Home Sweet Hell

Furniture salesman Don Champagne (Patrick Wilson) has a picture-perfect life – a beautiful wife, high-achieving children, a lovely home…and yet all is not as it seems. His business isn’t thriving, his home was purchased with help from the in-laws, his son isn’t quite as successful as his daughter, and all of those things are carefully monitored and measured by wife Mona (Katherine Heigl), who carries a goal tracker around and expects everyone to conform to its (her) high standards.

I was really not feeling this movie when I first turned it on. The cold, bitchy wife trope is overdone and offensive. She’s controlling. She’s exacting. She schedules everything obsessively and won’t do anything that wasn’t pre-planned. Kill me now. Her poor, welcome mat of a husband Don is practically a saint for putting up with her. When he starts up an affair at work, we’re very understanding. His wife is practically frigid, their sexual activity under-scheduled. He’s not a bad guy. He’s earned this affair, and the new salesgirl Dusty (Jordana Brewster) seems like the perfect opportunity. In fact, he is the target, and their affair a convenient excuse for blackmail. Shit. Since Mona controls the purse strings along with everything else, Don has no choice to come clean. And that’s when things get spicy.

It’s just enough to make me wonder if there’s mayyyyyybe something here. Is it satire? Black comedy? I’m going to be generous and say yes: that was probably the attempt. But something gets sorely lost in translation and what we end up with is something that looks and feels a lot more like misogyny. The men in this film are no great shakes but the women are relentlessly vile and the 3 men who wrote this shit are probably moderating incel chatrooms right now. It’s not a good look for anyone, not even my precious Patrick Wilson. His perfect, angelic smile has been tarnished by this film.

Home Sweet Hell is probably meant to skewer suburban conformity through Mona’s obsessive need to preserve the perfection she meticulously portrays. What it actually does is send out some serious toxic masculinity vibes and I should have listened to my first instinct that said: no.

TIFF20 Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds

What would TIFF be without a documentary from Werner Herzog (and in this case, Clive Oppenheimer)? Luckily, the man’s output is such that I may never have to know.

Part of why his documentaries are so compelling is that he seems genuinely passionate and fascinated by his subjects. His films are an indulgence of his curiosities, he’s scratching his own itch, but he generous to take us along with him, unearthing the coolest little-known facts and seeking out experts buried deeply in their fields, often at the ends of the earth. In Fireball: Visitors From Darker Places, Herzog has become obsessed with meteors and comets. Indeed, for as long as humans have been alive, we have observed these wonders and searched for their meaning. They have influenced ancient religions and global landscapes, cultures and philosophies, even the life and death of dominant species.

Comets and meteors are natural beauties, the origin of dreams, and a mostly unseen threat that stalks our skies and could easily wipe us out, defenseless as we are.

Who but Herzog could so poetically refer to dust as the “currency of the cosmos.” If nothing else, his enthusiasm sparks our own imaginations, and space of course is a near infinite supply of awe and mystery and possibility.

While Herzog and Oppenheimer mine plenty of zest in this most recent documentary (their third collaboration, after Into the Inferno and Encounters at the End of the World), they lack in structure and narrative. Their approach is more pinball, racing from one area of interest to another, seemingly as it occurs to them, assembled rather loosely. If you’re looking for a more academic approach perhaps this is not for you, but it will slake your inquisitiveness, arm you with some impressive conversation starters, and be the flint to your fascination.

Zombillenium

Hector gave up his passion for music when his wife died. He put his young daughter in boarding school and he went to work to provide for her, even though his job as a safety inspector hasn’t exactly made him popular. One day, after dropping his daughter off at school, he’s off to Zombillenium, a monster-themed amusement park, where he suspects his inspection might turn up some violations.

What Hector’s inspection actually reveals is that the theme park us run and staffed by actual monsters, it’s a safe haven where monsters like mummies, vampires, werewolves, skeletons, and witches have hidden in plain sight, away from human persecution. The bad news is that to protect the secret, the park manager has to kill Hector. The good news is that Hector, now a zombie, has a job for life at Zombillenium. Or well, a job for the next few days, unless business really picks up or foreign investors take an interest. As it is, only a handsome, sparkly vampire who bears a striking resemblance to Robert Pattinson draws in any crowd.

This is an animated film on Netflix, dubbed in English from the original French. However, it remains in essence and heart, a very French film. The zombies threaten to strike and the vampires threaten to overthrow the management to instill a vampire-elite class system. It lacks the energy and manic story-telling of an American cartoon. The monsters have to find a way to turn a profit or else literally face going to hell.

Zombillenium is not a great movie. It’s meandering, it cares too little about orphaning a young girl, it’s too bland for adults to enjoy yet the monsters are weirdly sexualized- and I don’t just mean the hunky vampire. Hector the dad goes from business man dad to ripped zombie (and forever shirtless); Gretchen the witch has a tramp stamp visible thanks to low-slung jeans and a very cropped top. I’m confused about for whom this movie intended, but I’m pretty confident it won’t be enjoyed by many.

TIFF20: The Water Man

Gunner’s mom is very sick. His parents are trying to shield him from the truth, his mom puts on the bravest face she can, when she can, but kids are perceptive. Gunner knows. His mom is going to die.

Mary (Rosario Dawson) has been diagnosed with leukemia; her husband, Amos (David Oyelowo), recently moved the family to Pine Mills, Oregon, where local kids tell of a bogeyman out in the forest. The Water Man is said to have mysterious healing powers, bringing dead creatures back to life, basically haunting the hills, the mere mention of his name enough to scare children. Including Gunner, who is afraid but hopeful. If only he can be courageous enough to track him down, surely the Water Man will agree to heal Mary as well.

This isn’t just some ghost story, it’s a fully-realized fantasy film for children, one that’s grounded by real-world problems that help us orient Gunner’s situation and give the story some real perspective. The Water Man myth is an impractical solution to a serious problem, but it gives an 11 year old child a goal, a way to not feel so helpless during a time when he clearly needs to regain a measure of control just to feel a little more safe in his world.

A lot of horror movies prey on our fear of death; we humans are fairly predictable and unified when it comes to that. Gunner, however, is fighting for his mother’s life, giving his cause and adventure a sense of courageous nobility, not to mention urgency. Believing the monster to be real, needing him to be real, Gunner accepts the threat to his own life is worth the possibility of saving or even extending his mother’s. That’s a pretty intense equation for such a young protagonist, yet Lonnie Chavis is self-assured in the role, the actor confident even when the character falters. It’s a tall order for a young man, he Chavis has the chops to fill a hero’s shoes. Dawson has much less to do, playing a saintly mother with not a blemish to her good name and thus nowhere to take or build her character. Oyelowo is the more interesting parent, a flawed and fallible man who’s got his hands full between his dying wife, new job, and runaway son.

Gunner’s confrontation with mortality is the central theme of the film. Oyelowo’s direction revolves around it. Since adults are so uncomfortable with grief and death, we tiptoe around it with kids, but if nothing else, Gunner proves how much they can take, how resilient they are, and how much they pick up whether we intend them to or not. The film is a terrific conversation starter for parents and kids to talk openly about death and why it doesn’t have to be scary. Oyelowo has a lot of respect for the kids in his audience, and The Water Man serves them exactly as much as they can take.

Survive The Night

Dr. Rich (Chad Michael Murray) has recently been humbled quite a bit. A mistake at work cost him his job, which cost him his house, which means he’s had to move his wife and daughter into his parents’ home and accept a job at a clinic that he considers beneath him. Living at home is a bitter pill to swallow; his parents dote on their granddaughter and daughter-in-law, but Rich and his father Frank have always had an especially difficult relationship. Frank (Bruce Willis) is everything his son is not: he’s a gun-toting, truck-driving, country-loving man of few words, but he’s about to be very good to have around, because if Rich thought his life couldn’t get any worse, he didn’t count on meeting Jamie and Matt.

Jamie (Shea Buckner) and Matt (Tyler Jon Olson) are brothers and thieves who are on their way to the safety of Mexico but Jamie is a touchy combination of trigger-happy and intelligence-deprived and before they can make it to the freedom of the border, he’s got them into some more hot water, and Matt now has a serious gunshot wound that needs treating. Which is how they come to hold Dr. Rich and his family hostage. They have correctly identified Chad Michael Murray as both feeble and insecure. Unfortunately they hadn’t heard that Frank is a retired cop just itching for an excuse to jump right back into the fray. Jamie and Matt provide quite an excuse.

The movie is better than I expected but still incredibly not good. It suffers fatally from pacing; the first half is slow to set things up, and then the second half is almost comedically over-stuffed with people escaping and getting caught in an improbable and quickly unentertaining cycle of dumb and dumber.

If you’re desperate for an undemanding popcorn flick, I suppose this might do, if you remember that a movie that has Bruce Willis in it makes Chad Michael Murray its star. Lower your expectations, and then lower them again. It may pass the time and fulfill a basic quota, but even if you like it, and that’s a pretty big if, you’re still bound to forget it, and believe me, that’s for the best.

Black Box

Nolan (Black Box) just suffered a devastating car accident that took his memory and his wife’s life. Trying to piece his life back together after the trauma, Nolan’s amnesia would seem particularly problematic since he is now a single father to Ava (Amanda Christine), is far too little to have such an unreliable caregiver, never mind doing most of the caring herself.

Nolan is desperate, so he agrees to undergo an experimental treatment, the eponymous black box, which wears and looks like a VR helmet and seems to almost hypnotize patients back into their subconscious minds where Dr. Lillian (Phylicia Rashad) attempts to guide them into recovering their inaccessible memories. The process is agonizing, and while some progress is being made, it’s also further confusing Nolan, who finds that his memories aren’t quite matching up to what he’s come to expect. Thank goodness for Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) who not only provides priceless babysitting duty, but also serves as a touchstone, the only one who can confirm or deny the memories that Nolan seems to be recovering.

While I wouldn’t classify the film as a horror movie (though Amazon Prime sure does, including it in its “Welcome to the Blumhouse series), it is creepy in a way that’s hard to shake. Nolan’s memories remind me a bit of Inception in that sometimes they are hostile toward him, which doesn’t exactly do any favours to his healing. I’ve been a fan of Athie for many years now, and it’s always exciting to see Rashad pop up in things; the two together make for a well-acted and interesting film. I enjoyed the story, and the frantic search for identity, and I’ve appreciated how many of these Blumhouse films have considered parenthood from different aspects. Black Box doesn’t deliver my scares, but it’s chilling like an extended episode of Black Mirror, slightly sci-fi-ish, exploring the unintended consequences of new technologies.

See our other Blumhouse reviews here.

TIFF20: Good Joe Bell

I don’t know who gave Good Joe Bell his nickname, but they were about as accurate as they were inventive. According to the movie’s log lines, Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg) is a father from Oregon who sets out on a walk across America in honour of his son, Jadin (Reid Miller). Which is bullshit. I don’t dispute the Oregon part. Or the walking part either. He definitely does some walking, pushing a cart containing whatever camping gear hasn’t been stolen yet today. It’s the whole in honour of his son part that rankles. Joe may believe, or choose to believe, or fool himself that he’s walking for his son, but he’s really walking for himself. He’s walking for absolution. He’s trying to out-walk his guilt.

When his son came out to him, Joe didn’t exactly win any father of the year awards. He thought it was enough to not kick him out. Despite his wife’s pleas (Connie Britton), he didn’t work too hard at acceptance or even tolerance. He hid his disapproval behind thin veils and assumed his son would and should do most of the work to make his father comfortable, presuming this wasn’t some sort of phase, which Joe was of course hoping it would be, right up until Jadin took his own life.

So now Joe is walking across America, neglecting his wife and remaining children, stopping at schools to preach his an anti-bullying message, and at any community even that will have him to warn parents not to reject their gay kids. None of his missives is particularly effective, but blaming bullying is easier than dealing with his own complicity in his son’s suicide. Joe “talks” to his dead son on his walk but never seems to truly understand him – neither does Mark Wahlberg, for that matter, and director Reinaldo Marcus Green seems indifferent. With such a shallow approach, this feels like a movie from 25 or even 35 years ago, so heavy-handed and so proud of itself for so little. I’m sure it’s well-intentioned, but that’s hardly enough, for a message or a movie.

The only thing this movie does well is casting Mark Wahlberg, who is a little too believable as a homophobe and a failure at fatherhood. The rest is a mess. Its broad perspective renders it obsolete, it lacks self-awareness, and I don’t believe anyone involved has truly considered what or who this is actually for and about.

Evil Eye

Pallavi’s mother is a little overbearing. Or a lot overbearing, depending on your perspective. As far as Indian parents go, Pallavi’s aren’t so bad, maybe. They love her a lot. Mom Usha (Sarita Choudhury) calls every day, with good intentions and motherly concern. Pallavi (Sunita Mani) is nearly 29 and still single, a matter of daily discussion. There’s an ocean between them but no shortage of meddling, even if, as Usha points out, there aren’t a lot of Indian men in New Orleans. Pallavi is unconcerned with her marital status but she’s a smart woman and quickly judges that it’s easier to agree to yet another of her mother’s fix-ups than to argue uselessly. Fortunately or unfortunately, Pallavi’s date stands her up, but she ends up meeting someone else that day, and Sandeep (Omar Maskati) is everything both Pallavi and her mother have been looking for in a man.

I know what you’re thinking: Pallavi’s going to fuck things up. But not if Usha beats her to it! Yes, it IS ironic that the very mother who has preached marriage and family above all, stability over romantic love, partnership rather than independence, that same Usha who made her daughter feel like as long as she’s single, she’s a disappointment, that very Usha – well, now she’s trying to hit the brakes all the way from India. Usha’s astrologer assures her it’s a very auspicious match, and her husband Krishnan (Bernard White) does his best to soothe her, but Usha cannot be dissuaded. Her reasoning, unfortunately, is unconvincing: she’s pretty sure that Sandeep is the reincarnation of her abusive boyfriend come back to finish the job. Whether or not Usha’s tendency toward superstition is playing a part, or her PTSD is being triggered, Usha’s panic is as real as her desperation.

This is not your typical “horror” movie even if it is a Welcome To The Blumhouse member. It’s a mother-daughter drama with some seriously sinister supernatural overtones to it. Also, the fact that it’s set in both America and India gives it a unique structure. As much as Usha fears for her daughter, you bet Pallavi is also afraid her mother’s mental health is crumbling, and the distance only makes them both all the more distraught.

Choudhury and Mani both give compelling performances but directors Elan and Rajeev Dassani are less confident, and less inspired. Evil Eye doesn’t quite reach its true potential, but its strong sense of identity goes a long way in making this worthwhile.

In Case of Emergency

The first rule of ER nursing is: don’t call it an ER. They outgrew mere rooms long ago. They run emergency departments now, and they’re never not busy. They are the front line, meeting the needs of a community when they have nowhere else to turn. America lacks a socialized and humane approach to medicine; if an individual is lacking in insurance, or just can’t afford the co-pay, the emergency department is there as a catch-all, treating dental pain and heart attacks and overdoses and broken bones and colicky babies and psychiatric episodes. The emergency department isn’t necessarily the best place for any of those people, but sometimes they’re the only place.

Director Carolyn Jones also made American Nurse, a documentary I was compelled to check out during lockdown last spring when we were all feeling an even deeper appreciation of nurses and the hard work that they do. Nurses come in all kinds of shapes and sizes: some spend their days drawing blood, others sit and hold hands, some deliver meds and baths and kind words, and some guard the comatose bodies of post-surgical patients, coaxing them back to the land of the living. ED nurses are a different kind of beast. They live for trauma. They don’t wish it on you, but if and when you do go through it, they relish the opportunity to save your life and they will do everything in their power to do it.

Jones hears from nurses in seven different settings, but she gets some bonus content she never could have predicted. COVID-19 starts to overrun emergency departments around the world. Nurses are stretched to their maximum treating a virus that’s as bad as any they’ve ever seen. The toll is still being measured; the pandemic is still being fought.

For a limited time, you can stream In Case of Emergency here for free.

The Lie

I watched this movie several years ago, when it was called We Monsters, and starred German people. Then some American saw it and thought: I bet we can make this worse! And they were right. They always can.

Which is not a total write-off of The Lie. It’s got pretty middling reviews from other critics and I should say right upfront that I disagree with its ‘horror’ classification though it is 1 of 4 ‘Welcome To The Blumhouse’ supposed horror films released as a block to Amazon Prime for your Spooktober viewing pleasure. It’s a thriller. The horror is not so much in what happens but that it COULD happen – perhaps to you.

Pop quiz for parents: what wouldn’t you do to protect your child? If your kid, no longer a child but not yet an adult, made a mistake, a very bad mistake, would you urge them to confess? Force them to confess? What if the very bad mistake could ruin their lives? Would you turn them in? Or help them hide it? Would you lie to save your son or daughter prison?

Kayla (Joey King) did a very bad thing. She argued with her best friend and shoved her, out of anger. Intentionally or not, the friend fell to her death. As Kayla shakily confesses to dad Jay (Peter Sarsgaard), he drops his search and rescue attempt, he does not summon help. He immediately, without qualm or question, starts to cover up her crime. The first lie is told. When they bring Kayla’s mother Rebecca (Mireille Enos) into the fold, the cover up expands, the lies multiply. You tell lies to prop up the first lie, to divert attention, to plug up holes in the story, to improve plausibility, to create alibis, to misdirect, to suggest alternate theories, to feign innocence, to smooth out wrinkles, to put out fires, to gaslight cynics, to reframe the narrative, to deny knowledge – it’s an unending cesspool where one lie only and always begets another and another. And then even if you think better of the first lie, it’s too late, because you’ve already told so many more, and lots of those are illegal too.

This complicated spiral of causation has popularly been referred to as a web of lies, which in this case, almost sounds like a euphemism. This is an avalanche of lies. Cataclysmic. The parents have now implicated themselves, and yet neither hesitates. It’s for their daughter, so of course. Director Veena Sud does an excellent job of seeing this through to its ugliest conclusion. It is meant to make you feel uncomfortable, even if you don’t disagree with Jay and Rebecca’s actions. If the question is one of ethics, there is a right answer, and then there is the way you’d actually handle it, and the discrepancy between those two disparate answers creates a pit of dread inside your stomach that only grows as the film pushes forward.

The Lie is far from perfect, but I do think it’s worth a watch. We could all use an exercise in theoretical morals and their practical applications once in a while. To keep us sharp. Because you’ll never know when a sticky situation may be just around the corner, or one frustrated shove away. This movie exists for one reason, really: to ask “What would you do?” and then to leave you to sit with your answer, which may in fact be your first lie, and let the horror seep in.

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