Injustice, inequality fuel two angry films

A disguised Cassie (Carrie Milligan) is on the prowl for sexual predators in Promising Young Woman.

By Richard Ades

Righteous anger has been such an overwhelming force in society recently that it’s not surprising it sometimes makes its way into the movies. One of the prime examples was released to theaters in late 2020 and subsequently was named the best film of that year by my colleagues in the Columbus Film Critics Association.

Promising Young Woman is the sad and provocative tale of Cassie (Carrie Milligan), a 30-ish coffee shop clerk who lives with her parents and has long since abandoned her career goal of becoming a doctor. Her reason for doing so isn’t revealed until well after we see the dangerous charade it’s led her into. Hitting the local bars and acting like she’s drunk herself into oblivion, she methodically fools men into thinking they can take advantage of her “helpless” condition—only to discover otherwise after they’ve taken her home.

Written and directed by Emerald Fenner, Promising Young Woman has been called a “Me Too” revenge tale, but that’s somewhat misleading. Cassie isn’t out for blood as much as she’s in search of justice and relief from the sorrow she feels over a long-ago sexual assault. Just how she goes about that search, and the psychological cost she pays in the process, is revealed so slyly and powerfully that Columbus critics also gave the film four additional citations, including nods for best actress (for Milligan) and best original screenplay (for Fenner).

Oscar nominations are likewise predicted to be in store for this offbeat thriller. Luckily for the curious but safety-minded, it is now being made available through VOD outlets.

Balram (Adarsh Gourav) has dreams of becoming a successful entrepreneur in The White Tiger.

Even angrier than Promising Young Woman is The White Tiger, an India-set tale that American director Ramin Bahrani adapted from a book by Aravind Adiga. Its plucky protagonist is Balram (played with ferocious wit by Adarsh Gourav), who was born into poverty but is committed to becoming a successful entrepreneur by any means necessary. He narrates the story of his efforts in the form of a letter he’s writing to a Chinese official who’s expected to visit India.

Balram believes his main problem is the servile attitude he shares with other Indians who weren’t born into wealth. As he sees it, this leads them to spend all their energy serving masters who often repay them with abuse and inadequate wages. Balram is determined to break this curse by finding a master who is worthy of his service and can help him better himself.

His choice is Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), a young businessman who’s just returned from the U.S. with his Indian American wife, Pinky (Quantico’s Priyanka Chopra). Balram has observed that Ashok is more decent than either his wealthy father (Mahesh Manjrekar) or older brother, who’s nicknamed the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya). Unfortunately, though, old habits die hard. Neither Ashok nor Balram is immune to the proclivities of his respective class, leading to an uncomfortable situation that threatens to derail Balram’s quest to move up in society.  

With an amoral and ruthless “hero,” a keen awareness of social injustice and a tendency toward dark humor mixed with tragedy, The White Tiger will remind many of 2019’s Oscar-winning South Korean film, Parasite. The newer work isn’t quite that sublime, but it does entertain and challenge viewers in the process of venting its righteous anger.   

Promising Young Woman: 4½ stars (out of 5)

The White Tiger: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Promising Young Woman can be viewed at select theaters and is available through VOD outlets beginning Jan. 15. The White Tiger was released to theaters (including Columbus’s Marcus Crosswoods Cinema) on Jan. 13 and will be available through Netflix beginning Jan. 22. Both films are rated R.

Funny women eulogize a not-so-funny year

A socially distanced group of female comics pay their respects to 2020 and all the ways it changed our lives (for the worse, of course). The result is Yearly Departed, a comedy special now available on Amazon Prime Video. For a review, visit the Columbus Free Press website.

Will Canada be led by a foot fetishist?

Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne) thinks he smells political success.

By Richard Ades

Years ago, I saw a film from Brazil that was filled with so many obscure references and in-jokes that no one from outside that country could possibly have understood it.

In much the same way, Canada’s The Twentieth Century is filled with references and in-jokes that no one could understand unless they had intimate knowledge of that country’s history. However, it’s also so weird and hilariously campy that ignorance of such matters is only a slight inconvenience.

Writer-director Matthew Rankin has taken a few historical figures from the turn of the last century and combined them in a tale that bears only passing resemblance to reality—fact-wise, that is. Appearance-wise, it bears no resemblance to reality, being a pastiche of expressionistic scenery and ancient movie conventions.

And, oh yes, it also features several characters portrayed by actors of the opposite gender, a detail they make little effort to hide.

Mackenzie’s mom (Louis Negin) is determined to see her son become prime minister.

The tale’s protagonist is Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne), played by a performer who may remind silent-movie buffs of baby-faced comedian Harry Langdon. Pushed relentlessly by his reclusive mother (Louis Negin), King has made it his life’s work to become prime minister. To that end, he enters a political competition that involves such odd challenges as underarm tickling, butter churning and clubbing baby seals.

 First, though, he makes a play for Ruby Eliott (Catherine St-Laurent), a mysterious harp player whom he feels destined to wed because she’s a dead ringer for the woman in a painting his mother gave him long ago.

Unfortunately for King, he knows nothing about music and repeatedly refers to Ruby’s instrument as a “trumpet.” Even more unfortunately, Ruby already has a fiancé in the form of one of his chief competitors for prime minister.

But King’s biggest hurdle is one he tries to hide: He has an insatiable foot fetish, which turns out to be a huge political liability.

Other characters we meet through King include a smitten nurse (Sarianne Cormier) and a tubercular child named Little Charlotte (Satine Scarlett Montaz). Spoiler alert: Fans of Dickens probably know that youngsters named “Little” seldom have a bright future.

The film apparently sees Canada through the eyes of a German expressionist.

Those curious enough to look up the details will find that Rankin’s delightfully dark tale is like a Bizarro World version of Canadian history. It’s largely based on real people, but presumably they didn’t act quite so oddly as they do here. And presumably, despite what Rankin claims, Canada wasn’t really teetering on the edge of fascism, its political contest didn’t really involve clubbing baby seals, and its banner wasn’t really called “the disappointment.”

The fact that Rankin gets away with distorting the country’s history in this way and getting laughs in the process shows two things: (1) He has a great sense of humor. And (2) so do Canadians.  

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

The Twentieth Century (no MPAA rating) can be rented through the Gateway Film Center in Columbus and will be available on VOD platforms beginning Dec. 11.

When will scientists learn to leave well enough alone?

Dr. Ethan Kochar (Sathya Sridharan) works on the machine he hopes will allow him to isolate parts of his personality.

By Richard Ades

Do you like an intellectual challenge? Then Minor Premise may be the film for you.

Do you like an intellectual challenge with a reward at the end? Then maybe it’s not the film for you—or maybe it is, depending on how you interpret the puzzling finale.

Eric Schultz, adapting and directing a story originally written by Thomas Torrey and Justin Moretto, has created a real brain teaser that has to do with—well, the brain. It centers on Ethan Kochar (Sathya Sridharan), a neuroscientist who’s trying to build on his late father’s work by creating a machine that allows a person to control his or her consciousness.

Ethan hopes the gizmo will help him isolate his intellect from other parts of his personality in order to aid his research. But, of course, something goes wrong, as he could have predicted if only he’d read Robert Louis Stevenson’s cautionary tale about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Ethan succeeds in isolating his intellect, but he also isolates nine other aspects of his personality, which then take turns controlling his body for intervals of six minutes each.

Complicating an already complicated situation, each version of Ethan has no memory of what the others have done, forcing him to rely on security cameras and other aids to figure out what’s going on. Fortunately for him, former girlfriend and fellow neuroscientist Alli Fisher (Paton Ashbrook) soon drops by and offers to help him sort things out.

Dr. Alli Fisher (Paton Ashbrook) helps Ethan chart the personality traits that take turns controlling him, though they haven’t quite figured out No. 8.

As difficult as it is for Ethan to understand his bizarre predicament, it’s nearly as hard for viewers, as Schultz likes to make sudden jumps in time and sometimes throws in flashbacks depicting the scientist’s difficult relationship with his late father (Nikolas Kontomanolis) and others. But once we grasp that each hour of Ethan’s life is now divided into six-minute segments respectively dominated by traits such as anger, libido and creativity, it’s kind of fun to guess how he’ll react to each—and whether he and Alli will find a way to end the relentless cycle.

In an attempt to add humanity to this overtly cerebral tale, Schultz suggests that at least some elements of Ethan’s psyche don’t want to return to normal, since normal is being a recluse whose suspicion and self-centeredness have alienated him from people who’ve tried to help him. This tack would work better if the flick’s frenzied style didn’t make it so hard to know and care about the scientist.

But a bigger problem is an ending that will leave many viewers wondering just what happened and how they’re supposed to feel about it. After sitting through a film that forces us to work so hard, it’s kind of a bummer.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Minor Premise (no MPAA rating) is available beginning Dec. 4 through theaters, virtual cinemas and VOD outlets.

Tale of teens’ ordeal takes on new significance

Never Rarely Sometimes Always, in which two teenage girls seek a solution to an unwanted pregnancy, becomes especially relevant now that a conservative-dominated Supreme Court threatens the future of abortion rights. A review of this subtly powerful film can be found on the Columbus Free Press website.

Teenage perks seen on the distant horizon

Missy (Taylor Richardson, center) and her friends wait to be allowed into the local nightclub.

By Richard Ades

It’s impossible to watch 18 to Party without thinking of The Breakfast Club. That’s because it, like John Hughes’s 1985 classic, is about a group of troubled teens alternately connecting and sparring with each other.

However, the new film by writer/director Jeff Roda is darker, both literally and otherwise. Gathering outside on an evening in 1984, its youths often target each other with verbal potshots (that threaten to turn into actual potshots after one of them produces a pellet gun). The hostility stems partly from the fact that they’re eighth-graders, which puts them in an age group that’s awkward for boys and perhaps even more so for girls.

That, in fact, is the theme of the film. More than children but not yet old enough to enjoy the perks they expect to gain in high school, they exist in a kind of restless limbo. Their not-yet-arrived status is particularly obvious on this particular night, when they’re forced to wait outside a small-town nightclub that won’t let them in unless space remains after their elders have been admitted.

While they look forward to high school, on the other hand, their view of the future is not entirely optimistic. The community has experienced a series of student deaths, including a pair of suicides that hit close to home. These, along with reports of UFO sightings and a far-off mass shooting, suggest that their future is far from safe or secure.

The long-absent Lanky (James Freedson-Jackson) pays a visit.

And then there’s Lanky (James Freedson-Jackson), younger brother of one of the recent suicide victims. After being away in an apparent mental institution because he committed an act that’s never spelled out, he’s returned for a visit, at least. His mercurial presence threatens to disrupt an evening that already feels dangerously unsettled.

One more similarity with The Breakfast Club is that all of the characters are played by actors who turn them into distinctive individuals. Besides Lanky, several stand out.

At the center of much of the intrigue is Shel (Tanner Flood), a shy kid whose home life has suffered following the arrival of a strict new stepfather. His best friend and mentor is Brad (Oliver Gifford), an alpha male who’s prone to flashes of anger due to unacknowledged challenges in his own life.

Amy (Alivia Clark) and Shel (Tanner Flood)

Among the girls, the popularity-seeking Missy (Taylor Richardson) and the fiercely unconventional Kira (Ivy Miller) attack each other with malice that’s probably fed by their own insecurities. Meanwhile, Amy (Alivia Clark) pops by occasionally to talk to Shel, who is obviously and bemusedly the target of her affection.

With help from music by the Alarm, Velvet Underground and other bands, the kids’ individual traumas are depicted so expertly that it’s too bad Roda chose to close the proceedings with what seems like a tacked-on ending. Otherwise, this is a satisfyingly atmospheric portrait of young teens facing the future with a combination of hope, angst and dread.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

18 to Party (no MPAA rating) is available from VOD outlets beginning Dec. 1.

Marital drama has horrific trappings

Allison and Rory O’Hara (Carrie Coon and Jude Law) are living uncomfortably beyond their means. (Photos courtesy of IFC)

By Richard Ades

Several times during The Nest, Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) is seen delivering a morning cup of coffee to his still-sleeping wife, Allison (Carrie Coon). The significance of the recurrent scene changes over time.

At first, it appears to show a thoughtful husband taking part in one of the comfortable rituals that mark a successful relationship. Later, it appears to say more about the wife. Does her tendency to sleep late symbolize her apparent ability to put off dealing with the problems that have long been developing in their marriage?

The first hint of trouble comes when Rory tells Allison they must leave their ritzy American home—which includes ample space for her to ply her trade as an equestrian instructor—and return to his native London. Things just aren’t working out here, he says, and besides, his old company is begging him to return (which, it turns out, is a lie).

Allison briefly complains that they’ve already moved several times for similar reasons, but she ultimately gives in. So, after shipping her favorite horse to the UK, she sets off for London with their two kids, teenage Samantha (Oona Roche) and 10-year-old Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell). There, Allison is surprised to learn that Rory has already leased a farm with a gigantic mansion worthy of landed gentry. This begins ringing belated alarm bells, particularly after she finds that Rory is allowing their bills to go unpaid.

Rory (Jude Law) has a contemplative moment.

Written and directed by Sean Durkin, who’s best known for 2011’s tense Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Nest often comes off as a thriller or even a horror film. Spooky music, baroque interiors and a horse’s terrified screams may even make you wonder whether the family’s new home is haunted. Both Samantha and Benjamin seem to suspect it is, the younger boy being particularly terrified.

Essentially, though, this is the tale of a family unraveling because it’s headed by a man who insists on chasing elusive fantasies of success. To the extent that the film itself succeeds, it’s because all four of the principal players are wonderful, starting with Law as a driven individual incapable of recognizing his own delusions and limitations.

To the extent the film fails, on the other hand, it’s because Durkin works harder at creating an atmosphere than he does at establishing relatable characters. He doesn’t make us care enough about these people, and he then compounds the problem by telling their tale in a leisurely manner.

The film somewhat makes up for its deficiencies with an ending that offers at least partial closure, but viewers should be aware that patience is required along the way.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

The Nest (rated R) is available from VOD outlets beginning Nov. 17.

Sports doc doesn’t live up to its name (but fans won’t care)

Exuberant fans cheer on the Eagles in a scene from Maybe Next Year. (Photo courtesy of Over-Under Philly LLC)

By Richard Ades

Though it’s riding high after playing a decisive role in the presidential election, Philadelphia often suffers from an inferiority complex. According to the new documentary Maybe Next Year, that’s because the birthplace of American democracy is now a blue-collar berg that languishes in the shadow of New York City.

That may help to explain why Philly was the site of that classic sports-underdog tale, Rocky. And in the documentary’s view, it definitely explains why the happiness of so many of its residents rises and falls with the success of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Director Kyle Thrash proves the point by focusing on several Philadelphians as they follow the NFL team through its eventful 2017-18 season. Black or White, married or single, retired or struggling to make a living, all are devoted to their team heart and soul. Over the years, that’s made it all the more painful when the “Birds” disappointed them.

“I love my Eagles, but they gotta feel the same for us,” superfan Shirley cries during one of her frequent calls to a sports radio show. “I can’t take it!”

Equally passionate is Bryant, who admits the team may serve as the “scapegoat” for his disappointment over his own failure to find a mate. But that doesn’t stop him from unloading his frustrations in R-rated YouTube videos. “Run the m—–f—— ball!” he shouts when the team throws pass after incomplete pass.

Then there’s Barry, who’s put his money where other fans’ mouths are. Though he and his wife had planned to move to Florida after he retired, they instead spent their savings building a huge Eagles “locker room.” Essentially a private sports bar with a two-story ceiling, multiple tables and a giant TV screen, it allows them to share the team’s games with an extended “family” of fellow fans.

Finally, there’s Jesse, perhaps the most pitiable of all the featured Eagles followers. He naturally wants to share his love of football with his young son, but the boy’s autism makes it hard for him to learn the fundamentals. Adding to Jesse’s frustration, his aging father is suffering from a brain tumor that may keep them from sharing the team’s upcoming games.

Rounding out Thrash’s portrait of Eagles fandom are scenes of drunken tailgate parties that prove to be nearly as dangerous as football itself, along with a church service that doubles as a pep rally for the hometown team.

As football aficionados doubtless have realized already, Thrash fortuitously filmed his documentary during a season that proves to be atypical for the perennially hard-luck Eagles. Nevertheless, it still provides fans with plenty of scares, including the injury-related loss of a godlike quarterback. The tension level is especially concerning to Barry’s doctor, who worries the former heart attack patient will get too worked up during games.

Maybe Next Year is a funny, occasionally touching and always entertaining look at a beloved team’s power to unite a community while giving purpose to its residents’ lives. Whether their devotion amounts to an unhealthy obsession or a harmless diversion is a question director Thrash doesn’t presume to answer.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Maybe Next Year is available beginning Nov. 10 through VOD outlets.

A night for sharing thoughts and burying turtles

Alex (Cooper Raiff) is having a hard time adjusting to college life in Shithouse.

By Richard Ades

In 1995, director Richard Linklater brought together an American man and a Frenchwoman for an overnight session of talk and romance. The result was the indie film Before Sunrise.

This year, writer/director/star Cooper Raiff has brought together two college students for an overnight session of talk, commiseration and (a little) romance. The result is the indie film Shithouse.

Though the new flick is inferior to its predecessor in ways that go beyond its unappealing title, it still has something to offer. For starters, it’s a heartfelt look at the difficult transition college life represents to people like shy freshman Alex Malmquist (Raiff).

A Texan who’s spent much of his first six months at a California university hiding in his room, Alex finally decides to break out of his shell. When perennially stoned roommate Sam (Logan Miller) tells him about a party at the frat home known as “Shithouse,” Alex is game. Or, at least, he thinks he is. Once there, he panics when a girl tries to get intimate, then flees and calls his mom (Amy Landecker) just to hear her reassuring voice.

The night is salvaged only because, back at the dorm, Sam has a drunken accident that makes their room uninhabitable. Escaping to a common area, Alex meets up with his resident adviser, Maggie (Dylan Gelula), who is having a similarly bad day due to the death of her pet turtle. She invites him back to her room, where a brief attempt at sex gives way to an eventful night of walking, talking and an impromptu funeral for her lost pet.

Maggie (Dylan Gelula) and Alex (Cooper Raiff) share a momentous night.

It’s this part of Shithouse that is most reminiscent of Before Sunrise, and the comparison is not altogether flattering. Raiff’s dialogue is brisk but can’t match the earlier film’s engrossing debates on philosophy and life. Also, though Alex and Maggie are engagingly played by Raiff and Gelula, the script tries a bit too hard to define them.

Alex grew up with loving parents (though his father is now deceased), while Maggie’s father deserted her when he divorced her mother. These facts serve as shorthand explanations for their very different reactions to college life—and, as it turns out, to the night they shared.

After waking up in Maggie’s bed the next morning, Alex is shocked to find that their experience didn’t mean the same thing to her that it did to him. Friction and awkwardness follow, including much that is funny and much that rings painfully true. As a result, both characters undergo important changes, leading to an ending that is inconclusive, yet gives us hope for each of them.

…Except that it’s not the end. Instead, Raiff tacks on a final scene that takes place two and a half years later. Why, it’s hard to say, as it leaves us wondering just what we’ve missed.

Despite this and other missteps (including the name itself), Raiff’s first directorial effort boasts originality, humor and honesty. It may not be worth the two sequels (and counting) that Before Sunrise inspired, but it’s at least worth a look.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Shithouse (rated R) opens Oct. 16 at select theaters (including Columbus’s Gateway Film Center) and though VOD outlets.