Tag Archives: film review

Review: ‘The Lodge,’ Long on Atmosphere, Short on Everything Else

dfn_the-lodge_300As The Shining showed us almost 40 years ago, nothing good ever comes from a deteriorating mind in an isolated, snow-bound place. In Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s new horror film The Lodge, substituting for Jack Nicholson’s crumbling facade into homicidal impulses is the always interesting Riley Keough as Grace, sent packing with her new boyfriend and his two younger children (Lia McHugh and Jaeden Martell) to their winter house after a terrible incident best not revealed here.

The deck is stacked against Grace fairly quickly, as her earnest attempts to get to know the children are muddled when the electricity goes out, the man of the house is away and Grace’s mysterious past — initially established as something quite discomfiting — begins to manifest itself in chilling ways.

With atmosphere to burn and a shadowy aesthetic, illuminated mostly by natural light and the halos of flashlights, The Lodge works best in its first half, establishing an eerie aura. Like Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), the film begins on a somber gut-punch of violence, swelling with a sadness that it never quite regains as it tries to weave in and out of the scattered mind of Grace. And Keough, for her part, is utterly watchable and believable.

Outside of her frazzled performance, however, The Lodge missteps fairly often. Extremely hollow in its cruelty and repetitive in its narrative, anyone familiar with the previous work of Fiala and Franz, including Goodnight Mommy (2014), will detect the similarities and how much of a companion piece this work is to the filmmakers’ previous psychological horror film. Both films portray the decomposition of trust and familial bond between the nuclear family in a single environment. Both films ratchet up the atmosphere to, at times, unbearable tension. Both films are torturous in the way they expand and contract the usual horror movie tropes.

The Lodge, however, is less successful because it neglects any tangible connection to its characters. A shocking opening … the rigors of guilt and loss … religious suppression … all of this is introduced in one way or another throughout the film to explain the very horrible machinations of its plot. None of it, though, resonates outside of the filmmakers’ own commitment in crafting a very repulsive and suffocating effort in which not even the pet dog escapes unscathed.

Portions of this review were previously published as part of our coverage of the 2019 North Texas Film Festival.

The Lodge opens on Friday, February 14, at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas.





Review: ‘Where Is Kyra?”

dfn-WhereIsKyra-poster-300The aesthetic of Andrew Dosunmu’s new film titled Where Is Kyra? consistently places Michelle Pfeiffer at the bottom or extreme left and right of the frame, as if the impenetrable weight of the world is pressing down upon her nimble shoulders. And, sadly, it is.

Caught inside an unending  swirl of debt, unemployment and sadness over the recent death of her aging mother, Kyra is one minuscule step away from utter desolation. If the films of Bela Tarr, Ulrich Seidl or Aki Kaurismaki wallow in what I call ‘Eastern-European miserablism,’ then Where Is Kyra? should be called New American miserablism …  or perhaps just American, since the gap between the 99% and the wealthy 1% has been a caste system since the first penny rolled off the mint.

Kyra’s miserable existence begins further back then the death of her mother (Suzanne Shepherd), however. Laid off due to downsizing nearly 14 months before, her mother’s passing is only the inciting event that sees Kyra endlessly handing out resumes, enduring the analytical eyes of prospective bosses looking for someone younger or with more experience, and slowly sinking in a morass of debt.

Intercut with these depressing scenes of urban survival, director Dosunmu interjects images of an elderly woman lurching around the Big Apple, cashing checks and then escaping into a restroom stall. Eventually, there’s no great mystery as to what’s going on here as the film isn’t a thriller with cliffhanger tangents, but a sobering and sad examination of the depths desperate people will go in order to remain off the street.

As Kyra, veteran actress Michelle Pfeiffer gives a raw, pungent performance. Free of overblown dramatics or method-style immersion, she inhabits the main character with a fleeting sense of grace even as she’s forced to toe the moral line. In several scenes, the camera holds on her face — partially obscured by the often natural lighting used to illuminate a good majority of the movie — and the pained expression she exudes while begging for money or rationalizing her actions speaks volumes about an actress doing more with less.

As the film winds down, we know things won’t end well for Kyra and her boyfriend (Kiefer Sutherland), who reluctantly becomes involved with her affairs as well. The tone has been established from the outset. There are no big breaks for people like this. Only bad luck and obstinate bureaucracies. It’s certainly not a happy-go-lucky time at the movies. But it is a more honest representation of modern America then most films playing in the multiplex right now, as depressing and miserable as that sounds.

The film opened in limited release around the country on April 6 and expands wider today (Friday ,April 13).

Review: ‘James White’

‘James White’

Director Josh Mond’s new film, simply titled James White, casts a harsh light on the ugly, exasperating fight against cancer. It also morphs our expectations about its lead character, played brilliantly by Christopher Abbott, through several stages of empathy, anger and self destruction.

Essentially what begins as another seemingly obligatory drama dealing with the ennui of white upper class New York social strata, James White ultimately ends up as searing portrayal of one man’s inner compass lost in the wilderness of personal grief.

This aforementioned ennui seeps off the screen at the opening as James (Abbott) dances, drinks and parties his way through a loud, neon-lit club before stumbling outside (to our surprise) into broad daylight. Unsure whether this is morning light or afternoon haze, it barely makes a bit of difference as Mond’s camera sticks close to Abbott’s shoulder, wheezing, breathing heavy and keeping the rest of the city out of focus.

Things get even heavier as James returns home, where he interrupts the wake for his recently deceased father. Infuriated that everyone in the apartment is glued to a wedding video of his father’s second marriage — and with his new wife and their young daughter wallowing in grief on his mother’s couch — James proceeds to kick everyone out, despite the repeated pleas by said mother (Cynthia Nixon) that they stay.

It’s here that James White begins to straddle the path of “a-hole” character study, which is a burgeoning subsection of indie film (i.e. anything by filmmaker Rick Alverson or the ‘mumblecore’ movement of Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, et al). Enabled by best friend Nick (Scott Mescudi), James’ day is far from over as the two old friends head back out into the New York bars which ends, accordingly, with the two picking a fight.

In hopes of keeping his interior demons further at bay, James embarks on a trip to Mexico with Nick, who holds a job there at a resort. There he meets 18 year old Jayne (Makenzie Leigh) and carries on a relationship with her (and other women) when back in New York.

I go into detail with all this because James White carefully establishes a certain paradigm in the first half that almost dares the audience to dislike James. Myopic to the point of abstraction, Mond’s refusal to pull back the camera from Abbott’s aggressive persona and reveal what’s causing this young man so much inner turmoil only adds to the frustration.

It’s only in the second half that the film unexpectedly pivots and creates tremendous further upheaval for James. It goes to some very tough places, and anyone who’s had the displeasure of watching a loved one waste away before their eyes will be extremely moved. It’s here that Mond’s unflinching cinematography and Abbott’s breathless characterization intensifies.

Already gaining a ton of buzz for her performance as James’ mother, Gail, Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City, Too Big To Fail) gives a career defining performance. Loving one moment and battered by pain the next, she inhabits a role that could have easily been soap-opera level, yet she maintains an honest, intimate rendering.

Bottom line, escapism entertainment James White is not. It cuts close to the bone and never shies away from the brutality of the sickness it presents. In that regard, its easy to see why James (or anyone) would lose their composure with day to day normality and seek the numbing effects of alcohol and non committal relationships. Yet, for all the time spent on James’ bullheaded abstinence in facing reality, the relationship that eventually develops between he and mother Gail proves the compass isn’t lost for good.

James White opens in the Dallas-Fort Worth area on Friday, December 4 at the Angelika Film Center Dallas.

Review: ‘Magic Mike XXL’

'Magic Mike XXL'
‘Magic Mike XXL’
As a delirious musical fantasy, Magic Mike XXL is spectacular. As a movie? Not so much.

Writer/producer Reid Carolin, who also penned 2012’s Magic Mike, constructs the sequel as pure fan service, dispensing with any possible distractions, such as characterizations or storytelling. In that sense, it resembles a Hong Kong action movie in the late 80s or early 90s, in which intermittent blasts of action would lead to an extended sequence of derring-do, often tied together with only the loosest of threads.

Instead of Jackie Chan, Magic Mike XXL has Channing Tatum (also one of the film’s producers), whose early, first-hand experiences as a stripper informed the first movie. The original installment featured a series of dramatic episodes in which the hedonistic, selfish impulses of some of the strippers created conflicts for everyone, especially Mike Lane (Tatum), and the film concluded with his retirement to the custom furniture business and a possible lasting relationhip with a young woman named Brooke.

The sequel picks up with a struggling Mike, who get a call that leads him to reunite with a handful of his former colleagues on a road trip to an annual strippers’ convention. Mike, again, is escaping from his personal problems by stripping, but it’s only for a long weekend, which leaves scant moments for deep reflection, at least in comparison to the time spent dispensing with clothing in a properly lascivious manner that will satisfy the sensual hunger of the LA-DEES!!!

Indeed, Magic Mike XXL goes to extraordinary lengths to display its love, obedience, and submission to women as the superior sex. There is little talk of equality between the sexes; that’s secondary to all the lip-smacking and butt-spanking by the LA-DEES!!!

The odd thing about the movie is that, for all its lip service to the idea of being respectful toward all women, no matter their size, shape, or (presumably) sexual orientation, the women in the cast have precious little to do beside smile and scream and sizzle their sexy selves. The mysterious Zoe (Amber Heard) shows up a couple of times in Mike’s vicinity, not to tempt him into a new relationship, but to give him the opportunity to invite her to their upcoming show, so as to ease whatever burdens she may be carrying.

Andie MacDowell appears as the leader of a group of middle-aged women who grow increasingly tipsy as the stripping troupe tries to make an incognito visit to the home of a younger women. Naturally, the women are treated with great respect as the men slowly, slowly tease their libidos into gently growing excitement. Jada Pinkett Smith appears as the owner of a very private strip club for LA-DEES, only she prefers to call them QUEENS; she is the queen of queens and her male workers operate at her beck and call. Elizabeth Banks shows up at the competition as the queen of entrants.

Mike’s fellow strippers (Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez) are exquisitely-defined works of art, their muscles and often bare limbs proving worthy of the spotlight. In this modern-day version of the Hope & Crosby road movies, Mike is Bing Crosby, cool, calm, and collected, while his cohorts form a composite Bob Hope, goofy and gullible. That’s as detailed a character breakdown as needed.

Gregory Jacobs has directed two films before (2004’s Criminal and 2007’s Wind Chill, neither of which I’ve seen) but he’s better known as Steven Soderbergh’s longtime first assistant director. With Soderbergh again along for the ride as director of photography (under his pseudonym Peter Andrews) and editor (under his other pseudonym Mary Ann Bernard), Magic Mike XXL has a similar look and feel to the first film, although it feels less connected and kinetic, and the absence of a strong story thread marks it as inferior to its predecessor.

Magic Mike XXL certainly dances up a storm of steamy yet silly action sequences and effectively showcases the deft physical talents of Channing Tatum, who is more than happy to charm people into forgetting that the movie itself is pure fluff.

Review originally published at TwitchFilm.com. The film is now playing wide in theaters across Dallas.

Review: ‘Mud’ Presents a Clear-Eyed View of Modern American Life

Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, and Jacob Lofland in Jeff Nichols' 'Mud'
Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, and Jacob Lofland in Jeff Nichols’ ‘Mud’

Jeff Nichols is fully in tune with nature and how people relate to it, reminiscent of certain Australian filmmakers in the 1970s. The feature films he has made so far are pure pieces of modern Americana, though, reflecting a sensibility that is fiercely independent, no matter the varied landscapes that seep into the characters who inhabit them.

By “Americana,” I mean a dictionary definition of the word: “Things associated with the culture and history of America, esp. the United States.” Mud, Nichols’ latest film, in no way trumpets American culture as superior to any other; it is, however, firmly rooted in the time and place of its very particular setting, namely, rural Arkansas in the Southern United States.

The story revolves around two teenage boys who are edging into adulthood but aren’t there quite yet. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are filled with the energy of youth and the brash curiosity of adolescence. They freely and fearlessly explore the fecund woods that surround their rural community, including the muddy banks of the Mississippi River. One day they see a boat resting in the branches of a tree, far off the ground. An adult might ponder the fragility of life — surely the boat’s owners were victims of a flood — but the boys view it as a cool, potential clubhouse, and vow to make it their own.

Upon returning, Ellis and Neckbone learn that someone else has claimed the boat. He’s tall and lean and mysterious, and exudes an air of restrained menace; he’s the kind of man who might turn on you quick as look at you. The boys do not shy away, revealing a confidence in their ability to take care of themselves.

Their instincts are (basically) correct. The man, who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey), provides a reasonable explanation for why he’s taken possession of the boat — he’s in trouble with the law and waiting to meet up with long-time love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) — and enlists the boys to help him with a plan he sketches out.

It’s good timing for Ellis and Neckbone; their home lives are far from idyllic. Ellis has learned that his parents (the always terrific Ray McKinnon and reliable Sarah Paulson) are splitting up, and his mom wants to move out of their ram-shackle riverboat home and into town. Neckbone lives with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), who has some unusual ideas about raising children. So they agree to help Mud, as much out of boredom and curiosity as anything else, and the consequences of their decision quickly spread outward, like a rock skipped across a river.

The story plays out largely through the eyes and ears of Ellis, who is in his early teen years, and is still figuring out who, or what, he wants to be. Does he want to be like his harsh-tongued and often frustrated father? Or his mother, who is seeking more security and a more traditional home life? Or Galen, who is very much his own, angry man? Or the crusty old man who lives across the river, Tom (Sam Shepherd), who lives an extremely solitary life? Or Mud, who makes being penniless and wanted by the law somehow look dangerously attractive?

Mud is not a conventional coming-of-age tale, in which an angel and a devil fight for the soul of a young person who must choose good or evil. Nor does it extol the idea of leaving home for the romance of the open road, or advocate moving to the city as the only smart decision for rural youth. Instead, it depicts people who have taken a variety of paths to adulthood. Some have achieved success and enjoy a measure of satisfaction with their lot in life, while others are still searching for the happiness that eludes them.

Nichols carves his characters from reality. As but one example, Mud has visions, but they don’t have the profound depth of those experienced by, say, Michael Shannon’s character in Take Shelter, Nichols’ previous film. Mud’s visions are both more mundance and more pitiable, because he’s been chasing the fulfillment of them for so many years without quite getting there.

Like the Mississippi River, emotions and events in Mud rise and fall. Sometimes they come in a rush, but more often they ebb and flow gently. so the temperament of the film doesn’t reach the apocalyptic heights expressed in Take Shelter. Still, the range of personalities expressed by the characters leaves open the possibility that someone might be left stranded, like the boat in the woods.

Tye Sheridan, who played the younger brother in Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, embodies Ellis with surprising strength and quiet confidence; sometimes it’s stretched thin over a valley of fragile nerves, but he rarely strikes a false note. Jacob Lofland is also quite good as his running buddy Neckbone, who appears to have fewer possibilities in life than Ellis, but never holds that against his childhood friend.

Matthew McConaughey continues his recent string of superior performances, giving Mud a tasty edge that connects most of the dots while allowing the rest to be filled in later. It’s a supporting role, but it’s substantial, and he doesn’t overplay his hand. Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon, and Sam Shepherd all deliver exquisitely good work, as do Sarah Paulson and Joe Don Baker. Reese Witherspoon erases her star persona to play the faded lover.

Key members of the crew, such as cinematographer Adam Stone, editor Julie Monroe, and production designer Richard A. Wright, contribute excellent work, while David Wingo’s musical score is evocative and powerful.

Like its lead character Ellis, Mud is modest, surprisingly strong, and quietly confident as it unfolds, venturing far into territories that are rarely visited in American cinema.

(Review originally published at Twitch.) 

Mud opens in limited release across the Metroplex on Friday, April 26.

Review: ‘Pain And Gain’ Warns Against the Abuse of Drugs and Too Much Style

Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson in Michael Bay's 'Pain & Gain'
Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson in Michael Bay’s ‘Pain & Gain’

Michael Bay takes a daring, creative approach to Pain & Gain, a story based on real life: he makes it look as unreal as possible.

Not that he’s doing much of anything that’s different from what he’s done with his previous nine films. He applies his distinctive, pumped-up style — constantly roving cameras, unusual angles, staccato editing, saturated colors, disharmonious performances — with great verve, if little variety and a off-kilter rhythm. Occasionally, it meshes well with the look and sound of Miami, Florida, where Pain & Gain is set, but that almost seems to be accidental, as though Bay kept swinging a baseball bat every five seconds, no matter if a pitch were thrown or not.

Still, Pain & Gain is a step away from what has become ordinary for Bay, and closer to his first feature, 1995’s Bad Boys. That too was made on a relatively modest budget, featured two men who played by their own set of rules, and was set in the Miami criminal world. Whereas Martin Lawrence and Will Smith were cops, however, Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson are criminally-inclined bodybuilders. (Note, however, that the new film is based on events that took place in late 1994 and early 1995, i.e. the same time period as Bad Boys.)

Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) works as a personal trainer at a gym he has made successful for owner John Mese (Rob Corddry). But Daniel wants more: he wants the American Dream, which to him translates into gaining as much wealth as possible while doing as little work as possible. He becomes convinced that personal success guru Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong) has the right idea, and somehow translates Wu’s platitudes into a scheme to kidnap Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), a new client, and soak the rich bastard dry.

To accomplish that, he first enlists the help of his fellow personal trainer Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and then drafts newly-paroled bodybuilder Paul Doyle (Johnson) onto his team. Their scheme is wild and reckless and stupid; after kidnapping Kershaw, they discover that he’s unwilling to cooperate by signing over everything he owns to them, so they begin torturing him in the abandoned warehouse where he’s been stashed.

“Stupid” is the operative word here. The three bodybuilders are so dim that it’s a wonder they can tie their own shoelaces. Beyond their lack of intelligence, their core personalities are despicably self-centered and avaricious. Kershaw, as more than one character observes, is so unpleasant and temperamental that it’s difficult to pity his horrid situation.

To compensate, the film offers … not much more than a weak sense of humor and a strong sense of style.

The only vaguely moral character, a retired private detective and former cop (Ed Harris), arrives far too late to offer much ballast. The idea that “truth is stranger than fiction” is pounded into the ground. The attempts to puncture Daniel Lugo’s version of the American dream ring hollow. Even the personal success strategies sold by Johnny Wu fall flat as either satire or commentary.

Really, Pain & Gain plays best as the most stylish and overblown cautionary tale about substance abuse in movie history. The bodybuilders’ abuse of steroids and other drugs is depicted early and often, and so perhaps that can serve as a warning sign.

Pain & Gain opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, April 26.