Spin Me Round

Posted on August 18, 2022 at 5:25 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril, characters injured, some graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 19, 2022

Copyright 2022 IFC Films
Director Jeff Baena is developing something of a repertory company and something of a genre all his own that could be called “high concept deranged farce.” He co-wrote one of my favorite films, “I Heart Huckabee’s,” a story about a department store, some environmental activists, complex existential philosophical concepts that was hilarious and bracingly smart. In his other films, wild, out of control behavior occurs in a medieval convent populated by highly impious foul-mouthed nuns (“The Little Hours”) and a dead girlfriend returns as a zombie (“Life After Beth”). Actors who have appeared in two or more of his films include his wife, Aubrey Plaza, and Alison Brie (her husband, Dave Franco appeared in “The Little Hours”), and “SNL” veterans Molly Shannon and Fred Armison. All of them are brilliant at exactly the combination of heightened circumstance and deadpan delivery he specializes in, and all of them clearly enjoy it.

His latest film, “Spin Me Round” does not just star Alison Brie; she wrote it as well. She plays Amber, who has worked for nine years at an Italian Garden-style restaurant in Bakersfield, California, called Tuscan Grove. As the movie opens, we see the industrial operations of the restaurant chain, with Alfredo sauce squeezed out of pre-packaged bags onto microwaved all-you-can-eat pasta. Amber is very professional and respected by her colleagues. Her boss, played by Lil Rel Howery, has a surprise for her; he has submitted her name for a special study session in Tuscany sponsored by their parent company. and she has been selected. Amber is thrilled. She has never been to Europe and it looks like a fabulous adventure, and, maybe, with the possibility of romance.

But this is one of those stories that starts out like a Hallmark movie and turns into a Lifetime movie.

Amber is still in “please the customer” mode and determined to bring the same upbeat, can-do spirit that made her successful at the restaurant. So when things begin to go wrong after her arrival she is sunny and helpful. Another attendee is Deb (Shannon), pouting over a lost bag, and Amber offers to loan her anything she needs, modestly assuring Deb, “I overpacked.” It turns out they are not staying in the beautiful villa pictured on the website but in a generic little motel with no locks on the doors nearby. When asked to turn over their passports and stay within the compound, she agrees. The promised lessons on Italian culture and cuisine are dull and basic. One of the other attendees is an ambitious chef (Tim Heidecker) who wants to teach the others about haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy, but no one cares.

The founder of the Tuscan Grove is Nick (Alessandro Nivola, always great), a dissolute yacht-owning zillionaire with surface charm and, clear to us at least, no interest in anything but pleasure. His assistant, Cat (Plaza) wakes Amber up and takes her to Nick’s yacht. While the others are in a boring class about herbs, she is living a Cinderella dream.

But then things start to get weird. Some of the other participants disappear. Amber starts to investigate and the storyline and tone take a swerve.

The last 20 minutes and he ending do not make a lot of sense. It’s pretty random. The script may be more a role Brie wants to play than a story she wants to tell. But the performances are excellent, especially Shannon, Plaza, and Brie herself, all precise and consistent despite the shifts. Shannon is funny and scary as the volatile over-sharer, both with confidences and with Amber’s clothes. Plaza, as always, is a master of deadpan with an underlay of recklessness. She and Brie play off each other beautifully as Amber tries hard to be a “good girl” and is scared and a little thrilled at finding her tendency to go along leading her to cross some boundaries she would never have considered in Bakersfield. I hope Baena keeps this repertory company going.

Parents should know that this movie has very explicit sexual situations and nudity, including group sex, and very strong language. Characters drink alcohol. There is some peril and there are some graphic and disturbing images of injuries.

Family discussion: Is there a point where Amber should have asked more questions? Why was the kind of restaurant so important to the story?

If you like this, try: Baena’s other films

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NOPE

Posted on July 20, 2022 at 3:58 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some violence/bloody images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, vaping
Violence/ Scariness: Extended science fiction peril and violence, characters injured and killed, very graphic and bloody images, jump scares
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 22, 2022

Copyright Universal 2022
Yep. This is one scary movie. Jordan Peele’s new film, “NOPE” does not have the depth of cultural commentary of his Oscar-winning script for “Get Out” or his follow-up, “Us,” but it is a smart, scary movie with a strong storyline, great performances, and clever details. Plus, it’s shot on IMAX and Peele, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Interstellar,” “Tenet,” “Ad Astra”), and production designer Ruth De Jong (“Twin Peaks”) know how to fill the screen and use every bit of it to tell the story.

OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya of “Get Out” and “Judas & The Black Messiah”) is a horse trainer, like his father, grand-father, and several greats. According to his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer of “Hustlers,” “Lightyear,” and “Akeelah and the Bee”), their family goes back to the very first moments of moving pictures in 1878, the two-second series of cards showing a man riding a horse. The family business is training horses for movies and television.

After a brief, terrifying preface on the set of a 90s sitcom, we see OJ and his father Otis (Keith David) working on the ranch, talking about the importance of making sure an upcoming job goes well and annoyed that Emerald has not shown up. Then something strange happens. There are disturbing sounds, like the zings and thwacks of arrows. The sound design by Johnnie Burn is creepy, evocative, and never less than outstanding. A key on a ring pierces a horse’s rump. Shrapnel hits and kills Otis.

The ranch is isolated, but nearby is a small cowboy theme park owned by former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen of “Minari”) and his wife, Amber (Wrenn Schmidt of “For All Mankind”). Pressed for money, OJ has been selling horses to Jupe, hoping to be able to buy them back some day. But Jupe wants to buy the entire ranch.

Meanwhile, both are beginning to be aware that the strange electrical disturbances and glimpses of something in the sky may be from another world. More important, Ricky, OJ, and Emerald see this as a potential for profit. Jupe wants to make the extraterrestrials an attraction at the park. If OJ and Emerald can get good, clear photos of aliens, they can get on Oprah!

Yeah, they’re going to need a lot more than a bag of Reese’s Pieces if they’re looking to find a cute little ET for Oprah.

That scary preface I mentioned comes back. Something went horribly wrong at a live taping of a silly sitcom starring a little Asian kid and a chimp. That child grew up to be Jupe. While he speaks smoothly about the “SNL” sketch based on the incident (Chris Kattan as the chimp!) and is happy to point out artifacts from his past, a theme about the relationship between animals and the humans who think they can tame them appears as unsettlingly as the odd sounds we hear. We see it again as the horse named Lucky misbehaves at that crucial job OJ’s father was concerned about. Or rather, the humans misbehave, giving an inadequate safety briefing. OJ mumbles until Emerald arrives and her presentation is more about her than it is about the horse. It is not a coincidence that both of these problems occur in the highly artificial performative environment of a show, the most heightened version of human life with the strange sounds and hot, bright lights and a deep gulf between reality and fantasy. There’s nice brief moment when someone reacts to OJ’s name as though he’s connected to OJ Simpson (it stands for Otis Jr.).

This ties in with the idea that the first reaction OJ, Emerald, and Jupe have to the idea of aliens is to make a show of them. How we present ourselves and how we are perceived is core to this story, going back to Emerald’s diversion in what is supposed to be a safety briefing to a description of her ancestor, the jockey in the prototype for moving images, where the horse’s name was identified but not the name of the human riding him. At June’s little theme park, Emerald inadvertently photobombs a group of visitors. And later, two more characters are added to the effort to document the aliens, Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) a blond-tipped sales and installation specialist from a big box store who sells surveillance cameras to the Haywoods and wants to find out what they want to surveil, and the fabulously named Antlers Holst, fabulously played by Michael Wincott, a cinematographer artiste who like to “make one for them, one for me” and considers capturing images without electricity a creative challenge.

There are a lot of ideas here, including some sly digs at Peele’s own industry that could fit in a Key and Peele sketch plus a dazzling series of visual images. The air dancers the Haywoods bring to the ranch, the wonderfully imagined, just tacky enough details of the theme park, the connection between Jupe’s cowboy hat blown away by the ship and the ship itself are all brilliantly designed. Every performance is superb. Schmidt and Yeun make us wish for an entire other story about their relationship. Kaluuya continues to be one of the most fascinating actors working today, bringing a rare sense of thoughtful gravity and stillness to the screen. Keke Palmer, always great, gives her best performance yet as we see Emerald become more grounded, more fierce, more aware of her connection to the brother who stayed when she left.

There are too many ideas, too many things to see to come together with the impact “Get Out” and “Us” had. But it is wonderfully entertaining and provocative enough to spark what I’m sure will be some fascinating online speculation, and to add to Peele’s reputation as one of the most significant filmmakers of his generation.

Parents should know that this film includes tense and scary sci-fi peril and violence with some graphic images. Characters are injured and killed. At one point in my notes I just wrote: “BLOOD!” There are jump scares and fake-outs. Characters use very strong language.

Family discussion: How does the relationship between OJ and Emerald change? Why are the sections of the movie named after the horses?

If you like this, try: “Get Out,” “Us,” “Coherence,” and the various versions — except the most recent — of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”

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The Outfit

Posted on March 17, 2022 at 12:46 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some bloody violence, and language throughout
Profanity: Pervasive strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Crime-related peril and violence, characters injured and killed, guns, knives fire, disturbing graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 18, 2022
Date Released to DVD: May 2, 2022

The title of “The Outfit” has a double meaning, like most of the other details in the movie. It refers to the occupation of Leonard (Mark Rylance), who makes bespoke men’s suits in post WWII Chicago. His store, with a workshop in the back, is where the entire film takes place.

Don’t call Leonard a tailor; he will correct you by explaining that anyone with a needle and thread can sew. He is a cutter, a profession that requires exquisite precision, concentration, patience, and skill. His most prized possession is his lovingly honed fabric shears. And in a world where even names are doubled and language is used to obscure, deflect, and demean, he is called “English” by his most important customers, a gangster group known as “The Outfit.”

Leonard has a pretty receptionist named Mable (Zoey Deutch), who has spent her life on the same block. She dreams of seeing the world but until then she collects snow globes of the places she hopes to see. The latest one is Big Ben. Of course Leonard has seen it and he tells her dismissively that it is just a clock. In a wonderfully-written scene they both stumble as they try to express their concern for one another.

Copyright Focus Features 2022

Leonard’s first customer was Roy (Simon Russell Beale of “The Death of Stalin”), a crime boss with a taste for fine menswear. He knows that “The Row” refers to Saville Row, where the wealthiest men in the world get their understated, perfectly tailored suits. Leonard tells us that a suit is not just a jacket and trousers. It is made up of four fabrics cut into 38 separate pieces, assembled in 228 steps. And, he tells us, it is as important to know the man who will wear the suit as it is to take his measurements. We see that Leonard is a person of deliberation, careful observation, and an awareness that perfection may not be achievable, but it is worth trying to get as close as possible. And we will learn that he is a person who thinks quickly, lies persuasively, and does not
get rattled.

We in the audience are going to get rattled, though, in this expertly crafted puzzle box of a movie that all takes place in one location, with a very small cast of characters, but keeps the twists and turns coming until the last few minutes. Roy has an impetuous, hot-headed son, Richie (Dylan O’Brien), who travels with a level-headed, ruthless gangster Richie thinks is his sidekick but is really his minder (Johnny Flynn as Francis).  Their competition for Roy’s respect is volatile.

It is fascinating to watch Leonard respond in the moment to the shifting loyalties and threats. Rylance, as always, is a master of the smallest gesture and change of expression. He so deeply immersed himself in preparation for the role that he worked with Saville Row tailors/cutters to create the suit he wears in the film. His scene with Beale, two master actors at the peak of their powers, is electrifying.

“The Outfit” is a promising debut for first-time director Graham Moore, an Oscar-winner for the screenplay of “The Imitation Game” and co-writer of this film as well. It is as well-crafted as the suits pieced by the expert cutter at its center.

Parents should know that this movie is about gangsters and it includes guns, knives, fire, and fights, with many characters injured and murdered and some very graphic and bloody images. Characters use strong language and smoke and there are sexual references.

Family discussion: What was the biggest surprise in the movie? What tool is important in your life?

If you like this, try: “Layer Cake” and “Confidence”

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Copshop

Posted on September 16, 2021 at 3:27 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence and pervasive language
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Apparent drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Constant, extended, and very. bloody peril and violence with extremely graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 17, 2021

Copyright 2021 Open Road
I’m going to take a controversial position here. I think writer/director Joe Carnahan is like Tarantino without the burdensome pretension. No fetishization of popular culture, no obsessive fixation on period detail, no pulpy re-imagining of historical facts, no pretense of deeper meaning. No, Carnahan says to us, “If you are a fan of dark humor, a twisty plot, and intense, bloody action, I am here to give it to you in a visually stylish, enjoyably nasty fashion.” That was the case with “Boss Level,” a very entertaining “Groundhog Day”-themed action picture starring Frank Grillo. And it is the case with the almost-as-good “Copshop,” also with Grillo, a contemporary action drama with a 70s vibe.

It has a great premise. Two men are separately arrested for being drunk and disorderly, put in opposite holding cells. It turns out that Teddy (Frank Grillo) wanted to be arrested because someone was trying to kill him and he thought the police station would be the safest place he could be. And it turns out that the man in the opposite cell is Bob (Gerard Butler) who is (a) not drunk and (b) the professional assassin who is trying to kill Teddy, and he got himself arrested with that end in mind. Bob is not the only one who wants to kill Teddy. It is an open contract, so another paid assassin will show up as well. That would be Tony (don’t call him Anthony), a star-making performance by Toby Huss.

Like the 1976 “Assault on Precinct 13” and its 2005 remake, the tension is heightened because almost everything happens in just one location, inside the police station and because there are shifting loyalties. Alexis Louder plays Valerie Young, the only woman police officer in the precinct and with endless competence and integrity. At times both Bob and Teddy do their best to persuade her to trust them — and not the other one. And there is one person on the police force who is less trustworthy than he seems.

Carnahan expertly balances tension, action, and thrills with understated humor and the character of Valerie is immensely appealing, thanks in part to Louder’s charismatic performance. Fortunately, some open questions at the end suggest the possibility of a sequel.

Parents should know that this movie has extended and very graphic and bloody violence including guns, knives, fire, and explosions with many characters injured and killed and disturbing images. Characters are paid assassins and there are references to the off-screen murders of innocent people, including a child. Characters use constant very strong language.

Family discussion: What did Valerie notice that none of the other police officers did? Do you agree with her that “it’s not the brush; it’s the artist?”

If you like this, try: “Boss Level” and “Assault on Precinct 13”

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The Little Things

Posted on January 27, 2021 at 7:00 am

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violent/disturbing images, language and full nudity.
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Serial killer crime drama
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 29, 2021
Date Released to DVD: May 4, 2021

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
Three Oscar winners cannot save “The Little Things,” a crime thriller that starts out promisingly and about halfway through completely loses its way. It’s almost like the screenplay was created by two different people, or undermined by the director. But John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Highwaymen”), both wrote and directed, so he is responsible when the story veers into Gothika Rule territory.

It takes place in 1990, and we begin with a pretty young woman driving on the highway and singing along to the Go-Gos as a sinister motorist behind her makes her uncomfortable and then terrified. The first half sets up two mysteries. The first is the realization that the young woman who has been murdered is the victim of a serial killer, expanding and making more urgent the search to find the one responsible. The detective in charge is Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who takes the job very seriously, even personally. “We work for her,” he says about the dead woman.

A lower-level officer named Deke Deacon (Denzel Washington) has been sent to Baxter’s police station to pick up some evidence. The second mystery is why the people there are (mostly) so hostile to him and why a clearly experienced, capable, and dedicated has not risen in rank. “And they say Black guys never return to the scene of the crime,” another detective says with acid in his voice. But the forensic pathologist seems more sympathetic, agreeing to spend some time with him when a delay in making the evidence available keeps him there overnight.

There’s “something like it up north,” Deke says, and soon he and Baxter are beginning to work together to find the killer. “Things probably changed a lot since you left,” says Baxter. “Still gotta catch ’em? Then nothing has really changed that much,” Deke says.

So far, so good. As long as Deke and Baxter are behaving like intelligent, dedicated professionals, the movie holds our interest as a police procedural with intriguing characters. But then Jared Leto enters the picture as suspect Albert Sparma and it all begins to fall apart. Baxter seems to have an inexplicable change of personality with a decision so monumentally stupid and contrary to day one of any kind of law enforcement training not to mention basic common sense that it takes us out of the story.

Meanwhile, what we learn about Deke’s past is not as meaningful as the movie clearly thinks it is, making the story’s primary mystery secondary to the point of almost inconsequential. Washington’s is the only performance that continues to hold our attention as Leto hits one creepy note and stays there and Malek is unable to overcome his character’s inconsistency. More important, the swerve in tone undermines the film’s aspirations for moral complexity. The title of the film refers to the little things that are important to get right, whether you are a killer trying to evade justice or law enforcement trying to achieve it. In the case of this movie, the little things are all right but the big thing, the screenplay, is a mess.

Parents should know that this movie is about a serial killer and it has some grisly and graphic images and strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Deke send the package to Baxter? How was that decision tied to his own experience? Why did Flo keep the memento on her keychain?

If you like this, try: “Inside Man” and “Silence of the Lambs”

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