Highly Recommended Films
Directed by Alister Grierson
After getting released from prison, Rex (Ben O'Toole) wants to escape all of his troubles. He packs up his bags and flees to Finland, a random country that he chose while in prison. Upon arrival, the man driving him kidnaps him and knocks him unconscious. He wakes up hanging from the ceiling in the basement of a house in the middle of nowhere. His hands tied and part of his leg had been sawed off.
The less you know about the plot of Blood Hell, the better because it has more than a few unpredictable and surprising twists and turns. The screenplay by Robert Benjamin blends the genres of horror, thriller and dark comedy in a way that avoids unevenness. It's violent with just the right amount of gore that doesn't go overboard. This isn't the kind of movie that relies on gore to shock audiences Hostel and Saw do. Benjamin cleverly adds a surreal character to the movie whose interactions with Rex are refreshingly amusing. That character, who won't be spoiled here, reveals a lot about the way that Rex's mind works without using voice-over narration. At times, what that character says sounds like something that the audience might be thinking to themselves, so perhaps the character is an embodiment of the audience to a certain extent. It's worth mentioning the film is quite self-aware with some witty, tongue-in-cheek dialogue that references similar films without becoming pretentious, annoying or tedious like a Quentin Tarantino film.
Bloody Hell also handles the element of exposition wisely while trusting the audience's patience. The filmmakers don't reveal too much about what precisely led Rex into trouble that sent him to prison during the opening scene; they briefly flash back to reveal more details later on while keeping you in a little bit of suspense. The same can be said about the backstory of the depraved family who hold Rex hostage. Although it quickly becomes clear and simple why they kidnapped him, the inner dynamics of the family members and how one of them forms a relationship with Rex add a layer of complexity. Fortunately, this is the kind of movie that knows when to take itself seriously, and when not to. Of course, some suspension of disbelief is required, especially during the somewhat rushed third act, but that's Much like last year's Come to Daddy, it's a wild, wickedly funny and suspenseful ride.
Number of times I checked my watch: 1 Released by The Horror Collective. Now playing in select theaters and on VOD.
Directed by Cooper Raiff
Alex (Cooper Raiff) has just started his freshman year at college and lives in a dorm with his roommate, Sam (Logan Miller). He suffers from homesickness, so he frequently calls his mother (Amy Landecker) as though they were close friends. One night, he attends a party at a fraternity called Shithouse where he meets and flirts with his RA, Maggie (Dylan Gelula). After drinking some wine and getting physically intimate with her in her dorm room, they converse with each other. He convinces her to come with him to retrieve her deceased pet turtle from a garbage bin and to give it a proper burial. Throughout the course of the night, they form a deep connection, or at least he thinks that they're connecting. She even opens up to him about her dysfunctional family. The next morning, she kicks him out of her room and then ghosts him after he sends her multiple messages on Instagram, but he refuses to be ignored.
Writer/director Cooper Raiff has a knack for writing dialogue that sounds organic while avoiding schmaltz and melodrama. Alex and Maggie are both flawed characters which makes them all the more human and interesting. He's sweet, yet naive, emotionally immature, insecure and needy. She's emotionally immature, reckless and inconsiderate. Case in point: she has a fake ID and engages in underage drinking despite being an RA who's supposed to be a good role model. Raiff does a great job of bringing Alex and Maggie to life thereby allowing you to be fully immersed in their lives, want them to be happy and to end up together. Both characters have a lot to learn about life and relationships, and it's fascinating to watch them learn and grow as they navigate through their complicated set of emotions. It's also interesting to watch how the relationship between Alex and his mother evolves. She seems toxic at first, but at least she's accountable when it comes to her toxic behavior because she admits that it's unhealthy for her son to be calling her so often. He's lucky to have a mother who's capable of changing and doing what's right for his mental and emotional wellbeing.
Much like the films of Eric Rohmer and Richard Linklater, Shithouse isn't heavy on plot and more about capturing the feelings contained within the threadbare plot. As Hitchcock once observed, some films are a slice of life while others are a slice of cake. Shithouse is predominantly a slice-of-life, but it's also a slice-of-cake at times--it's basically a "life cake." It's much more profound, funny and moving than the overrated, unfunny and pretentious Superbad and Booksmart. It's also slightly reminscent of some of John Hughes' classic coming-of-age movies and Rob Reiner's sweet, funny and underrated romantic dramedy, The Sure Thing. The comic relief doesn't rely on lowbrow humor with the exception of Alex's roommate shitting his pants after a drunk night and then cracks jokes about it during his stand-up comedy routine in front of his schoolmates. Does every frat movie have to have gross-out humor by default? At least Raiff doesn't include more of that kind of potty humor. Fortunately, the performances feel just as naturalistic as the screenplay with no one over-acting or under-acting. There's also just the right amount of nuance and exposition without narration or flashbacks, so Raiff avoids treating the audience like they're dumb. He trusts their emotions, imagination, intelligence for the most part, except for the last few minutes of the film that tie things up a little too neatly. He should be commended, though, for his use a symbolism, i.e. the burial of the turtle which is just as provocative as the symbolism in Harold and Maude when Harold and Maude transplanted the asmthatic tree in the forest. At a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, Shithouse is a genuinely engrossing, tender and wise slice-of-life.
Number of times I checked my watch: 0 Released by IFC Films.Now on VOD.
Love and Monsters
Directed by Michael Matthews
In the post-apocalypse, 24-year-old Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien) lives in an underground bunker with fellow survivors after an asteroid hit Earth 7 years ago. The chemicals from the missiles that struck the asteroid fell down to Earth and caused cold-blooded animals to mutate into giant creatures. His parents died, but his girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), survived and got separated from him. He decides to travel 85 miles to visit her colony and reunite with her. Along the way, a dog he names Boy joins him and he meets a father and daughter team, Clyde (Michael Rooker) and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt), who teach him essential fighting skills to help him defeat the giant creatures.
Love and Monsters is a rousing sci-fi adventure with just the right balance of comedy, action and drama. The screenplay by Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson could have easily turned the movie into a mind-numbing, tedious, action-packed video game, but instead they infuse it with a heartfelt love story and a protagonist who goes through innate struggles like the death of his parents. He pines for his girlfriend whom he briefly communicates via radio which motivates him to keep going. He develops a poignant friendship with the dog, Boy, that saves his life from a giant killer frog. The scenes with Cylde and Minnow are among the best ones in the movie because of their amusing, funny banter and the compassion that Clyde displays thoward Joel when they sit down by a campfire to talk about Joel's past. It's a moment that serves as exposition, but also, more importantly, as a catharsis for Joel because he gets to express his buried feelings and talk about his trauma. Cylde is like a surrogate father to him, so it's too bad that they don't meet again or keep in touch. There's also a moving scene with an injured Robot that Joel finds in an abandoned home. Once Joel arrives at Aimee's colony, Love and Monsters takes an unexpected turn that adds yet another layer of complexity and depth while maintaining suspense. Pay close attention to the details in the first hour because they'll become important later on.
On a visceral, aesthetical level, Love and Monsters is exciting and even a bit scary, especially if you're not a huge fan of bugs. Fortunately, the filmmakers do not include spiders as one of mutated creatures---that would've been too scary like in the giant spiders in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The CGI looks impressive and the action feels thrilling without becoming exhausting. There are just enough quiet moments to allow the movie and the audience to breathe a little. Moreover, kudos to the casting directors for choosing Dylan O'Brien as Joel because he has the acting chops to handle both the physical and emotional aspects of his role convincingly. He's a great actor much like Hailee Steinfeld was in the surprisingly entertaining and moving blockbuster Bumblebee. As Francois Truffaut once wisely noted, a great film should have a perfect balance between Truth and Spectacle. Love and Monsters has plenty of Spectacle and offers just enough Truth to be a very satisfying and rewarding action adventure that will hopefully have sequels.
Number of times I checked my watch: 2 Released by Paramount Pictures. Now on VOD.
Sorry We Missed You
Directed by Ken Loach
Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) and his wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), have been struggling to make ends meet ever since the financial crash of 2008 when Ricky lost his job as in the building trade and his home's mortgage. They have two children, 16-year-old Seb (Rhys Stone) and 11-year-old Liza James (Katie Proctor). Ricky finds a new job in the gig economy as a delivery driver, but the only way he can afford to buy a van for his deliveries is by selling Abbie's car. His manager, Maloney (Ross Brewster), makes it clear to him from his very first day on the job that he must not lose or damage the expensive delivery scanner because if he does, he'll have to pay for it himself. Abbie works as a home care nurse who assists many elderly patients at their homes with no overtime pay and must pay for her own traveling expenses. Both Ricky and Abbie work long hours with very little pay while trying their best to keep their family afloat.
Director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty do a great job of turning quotidian events into engrossing and meaningful moments in the lives of Ricky, Abbie, Seb and Liza James. Within the first few minutes, you learn about Ricky's new job and the relationship between him and his family members. Ricky and Abbie spend so much time working that they rarely have enough time to spend with their kids or to even eat dinner together at home. Seb cuts school and spends his time spraying graffiti with his friends instead. He angers his dad when he admits that he paid for the cans of graffiti by selling his winter coat. There's no voice-over narration, musical score nor any flashbacks, so the story unfolds before your eyes as though you were watching a documentary. You learn about Ricky's past and how he met Abbie through photographs that Abbie looks at. Not a single scene feels inauthentic or contrived, although there's some heavy-handed dialogue, i.e. when Maloney gives a long speech to Ricky in office that Maloney seem like a cold, condescending, one-dimensional jerk when he's merely a slave of capitalism, the film's silent villain. Scene after scene, you're reminded that Ricky and Abbie are stuck in an economy that's cold, unforgiving and, ultimately, very dehumanizing. They're frustrated and angry which they have every right to be, but Ricky has a tendency to show his anger and to curse in front of his family while Abbie bottles her anger with the exception of two scene where she finally vents her pent-up anger.
Despite how many dehumanizing events Ricky and Abbie go through, there are surprisingly warm and tender moments of compassion to be found every now and then, i.e when Abbie agrees to cut dinner time short with her family short on a Saturday night to tend to an elderly patient of hers. Seb suggestions that the entire family should go together in Ricky's van to get to Abbie's patient instead of letting Abbie take a cab there. Ricky agrees, and you briefly notice that they're all having a great time in the van while singing, although it's an ephemeral moment. Upon reaching her patient, Abbie's interactions with her are filled with genuine love, warmth and compassion. She's a good person at heart and the same can be said about Ricky, Seb and Lisa James each of whom is going through their own innate struggles. The natural performances by everyone onscreen adds to the sense of realism that the film achieves so effectively. You won't feel the wheels of the screenplay nor the performances turning; this is far from a Hollywood film. Kudos to Loach and Laverty for shedding a light on the harsh truths about the gig economy and for humanizing those who suffer from it. Sorry We Missed You offers no easy answers or solutions to a complex human rights issue. At a running time of 102 minutes, it's an emotionally resonating, eye-opening and unflinching slice-of-life.
Number of times I checked my watch: 1 Released by Zeitgeist Films. Now on VOD.
Directed by Alex Thompson
34-year-old Bridget (Kelly O'Sullivan) quits her job as a restaurant server to become the nanny of 6-year-old Frances (Ramona Edith Williams) who's being raised by two moms, Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu). Maya experiences postpartum depression after giving birth. Meanwhile, Bridget decides to have an abortion when Jace (Max Lipchitz), a friend with benefits, gets her accidentally pregnant.
The sensitively-written screenplay by Kelly O'Sullivan sets the tone from the very beginning with how it introduces the character of Bridget and shows how she meets Jace at a party. You learn a lot about Bridget within the first few minutes including her age, profession and her insecurities. How many films have a sex scene where the woman ends up having sex on her period and leaving blood stains on the bed? The fact that O'Sullivan finds the humor in such a refreshingly honest scene is a testament to her skills as a writer and as an actress. Even though Bridget does sleep with Jace, there's no romantic subplot involving the two of them which she makes clear from the get-go when Jace incorrectly assumes that he's her boyfriend. She goes through an emotional journey once she becomes a fulltime nanny for Frances and meets Maya and Annie. It's the evolution of those relationships that makes Saint Frances an engrossing and profound character study.
Bravo to Kelly O'Sullivan for turning Bridget into a flawed, likable human being both in her performance and her writing. She finds the emotional truth of her role and sinks her teeth into Bridget's complex emotions very effectively and naturally which helps to humanize her. Bridget does indeed makes mistakes when she becomes Frances' nanny, i.e. by forgetting to strap Frances into her stroller. Maya forgives her, though, without firing her. Fortunately, Frances isn't one of those cliched precocious children that can be found in some arthouse and Hollywood films. She's just a regular child who acts out sometimes which can be frustrating for Frances, but she's never annoying or over-the-top. The way that Bridget gradually bonds with her feels genuinely heartwarming, and the same can be said for how their bond effects Bridget's relationship with Frances' parents.
The friendship between Bridget and Maya strengthens the most, though, when Maya opens up to her about her postpartum depression and other struggles that she's going through which she explains with explicit detail. In another well-written scene, Bridget's mother, Carol (Mary Beth Fisher), tells Bridget about how difficult it was for her to raise her as a baby when she had thoughts of swinging Bridget's head into a wall back then. Those scenes, like many of the scenes in the film, have a bit of sadness and tragedy, but also some humor and plenty of truth to them concurrently. Saint Frances shies away from showing you all of the procedures that Bridget goes through when she has her abortion because this isn't a movie about abortion nor does it take sides on that divisive issue either; it's a story about the friendship between women, ultimately. For a more detailed, darker and unflinching look at the horrors that a woman experiences while going through an abortion, see Never Rarely Sometimes Always which would make for an interesting double feature with Saint Frances. At a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes, Saint Frances is warm, funny and refreshingly honest.
Number of times I checked my watch: 1 Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories. Now on VOD.
Directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green
17-year-old Ayanna (Zora Howard) lives in Harlem with her single mother, Sarita (Michelle Wilson), and loves writing powtry. During the summer before going away to college, she has a tender romance with Isaiah (Joshua Booth). Their relationship gets put the test when he ends up getting her pregnant and when Isaiah ex-girlfriend shows up out of the blue.
Writer/director Rashaad Ernesto Green and Zora Howard keep the dialogue flowing naturally while organically blending romance and drama. Ayanna and Isaiah have a "meet cute" at a park which feels real, and it's heartwarming to watch their romance blossom as they get to know each other. Their sex scene is very beautifully shot and more sensual than sexual. The real meat of the story doesn't take place, though, until roughly 45 minutes into the film when Ayanna gets pregnant and doesn't tell Isaiah. There's a very moving scene when her mother suspects that she's pregnant as they sit in the kitchen and Ayanna goes to the fridge as she announces that she's hungry for some pickles. Just like her relationship with Isaiah, her relationship with her mother feels just as true-to-life. The screenplay could've used a little but more comic relief, but that's forgivable. At least there's not a single scene that's contrived, cheesy or melodramatic. Green and Howard avoid the use of narration, and they trust the audience's emotions, patience, intelligence and imagination for the most part, especially during the third act that's satisfying without tying everything in a near bow.
Zora Howard gives a breakthrough performance as Ayanna. She's just as raw and radiant as Taylor Russell in Waves. None of the performances are hammy; they're all natural because they don't over-act. Admittedly, Premature isn't as powerful nor as visually poetic as Waves nor as moving as Once, but it comes close. It's much more engrossing than the shallow and unfocused romantic drama The Photograph. The cinematography adds to the realism and rawness. There's even some visual poetry in the scene when Ayanna and Isaiah sit and talk on a rock along the Hudson River around dusk. Small moments like that have the most impact. At a running time of just 1 hour and 26 minutes, Premature is a warm, tender and refreshingly un-Hollywood love story.
Number of times I checked my watch: 1 Released by IFC Films. Now on VOD.
Directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz
Richard (Richard Armitage), still in the process of divorcing his wife, Laura (Alicia Silverstone), takes their children, Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), and his girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keogh), to an isolated cabin for a family vacation. He leaves them alone with her for a few days when he suddenly has to travel for work.
The Lodge is an intelligent, slow-burning psychological thriller for adults. Writers/directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz along with co-writer Sergio Casci prepare audience for the forthcoming roller coaster ride of emotions by including an unexpected event within the first 5 minutes. That event has a haunting, ripple effect on each of the characters throughout the film. The tension builds gradually after Richard leaves his kids alone with Grace who's taking medication to deal with the trauma that she suffers from after surviving a cult massacre. Aiden and Mia don't trust nor like Grace, but there's so evidence that she's a bad person. She even asks Aiden flat out what she can do to make things better between them and if she's doing anything wrong. The filmmakers do a great job of trusting the audience's imagination, intelligence, emotions and patience which are rare feats these days. They don't rely on gore to generate scares; the scares come from what the audience imagines more than from what they see in front of their eyes. Just as you think The Lodge is going in one direction, it subverts your expectations by going in different direction while leaving room for interpretation. What's real? What isn't real? That's up for you to decide until the big reveal during the third act that takes the film in yet another direction which won't be spoiled here. The ending works without feeling like a cheap gimmick and will make you want to rewatch the film.
On an aesthetic level, The Lodge has visual poetry reminiscent of the visual poetry in The Shining. Both films have a similar tone and remain grounded in a story about mental illness within a dysfunctional family. The religious symbolism feels a bit heavy-handed, though, but perhaps that's the point. The cold, snowy landscape and muted colors help to create a very creepy and foreboding atmosphere. Everything from the lighting to the set design, camera angles, the score and even the sound design also enriches the chilly atmosphere. Bravo to the filmmakers for grasping the fact that quieter, wordless moments can be quite powerful. Every shot in the film has meaning to it. In other words, its style successful becomes part of its substance.
Riley Keough gives a breakthrough performance in the best performance of her career. She sinks her teeth into the role of Grace naturally without overacting which allows you to care about Grace as a flawed human being. Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh are also superb. Essentially, everything that The Turning got wrong, The Lodge gets right. The less you know about The Lodge's plot going in, the better because it's full of clever surprises, but it's not all about its surprises. It's about human beings, and the filmmakers treat the characters as well as the audience like human beings. They allow the audience to think and feel without spoon-feeding them. There are no flashbacks or voice-over narration. The well-written screenplay has enough psychological and emotional depth to make it a fascinating story albeit one that's unflinchingly grim with few ephemeral moments of comic relief. The Lodge is like a bold cup of black coffee with no cream or sugar added. It might be best to watch a much more upbeat family film like Yours, Mine and Ours afterward.
Number of times I checked my watch: 1 Released by NEON. Now on VOD.
Highly Recommended Movies