Movie Review ~ Them That Follow


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set deep in the wilds of Appalachia, where believers handle death-dealing snakes to prove themselves before God, a pastor’s daughter holds a secret that threatens to tear her community apart.

Stars: Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan

Director: Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I admit it, at my age I’ve become one of those fair weather church-goers who only venture into a pew for the holidays or for special events.  Even then, I often find myself contemplating thoughts of the coffee hour after rather than what hymn in next in my book.  I’m not going to get into a religious discussion here but I have my own communion with a higher power and don’t necessarily need the building to have that bond.  I do respect how helpful the act of “going to church” is for people, though, and have seen first-hand how it’s a lifeline for those in need of support or comfort.

I speak on religion first in this review of Them That Follow because I want to be clear that I’m no expert on the practices displayed within or pass no judgement on the churchgoing folk the film centers on.  Lately I’ve been stepping back from my Midwestern safety bubble and taking into consideration the cultures of other walks of life and using the films I see as a way to open up new doors for me to explore.  I tell you, it’s helped greatly in finding a take-away in even the most middle of the road movies I’ve seen.  Such is the case with Them That Follow, a short wanting to be a full-length movie that only simmers when it should be boiling over.

A congregation of Pentecostals in rural Appalachia are presided over by Pastor Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight) who preaches of the devil’s trickery and the need to cleanse oneself from wicked sin.  To rid oneself of sin, his congregants show their devotion to God in the handling of venomous snakes. If the snake strikes, the parishioners are left to fend off the venom on their own.  If they survive, it is Gods will and they are forgiven.  As the film opens, the church is under the watch of the local authorities investigating the death of a person that perished under these extreme circumstances.

Unbeknownst to the Pastor, his daughter Mara (Alice Englert, Beautiful Creatures) has gotten pregnant by Augie (Thomas Mann, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), a local boy that has been exiled from the church for rejecting their teachings.  While Mara contemplates her future within the community and what this baby means in the wake of her recent betrothal to Garret, a handsome new arrival (Lewis Pullman, Bad Times at the El Royale), her faith is tested at every turn.  How long can she keep the secret from her father, the man she’s been promised to, and the man she has feelings for but can’t be with?  It all comes to a head when Augie comes to visit the church and makes an unexpected request.

The poster for Them That Follow and the trailer hint of a movie with a more sinister edge but writer/directors Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage don’t have enough plot to get around any twists and turns.  What we have is a movie I think would have worked quite nicely as a short film but, at feature-length, strains to make a case for the extra running time.  I was actually surprised to find this didn’t originate as a smaller project first because the final act especially has a few taut moments that would have worked better if the first 2/3rds were trimmed down. Another distraction adding to the feeling is a slow pace that keeps the movie from finding a rhythm within this community.  You can’t have a slow-burn if you aren’t willing to light a fire in the first place.

Those skeeved out by snakes are advised to steer clear of this one.  There are ample shots of the large reptiles slinking around the forest as well as over the bodies of the church-goers throughout the film.  Despite the threat of danger, there’s little tension to be had because the filmmakers haven’t raised the stakes high enough for audiences to be holding their breath.  While Goggins relays his usual dialed up, toothy, performance it surprisingly doesn’t reach the fever pitch of fire and brimstone that would have goosed the film in positive ways.  While Englert’s quiet moments are keenly felt, she’s a bit of a non-entity when sharing the screen with more formidable co-stars.  Strangely enough, I’ve sometimes gotten Mann and Pullman confused so it was nice to see them in the same frame to clarify once and for all they are different actors.

There are a few upsides to the film.  The location filming is quite lovely.  Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) is a nice presence as Mara’s timid friend abandoned by her mother that comes to live with the Childs family.  Harboring her own feelings for Garret, she has to watch her best friend agree to a marriage she clearly doesn’t want while the man she likes has no idea she’s interested.  Dever handles this balance nicely, never playing her role too addled or selfish in the face of her love going unrequited.  Then there’s Olivia Colman, following up her Best Actress Oscar win for The Favourite playing a character named Sister Slaughter who finds herself divided between her loyalty to her community and her son, Augie.  Colman’s choices are unexpected, small, and intense…all the makings of a well-thought out performance.

In many ways, I’m glad Them That Follow didn’t devolve into some gory horror film with religious undertones.  It could easily have pivoted to something completely different but not wholly unexpected but it resisted and stayed in a safe lane.  True, there is one squirmy scene near the end but it’s largely an off-screen event so there’s little horror to be found aside from the isolation Mara feels.  While it does provide some additional interest for me to learn about these snake handling communities, there’s not much about the film as a whole that’s worth circling back on with much consideration.

Movie Review ~ Booksmart


The Facts
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Synopsis: On the eve of their high school graduation, two academic superstars and best friends realize they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram four years of fun into one night

Stars: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jessica Williams, Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Mike O’Brien, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Victoria Ruesga, Austin Crute, Eduardo Franco, Nico Hiraga

Director: Olivia Wilde

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: We’re right at the crest of the wave where the end of the school year is about to crash into full blown summer and there couldn’t be a better time for a movie like Booksmart to arrive in theaters.  True, being released in the midst of a bevy of bombastic blockbusters might make its chances of doing big business opening weekend a tad slim but this has sleeper hit/future cult classic/definite midnight screening written all over it.  It’s a movie meant to be discovered and then shared, not one you necessarily make an appointment to see.

I’d heard about the film for a while after it received a positive reception at March’s South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX and deliberately avoided watching the trailer or reading anything more about it until I saw it. This is one I wanted to come to on my own without any ideas on what it should be, or pre-conceived notions on what to expect.  The way we are inundated with information on content it’s hard to go in blind to something but thankfully, I was able to come to Booksmart with a blank slate.

So now, after all that talk of going into the movie with little knowledge, of course I’m going to ask you to read a review of what I think about it – makes total sense, right? Really, I won’t be offended if you stop now and come back after you’ve seen the movie.  Seriously – it’s AOK.  But come back!  Promise?

You’re back? Great!  Wasn’t it good?  I know, right?

It’s the last day of school and Molly (Beanie Feldstein, Lady Bird) is ending the school year on top.  She’s class president and set to go to an Ivy League school in the fall.  By keeping her nose to the grindstone and focusing on her studies she has achieved all of the goals she’s set and has her future planned out not only for her but for her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, Beautiful Boy).  We all either knew a Molly in high school or were a Molly so it isn’t hard to completely get this character – and the way she looks down on those that didn’t put the same effort forward in school, or at least the effort she’s deemed worthy.

When Molly finds out that several key people she originally had written off as destined to be losers for life are also moving on to luxe post-high school careers, she realizes she could have had fun all four years of high school and still made it big. Thus begins a quest for Molly and Amy to get their party on by any means necessary, leading them through a seemingly endless night of encounters with oddball characters and a journey of self-discovery before their graduation ceremony the next morning.

Much of Booksmart follows a typical trajectory of high school comedy that feels safe and familiar but the movie is as unpredictable as they come.  You have your stock characters that flow through (jock, tramp, brain, etc) but all are given a neat little bounce by screenwriters Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Katie Silberman (Isn’t it Romantic), and Susanna Fogel.  No one is quite who you expect them to be…and no one ends the film in quite the same way they start out.  Actress Olivia Wilde (The Lazarus Effect) makes her feature directing debut and shows a real knack for establishing a tone and a rhythm for Molly, Amy, and the strange people they find themselves hanging out with over the course of the evening.

Aside from introducing us to a host of interesting characters (and fresh-faced actors), the film is routinely laugh-out-loud funny as the girls find themselves in increasingly bizarre situations. These moments spring forth naturally and the comedy never feels forced, while there is a lot of physical humor there’s quite a bit of verbal banter that elicits laughs.  Audiences are used to being shown what’s funny but it’s rare for a movie to ask them to listen – you’d almost need to see it twice to get all the humor that is thrown in, though I don’t think it would be a hard sell to get people to screen this one a second time.

The movie wouldn’t work at all if the two leads hadn’t had the kind of chemistry they do. As much as romantic chemistry plays a part in convincing viewers that people are in love, chemistry between friends is almost harder to generate because it requires an intimacy that isn’t always physically shown but more emotionally present.  You buy that Feldstein and Dever would be friends in the movie and in real life and while Molly is the more alpha of the two, Amy is no shrinking violet at the end of the day.  We know from the start that Amy is a lesbian and the film wisely starts with the whole “coming out” story long since told – now she’s just finding her way and I appreciated that she was treated like everyone else in the movie looking for love and just as confused as the rest of them.

With so many memorable performances in the movie, from Billie Lourd’s (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) scene-stealing party girl to Skyler Gisondo (Vacation) as a try-hard looking to impress Molly, it seems wrong to single out just one actor but Feldstein is the true breakout star of Booksmart.  Ably holding her own against Bette Midler on the Broadway stage in Hello, Dolly! two years ago and proving a good foil for Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird (a role quite similar to Molly) in 2017, Feldstein finally steps fully into the spotlight and earns her place in the sun.  As much as Molly deserves to be taken down a notch or suffer through an embarrassing situation…if it weren’t for Feldstein’s irrepressible charm you’d be ready to push her off a cliff but instead you completely get where she’s coming from.

If we must talk negatives, I can drudge up a few. Personally, I wasn’t a fan of the soundtrack to this (sorry/not sorry) or an unnecessary subplot involving a teacher-student relationship and that’s what ultimately keeps the movie from being in the true upper echelon of high school comedies. Even that being said, Booksmart almost instantly earns a right to walk the hallowed halls of high school fame.  It’s fun, it’s riotously funny, and I enjoyed having absolutely no clue how it would end — that’s saying a lot for a genre comedy that’s been done many times before.

Movie Review ~ Beautiful Boy


The Facts
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Synopsis:  Based on the best-selling pair of memoirs from father and son David and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy chronicles the heartbreaking and inspiring experience of survival, relapse, and recovery in a family coping with addiction over many years.

Stars: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Ryan

Director: Felix Van Groeningen

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: After so many landmark films about the perils of addiction have been made featuring numerous memorable performances, it takes a special story not to mention top flight actors and on-the-ball filmmakers to make the case for another entry. What is different about this story that sets it apart from what has come before? Where and what is the message? Is there a lesson to be learned? A final thought to hold tight to? It’s an uphill battle of questions for even the most talented of professionals to answer which is why the final take-away from Beautiful Boy is that it’s a respectably well made film of a story that feels too familiar.

Based on the popular memoirs from journalist David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy documents the journey both men go through as they deal with Nic’s addiction to alcohol and drugs. A child of divorce, Nic was a bright young man who became entangled with narcotics at a young age and continued to use through his attempts at going to college and after his various stints in rehab. Bouncing between his parents that tried in their own flawed way to pull their son out of his darkness, Nic (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name) continually hit rock bottom but couldn’t stay sober for long stretches of time. He becomes homeless, despondent, overdoses, and watches as friends (some of whom he brought into his drug orbit) overdose as well. It’s a pattern that repeats itself often throughout the film, to intentionally maddening results for David (Steve Carell, Foxcatcher), his wife (Maura Tierny, Insomnia), and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan, Goosebumps)

Chronicling this frustrating journey, screenwriter Luke Davies (Lion) effectively blends elements from both memoirs that give a narrative through line but never truly fleshes out the lasting effects Nic’s addiction has on the two men and the people in their lives.   I almost wish they had chosen one perspective to focus on and stuck with that or done a better job at sectioning off David’s story and telling that in parallel to Nic’s side of things at the same time. As it stands, we get bits of pieces of this long road the Sheff family traveled without being able to stop and explore the territory.

Directed by Felix Van Groeningen (director of the stunning Oscar nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown), the movie is slow to get started but does have some highly effective moments when it starts to cut its own path. We’ve all seen movies about addiction but the recovery aspect isn’t something covered in detail that often. The film works best when we see Nic on the other side of his binges and trying to put his life back together. These passages work so well because when he eventually falls victim to his addictions again we feel that grief right along with everyone else. When David finally stops trying to aggressively parent Nic and treats him like an adult with consequences, it’s a powerful moment for him (and the actor playing him) – I wish there were more moments like this throughout the movie but they are few and far between.

As indicated, the performances are good but not totally revelatory. While I applaud Chalamet’s approach to the role I didn’t fully find myself immersed in his performance as I thought I would. So unforgettable in his Oscar-nominated role in Call Me By Your Name, his work here feels like aspiring actor effort instead of fully formed. He hits the notes and looks the part but doesn’t quite deliver from the inside. I have much the same issue with Carrell, though the comedic actor fares better because he’s given a less obvious arc toward ownership of his shortcomings to help his son. Carrell has more moments to shine and work though some of the pain David experienced as he struggles to be a considerate parent to his troubled son but also an attentive father to Nic’s young half siblings.   Ryan and especially Tierney provide strong support as well as the maternal figures in Nic (and, let’s be honest, David’s) life.

It’s Oscar season so it’s not hard to see why Beautiful Boy is being released near the end of the year. It feels like Oscar material that we’re supposed to like because it has so many prestige people involved. It’s a good film and one I’d ultimately recommend, but in several key areas it misses the mark to be something to consider in the “best of” lists critics and audiences are starting to make for themselves.

The Silver Bullet ~ Men, Women & Children

menwomen

Synopsis: A look at the sexual frustrations that young teenagers and adults face in today’s world.

Release Date: October 3, 2014

Thoughts: Earlier in 2014 Jason Reitman had what some consider his first real stumble with the coolly received Labor Day.  I was one of the few that seemed to absolve it from its awkward assembly and languid pacing because it’s clear that Reitman is a filmmaker that knows exactly what he’s doing and what he wants to say.  With October’s Men, Women & Children, Reitman is taking a page from the American Beauty experience and digging under the perfect veneer of a suburbia and its inhabitants.  With its tantalizing images played over a silky update of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, I get the feeling Men, Women & Children has the potential to truly put Reitman on the A list if handled correctly.