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

REVIEW: “Valley Girl” (2020)

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For those hoping 2016’s “La La Land” was going to usher in a new era of Hollywood musicals, it hasn’t really panned out. The critically acclaimed, feel-good Oscar-winner was a fresh breeze from a bygone era, but there haven’t been a slew of movies following its lead. The new film “Valley Girl” does, but not in a way that will change the movie landscape. Still, it’s a light and breezy musical with a fun nostalgic tinge. I kinda liked it.

“Valley Girl” comes from director Rachel Lee Goldenberg working from a screenplay by Amy Talkington. Their film sits down in the heart of the 1980’s, the time of Guess jeans, leg warmers, and MTV (when it actually played music). It takes place in Southern California where a San Fernando Valley girl and a Hollywood punker cross zip codes to be together despite the steady objections from their vastly different sets of friends.

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Photo Courtesy of Orion Classics

The film stars 32-year-old Jessica Rothe who is still convincing playing a high school senior. Rothe is the real strength of the picture, delightful and full of charm and energy. She plays Julie, every bit a valley girl who loves shopping, fashion, and is fluent in all forms of Valleyspeak. She lives a comfortable, pampered life with her wealthy friends who are seemingly impervious to life outside of the Valley. Yet there are signs that Julie isn’t the snobby elitist some of her pals tend to be.

Just over the hills in Hollywood lies an entirely different world. That’s where Randy (Josh Whitehouse) lives, an aspiring punk rocker who is the antithesis of everything from the Valley. He fits the movie stereotype of every parent’s nightmare – he’s loud, rowdy, and has tons of family baggage. Oh, and there’s that whole punk rock thing which you know must mean he’s bad news.

The two opposites cross paths and there is an instant spark. Julie’s friends (Chloe Bennet, Mae Whitman, and Ashleigh Murray respectively) warn her that Randy is trouble and she should stick with her obnoxious bro-boyfriend Mickey (fittingly played by Logan Paul) who happens to be the toast of their high school. How someone so glaringly repellent and insufferable can be adored by students, teachers and parents is beyond me. Meanwhile Randy’s punk band members tell him he doesn’t belong with a rich, well-to-do valley girl and she’s sure to break his heart.

As it all plays out we get an assortment of 80’s pop inspired musical numbers. Almost inevitably we get the girlfriends singing Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. And there’s a sweet duet of A-Ha’s “Take on Me”. We also get some punk versions of “You Might Think” by The Cars, and Madonna’s “Crazy For You”. Strangely, the music numbers are more fun than actually good. They’ll have you singing along with a smile on your face, but you won’t be rushing out to buy the soundtrack.

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Photo Courtesy of Orion Classics

As a culture-clashing romance, “Valley Girl” is pretty predictable. None of the characters step out of their molds to offer much we haven’t seen before. But the cast is game, especially Rothe who had a small role in “La La Land” singing in one of the film’s best numbers. Here she shows the same charisma, while adding a dash of innocence and naïveté, which brings empathy to a character you can’t help but like.

The film opens with the line “Life was like a pop song, and we knew all the words.” It then goes on to show that no one really knows all the words and we should be learning new verses everyday. It’s one of the movie’s several themes splashed in aquas and pinks. I haven’t seen the movie it’s based on, a 1983 cult hit perhaps known best as Nicolas Cage’s first big screen role (sorta). But this one provides a nice little diversion in a time when a lot of us are looking for one.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Vivarium” (2020)

VIVposterI can’t remember a movie that more closely resembles a feature-length Twilight Zone episode than Lorcan Finnegan’s new film “Vivarium”. For 97 minutes I could almost hear the faint voice of Rod Serling communicating his approval. Now if you’re unsure about the definition of vivarium, a quick Google search defines it as “an enclosure, container, or structure adapted or prepared for keeping animals under seminatural conditions for observation or study or as pets“. Fitting.

“Vivarium” is directed by Finnegan and based on a story he conceived with his screenwriter Garret Shanley. It’s basically science-fiction with a subtle horror bend, not to mention an unintended current day relevance. In a time where “self-quarantining” and “social distancing” has become a part of our everyday vernacular, a movie about being trapped at home takes on a whole new meaning.

Gemma (Imogene Poots) is an elementary school teacher and her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) a gardener/handyman. The two make for an fairly ordinary young couple. They have a good playful chemistry and both seem to be ready for the next phase of their lives together. Little did they know a suburban nightmare was right around the corner.

They visit the offices of a creepy real estate agent named Martin (a deliciously bizarre Jonathan Aris). He tells them of a brand new subdivision called Yonder and offers to lead them out to the development. Personally speaking, those few moments with Martin would be enough for me to take off running, but that wouldn’t be much of a movie. So Gemma and Tom hop into their Toyota hatchback and follow Martin outside of town to the sprawling gated community.

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Photo Courtesy of Saban Films

Immediately Yonder gives the impression of dull, stale uniformity. Every house is identical. Each has matching puke green exteriors. Each has the exact same well-manicured yard. Even every cloud in the sky are bright, cotton-puffed perfection. You would think that, along with the complete absence of any other living being, would be another reason for Gemma and Tom to turn around and speed off. Instead they arrive at house #9 and Martin begins giving them the tour.

Within minutes the couple realize Yonder is not the place for them, but before they can tell Martin he up and disappears. They hop in their car and head out but never find an exit. Just rows of the identical homes on identical streets that always end up at house #9. Trapped, out of gas, and out of options, Gemma and Tom have no choice but to stay at Yonder. They get by on mysterious boxes of bland, tasteless food left in front of their house. But one morning something else comes in a box – a baby boy with “Raise the child and be released” printed on the flap.

As it gets older the child brings new meaning to the term “creepy kid“. He ages much like a dog which makes judging time a challenge. He speaks in freaky off-key tones, often mimicking what he hears from his quasi-parents and lets out shrill screeches whenever he wants something. He adds a freaky presence to their prefab domesticity which becomes more suffocating with each passing day. From there “Vivarium” takes a slow-burn approach before eventually sticking its landing.

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Photo Courtesy of Saban Films

As critics we often gripe about movies telling us too much and not trusting us to figure things out for ourselves. But sometimes the opposite can be true. Sometimes you need more dialogue or conversations. “Vivarium” shows us little but tells us less. We’re left to gather for ourselves what the two main characters are feeling without being truly convinced. That may sound like criticism mumbo-jumbo but it gets to the heart of my lone yet significant gripe. You never get more than a surface level understanding of Gemma and Tom.

None of this is due to Poots and Eisenberg who worked together in last year’s “The Art of Self-Defense” and earlier in 2009’s “Solitary Man”. Both are good fits, especially Poots as her character is given a broader range of emotions to explore. Even as the film bangs on some familiar thematic drums (Suburbia is terrible. Marriage is hard. Raising a kid is even harder), the performances remain strong. I just wish the characters weren’t such hard nuts to crack. If more of the slow-burn had been spent cutting them open this good sci-fi thriller could have been something even better.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Vast of Night” (2019)

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For me the smile-inducing opening to Andrew Patterson’s “The Vast of Night” is just rippling with nostalgia. I wasn’t around during the original Twilight Zone run, but thanks to VHS, syndication, and a father who loved the show, it’s a slice of television history I know pretty well. I didn’t need an introduction to The X-Files. I was there when the series debuted in 1993 and have seen every episode and movie, most of them more than once. Those influences are all over this film.

So when Patterson opens his movie focused on a 1950’s era Philco television, and a show begins playing on it with a host saying in his best Rod Serling voice “You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten. A slipstream caught between channels. You are entering Paradox Theater. Tonight’s episode: The Vast of Night.”, needless to say I was hooked.

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After the cool introduction the camera blends into the television screen and just like that we’re in the latest episode penned by co-writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. The duo’s story is built around a pretty familiar B-movie science-fiction idea. But what sets their script apart is the dense, character-enriching dialogue and the way they steadily build suspense especially in its second half.

The story takes place on the back-end of the 1950’s in Cayuga, New Mexico, a small town where everybody knows everybody. Sierra McCormick (so good here) plays 16-year-old Faye, an unashamed technology nerd who works part-time as a switchboard operator. She grabs her brand new Westinghouse tape recorder and heads to the gym where the entire town is gathering for the first high school basketball game of the season. There she meets her friend Everett (Jake Horowitz), a DJ at the local one-room radio station.

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This central friendship is essential to the story and Patterson gives it plenty of room to breathe. Take one especially long rapid-fire conversation we get early in the film. Faye and Everett walk and talk from the gym across town to the telephone office where she works. The camera follows like a silent third party, strolling along and listening to their every word. It shows the incredible amount of confidence the first time director has in his material and more importantly his two stars.

As she settles down for a slow evening on the switchboard, Faye picks up a mysterious frequency she’s never heard before. She calls Everett in the middle of his radio show and he too is intrigued. Always looking for “good radio“, Everett play the sounds on air which leads to a mysterious caller, a secret tape reel, and other hints that something isn’t right. And like a mini Mulder and Scully the two friends follow the growing trail of clues because (as Chris Carter so frequently reminded us) “The Truth is Out There“.

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Don’t misunderstand me, this isn’t some knockoff or copycat flick. Patterson, who cut his teeth shooting commercials, surprises with several bold visual choices and interesting aesthetic concepts that give his film its own identity. Some of it may come across as showy to some, but I loved the long, meticulously arranged tracking shots, the audacious fades to black which force us to focus on every word in the background, and the handful on instances where we’re pulled out of the television just for a few seconds, almost like a commercial break, and then put right back in. There is rarely a moment when Patterson and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz aren’t doing something interesting with their camera.

“The Vast of Night” may not sport an entirely original concept, but it’s everything that goes into presenting it that makes this movie special. The 1950’s rural Americana setting is full of detail from period costumes to Cold War anxieties. The fun and absorbing dialogue keeps us in the heads of the characters and always in tune with their personalities. And there’s the chemistry between McCormick and Horowitz – so lively and natural. It all makes for a fabulous debut from Andrew Patterson and a fresh reminder of why I love movies.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Velvet Buzzsaw”

VelvetPOSTERNow with three movies under his belt screenwriter-turned-director Dan Gilroy has shown a keenness for creating and developing characters who march to the beats of their own unique and often idiosyncratic drums. We got that in 2014’s “Nightcrawler” and in 2017’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” Two very different movies concentrated on two very unusual personalities.

Gilroy’s latest is “Velvet Buzzsaw” and you could say it features a collage of these type of characters. Set as a snapshot of the bizarre and amoral Los Angeles art scene, the film relishes every satirical jab it takes at art culture pretension and pomposity. But it goes much further than that. Things really go bonkers in the second half where Gilroy turns it from devious art world parody into a wacky full-fledged horror thriller.

Gilroy’s centers his cadre of eccentrics around the freshly discovered paintings of a recently deceased recluse named Vetril Dease. The artwork is discovered by the opportunistic Josephina (Zawe Ashton) who smuggles them out of Dease’s apartment and into the hands of her cutthroat boss and gallery owner Rhodora (Rene Russo). Jake Gyllenhaal plays prominent art critic Morf Vandewalt, a prancing narcissist commissioned to study the Dease collection for Rhodora.

Those three prove to be the major players, but there are several other jaunty characters played by an interesting and talented cast. Toni Collette, Natalia Dyer, John Malkovich, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen, and Todd Sturridge all find themselves playing a part in Gilroy’s twisted genre mashup. And once it is revealed that Dease’s art possesses a dark supernatural power, let’s just say you don’t want to be caught alone with one of his paintings (which conveniently happens a lot).

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Making sense of “Velvet Buzzsaw” isn’t the easiest thing to do but I appreciate how it prompts us to try. I keep leaning towards the idea of jurgement. Could it be that the force/spirit within Dease’s paintings is judging the ruthless, depraved, art crowd miscreants? That’s a preposterous reading but I kinda like it.

While there is something fun about the nuttiness of it all and most of the performances (sorry Zawe Ashton) are really good throughout, those things can only take it so far. It’s hard to get into without spoiling things, but suffice it to say we never get a good sensible understanding of what is going on. It’s not so much the ‘whats’ but the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ that makes no sense specifically in the film’s second half. It almost feels like Gilroy had a cool and creepy concept but wasn’t exactly certain how to land it. That leaves us with a flawed yet peculiarly fascinating film. Kinda like Dease’s paintings themselves.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Vice” (2018)

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Adam McKay’s makeup and costume dramedy “Vice” is quite the movie to unpack. With its double-edged title and full lather of political messaging, “Vice” resembles a progressive manifesto more than a stinging satire or credible biographical sketch. And McKay comes across as the political left’s version of Dinesh D’Souza but with a bigger budget and an attention-grabbing cast.

Now I am all for filmmakers having their own voices and relaying their own messages. It’s one of the things that makes cinema great. But when that message is used like a blunt weapon you can end up with the exhausting mess that is “Vice”. It is a frustratingly schizophrenic movie, bouncing around from scene to scene with no sense of focus. Good luck figuring out what McKay wants his film to be.

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The game plan for the story was pretty simple – portray Dick Cheney to be the devil incarnate and use every single frame and every line of dialogue to do so. But in doing so, McKay ends up giving us someone who more closely resembles an 80’s Saturday morning cartoon villain than a character with any real human qualities. It’s a shame because Christian Bale’s stunning transformative performance deserves the critical acclaim it has received.

Storywise “Vice” makes the same mistake you often see in these types of movies – it tries to cover way too much ground. It starts with Cheney’s early days as a drunken “dirtbag” and then moves to his marriage to Lynne (a very good Amy Adams). It then meanders through six different presidencies showing Cheney’s various political roles in his (as McKay presents it) quest for power. Of course then there are the Bush years and Cheney’s time as VP and alleged puppet master.

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And to bog things down even more why not wedge in as many conservative stalwarts as you can – Roger Ailes, Antonin Scalia, Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, the Koch brothers, and that just scratches the surface. There is plenty you could say about some of these people, but they aren’t here to enrich the story. They are simply targets of McKay’s detestation both for them and Dick Cheney.

Oh, and after all of that, if somehow you didn’t get McKay’s blaring point that Chaney is pure evil in human form, you get a final 20 minutes where the director starts throwing as much as he can at the screen – Valerie Plame, the infamous hunting incident, and more. It all feels tacked on, as if he ran out of time but still didn’t know when to quit jabbing.

McKay’s structural choices aren’t much better. The story is jolted by several weird time jumps as well as out-of-the-blue attempts at humor that mostly land with a thud (apparently Cheney’s heart attacks are quite a gas). There is also an assortment of ham-fisted, on-the-nose imagery much of which probably looked better on paper than it does on the screen. But worst of all is this bizarre Jesse Plemons narration that plays out in the dopiest way imaginable.

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Sam Rockwell is fun as George W. Bush but he’s not much help. His scenes are more like sketch-comedy bits than a meaningful movie role. Steve Carell comes off even worse. He plays Donald Rumsfeld as if he was doing an episode of “The Office” or another “Anchorman” sequel. Ultimately you end up clinging to Bale and Adams who give standout performances but can’t save the film from its plethora of flaws and miscalculations.

“Vice” is one big frustration especially considering the tons of potential it wastes. It’s a textbook example of how bad things can go when you have such rotten tone management and a dogged fixation on your message that smothers your storytelling and character building. To no surprise there has proven to be an audience for this slog. I can confidently say I’m not a part of it.

VERDICT 1.5 STARS

1-5-stars