Reviews

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.

Like a male, Israeli version of ‘Mrs. Maisel’

Guy Nehama (Reshef Levi, center) with (from left): his sister-in-law and brother, Michal and Oren (Yuval Scharf and Shalom Michaelshwilli); wife, Tamar (Liron Weissman); boss, Arik (Eran Zaracovitz); and co-worker, Dana (Gala Kagen)

By Richard Ades

Reviewing TV isn’t usually my thing, but I couldn’t resist the chance to sample Nehama. I figured the Israeli dramedy might be a passable substitute for Shtisel, an addictive Jerusalem-set series whose third season has been delayed by the pandemic.

Well, the first thing I should say is that the hourlong newcomer bears little resemblance to Shtisel. While that show centers on Israelis whose lives are shaped by their ultra-orthodox beliefs, Nehama is about countrymen who are largely casual about their faith. It’s actually more like an Israeli version of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, as it also centers on an aspiring comedian: Guy Nehama (Reshef Levi), who wants to revive the standup career he gave up years ago when he became a family man.

One big difference between the two: While Mrs. Maisel seldom seems tied down by parenting duties thanks to her helpful parents and an amenable ex, Nehama finds his time constantly being monopolized by his five kids. This is especially true after he loses his wife, Tamar (Liron Weissman), in an accident that’s foretold in the series’ very first scene.

Actor Levi, who also created and co-wrote the series, portrays Nehama as a neurotic man prone to spasms of hypochondria and self-pity, paranoia and anger. When we first meet him, he’s basically Tamar’s sixth child, as he needs constant attention and reassurance—needs she meets with a mixture of patience, exasperation and humor. That makes things all the more difficult for Nehama when he must take over the parenting duties previously handled by his late wife.

While we watch Nehama struggle with varying success to meet these new obligations, we also learn more about the people around him, including married but childless brother Oren (Shalom Michaelshwilli) and co-worker Dana (Gala Kagen), who harbors a not-so-secret crush on her suddenly available colleague.

Thanks to flashbacks, we also learn new information about Tamar, who sacrificed herself more than Nehama ever knew. A particularly important development turns up in the sixth episode, the last one provided to reviewers.

Nehama has a few things in common with Shtisel. Both are alternately funny and sad, and both complicate their characters’ lives with soap opera-like dilemmas that are often of their own making. The new show’s mercurial title character is especially prone to bad choices, which may frustrate some viewers.

But hang in there long enough, and you’ll likely be sucked into its tale of a man who’s belatedly learning how to become an adult.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Nehama (in Hebrew with English subtitles) will be available in the U.S. beginning Oct. 15 on Topic, a screening service from First Look Media.

The uphill battle to safeguard federal lands

Local activists gather in Salt Lake City to protest the Trump administration’s boundary reductions to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. (Photo by Andrew Burr)

By Richard Ades

As if the upcoming presidential election weren’t momentous enough, a new documentary offers evidence that American’s public lands are on the line.

David Byars’s Public Trust is a beautifully photographed homage to the 640 million acres of wilderness that belong to all of us, as well as a concise history of the struggle to keep them that way. That history is brought up to date with an account of the Trump administration’s moves to exploit some of the most pristine and vital areas for commercial development.

Though a wide spectrum of activists, ranchers, government officials and others appear during the film’s 98 minutes, the face that’s seen most often belongs to journalist Hal Herring. Herring says he spent his youth hunting and fishing in northern Alabama, but he later traded in his shotgun for a computer so he could warn people about forces that sought to turn federal lands into money-making opportunities.

Byars makes the case that protecting and even extending public lands was a bipartisan issue for much of the 20th century, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Even in the 21st century, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both added new protected areas by declaring them “national monuments.”

When Donald J. Trump took office, however, he made it clear that his sympathies lay elsewhere. Not only have his secretaries of the interior been men with multiple links to the energy industry, but he’s showed no compunction about overturning protective measures instituted by his predecessors.

Spencer Shaver and Hal Herring paddle through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. (Photo by Jim Hurst)

The documentary gives three endangered areas special attention. One is Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, which attract canoers and other nature-lovers to the state and create thousands of local jobs. Another is the Bears Ears area of Utah, considered sacred by Native Americans. Finally, there’s the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, home to the caribou on which the Gwich’in people rely for their survival.

Each of these areas has its defenders, one of the most devoted being Bernadette Demientieff of the Gwich’in Nation. She and other activists are shown gathering support and debating critics in attempts to fight off intrusions by would-be exploiters with deep pockets. But their efforts begin to seem futile once the Trump administration puts its finger on the scales.

Educational, inspiring and, most of all, troubling, Public Trust is ultimately a call to arms against those who seek to steal our national heritage for the sake of a quick profit.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Public Trust (no MPAA rating) is available via YouTube beginning Sept. 25, with more outlets to be added at a later date.

Seaside thriller centers on tale of modern-day slavery

Kea (Mony Ros) and Chakra (Sarm Heng) face the fishing trawler’s dictatorial captain (Thanawut Kasro) in Buoyancy. (Photos courtesy of Kino Lorber)

By Richard Ades

It’s fitting that I watched Buoyancy on Labor Day weekend. The film is about a boy whose quest for honest work turns him into a virtual slave aboard a Southeast Asian fishing trawler.

Though designed as a tense thriller by Australian writer/director Rodd Rathjen (making an assured feature-length debut), the film also documents a real-life tragedy that entraps thousands of boys and men who are simply trying to better themselves.

The protagonist is Chakra (Sarm Heng), a 14-year-old Cambodian who resents having to work in the fields for pay he’s then forced to turn over to his father. After hearing about the wages that can be made in Thai factories, he steals away one morning for a prearranged rendezvous with men who will smuggle him over the border along with other job-seekers.

There he meets a stranger named Kea (Mony Ros) who has misgivings about what they’re getting themselves into but needs to make money for his wife and family. Kea smells trouble when they’re ordered to board a ship that supposedly will take them to their factory, but by then it’s too late. He and Chakra are forced to join the beleaguered crew of a fishing boat captained by the brutal and dictatorial Rom Ran (Thanawut Kasro).

Sarm Heng as 14-year-old Chakra

Scenes aboard the trawler paint a picture of exhaustion and misery. Chakra and fellow crew members spend their days shoveling netfuls of tiny, wriggling fish that reportedly are bound for pet food. At night, the men eat meager bowls of rice before settling down to sleep on the floor of the ship’s hold.

Through it all, Chakra faces each task with the kind of dogged determination he apparently learned growing up in harsh poverty. He even curries favor with the captain by personally giving him the larger fish that occasionally end up in the net.

Others, however, are less resilient. In some cases, their bodies give out; in others, they attempt to escape or rebel against their captors. In each instance, the captain and his underlings maintain order by responding with ruthless and sometimes creative sadism.

The film’s largely silent scenes of day-to-day misery and casual cruelty, masterfully depicted by director Rathjen and cinematographer Michael Latham, capture the sense of numbing hopelessness anyone in that situation would feel. Anyone but someone as young and adaptable as Chakra, that is, who is gradually transformed by what he’s seen and endured. Despite being a fledgling actor, Sarm Heng handles the change with understated power.

A sad story with a climax that’s both exciting and disturbing, Buoyancy earns its stripes as a thriller without undermining the real-world tragedy it seeks to expose.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Buoyancy (no MPAA rating) opens Sept. 11 via the Wexner Center’s virtual cinema series. For information, visit wexarts.org.

Truncated ‘Copperfield’ is fun but not quite a classic

Enjoying a pleasant outing are (from left): Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), David Copperfield (Dev Patel), Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) and Agnes Whitfield (Rosalind Eleazar).

By Richard Ades

As luck would have it, I watched The Personal History of David Copperfield just weeks after rereading the original novel for the first time in decades.

The timing turned out to be a mixed blessing.

It made it easier to keep up with the dozens of characters who appear in even this condensed version of Charles Dickens’s rambling classic. But it also made it clear that director/co-scripter Armando Iannucci has trimmed more than length off the story. He’s also trimmed most of the drama and even much of the comedy.

To be sure, Dickens wrote a fair amount of padding into David Copperfield—probably for financial reasons, as it first appeared in serial form. But the length allowed him to create an engrossing, semiautobiographical tale of a life filled with tragedies, triumphs and, most of all, indelible characters.  

In Iannucci’s defense, nothing short of a miniseries could have done the novel justice. Since he limited himself to a two-hour running time, he settled for a fast-paced and colorful encapsulation of the story tied together with narration delivered by an adult version of the title character (Dev Patel).

Like the novel, the film begins with his birth to a young widow (Morfydd Clark) on the night his eccentric Aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton) pays an unexpected visit—and subsequently leaves when the baby disappoints her by being a boy. With the help of two adorable actors (Ranveer Jaiswal and Jairaj Varsanji) who portray David as a youth, it then recounts the bad luck that befalls him when his mother marries the dictatorial Murdstone (Darren Boyd).

Soon running afoul of his stepfather’s sour temper, David is exiled to a London bottling factory, where he toils his way into adulthood. It’s only after a family tragedy that he finally rebels, running away and throwing himself on the mercy of the aunt he’s never met. When Betsey mercifully takes him in, he at last finds himself on the road to happiness and success, though his journey will be marked by setbacks and detours galore.

David (Dev Patel) delivers a lecture on the story of his life.

With an Englishman of Indian descent playing David, it’s obvious that the film is employing nontraditional casting. For example, it makes no attempt to explain why Betsey’s financial adviser, Mr. Whitfield (Benedict Wong), is Asian, but his daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) is Black. This kind of colorblind casting is more common in modern theater than in film, but most viewers will quickly catch on.

What may be more puzzling to fans of the novel is why some characters seem so divorced from their literary counterparts. One is David’s former schoolmate, Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), who bears no resemblance to the dangerously handsome and effortlessly popular aristocrat Dickens describes. Nor does the film’s Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) look anything like the book’s cadaverous conniver.

Of course, those unfamiliar with the book won’t notice such things. On the other hand, they might notice that the film never engages their emotions all that much. It just doesn’t have time to develop the personal tragedies or interpersonal relationships that might have sucked them in.

The flick is a little better at reflecting some of Dickens’s most obvious comedy: Aunt Betsey’s ongoing feud with donkeys, or the kingly obsession that bedevils her friend Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie). Subtler humor, though, is missing.

With an engaging cast and a breezy style, David Copperfield is a pleasant enough diversion. It’s only in comparison to its source material that it falls short.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Personal History of David Copperfield (PG) opens Aug. 28 at select theaters.