Author Archives: Jay

The Vanished

Well that was a hot mess.

Paul (Thomas Jane) and Wendy (Anne Heche) take their ten year old daughter Taylor on a camping trip over the Thanksgiving weekend, But Taylor doesn’t make it to the holiday. She disappears on the very first day, while mom is away and dad is flirting with the hottie next door.

Over the next week, as the cops try and fail to find their daughter, Paul and Wendy unravel. Almost anyone would, in their shoes. It’s a terrible thing to lose your child, and to sit helplessly by while search and rescue continues to turn up nothing. But it’s also terrible to disregard official police “advice” and take things in hand themselves. People under incredible emotional duress don’t make the best decisions. Wendy and Paul make particularly bad decisions, but it turns out they’re not the most stable people.

Peter Facinelli writes, directs, and appears as one of the inept cops, and should be deeply ashamed of all three. This movie is so out of this world improbable that, at times, it feels like the writer meant it as a comedy but the director wildly misinterpreted everything, except that Facinelli is of course both the writer and the director and very very bad at both. The entire movie is built around a terrible twist ending that takes a page from the very worst of M. Night Shyamalan and actively seeks to one-up him in a competition of awfulness. Even Anne Heche and Thomas Jane, neither of whom was ever mistaken for a good actor, do their best worst acting in this.

My very best advice: try your damnedest to avoid this one on Netflix.

One Winter Proposal

In 2020 I was living in a narrow, dark little world, ignorant that Hallmark had its own shared universes and extended stories. But late last year I came into the light and there’s no looking back now.

Just a week ago I was telling you about One Winter Weekend, in which a couple of gals rented a ski chalet that turned out to be shared with a couple of guys, unbeknownst to all four. They were all mildly attractive and wildly single, so by the end of just one (winter) weekend, they’d coupled up, strangely along race lines. Happily ever after is assumed when you close with a Hallmark kiss, but this particular movie has since reached franchise status with a sequel that gives us a glimpse of what’s been happening in the year since.

In fact, it’s been a very good year for Cara (Taylor Cole), who is now publishing that mystery novel she was working on when we first met her, and boyfriend Ben (Jack Turner) who has indeed founded a new snowboarding company that makes a helmet with a ponytail slot. They’re spending a romantic weekend together at the same chalet that started it all, and Cara suspects an engagement might be imminent. Ben is less sure – Cara is impossible to surprise, plus the weekend’s turning out to be less about romance and more about business as he’s meeting a possible investor there. Oh, and there’s the fact that Megan (Rukiya Bernard) is tagging along, for work. And Sean (Dewshane Williams), well, he gave up his Seattle surgeon gig to be a ski resort doctor full time, so the whole gang’s back together. Not together together – Megan and Sean never made it was a couple – so it’s either going to get super awkward, or shit’s about to get rekindled.

Will Ben’s company get funded? Will Cara get a ring? Will Megan and Sean bump uglies? The possibilities are endless, and each more juicy than the last. Hit them up on Hallmark.

Shirley

Shirley Jackson was a wonderfully spooky and wildly talented writer and she undoubtedly deserves a biopic that lives beyond the borders of ordinary. This is exactly that movie.

Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) is a reclusive horror writer known for her gloomy temperament and spiky sensibility. Husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), a literary critic and professor at the nearby college, calls her “sickly” and “unwell” as he philanders all over campus. He and Shirley take in a young newlywed couple, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young); Fred is to be Stanley’s protégé, and though Rose was not long ago a promising young student herself, Stanley now expects that she’ll cook and clean and care for his oft-bedridden wife.

Shirley is writing yet another masterpiece and while her creative process is at first disrupted by the new arrivals, she soon finds Rose to be open and trusting and ripe for manipulation. Rose is curious, and fascinated by the brilliant author, and though Shirley seems, at times, grateful for a friend, her only true allegiance is to her work. And she is, of course, filled with neuroses and wildly unpredictable, so the house becomes volatile as loyalties shift too quickly to be counted upon. Meanwhile, Stanley is jealous of his would-be protégé and inappropriate with Rose, which means no one’s motivations are pure and home has become quite hostile. The more hostile things become, the more the film itself blurs the lines between fiction and reality.

Josephine Decker’s film is provocative and challenging much like the author herself – which, to be honest, means that I didn’t enjoy the film so much as admired it. Certainly I admired the committed, prickly performances, the dedication to some pretty unsavoury characters, and an ambiguous, haunting story-telling style that was nearly a performance in itself. It was an uncomfortable watch though, not what I would consider satisfying, too off-putting for me to truly recommend it. Although I appreciate the boldness it takes to make deliberately ugly art, I always end up wondering what the point is, exactly, if no one wants to watch it.

Promising Young Woman

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was once a promising young woman, a fact her parents take the opportunity to remind her of every morning at breakfast. Now 30, friendless, living at home despite heavy parental hinting that it may be time to move one, an unambitious med school dropout turned barista, Cassie’s parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) aren’t sure what it will take to jumpstart her life. To most it would seem that Cassie’s life derailed when her best friend Nina took her own life, but to Cassie, her life has simply taken a different direction. Her life now revolves more or less around avenging Nina’s death.

Nina was also a promising young woman, also a student in medical school when one night she was gang raped. She was a party, too drunk to defend herself, but ostensibly among friends and fellow students, many of whom either participated or stood around watching while it happened. While so-called friends gossiped behind her back, the school administration merely swept it under the same rug where they keep all the other similar complaints, and the court case stalled when the defense turned the table on the victim. Unable to deal with the aftermath, Nina died by suicide. But Cassie, filled with anger and outrage, is not content to let justice remain unserved. She’s become a vigilante of sorts, going out at night, posing as a woman who’s had too much to drink, and if you’re a woman yourself, you’ll be unsurprised by just how many men take the bait. She looks like easy prey, at least until they get her home and try to have sex with a woman they believe is too intoxicated to properly fight them off (despite her clear and repeated NO), then suddenly she snaps to alertness and serves them a warning they won’t soon forget. This is the double life that Cassie’s been living unbeknownst to others – unbeknownst even to new boyfriend Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old classmate and the first man she’s actually trusted since what happened to Nina.

Promising Young Woman is a dark comedy, in fact, a Vantablack comedy, if you’ll permit me trotting out a subcategory I invented of the Ryan Reynolds dark comedy, The Voices. Longtime readers with impressive memories (read: no one, even I had to look it up) may remember that Vantablack is a colour that is blacker than black, absorbing all but 0.035% of light; a black so black our human minds can’t actually perceive it. I would like to unroll this categorization once again, because compared to Promising Young Woman, everything else is pink.

Emerald Fennell, first time director (and also this movie’s writer), has done the improbable and completely made this genre her bitch. It is uniquely difficult to master the tone of such a film, mixing a very heavy topic with moments of genuine laughter and charm. This is truly one of the most provocative, unexpected, daring movies of this year or last. It must be seen.

Carey Mulligan is absolutely breathtaking. Cassie has half a dozen secret lives going at once yet Mulligan not only keeps them straight, she makes them easily identifiable to us, hiding stories and motivations behind her eyes, astonishing us with a raw and layered performance. Bo Burnham has a tall order playing the Last Good Man, bolstering a stellar ensemble. Clearly Fennell impressed half of Hollywood with her audacious script; Alfred Molina, Adam Brody, Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Max Greenfield, and Chris Lowell fill small but impactful roles, many of them names on Cassie’s shit list.

Regret, retribution, guilt, forgiveness, culpability, corruption, consequences. No one’s life is going to be the same. No one’s getting left off the hook. Cassie’s been living off righteous rage for far too long, and if she can’t have justice, she will have closure, by any means necessary.

News Of The World

Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks), a Civil War veteran, travels the landscape of 1870s Texas, bringing literal news of the world to all the towns on his route. For ten cents, he will read you the news from whichever newspapers he’s got in his saddlebag. He’s been on the road a long time; it’s a lonely life, and a dangerous one, but aside from missing his wife, he seems to embrace the solitude.

You see a lot of shit on the dusty roads between Texas towns, and one day he comes across a (Black) man hanging from a tree, his wagon overturned, and his ward cowering nearby. The little girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), was adopted by the Kiowa Indian tribe long ago, after the slaughter of her parents. Lately her adoptive Indian parents have also been killed, and she was being brought “home” to an aunt and uncle. Kidd somehow gets transferred this responsibility, and together they’ll travel hundreds of miles to deliver her to a home she’s never known, after being orphaned twice over. Johanna doesn’t speak English; she seems wild and almost feral, communicating in grunts and screams when her native language won’t do. She longs to go back to a tribe that no longer wants her, longs for a people to whom she never truly belonged, yet she remembers no other way.

The open road in 1870s Texas were no place for a child. They were no place for a man, either. The danger was grave, and constant. Tom Hanks, who goes full Daddy in the role, reunites with his Captain Phillips director, Paul Greengrass. If they thought the open seas were dangerous, they hadn’t tried to cross the harsh and unforgiving plains of Texas, where it’s hard to say whether human or natural forces are the biggest threat. If the marauders, thieves, and rapists don’t knife you and leave you for dead, the wilderness itself will be all too happy to claim your body and strip the flesh from your bones.

A slow and ambling western, Greengrass’s images have a quiet effectiveness to them, though they are frequently interrupted by rough and ready action sequences. Despite the bare-knuckled violence, the film is really about amiable companionship, and a steadfast faith in the importance of truth. Hanks channels his inner Eastwood and young Zengel is a marvel, communicating whole spectrums without the benefit of words. News of the World may be simple in premise but it is complex in character and superior in performance; definitely worth a watch.

Love Sarah

Sarah and her best friend Isabella (Shelley Conn) were on the verge of opening up their very own bakery, a long time shared aspiration, when Sarah died tragically, leaving behind unfulfilled dreams and a lease that Isabella was now responsible for alone, despite having lost her baker, an essential element in most bakeries, you’ll find.

Sarah’s aimless daughter Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) and her estranged mother Mimi (Celia Imrie) decide to join her in Sarah’s stead. And Sarah’s ex, Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones), shows up too, thank goodness, because this bakery was still very much in need of a baker, although it turns out Isabella is perfectly capable of doing the baking, she just lacked the confidence. But that’s not all Matthew’s contributing to the bakery! He’s also putting out daddy vibes, leaving Clarissa to question whether he might the mystery father she’s never known and her mother never revealed. Oh, and he makes the pretty pastries of course, which do indeed look good enough to eat, so if food porn is what you’re after, this movie’s got loads, presented rather prettily on a buffet of white platters. But for some reason, they’re just not selling. The bakery makes no money at all until they decide to rebrand and start baking up international delights to lure in London’s many and varied immigrants.

The bakery thriving or failing is almost secondary to these characters’ healing, which they’re all needing to slightly different extents. Healing takes different forms of course – romance, success, family, forgiveness – and it’s not just the bakery at work but the fact that these four people have found each other in their hour of need and created a community for themselves that fosters connection and leaves everyone just a little less isolated with their grief or their loneliness.

On a scale from “microwaving for one” to “molecular gastronomy,” Love Sarah is canned pasta sauce, not particularly complex or memorable, but easy and comforting. It’s sweet, it’s got wonderful performances, it feels good in a heartening, borderline inspirational way. It’s very watchable, and would in fact pair well with a nice slice of cake and a tall glass of milk.

The Ultimate Playlist of Noise

High school senior Marcus (Keean Johnson) isn’t trying to be rude but yes he is wearing two different sets of headphones because maybe he wants to listen to Radiohead and a gentle field breeze at the same time. He’s that guy, a total audiophile, most of his music taste inherited from his big brother who died saving him from a house fire. He’s teased about the burn marks on his back but Marcus is proud to wear such visible proof of love. He’s a little less enthusiastic about the toll these events have taken on his mother, who is the living, breathing embodiment of “overprotective.” He takes off his double head phones to hear some live music, but mom says he’s got to be home by 10, and he fully intends to comply. Except the opening act is transformative in many ways; Wendy (Madeline Brewer) is beautiful, her voice like gold to him, and when her set is finished, Marcus makes to follow her but gets elbowed in the head and falls to the floor in the throes of a seizure.

At the hospital they tell him he has brain tumors that need to be removed as soon as possible. Just one problem – well, aside from the obvious: this brain surgery is going to leave him deaf. With only a month to hear all there is to be heard, he embarks on a road trip toward New York City, completing a bucket list of all the best noises, and recording them all on his ultimate playlist of noise. Which noises would you choose? And more importantly, at least to a red-blooded teenage boy, who would you choose to accompany you on this quest? It’s a no-brainer for Marcus, particularly because she doesn’t exactly give him a choice. He and Wendy take off in his mom’s minivan without a plan or permission, determined to record everything worth hearing.

It sounds like a fairly typical young adult film, but Keean Johnson finds layers to his character, and I think most audiences who bother to will find layers to the film as well. Marcus’s trip is an attempt to find some peace with a looming loss, but he’s dealt with loss before, and perhaps he knows grieving, and coping, better than most. The script remembers to touch base with Marcus’ whole life – his friends, his family, the brother he never stops thinking about – but in his pursuit to hear all the sounds, he brings along a brand new person, the last new voice he will ever know. Of course there’s a certain melancholia to this act of goodbye, but the film is also a celebration of sound. Kudos to the guys in the sound department for their dedication to detail; even noise that doesn’t appear on Marcus’s list is paid special attention to.

The first half of The Ultimate Playlist of Noise played in a familiar way, much like that dying teen trope that movies like this just can’t stay away from – and yet this one has. Despite Marcus’s struggle to cope, losing his hearing isn’t a death sentence, it’s just the start to a new way of living, and yes, the end to the old way. But Marcus’s road trip isn’t just a recording session, it’s also a reminder that there are still plenty of beautiful things to see and think and feel, and that life will go on and be worth living and indeed be very good, hearing or no.

Love in Winterland

This movie made me rationally angry. I rolled my eyes, I yelled in vain, I gestured wildly, I made that little vein in my forehead swell up in anger, I put my heartrate in the danger zone, I made myself into a furious little anger ball until I got the sweats, but every bit of it, I assure you, was a rational reaction. I’ve been watching loads of Hallmark movies lately, and though their premises tend not to be grounded in reality, I’ve been surprisingly cool about it. I just watched an animated film that I basically called a sexist dumpster fire, and while I wasn’t cool about it, nor did I overheat. But this movie? This movie really got my goat.

Ally (Italia Ricci) is a contestant on a dating reality show that wants to remind you of The Bachelor without treading on any copyright laws, and without the constraints of actual reality. By the time The Bachelor airs, the season has been done taping for months, and the editors have worked their magic, manipulating the reels and reels of footage into a pseudo-narrative that plays up the drama and crafts characters the audience will both root for and hate. In the Winterland universe, the shows are taped one a time. Ally doesn’t live in a mansion with the other contestants, she goes home to her apartment, watches the show with her friends, and has no idea how things will pan out because that’s next week’s episode. In next week’s episode, in fact, Ally is surprised when eligible bachelor and “international man of many hats” Tanner (Jack Turner) selects her for the Hometown Date.

It’s been ages since Ally’s been to Winterland (the apparent actual name of her hometown), and while she’s thrilled to see her parents and to show Tanner around town, the reason she’s stayed away keeps rearing his ugly head. Brett (Chad Michael Murray), the ex who broke her heart, shows up a lot. Like, he’s hanging out with her parents on the regular, apparently. Plus she’s staying at the hotel he owns. And he likes to eat/eavesdrop in the next booth over at the local dinner…you get the point. And as soon as the producers smell drama, they’re pushing the three of them together like love triangles are going out of style. On a dating reality show!

Even though there’s nothing wrong with Tanner and everything wrong with heartbreaker Invasive Brett, the film really wants us to root for Brett and Ally getting back together. Even though Chad Michael Murray has inexplicably decided to do this film in a Batman voice! Plus Brett acts like a jealous brat and claims to have pined for Ally despite the fact that he broke up with her by never showing his face again, which is hella rude and awkward, and doesn’t seem to know what personal boundaries are. Brett is a yuck human being, and I’m not even that big of an Ally fan, and I still don’t want her to end up with a garbage boyfriend. I mean, she’s on reality TV so clearly she’s willing to risk it. Don’t worry guys, she’s only really there to promote a job she doesn’t even like. As if that makes it better. She sold her soul for nothing!

There’s no way you’re desperate enough for cheesy romance to watch this movie. If you’re on the Hallmark channel already, there’s plenty to choose from, and almost all of them will be better than this.

Outside The Wire

Robot soldiers fight alongside human ones in the near future – and against them, robots on either side of this conflict, a storm of bullets raining down. Two men are hit, and their commanding officer makes plans to pull them to safety, but an ocean away, in the middle of the Nevada desert, a young drone pilot named Harp (Damson Idris) eats gummy bears and disobeys orders, launching a strike that kills the two in order to save the other 38. Harp is court-martialed and sent to the demilitarized zone for a reminder of the human cost of his lethal button pushing.

There he meets Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie), an A.I. enhanced cyborg soldier who’s selected him for a mission outside the wire. Leo’s biotech is extremely convincing (he can even feel pain) but make no mistake – he’s a military machine. A military weapon, in fact, a supersoldier who’s excellent in close combat and whose A.I. is so advanced it can follow the threads of these conflicts in ways that no human leaders ever have. Which is what he needs Harp for, a man he turns out to have hand-chosen because of his ability to think outside the box. They’re going to dodge robot soldiers and angry insurgents to chase a warlord hellbent on securing himself some neglected nukes. Leo can’t pursue this one his own; he’s got built-in fail-safes to prevent that, but where his investigation would constitute a flaw in his programming, Harp is free to do so based solely on a human hunch.

I enjoyed this movie for a couple of reasons. First among them is the Asimov angle, the king of sci-fi who wrote all those clever rules of robotics, and whose every thesis went something like: beware artificial intelligence, because it will inevitably figure out that humans need to be protected from themselves, and we won’t like the measures they take to do so. Except in Outside The Wire’s case, what Leo establishes fairly quickly is that the real enemy is the U.S. military, even though he’s technically meant to be fighting on its side.

Robots, it turns out, aren’t as blindly patriotic as we might like. Lee sees things from both points of view, and he comes to some conclusions that the American government might not appreciate. It’s a little sad that it takes a robot to consider the the socio-political aspect, to put himself in someone else’s shoes and examine other perspectives, but there you have it. It’s what we’ve come to. Asimov is always right. A.I. will always find us lacking. Is this the movie that’s going to help heal America after this most divisive period in its history? Highly doubtful. Most people will just be watching or the action sequences, and that’s fine too.

The truth, however, is that Outside The Wire isn’t a terrific movie. It’s not the blockbuster stuff you’ve been craving. Leo can’t reveal his master plan to Harp all at once, so it’s hidden from us as well, making for an occasionally confusing and scattershot plot. It feels like it takes us through a series of switchbacks that aren’t entirely earned. What it’s really counting on is that you’ll be so pleased by the Transformer-like Gumps (the scary robot soldiers) that you’ll only be paying half attention to the story.

Still, the action is decent, and so is the relationship between Leo and Harp, like Training Day if Denzel was also the Terminator. That kind of thing. It’s kind of fun to watch Mackie play a cyborg soldier since we’ve seen him be a flesh and blood soldier in Hurt Locker, and an enhanced super hero in the Marvel universe. This character kind of melds those roles together, a robot pretending to be human with his own thoughts and feelings about this war and what its outcome should be. Of course, a global conflict is tough for a single robot to take on alone – though now that I think about it, I suppose we’ve seen A.I. do much more, and much worse, so I think it’s fair to say: fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.

Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy

I doubt anyone needs to be reminded that crack is a very bad, no good idea. However, you might appreciate a documentary that explores the ways in which the American government used a drug to exploit and manipulate a population.

Though the government itself was responsible for importing this insidious substance, it had no problem with the hypocrisy involved in blaming the victim and criminalizing a disease. Addicts were shown no mercy. In fact, these were, not coincidentally, the days of mandatory minimums, where (Black) people were being thrown in jail for decades over piddling amounts of drugs. Racial bias you say? Absofuckinglutely.

This documentary probably tries to cover too much ground and talk to too many people, not all of whom agree on all of the facts, so there are inconsistencies that might niggle at you, but that’s life. This is a complex issue and we’re still trying to follow all the threads. The constant, though, is the destruction it brought down upon a community that is still reeling and trying to recuperate.

Is Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy a perfect documentary? It is not. Perhaps a narrower focus might have improved the view. Still, it’s a worthy effort and an important subject, especially with the benefit of hindsight that allows us to take a look in the rearview and really appreciate how much it altered a culture and left an indelible stain on a country that would rather sweep these contradictions under the nearest supermax prison.