Sundance Film Review: Old Enough (dir by Marisa Silver)


(As I sit here writing this, the Sundance Film Festival is currently in full swing in Utah.  Starting last Thursday with Blood Simple, I have been reviewing films that originally made a splash at Sundance.)

As I mentioned in my review of Circle of Power, the Sundance Film Festival was not always the Sundance Film Festival.  For the first few years of its existence, it was known as the US Film Festival.  It wasn’t until 1984 that the US Film Festival became the Sundance Film Festival.  (And let’s be honest — as far as names go, Sundance is a huge improvement over its generic predecessor.)  That year, the inaugural Sundance Grand Jury Prize was awarded to a coming-of-age story called Old Enough.

Old Enough is a New York movie, one that follows Lonnie (Sarah Boyd) and Karen (Rainbow Harvest) over one eventful summer.  Lonnie is 12 years old.  She lives in a nice apartment and she attends an exclusive private school.  She has a close relationship with her mother (Susan Kingsley) while her father is a stuffy snob.  From the minute that Lonnie first sees Karen, she wants to be her best friend.  Karen is a year or two older and her family is definitely not rich.  Karen is uninhibited and, on the outside at least, totally confident.  Lonnie is envious of Karen’s freedom.  Karen is envious of Lonnie’s stability.  From that, an unlikely friendship is born.

At first, the film focuses on how much Lonnie looks up to Karen.  Karen wears makeup so Lonnie starts to wear makeup.  Karen is Catholic so Lonnie decides to be Catholic as well.  Karen shoplifts so Lonnie gives it a try.  Karen tries to dress like Lonnie and she even tries to navigate the streets of New York with the same confidence.  It’s only later in the film, when Lonnie attempts to introduce Karen to her friends from school, that it becomes clear that Karen is as out of place in Lonnie’s world as Lonnie is in Karen’s.

The film is at its best when it concentrates on the friendship between Karen and Lonnie.  There’s a wonderful scene where Karen and Lonnie go up to the roof of Karen’s apartment building and take in the beautiful view of New York City at night.  It’s a scene that perfectly captures what it’s like to be young and to know that there’s an amazing world out there, waiting for you to discover it.  And then there’s an extended shoplifting scene, one that I absolutely loved even if it did bring back enough memories to make me cringe just a bit.

Old Enough struggles during it second half, when the focus shifts from Karen and Lonnie’s friendship to Lonnie’s crush on Karen’s older brother, Johnny (Neil Barry).  Johnny, however, is obsessed with the new neighbor (Roxanne Hart), who may be having an affair with Karen’s father (Danny Aiello).  Those scenes feel a bit forced, as if Robert McKee suddenly popped up and said, “Time for Act III!”

No, the heart of the film is in Karen and Lonnie’s friendship.  Both Sarah Boyd and Rainbow Harvest gave very naturalistic and believable performances as the two unlikely friends.  By the end of the movie, you’re happy they got to spend a summer together even though you know they probably won’t still be friends in another five years.  It’s a sweet movie, one that provides a very realistic portrait of growing up.

If you’ve never heard of Old Enough, you’re not alone.  Until I started doing research for these reviews, I had never heard of it, either.  Some times good movies are forgotten.  That’s why it’s important to always keep looking.

As of this writing, Old Enough can be viewed on YouTube.

Previous Sundance Film Reviews:

  1. Blood Simple
  2. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
  3. Circle of Power
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What Lisa Watched Last Night #174: Cocaine Godmother (dir by Guillermo Navarro)


Last night, I watched the Lifetime gangster epic, Cocaine Godmother!

Why Was I Watching It?

You can find the answer in this review’s opening sentence.  Cocaine Godmother was a gangster epic that was made for Lifetime!  How insane is that!

Add to that, the life of Griselda Blanco has, as of late, become a very popular subject matter.  Ever since everyone went crazy over a documentary called Cocaine Cowboys, there have been Griselda films in development.  Though Cocaine Godmother may have been the first to premiere, HBO has a film coming out starring Jennifer Lopez as Griselda.  There’s also another film in development, one which will star  Catalina Sandino Morena as the Godmother.  Apparently, 2018 is going to be the year of Griselda.

What Was It About?

The film follows Griselda Blanco (played, as an adult, by Catherine Zeta-Jones), from her youth all the way to her assassination in 2012.  Griselda grows up in horrific poverty in Colombia, pimped out by her own mother and committing her first murder when a man refuses to pay her.  Griselda tries to escape through a conventional marriage but, when that doesn’t work out, she marries a series of drug smugglers and soon proves herself to be just as ruthless and violent as any of her male rivals.  When she’s not snorting cocaine, she’s murdering husbands, mistresses, and even children.  It’s tempting to say that Griselda’s only redemption is to be found in the love she feels for her sons and for Carolina (Jenny Pellicer) but, actually, there is no redemption for anyone in this movie.  From beginning to end, everyone’s terrible.

What Worked?

Somehow, the entire film worked.  You don’t necessarily expect to see an effective and violent gangster film on Lifetime but somehow, Cocaine Godmother pulled it off.

Two things held this film together.  One was Catherine Zeta-Jones’s performance as Griselda Blanco.  Whether she was casually snorting cocaine on an airplane, explaining why children have to be killed along with their parents, or gunning down one of her husbands, Zeta-Jones was never less than compelling.

Secondly, there was Guillermo Navarro’s direction, which never allowed the pace to slacken.  For a two hour and thirty minute film, Cocaine Godmother was mercifully free of slow spots.  Considering that he was working under the restraints of television, Navarro did a great job bringing Girselda’s story to life.

What Did Not Work?

I was a little worried when I first heard the narrator.  Narrators are usually a sign of doom in a Lifetime movie and there were a few times when the narration got a bit too obvious.  That said, it was only a minor issue.  For the most part, the entire film worked.

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments

Griselda may have been a terrible person but she had great tastes in movies.  For instance, we both appreciate The Godfather films.  That said, unlike Griselda, I probably wouldn’t name my son after Michael Corleone.  I’d be more likely to name him after Tom Hagan because Tom made all the money but he never had to shoot anyone.

Lessons Learned

Don’t get high on your own supply.

The TSL’s Grindhouse: A Boy And His Dog (dir by L.Q. Jones)


(Nearly every Saturday night, the Late Night Movie Gang and I watch a movie.  On January 20th, we watched the 1975 science fiction satire, A Boy and His Dog.)

A Boy and His Dog begins, quite literally, with a bang.  A bang followed by a mushroom cloud.  And then a second mushroom cloud.  And then another.  And another.  When the explosions finally stop, we are informed that World War IV only lasted five days.  Of course, it destroyed most of society.  The year is now 2024 and … well, things aren’t great.

(For those of you keeping track, that means we’ve got another six years left.  Enjoy them!)

The world is now a barren wasteland, an endless stretch of desert.  There are a handful of survivors but they’re not exactly the types who you would want to survive an apocalypse.  Take Vic, for instance.  Vic (played by Don Johnson) is an absolute moron.  He can’t read.  He’s not very good at thinking.  He has no conscience.  He’s someone who kills and rapes without giving it a second thought.  When Vic isn’t scavenging for food and supplies, he’s obsessing on sex.  When we first meet him, the only thing redeeming about Vic is that almost everyone else in the world is even worse than he is.

That Vic has managed to survive for as long as he has is something of a minor miracle.  Vic has been lucky enough to team up with a dog named Blood.  Blood is not only surprisingly intelligent but he’s also telepathic.  Unfortunately, the same experiment that granted him telepathy also caused him to lose his instinct as a hunter.  So, Blood and Vic have an arrangement.  Vic keeps Blood supplied with food and Blood helps Vic track down women.

Blood’s voice is provided by actor Tim McIntire and, from the minute we first hear him, it becomes obvious that Blood may be cute on the outside but, on the inside, it’s a totally different story.  Blood rarely has a good word for anyone or anything.  He delights in annoying Vic, calling him “Albert” while still demanding that Vic get him food.  He’s a surprisingly well-read dog but you wouldn’t necessarily want to get stuck in a kennel with him.  Much as with Vic, Blood’s only redeeming trait is that everyone else is marginally worse than he is.

(Sadly, if there was an apocalypse like the one that starts this movie, most of the survivors probably would be like Vic.  The only people who would survive something like that would be the people who were solely looking out for themselves.)

A Boy and His Dog is a highly episodic film, following Vic and Blood as they wander across the wasteland and bicker.  They fight other scavengers.  They spend a rather depressing night at a makeshift movie theater.  Eventually, they come across a young woman named Quilla June (Suanne Benton).  Blood dislikes her but Vic says he’s in love.  (Mostly, he’s just excited that he’s now having sex regularly.)  Eventually, through a whole series of events, Vic discovers an underground city named Topeka, where everyone wears clown makeup.  The head of the town (Jason Robards) informs Vic that his sperm will be used to impregnate 35 women.  Vic is excited until he finds out that reproduction in Topeka is a matter of artificial insemination.

(Both the wasteland and Topeka are nightmarish in their own different ways.  The wasteland is world without morality or compassion.  Topeka is a world where everyone looks like a mime, there’s always a marching band, and order is maintained by a robot wearing overalls.)

Of course, while Vic is dealing with life underground, Blood waits above ground.  By the end of the film, Vic is forced to make a choice between settling down or remaining loyal to his dog.  It all leads to a final comment from Blood that will either make you laugh or throw a shoe at your TV.  I did both.

A Boy and His Dog is a strange movie.  It definitely isn’t for everyone.  It’s a comedy but the humor is pitch black.  Still, that strangeness — along with the talent of the dog playing Blood and Tim McIntire’s savagely sarcastic voice work — is what makes the film watchable.  There’s literally no other film like A Boy and His Dog.  By the time Vic ends up in Topeka, the film has become almost a fever dream of apocalyptic paranoia and satire.  The ultimate message of the film appears to be that the apocalypse would really suck so let’s try to not blow each other up.

Who can’t get behind that?

 

Film Review: 12 Strong (dir by Nicolai Fuglsig)


12 Strong begins with a montage of terror.

The World Trade Center is bombed in 1993.  Planes are bombed.  Ships are attacked.  Bill Clinton gives a speech in which he impotently condemns Al-Qaeda.  Finally, we reach September 11th, 2001.  Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is playing with his daughter when she suddenly looks up at the TV behind him.  “Look, Daddy,” she says.  Nelson turns around and sees The World Trade Center on fire.

Even though he’s recently announced his intention to retire, Nelson reports for duty.  Despite the skepticism of his commanding officer (Rob Riggle), Nelson and 11 others are sent into Afghanistan.  Their mission is to meet up with a warlord named Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) and to capture territory from the Taliban.  Nelson is initially given 6 weeks to complete this task.  Nelson replies that he’ll get it done in three, before the harsh Afghan winter makes it impossible to move through the mountains.

Among the actors who make up Nelson’s team: Michael Shannon, Trevante Rhodes, Austin Stowell, and Geoff Stults.  Fortunately, the cast is made up of familiar faces.  Even though you might not learn everyone’s name, you still feel as if you know them because you’ve seen all of them playing similar roles in other movies.  (After his performance in Moonlight, it’s a bit disappointing to see Trevante Rhodes playing such a minor supporting role in his follow-up but still, he’s a charismatic actor and he has enough screen presence that he definitely makes an impression.)  Somewhat inevitably, Michael Pena plays the funny member of the team.  It’s not a 21st century action film without Michael Pena providing comedic relief.

(That’s actually a little unfair to Michael Pena, who is a good actor and who gives a pretty good performance in 12 Strong.  It’s just that he’s played this role so many times that it’s almost become a cliché that every action movie will feature Micheal Pena making jokes.)

When the team first meets up with Dostum, there’s immediate tension between the supposed allies.  As Dostum puts it, the United States only cares about getting rid of the Taliban but they don’t care about what will happen afterward.  When Dostum looks at Nelson, he immediately announces that Nelson does not have killer eyes.  Everyone else on the team has killer eyes but not Nelson.  Dostum and his men are even less impressed when they see the Americans struggling to ride the horses that are required to get through the mountains.  Will Nelson win Dostum’s respect?  Will he develop the eyes of a killer?

You probably already know the answer to that.  There’s really not a single moment in 12 Strong that you won’t see coming.  As soon as Dostum says that Nelson needs to prove himself in battle, you know that he’ll get a chance to do just that.  As soon as another soldier talks about home, you know that he’s going to be seriously wounded.  When you first spot the child soldiers among Dostum’s forces and you see one of them give Nelson a nervous smile, you know that child’s probably going to be one of the first casualties of the attack.

12 Strong is a predictable movie but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad one.  It’s a well-made film, with the cast all giving strong performances and director Nicolai Fuglsig doing a good job with the battle scenes.  My heart was racing during the film’s final battle.  New Mexico doubled for Afghanistan and the film features some truly stunning shots of the mountainous landscape.  The film even makes a point about why, after 17 years, there still doesn’t appear to be any end in sight to the War in Afghanistan.

Clocking in at 2 hours and 9 minutes, 12 Strong is probably about thirty minutes too long.  It’s a predictable movie but it’s well-made and the fact that it’s based on a true story does make it a bit more poignant than it would be otherwise.  It’s not a bad war film, particularly for January.

Film Review: Forever My Girl (dir by Bethany Ashton Wolf)


Forever My Girl is a film about a country music star who doesn’t understand how voicemail works.

It’s been nearly a decade since Liam Pace (Alex Roe) fled his Louisiana hometown.  On the plus side, fleeing his town gave Liam the chance to become a country music star.  He plays to sell-out crowds.  His manager keeps him endlessly supplied with groupies and vodka.  Apparently, he once got so strung out that, afterward, he didn’t even remember telling his father, the Reverend (John Benjamin Hickey), that he never wanted to talk to him again.  The Reverend Pace did have some important news to give to Liam but … oh well.

On the negative side, when Liam fled his hometown, he also left behind his fiancée, Josie (Jessica Rohe).  In fact, they were supposed to be married on the day that Liam left town.  Eight years ago, Josie left him one message.  Every day since then, Liam has listened to that voicemail.  When a groupie accidentally steps on his ancient flip phone, Liam freaks and ends up running barefoot to the closest phone store.  He’s chased by a group of adoring fans.  Video of barefoot Liam goes viral!  Liam doesn’t care.  He’s just desperate to get the phone repaired because, again, Liam doesn’t understand how voicemail works.

(As we learn later in the film, Liam also doesn’t understand how to order stuff online.  He doesn’t even carry his own credit cards.  He’s a celebrity.  People do stuff for him.)

Anyway, when an old friend of Liam’s dies, Liam returns to his hometown for the funeral.  He doesn’t actually attend the funeral, of course.  He just sits outside the church and listens to his Dad give the eulogy.  Josie, when she spots him, proceeds to punch him in the stomach and then introduce him to her daughter, Billie (Abby Ryder Fortson).  Billie is cute and adorable and 7 years old…

OH MY GOD!

LIAM HAS A DAUGHTER!

(Personally, I think it would have been funny if Josie had replied, “No, she’s your best friend’s daughter and she was conceived right after I called you and left that message…”)

Nobody in town thinks that Liam will ever be responsible enough to be a good father.  They’re probably all looking at him and thinking, “How is he going to be a father when he’s still using a flip phone from 2008?”  But Liam is determined to prove that he can be a good father and also to win back Josie.  Fortunately, it doesn’t turn out to be too hard to win back Josie.  Apparently, she hasn’t had a date in 8 years.  But being a good father, that’s another challenge all together…

Forever My Girl, which is based on a novel by Heidi McLaughlin, is being advertised as a film for people “who love Nicholas Sparks movies.”  Superficially, Forever My Girl may look similar to a Nicholas Sparks adaptation but actually, it’s never comes close to equaling the over the top melodrama of a good Nicholas Sparks film.  If anything, Forever My Girl is such a mild and innocuous film that it feels more like something you’d expect to find on the Hallmark Channel rather than playing in theaters.  You could easily imagine the film being turned into a television series where, every week, Liam would learn another lesson that would lead to him better appreciating small town life.

Forever My Girl is a sweet-natured movie and Alex Roe and Jessica Rothe are appealing in the lead roles.  It’s a film that doesn’t feature people shooting guns or blowing stuff up and, for some people, that’s going to provide a nice diversion from the usual January releases.  But, ultimately, the film is too thin and insubstantial to make much of a lasting impression.

Sundance Film Review: Circle of Power (dir by Bobby Roth)


With the Sundance Film festival currently taking place in Utah, I am currently reviewing films that originally made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival!

(a.k.a. Circle of Power, Mystique, Naked Weekend, and probably a handful of other titles)

The Sundance Film Festival wasn’t always the Sundance Film Festival.

Up until 1984, it was known as the US Film Festival.  Because of the involvement of Robert Redford, it was something of a big deal but still nowhere as big a deal as it is today.  In fact, many of the films that were showcased and celebrated at the US Film Festival have slipped into obscurity.  While winning an award at the US Film Festival may have been nice a ego boost for an independent filmmaker, it certainly didn’t bring a film anywhere near the amount of attention that winning at Sundance does now.

Take the long and strange saga of Circle of Power, for instance.

From my own research, it appears that Circle of Power was originally filmed in 1980.  At that time, it was called Mystique.  It premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1981.  A year later, under the title Circle of Power, it played at the US Film Festival.  It was awarded the Dramatic prize (which was the forerunner for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize).

After that, it still took Circle of Power two years to achieve national distribution.  In 1984, when it was reviewed by Roger Ebert, the film had been released as Naked Weekend, a title that was as commercial as it was misleading.  (There is nudity in the film but probably not the type of nudity that Naked Weekend‘s audience was expecting.)  By the time the film was finally released on VHS, it had picked up yet another title: Brainwash.

That’s the poster for Brainwash at the top of this video.  There are two images on that poster.  One is of a woman holding a riding crop and showing off her bra.  The other is of a naked man in a cage.  Only the latter image actually appears in the movie.

The film’s distributors were obviously trying to sell Circle of Power as an exploitation film.  Actually, it’s not.  It’s … well, it’s hard to describe what exactly it is.  It starts out with a title card, informing us that what we’re about to see is based on a true story.  The rest of the film deals with a group of executives and their wives who are required to spend the weekend attending a “training course” at a beautiful hotel.  The weekend gets off to a good start, with lots of dancing and laughing.  Of course, none of the executives seem to notice that the hotel staff is watching them with a mix of scorn and pity.

(The film continually contrasts the privileged white executives with the largely black and Hispanic hotel staff.)

Before the training sessions begin, all of the executives and their wives are forced to sign a paper that states they understand that they will be psychologically and physically abused over the weekend.  Only one executive objects and he is quickly bullied into signing by his co-workers.  Apparently, they can’t do the training unless everyone agrees to sign.

The men and the women are separated.  (Interestingly, all of the executives are men.)  The men are “trained” by Bianca Ray (Yvete Mimieux, who is chilling in her final performance to date) while the women are left with Jordan Carelli (John Considine).  The training turns out to be a combination of ego stripping and physical abuse.  One overweight executive (Walter Olkewicz) is ordered to strip naked and is then locked in a cage, where food is dumped on him.  An alcoholic is forced to lay down in a coffin.  Soon, everyone is covered in bruises.  What’s remarkable is that only one executive and his wife actually seems to find any of this to be objectionable.  In fact, everyone else reacts to the abuse by hugging their abusers and crying for joy.

It’s a strange little film, one that often seems to be unsure of what it’s saying but which, at the same time, still possesses an undeniable power.  The film may be 38 years old but brainwashing is a timeless subject.  One need only spend an hour or two on twitter to see how easily people can be brainwashed.  While the film probably disappointed those seeking a naked weekend, it’s still an undeniably watchable oddity.

Previous Sundance Film Reviews:

  1. Blood Simple
  2. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

Sundance Film Review: I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (dir by Macon Blair)


(With the Sundance Film Festival currently taking place in Colorado, I am currently reviewing films that originally made a splash at Sundance!)

This is a sad story.

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore created quite a stir when it premiered at Sundance last year.  It may be hard to believe but, for a brief while, this film has just as much Sundance buzz as both Mudbound and Get Out.  It even won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, which has helped to launch many independent films into the public consciousness.

So, why isn’t I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore a better known film?

Unfortunately, the distribution rights for this film were purchased by Netflix.  With very little fanfare and, as far as I can tell, not even the briefest of theatrical releases, Netflix started streaming I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore on February 24th.  With Netflix putting most of its promotional muscle behind Mudbound, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore has been somewhat overlooked.  You can watch it, of course.  You can go on Netflix and you’ll find it sitting there with Sandy Wexler and maybe a Uwe Boll dragon movie.  Obviously, some distribution is better than no distribution and I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is probably too quirky of a movie to have ever set the box office on fire but still, it’s hard not to feel that this movie deserved better.

It tells the story of Ruth (Melanie Lynesky), a nursing assistant who is having a bad day.  One her patients dies.  She has to deal with an elderly racist.  She gets stuck in traffic and can only watch helplessly as a truck spews toxic exhaust into the environment.  When she stops off at a bar and tries to read book, a stranger casually tells her how the it ends.  As you can guess from the film’s title, this is not the world in which Ruth wants to live.  While she’s not the type to demand perfection, would it kill people to be just a little bit considerate?

Things get even worse when Ruth returns home and discovers that someone has broken into her house.  Whoever it was didn’t get away with much, just some medication, some silverware, and Ruth’s laptop.  The police are indifferent and basically blame Ruth, telling her that it’s her own fault for leaving her door unlocked.  Her neighbors are even less helpful, all claiming that they didn’t see anyone breaking into Ruth’s house.  No one seems to care.

No one but Tony.

Tony (who is played by Elijah Wood) is one of Ruth’s neighbors.  He likes to listen to heavy metal music.  He likes to work out.  He claims to be an expert in martial arts.  We’ve all known someone like Tony.  However, it turns out that Tony is the only person as upset about the break-in as Ruth is.

Tony and Ruth work together to try to track down Ruth’s stuff.  It starts out fairly simple but then gets progressively more complicated (and violent) as things go on.  Ruth and Tony become unlikely heroes.  (In one of the film’s more memorable moments, Ruth witnesses a sudden burst of violence and reacts by throwing up.)  The world may tell Ruth and Tony that they should just accept things the way that they are but Ruth and Tony aren’t willing to do that…

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore was directed by Macon Blair, who previously starred in the thematically similar Blue Ruin.  It’s not a perfect film, of course.  There are a few uneven moments but, overall, the film is strong enough that I can’t wait to see what Blair follows it up with.  The best thing about the film is that it provides lead roles to Melanie Lynesky and Elijah Wood, two quirky and appealing actors who rarely seem to get the parts that they really deserve.  As played by Lynesky and Wood, both Ruth and Tony are so likable and sincere in their desire to make the world a better place that you can’t help but wish the best for both of them.

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a good film and definitely one that deserves more attention than it’s received.  It’s on Netflix so, the next time you’re trying to decide what to watch, why not take a chance on it?

Previous Sundance Film Reviews:

  1. Blood Simple