Review by Joseph Fayed
Stories involving grooming or any type of uncomfortable age gap between romantic partners tend not to capture the complicated feelings and pressures one involved in this type of relationship is inclined to feel. Palm Trees and Power Lines seems to be one of the exceptions and serves as a cautionary tale for many youth.
The film follows Lea, a teenager living in California who has a chance encounter with an older man named Tom. The two secretly begin a relationship that for various reasons begins to unravel and brings tension into Lea's life. The film is based on a short film previously made by writer-director Jamie Dack.
Despite the implications of the relationship at its core, there is a method to the storytelling that allows you to see the protagonist Lea roll with the punches for most of the screen time. Her innocence and vulnerability define her character and Tom allows both of those to be socially isolated all to himself. Tom instills a false sense of hope, and her newfound satisfaction allows her to turn a blind eye to what is really going on.
Lily McInerny, who plays Lea, gives an impressive film debut here. Jonathan Tucker, who plays Tom, really sinks his teeth into his role. The two lead performances accelerate how naiveté and manipulation intersect when it comes to grooming. While the end result may be depressing to some, it's the power dynamic built upon trust and lies that leads us to a sorrowful conclusion. And it sadly does not feature Chris Hansen of To Catch a Predator fame.
When we do see Lea interacting with others like her friends or her mostly distant mom, we begin to see her grow more detached from anyone who isn't Tom. One scene features a concerned woman approaching Lea to ask if she's okay while out with Tom on a date. It doesn't feel so out of place when Lea watches her life spiral out of control and realize that a giant red flag has been waving at her for weeks.
Palm Trees and Power Lines is a retelling of a tragic tale of tainted love. I wouldn't consider it groundbreaking by any means, but it does tell a series of events in a short timespan where there isn't much self-reflection going on in the life of our young protagonist. Lea is still figuring out her own life and the film doesn't cast any judgment on her for that, which I appreciated.
Palm Trees and Power Lines is now in theaters and on VOD.
Review by Joseph Fayed
Continuing a beloved television series as a film carries some risks. In the case of the BBC series Luther, season long mysteries being condensed into just two hours for Luther: The Fallen Sun has its shortcomings, but the heart and soul of the series still feels very much alive.
Following the events of season five of Luther, DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) returns in a very different environment than where we have seen him before, as an inmate behind bars. Meanwhile, a sadistic serial killer is on the loose, and when the killer begins to taunt Luther, he hatches a plan to escape prison and do what he does best, bring a killer to justice.
At its core, the film feels like how the television series would play out. The main antagonist does the unthinkable, and as their motives get revealed, Luther, aided by his allies who become increasingly wary of him as time goes on, pursues the killer. The running theme between both is that John Luther puts his job before anything else. Luther's commitments and how he can't easily move on from any case are the best part of his character, and allow for a cat and mouse game between him and whichever killer he's facing off against. It is good that the film ultimately stuck to the roots of what worked about the series and didn't try to make a soft reboot of sorts.
Idris Elba is as good as always, again donning his signature coat as DCI John Luther. He allows Luther to be afraid of nobody, but he can easily identify and calm the fears of others. Elba's acting serves as a good reminder that John Luther is a detective for a reason. Andy Serkis, who plays the tech billionaire turned serial killer who Luther goes after, unfortunately doesn't lean into how sadistic and unapologetic he could be. It may be due to time restraints of the film, but I wish there was much of him being unremorseful as there was of him committing heinous crimes.
Anyone eager to see the return of John Luther should give Luther: The Fallen Sun a watch. While almost none of the previous plot lines from season five of the BBC series are addressed, the start of this new story is not very different from how each of the previous seasons have begun, with a killer on the loose. Although the tactics and criminal pursuit that normally draw detectives and killers together tend to be overshadowed here, Luther: The Fallen Sun does one thing the series did right: include lots of Idris Elba.
Luther: The Fallen Sun is now playing in theaters and hits Netflix on March 10.
Review by Joseph Fayed
Films set in the Appalachian Mountains usually don't take place there because of the beautiful scenery. Instead, they tend to serve as the backdrop for a storyline involving dealing drugs or living in poverty. Lo and behold, Devil's Peak is an example of the former. It is as southern Gothic as one can get.
Based on a novel by David Joy, the thriller follows a ruthless crime lord in a small town (Billy Bob Thorton) at odds with his son, Jacob (Hopper Penn), who wants to leave his life behind to pursue the girl of his dreams. His dad does not take the news well, and the events that ensue test the loyalty of not just family, but everyone the father and son duo have crossed paths with.
Most of the characters serve as a caricature for anyone who still has a pulse in the rural parts of the south. It ultimately works because each of them is acted so well by its mostly prominent cast. Billy Bob Thorton has some funny one-liners and acts like he would be a drug lord in another life. The biggest surprise for me was Hopper Penn, son of Sean Penn and Robin Wright, who ironically plays his mom in this film. Nepo Baby arguments aside, even when it has the parent and child working together, Hopper does a decent job at playing uneducated white trash. Sean Penn really rubbed off on him.
The most convincing parts of the film surround Robin Wright's character, who is in recovery from drug addiction. Even in her small amount of screen time, her character pulls at the heart strings and is the only one who seemingly isn't defined by the choices she has made. She is a caring person, which is rare to see in supporting characters suffering from addiction.
The middle parts of the film are where the plot fell flat. In a small town where everyone knows everyone, it would've been much better if we had gotten to know everyone and their way of life. Instead, we only get to see the father, mother, and son. There was definitely backstory to how politics and the police are intertwined, but their problems are secondary to the family's. If Jacob's actions are supposed to create a domino effect for those around him, it is disappointing to only see the highlights of his immediate family.
Devil's Peak has a convincing cast, trying their best in this post-Ozark feature. Unfortunately, this film doesn't choose to explore the depths this type of story could have, and its best moments come across as a family drama instead of the crime thriller many watching this are probably hoping to see.
Devil's Peak hits theaters on February 17 and VOD on February 24.
Review by Joseph Fayed
She Is Love is a new romantic drama and the latest film to have mostly been improvised without a script for its lead actors. While this style of movie usually has such great chemistry to make up for a loose narrative, it strangely lacks both at different moments, missing whatever potential it had.
The film follows Patricia (Haley Bennett), who checks into a countryside inn that, unbeknownst to her, is managed by her ex-husband Idris (Sam Riley) and his new girlfriend. Despite the awkwardness of the situation for all involved, the two revisit their past and attempt to shape their future.
The film takes place over the course of one weekend at the inn. The film is mainly stylized with a playful tone despite being billed as a drama. This actually produces some of the film's best improvised moments since the drama at its core isn't all that interesting. When Patricia and Idris briefly banter back and forth over age gaps in their relationships, it feels more genuinely acted than the more emotional and tender moments of their reunion.
The film ultimately falls apart when the plot circles back to the old flame at hand. Haley Bennett and Sam Riley interact as if they are old friends at a high school reunion rather than a divorced couple. With what little direction either of them was given, the two seemingly jump from acting friendly towards each other to getting emotional when discussing the tolls of their relationship. It seems very out of place to describe that for just one film that really lacks an emotional climax.
Romantic dramas that aren't reliant on twists and turns need to showcase emotions that illicit romance. Minus the wave of grief the viewers are hit with in the second half, you fail to see what would bring these two exes to spend as much time together as they do. Perhaps it is supposed to play off of how Idris's new girlfriend, a younger and bitchy wannabe actress, isn't the one for him either. You begin to wonder if Idris is the problem here, and there is no solution whatsoever. I don't think this was writer-director Jamie Adams's intention, but this happens when unengaging protagonists act however they want to.
She Is Love won't have you rooting for or against Patricia and Idris reuniting. Instead, it will leave you wondering why they were ever together in the first place.
She Is Love is now in theaters and on VOD.
BLOOD -- Not a Bloody Good Time
Review by Joseph Fayed
January is not typically a month where newly released horror films are well-received. Released at the beginning of the year before awards season, they are usually swept under the rug and easily forgotten about until the next box office hit comes around. While this January has had two notable exceptions in M3GAN and Missing, Blood ends the month with a family horror that is neither scary nor very interesting.
The film follows mother and nurse Jess (Michelle Monaghan), who moves to a farmhouse following her divorce from her husband (Skeet Ulrich), with whom she shares joint custody of their two children. After a tragic accident involving their dog, Owen, the son, begins developing a dependency on drinking blood. Jess goes to extreme lengths to help treat her son while endangering herself and others in the process.
Despite the plot having a lot at stake for Jess and her son, the film is not very suspenseful. Jess is almost immediately introduced as a mother who has grown apart from her kids. Jess and her ex-husband trade insults with each other whenever they interact. Her addiction struggles are also revealed early, setting this up to be important to her character arc. Yet, ultimately her struggles are largely sidelined in favor of her son. The problem is her son is mostly uninteresting. His newfound craving for blood mostly has him moaning for more of it. The obvious conflict of how he can control his urges is mainly left unanswered.
At surface level, this film has similarities to Let the Right One In or its American remake Let Me In. Both deal with a young vampire-esque child and those around them, trying to protect the child from harmful outside forces. You feel a sense of loneliness coming from the characters in those films, but in Blood, we don't get to learn how Owen copes independently of either of his parents. His thoughts are made known to us by a protagonist who is meant to be distant from her own kids.
The gore scenes are also few and far between. I was more focused on the bad use of special effects to turn a character's eyes into a different color than any actual killing going on. There were no thrills in this, it was clear the script was watered down to focus more on the family elements of the film, but even those were poorly written beyond the first 30 minutes. In Blood, we are introduced to a family, and over 90 minutes later, all I can take away is now they have a blood-sucking child living under their roof.
Blood hits theaters on January 27 and VOD on January 31.
CORSAGE -- The Empress Who Said Nah
Review by Joseph Fayed
Imagine a period piece featuring a protagonist who may or may not feel more like an outsider than they do a member of royalty. Imagine a screenplay that reminds you that women have dealt with the same societal expectations for centuries. Writer-director Marie Kreutzer uses both approaches to tell the story she chooses to tell in Corsage.
The film follows Empress Elisabeth of Austria, played by Vicky Krieps, as she turns 40 and deals with her image to both the public and those who know her the best. Elisabeth's marriage is falling apart, she is told she needs to lose weight, and she becomes depressed. Despite the many supportive figures in her life, Elisabeth still struggles with these pressures and constantly searches for a feeling of liberation.
The most effective part of the historical fiction drama was its emphasis on multiple aspects of Elisabeth's life. Being told over a year of Elisabeth's life helps the story feel less stagnant. While Elisabeth may have lived an interesting life, one aspect of it being at the center of this film would easily make her character one-dimensional. While that pacing may be unsatisfactory to some viewers, each title card with a different date is like another act beginning, and Elisabeth's 40th year of life comes full circle by the end.
Vicky Krieps's performance carries this film. Having held her own acting alongside some great talents in the past, Krieps has fun with her character by making her seem more eccentric. She is not overtly quirky, yet there are moments where her presence feels like it belongs in a dark comedy. Elisabeth is acted as an out-of-place millennial in 19th-century Austria, and here it works.
Many comparisons between this film and Marie Antoinette have been made, but this is a very different film beyond the surface level. Sure, both films feature modern music in their score, but Corsage places more of an emphasis on aging defiantly than acting out of defiance. Now that she is considered "old" by beauty standards, we see Elisabeth as a character with no holds barred against those who judge her social status. Why she chooses to act out is a large part of the story's appeal.
Corsage is an ode to nobody despite its historical influences. But it's the characterization of Empress Elisabeth that will have your attention over its historical inaccuracies.
Corsage is now playing in theaters.
THE APOLOGY -- Anna Get Your Gunn
Review by Joseph Fayed
Hell hath no fury like a woman whose daughter went missing 20 years ago. That proverb is the most accurate description you will find of The Apology. Mothers of missing children tend to fall into familiar territory, given their motivation to quickly learn the truth of what happened to their children. This film is no exception to that.
The thriller is set during the holidays that find the mother of a missing daughter Darlene (Anna Gunn), welcoming a familiar face into her home. Jack (Linus Roache) reveals a secret he has kept hidden for years. The mother is a recovered alcoholic — apparently, she has nothing else going for her, or at least they don't bother telling us more about her — who marks the 20th year her daughter went missing by being interviewed on TV. Jack shows up unexpectedly at Darlene's home and states that without any harm, he wants to tell her what really happened to her daughter Sally.
Anna Gunn's performance as the grieving mother who is told something she always dreaded hearing is what will keep you engaged the most. She will keep you emotionally invested enough not to wonder why Lifetime didn't greenlight this script. It has some Lifetime film attributes: a white woman who is/was a functioning alcoholic, the mostly irrelevant best friend who wears worse clothes than her friend, and the man who never has his motivations about anything questioned until it's too late. With characters so hollow, you feel that the conclusion will be anything but satisfying, and this one feels rushed.
Twists and gore are two gifts you will not be receiving this holiday season from this film. The "mystery" surrounding Sally's disappearance is laid out for the viewers around the climax. As for gore, you won't be yelling "yaass queen" at Darlene during any physical confrontation she has with Jack. It is very run-of-the-mill because none of its ideas are original. Vengeance or getting justice serves as nothing more than driving you from point A to point B. When that or the only three characters your film chooses to focus on can't carry their weight, you really don't have much to say with your story.
Jaycee Lee Dugard was not kidnapped and held captive for 18 years just to be name-dropped in this below-average thriller. The Apology is not accepted, as the film is not riveting enough to show the raw emotions or mysteries surrounding a missing persons case.
The Apology is now in theaters and on VOD.
Review by Joseph Fayed
2022 has really been the year for actors in A24 films to take on dual roles. There was X and Everything Everywhere All at Once earlier this year, and now The Eternal Daughter which is a paranormal family drama starring Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton. Tilda is no stranger to play more than one character in a film, in her latest effort to do so it proves she has what it takes to pull double duty on screen.
The story follows mother and daughter Julie and Rosalind who check into a Welsh hotel. The hotel is quite remote and it seems the two are the only guests there. In the meantime, Julie begins working on a film about her relationship with her mother in light of her father's death just a few years prior. While there, Julie begins to hear strange noises and she and her mother begin to unravel a bit when the hotel brings back memories for them both. While there are familiar tropes from other paranormal films such as strange noises being heard and figures appearing in windows, the film avoids playing upon common fears, instead relying on the emptiness that the hotel has to offer.
Perhaps the most eerie thing the film has to offer is the memories the hotel brings back that are gradually revealed by Rosalind. As the film goes on and their stay at the hotel continues, Julie and Rosalind's buried feelings about each other reach its surface. There is no intense argument between the two of them, yet director Joanna Hogg really captures a different take on grief compared to other paranormal films.
Isolation is another theme that I think was captured beautifully by Hogg here. The quietness that the dialogue is spoken in followed by the decision to have both of Tilda's characters rarely share the screen together, although this could be attributed to the film's budget, allow this slow paced drama to be exactly that. Julie and Rosalind are not total opposites and neither of them try to spite each other so seeing the mother and daughter carry such guilt and remorse is what makes this film stand out in the horror genre.
The Eternal Daughter is not for one looking for jump scares or a jaw dropping twist in its final act, but there is still a sense of unease at how we are supposed to approach repressed memories. There is no definitive answer for that, but Joanna Hogg and Tilda Swinton do a good job at making you feel spooked by one thing, mother/daughter getaways.
The Eternal Daughter is now in theaters and on VOD.
Review by Joseph Fayed
When it comes to Westerns and Native Americans, films tend to fall under familiar tropes which more often than not can be perceived as offensive. It is a nice surprise to see a film such as The Last Manhunt revolve around a real person and with as much Native influence as possible behind the scenes. Unfortunately, this attempt to reshape the narrative around Willie Boy is too stagnant to tell the story it is meant to tell.
Willie Boy is a Chemehuevi long distance runner in love with Carlota. Carlota's father disapproves of their relationship. Willie Boy and Carlota try to run away, and when her father confronts them, Willie Boy accidentally shoots him. This results in the two being pursued by the local sheriff and his posse. In the chase through the Mojave desert that ensues, lives are forever altered.
While at surface level, it may seem that the story of Willie Boy may be interesting, the manhunt we see portrayed focuses on style more than substance. The cinematography is stunning and really captures the beauty of the Old West. Set against that gorgeous backdrop, feels like a half polished story. Willie Boy and Carlota are very quickly side tracked as, the film shifts most of its focus to the team behind the manhunt. The local sheriff, played by director Christian Camargo, stands out because he is the only one given any kind of backstory.
The brutality of the manhunt was touched upon throughout the film's runtime. It takes note of the films setting and provides us with some of the best moments in the film. How the elements effect the characters provides them the emotional backbone the dull script fails to provide them with. Jason Momoa received a story credit for this film and has a supporting role in it as well. But don't let any promotional posters fool you, his brief amount of screentime contributes nothing to the overall plot. The young man working at the local newspaper who follows the manhunt as part of a cover story he is working on added more of a thrill than any shoot out scene.
While certain elements of the story were specifically adapted for the screen such as Willie Boy and Carlota's ultimate fates, the forces behind this film failed to make an interesting Western thriller based on a real, interesting person. Despite the appearances of several talented actors, their performances are wasted by lackluster dialogue and action you have seen in many previous Westerns. The Last Manhunt is a different take on the life and manhunt of Willie Boy that dries up under the Mojave sun.
The Last Manhunt is now available on VOD.
Review by Joseph Fayed
Dylan & Zoey is a dramedy that deals with an estranged friendship. Set over the course of one night, the two estranged friends try to figure out what drove them apart years prior. There have been many films before that have dealt with friends who are no longer friends reuniting for a brief period of time. While in those films, the two leads might express their love for each other right as the sun rises, this film has a different approach for rebuilding the bond between Dylan and Zoey.
Zoey (Claudia Doumit) is visiting Los Angeles and, on her final night, decides to see Dylan (Blake Scott Lewis) before she leaves. Over the next few hours they decide to spend together — or 82 minutes, in the viewers case — we see Dylan and Zoey laugh, discuss their memories from when they were closer, and reveal intimate details about the sexual abuse each of them have experienced in their lives. This is a "dramedy" after all folks.
With such a short run time and a story that takes place over such a short amount of time, there is not much room here to explore these characters backgrounds. When your film is essentially mumblecore with two characters the viewers are unfamiliar with, you need to expand on your main characters as much as possible. 82 minutes really does not get us any explanations as to why Dylan and Zoey are no longer friends until the last third of the film.
There is more than one way to address sexual abuse on screen as we have come to learn. The awkwardness between Dylan and Zoey shows us how there does not need to be some intense situation where one reveals their repressed trauma. We hear Dylan, who is revealed to be a 28 year old virgin, share his thoughts on sex while discussing his past traumas throughout the course of the day he spends with Zoey. Zoey, on the other hand, bounces off of Dylan's life before she makes an emotional revelation in the final act. Its ending is rather bleak but offers hope for both of our main characters, which given the context of why Dylan and Zoey grew apart makes sense.
Dylan & Zoey is a film that handles trauma better than it handles relationships. The pacing is a bit off when it comes to exploring any trauma, but when the pacing isn't off, the trauma it explores becomes the most interesting aspect of it all.
Dylan & Zoey is now available on VOD.