Come On, Get Happy

Funny Face

by Hope Madden

Though writer/director Tim Sutton’s latest is more a collection of images and moments than a strictly plotted narrative, the story that unfolds is kind of a bittersweet wonder.

An isolated youngish man (Cosmo Jarvis) rails against the impending destruction of his neighborhood, a community he haunts wearing a happy Halloween mask. An act of kindness at a nearby convenience store, though, brings about a surprising and really lovely friendship.  

Jarvis, who was so good in last year’s Calm with Horses, convinces again as an outsider with a lot of pent-up anger but an otherwise sweet heart. There’s a mixture of brutality and vulnerability in the portrayal that calls to mind Tom Hardy or even Brando – although, given a particular preoccupation in the film, he may be aiming for James Dean.

Newcomer Dela Meskienyar matches him step for step as another outsider, also angry at circumstances that feel beyond control, also hiding her face. It’s a remarkable and never forced kind of parallelism Sutton develops–a lost quality that he sees in every character. He uses this thread to braid disparate lives together and to create a sense of empathy, even toward the most loathsome among us.

Sutton is no stranger to tales of white male alienation, bruised masculinity, and an almost childlike struggle with our primal nature. Both his first feature Dark Night (which deals with the 2012 Aurora shooting), and his follow up, Donnybook (about bare knuckle brawls in addiction-riddled Ohio) illustrate his interest.

Funny Face, though, marks a step toward something more stylish. The film has a retro vibe, like a long-lost Seventies indie set in Brooklyn. Given the of-the-moment storyline, this offers his film the timeless quality of a fairy tale—a theme he develops with imagery of equal parts urban realism and magical whimsy.

A sense of mourning fuels Funny Face. While Sutton’s film is intimately linked to its Brooklyn setting, that exact same mourning informs Lesotho’s beautiful This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, also releasing this week. Unchecked capitalism is a global cancer, it would seem.

All of Sutton’s films contextualize human struggle within the context of community. This has never been truer than it is with Funny Face, a comment on the way greed destroys history and the sense of place, leaving nothing in that emptiness, even for those who profit.

Not even a smile.  

A Sort Of Homecoming

Like a House on Fire

by Rachel Willis

Is there ever a good reason for leaving your family? And if you come home, can you expect them to welcome you with open arms?

Writer/director Jesse Noah Klein examines what happens to a family when a mother who left them behind wants to return in Like a House on Fire.

When the film opens, we’re not sure why Dara (Sarah Sutherland, Veep) has left her family. But we know from the beginning she wants to be let back in, and that she wants to see her daughter. Her husband, Danny (Jared Abrahamson), isn’t sure he wants that to happen, especially since their almost 4-year-old daughter, Isabel (an unspeakably adorable Margaux Vaillancourt), doesn’t remember mama.

Dara’s backstory, as it unfolds, helps the audience sympathize with her disenchantment upon finding her family hasn’t waited for her. But there’s also sympathy to be had for Danny, and particularly, Isabel. This is not a situation with a clear villain, but a nuanced look at the ways in which families can fall apart.

The film’s best moments come from Sutherland. She conveys the desperation of a woman who needs to reconnect with her daughter, as well as the hope that things will turn out the way she wants. Whenever her efforts are thwarted, we feel her devastation. Dara’s initial meetings with Isabel are touching. Dara’s joy and disappointment commingle whenever she’s with her daughter.

It’s the rest of the film that doesn’t always live up to its character.

There are some needless character conflicts that detract from the story’s focus. Dara’s stepmother (Amanda Brugel – a fabulous actress) is a thorn in her side – but the reasons why are unclear. There’s a stepsister (perhaps a half-sister?) who comes and goes without much to do except provide another reason for the stepmother’s animosity. It doesn’t seem as if much thought went into these two characters.

The college boy that Dara meets and befriends at the park is the film’s messiest issue. The time Dara spends with him would have been better devoted to digging into the larger family issues surrounding Dara – both with her husband and daughter, as well as her father and his family.

As it is, a lot of the issues and relationships in the film putter out. There’s an imbalance that sways the film one way and another, but never lands the audience on solid ground.

Which is perhaps how Dara feels all along.

Like One to the Head

Witness Infection

by Samantha Harden

What would you do if everyone in your small town turned into a bloodthirsty zombie after eating sausage from an esteemed food truck? 

Witness Infection is the story of three friends Carlo (Robert Belushi), Gina (Jill-Michele Melean) and Vince (Vince Donvito), who try to save themselves and the people they love from the zombie infection rapidly spreading through their hometown. 

Writers Carlos Alazraqui and Jill-Michele Melean deliver humor, but the emotion is lacking. There are so many perfectly placed references from classic movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pulp Fiction and The Godfather. Carlo’s dad (Carlos Alazraqui) even makes a reference to Miller’s Crossing, telling his sons to “always leave one in the head.” Still, Witness Infection misses the mark when it comes to creating a unique and unforgettable screenplay. 

It does, at times, add to the film. Andy Palmer’s direction only seems to cancel it out. Palmer chooses camera angles that don’t make sense and create noticeably unnatural transitions. So unnatural that it takes away from the focus of the movie, and it’s hard to maintain interest when so little of the film surprises. 

Zombie apocalypse movies have been done countless times. Witness Infection is too similar to every other zombie movie to be remembered. Nothing really stands out until we get to see Rose (Monique Coleman) dominate the screen. 

The heroic trio finds Rose at one of the few bars in town, still defending herself and the bar. She refuses to be the black character that dies before the end of the movie. Declaring that she isn’t going to give up, Rose claims the most memorable quote from the film: “I am not Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park. I am not Yaphet Kotto in Alien, nor am I Dwayne mother fucking Johnson.”

Unfortunately, after that amazing performance, we don’t see her again. 

Palmer cut out the one thing that kept me interested in his film and left me instead with three of the most stale and even at times frustrating characters in the movie. 

Undead Again

Train to Busan: Peninsula

by Hope Madden

Back in 2016, filmmaker Sang-ho Yeon made the most thrilling zombie film since 28 Days Later. Sometimes funny, sometimes shocking, always exciting and at least once a heartbreaker, Train to Busan succeeded on every front.

You can’t chalk it up to newness, either. Busan was actually a sequel to Yeon’s fascinating animated take on Korea’s zombie infestation, Seoul Station. So the guy was 2 for 2 in gripping zombie thrills.

Can he make it a hat trick?

Train to Busan: Peninsula begins on that same fateful day that South Korea falls to the zombipocalypse. Those fleeing Korea by ship are turned around for fear of global contamination, so all survivors descend upon Hong Kong. Four years later, the city’s overrun, survivors are living in poverty, and a rag tag bunch is so desperate, they’re willing to go back to the Korean peninsula to pull a job that will make them rich.

But if Hong Kong looks bad, wait til they see what’s happened since they left the peninsula.

Things feel much more borrowed this time around. Peninsula plays like a mash up of Friedkin’s 1977 adventure Sorcerer (or Clouzot’s 1953 Wages of Fear) and the 4th in George Romero’s line of zombie adventures, 2005’s Land of the Dead. There’s also a little Dawn of the Dead, plus one scene lifted wholesale from 28 Days Later. And you cannot miss a great deal of a great number of Mad Max flicks.

Both the claustrophobia and the relentless forward momentum of the 2016 film are gone, replaced with tactical maneuvering around a fairly stagey looking city scape and military compound. And while you have to believe Yeon had a bigger budget to work with based on the success of his previous effort, Peninsula’s zombie effects are weaker here.

That’s not to say the film is bad, just a letdown. Dong-Won Gang makes for a serviceable quietly haunted hero. Scrappy Re Lee and adorable Ye-Won Lee infuse the film with vibrance and fun, and both Gyo-hwan Koo and Min-Jae Kim create respectably reprehensible villains. (Although the high water mark in zombie villainy was reached with Train to Busan.)

The story is tight, if highly borrowed, and the action scenes are plentiful. Compare it with nearly every other zombie film to come out in the last two decades and it’s a creepy way to spend a couple of hours. Compare it to Yeon’s last two movies, though, and it comes up lacking.  

Place Your Bets

Godzilla vs. Kong

by George Wolf & Hope Madden

Here’s a sampling of the things we yelled at the screen during Godzilla vs. Kong:

“Boom! In the face!”

“Kyle Chandler is a terrible father.”

“Skull f**k him!”

“It’s just a flesh wound, get up!”

So you could say we were engaged in this battle, the one that’s been brewing since the end credits stinger from the excellent Kong: Skull Island four years ago. GvK can’t quite match that film’s tonal bullseye, but it easily lands as second best in the “Titan” Monsterverse that was reborn with 2014’s Godzilla.

Picking up three years after the tedious Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the film finds Kong contained on Skull Island under the respectful eye of Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall).

Meanwhile, Godzilla attacks APEX’s Florida headquarters – seemingly unprovoked. Mansplaining Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) says Godzilla’s changed his hero stripes, but his daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) and “Titan Truth” podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry, committing grand theft scenery) think there’s got to be more to the story.

There’s plenty more, and Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) believes Kong could be the key to proving his Hollow Earth theory about the Titans. Ilene agrees to allow the heavily sedated Kong to be transported by sea, but far from Godzilla’s favorite swimming holes, of course.

Riiiight.

Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, Blair Witch) clearly realizes that monster mashes aren’t compelling if you can’t tell who’s fighting, and the technical aspects of GvK bring the Titan battles to vibrant life. Pristine cinematography, detailed CGI effects and a wonderfully layered sound design elevate the thrills early and often.

And that is what we’re here for, isn’t it?

That’s a familiar refrain when the human arcs in these films are so woeful, but screenwriters Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein toss the overwrought melodrama of King of the Monsters and add a frisky sense of welcome fun.

Yes, there’s another cute kid (Kaylee Hottle) with negligent guardians, and more than enough characters, locations and theories to keep up with. But even if you fall behind, you’ll catch up when these two Titans throw hands and tails, because they mean business.

They’re timing ain’t bad, either, as this is the kind of cinematic spectacle that could mean very good business for newly reopened theaters that badly need it. It’s a PG-13 return to form for a legendary franchise, with plenty to reward your popcorn munching and ringside commentary (keep it clean at the multiplex, please).

Just pick your screen size, and get ready to rumble.

Screening Room: Nobody, The Vault, Six Minutes to Midnight & More

There’s Music and There’s People and They’re Young and Alive

Shoplifters of the World

by Matt Weiner

Never meet your heroes. That goes double for present-day Morrissey, frontman for the Smiths. But Shoplifters of the World looks back at a more innocent era in 1987, the day the band broke up, and conjures up a time when the Manchester rock band was the Beatles for disaffected teens who traded in mop tops for asymmetrical haircuts.

And Denver, Colorado—if you believe the urban legend that inspired the film—was ground zero for overenthusiastic Smiths fans. Director Stephen Kijak reimagines the night that distraught fan Dean (Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood) held a radio station hostage, forcing the DJ to play nonstop Smiths songs.

While Dean remains holed up at the radio station with the DJ, Full Metal Mickey (Joe Manganiello, perfection as a heavy metal himbo), Dean’s friends grieve and celebrate one last big night together before figuring out their lives post-high school.

That includes college, the Army, and for Cleo (Helena Howard), a general sort of Linklater malaise that seems to befall suburban teens on the eve of life’s next big adventure.

The film sets Cleo and the gang’s exploits to Smiths songs, along with contemporary interviews with band members that serve as a reminder of how much the Smiths meant for music, especially pop and indie rock, in an age of big hair and even bigger power chords.

Even though the film is a love letter to the Smiths, it’s as much about the insular obsession of finding meaning through art. Even diehard metalhead Mickey comes to appreciate the way all these young fans have experienced an era-defining shock in their young lives.

Still, it’s hard to shake the sense that the entire night’s events come down to a group of surly teens gatecrashing a bunch of parties to force everyone to listen to their music instead of having a good time… and yet everyone is still exceedingly polite to all the assholes in eyeliner.

This is also a painfully recognizable part of both obsessive fandoms and a good coming of age story. The mix of low stakes self-discovery and winsome leads helps keep their night out more charming than cringeworthy. Shoplifters is content to go big on soundtrack and mood, and it’s a choice that works.

There isn’t a ton of depth to the ensemble friends—the film is often too busy setting up just the right music cue. But when you have the music rights to take those cues from the likes of Morrissey and Johnny Marr, a little bit of charm goes a long way.

I Spy

Six Minutes to Midnight

by Hope Madden

Eddie Izzard always brings an unexpected charm and wit to roles, most of which benefit from the surprise in casting. Shadow of the Vampire, several different Oceans movies, and the beloved Get Duked! come to mind.

Between those films and Six Minutes to Midnight, Izzard changed pronouns. (Go girl!) This is relevant only in that I will be referring to Izzard as she, regardless of the fact that she plays British intelligence agent Thomas Miller, a he.

Miller finds himself filling in as substitute teacher at the prestigious Augusta-Victoria College at Brexhill-on-Sea in England. It’s August of 1939, which means England is days away from being drawn into WWII, and the institution is a finishing school for wealthy German girls.

It was a real school, run with Nazi ideals. It went so far as to contain a swastika alongside the union jack on its official school logo and badge. The existence of this anomaly in British history inspired the screenplay by Izzard and co-star Celyn Jones.

The idea also drew a stellar cast including Judi Dench, James D’Arcy, Jim Broadbent and Carla Juri. Each member of the supporting ensemble offers a strong, sometimes unexpected performance in a film that feels intentionally stilted.

The physical difference between Dench and Juri matches their characters’ emotional gap, an excellent metaphor for the schism in the school itself. Darcy is much fun, and Broadbent is never less than wonderful, as you would expect.

Director Andy Goddard, who’s done a lot of TV, keeps the thrills intimate, using the coastal setting to create a sense of isolation. Goddard’s frequent collaborator Chris Seager lenses the film with a throw-back elegance that suits it.

What works best in Six Minutes is an understated theme of culture clash, and a reminder that England contained plenty of German sympathizers who felt the only opportunity to survive, should this war come, was to embrace the concept of hail to victory.

Izzard, unfortunately, doesn’t work as well. There’s a melancholy to the character that is effective, but as the central figure in a spy thriller, Izzard seems miscast. There is a great deal of running—so, so much running—which eventually comes off as comedic even when it should not.

The writing is often rushed and the plotting superficial. Goddard has trouble finding and sticking with a tone, and regardless of the time-bomb of a title, the film feels less like a mad dash to end a cataclysm and more like a series of bumblings that somehow turn out OK.  

It’s not enough to ruin the effort, but it’s enough to keep Six Minutes to Midnight from leaving a lasting impression.

Surrender the Booty

The Vault

by George Wolf

If we were going to add a third certainty to join death and taxes, how about the fact that heist movies are fun?

A good one makes you want to go assemble your crack team to trade quips, try on parkas and steal a Picasso. A bad one just makes you want to watch the good ones again.

The Vault (formerly titled Way Down) borrows from a host of similar films, keeping the formula familiar, the pulse quick and the scenery exciting for a ridiculous caper that never takes itself too seriously.

Freddie Highmore is Thom, a 22 year-old engineering genius fresh from the University of Cambridge. Bored by all the job offers from Big Oil, his interest is piqued by a mysterious opportunity to “change his life.”

Adventurer Walter Moreland (Liam Cunningham) offers Thom a spot on his “salvage” team, and the chance at untold riches. The plan? Break into the Bank of Spain and steal a centuries-old treasure first buried by Sir Francis Drake. The vault holding the booty is a puzzle of engineering yet to be solved, and Moreland is counting on Thom to be the big brain that outsmarts it.

The upper-crust thieves will have a timely distraction on their side. Spain’s World Cup final will be shown on a Jumbotron set up right outside the bank, meaning that during the match, all security cameras will be pointed at the huge crowd of soccer fans flooding the street, and not at the bank itself.

The script-by-committee mentions “Danny Ocean” early on, which is just stating the obvious. The Italian Job and Now You See Me, Now You Don’t will also come to mind, but director Juame Balagueró ([REC] and [REC2]) isn’t pretending he’s breaking new ground, just trying out a new playground.

Balagueró keeps his pace impatient from the opening minutes. Expect a succession of fake outs, multiple “We’re screwed!” exclamations and a shameless amount of “all is lost” moments. Realizations come only at the most fortuitous junctures and the tests to Thom’s genius never seem quite that strenuous.

And the effect of all of that on the film isn’t nearly as deadly, or taxing, as it should be.

The two hour run time feels about half that. Balagueró gives his camera a stylish flow and keeps us supplied with plenty of opportunities to feel like we’re in on the con, and have a stake in the success of the heist.

And you know what that is?

Fun.

First Impressions

Making Monsters

by Hope Madden

Call me superficial, but I really enjoy those old school, pre-credit scares in horror films. (I am also a sucker for post-credit stingers, if I’m being totally honest.)

Done well, they set a tone, freak you out, and make you simultaneously afraid to watch the rest of the film and unwilling to turn away. Writer/co-director Justin Harding knows this, obviously. With a brief but exceptionally chilly opening sequence, he and co-director Rob Brunner dare you to finish their film, Making Monsters.

Christian (Tim Loden) and Allison (Alana Elmer) are planning for their wedding, beginning steps toward IVF, and struggling with the changes this is going to mean in their relationship as well as their livelihood. Apparently, their whole gig is a popular online prank show consisting of Christian scaring the poop out of Allison twice a week.

And she’s marrying him?

They run into an old friend, he invites them to his rustic new digs way out in BFE, and they sneak away for a quiet weekend. Or is it another prank?

If you think the viral prank horror premise is weak and tired, you are spot on. Luckily, Making Monsters doesn’t beat it to death, nor do they rely on found footage or a ton of shaky cam or even a lot of slickly produced viral videos. It’s all in there, but some of it serves a narrative purpose and none of it really wears out its welcome.

Elmer is especially solid, delivering a nuanced and believable character who loves and accepts Christian and remains optimistic that he, too, is ready to grow up. Allison is dimensional, and though it takes some time to realize it, so is Christian.

Jonathan Craig is a good time in a weird role, although he pulls too many tricks from Mark Duplass’s bag of magic to be truly fresh. Still, he’s fun in his own way and the rapport among the three main players rings true enough to elevate the material around them.

Not everything lives up to that first shock, but the next 80ish minutes of Making Monsters are worth a watch.