In Case You Missed It – September 2018

Hey, geeks! So if you read last month’s entry on the indie scene from August, you’ll know that I’m already transitioning out of my focus on that aspect of the film market, mostly due to forces outside my control. And now that I’ve officially cut ties with MoviePass and my stint with Sinemia was short-lived, I’ve decided to revamp this series of articles into “In Case You Missed It.” Because, let’s be frank, there are so many movies out there it’d be impossible for a guy making $13/hr to cover everything and still take a shower once a day. So, without further ado, here’s a recap of the movies from September 2018 that you may have missed.

Boy, we sure have been getting some really politically and socially charged film projects in the last couple of years or so. And I don’t necessarily want to attribute that to one, particular happening in American current events, but it rhymes with Schmump Schmadministration. The Purge: Election Year and The First Purge have been excellent examples of this, save for actually being excellent films. Well, this may be the one we were looking for, as Assassination Nation has the directorial finesse and narrative stability to support its preponderance of sexual and sociopolitical pontifications. And though it could have fallen far short of palatable, it’s surprisingly apt at multitasking all the hyperactivity at play here.

In Assassination Nation, high school student Lily Colson (Odessa Young) has entered into a strictly sexting relationship with Nick (Joel McHale), the father of the kid whom she used to babysit, doing this unbeknownst to her boyfriend Mark (Bill Skarsgard). Meanwhile, an unknown hacker has disclosed the private information and photographs of the mayor (Cullen Moss) and principal (Colman Domingo), shaming them both and stirring the denizens and students into a state of ire and ridicule, respectively. It’s all well and good for now, until half the town’s things get leaked as well, including Lily’s sexts to Nick. Not only that, but she’s blamed for the hack as well, leading the more extreme townspeople to turn to vigilantism as a means of expunging the so-called source of their misfortune for good. Fearing for her life, Lily has only her friends Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), Bex (Hari Nef) and Em (Abra) to rely on. And rely on one another they must, if they’re to survive the night.

Taking cues from exploitation films to fuel the proceedings, Assassination Nation never ceases to engage even before the bullets start to fly. Essentially it’s one, continual build-up of pressure and tension until it just explodes into a cacophony of insanity, one that it entirely earns. And one could write this off as an hour-and-fifty-minute rant and exercise in bloodletting, but credit should be due to writer-director Sam Levinson, who not only turns in a tonally perfect screenplay but has enough filmic tricks up his sleeve for it to be a visual marvel as well as a mental one. While no one will be apt to see it while it’s playing, this is one I’d put money on becoming a cult classic in the years to come, and the perfect punctuation to a lot of the umbrages Americans have been festering as of late.

Final Score: 8/10

It was just in August that we were treated to the story of a female writer who lives in the shadow of her husband, who receives all of the credit and acclaim for her work, and to narcissistic effect at that. It was called The Wife, and featured a duo of powerful performances from Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, the former of whom is sure to make quite the go at Oscar gold come February. Well, no more than a month later, comes another drama that hits along very similar narrative beats, though is by no means perfectly analogous. For one, Colette centers on a factual person, the mononymous Colette, who at the time of her ghostwriting was producing the Claudine series, Claudine being largely based on herself and her own experiences. And it’s almost a shame that Colette will live in the shadow of Close and The Wife, for though Keira Knightley isn’t quite as phenomenal in the lead role, she’s nevertheless just as worthy of awards consideration and the movie as a whole is somewhat more refined. Indeed, Knightley shines in this Victorian, feminist story of identity and respect, and her chemistry with male lead Dominic West as her husband propels the crux of the narrative home. And it just goes to show, sometimes you just can’t beat a well acted historical drama.

Set around the turn of the 20th Century, Colette follows Frenchwoman Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), and her marriage to novelist Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), or “Willy,” as he’s known to readers. When the two come under dire straits, Colette begins to write her own material just to keep up with the Joneses, all of her potential work being published under Willy’s name. However, soon her first novel Claudine at School becomes a hit, and Willy is erroneously labeled a genius. This of course leads to Colette penning a series of Claudine novels, which sparks a sensation among young female readers and ups the couple’s social standings tenfold. However, not all is good in paradise, as Willy’s infidelity and fiscal irresponsibility rears its ugly head. Even Colette has an evolution of identity herself, her own sexual awakening striking up an affair with another woman and a romantic relationship with a transgender man known as Missy (Denise Gough). As Colette and Willy come under fire from some of the more antiquated members of the community, Colette will have to decide what her life after Claudine looks like, and whether she still wants the things she once did.

So even though there are plenty of themes of ownership, identity, and the like that Colette shares with The Wife, I’d argue that it’s actually a bit deeper. Namely, it has a lot to do with the sexual liberation movement and the feminist movement and what not, both of which resonate entirely with today’s sociological environment. And while it could have beaten you over the head with it, or perhaps even villainized West’s character to an unbearable degree, Colette shows restraint, and instead allows you to make certain connections. Which is good. We never want a movie to present us with perfect protagonists or irredeemable antagonists, at least not in one that goes for realistic characters. Still, Colette wants you in the eponymous character’s corner, and thanks to a tremendous performance from Keira Knightley, one that really hits you in the feels toward the end right where it should, we’re right there with her throughout. If we’re talking Oscar buzz, Knightley is really the best chance Colette has of garnering a nomination, aside from the obligatory Costume Design one. If I had to guess, I’d say she just misses the cut, with Close being the more likely of the two to get in. But let that not detract from any of the film’s strengths. In fact, this has to be the best period piece drama I’ve seen since 2015’s The Danish Girl.

Final Score: 9/10

A slasher killer in a spooky, scary theme park? Why hasn’t anyone thought of that before? And unless you count that guerrilla, freakshow Disneyland movie Escape from Tomorrow – horrifying for all the wrong reasons – they really never have. At least not in the way that Hell Fest does, keeping the terror simple by pitting six stupid kids against one hoodie-clad psychopath. The possibilities are endless, right? Not really, it turns out, as this slasher doesn’t quite have the gall to be fully ridiculous, even though it does seem to be self-aware.

In Hell Fest, college student Natalie (Amy Forsyth) reunites with her best friend Brooke (Reign Edwards), meeting Brooke’s new roommate Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) in the process. The girls are invited to attend a horror theme park called Hell Fest by mutual friend Gavin (Roby Attal), whom Brooke badgers Natalie to get especially acquainted with, if you know what she means. Also joining are Brooke and Taylor’s boyfriends Quinn (Christian James) and Asher (Matt Mercurio), respectively, as the group sets out on a night of thrills and chills. However, also entering the park is a mysterious stranger, who looks to take advantage of bloody atmosphere and dish out some of his own scares. While traipsing through a haunted house, Natalie comes across this stranger as he tracks down and executes another girl around her age. At first believing it to be part of the experience, Natalie is perturbed when she notices the same masked stranger following the group around the grounds. Her friends assuage her of her trepidations, but soon learn they too are being hunted by this maniac. Unable to convince anyone that the danger is real, the six friends must do whatever they can to keep their wits about them if they are to escape from Hell Fest with their lives.

I know I took the time to name every member of their party, but trust me and your instincts; they don’t matter. Hell Fest is about as serviceable a slasher flick as they come, not really committing to anything, not even its own scares. Aside from one inspired if goofy kill early on, Hell Fest quickly devolves into a tedious checking of boxes as it slowly slices its way to the climax. It may claim that it’s only 89 minutes, but they definitely feel like a full 110, using its interesting premise as nothing more than an explanation for its employment of clichés. I’m one of those people who will watch pretty much anything involving crazy people poking stupid teens with sharp objects, good or bad, but this is definitely on the lower echelon of the spectrum. Not to mention it gives us the biggest waste of the Candyman himself Tony Todd in a theme park-centered horror movie since Final Destination 3. That’s mostly just a joke, but it would seem like Hell Fest is a lot like your standard haunted house: plenty of presentation but not a lot of originality.

Final Score: 3/10

With A Star is Born getting recently remade for the third time, Hollywood again proves that it will retell the same stories until the inevitable heat death of the universe, especially if they’re so old they don’t even fall into the timeframe for copyright law to come into effect. Such is the case for 19th Century novelist Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which hasn’t received the adaptation treatment since 1994 when it starred Winona Ryder, too long for Hollywood’s standards. Well, 2018’s Little Women that barely even got released in theaters isn’t exactly Hollywood, as it instead comes from everyone’s favorite faith-based production company Pure Flix, makers of such instant classics as God’s Not Dead and The Case for Christ. I’m being sarcastic of course, but if a Christian angle would be a dealbreaker for you, fear not, as they actually managed to restrain themselves save for some choice necklaces here and there. Still, doesn’t mean the rest of the film isn’t total trash, which it is. Watching it, you’d be remiss to think it ever had a chance making it as an actual box office contender, or even an indie hit, as it seems more like a Lifetime movie that somehow managed to squeak its way into a few hundred theaters. I mean, when you hire Lucas Grabeel of High School Musical fame to be your leading heartthrob, you’ve gotta know it’s not legit, right?

In Little Women, aspiring writer Jo March (Sarah Davenport) is the second of four sisters, growing up with the likes of Beth (Allie Jennings), Meg (Melanie Stone), and Amy (Elise Jones). They live with their mother Marmee (Lea Thompson), as they await the return of their father (Bart Johnson) who is off to war. Together, the four sisters undergo various trials of love and coming-of-age, be it their friendship turned romance with neighbor Laurie Lawrence (Lucas Grabeel) or Beth’s sudden illness. As Jo struggles to find her voice under the tutelage of Professor Freddy Bhaer (Ian Bohen), she might just have to reconnect with her upbringing and sisterhood if she wants to become the woman she always envisioned herself to be.

If anything, this version of Little Women will remind you of how heartrending and seminal Alcott’s story truly is, because it shines through this at worst faithful adaptation. Unfortunately, it just so happens to be at its worst just about all the time, coming across as more of a filmed stage production than an actual film. Particularly heinous is the futility of the actors, who rob the narrative of its emotionality and humor. For instance, I’m aware that Jo March isn’t supposed to be the most likable character throughout the first half of the story or so, but man, was Davenport’s embodiment of her downright uncomplimentary. Still, it could be that I’m being too hard on her, seeing as certain character traits carried over to modern times just paints her as a stuck-up, self-deserving wannabe, which obviously kept me from rooting for the inevitable happy ending. Now, even if you’re an Alcott fanatic who’s chomping at the bit to see another rendition, you still might want to skip this one, as actual Hollywood is swooping in to do another definitive version in hardly a year’s time, just in time for Christmas 2019. And seeing as it’s starring Emma Watson and Meryl Streep, and is being helmed by Lady Bird‘s Greta Gerwig, it seems to be in good hands. That, of course, pretty much dooms this Little Women to be forgotten in the annals of movie history, and so be it. I wouldn’t even watch it years from now if it showed up on ABC Family, if that’s still a thing.

Final Score: 1/10

Period dramas can be naturally rough watches, even if they’re good. And that’s largely due in fact to the mannerisms of the times, the reticence and characteristic restraint not translating to modern audiences, even if there’s a story to tell. Still, some stories perennially connect regardless, like Pride & Prejudice or Little Women. And other times you get something like Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, perfectly respectable dramas but perhaps inaccessible in opposition to their dour tone, as Lizzie seems to fall into that latter camp. While it tells a well-known yet unsolved, true crime that hasn’t ever gotten the proper filmic treatment, it does have that similar air of aloofness, in so far that it at least expects the audience to unpack and engage. Still, it’s a well-acted and well-put-together piece, one that doesn’t exhibit many other faults structurally.

Set in 1892 Massachusetts, Lizzie follows the plight of the Borden family, a well-off yet frugal and socially uninvolved bunch whose inner dynamics spells doom for the household. Specifically it follows Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny), an unmarried woman in her thirties still living under the protection of her controlling father William (Jay Huguley) and mother Abby (Fiona Shaw). Struggling to to find her own identity, Lizzie strikes up a friendship with the family’s new housemaid Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), an Irish expatriate, which begins to evolve into something much more intimate. Soon it is believed that Lizzie’s Uncle John (Denis O’Hare) aims to scam her and her sister Emma (Kim Dickens) out of their inheritance, creating tension in the household. Add to the fact that Bridget is being sexually assaulted by William, and suddenly Lizzie begins to the hatch the malevolent machinations we best know her for today.

There have been various takes on the Lizzie Borden legend over the years, but never one that solidified itself as the definitive version. And seeing as there’s multiple interpretations on the matter, it’s likely that we never will, just like we’ll probably never get a biopic glorifying the legendary D.B. Cooper, seeing as no one knows who he was. That being said, Lizzie is about just as suitable a retelling as one would hope, as it includes one of the more modern, progressive theories to give the conflict a little extra oomph. While it can be tedious at times, it’s still fairly well made and features a pair of sublime performances from Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart. Definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in the history behind it.

Final Score: 7/10

Last year a comedy came out about a bunch of old geezers gearing up to rob a bank when their pension gets pulled. It starred Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin, and it was called Going in Style, a remake of the 1979 film of the same name. Except it wasn’t very good, lacking the comedic vigor to really hit home. Well, here’s the real-life version of that movie to whet your gullet, and instead of being helmed by everyone’s favorite director and Scrubs alum Zach Braff, The Old Man & the Gun is done by David Lowery, the guy who somehow made the remake of Pete’s Dragon work. And that makes all of the difference as not only is it astoundingly beautiful, it’s also understatedly profound and poignant. Not to mention it gives us perhaps one of Robert Redford’s finest performances, and if he’s to be believed, his last.

Set in 1981, The Old Man & the Gun follows the “mostly true” exploits of Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford), a man who has robbed countless banks with nothing but his friendly demeanor and broken out of nearly two dozen prisons, not for the love of money, but for the love of the game. Oftentimes joined by his partners Teddy Green (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits), Tucker has been making a living and just plain living all throughout the midwest. Enter Texan Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), a family man whose determination to catch Tucker makes him the Batman to Tucker’s Joker, and Tucker couldn’t be more pleased. However, his desires are complicated when he encounters the widowed Jewel (Sissy Spacek), as their friendship and light courtship make him question whether it might be time hang up his act for good.

I don’t know why, but this movie kind of reminds me of my grandpa. Not the most profound statement, as I’m sure a lot of people could have the same reaction, but there’s something about the tone and ethos of the film that give it that kind of easygoing yet retrospective vibe that Lowery seems to be able to inject into all of his projects one way or another. It’s light and wry but it also manages to be rather poignant in its depiction of aging and doing what you love and the ramifications of both that it can’t help but tickle your soul. That being said, this is also Redford’s movie through and through, as from the first scene to the last he makes the viewer fall in love with him much like Tucker does to everyone else, even at gunpoint. And with the one-two punch of the director and star, I still can’t get The Old Man & the Gun out of my head days later, it being so subtly enchanting. It likely won’t generate any major awards buzz, but I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see Redford pick up a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor – Musical or Comedy.

Final Score: 9/10

I know it might be hard to imagine, but just over ten years ago there was a time when few people thought of Liam Neeson as an action star. Yeah, he was in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace and Batman Begins, but it wasn’t really until Taken came along and people were so, well, taken with it that his career took on the trajectory that we know it for today. And though this probably isn’t totally analogous, it looks like something of a similar ilk is being done with Jennifer Garner, at least for this one vigilante romp, Peppermint. And you may remind me that she was Elektra – though I’d rather you didn’t – but when people think of her they still think 13 Going on 30 and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. And even though her past action exploits are often met with groans, she kind of nails it here. So it’s actually too bad the movie around her is garbage. While the fight scenes are commendable in their own right, Peppermint is so inanely constructed and plot hole-ridden it’s hard to believe no one thought to do another rewrite on this thing.

In Peppermint, workaholic mom Riley North (Jennifer Garner) is devastated when she witnesses the drive-by assassination of her husband Chris (Jeff Hephner) and ten-year-old daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming), after Chris makes enemies of the cartel. Barely surviving the attack herself, Riley soon bemoans the subsequent pardoning of the men responsible. Forced to go on the run when her mental condition is called into question, Riley spends five years in hiding planning and training for the day she will take revenge on those who killed her family and those who did nothing about it. When that day finally comes, the streets run red with the blood of the guilty as Riley quickly makes her way up the chain of command, all while dodging law enforcement. With the people are largely in support of her cleansing the area of corruption, those close to her are left to question if she’s a hero, or just another villain.

Now, even though I kind of made it sound deep and meaningful, Peppermint is not, and when it tries to be, it just comes off as tacky and unoriginal. Not only that, but too many times was I taken out of the experience when impossible things happen with zero explanation, almost as if the script supervisor in charge of verisimilitude was on vacation. Seriously, I felt like I was prepping to write a video of CinemaSins the way I was constantly doubting the events depicted. And it doesn’t help matters that what is onscreen is largely hacked to pieces by the editing process as it haphazardly flails to find an identity. I’m glad Jennifer Garner got the chance to shine in a way we haven’t seen in a good while, and I’d be interested to see her kick ass again, but as it stands Peppermint is already down there with her Elektra solo movie in terms of hokeyness.

Final Score: 1/10

Founded in 2013, Warner Animation Group has been the subsidiary studio in charge of helming the bigger Bros.’s animated features, best known for splashing onto the scene with The Lego Movie in 2014 and following up that brand with The Lego Batman Movie and The Lego Ninjago Movie in 2017. Not the worst track record for such a nascent production company, if you ask me, though I can’t speak to their sophomore effort Storks. Well, excluding that last one, it would seem they’ve hit a new bottom with Smallfoot, if only by default. While not an inferior feature in terms of the animation style by any means, there’s not really a whole lot novel here, it trodding along familiar comedic and thematic beats that even kids will probably recognize. Not bad by any means, but saying it could have used a kick in the creativity department would be fair.

Smallfoot centers on a community of yetis perched atop a wintry mountain in Nepal, they believing their niche corner in the world is all there is to behold. However, there exists disbelievers among them who buy into the theory there are such creatures as “smallfoots.” It isn’t until one crashes a plane outside their village that the yeti Migo (Channing Tatum) is able to confirm that. Unable to prove to the others that he saw what he saw, Migo ventures below the ring of clouds that circles their peak in the hopes of bringing one back as proof. Upon locating a smallfoot village, he comes across down-on-his-luck nature documentarian Percy Patterson (James Corden), whom he selects to take back. While the yetis and Percy are initially in equal awe of one another, Migo learns that there might in fact be a reason yetis are independent of smallfoots, and that such a discovery could have irreversible consequences on their civilization. Meanwhile, Percy will have to decide whether resurrecting his declining career is worth coming at the expense of the yetis as a species.

This movie is largely about questioning pre-established norms and staying curious else civilization – yeti or smallfoot – become complacent or ignorant. Not a bad message to send to the kids, but then again not one we haven’t already seen before, Sausage Party for instance giving a much more nuanced critique of religion and tradition. Even the whole flip-flopped narrative archetype – here with yetis fearing and fabling about humans, instead of the other way around – is a relatively trite approach to kids movies, even something as bad as Planet 51 constructing its entire premise around it. That’s not to say Smallfoot is without charms though, as it does get some mileage out of a couple catchy songs performed by the likes of Zendaya and Common, the latter getting the best of the bunch. For the most part, I was willing to give the film a passing grade for being enthusiastic if a bit light, but a head-scratching denouement that effectively undoes what the climax established not three minutes before brought it back down to earth for me. Oh well. I’d say Warner Animation Group should stick to the Lego stuff, but we’ve probably been pushing our luck enough as it is.

Final Score: 5/10

Not that there is one, but if there were ever an award to be given for Best Movie Title, this should definitely be in the mix. Unfortunately that didn’t do a whole lot to sway audiences to see it, since it didn’t even recoup its admittedly hefty $29 million budget. Which surprised me, at least a little bit, seeing as how hard they pushed it and how well its trailer was cut – cut even better than the movie itself, as a matter of fact. Not to say that White Boy Rick is bad at all, but there are times when the fascinating, real-life stories of these dynamic people loom larger than the filmic treatment they’re given. While this biopic surrounds itself with talented actors to lend the narrative the proper gravitas, it doesn’t entirely amount to a whole lot, hammering home the maxim that sometimes things can be less than the sum of its parts.

In White Boy Rick, FBI Agents Alex Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Frank Byrd (Rory Cochrane) knock on the door of Detroit denizen Richard Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) in the hopes of getting information on the gang leaders he’s selling guns to, but Wershe keeps mum. Overhearing the conversation however is Wershe’s fifteen-year-old son Richard “Rick” Wershe Jr. a.k.a. “White Boy Rick” (Richie Merritt), who is soon similarly accosted. Having some insider knowledge himself, Rick agrees to work with the feds as an informant as he continues to build relations within the community, all in the hopes of securing a more stable future for his family. However, the longer Rick stays in contact with the FBI and the deeper his involvement with the gangs, the further he puts himself at risk of discovery, not to mention everyone he loves. And he may just be overestimating how much both sides truly value him.

Beginning shortly after the turn of the decade with The Lincoln Lawyer, the “McConaughssance” has taken a reprieve of sorts in recent years after cresting with his Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club, but if there was ever an indication that it was still going strong, it’s this film here. While certainly not the central character, he does do great work in disappearing into the role, and provides much of the emotional heft towards the crux of the story. Having said that, the real standout is Richie Merritt, who is so good here it’s astounding to note that this is just his first film role. While neither he nor McConaughey will likely be up for awards consideration this year, look for both of them to have even better follow-ups to this. Still, narratively speaking, White Boy Rick is somewhat lax in delivering the goods. I think somewhere along the way of staying true to its subject and history – a commendable intent – someone forgot to decide what the underlying point of it all was when there are about a thousand other equally noteworthy people they could’ve done a piece on too. It’s an entertaining film, through and through, but it didn’t go the extra mile nearly enough to be special. Still, worth checking out.

Final Score: 6/10

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