“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 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


“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!