his mangy, transient experiences for inspiration to return to his old writing form. I’m no judge of poetry but his seems the kind of shallow you don’t make deeper, even by getting more baked. Lingerie, played by Snoop Dogg (a real-world connoisseur of kush and good rhymes) digs it though so what the hell do I know. Accompanied by a stray kitten he finds in the opening scene, an almost endless supply of Pabst Blue Ribbon tall-boys and an actually endless supply of zest for living by his own code, the man and the narrative become one and the same, stuck in idle throughout. Zac Efron and Martin Lawrence get caught in his wake along the way, all while his daughter Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen) grows increasingly worried about his stability and his wife (Isla Fisher) pays a steep price for loving him.

The main issue with The Beach Bum is not its lack of “a point.” It’s that Korine insists this gadabout has virtuous traits. He’s not flagrantly abusive like the loser Efron portrays and even in thongs he’s not as cartoonish as the skuzzy douche of an agent Hill plays, so I suppose he’s a crop above but his Better Self is so well buried that his journey to self-actualization becomes contrived at best. This is not exactly harmful tokage but it becomes surprisingly challenging to separate in your mind the likable McConaughey from the frequently less-than-likable Moondog. Call that commitment to character. The Beach Bum isn’t a very good movie. It is, however, the epitome of a Harmony Korine experience. The cinematography is sexy and dripping with color, and that is at least enough to get a good buzz off of.

Recommendation: I’m a big fan of Matthew McConaughey, who winds the clock back to Dazed and Confused as Moondog, and his commitment to another memorable character here is not to be understated (it’s the reason this final rating is as high as it is) but I didn’t really find his character entirely redeemable. Anyone who saw Spring Breakers and didn’t get along with it probably should give The Beach Bum the old swerve. It’s available on Hulu though so really all it will cost you is a breezy 90 minutes . . . 

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “I get all these things going, man, and they are all turning me on. And my wires are connecting upstairs and I start to hear music in my head. You know, and the world is reverberating back and forth and I hit the frequency and I start to dance to it. My fingers get moving, my head gets soupy, I’m spinning all over the f-ing place, and the f-ing words come out.” 

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

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

Month in Review: October ’19

(Flicks a cockroach off keyboard) God! Leave me alone, Wounds!!!!

October was certainly bloody and gutsy. I made a conscientious effort to increase the posting frequency while keeping the reviews tailored to the genres of horror/psychological thriller/gross-out (is that a genre? It feels like it should be a genre.) It was a risky approach, because while I did find a film or two that were quite fun and things I would return to again, I certainly didn’t find any horror ‘classics’ through the avenues I chose — Hulu and Netflix. I’m tempted to join Vudu, though the fact it’s currently owned by Wal-Mart makes me wanna Shudder (rate that pun in the comments below). However, that might be changing.

There have also been a few additions to the site here, and I’ll draw attention to them below. Without further waffling, here’s what went down on Thomas J for the past month.


New Posts

Streaming: The Perfection; Wounds; Fractured; Little Monsters; In the Tall Grass; In the Shadow of the Moon

Alternative Content: 30 for 30: Rodman: For Better or Worse; Short, Sweet and Screamy: Huluween reviews


New Additions to the Blog

Given that this entire month featured nothing but streamed content, I decided to create a menu/page titled Reviews By Streaming Service. Hopefully this will be a more convenient way for readers to find those sorts of things, all in one place. It’s a work in progress so as of this posting I only have Hulu reviews accounted for. But look out for a LOT of Netflix reviews in there as well. Of course, you can always scroll through my Film Index for all titles.

On a less important note, if you’re ever browsing through the main page you might notice a few new banners have been added into the mix. I currently have 38 rotating banners, the likes of which I’m just going to guess most people haven’t noticed. I realize most of my traffic is here because of specific links, not so much to peruse my Main Page (and if you do — cheers to you!) If you’re curious, there’s at least 8 new ones added this past month, many of them instantly recognizable, big-time movies. Though I did make a conscientious effort to select scenes from them that are perhaps “less recognizable.”

I have also recently joined the Letterboxd community and have provided a link to my page on the right sidebar. Come see what’s going on there, and if you have an account, feel free to add me/let me know what your handle is so I can add you!


It’s not a horror film, but for Halloween this year I sat down with Dolemite is My Name — what a fantastic experience! 

Wounds

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

→Hulu

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 

Little Monsters

Release: Friday, October 11, 2019 (Hulu)

→Hulu

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

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)


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