film

“C’est La Vie!” Traverse City Film Fest Review (2019)

Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, “C’est La Vie!” is a French comedy about a cantankerous, but well meaning, caterer rallying his crew for an elaborate wedding at a prestigious French chateau. Max (Jean-Pierre Bacri) has a lot on his mind as he ventures out of Paris and into the beautiful countryside where his team is beginning to transform the 17th century palace into one couple’s ‘dream come true‘. The musicians that the Groom, Pierre (Benjamin Lavernhe), wanted aren’t available so they’ve hired a combative DJ (Gilles Lellouche) at the last minute, the catering team and the musicians are squabbling over elevator use, and the Groom also wants an elaborate finale with fireworks and high flying balloon acrobatics. There’s also the fact that one of his waiters knew the Bride (Judith Chemla) years earlier and is still smitten for her, a few of his crew were unavailable so a less than ideal replacement has arrived via his number one in command, Adèle (Eye Haidara)- and that’s not to mention that Max’s secret girlfriend, Josiane (Suzanne Clément), that he works with has been giving him the cold shoulder as he’s still technically married even though both parties are seeing other people at this point. Whew!

That’s not even half of the elevated antics that take place in the film, and its a miracle that the pacing and heavy character count never gets too cumbersome or uninteresting. There’s a mark of brilliance in this film where everything that’s taking place may seem chaotic and erratic, but the irony that the filmmaking on display is incredibly efficient and clever likely isn’t lost on anyone involved in anything as large and unwieldy as making a film or catering an event will know. There about five to seven sub-plots and character arcs that are all weaved through various problems that the crew encounters as Max and his team constantly have to adapt to. Which just so happens to be his mantra on site, whenever something goes wrong, say a power outage that ruins the main course dinner, Max asks of his crew, “What do we do?” to which they dutifully reply “We adapt!”. The film handily juggles the quirky personalities of the catering crew, their needs, faults, doubts and successes, all with care and in a timely fashion.

The film confidently relies on it’s colorful characters and a consistent witty humor that snaps between sarcastic cynicism and a charming level of earned optimism, and it’s all the better for it. An upbeat jazz-imbued score plays into the chaotic, but classy, sense of momentum that rides throughout the film’s scenes giving it the proper tone that fits these characters nice and snug. Even though almost everything goes awry, the film acknowledges the intensity of the moment without getting too nasty or dark. In the end our resolution is met with a gentle recognition that even when it seems as though everything has gone wrong- not all is lost!

The film may be a bit bourgeoisie at times, but it never gets too rude about it. In fact there are undertones of working class humor levied at those in the upper class who are too stuffy and cannot take a joke (looking at you Pierre!). If you enjoy ensemble comedies that dish out a brevity of levity with a lovable cast of oddball characters, then I highly recommend checking this one out!

Final Score: Dozens of Twirling Napkins!

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film

“Villains” Traverse City Film Fest Review (2019)

Written and directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, “Villains” is a dark comedy thriller where a couple of young amateur thieves break into a well-to-do home in the middle of nowhere where they find some ominous developments and disturbing homeowners. The film opens with our modern day Bonnie and Clyde, Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe), robbing a gas station. However, criminal geniuses they are not, and they end up stranded on a back-road due to an empty gas tank. Eventually they stumble upon a seemingly empty home, with a car in the garage to boot! All they need to do is break in and find the keys…

After searching the house for a few minutes they decide to check the basement, where they discover a young girl chained up, emotionless and mute to their concerns. Jules wants to save the girl (Blake Baumgartner), and Mickey obliges even though he’d rather make their escape as quick as possible. Not long after this the homeowners return and kickstart the film’s central power dynamic between Mickey and Jules, and George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick). George and Gloria are an older couple with a retro style from their clothes to their mannerisms. They can be charming at times, at least when they’re not mellifluously menacing the young drug-fueled thieves. In fact, the performances from the four major players is what keeps this one location thriller from destabilizing under it’s own expectations. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to see Skarsgård in a charming (though somewhat naive) role, and Monroe’s Jules is the heart and soul of the film. However, that being said, the title of the film alone brings a more devilish tone to mind than what we ultimately get.

The script is probably the weakest part of the film. What the actors do with the characters is what saves this one from an untimely demise of boredom. It’s not exactly a lackluster film, but it never quite gets as punchy as I suspect the original intention was. “Villains” will most likely find a cozy home on a streaming service in the near future- and it will probably do well there. I’d be a harder sell if this were to open to a wide release in theaters though, I’m not quite sure it’s worth the price of admission.

Final Score: 1 Bonnie, 1 Clyde

film

“Extra Ordinary” Traverse City Film Fest Review (2019)

Written by Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman (with additional writing by Maeve Higgins and Demian Fox) and directed by Ahern and Loughman, “Extra Ordinary” is an Irish comedy that follows Rose Dooley (Maeve Higgins), a well known psychic in a cozy small town who’s got a love/hate relationship with her supernatural abilities. Rose grew up under the tutelage of her father Vincent Dooley (Risteard Cooper), the host of a local paranormal TV series that she often appeared on with him. Tragically, and hilariously, Rose accidentally kills her father one day when the two investigate a haunted pot-hole. As the film opens up to the present, we find her issues with bereavement haven’t exactly been worked through yet. Rose’s pregnant sister Sailor Dooley (Terri Chandler), pries her away from their father’s roadside grave after the opening credits, implying that this ritual has been performed ad nauseam.

Within that same small Irish town resides Martin Martin (Barry Ward), a widowed father who has a unique supernatural problem. His dead wife has been casually haunting him for some time- forcibly picking out his wardrobe, whipping donuts out of his hand etc. After Martin decides to do something about it, he tracks down Rose to see if she can help him out. Rose hasn’t used her abilities for some time now and works as a driving instructor, even though her heart’s not quite in it despite her cheery disposition. She refuses to help Martin at first, even though she quickly takes a liking to him. Across town residing in a large castle, loafing American one-hit wonder musician, Christian Winter (Will Forte), is running out of money. Out of desperation, he decides to make a deal with the Devil to ensure another hit song- he just needs the standard virginal sacrifice first. Once he tracks down Martin’s daughter, Sarah (Emma Coleman), and puts her in a spell of levitated slumber, Martin and Rose team up in one of the funniest ghost-busting duos to hit the silver screen in some time!

This film was a delightful surprise at the festival this year. Throughout it’s roughly hour and a half runtime the quirky, idiosyncratic, characters rattle off gut busting jokes at a rapid-fire clip while crucially maintaining an earnest and heartwarming vibe. The off-kilter nature of the film keeps everything light, even when the jokes and gags get a bit gross- which is all in good fun when battling the ego of Forte’s Christian Winter and his mustache twirling villainy. Martin Martin, while mainly playing the role of the straight man who’s startled by all of these ghastly ghost adventures, gets a fun twist in the second half of the film when his dead wife possesses him. Rose then utilizes Martin’s new gift to help them collect enough ectoplasm to break Winter’s spell on Sarah. This allows Martin to play an important role in saving his daughter’s life while evolving the comedic tendencies of his character.

Considering the fact that this is Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman’s first directorial feature- this is a superb outing for the duo! Personally, I know I’ll be looking out for the next film from them. If you enjoy comedies that dabble in other genres and styles, I highly recommend seeking this one out!

Final Score: 7 Jars of Ectoplasm

film

“Sword of Trust” Traverse City Film Fest Review (2019)

Written by Lynn Shelton and Michael Patrick O’Brien and directed by Shelton, “Sword of Trust” is a dramatic comedy that follows a mysterious Sword from the Civil War, and how it may in fact bear proof that the South had actually won the war. Marc Maron stars in the film as Mel, a wry but welcoming curmudgeon of sorts that runs a pawn shop in Alabama. He has one employee, Nathaniel (Jon Bass), a fool with a heart of gold who harbors a fascination for conspiracy theories propagated on the internet. We’re also introduced to Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), a couple visiting town to manage Cynthia’s grandfather’s will and belongings. With the bank owning her grandfather’s house Cynthia is left only with a Civil War sword with several documents and a letter from her grandfather stating the sabre’s importance.

At first when the couple dare to enter Mel’s pawn shop, eager to rid themselves of their inherited relic of alternate history, they attempt to recoup their losses by feigning the sword’s legitimacy. This scene (and the film as a whole) between Mel and the couple attempting to prove the sword’s authenticity was a welcomed throwback to the character driven, dialogue heavy, indie flicks from the nineties. After some clever wordplay the four decide to seek out any true believers of the conspiracy willing to shell out enough cold hard cash for the blade. They encounter rival factions of southern men willing to get nasty over the conspiracy as they discover that a surprising amount of people believe in the flimsy facade, and are willing to get violent for “the truth“.

The emotional crux of the film, which was unexpected on my part, came from Maron’s Mel. When the foursome are hauled in the back of a trailer to the secret location of the family boss presiding over items of legitimacy from “The War of Northern Aggression“, they take the time to get to know each other. Cynthia and Mary recount their decision to chase their dreams before attempting to have and raise children, but it’s when they ask Mel about his life where he reflects on his musician-junkie days with Deirdre (in a small supporting role played by the director of the film, Lynn Shelton) where the film finds its humanistic core. The film’s identity relies, wisely, on the performances of its characters, and its in Marc Maron’s performance in the third act where all of the character’s intricacies and nuances are connected to a past of love, regret, hardened outlooks, and a weathered sense of realism that’s relatable and true to life. Maron, always ready with a pithy comeback, is anchored by a cast of skilled performers all working towards a well made dramatic comedy. “Sword of Trust” is a film that’s perfectly tailored for our post-truth paradigm, the fact that it manages to be equal parts clever and funny while maintaining a breezy hour and a half runtime is in itself a small cinematic miracle. Check it out!

Final Score: 40,000 dollars

film

“Greener Grass” Traverse City Film Fest Review (2019)

Written by Jocelyn Deboer and Dawn Luebbe and directed by Deboer and Luebbe, “Greener Grass” is almost like a movie, if you were on copious amounts of drugs and locked in a movie theater until the credits rolled. I don’t even feel as if I can call this experience a movie, that would be a disservice to the history of the medium. I don’t enjoy being harsh on films or filmmakers, it’s hard to make a movie- any movie for that matter, but this one threw me for a loop. Okay, so, if I were to describe this film it would be a sort of nightmarish “Stepford Wives“-like scenario drenched in sunny pastel hues wherein soccer moms Jill (Jocelyn Deboer) and Lisa (Dawn Luebbe) consistently make awkward small talk while casually tossing about major life choices with the fickle and capricious nature of children under the age of six. At the opening children’s soccer game Lisa notices Jill’s newborn and notes how cute she is. Jill responds with “Oh, do you want her? She’s great.” and she cheerily hands her baby over to Lisa- not to hold- but for keeps. That’s Lisa’s child now. This is about less than thirty seconds into the movie, and that should clue you into the illogical slog you’re about to experience.

Jocelyn Deboer (left) and Dawn Luebbe (right)

There’s just not enough material for a feature, maybe a short film. Which, I discovered, is exactly what this concept was before being given the green-light for feature development. Which is perplexing to say the least. I don’t know what the percentage of scripts getting greenlit versus the untold amount that never see the light of production is, but I can’t help thinking that countless better ideas were overlooked when this got made instead. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to go out and protest this film or wage an online battle against anyone involved in bringing it to fruition- it just made me wonder how many other films were sitting unmade while this got produced.

It’s really just a series of sketches more tailored for adult swim than the movie theater. For example, Jill’s son Julian is dragged from practicing piano, soccer, and to school but the kid is painfully pathetic at literally everything. He screeches in abject terror every time he’s slightly jostled by a softly lobbed baseball or when loosely brushed by his fellow teammates on the field. About halfway through the film he passes out into the pool at a local gathering and transforms into a golden retriever. Why? Nobody knows. Everyone simply treats him as if he’s still perfectly human. There’s also a murderer running around in the background breathing heavily and watching Jill’s family and muttering about Julian and events in their lives. I assumed that maybe Julian was somehow the murderer- but no. That thread goes nowhere, Jill encounters the murderer later as she walks into her home after divorcing her husband because her friends randomly suggest it to her on a whim- sorry, there’s a lot of odd context that is hard to keep track of throughout the film. Anyways, Jill just finds a large woman cooking in her home who aggressively screams that this is her house now, Jill apologizes, and then pauses to double-check with the intruder to make sure that it really isn’t her house before being pushed out into the street. This film’s scenes are just a bunch of non-sequiturs that could be rearranged in any order and it would make just as much sense as it currently does.

What we would normally call the plot, is completely nonsensical, devoid of any and all structure or any narrative meaning whatsoever. If there were at least one connecting idea through the film then maybe there would be something, but none of it connects, the main character learns nothing and accomplishes nothing. She floats through life and plainly accepts decisions made for her by insane people as if these preposterous choices couldn’t be undone- no matter how painfully stupid they may be. Again, I feel conflicted at times when discussing “Greener Grass”, I’m supportive of everybody and anybody getting out there and creating something, anything, but with this one, I found almost nothing of value. I don’t ask for much, but I mean, any nugget of cohesion would have been appreciated. This film feels like someone that was raised in an extremely privileged setting grew up not knowing the value of money or narrative and thought, “I bet I can make a movie” with no supporting thoughts to back that up. The one thing I did laugh at though, was that after Julian transformed into a dog his father played catch with his new dog/son (dressed in children’s clothes by the way) and he was so proud of Julian- because he’s faster now. Later when Jill confronts him about missing Julian the way he used to be, he looks at Jill confusingly and says, “Miss him? He’s right here, and he’s awesome now.” I have to agree, Julian was far more entertaining as a dog.

Oh, and I get it, comedy is subjective. All art is subjective. If this experiment works for you- then great! Every movie is somebody’s favorite movie, but I have a feeling that this one may have less favoritism than most. Personally, I cannot recommend this one, but you’re welcome to give it a shot!

Final Score: 13 Kids with Knives

film

“The Wretched” Traverse City Film Fest Review (2019)

Written and directed by Brett and Drew Pierce, “The Wretched” is a throwback horror film that uniquely finds a balance between old school practical effects and an unnerving new wrinkle to the folklore of Witches. This was the last film that I caught at the Traverse City film festival this year, and it turned out to be my favorite film of the fest! Oddly enough, I was in line for another film earlier during the week with friends and we struck up a conversation with a couple of guys behind us after hearing them name-drop “Big Trouble in Little China” and “The Thing” as a few of their favorite films. They happened to be filmmakers from Michigan, now out in L.A., and had a film at one of the later Midnight movies during the week. That film was “The Wretched” and my friends and I made the move to get tickets for that film because of that short conversation, and we were better off for having done so!

This review will be more vague than usual as the film has only been screened a few times for audiences at this point, and the less plot details out there, the better, in my opinion. We follow Ben (John-Paul Howard), a seventeen-year-old visiting his father, Liam (Jamison Jones), for the summer in North Port Michigan, on the Leelanau peninsula. Over the summer Ben works with his father at the local docks teaching kids how to sail and clearing out the slips. He’s mostly concerned with garnering the attention of the local girls and trashing the petulant bullies’ boat after some uncomfortable humiliation. However his attention is soon turned to his fathers’ odd neighbors and their increasingly strange behavior. Ty (Kevin Bigley) and Abbie (Zarah Mahler) seem normal at first, and initially they are, but after a wander in the woods with her son Dillon (Blane Crockarell), Abbie begins to take on more… aggressive tendencies. Eventually evoking “Rear Window” in Ben’s obsessive paranoia over his neighbors’ strange actions, Mallory (Piper Curda) a quirky co-worker at the docks, joins him in investigating the truth. Kids start disappearing and everyone except Ben seems to have forgotten them, forcing him to action.

Piper Curda and John-Paul Howard in “The Wretched”

This film excels on several technical fronts. Firstly, the adherence to practical effects over the use of CGI in this film is not only admirable, but downright mesmerizing. I’m not sure how they crafted some of their scares, but they were highly effective in creating an atmosphere of disgusting, moody, tension. Which, by the way, is utilized perfectly in this film. Some modern day horror films overdo the heightened levels of tension throughout their run-time, but this film wisely gives the audience a false sense of security at times; allowing several scenes to breathe and the audience to get attached to these characters as people first and foremost- not just fodder for the supernatural villain to devour. These characters were also, delightfully, more intelligent than expected, they’re smarter than your average teenager stereotype from any given slasher flick. One character even removed his shoes before heading up a staircase to find the source of a few bumps in the night. They seemed like reasonable people approaching an unreasonable scenario, no comic relief characters blindly blundering into danger here! Oh, and the sound design has to get a mention as well, it was unsettling and perfectly set each scene to a mood that slowly evolves from creepy to outright terror nearing the third act!

Zarah Mahler as Abbie in “The Wretched”

Speaking of the third act, it gets pretty intense! Not to oversell the film, but the choice to stack several types of phobias on top of each other in the final sequence was brilliant! Forcing your characters to keep charging forward through a continued escalation of terror like that was, well, it was a damn good time at the cinema. This was a satisfying throwback to old tropes with refreshing new techniques and execution. Anyone that enjoys films like “The Witch“, “Evil Dead” (The Sam Raimi version), or “Halloween” (The John Carpenter version) will probably enjoy this one as I did. I highly recommend seeking this one out once the film makes it’s way through the festival circuit and distribution process. Keep your eyes peeled for this one!

Final Score: 1 Witch

*Below is a link to an interview with one of the directors, Brett Pierce, where he discusses the reasoning behind why they decided to shoot the film in Northern Michigan, check it out!

https://www.northernexpress.com/news/feature/evil-dead-descendant-bros-brett-and-drew-pierce-bring-the-wretched-1/