Monday, 19 October 2020 14:07

‘S#!%house’ happens

Written by Allen Adams

Full disclosure: I love coming of age movies. I loved them when I was a kid. I loved them as a young man. And I love them still as I wander into middle age.

There’s a universality to the crossing of that particular Rubicon that I find appealing, a recognition of shared experience wherein the specifics might not be the same, but the big picture more or less is. A look at what it means to grow up, to start becoming the person we’re ultimately meant to be. I particularly enjoy those stories set in academic settings – the parallel educations that take place in those places.

Which brings us to … “S#!%house.” Yep – that’s the name. “S#!%house.”

But here’s the thing – the movie is as good as that name is terrible. This is a movie that won the top Jury Prize in the Narrative Feature section of SXSW this year. Virtual festival or no, that’s a big deal. It is a heartfelt and biting look at what it means to be a young person lost in a world they don’t fully understand and trying to figure out what happens next. Smart and sad and honest in the way of all top-tier indie filmmaking.

Oh, and it just happens to be the realization of an auteur’s vision – the film is written, directed and edited by Cooper Raiff, a first-time feature director at the ripe old age of 23. Oh – and he stars in it too.

Every moviegoer is different. We all have our own personal tastes. We have likes and dislikes specific to ourselves. Also – and this is important to note – we can like things that are “bad” and dislike things that are “good.” Again – taste.

This brings us to Adam Sandler.

As someone who came of age in the early 1990s, I experienced the beginnings of Sandler’s cinematic output at PRECISELY the right age. “Billy Madison,” “Happy Gilmore,” “The Waterboy” – those movies were squarely in my juvenile-humored wheelhouse. So even as I grew up and my tastes became (somewhat) more sophisticated, I maintained a real affection for Sandler and his work.

Objectively, I can look at his output and recognize its many, MANY flaws. I can watch these films and acknowledge how “bad” they are. That doesn’t change the fact that part of me still enjoys watching them. Even the REALLY bad ones.

Happily, his new film “Hubie Halloween” – the latest installment under his megadeal with Netflix – isn’t one of the outright terrible ones. It isn’t, you know, good or anything, but it’s not as awful as some of what he’s churned out in recent years. Directed by longtime collaborator Steve Brill from a script co-written by Sandler and Tim Herlihy, it’s fairly typical, the standard goofy-voiced man-child boilerplate packed with dumb jokes and stupid gags, all delivered by the usual assemblage of Sandler buddies and relatives.

It’s shaggy and sloppy in the usual ways, but there’s also a low-key cheerfulness at the heart of the movie that elevates it somewhat. It’s far from the top of the Sandlerian canon, but it’s even farther from the bottom. These days, that’s a win.

Producer Jason Blum has long been a champion of rising filmmakers. Through his Blumhouse production company, he has built a reputation for low-cost high-reward genre filmmaking that allows budding writers and directors to gain access to a larger audience.

His latest project is “Welcome to the Blumhouse,” an anthology film series developed in partnership with Amazon. All told, this series will consist of eight feature-length films, with four being released this October and the other four released sometime in 2021.

The first two in the series dropped on October 6. Leading off, we have “Black Box,” directed by Emmanuel Osei-Jouffer from a screenplay Osei-Jouffer co-wrote with Stephen Herman, and “The Lie,” directed by Veena Sud, who also wrote the script, an adaptation of the German film “Wir Monster.” While the films aren’t necessarily the sort of straightforward horror offerings that audiences might expect from Blumhouse, there’s still plenty here worth seeing.

The truth is that these films might not be quite ready to work as standalone offerings, but as part of the grander picture under the anthology umbrella, they’re more than sufficient. Each film has its flaws, to be sure, but they also put the considerable talents of their respective makers on full display, which is a big part of the point. Again, if you’re here for “Paranormal Activity” and the like, you might be left wanting, but there’s a lot more to Jason Blum’s shop. Why not give it a try?

Sunday, 11 October 2020 14:21

A wing and a prayer – ‘Faith Based’

Written by Allen Adams

There’s something to be said for cinematic surprises.

It isn’t often that you get a film that not only exceeds your expectations with regard to overall quality, but also in terms of the spirit of the thing. These are the movies that manage to deliver something … more. Movies that somehow give you what you want while also giving you something you didn’t know you wanted until you got it.

That’s where I landed with the new film “Faith Based,” now available through assorted VOD services. Directed by Vincent Masciale from a script by Luke Barnett (who also stars), it’s a comedy about a pair of slacker buddies who come up with a get-rich-quick scheme revolving around making a Christian movie.

Now, you’d be forgiven for expecting a film with this kind of premise to be mean-spirited and/or cynical. But “Faith Based” couldn’t be further from that – the satire here is very much punching upward, taking shots at the greed and opportunism of the world rather than the well-meaning and good-hearted among us. It is also a first-rate and quite funny buddy comedy, as well as a smart look at the spit-and-baling-wire world of independent filmmaking – charming and offbeat and very good.

Monday, 05 October 2020 16:00

Invasions and iPhones - ‘Save Yourselves!’

Written by Allen Adams

The desire to disconnect is very real. So much of our lives are lived in the online realm, leaving us tethered to and reliant upon our devices. The current circumstances being what they are, we’ve only become more dependent on all of it, so there’s genuine appeal in breaking loose, if only for a moment.

But what if, in the midst of your big disconnect … the world as you knew it came apart?

That’s the foundational premise of the new movie “Save Yourselves!” The film – written and directed by Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson – is a weird and weirdly prescient story, a low-key look at the apocalypse that also manages to shine a satiric spotlight on tech-obsessed self-involvement at the same time.

It is a strange and funny slow burn, a film that plays with a lot of ideas without ever losing track of the hilariously skewed yet still somehow honest relationship at its center. “Save Yourselves!” is goofy and dark, turning its traditionally bleak speculative subject matter into something driven by quirky hilarity.

As someone who came of age in the 1980s, I have a deep affinity for kid-driven adventure movies. From “The Goonies” on down, I’ve always loved stories where young people were the heroes. And thanks to recent offerings such as the remake of Stephen King’s “It” or the wildly popular and nigh-ubiquitous “Stranger Things,” those sorts of films are making a comeback.

And Netflix has just such a film in “Vampires vs. the Bronx,” currently streaming on the service. The movie – directed by Oz Rodriguez from a script written by Blaise Hemingway (though Rodriguez has a story credit) – is an unexpectedly engaging bit of horror-comedy, a kids-against-the-forces-of-evil romp that also manages to have some interesting things to say about urban life and the threat of gentrification. Just, you know, with vampires.

(Can you even imagine how quickly I was in upon hearing that this movie existed?)

Now, just because I love movies like this doesn’t mean I’m blind to their flaws. There are a LOT of ways that this could have gone sideways. That it doesn’t is a testament to the filmmakers and the strong work by the young cast. It’s silly and surprisingly smart and perhaps a little scarier than anticipated. All in all, it’s a ton of fun – particularly at this time of year.

Few literary characters are as beloved as the famed detective Sherlock Holmes. From his beginnings in the tales spun by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the multitude of stage and screen adaptations we’ve seen featuring the character over the ensuing decades, audiences have lone adored the eccentric crime-solver.

Of course, with a century’s worth of stories, it can be difficult to find new ways to bring the character to life. We’ve seen so many iterations – in what ways might one breathe new life into the Holmesian mythos?

Well … how about a sister?

“Enola Holmes,” newly streaming on Netflix, offers viewers a new path through this well-worn landscape. Based on the first book in a series of young adult novels by Nancy Springer, the film is directed by Harry Bradbeer from a script adapted by Jack Thorne. It introduces us to the titular Enola Holmes, a teenage girl whose intellectual talents are comparable to those of her far more famous older brothers.

There’s an undeniable charm to this film, a basic wholesomeness that is utterly appealing even as it occasionally veers into the realm of the cornball. It is goofy and fun, with a healthy sprinkling of empowerment and a top-notch collection of supporting talent, all in service of an absolute star turn from Millie Bobbie Brown, who plays the titular Enola and offers up a performance that is indicative of great things to come.

One thing that the Disney oeuvre has long been known for is the ubiquity of their princesses. While not EVERY Disney movie features princesses, we’ve seen enough to understand it for the tendency that it is.

Another thing that Disney is known for – though not for as long – is superheroes. As the stewards of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the powers that be at Disney have embraced the various tropes of that particular genre as well.

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us that they’ve decided to bring the two together.

“Secret Society of Second-Born Royals” – a Disney original currently streaming on Disney+ - seeks to bring these nigh-ubiquitous entertainment elements to bear in the same film. Directed by Anna Mastro from a script co-written by Alex Livak and Andrew Green, the superhero/princess mashup plucks elements from both genres and blends them together into an inoffensive smoothie that will go down easy and then promptly be forgotten.

Overall, it’s a (relatively) successful effort, though your mileage will almost certainly vary. It’s charming in its way, though the production values leave something to be desired. Kids will probably dig it, while parents will be able to tolerate it well enough. It’s not good enough to care about or bad enough to avoid – an adequate time-passer that leaves the door open for more.

Monday, 21 September 2020 15:05

Coal country noir – ‘The Devil All the Time’

Written by Allen Adams

The relationships that exist between people – and the motivations that drive them – are often the best fodder for storytelling. The reasons we do the things we do and the people for whom we do them can be the purest distillation of our character.

Novelist Donald Ray Pollock has a knack for evoking the dark side of that equation; his books are packed with the brutality and evil that people do even while feeling utterly justified in doing them.

That sense of physical and emotional violence is omnipresent in “The Devil All the Time,” an adaptation of Pollock’s 2011 novel of the same name. Directed by Antonio Campos from a screenplay he co-wrote with his brother Paulo, the film is set in midcentury West Virginia and Ohio and follows a sprawling collection of different characters through narratives whose connections – both overt and subtle – constantly ebb and flow toward one another.

It’s a story of sin, of the evil that even the pious are capable of if they can convince themselves of the righteousness of their acts. It’s a striking representation of the time and place, to be sure, while also featuring an incredible collection of talent in the cast. But that unrelenting representation of the dark side of human nature, the ongoing parade of terrible people doing terrible things for terrible reasons – it’s a lot. The bleakly entangled constancy of sex and violence and power and religion is frankly exhausting, though the excellent performances and quality filmmaking make it worth the undertaking nevertheless.

Genre filmmaking has long been used as a tool for social commentary. The trappings of sci-fi or horror or what have you give cover for filmmakers to deliver messaging that might be met with more resistance other arenas of expression. The extrapolation and/or exaggeration of typical mores can say a lot about the world.

“Antebellum” – currently available via VOD – certainly TRIES to say something, though whether it is ultimately successful is debatable. The movie, written and directed by first-time feature filmmaking duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, attempts to bring together the past and present of racism and white supremacist ideas in service of a horror story. Unfortunately, using real-life horrors as the basis for fictional ones requires a delicacy and sophistication that “Antebellum” can’t quite manage.

It’s a well-made film, with good performances. It just doesn’t deliver on the underlying ideas; instead, it reads as using historical atrocities as simple horror fodder, largely content to stay on the surface of the overt rather than diving fully into the ideological depths. This means that “Antebellum” feels more exploitative than it ought; it seems unlikely that that was the intent, but it rings wrong regardless.

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