REVIEW: “The Lie” (2020)

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My second dive into Amazon’s “Welcome to Blumhouse” series was the snappy domestic thriller “The Lie”. The film actually premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2018, but it wasn’t picked up for distribution until August 2020. It’s the second of eight original films producer Jason Blum is doing for Amazon Prime. All of the movies center around the similar theme of “family and love as a redemptive or destructive force”. Each come from uniquely fresh filmmakers who explore the subject matter in their own distinct style.

“The Lie” comes from writer-director Veena Sud and is an adaptation of a 2015 German film titled “We Monsters”. It’s hardly the kind of film you would expect from the horror-focused Blumhouse. It has already met criticism for its lack of scares, but it makes sense considering this is in no way a horror movie. It’s a domestic drama/thriller that’s far more interested in the central family dynamic than the murder mystery the film is built upon.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Sud begins her film with a montage of old videos. They show a bright and sunny little girl named Kayla sharing fun moments with her mom and dad. Within those few brief images we see the picture of a happy family. Sadly, a lot can change in just a few years. Jump ahead to now 15-year-old Kayla (Joey King) and we see a much different girl. The smile and playful chatter has given way to a moody, frustrated teen. We’re quickly shown the reason for her melancholy.

Turns out Kayla’s parents have divorced and both are trying to move on with new people in their lives. Her mother Rebecca (Mireille Enos) is a successful corporate layer dating a nice-enough business traveler. Her father Jay (Peter Sarsgaard) is a middle-aged musician having a fling with one of his bandmates. Both parents try their best under the circumstances, but Kayla still feels lost in a new life she never asked for.

As Jay drives Kayla to a ballet school retreat they pick up her friend Brittany (Devery Jacobs) at a bus stop. Several miles down the road the girls need a roadside bathroom break. Kayla and Brittany run into the woods and a short time later Jay hears a chilling scream. He runs through the snow to find his stunned daughter sitting alone on a bridge. Jay frantically begins searching for Brittany until Kayla suddenly admits to pushing her friend off the bridge.

Assuming Brittany is dead, Jay hurries Kayla into the car and drives away. After telling Rebecca what happened the parents decide to keep quiet for fear of ruining their daughter’s future. But (as you would expect) soon their cover-up begins to unravel especially when Brittany’s father (Cas Anvar) begins asking questions. And you can’t really blame him. Several of the family’s actions are almost begging to be questioned.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

But that’s actually a point of the film. It shows what happens when you compound one bad decision with another. It shows how a desperate and emotionally rattled person can do rash and unthinkable things. The film also prods us to wonder how well we really know our own kids. And how far will a family go to ‘protect’ their daughter? Don’t get me wrong, this is no intellectually stimulating cinematic probe. But some people may be surprised at how relevant these questions are today, and the film’s answers to them intentionally pushes rationality to the brink.

But unfortunately this is a movie with an obligatory twist and it’s one I figured out within the first 20 minutes. Strangely I can’t pinpoint one particular instance where the movie tips its hand. Yet I had an idea where it was going and that’s exactly where it went. I still enjoyed the meat of the movie, the committed performances, and a few scenes of genuinely good tension. Unfortunately it ends with one of the most ho-hum, nonchalant reveals imaginable. Sarsgaard and Enos deserve credit for working hard to sell the scene. But it ends up cutting the legs out from under what is otherwise a surprising effective high-stress thriller. “The Lie” is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT- 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Let Him Go” (2020)

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I have to admit the new film “Let Him Go” had me onboard just with its cast. Kevin Costner as a retired sheriff, Diane Lane as his tough resolute wife, and Lesley Manville as a wicked backwoods matriarch. You have three screen veterans whom I love starring in a gritty family drama set across Montana and North Dakota. Talk about a movie that’s right up my alley. So considering all of those glowing personal affections, my expectations were probably a little higher than most.

Don’t you love it when a highly anticipated movie doesn’t let you down? That’s certainly the case with “Let Him Go”. This character-driven neo-Western drama comes from Thomas Bezucha, a Massachusetts native who you would swear was born and raised in Big Sky country. From the very start his film makes such great use of its setting, whether it’s the stunning snow-capped mountain backdrops or the sprawling desolate landscapes that are both ominous and beautiful. Bezucha wastes no time planting our feet on the rich rocky ground.

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Photo Courtesy of Focus Features

What surprised me most about “Let Him Go” was the script. This could have easily turned out to be a much more conventional thriller. But Bezucha (who both writes and directs) burrows into his two lead characters making them the focal point. I haven’t read the 2013 novel by Larry Watson, but Bezucha’s adaptation centers itself on the themes of grief, regret and loss, examining them with heartfelt and earnest emotion. The film does have a few genre flourishes, but they come well after we’ve connected with these characters which give the scenes more weight than they would have otherwise.

Set in the early 1960’s, George and Margaret Blackledge (Costner and Lane) are still struggling to cope with the death of their son. Margaret, once an accomplished horse trainer, lost her enthusiasm and has quit riding altogether. George has buried his pain, content with locking it away rather than dealing with it. Both go about their days work on their small Montana ranch doing an admirable job concealing their heartbreak. But it gets tougher when their son’s widow Lorna (Kayli Carter) remarries, this time to a miscreant named Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain).

Neither George or Margaret like Donnie and are especially worried about their grandson Jimmy (played by twins Bram and Otto Hornung). Their suspicions are confirmed after Margaret witnesses Donnie slap both Lorna and Jimmy. The next day she goes to check on them only to discover that they have packed up and left town. No notice, no goodbyes. Determined that her grandson won’t grow up in an abusive home, Margaret convinces George to help her track them down and bring Jimmy home. But Donnie’s a Weboy, a notorious family name known all across North Dakota. The Blackledge’s track Jimmy to the remote Weboy farm house which is ran by the family matriarch Blanche Weboy (a wickedly fun Manville). And let’s just say she’s not too keen on letting Jimmy go.

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Photo Courtesy of Focus Features

As you can tell there is a lot of room in the story for tension. And we do get some really good white-knuckled scenes when the Blackledges and the Weboys get together. But at the same time there is a quiet solemnity that runs through much of the film. Bezucha leans heavily on Lane and Costner and their ability to convey deep emotions often with little dialogue. Both performances are superb and give us layered characters rich with honest feelings and unshakable authenticity. It helps that Lane and Costner have a strikingly natural chemistry. Of course this isn’t the first time they played husband and wife on screen. They were also Superman’s earth parents Ma and Pa Kent.

The film’s shakiest scenes come when the Blackledges befriend a thinly sketched Native American named Peter (Booboo Stewart). We see shades of an interesting character but he needed more attention. Otherwise “Let Him Go” hits all the right chords from its wonderfully low-key early rhythm to its effectively pulpy final third. It helps to have seasoned talents giving perfectly calibrated performances. And the story’s unexpected layers of humanity make us genuinely care while ultimately bringing out the deeper meaning to the film’s title. “Let Him Go” is now showing in theaters”.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Lost Bullet” (2020)

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The new Netflix Original “Lost Bullet” is a lean, action-packed crime thriller that checks every box for what you want from these kinds of movies. It’s got car chases, shoot-outs, and fist fights. It features crooked cops, cover-ups, betrayals, and revenge. Holding it all together is a story with enough energy and grit but lacking the narrative spark needed to make it feel like it’s own thing.

The film stars former stuntman Alban Lenoir who also serves as co-writer. He plays Lino, a convict serving time for customizing a car Mad Max style and running it through four concrete walls in a botched attempt at robbing a jewelry store (imagine how that looks on a rap sheet). He’s approached in prison by a cop named Charas (Ramzy Bedia) who is putting together a special team to take on a gang of drug runners. He has his drivers. He just needs someone to soup up their rides to keep up with the thugs.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Enter Lino and his mad mechanic skills. He’s offered a work release if he’ll join the unit and basically turn their cars into turbo-changed tanks. That’ll give them what they need to finally stop the “go-fasts”. Now if you’re like me and have no idea what a go-fast is, I’ll save you some Google search time. Apparently go-fasts are vehicles loaded with drugs that drive (obviously) really fast. You learn something new everyday.

But I digress, Lino loses his get-out-of-jail-free card amid a series of double-crosses and some old-fashioned police corruption. Soon he finds himself on the run again, framed for the murder of an officer and determined to find a way to clear his name. But it’ll take plenty of bullets and (of course) a highly modified, super-fast car to take out the baddies.

Director Guillaume Pierret puts together some crackling action scenes and Lenoir has the physicality and tough guy personality you want. It’s a simple yet well-conceived story that keeps things moving at a snappy pace. It still doesn’t do much to stand out from the slew of other movies like it, but it’s an entertaining enough ride and a nice diversion especially for action fans. “Lost Bullet” is streaming now on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

RETRO REVIEW: “The Lost Boys: (1987)

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The 1987 cult classic “The Lost Boys” forever broadened the way moviegoers would look at vampires. Throughout the decades there had been slight variations in the depictions of the fanged bloodsuckers, but most were still in the older, stodgier Dracula vein (bad pun attended). “The Lost Boys” presented them differently – young, cool, and with more real-world complexities than you would expect. The film would inspire the likes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Angel” and “True Blood” to name a few.

I’ve seen “The Lost Boys” countless times yet I’m always surprised by how funny a movie it is. Yes, it’s a horror film with vampires and a little (very little actually) blood and gore tossed in, but it fully embraces its comedy elements which helps give it a unique flavor. Add to it a terrific rock-infused soundtrack (I remember owning the cassette) and a fun, memorable cast which actually gave birth to The Two Coreys (80’s kids know what I’m talking about).

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PHOTO: Courtesy Warner Bros.

The story begins with Lucy (Dianne Wiest) and her two sons Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) pulling into the fictional beach town of Santa Carla. Recently divorced and flat broke, Lucy and her boys left Phoenix to move in with her eccentric father (Barnard Hughes). She gets a job at a video store (remember those) ran by local bachelor (Edward Herrmann) while the boys try to fit in with their new surroundings.

As cliché as it may sound, Santa Carla itself is very much a character.  The self-anointed “Murder Capital of the World” is full of personality, sporting a boardwalk replete with eclectic shops, street performers, and of course the Santa Clara amusement park. It’s where Michael first eyes a beautiful young woman named Star (Jami Gertz). There’s one problem, she’s in a relationship of sorts with David (Kiefer Sutherland) who quickly lures Michael into his biker group’s big secret (hint: they’re vampires).

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PHOTO: Courtesy Warner Bros.

Soon Michael finds himself growing sensitive to sunlight, sleeping all day, and developing, shall we say, new appetites. Sam, fearing that his brother is a bloodsucker, seeks the council of local comic shop owners/Santa Carla vampire killers extraordinaire Edgar and Alan Frog (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander). Resembling something akin to The Goonies meets Rambo, the Frog Brothers offer up the biggest bursts of humor. Feldman and Newlander never crack a grin, straight-facing every line of super-serious yet hysterical dialogue.

If you’ve watched enough of these movies you know that there are so many rules when it comes to vampires. “The Lost Boys” has a blast playing around with them. All of the big ones are present: garlic, holy water, a good ol’ wooden stake through the heart. But there are plenty of obscure ones as well which I’ll let you discover for yourself. They, along with the vampire vernacular aplenty, add an extra layer of fun. Meanwhile the steady theme of what it means to be a family reverberates throughout the entire film.

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PHOTO: Courtesy Warner Bros.

But I don’t want to downplay the movie’s horror component. “The Lost Boys” isn’t a particularly scary movie, but director Joel Schumacher does a wonderful job with tone management. While his movie is often funny, Schumacher nicely balances the humor with several memorable scenes of genuine tension along with great atmosphere. And the inevitable showdown at the end is the perfect consummation of all of these elements.

There are several other cool little nuggets. The title is a reference to J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan”. There is a hilarious hard-to-see nod to Schumacher’s previous film “St. Elmo’s Fire”. And all Edgar and Alan need is a brother named Poe. Those are just a few of then little nuggets scattered throughout this 80’s romp that completely earns its cult classic status. It still has its detractors, but I’m firmly in the camp that proudly adores “The Lost Boys”.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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5star

REVIEW: “The Lodge” (2020)

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Despite the unusual virus-related circumstances with theater closings and various movie productions halting, there has been no shortage of new horror films in 2020. “The Lodge” actually debuted at Sundance last year but finally premiered in select theaters earlier this year just prior to COVID-19 outbreak. Now it’s available to watch at home and it’s certainly worth a visit.

“The Lodge” is the English-language debut from the Austrian filmmaking duo of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. The aunt and nephew team not only direct but co-wrote the script along with Sergio Casci. Together they craft a monster-less chiller set within a complicated family framework where there are no clear-cut villains. It’s driven by flawed, hurting characters whose actions aren’t strictly black or white, good or evil. It’s also an unnerving dive into psychological horror that will have you glued to the screen and on the edge of your seat.

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Photo Courtesy of Neon Pictures

If there are two tropes modern horror movies relish it’s creepy children and remote cabins in the woods. “The Lodge” uses both (to a measured degree) but hardly in the conventional sense. Teenaged Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and his younger sister Mia (Lia McHugh) have been devastated by the sudden death of their mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone). Separated from their mother at the time, the children’s father Richard (Richard Armitage) is set to marry again six months after Laura’s death.

Richard’s well-meaning fiancé Grace (Riley Keough) hopes to break the ice with the kids via a snowy Christmas-time retreat to the family’s remote lakeside lodge. Aiden and Mia want no part of it, still aching over their mother’s passing and seeing any show of affection towards Grace as a betrayal. They dig into Grace’s past, discovering she was the lone survivor of a pseudo-Christian suicide cult. That only adds to their apprehension and displeasure.

Of course they end up going to the lodge and things are pretty icy. It only gets worse when Richard has to drive back to the city for a couple of days leaving Grace and the children behind. After coming to a head, the needling and contention shows signs of dying down. But then they wake up to a power outage. There’s no food, no running water. Also all of their clothes, luggage, Christmas decorations – everything is gone. Even weirder, Grace discovers all the clocks are suddenly set to January 9th.

From there things grow more unsettling as a dark psychological tension takes a grip. We begin questioning much of what we see and the characters become harder to read. Franz and Fiala make great use of their setting, shooting on location rather than in a studio. You’ve heard this before, but the house truly is a character, in this case representing the looming, watchful presence of the children’s mother. She’s in the family photographs, the Christmas decorations, and more specifically a painting of a saintly woman.

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Photo Courtesy of Neon Pictures

Other touches work well to groom the ever-present sense of unease. Frequent cuts to Mia’s realistic dollhouse bring thoughts of “Hereditary” but here it adds its own spooky layer to the story. Also Franz and Fiala are far more interested in atmosphere and mood than cheap jump scares. And they show the effectiveness of silence, using minimal music that gets under your skin rather than dictate your emotions.

The performances are rock-solid especially from Riley Keough who digs deep into her character’s damaged psyche without ever overplaying the inner-turmoil. She fits well into this unique slice of horror that brings a crafty European sensibility to a genre that far too often tends to repeat itself. Certain elements of the story are certain to ring familiar, but as a whole the movie carves out a smart and entrancing path of its own.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Lost Husband” (2020)

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After watching the trailer for Vicky Wight’s new film “The Lost Husband” I was immediately left with a “no thanks, seen it before” impression. But over the years trailers have proven that looks can be deceiving and I love being surprised. Now I’m not claiming this movie brings anything particularly fresh or is breaking any new ground. But it’s a thoughtful, feel-good story which is something we all could use right now.

Much of the story is built around a pretty familiar framework. A hurting woman meets a hunky man. They clash at first but then that inevitable spark is ignited. You know the rest. But Wight makes one pivotal choice that ends up setting her film apart from so many of its kind. She puts her focus squarely on her lead character Libby (Leslie Bibb). It turns out this isn’t a movie about a woman finding love. It’s about a woman finding her way. The prospect of love is certainly an ingredient, but it’s hardly the emphasis.

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Photo Courtesy of Quiver Distribution

Libby is still reeling from the death of her husband Danny. In the opening scene she and their two children are leaving her mother’s house in Houston and heading to her Aunt Jean’s (Nora Dunn) farm in rural central Texas. There is a lot of family baggage that goes with her and the movie spends much of its time unpacking it. Suffice it to say Libby and her domineering mother Marsha (Sharon Lawrence) don’t get along. To make matters worse, an ugly scar from their past has left sisters Marsha and Jean at each other’s throats.

Libby only plans to stay at the farm until she can get on her feet. Jean, a widow herself, needs a new farmhand, but before putting her to work Libby needs to be trained. Enter James O’Conner (Josh Duhamel), Jean’s “farm manager”. He reluctantly (it’s always reluctance) agrees to show his city slicker pupil the basics on milking goats, pitching hay, and the importance of opening and shutting gates. That last one provides a metaphor that becomes more obvious as the movie moves forward.

Yes, an attraction springs up between Libby and O’Connor. Yes, we get some of the predictable ‘city girl on a farm‘ humor. Yes, nearly everyone has a secret. But those things are made bearable by Wight’s clear-eyed intent. Her movie never loses sight of Libby’s plight, even during the scattered moments of cheesiness and the couple of scenes that feel like they belong in a different movie (take a strange seance sequence for instance). Grief, family conflict, reconciliation – just some of the prominent themes Wight thoughtfully navigates.

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Photo Courtesy of Quiver Distribution

It helps to have an engaging performance from your lead. There’s something a little different about Bibb’s work that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It took some time for me to get in step with it, but I ended up drawn to the personality she brings to her character. And Duhamel brings a pickup truck full of charm but there is a subtly to his performance that keeps him out of cliche territory. And it’s very much a supporting role, further emphasizing the movie’s broader interests.

If you skip the forgettable trailer and misleading title you’ll find that “The Lost Husband” has more to offer than you might think. It is hampered by a couple of standard-issue genre tropes, some spotty child performances, and a couple of story angles that needed more attention. But at the core of the movie is a solid story centered on a lead character you root for from the start. And while not perfect, there couldn’t be a better time for a movie like this to come along.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars