Tag Archives: Melissa Leo

Teenage Wasteland


by Christie Robb

Directors Jessica Hester and Derek Schweickart take us on a spin through the life of alienated 16-year-old Abby (Fatima Ptacek) who has always felt like an outsider in her rural California town, certain she has to make it out to find herself.

Writer Cindy Kitagawa nails the egocentrism of adolescence. The arrival of a cool new girl in town (Mia Rose Frampton) and an indie rock band stuck in the area while their tour bus receives repairs precipitates Abby’s first life crisis. She’s thrown for such a loop that she’s willing to alienate her parents, teachers, and childhood friends in order to discover herself and her potential life path.

Is it with Dave (Kane Ritchotte), the sexy front man who tries to sweet-talk her into performing?

Running in counterpoint to Abby’s story is her mom’s (Cristela Alonzo). Abby is now the same age her mom was when she got pregnant. Mom’s hoping the apple falls very, very far from the tree on that one. Now, in her 30s, Mom is drinking a little too much, smoking in bed, and staring down the barrel of a divorce from a husband who got his coworker pregnant. During her job as a night nurse she hangs out with an older patient (played by the great Melissa Leo who doesn’t have nearly enough to do), also a former teenage mom, now estranged from her grown daughter.

At school, Abby struggles to complete a hometown history report. The purpose of the report, as the class frequently recites in unison is because: “Those who forget the past are condemned to relive it.” The hope is that Abby will come to terms with the past and learn from it so she can choose the path forward that is right for her. A somewhat heavy-handed final act directly addresses this.

Coast doesn’t exactly break new ground in the coming-of-age genre. Far too much time seems to be spent on the thinly-developed stock characters of edgy-new-friend and dreamy-boy when Abby’s childhood friends and her mother seem much more charismatic and potentially interesting. But Ptacek’s Abby believably cycles between the joyful naivete of childhood, the judgmental anger of adolescence, and the more balanced perspective of adulthood. And the soundtrack kinda rocks.

Move Over Batman, There’s a New Vengeance in Town

Measure of Revenge

by Christie Robb

Life imitates art when famous Broadway tragedian, Lillian Cooper’s rock star son and his pregnant girlfriend die of an apparent drug overdose. Or is it murder?

Inspired by intrusive thoughts of revenge that manifest as visions of famous characters Lillian has portrayed on stage, the heartbroken mother stalks the streets of New York searching for those responsible and hatching a plot to make them pay for their misdeeds.

Along the way, Lillian (Melissa Leo) joins forces with young photographer/drug dealer, Taz (Bella Thorne) whose motivations may not be entirely transparent.

Like a stage performance, first-time director Peyfa’s Measure of Revenge can lean a bit toward the histrionic—sudden, jarring discordant tones of the score; dialogue that runs backward when Lillian is having a tough time emotionally; characters literally rending their clothes in grief.

But it’s a clever film, a mystery that isn’t entirely linear with an ending that doesn’t tie itself up in a neat little bow. You gotta work for the resolution and there’s room for debate (and some discussion about how forensic evidence could probably play a greater role in the fate of at least one character).

However, the film may spend too much time on its theatrical gimmick to the detriment of character development. This is especially true of the dead son and those who may have been motivated to do him wrong. 

Academy Award-winner Leo (The Fighter) is magnetic, showing an incredible range—from bubbly anticipatory delight at seeing her son return from a successful rehab stint through to wrathful avenging angel. And along the way, we are treated to snippets of some of the greatest tragic characters of all time—Hester Prynne, Hedda Gabler, Lady Macbeth, and Hamlet’s Ghost among them.

A Little Help From a Friend

The Equalizer 2

by George Wolf

It still confounds me why John Wick gets more action cred than The Equalizer. Released less a month apart in 2014, Denzel and director Antoine Fuqua bettered Keanu and Chad Stahelski in nearly every respect. But, in fairness John Wick helped inspire Key and Peele’s very funny Keanu so I’ll move on.

JW already dropped its deuce (with part 3 currently in the works), and now The Equalizer 2 gets its director, star and screenwriter (Robert Wenk) back together for a slightly less satisfying dose of the same medicine.

Robert McCall (Denzel) has moved on from that big box hardware store he decimated in part one and settled in as a Lyft driver, making friends around his Boston neighborhood, and enemies when someone wrongs his friends.

E2 lets us see more of that random equalizing, which means more time before we get to the core conflict, but also more helpings of those bad guy beatdowns that bring such primal satisfaction.

Denzel is effortlessly good, which comes as a shock to no one. He digs deeper into the character this time out, maintaining the ticks that outwardly define McCall while sharpening the edges of a mysterious past that is never too far out of reach.

Secrets from that past begin to leave a bloody trail, and after a hit is ordered on his old boss Susan (Melissa Leo), McCall promises to make the guilty pay, his only regret being that he “can’t kill them twice.”

Denzel as a badass is so much cool fun, and he’s clearly the muse for Fuqua’s best work (Training Day, The Magnificent Seven). The stylized violence that so elevated the first film is here as well, but like most of the other elements, in lesser numbers.

The absence of a memorable villain is also felt. Marton Csokas was a great one, and E2 comes nowhere close to matching his simmering intensity. Substantive moral ambiguities are raised in fairly generic fashion, metaphors get a touch too weighty and the running time a bit too excessive.

The Equalizer 2 does offer plenty to like – Denzel, some scenes with unexpected turns,  a surprisingly touching epilogue, Denzel – but little of it can match the style or the vibe of the original.



Preparing the Bride


by Rachel Willis

When Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley) is seven years old, her mother, out of a sense of duty and more than a little boredom, takes her daughter to church. So begins Cathleen’s love affair with God.

And it is a love affair, as Novitiate seeks to show its audience as it follows Cathleen from that first encounter to her time as a novitiate seeking to become a bride of Christ.

As a postulant (the first step in becoming a nun), Cathleen meets the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), a woman who joined the convent 40 years earlier and has not left the convent in those 40 years. With the introduction of the Reverend Mother, the film branches into two narratives. We see the convent through both Cathleen and the Reverend Mother on the eve of monumental changes to the Catholic Church.

If writer/director Margaret Betts had kept her story limited to these two perspectives, we would be treated to a tighter film. Cathleen is a mostly silent observer, her few words devoted to her devotion to God, but we see a great deal through her. When the film branches off to follow other postulants in the convent, as well as a sister questioning her faith, we lose the intimacy established in the beginning with Cathleen.

Betts is aware that many in the audience will not understand what it takes to become a nun, nor will they be familiar with the Church in the early 1960’s, so there are a few moments of exposition. However, they never feel heavy-handed or forced. It feels as if we’re entering as a postulant, then a novitiate, with Cathleen.

As our eyes into this world, Qualley is phenomenal as Cathleen. She brings an intensity to the role that is needed to understand the level of commitment to Christ it takes to become a nun.

Leo as the Reverend Mother brings a different level of intensity, one that not only explains her devotion to Christ, but her faith in the perfection of the Church as Vatican II seeks to alter the world to which she’s given her entire life.

There are moments when the film sinks into melodrama, and some scenes feel unnecessary to the story, but it’s a captivating glimpse into a world few of us witness.

Fright Club Friday: Red State

Red State (2011)

I actually got to talk to Kevin Smith about a year before Red State was released. Our official topic was his Smodcasts, but given my particular weakness for genre filmmaking, I veered the questions toward his forthcoming entrance into horror.

He told me: “For years I’ve called myself a filmmaker, but it’s not really true. Really I just make Kevin Smith movies. I’m at that stage where I could make a Kevin Smith Movie with my eyes closed. Let me see if I can make another movie.”

That other movie was Red State – an underrated gem. Deceptively straightforward, Smith’s tale of a small, violently devout cult taken to using the internet to trap “homos and fornicators” for ritualistic murder cuts deeper than you might expect. Not simply satisfied with liberal finger wagging, Smith’s film leaves no character burdened by innocence.

The usually stellar Melissa Leo chews more scenery than need be as a devoted apostle, but pastor Abin Cooper spellbinds as delivered to us by Tarantino favorite Michael Parks. Never a false note, never a clichéd moment, Parks’s award-worthy performance fuels the entire picture.

There’s enough creepiness involved to call this a horror film, but truth be told, by about the midway point it turns to corrupt government action flick, with slightly lesser results. Still, the dialogue is surprisingly smart, and the cast brims with rock solid character actors, including John Goodman, Stephen Root, and Kevin Pollak.

Smith said at the time: “I think we have something. It’s creepy and very finger-on-the-pulse and very much about America.”


Make Sure You’re Prepared


by George Wolf


Pre-game warmups aren’t usually part of the moviegoing experience, but Prisoners may require a little preparation.

Quite simply, it will wear you out.

Director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski have crafted a relentlessly intense, utterly engrossing mystery/thriller that will bludgeon your nerves, tease your sensibilities and leave your morals in disarray.

Hugh Jackman is unbelievably great as a father desperate for answers after his daughter, and his neighbor’s daughter, are abducted on Thanksgiving Day. The assigned detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) believes a troubled local man (Paul Dano) is to blame, but can’t find the evidence to hold him. Jackman’s character, overcome with rage, takes matters into his own hands.

That’s all the info you need, but just a tiny fraction of the complex chain of events set in motion by the crime. Guzikowski, who adapted the Contraband screenplay last year, delivers a twisting, intelligent script that lulls you with the familiarity of the premise all the while it’s leading you places you may not want to go.

Villeneuve, best known for writing and directing the Oscar-nominated Incendies three years ago, makes a stunning English language debut that succeeds on many levels. If a thriller was all it was, it would be a good one, relying on a substance that recalls years of Hollywood films from Death Wish to Gone Baby Gone.

Prisoners transcends the genre in the way it forces its audience to face the same moral ambiguities the characters are up against. The stupendous cast, which also includes greats such as Terence Howard, Viola Davis and Melissa Leo, fills each character with gritty realism, allowing actions that seem justified in one set of circumstances to be easily called into question.  As surprises mount,  the film lands solid blows to perceptions of torture, fear-mongering, religious fanaticism, and even basic parenting.

Sound like a lot? It is, and the film earns every minute of its two and a half hour running time. It is a dark, cathartic journey that is not for the squeamish, and the film’s length only serves to reinforce the hell these people are going through.  They want it to end, and so do you, but only because the film has hooked you so deeply.

You’ll need to pay attention and listen hard, and though you probably won’t figure things out early, the clues are all there in front of you. Prisoners is a breathtaking ride that rewards the effort it demands, ultimately providing a satisfying payoff, capped by an unforgettable final scene that may very well find its way into your dreams.







For Your Queue: Compelling takes on Hunger and Poverty

This week’s DVD releases includes A Place at the Table, a thoughtful, and thought-provoking look at hunger in America. Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush break through the intricacies involved in an issue that should not be as complicated as it is. Sure the approach is idealistic, but the underlying anger serves the film well. Hunger is a problem we don’t have to have in America, and A Place at the Table does a damn good job of showing us why.

For a fictional but no less honest look at American poverty, do yourself a favor and find Frozen River (2008). Nominated for two Oscars – including a nod for Melissa Leo as Best Actress – the film is not just a compelling thriller, but a bracing and unerringly authentic image of American resilience.