June has arrived, and the reality is as dire as it is inspiring in various instances. I don’t know the way properly shift focus, but with drive-ins and very select theaters as the current option to see movies publicly as a way to escape from it all, staying safe and streaming are not the worst options to have to fulfill that same wish. This week, I have assembled some brief takes on new films either currently available on streaming platforms or coming soon, along with one retro pick for the week. We have a violent home invasion thriller starring a serious Kevin James, the woes of Willem Dafoe in Italy, a father-son drama, and an older train robbery movie. The following features reviews for Becky, Tommaso, End of Sentence, Judy & Punch, and The Grey Fox.
The Setup: A rebellious teen, Becky (Lulu Wilson), grieving the loss of her mother, is brought to the family lake house by her father (Joel McHale) to connect with his new girlfriend and her son. Things take a drastic turn for the worse when a group of escaped convicts led by a neo-Nazi (Kevin James) arrives at the house with plans of their own, terrorizing all but Becky, who will have to figure out how to save the day.
Review: The home invasion sub-genre is a good one to work with, given the right elements. Whether it’s an ample amount of tension and thrills, a supremely smart setup placing realistic limits that apply to the setup or having the right kind of performances to evoke what is needed, there’s a lot of ground that can be covered. Becky feels like a film that is almost there.
Directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion no doubt have what it takes to deliver a stylish feature. I only wish the film could have found a better way to handle the areas in between the elaborately staged bloodshed. Understandably, the setup for the main portion of the movie hits some required beats, but once the home invasion portion gets going, I couldn’t quite get a handle on the tone.
Part of that comes from the decision to cast against type. I’m not against this and think there’s a lot to draw from with the actors featured. However, this is not Kevin James’ Uncut Gems. It may not be trying to be, but for all the convincing there is in watching a huge bear of a man covered in tattoos to show off his white nationalist allegiances, the performance never entirely goes far enough. James opts for a quiet intensity, which doesn’t play as well with the rest of the film as I would have hoped.
On the other side of things, you have Wilson turning into the feral version of Kevin McCallister in Home Alone. It’s a necessary shift as far as finding a way to show how a 13-year-old girl could take on multiple men with weapons. It’s here where the film finds a brutal groove I was able to go along with. I only wish the impact of these kills leaned a bit more in a direction either designed to bring about some dark humor or wanting to make the viewer wince. As it stands, the film is too self-serious, and can’t even answer some of its own lingering questions.
Perhaps I’m just too used to it all. By the time a character has to deal with having been stabbed in the eye, I can’t say I didn’t budge, but I was more or less in the mode of acceptance as far as the high level of gore Becky planned on delivering. At the same time, some creative weapon choices on Becky’s part made for a good way to rely on “using what you got” to deliver a stylish feature. Darkness aside, this may be a slight effort, but it occasionally provides some bloody fun.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters and drive-ins, and on Digital and VOD June 5, 2020.
The Setup: Writer/director Abel Ferrara has assembled a semi-self-chronicle of his own life, with Willem Dafoe as Tommaso, a Ferrara-like American artist and filmmaker living in Rome with a wife half his, and a 3-year-old daughter (portrayed by Ferrara’s wife and daughter, Cristina Chiriac and Anna Ferrara). Having been sober for years, Tomasso’s self-reflective activities show off his concerns and vulnerabilities.
Review: To the extent that it matters, I can’t say I’m an expert on the life of Ferrara. I’m aware of his bad-boy reputation as a filmmaker, as well as knowing how to recognize the talent he can bring to his features. That said, I can’t relate to the man as far as having past substance abuse issues, let alone an understanding of life as far as hard-living and the perspective that comes with getting older. All of this is to say that Tommaso still feels like a success given the intimate way in which it is filmed and the wonderful improvisatory performance from Dafoe.
Having worked with Ferrara six times (they’re also neighbors), the two have a familiarity with each other to the point of one man letting the other approximate a version of him for the sake of an involving drama. The result works as far as getting an understanding of whom Tomasso is, without the film needing to layer in major dramatic turns to push a story onto the viewer. Instead, we watch this man go through his daily routines, as well as observe his daydreams and nightmares concerning the nature of his relationship, his daughter, the students he teaches, and more.
Despite seeing some dark imagery such as a vision of Tommaso being crucified in public (which one can’t help but feel is a reference to Dafoe’s role in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ), what allows the film to feel winning and even sweet in its own way for a Ferrara film is the effort to show this man as a good person. Regardless of whatever demons lurk in his past, which must be a given due to his visits to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, there’s an effort to balance his self-pity with being there for those who care about him.
Rather than deliver a portrait of self-destruction, Tommaso has a focus on a man who’s found a way to control and suppress his addictions. The drama of his life is no different from other random people he encounters. As a film, while perhaps not the most intriguing watch to those looking for something with more bite, maybe it is self-serving, but handled with too much skill to be shrugged off.
Where To Watch: Opening in Virtual Cinemas on June 5, 2020.
The Setup: Frank (John Hawkes), a widower, embarks on a journey to Ireland with his estranged son (Logan Lerman), who has been recently released from prison. This was the dying wish of Frank’s wife, who wanted her ashes to be spread in a remote lake in the presence of her husband and son. Unresolved issues and more make this a difficult, but eventful trip.
Review: Not that End of Sentence is a film that needed surprises, but there’s not a lot you cannot see coming in this affecting feature. Already, describing it as affecting, I know there’s a reaction to have that should be favorable for anyone who comes across this well-meaning drama. While unassuming in its presentation, this is the sort of film where the acting and dynamic do a lot of the heavy lifting, along with occasional bursts from the score or soundtrack choices.
Curiously, the most prominent aspect setting this film apart is its emphasis on showing off how effective Hawkes and Lerman are as character actors. If I laid out this film merely stating these two performers were in it, and they have an estranged relationship, one could assume Hawkes is the ex-con, while Lerman is the nebbish son. Instead, all the intimidation and authority Hawkes can bring to a role is dialed back entirely. Lerman, after bringing heady weight to a couple of roles requiring him to function as a smart, young Jewish man, plays big into his tough criminal persona.
To be fair, Lerman’s Sean isn’t so much a bad guy as much as he’s one who had a rough go of it and blames a lot on the world, and especially his dad. Hawkes, meanwhile, makes it clear that he’s never stood up for himself, and that’s cost him a lot, even if he was able to marry and have a child. In a film like this, things obviously need to come to a head, and they do, and the actors sell it. Some of the plotting gets a bit too hijinks heavy to make for a stronger narrative, but I can still enjoy a film that knows how to show off growth in a bonding experience effectively.
There’s enough here to make End of Sentence worthwhile. Director Elfar Adalsteins gives the story a lot of heart, even as the film challenges you to get behind both characters, as one makes things very hard for the other. The key is the common goal, and how both characters come around to know it’s what should keep them linked.
Where To Watch: Available now on Digital and VOD.
The Setup: Set in the anarchic town of Seaside (which is nowhere near the sea), Judy (Mia Wasikowska) and Punch (Damon Herriman) are puppeteers with a popular marionette show. The credit mostly goes to Judy’s superior ability. It’s enough to trouble Punch’s ego in his drive to become enough of a success to leave this town however he can. Sometimes ambition can go too far, however, and a tragedy leads to a battle between vengeance and mob rule.
Review: Sitting somewhere between Sacha Guitry’s 1951 dark comedy La Poison and the more recent fairy tale reimagining from Osgood Perkins, Gretel & Hansel, Judy & Punch has staked a claim as a fierce and bloody satire that takes on the patriarchy. Director Marrah Foulkes’ debut feature film has a vision in mind, which draws from theatrical history, and focuses on twisting things around to satisfy a story of empowerment. It also still delivers a folksy sense of humor and even some slapstick to make for an entertaining movie.
Turning the traditional story of “Punch and Judy” around already provides a good heads up for what to expect. The 16th-century puppet show may have been meant as a form of children’s entertainment, but the implication was ripe for a reckoning as far as what’s chosen to be ingrained in the minds of youngsters. Thanks to the effort put forth, having the atmosphere of a grounded fairy tale does a lot to make this ye olde world one fitting of the typical feel, despite taking steps towards coming to terms with the scapegoating and intolerance.
Both Wasikowska and Herriman do what’s needed to embody the main issues being tackled. The latter lays on the relentless insecurity and whining that is hidden from the public (whether drunk or not) due to whatever masculine charm he can scrape together. Wasikowska has a larger journey as far as contending with a particular station in life, reckoning with a loss, and building towards retribution.
There’s also the bonus of watching townspeople pile onto ridiculous group thoughts concerning folks they are convinced perform witchcraft. While these scenes are not at the level of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the hivemind mentality registers well as far as seeing a basic understanding of why so many people can band together and still be wrong. Perhaps that doesn’t sound inherently fun, but thanks to a good handle on tone, and a preference of watching those in the wrong be displayed in such a manner, the result plays pretty well.
Where To Watch: Available on Digital and VOD June 5, 2020.
The Setup: Following a 33-year prison sentence for robbing stagecoaches, Bill Miner (Richard Farnsworth) re-enters society in 1901 to find a world that has completely changed. Thanks to the magic of cinema, the gentleman thief (as he was known to many) eventually decides to rob a train, as the art of robbery is what he knows he’s good at.
Review: In one of these previous “In-House Reviews,” I had nothing but praise to offer to Richard Farnsworth in David Lynch’s The Straight Story. That level of praise will continue here, with The Grey Fox. The man with a 300+ filmography may not have always had the chance to headline the story, but these two offerings show just how much he was able to bring. As a Canadian western and biopic, director Philip Borsos (a protégé of Francis Ford Coppola) knew exactly how to frame this story around a man who is both a gentleman and stubborn enough not to resist his wily ways.
While not a deconstruction of the western, there is something to be said about this 1982 film working as one that inserts a career outlaw into a new world that has outgrown him, not unlike the evolution of cinema at the time of this film’s release. There’s a more in-depth discussion to be had about that point, but watching this film now, it was interesting to think of the commentary going on in regards to a filmmaker just stepping out of the prime point in the New Hollywood era to make a film about an older man experiencing the same shift. It honestly comes as no surprise that The Great Train Robbery has such a profound impact.
As far as observing the filmmaking on display, while well-conceived in delivering on a period-set story about a man out of time, there’s nothing overly elaborate about how to evoke excitement or drama. If anything, Farnsworth is allowed to undercut moments with his moments of blunt dialogue, only to have that balanced out by the tenderness that comes from his relationship with a feminist photographer (Jackie Burroughs).
Craftier than it may seem, The Grey Fox is a rather strong piece of work. The new 4K restoration goes a long way to provide all the detail one would want to see in the atmosphere that has come from the British Columbia environments and Frank Tidy’s cinematography. While viewers may not be inspired to do what Bill does based on his movie experience, they can at least take in the same sense of excitement from this rather low-key train robbery movie.
Where To Watch: Now available in Virtual Cinemas.