“Come As You Are”

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This feature film was scheduled to screen at South by Southwest (SXSW). Screen Zealots will continue some of our planned coverage of SXSW, the annual film festival in Austin, Texas that was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. 

LOUISA: 3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Picture this: a group of three horny bros hit the road for a cross-country journey to a brothel after making a pact to lose their virginity. It’s the familiar plot of a mildly raunchy sex comedy you’ve seen dozens of times before, but “Come As You Are” throws in a bit of a twist, as the three young men in question are all disabled. The story may not be wholly original, but the characters are.

Based on a true story, the film tells the story of a trio of guys who flee their overbearing parents in a covert sneak-out (dubbed “Operation Copulation”) for a road trip across the Canadian border with the ultimate goal of hiring prostitutes. The pensive Matt (Hayden Szeto) and loudmouth Scotty (Grant Rosenmeyer) are in wheelchairs, while the slightly older Mo (Ravi Patel) is visually impaired. They hire van driver and traveling nurse Sam (Gabourey Sidibe) to command the ship, and all four learn life lessons, and embrace their independence, during their brief time together.

It’s refreshing to see the normalization of disabilities on screen, especially with a group that’s often de-sexualized by society. The film doesn’t ignore their sex drives, and it gives a real sense of what it’s like to be an adult who is dependent on others, especially when it comes to being a young man. The characters are treated with respect, and they feel genuine.

The cast of misfits is charismatic, the journey of underdogs is universally relatable, and the shared human longing to overcome obstacles is inspiring. Not only is “Come As You Are” a crowd pleaser, it’s a reminder to always live life to the fullest no matter what obstacles you’re dealt along the way.

 

 

“Darkness in Tenement 45”

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LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

When it comes to low budget, independent filmmaking, one of the most well-suited genres is that of psychological horror. As long as the story is solid and the director talented, you can do a lot with a little. Such is the case with “Darkness in Tenement 45,” a creative film about the fear and madness that can consume the human condition while living in cramped quarters, and our tendency to become violent as we are forced to enter survival mode. It’s a coincidence that the story is so topical, and it hits close to home with the COVID-19 virus scare that’s currently keeping much of the world in self-quarantine.

Following an attack from the Soviet Union in the 1950s, a group of New Yorkers shares a city tenement, fearful of what could be outside beyond the front door. Teenager Joanna (Nicole Tompkins) has been living with her overbearing Aunt Martha (Casey Kramer) after the 16 year old had a violent outburst described as “the darkness.” Just weeks after moving in, the Russian threat locked everyone inside. It’s been a month and food supplies are running out, Aunt Martha’s taken over as the leader, and Joanna struggles to face her demons. Eventually, the tenants begin to turn on each other as the power dynamics abruptly shift.

The film abides by the Hitchcock school of suspense, where sometimes it’s the best path to leave some of the more violent aspects of the story up to the imaginations of the audience. What’s in our minds if often more horrific that what could be shown on camera, and it’s a very effective technique here.

Writer / director Nicole Groton has crafted a story that is a successful blend of smart horror and a cautionary tale about the abuse of power. It’s clear Groton is a confident filmmaker, with a well-executed, if straightforward and structured, vision. It’s a simple story that’s well told, competently acted (considering it’s a cast of unknowns) and a wonderfully moody original score that sets the tone. “Darkness in Tenement 45” is interesting and creative, and is something fans of small indie films should seek out.

 

“Blood Quantum”

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LOUISA:  3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

When it comes to stories about the undead, there’s no shortage of bloody zombie action flicks. But you shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss “Blood Quantum,” now streaming exclusively on Shudder, as more of the same. Writer / director Jeff Barnaby gives the genre fans what they crave, but elevates the message behind the horror. His provocative film is loaded with sociopolitical commentary about colonialism, class, xenophobia, and a scathing critique of racism, all under the banner of a kick ass movie about the walking dead.

The dead are coming back to life near the isolated Mi’gMaq reserve of Red Crow, but the Indigenous inhabitants discover they’re immune to the impending zombie plague. The tribal sheriff must protect his son’s pregnant girlfriend, apocalyptic refugees seeking safety, and the residents from the hordes of walking white corpses. It’s a politically charged plot that puts a fresh spin on the genre.

The film has an indigenous cast, which is commendable, but the mediocre acting and stiff performances prove distracting. It should be good enough for horror fans, especially when the splattered brains, gore, guts, and brutal violence command the thrilling fight scenes. The horror effects are solid, and the story moves along at a breezy pace (no time is wasted here, as the film jumps right into the action from the first frame).

The big zombie killin’ finale is gruesome and satisfying, but the emotional last act is what will stick with me for a long, long time. It’s unexpectedly heartbreaking, and ends the story with a deafening silence and sadness. This isn’t your average horror film, and is a must-see for those who enjoy a little brainy (pun intended) commentary with their apocalyptic movies.

 

“Clementine”

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LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

A secluded Pacific Northwest lake house in the woods becomes the lonely setting in “Clementine,” writer / director Lara Gallagher‘s first feature film about the complexities of female relationships and intimacy. The story is simple, but the emotional devastation of the main characters is anything but.

Karen (Otmara Marrero) is reeling from a painful breakup with an older, more successful woman. Dealing with this heartache the best she can, Karen flees to her estranged lover’s vacation home to take shelter. When a mysterious and provocative teenager named Lana (Sydney Sweeney) shows up one day, Karen becomes obsessed and entangled with the irresistible femme fatale.

The film is so much more than just a sexual coming-of-age story, although it’s refreshing to see another lesbian perspective shown onscreen with relatable (and nuanced) female characters. Karen and Lana are at different stages in their lives; the younger woman exploring a natural curiosity about love and lust, while the more mature woman is coming to terms with her own failures in life. Karen longs to revisit her days of youthful optimism, and Lana embodies that feeling. What bonds the two together is so much more than a physical attraction, it’s the loneliness and heartache that grows from a yearning to be loved.

The two leads turn in quiet, effective performances, even if their chemistry is a little stiff (luckily it still works within the confines of the story). The film is a slow burn with very little dialogue in the first twenty minutes, and even the most patient of viewers will likely be disappointed that the mystery that’s built never really pays off. Still, “Clementine” is so interesting and authentic and thoughtful, especially when it comes to the female LGBTQ experience on film, that it’s worth your time.

 

“Arkansas”

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LOUISA: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I really wanted to like “Arkansas,” actor-turned-director/writer Clark Duke‘s directorial debut, but this unpleasantly offbeat movie sputters along until it finally fizzles out. The film was set to premier at this year’s SXSW film festival in Austin, Texas, and it reeks of a checklist of annoyingly hipster things “South By” audiences tend to enjoy (ironic costumes, a killer soundtrack, bloody violence). It’s good enough for a festival circuit that’s filled with film-literate audiences, but it may prove too bland and boring for the home streaming crowd.

Based on the 2008 novel by John Brandon, “Arkansas” narrates the story of Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Duke), a couple of criminal idiots who live by the orders of a drug kingpin called Frog (Vince Vaughn), who they’ve never met. The pair pose as park rangers during the day and go about their illicit activities at night. Swin has a difficult time blending in, and starts a relationship with a charming woman he meets at the supermarket (Eden Brolin), while Kyle spends his spare time trying to figure out the mystery of who Frog really is. After a horrible series of missteps and poor decisions, the two men find themselves on Frog’s most wanted hit list.

Duke isn’t a bad director, and the film has an appealing, 80s-style comedy thriller vibe (the tone and style remind me of Michael Ritchie’s 1985 movie, “Fletch”). The script has some clever one-liners and the story is well-organized and told in chapters as a method of corralling the material, but there is an abundance of distracting flashbacks that slow the flow. There are some flashes of brilliance, but the majority of the film is tedious to sit through.

The cast works well here, and Hemsworth and Duke have a pleasant onscreen chemistry. The actors go from the highest of the high (an all-to-brief supporting role for John Malkovich) to the lowest of the low (I cringe just thinking about Vaughn’s terrible Southern accent), but all of them deserved a better vehicle to showcase their talents.

 

 

“Bull”

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LOUISA: 3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The hushed, stoic “Bull” follows a formula based on personal redemption, but still has some quiet surprises along the way. At the heart of the film is a beautiful, character-driven story about the messiness of life and the symbiotic relationship that develops between a teenage girl and her next door neighbor. It’s an authentic slice of Americana that conveys the desperation of longing for a human connection.

Wayward girl Kris (Amber Havard) is only 14, but she’s already resigned herself to a life of being a nobody. She and her little sister are living with her broke grandma because their good-for-nothing mama is in jail. Kris has given up on her future, too, complacent in the fact that she’ll end up in the same boat as her mom some day.

After she spends the night trashing her neighbor’s house with her delinquent friends, Kris is given the option to be hauled off to “juvie” or help the ex-bull rider, Abe (Rob Morgan), with chores. She soon discovers an interest in the rodeo, and the pair develop a connection and a sense of family that’s been missing from their lives.

This isn’t one of those by-the-book “bull riding turns her life around” stories. It’s certainly not a feel-good film, either. It’s a very real portrayal of the struggle of two outsiders trying to reinvent themselves at different points in their lives. Kris is teetering through the obstacle course of adolescence while Abe is looking back on all the doors that are closing for good. He has a deep connection to the rodeo, but his body can’t withstand much more abuse. Both feel like misfits, invisible to the world and society around them.

Director Annie Silverstein draws charismatic, first-class performances from her leads, and she presents a not-often-seen on film look at black cowboy culture in Texas. Although the film is overtaxed with pointless subplots like Kris’ low level drug dealing and Abe’s love life, the details feel authentic. That’s what makes “Bull” such a poignant tale.

 

 

“The Half of It”

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LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Writer / director Alice Wu‘s “The Half of It” is precisely the charming tonic we all need right now, considering the current state of the world. This adorable teen rom-com about “the oppression of fitting in” is a feel-good, easy to watch, and easy to like Netflix original film (it premiers on the streaming platform on May 1).

Shy and nerdy student Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) lives in a small town with her dad (Collin Chou). She doesn’t have many friends at school, and she helps keep the lights on by writing grade-A essays for her classmates for $20 a pop. When the sweet lunkhead jock Paul (Daniel Diemer) approaches her for help writing a love note to win over pretty, popular girl Aster (Alexxis Lemire), Ellie at first declines. A change of heart (and $50 later), Ellie and Paul form an unlikely friendship that gets even more complicated when she discovers both she and her new buddy have feelings for the same girl.

Wu has done a knockout job creating a scenario where a girl is searching for love but finds friendship, and her true self, along the way. The relationships feel genuine as does everything else about the movie — except for the overwritten dialogue.

The screenplay is burdened with a string of platitudes that sound as if they were written by a well-read teenager who mopes around a lot and believes they are super profound and intelligent in the ways of the world. I suppose you could say that is an accurate representation of that age group, but it’s constant and annoying as the pensive musings are hurled forth in stale succession. There’s also a weird religious element to the movie (although this is not a faith-based film).

It’s the likeable cast and their terrific chemistry that make the film work. These characters are delightful to spend time with, and their relationships feel authentic. The majority of the film is confident and thoughtful in all the right ways, and the love triangle will keep you guessing until the end.

“The Half of It” is a delightful story of self-exploration that’s hard not to love. It may be just what the doctor ordered.

 

“Bad Education”

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LOUISA: 2.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

A noteworthy performance from Hugh Jackman and a compelling story about a multi-million dollar embezzlement scheme work in tandem to make “Bad Education” a watchable, if bland, movie. Inspired by true events, the film tells the story of Long Island school superintendent Frank Tassone (Jackman) and Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), two education professionals who work tirelessly in a bid to capture the nation’s top spot as the best school in America. Frank and Pam care, and they sometimes care a little too much.

When a high school reporter (Geraldine Viswanathan) uncovers some fishy invoice documents while researching a puff piece on the school, she digs deeper and finds evidence of a financial racket of epic proportions. After the grift comes to light, Frank must devise an elaborate cover-up to protect his school district.

The true story isn’t one of those crazy, “I can’t believe this happened” types of tales. It’s astonishing how much money was actually stolen from the school district, and even more so that the guilty parties could buy into their own excuses. There’s so much lying an corruption going on that the liars actually believe their own truths. The guilty parties have truly defective moral characters because they think they can get away with it, with casual excuses as to why the school district was charged $10,000 for a pair of round trip tickets to London on the Concorde. Janney and Jackman are terrific, and both of their performances get better as the crisis unfolds and they grow more and more unhinged.

The script is dialogue-driven, so don’t expect a thrill a minute true crime story. The film has a small-screen feel, and director Cory Finley‘s storytelling is choppy with irritating narrative inconsistencies (especially when it comes to Tassone’s personal life). It’s a head-scratcher when the movie seems to be trying to make viewers feel sorry for the guilty parties.

“Bad Education” is a decent movie with a good story, just don’t ask me to have any sympathy towards these privileged sociopaths.

“Greed”

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LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Greed” is overstuffed with so much social commentary that its bursting at the seams. The film tries to tackle too many hot topics, including the selfishness and sins of the mega-rich, the excesses of the fashion industry, the exploitation of mistreated factory workers, and the plight of impoverished refugees. Its themes may be crowded, but the film is never boring.

The movie tells the fictional story of luxury fashion retail honcho Sir Richard McCreadie (Steve Coogan), an idiot narcissist billionaire who is an excellent villain for modern times. Sir Richard is planning a spectacular themed 60th birthday party on the Greek island of Mykonos, and price is no object when it comes to having proper silverware, a “who’s who” guest list of the hottest celebrities, the finest gourmet cuisines, and a hand-built replica of the Roman Colosseum, complete with a gladiator match featuring a live lion.

There’s a moral outrage that intensifies as this slightly satirical story turns darkly tragic, and the dialogue is crisp and witty as screenwriter (and director) Michael Winterbottom aims his pen squarely at the target of Western capitalism. But despite an extremely satisfying ending and the film’s heart being in the right place, “Greed” isn’t as hard-hitting as it could (or should) be. It feels far too real for that.