REVIEW: “Cherry” (2021)

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Tom Holland once again separates himself from his friendly neighborhood superhero persona in the new Apple Original “Cherry”. Last year he did it with “The Devil All the Time”, a dark and violent Southern Gothic drama. Next to “Cherry” that flick plays like an afternoon special on the Disney Channel. This time Holland throws aside any hint of his boyish humor and Peter Park charm to wade into the heavy topics of drug abuse, dependency, PTSD, and more.

“Cherry” is directed by Marvel Studios favorites Anthony and Joe Russo. But make no mistake, there is nothing here that remotely resembles their rousing work in the MCU. Instead “Cherry” soaks its audience in unpleasantness from its dour and (mostly) hopeless point-of-view to the grating f-bomb laden dialogue from writers Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg. The Russos do try to inject a little dark humor here and there, but next to the story’s dark and depressing subject matter those brief moments are smothered out and forgotten. That’s all fine, but when the movie struggles to relay its bigger message or any real meaning those things become a liability and are harder to endure.

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Image Courtesy of Apple

“Cherry” is based on Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical 2018 novel of the same name. It’s a very real story for Walker who actually wrote his book from prison where he was serving 11 years for robbing banks to support his heroin habit. The movie breaks itself up into chapters that cover a young Ohio man’s troubled odyssey through college, army basic training, deployment, then back home where he gets hooked on drugs and begins robbing banks to support his addiction. And let me just say, in “Cherry” robbing banks is easier than shoplifting a piece of gum from a convenient store. No mask required, no police chase afterwards. Just be cordial, tell them you have a gun and they’ll hand over stacks of cash. Easy-peasy. It’s one of several things the movie serves up that strains any sense of believability.

Holland immerses himself in this character who starts down his tragic path by swapping Xanax for Ecstasy at college parties. But his life turns around when he meets the girl of his dreams Emily (Ciara Bravo), that is until she breaks his heart which leads to a spur-of-the-moment decision to enlist in the army. Then in the worst stroke of movie luck, Emily comes back to him but not before he’s set for basic training and then shipped to the Middle East in the latter days of the Iraq War. A large chunk of the movie (too large) follows his time as a barely trained medic and the horrors of the battlefield which lead to his PTSD.

From there it’s back home to Cleveland where Emily awaits and yet another lengthy chapter of the young man’s life begins. It’s here that the Russos vividly capture PTSD and the psychological damage it brings as well as the crushing effects of drug addiction. But no matter how hard he tries, or how much pale makeup they put on him, or how many f-bombs he screams, Holland never feels right for the part. It’s not for lack of commitment and it’s not that his performance is empty or feels untrue. He simple struggles to sell the grit and numbness the role demands. Same with Bravo. As with Holland, her performance isn’t “bad”. But (through no fault of her own) she looks 10 years too young and Bravo is handcuffed to Emily’s woefully shallow and hard-to-buy descent into addiction.

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Image Courtesy of Apple

“Cherry” is also hampered by some weird creative choices such as its tone-jarring breaking of the fourth wall. In these scenes characters yank the movie out of the reality-based setting it so desperately wants to depict. It’s a style and storytelling choice that offers nothing and even the movie itself seems unconvinced of its effectiveness. Maybe that’s why it all but disappears in the film’s second half. And the decision to go with a chapter-based structure only highlights one of the movie’s bigger issues – its overwrought and overstuffed story. And speaking of style choices, did I mention there’s a shot from inside Holland’s rectum looking out? Cutting edge stuff, right?

There’s something undeniably disturbing about watching two young people who look like kids (even though both stars are in their twenties) losing themselves in a drug-addled mire of misery and self-destruction. But those aren’t the optics “Cherry” is going for. The Russos have bigger ambitions and shoot for the stars in what amounts to their attempt at a prestige movie. It’s them saying “See, we can make more than big-budget, crowd-pleasing, superhero extravaganzas“. The problem is “Cherry” is a mess. It’s story is overcooked, its storytelling hampered by bad decisions. Even worse, after watching it for 140 long minutes, I was completely indifferent to the characters, their story, and the film as a whole. That’s pretty damning, especially for a movie so sure of itself yet so emotionally hollow. “Cherry” opens February 26th in select theaters before streaming March 12th on Apple TV+.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” (2021)

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Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a guy is trapped in an unending time loop where he’s forced to live the same day over and over again. Pretty familiar, right? We saw it in the terrific comedy gem “Groundhog Day”. We saw it last year in the not-so-terrific “Palm Springs”. We saw it in the fun sci-fi action flick “Edge of Tomorrow”. Now we get a Valentines season teen rom-com that attempts to bring its own flavor to the well-worn premise and does so with pretty mixed results.

“The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” is directed by Ian Samuels and written by Lev Grossman. The film is an adaptation of Grossman’s own short story and stars two young up-and-comers with enough charisma and chemistry to keep things interesting. Unfortunately it’s not quite enough the shake the feelings that we’ve seen this narrative, these characters, and their inevitable relationship several times before. Still there’s something to say about good performances and their ability to infuse life into an otherwise shaky story. And to Grossman’s credit, he adds some needed emotional weight in the final 15 minutes that makes this more than some meaningless retread.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The story begins by introducing us to Mark, a spirited high school teen played by Kyle Allen (who looks old enough to be out of college but be that as it may). Mark wakes up every morning to the exact same day, one that continually repeats itself before resetting each night at midnight. Mark has been in the loop long enough that he’s attuned to every detail, every event, every conversation. You could say he’s the king of his own ‘temporal anomaly’ where everyone but him follows the script and then rinses and repeats.

But there’s a ripple in Mark’s cyclical existence when he sees Margaret (Kathryn Newton), a rogue addition to this tightly scripted world. Realizing he’s not the only person with free will stuck in the loop, Mark is immediately enamored and full of questions. Where did she come from? Does she know how this happened? What has she been doing all of this time? Does she think he’s cute? After following her around a bit Mark finally introduces himself. At first his playful enthusiasm clashes with Margaret’s distant curiosity. He’s an open book, laying everything out without a second thought. She’s harder to read and with things in her life she would rather keep to herself.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Of course the two soon develop a peculiar connection which the movie spends the bulk of its time exploring. A long stretch of the story ends up playing like a conventional YA romantic comedy, surviving on the charms and chemistry of Allen and Newton. Both are really good but they can only keep the movie afloat for so long. But just as the movie starts to sink (and I was about to check out), Samuels and Grossman inject it with feeling and pathos. The story adds some layers to the characters, particularly Margaret, that helps us to see them as more than just another cutesy teen movie couple. And while it doesn’t fully avoid the temptation to slap on a little sap, the ending lands well enough and makes the rest of the film (rough patches and all) seem more meaningful.

“The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” isn’t something that will stick with you long, but it does (barely) save itself in its final act. Even more, for those who don’t know them, it’s a nice introduction to two talented young stars with a load of potential. I think it’s safe to say Allen and Newton have promising careers ahead of them. I doubt this movie will go down as one of their best, but if you’ll stick with it through the rocky and not-so-original middle you’ll find it endears us to these characters in a thoughtful and surprising way. “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Devil Below” (2021)

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In the upcoming horror thriller “The Devil Below” from director Brad Parker an abandoned Appalachian mining town holds a dark and deadly secret. Back in the 1970s the tight community of Shookum Hills was decimated by what was ruled an “environmental disaster”. As a result the town burned to the ground and as many as 1,000 miners and their family members vanished. Now it’s as if the town and the events that occurred there has been wiped off the map and from everyone’s memory.

Parker has spent most of his film career working as a digital artist and special effects supervisor. His only other directorial effort was 2012’s “Chernobyl Diaries”, a not-so-good horror film built around an intriguing premise and an eerie setting. Similarly “The Devil Below” has a setting that grabs you and Parker soaks his film in atmosphere. And while it does stumble with a couple of head-scratching character choices and some all-to-familiar genre moments, there’s more than enough mystery and fleet-footed tension to keep things fun and entertaining.

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Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Will Patton has turned into one of my favorite character actors – always reliable and well-tuned to whatever movie he’s in. Just last year he brought a great presence to two of my favorite 2020 films, “Minari” and “Blood on Her Name”. Here he appears in the prologue as Paul, a foreman for the Shookum Hills Mining Company. In a brief but well shot opening, we see him lose his son to something (emphasis on THING) from deep inside the mine. Wounded and incapacitated by the creature, all Paul can do is helplessly listen to the screams of his son from the depths below.

Jump ahead to current day and we’re introduced to Ariana (Alicia Sanz), a strictly business expedition guide who scouts out hard-to-find locations and leads her paying clients to their destinations. She’s hired by Darren (Adan Canto), an Oxford-funded leader of a research team anxious to uncover what really happened at Shookum Hills. Darren is a man of science who scoffs at anything that can’t be logically explained. This causes him to butt heads with team member Shawn (Chinaza Uche), a geologist and the one member of the group who embraces the possibility of the supernatural. Other team members are Terry (Jonathan Sadowski), an annoying but skilled tech guy and Jamie (Zach Avery) who handles the vaguely defined “security services”.

Parker takes his time setting things up, spending much of the first thirty minutes or so building up atmosphere and setting the film’s tone. That’s helped immensely by DP Morgan Susser’s camera and the foreboding score of Nima Fakhrara. These early scenes follow the team as they venture deep into the Appalachian hills led by Ariana who believes she’s narrowed down the location of the now uncharted ghost town. They get no help from the cryptic locals, the kind who clearly know more than they want to share. Among them is Patton’s Paul. “I want them gone“, he grumbles about the nosy out-of-towners. “No matter what it takes.”

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Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Of course the researchers don’t heed the advice of the locals, eventually finding their way to the hull of Shookum Hills. They hilariously miss evidence that the town may not be so vacant (burning kerosene lanterns, mowed green grass, etc.) and they press on until they find the mine and disturb the ghastly secret that lies deep within it. What follows is a pretty familiar survival horror formula – a group running for their lives and being picked off one-by-one. But the story is kept interesting through its brisk pacing and Parker’s ability to not only build tension but sustain it. It’s also helped by some of his visual choices. The grainy night vision and occasional handheld camera sometimes make things hard to decipher, but he nicely utilizes the setting and captures a steady sense of claustrophobia in the second half that’s pretty harrowing.

“The Devil Below” is very much a genre film which both helps and hurts. But overall Parker along with screenwriters Stefan Jaworski and Eric Scherbarth have their own vision and they hit their target, delivering a moody and absorbing horror-thriller that keeps you locked in from start to finish. Good performances fill out the under 90-minute runtime, keeping our focus forward and leaving little time to question the logic of what we’re seeing. It does leave some of the characters too thinly sketched, but the story has just enough grit and suspense to keep things entertaining. “The Devil Below” premieres March 5th is select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT- 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Vigil” (2021)

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In the upcoming indie chiller “The Vigil” a troubled young man encounters a malevolent spirit while watching over the body of deceased man from his Jewish community in Brooklyn. It’s a religious ritual where the person watching (called a shomer if male, a shomeret if female) both protects and comforts the deceased’s soul until time for burial. First time director Keith Thomas uses this Jewish practice as a catalyst in his small-scale supernatural horror film about the psychological ravages of oppressive guilt.

“The Vigil” premiered way back at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and has since released in a handful of markets. Now it has finally found its way to the States thanks to IFC Films. The troubled young man is Yakov (Dave Davis) who we first meet at a support group for struggling Jewish twenty-somethings who have left their Orthodox roots. He shares with the group his bad news of losing a job opportunity and of how his financial woes “having to choose between medication and meals“.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

As Yakov leaves the meeting he’s greeted by his former rabbi Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig) who’s in a pickle. He needs Yakov to fill in as a shomer for the recently deceased Mr. Litvak, a Holocaust survivor who lost his entire family in the concentration camps. After the war Mr. Litvak started a new family but the scars from his last drove him to become a recluse, estranged from his children and grandchildren. For the last several years he had stayed shut-up inside his home with his frail dementia-addled wife. The shomer who was there left in a panic. Reb Shulem needs Yakov to cover the final five hours until morning when Mr. Litvak is set to be buried.

Cash-strapped and a bit desperate, Yakov works his payment up to $400 and heads to the Litvak home. Most of the film takes place in this shadowy townhouse which Thomas uses to great effect. Within moments of settling in, Yakov begins hearing noises upstairs where Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen) is sleeping. The bumps, creaks and flickering lights are nothing compared to the horrifying visions that follow and intensify as the night goes on. Meanwhile Mr. Litvak’s body ominously lays in the living room covered in a sheet and bathed in an eerie off-white glow.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Some of the film’s biggest strengths lies in Thomas’ ability to manage his unsettling tone while developing and sustaining a spooky atmosphere despite the constrictions of such a small setting. There is a time or two where he gives in and goes for some unneeded jump scares. They’re made worse by an uneven sound design that had me constantly adjusting the volume on my television. It’s as if in those few moments Thomas lost faith in his vision and went the cheap route. But thankfully those moments are few and the film’s deeper meaning quickly comes to the surface.

Over the course of the film we learn more about what drove Yakov to leave his Orthodox roots – a particular tragedy that has not only left him disillusioned but also burdened by guilt. The evil spirit in the house hones in on that weakness turning “The Vigil” into an unexpectedly compelling supernatural and psychological blend. And it’s all realized through a smart visual technique that centers on building its foreboding mood rather than leaning on blood-soaked special effects. So we end up with a crafty theme-conscious horror film with an interesting cultural perspective and mostly good instincts when it comes keeping its audience squirming. “The Vigil” premieres February 26th.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

SEFCA Announces Our Award Winners for the 2020 Movie Year

As a proud member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association I’m excited to share our organization’s awards for the 2020 movie year as voted on by the body. Below you’ll find our official press release.

February 22, 2021 – The Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) has named Nomadland as its Best Film of 2020. Chloé Zhao’s intimate, elegiac drama about life in America after the Great Recession also earned the organization’s awards for Best Actress for Frances McDormand, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Zhao, and Best Cinematography for Joshua James Richards.

“Nomadland was an overwhelming favorite among our members in this year’s award season,” said SEFCA President Matt Goldberg. “It’s clear that Zhao’s thoughtful, deeply humanistic and heartfelt portrait of life at the fringes of our country connected with our members across the Southeast, and it is our pleasure to name it the Best Film of 2020.”

SEFCA also bestowed its Gene Wyatt Award, which goes to a film that best embodies the spirit of the South, to Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, the story of a Korean immigrant family that moves to Arkansas so the patriarch can realize his dream of becoming a farmer. Like Nomadland, Minari was a clear favorite among our members, and there’s no question that Chung’s film is a moving and authentic portrait of our part of the country.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and changes made across various guilds and academies, SEFCA stretched its voting period from January 1, 2020 to February 15, 2021. Despite a trying and difficult year, we are proud of the membership for continuing their devotion to film criticism and celebrating the best that cinema has to offer.

Founded in 1992, the Southeastern Film Critics Association brings together a diverse coalition of critics across the Southeast to celebrate the year’s best films and craftsmanship in cinema. Winners from past years can be found at sefca.net.

Top 10 Films

1. Nomadland
2. Minari
3. The Trial of the Chicago 7
4. Promising Young Woman
5. Sound of Metal
6. One Night in Miami…
7. Da 5 Bloods
8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
9. Soul
10. Mank

Best Actor

Winner: Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Runner-Up: Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal

Best Actress

Winner: Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Runner-Up: Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Best Supporting Actor

Winner: Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Runner-Up: Paul Raci, Sound of Metal

Best Supporting Actress

Winner: Youn Yuh-jung, Minari
Runner-Up: Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Best Ensemble

Winner: The Trial of the Chicago 7
Runner-Up: One Night in Miami…

Best Director

Winner: Chloé Zhao, Nomadland
Runner-Up: Regina King, One Night in Miami…

Best Original Screenplay

Winner: Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Runner-Up: Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman

Best Adapted Screenplay

Winner: Chloé Zhao, Nomadland
Runner-Up: Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami…

Best Documentary

Winner: Time
Runner-Up: Dick Johnson Is Dead

Best Foreign-Language Film

Winner: Another Round
Runner-Up: Bacurau

Best Animated Film

Winner: Soul
Runner-Up: Wolfwalkers

Best Cinematography

Winner: Joshua James Richards, Nomadland
Runner-Up: Erik Messerschmidt, Mank

The Gene Wyatt Award

Winner: Minari
Runner-Up: One Night in Miami…

First Glance: “Cruella”

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Full disclosure: I’m not the most knowledgeable individual when it comes to Cruella de Vil or the beloved Disney animated classic “One Hundred and One Dalmatians”. But even I know Cruella is an iconic Disney villain. She’s a greedy, vain and demented London heiress who kidnaps puppies in order to harvest their fur. See! Utterly reprehensible. She’s also getting her own movie and after seeing its first trailer it’s hard to figure out what Disney is going for.

Emma Stone plays the infamous Cruella in what looks like an origin story of sorts. Stone sports the signature black-and-white head of hair fitting for the punk-rock 1970’s setting. The tone is what’s hard to grasp. The film looks to going for a “Joker” or “Birds of Prey” vibe but I can’t imagine Disney would ever push it that far. And will this be another attempt at making a ruthless villain sympathetic? I hope not. Whatever it is, “Cruella” is a big wait-and-see for me. I like Stone but too much is still up in the air for me to get excited for this one yet.

“Cruella” opens in theaters May 28th. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.