REVIEW: “Holler” (2021)

Nicole Riegel makes her eye-opening directorial debut with “Holler”, a richly textured movie with a deep personal connection with its creator. Riegel grew up in the American Rust Belt and shot “Holler” in her hometown of Jackson, Ohio. While the town and the characters in the movie are fictional, they’re very much inspired by Riegel’s own lived experience growing up in Jackson. And the lead character (wonderfully played by Jessica Barden) is a reflection of Riegel’s youth where as a young woman she worked hard to break a cycle and make it out of the crumbling town she came from.

But everything came full-circle when she returned to Jackson, this time as a young woman who had made it; as a filmmaker with both the opportunity and the perspective to tell an authentic and thoughtful story about growing up in a struggling Southern Ohio community. It’s something movies have often touched on but rarely with the lived-in point-of-view that we get from Riegel. Her touch can be felt throughout the film and while not perfect, the truth she conveys on screen makes for some riveting viewing.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Riegel opens her film with a quick introduction to the story’s central character Ruth Avery (Barden), a smart and resourceful high-school senior. It doesn’t take long to recognize how the deck seems stacked against her, and in many ways she seems resigned to her fate. There’s no sign of a father and her mother Rhonda (Pamela Adlon) is in the county jail for refusing to go to rehab. Ruth lives with her well-meaning older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) who does his best to provide for his sister but can’t afford to keep the water turned on and is constantly dodging foreclosure notices from the bank.

Riegel wrote the screenplay (which is based on her own short film) and she makes the brother/sister dynamic a key part of her story. Blaze wants his sister to have a better life and to go to college, something none of their family has ever done. Ruth has a strong loyalty to her brother and the idea of leaving him behind on his own is out of the question. This conflict, while centered around the sibling’s love for each other, stretches through the entire film and intensifies as their circumstances worsen.

The supporting characters are just as important and play a pivotal role in filling out the story and the town. Tops on the list is Austin Amelio as Hark, a local junkyard owner who hires a desperate Blaze and Ruth to collect scrap metal that he then sells on the side. Hark is an intriguing presence – a product of the town who always has a sly way of rationalizing what he does whether it’s legal or not. Yet it feels like there is so much of his story that’s left out making him a hard character to figure out. Becky Ann Baker adds a welcomed warmth to every scene she’s in playing Linda, a close friend of Ruth’s family. She too is a character we’re left wanting to know more about.

But it all mostly comes back to Barden who’s actually 28-years-old yet is utterly convincing as a high-schooler. She gives us glimpses of Ruth’s youthful spirit – a young girl full of potential, bouncing around in her red knit toboggan and full of curiosity. Yet we mostly see is a girl mature beyond her years, forced by her circumstances to grow up early and reflecting the hardships that have been a part in her life since she was a child. It’s a remarkable performance and Riegel is smart to lean into her talented star.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

DP Justin Lane shoots a lot of scenes in somber blue tones emphasizing the misery and the despair. At this point it’s a technique that has been done so much you almost expect it. Lane’s camera really shines in the more intimate and personal moments where the characters are the focus. He also does a great job capturing the town and grounding us in the setting which is such a vital component to the story. But the visuals stumble a bit in what you may call ‘action scenes’. Mostly shot at night, these few scenes can be dark and murky to the point of being indecipherable. It’s more frustrating than problematic.

“Holler” ends up being one of those rare movies that doesn’t just talk about small town life. Instead it offers a clear-eyed undiluted vision of living under the poverty line. It’s gritty, authentic, and without a ounce of pretense. And not only is it an impressive feature film debut for Nicole Riegel, it also highlights Jessica Barden whose thoughtful and layered performance drives much of the movie. Both are immensely talented women and you can’t help but be anxious for what each will do next. “Holler” hits theaters June 11th.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Here Today” (2021)

When it comes to entertainment careers few have had one better and more diverse than Billy Crystal. He’s found success at nearly every stop whether on Broadway or in Hollywood. He’s done television, movies, stand-up comedy, voice acting, he’s won six Emmys, he’s won a Tony award, and he’s hosted the Academy Awards a whopping nine times. Now he steps back behind the camera for the first time in twenty years with the new film “Here Today”.

The 73-year-old Crystal directs, co-writes, co-produces and stars in this well-intended yet strangely uneven dramedy. He plays Charlie Burnz, an aging comedy writer on the backend of a successful career. Now he writes skits for a New York-based sketch comedy show called “This Just In”. The success of Charlie’s career has come with a personal price, namely his relationship with his architect son (Penn Badgley) and his far more bitter daughter Francine (Laura Benanti). So when not at work he spends most of his time alone in his Brooklyn apartment, still mourning the loss of his wife who has been dead for years and holding on tightly to a crushing secret – he has early-stage dementia.

Image Courtesy of Stage 6 Films

Through a goofy circumstance too inconsequential to get into here (but that allegedly really happened to co-writer Alan Zweibel), Charlie meets a brash street singer named Emma played by Tiffany Haddish. Going in, the very idea of Billy Crystal teaming up with Tiffany Haddish seemed almost like a gimmick – his quick and grounded wit; her loud and abrasive schtick. Their characters end up forming an unconventional friendship which is the closest we get to a main storyline. The problem is their hard-to-read relationship is never as convincing as it needs to be, and the clashing comic styles of the two stars doesn’t help. At times it’s as if they are working in two different movies.

It’s almost like the filmmakers see the conflict, so they work hard to temper Haddish’s bravado especially in the second half. There are moments when it works, when she puts aside the blaring comic aggression and shows genuine acting chops. But far too often it’s nonsense like busting out singing Janice Joplin at a Bat Mitzvah, rambling about her sexual prowess, or ungainly physical gags such as falling over a row of garbage cans. And while the movie intends something inspiring and thoughtful, you can’t miss the clang of ‘the uncouth and uncultured black woman meets the stuffy upper-class white guy’ running joke. It doesn’t land particularly well.

Image Courtesy of Stage 6 Films

Yet despite all of that, there are chunks of “Here Today” that work in large part because of Crystal. He serves up plenty of reminders that not only does he have an effortlessly good comic delivery, but he’s also a solid dramatic actor. It’s seen best in some of the MANY side stories. I particularly liked the scenes with Charlie at work, tossing out ideas in the writer’s room, mentoring a young scribe, ranting about an actor’s inflection. And while the dementia angle is a bit messy, there are a couple of moments of real humanity and pathos.

But when you toss so many things out there (aging, dementia, grief, a wacky friendship, a fractured family, life as a comedy writer, etc.) and try to build a story out of it, you have to bring the pieces together at some point. What we end up with is a well-meaning yet mushy and squeaky-clean ending that I really, really wanted to feel. Instead what I felt most was the movie yanking hard enough on my heartstrings to make them snap. I was left thinking that maybe “Here Today” would have played better as a collage of one man’s life. In some ways that’s exactly what it is. If only it didn’t try to be that plus a whole lot more. “Here Today” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Hope” (2021)

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There is no shortage of movies that deal with the sensitive subject of illness. It’s delicate ground to cover and an emotional minefield for filmmakers willing to navigate such heavy material with earnestness. Yet you can never judge these types of movies by one over-arching standard. That’s because there are deeply human and often intensely personal stories of all kinds related to sickness. That’s why when done well these movies can have a powerful and visceral impact on an audience. And when done poorly, words like ‘exploitative’ and ‘manipulative’ often come up.

The terrific “Hope” dodges those pitfalls thanks to the clear-eyed sincerity of writer-director Maria Sødahl. She pours herself into the movie, pulling from her own cancer scare to convey the gamut of emotions that surround such a life-changing diagnosis. At the same time it’s a deeply affecting relationship drama anchored by two unforgettable performances. “Hope” premiered at Toronto in 2019 and was Norway’s official selection for this year’s Academy Awards. Now it’s finally getting its official US release courtesy of Brooklyn-based KimStim Films and it’s easy to see why it has garnered so much praise.

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Image Courtesy of KimStim

When talking about “Hope” you have to begin with the emotionally rich and complex performances from Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård. They play partners Anja and Tomas, two stage producers who have been together for years yet have steadily grown apart. They have a nice spacious flat in Oslo where they live with their three children and three other children from Tomas’ previous marriage. Anja and Tomas never married, always finding some reason, either personal or professional, to put it off. These days they maintain their relationship out of a sense of routine, both withdrawn into their own disconnected worlds.

On the day before Christmas Eve Anja goes to see her doctor to get something for her dizzying headaches. Her concerned physician immediately calls for an MRI which reveals a malignant brain tumor believed to be linked to her lung cancer from exactly one year earlier. It’s obviously devastating news and there’s no proper handbook on how to handle it. Sødahl understands this and she gives both Anja and Tomas space to deal with the news in their own ways without ever making judgements. This is where Hovig and Skarsgård really shine.

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Image Courtesy of KimStim

As the story plays out through the Christmas and New Years holiday, the couple attempt to come to grips with her diagnosis while wrestling with the ‘hows’ and ‘whens’ of telling their family. “I don’t want my kids to hate the holidays,” Anja laments. At the same time, her condition forces the partners to come together in a way they haven’t been in years. At first it’s out of necessity, “I can’t do it on my own,” she explains. But later, as Anja and Tomas reckon with their relationship, waves of raw and repressed emotions come to the surface. Long buried anger, frustration, perhaps even love are unearthed as the two struggle to find themselves amid Anja’s life-threatening condition. And with her time remaining suddenly in question, they’re finally willing to open up and be candid with each other.

Hovig’s performance is something to behold – a rich and textured portrayal that equally captures her character’s strength and fragility. With a striking authenticity Hovig sells every facet of Anja’s physical, mental, and emotional struggle. And she’s just as powerful in her quieter and more intimate moments. Meanwhile the seasoned Skarsgård can speak volumes without saying a word. His sad, heavily burdened eyes show a man crushed by his wife’s diagnosis and silently processing it to the best of his ability. Other times he seems lost, unsure of what to do or say. So he listens, knowing Anja needs that outlet to release her emotions and unpack her frustrations.

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Image Courtesy of KimStim

As the story pushes forward the reason for the movie’s title comes into focus. As Anja suffers through headaches, nausea, mood swings, and anxiety; as she suppresses and endures all of that pain just to give her family a “normal” Christmas; as she listens to conflicting suggestions from medical specialists; she’s left with the aching question – is there any hope? Is having hope in her situation rooted in reality or is it simply a coping mechanism? It’s a weighty question that Sødahl handles delicately but sincerely. And she can do so because she’s been in Anja’s shoes.

Yet the question of hope isn’t reserved just for Anja’s cancer, but also her relationship with Tomas. Is there hope for two people full of regret, who wasted years of their lives disconnected from each other and burrowing into their work, to rediscover the love that brought them together in the first place? Sødahl, Hovig, and Skarsgård explore this question with a real-life sensibility – no frills, no gloss, no melodrama, just truth. And because of that unclouded honesty and deep human expression, this becomes so much more than just another movie about cancer. “Hope” is set for a limited theater release April 16th.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Hunter Hunter” (2020)

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Shawn Linden’s “Hunter Hunter” wasn’t at all what I expected. Its crafty advertising sells a deep woods thriller about a wolf terrorizing a wilderness family. To be fair that is a big part of the movie. But as the film sets your eyes in one direction it then broadsides you with a story full of deeper human themes. Oh, and it caps it all off with an unforgettable ending that will leave your jaw on the floor. And that’s no exaggeration.

“Hunter Hunter” is about a a family living off the grid deep in an unspecified forest. They live off the land, mostly hunting and trading furs for supplies. It’s a life that suits the father Joe (Devon Sawa) and is accepted by the mother Anne (Camille Sullivan). But their daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell) is born into it and given no choice but to learn how to survive. That weighs on a guilt-ridden Anne who begins to think they would be better off giving up their life of isolation and moving into town. “We don’t run from our problems,” Joe growls.

While out checking traps Joe and Renee find evidence that a ravenous wolf has returned to their area. Joe not only sees it as a threat to his family but to the secluded life he has chosen. He becomes obsessed with the wolf and sets out to hunt it down, leaving Anne and Renee to fend for themselves until he returns. A few grisly discoveries later makes it clear that this is more than a simple ‘man versus beast’ story. And when Anne loses radio contact with Joe, she becomes the one who must protect what matters the most – her daughter.

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Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Linden, who serves as both writer and director, carves a surprisingly layered story out of a premise that seems pretty simple on its surface. I won’t dare spoil anything, but let’s just say he introduces some terrifying elements into the story that ups the intensity and adds this unnerving sense of dread that hangs over the final act. Camille Sullivan really emerges in the second half, putting the film on her back and giving a forceful and committed performance. And that ending. Linden goes all-in with an unsettling finish that feels exactly right for what he’s going for.

“Hunter Hunter” is a movie that quietly lures you in by building an interesting family dynamic worth investing in. The characters feel authentic which makes their tense and eventually frightening story resonate. Shawn Linden uses the setting’s beauty to hide something sinister while delving into some unsettling human themes that gives his movie a surprising kick. “Hunter Hunter” is now streaming on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Herself” (2020)

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Phyllida Lloyd opens her new film “Herself” with an unforgettable scene that goes from sweet to harrowing in a matter of seconds. Two darling little girls put makeup on their mom, softly giggling with each stroke of rosey red lipstick and gold eyeshadow. Before long the three are dancing in the kitchen, the room full of music, smiles and laughter. Then the music stops as the husband and father enters the room. He orders the girls to go outside and then begins a violent, stomach-churning assault on his wife. The images of it haunts her and us for the rest of the movie.

“Herself” is an interesting mix of clear-eyed movie realism and life-affirming drama. It takes an honest and unadorned look at the lasting effects of domestic abuse and confronts the slow-moving legal system that harshly punishes the victim for signing a form wrong but considers putting children in the custody of the abuser despite clear evidence of his crimes. But the film has another side, one that doesn’t write our world off just yet. One that reminds us there is good out there; that compassionate and empathetic people do still exist.

Irish actress Clare Dunne plays Sandra, the victim of the above mentioned domestic assault. After the distressing opening scene, we see she has left her abusive husband and now works two jobs just to put food on the table for her daughters Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) and Molly (Molly McCann). She’s also forced to move from place to place, living in hotels and housing that accepts city assistance. Meanwhile she’s required to keep in touch with her abusive husband Gary who wields his visitation rights like a weapon. But through it all, the film stresses Sandra’s inspiring fortitude and her unbending love for her children.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Hungry to provide a more stable life for her daughters, Sandra is inspired by an internet video to build her own low-cost home. But she can’t do it alone. This is where the film’s faith in humanity brings a warm and welcomed ray of light. Sandra encounters a series of people sympathetic to her plight who help her in a myriad of ways. It starts with one of her employers, a widow named Peggy (Harriet Walter) who donates a plot of land. A former contractor named Aido (Conleth Hill) agrees to help with the building and before long other people join the project. Meanwhile Sandra has to dodge stupid government regulations that threaten to upend her hopes of having a house of her own.

Dunne not only delivers an incredibly natural performance but is also given story credit and co-wrote the screenplay with Malcolm Campbell. You sense her passion as much in her writing as in her acting. “Herself” has a lot on its mind and it’s not afraid to look at real-world issues with a critical eye. At the same time Lloyd and Dunne clearly have a belief that there is goodness in the world and they show it without becoming mawkish or stumbling into over-the-top melodrama. And even during its more inspiring moments, there are frequent reminders of the hardships lurking in the background for people like Sandra. “Herself” is now streaming on Prime Video.

VERDICT- 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Hillbilly Elegy” (2020)

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When J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” came out in 2016 it was almost instantly thrust into the divisive political arena. To no surprise many partisans from both sides of the aisle had dramatically different reactions to book. But at it’s heart Vance’s memoir was a deeply personal work. It was a therapeutic release derived from his first-hand experiences growing up among three generations of a troubled Appalachian family. The poverty, the physical and verbal abuse, the cyclical nature of his family’s plight – just some of the things that clearly left their mark on Vance.

Director Ron Howard teams with screenwriter Vanessa Taylor in adapting “Hillbilly Elegy” for Netflix. Their film is told from Vance’s point-of-view, both from his teen years (where he’s played by Owen Asztalos) and as a college student (played by Gabriel Basso). Howard and Taylor nimbly maneuver along the two timelines, frequently crossing over in an effort to capture where J.D. came from and what he’s trying to escape.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

The performance many will be talking about/debating comes from Amy Adams. She plays J.D’s mother Bev, a woman known more for her history of drug abuse and failed relationships than for being a loving and responsible parent. Adams gives an undoubtedly big performance, sometimes sucking all the air out of a scene. But that’s more to do with the writing and directing than the actress. Adams is fully committed and convincing. But Bev lacks the complexity the film wants her to have mainly because far to little time is spent fleshing out any redeemable qualities. We’re given light strokes but hardly anything that evokes sympathy.

Glenn Close is given a much more rounded character. She plays J.D.’s tough-skinned, tough-tongued grandmother who makes it her job to keep the family together. Close goes big in a few scenes herself, but she’s also given quieter moments that add dimension and clarity to her character. It’s a bit startling how much Close resembles Vance’s real-life Mamaw (we see her picture during the end credits). Her transformation and performance both help form a character who ends up saving numerous scenes from getting out of hand.

The story attempts to cover a lot of ground, settling mostly in the family’s hometown of Middleton, Ohio. The early images of a once bustling town drying up and dying really resonates. As does the terrific production design from Molly Hughes and the set decoration from Laura Belle and Merissa Lombardo. They create very real and lived-in spaces while offering a vivid portrait of struggling low-income living. “Whatever better life my grandparents had been chasing up Route 23 they never caught it“, says J.D. in narration.

While J.D.’s teen years show us a good kid surrounded by heartbreak and hopelessness, his college scenes reveal a young man working hard to break out of his family’s mold. J.D. works three jobs while attending Yale Law School and has beautiful and supportive girlfriend named Usha (played by the 36-year-old Freida Pinto who can still easily pass for a college student). But when those inseparable family bonds (specifically his mother’s demons) tempt to pull him back in, J.D. is forced to make some life-defining choices.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

It’s here that Howard and Taylor wrestle with the idea of family obligation and expectation. We know what J.D. should do regardless of how difficult it would be. But it clashes with his deep-rooted sense of family duty which gives us one of the film’s more well-developed conflicts. Does he remain a product of his raising or does he pursue the better life that is waiting for him at Yale. Or the bigger question – is it possible to do both?

“Hillbilly Elegy” isn’t the easiest material to cover but Howard gives it his best. It’s a gritty, coarse and intense family drama that works really hard to sell itself. Unfortunately there are a few loose threads and narrative oversights that hold it back. Keeping us almost exclusively behind J.D.’s eyes doesn’t always work either. Both performances, young and old, can be a little dry and you’ll often find yourself more invested in the characters around him. It doesn’t squash the things “Hillbilly Elegy” does right, but it does leave the film feeling like a missed opportunity. “Hillbilly Elegy” opens November 11th in select theaters and premieres on Netflix November 24th.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars