2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Swallow’

May 1, 2019

by Carla Hay

Haley Bennett in "Swallow"
Haley Bennett in “Swallow” (Photo by Katelin Arizmendi)

“Swallow”

Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

People familiar with reality TV might know about the TLC series “My Strange Addiction,” which was on the air from 2010 to 2015. Every episode documented people with unusual compulsions and obsessions, and a great deal of these episodes featured someone addicted to eating non-food objects. That eating disorder is called pica. The dramatic film “Swallow” is a disturbing fictional look at a young woman who has that disorder.

In “Swallow” (written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis), Haley Bennett plays a housewife named Hunter, who seems to have it all: a wealthy and handsome husband who dotes on her, a baby on the way (her first child), and a beautiful home that she can decorate any way she pleases. But underneath her meek and soft-spoken surface, Hunter is a very disturbed person, and her husband Richie (played by Austin Stowell) is a control-freak perfectionist who treats her like a trophy.

Richie is the type of controlling spouse who gets angry at Hunter because she didn’t iron a silk tie the way he wanted it ironed. Hunter is also living a fairly isolated existence. She seems to have no friends of her own because the people with whom she and Richie socialize are Richie’s friends. Image-obsessed Richie wants the world to think he has a perfect marriage.

It’s widely known that people who develop eating disorders do so because they don’t feel in control of their lives, and their eating habit is their way of trying to feel in control. Hunter’s descent into self-harm begins when she reads a book called “A Talent for Joy” by Bing Roden. (The book and author have been fabricated for this movie.) The book advises readers to try new and adventurous things.

We get the first hint that something is off with Hunter when she’s having dinner at a fancy restaurant with Richie and his snooty parents, Katherine (played by Elizabeth Marvel) and Michael (played by David Rasche), who treat their son like a prince and treat Hunter like a minor inconvenience. However, they seem to be happy that pregnant Hunter will produce an heir for their family. At the dinner, Hunter seems to get excited, perhaps sexually aroused, when she begins chewing on something uncomfortable—ice.

During the course of the movie, we find out that Richie’s parents don’t really approve of the marriage because they think he could have married someone from a better socioeconomic class. Hunter used to work as some sort of clothing retail clerk before she married Richie—something that Katherine sniffs about in hushed tones when she brings up Hunter’s past.

Meanwhile, eating that ice triggers Hunter into consuming several objects that might be too disturbing for some people to see it portrayed on screen. (There were a few people who walked out of the screening I attended, apparently because the idea of a pregnant woman doing this was just too much for them to handle.) The objects that Hunter swallows include a marble, a tack, a battery, paper, a thimble, a button, dirt and a safety pin. The fact that she’s harming her unborn child is of little concern to her, because she apparently doesn’t want to be pregnant.

It’s no surprise that Hunter ends up in the emergency room, where her secret is exposed. Richie and his parents are naturally alarmed and furious. Because she is pregnant, they’re going to do whatever it takes to get her to stop harming herself. They immediately put Hunter into therapy, where she tells her therapist Alice (played by Zabryna Guevara) why she likes to swallow inedible objects: “I like the texture in my mouth. It makes me feel in control.”

And where is Hunter’s biological family in this crisis? That’s an answer the movie reveals but it’s best not to include that spoiler information in this review. However, it is enough to say that her family background has a lot to do with her eating disorder. Even though Hunter promises Richie that she’ll stop, she can’t get rid of her eating disorder that easily. Richie and his parents then take extreme measures to get control of Hunter’s disturbing obsession, which results in Hunter confronting her past.

“Swallow” has a very small cast, which is a reflection of how small and insular Hunter’s world is. In her portrayal of this troubled soul, actress Bennett does a chilling but impressive performance as someone who seems mild-mannered on the outside but has raging self-hatred on the inside. Hunter’s repressed desperation seems to seep through her pores and linger in the air, even in moments of silence.

“Swallow” writer/director Mirabella-Davis says that the Hunter character was inspired by his real-life grandmother Edith, who was afflicted with pica. Like Hunter, Edith was a housewife who was stuck in a miserable marriage, according to Mirabella-Davis. The director also consulted with Dr. Rachel Bryant-Waugh, a leading psychology expert on pica. All of that background information makes a difference, because the movie has a level of authenticity that will make people very uncomfortable and might leave some haunting memories.

 UPDATE: IFC Films will release “Swallow” in New York City and Los Angeles and on VOD on March 6, 2020. The movie’s theatrical release expands to more U.S. cities on March 13, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival pilot episode review: ‘The Boys’

May 1, 2019

by Carla Hay

Jack Quaid and Karl Urban in "The Boys"
Jack Quaid and Karl Urban in “The Boys” (Photo by Jan Thijs)

“The Boys”

Pilot episode/Season 1, Episode 1

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 29, 2019.

Prime Video’s “The Boys” series couldn’t have come at a better time, when superhero movies have been dominating the box office, and the lead characters in the movies have legions of devoted fans around the world. “The Boys,” based on the graphic-novel series of the same name, explores what it would be like to live in a world where over-worshipped superheroes abuse their fame and power. Based on the pilot episode of “The Boys” that had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Prime Video could have its first big superhero-themed hit.

The main protagonists of “The Boys” aren’t even superheroes. They’re mere mortals who want to expose the corrupt superheroes because of personal vendettas they have against them. Hughie Campbell (played by Jack Quaid) is a mild-mannered employee of an independent electronics store in New York City. It’s the type of store that’s rapidly disappearing in a retail economy that’s killed Radio Shack. Hughie seems to have a safe and predictable life. He and his girlfriend Robin (played by Jess Salgueiro) are very much in love, and although Hughie’s job doesn’t pay too well, it’s enough for him to get by comfortably, even if he still has to live with his single father (played by Simon Pegg).

Hughie’s world turns into a nightmare when his girlfriend is killed right in front of him in a freak accident. It’s because a lightning-speed superhero named A-Train (played by Jessie T. Usher) literally runs right through her while chasing a robber, and that leads to Robin’s gruesome death. A-Train runs so fast (just like DC Comics’ The Flash) that he didn’t even notice that he killed someone until he sees the bloody aftermath, and he makes a quick excuse that he has to leave in order to keep chasing after the robber.

A devastated Hughie tries to get justice from Vought International, the mega-corporation that manages and secretly covers up for the world’s top superheroes, including an elite group called The Seven. (The Seven is written as an obvious satire of DC Comics’ supergroup Justice League.) Vought is run by Madelyn Stillwell (played by Elizabeth Shue), a ruthless executive who puts on a façade of doing what’s best for the world, while hiding superheroes’ dirty secrets. Vought offers Hughie a $45,000 settlement to not sue over Robin’s death, but he refuses. A-Train gives a half-hearted public apology, but Hughie is not convinced the apology is sincere. Hughie isn’t so mild-mannered anymore. He’s heartbroken, bitter, and out for revenge. He just doesn’t know what to do about it yet.

Meanwhile, in Des Moines, Iowa, a naïve young woman named Annie January (played by Erin Moriarty) is training to become a superhero, much like a girl would train for an event that’s a combination of an athletic competition and a beauty pageant. She’s hoping she’ll be the chosen one to replace Lamplighter, one of the superheroes who is retiring from The Seven. What happens to this young superhero will set in motion much of the action for the rest of the series. She joins The Seven under the new identity Starlight, a character clearly inspired by Supergirl.

Not long after Starlight joins The Seven, Hughie unexpectedly meets Billy Butcher (played by Karl Urban), a no-nonsense badass who crashes into Hughie’s store. Billy says that he’s part of a secret vigilante group called The Boys, whose goal is to hold law-breaking superheroes accountable for their misdeeds. Hughie wants in on the action, but Billy wants Hughie to prove himself first.

Billy tells Hughie that all of the superheroes are corrupt except Homelander (played by Antony Starr), the leader of The Seven, an alpha-male, patriotic type who has the superhero ability to fly, just like Superman. But is Homelander really a good guy or has Billy been fooled into thinking he is?

Other characters from The Seven that are introduced in this pilot episode include The Deep (played by Chace Crawford), an Aquaman-type heartthrob who’s secretly a creep abusing his power through sexual harassment; Black Noir (played by Nathan Mitchell), a mysterious silent type; Translucent (played by Alex Hassell), who can make himself invisible, similar to the DC Comics character Negative Man, and uses this ability to be a perverted Peeping Tom; and Queen Maeve (played by Dominique McElligott), a tough-but-tender alpha female, similar to Wonder Woman, who shows signs that she’s not as committed to The Seven’s corrupt ways as the rest of the group.

Translucent is not in “The Boys” comic books, so his storyline in the TV series is the least-easiest to predict. Advance teaser footage of “The Boys” shows Translucent imprisoned in a cage. The Prime Video series also has some other differences from “The Boys” comic books (which were created by writer Garth Ennis and illustrator Darick Robertson), but that spoiler information won’t be included here.

Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver, Ori Marmur, Ken F. Levin and Jason Netter are among the executive producers of “The Boys.” They previously adapted a popular graphic-novel series to television with AMC’s “Preacher.” Other executive producers of “The Boys” are Eric Kripke (“Supernatural”), Neal H. Moritz (“The Fast and the Furious” franchise) and Pavun Shetty (CBS’s “S.W.A.T.”).

Based on the pilot episode of “The Boys,” this series is going full-throttle with sex, drugs, adult language and violence. Now that Prime Video has canceled the superhero comedy series “The Tick” (which didn’t really click with audiences, after two seasons), “The Boys” can step in and fill that superhero series void with a rip-roaring abandon that’s a satirical kick in the face to superheroes who are too popular for their own good.

Prime Video will premiere the first season of “The Boys” on July 26, 2019.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Standing Up, Falling Down’

April 30, 2019

by Carla Hay

Ben Schwartz and Billy Crystal in “Standing Up, Falling Down” (Photo by Noah M. Rosenthal)

“Standing Up, Falling Down”

Directed by Matt Ratner

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

The dramedy “Standing Up, Falling Down” is an emotionally touching movie about people with regrets who are trying to fix broken relationships and past mistakes. The story’s two central characters are a struggling stand-up comedian named Scott Rollins (played by Ben Schwartz) and a hard-drinking dermatologist named Marty (played by Billy Crystal), who meet by chance in a bar on Long Island, New York, and strike up an unlikely friendship.

Scott, who is 34 and single, has recently moved back to his Long Island hometown after failing to have his career take off in Los Angeles. In a further blow to his confidence, he’s so financially strapped that he’s had to move back in with his parents, where his slacker younger sister Megan (played by Grace Gummer) also lives. Megan is less ambitious than Scott (she works at a low-paying retail job), so living with her parents doesn’t bother her as much as it does Scott.

When he meets Marty at a local bar, Scott is feeling down on his luck and sorry for himself. Marty, who is at or near retirement age, loves to do karaoke at bars and seems to have an infectious zest for life, and he gets Scott’s attention with his sarcastic sense of humor. Scott and Marty end up talking and drinking together, and it isn’t long before Marty offers to become Scott’s dermatologist. Despite their age difference, the two men become close friends, and they bond over telling wisecracking jokes. As they get to know each other, they realize that underneath the humor, they are actually two very lonely people who are disappointed with how their lives are going.

Marty is a widower who lives alone and is still grieving over the loss of his second wife. Scott is still pining for his ex-girlfriend Becky (played by Eloise Mumford), whom he had abruptly dumped when he decided to move to Los Angeles. Becky is now married to one of their mutual friends, an entertainment attorney named Owen (played by John Behlmann), who is very nice but also very dull.

When Scott and Becky run into each other by chance, and she finds out that he’s moved back to the area, Scott feels that there might still be some romantic sparks between them. He senses that Becky is not happy in her marriage, so he contemplates trying to win her back. Scott tells Marty his opinion on correcting past mistakes: “I personally think you can un-fuck something [up].”

Meanwhile, Scott’s parents Jeanie (played by Debra Monk) and Gary (played by Kevin Dunn) have different reactions to Scott moving back in with them. Jeanie is happy to dote on him like he’s still a child (something that Scott starts to resent), while Gary is a lot less patient about Scott’s career choice, and isn’t afraid to tell Scott that he should get a “real” job. As Gary tells Scott, “Why don’t you tell jokes in the office? Be that guy—the funny mailman.”

Later in the movie, when Scott randomly sees a mailman on the street, he asks the guy if he’s happy in his job. The answer might surprise people. It’s an example of “Standing Up, Falling Down” screenwriter Peter Hoare’s knack for authentic dialogue with just enough flecks of humor that the movie doesn’t veer too much into broad comedy. The only slightly false note in the movie is a sitcom-ish scene involving how Scott and Owen deal with the love-triangle issue. But it’s only a small part of the movie, which is largely about Scott and Marty’s relationship.

As the movie goes on, it’s revealed that Marty’s happy-go-lucky drunk persona masks much more serious issues. He’s a longtime, hardcore alcoholic who’s prone to dark moods and dangerous blackouts. He’s also harboring a lot of guilt over being estranged from his two adult children from his first marriage: Adam (played by Nate Corddry) and Vanessa (played by Caitlin McGee). What happened to his first marriage is revealed in the movie, and it explains why Marty doesn’t have any close family members in his support system.  On a deeper psychological level, Marty and Scott feeling inadequate and uneasy about certain aspects of their lives explains why they have become fast friends: Marty has a rocky relationship with his son, and Scott’s relationship with his father is also tense, so Marty and Scott have essentially formed a surrogate father-and-son relationship.

“Standing Up Falling Down” is director Matt Ratner’s first feature film. He makes great use of locations to show Scott’s frustration at moving back to his hometown and feeling like a failure. Everywhere Scott goes—whether it’s a local shopping mall or a comedy club where he first got his start—reminds him of a more idealistic time when he thought he was going to make it big as a comedian. The pacing of the movie also works well—just don’t expect this film’s main characters to careen from one minor catastrophe to another, such as in the type of comedies that Will Ferrell or Kevin Hart does. This story is very much told from a more realistic adult perspective.

Make no mistake—“Standing Up, Falling Down” is not a groundbreaking film or an Oscar-caliber movie. The parts in the film that are meant to be tear-jerking moments have the subtlety of a hammer, but the well-cast ensemble’s performances (not surprisingly, Crystal is the standout) make the movie appealing to watch overall.

UPDATE: Shout! Studios will release “Standing Up, Falling Down” in select U.S. theaters on February 21, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Low Tide’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Jaeden Martell and Keean Johnson in “Low Tide” (Photo courtesy of A24 Films)

“Low Tide”

Directed by Kevin McMullin

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The Jersey Shore in the dramatic thriller “Low Tide” isn’t at all like what’s portrayed in dumbed-down reality TV shows filled with argumentative, fame-hungry people who don’t want real jobs. “Low Tide” (the first feature film from writer/director Kevin McMullin, a New Jersey native) is told from the perspective of 1980s working-class teenagers, who have simmering resentment of the well-to-do people who vacation on the Jersey Shore. The locals have a name for these wealthy interlopers: “benny,” because they usually come from the nearby cities of Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York.

The local residents need the wealthy vacationers (who often have second homes on the Jersey Shore) to keep the local economy going. The money that flows in during peak season is needed during slower seasons. It’s a cycle that often keeps the working-class locals stuck in a co-dependent rut with the rich people who spend money on their goods and services.

In this environment of tension over class and wealth, three local teen rebels—Alan (played by Keean Johnson), Red (played by Alex Neustaedter) and Smitty (played Daniel Zolghadri)—commit burglaries together in unoccupied houses owned by the type of privileged people who use the Jersey Shore as a place for another home or other real-estate investments. Alan is the heartthrob of the group, Red is the bullying leader, and Smitty is the scrawny runt who’s constantly trying to prove his merits to Alan and Red.

The movie begins with the trio almost getting caught during a botched burglary. While escaping, Smitty jumps off of a roof and breaks his foot, but he’s carried to safety by his two friends. In the panicked confusion, Smitty accidentally leaves one of his shoes behind at the scene of the crime. It’s a mistake that will come back to haunt them later in the story. Smitty’s hobbling around town on crutches doesn’t go unnoticed by Sergeant Kent (played by Shea Whigham), the local cop who’s investigating the burglaries.

It’s summer, and these high schoolers have a lot of time on their hands. In between making mischief, they go to the beach, boardwalk and other local hangouts, where Alan meets and becomes attracted to a pretty teen named Mary (played by Kristine Froseth), who (somewhat predictably) happens to be in the benny crowd . Alan strikes up a budding romance with Mary, while they both try to ignore the differences in their socioeconomic status. He isn’t exactly the smartest guy in the room, so he doesn’t notice that Red is also interested in Mary—or he’s at least jealous that Alan might be accepted into a benny social circle, while the rich kids in town treat Red like a dirtbag.

Meanwhile, the police use Smitty’s lost shoe as evidence to bust him for the botched burglary. Even though Smitty has been arrested and let out on bail, he won’t snitch on his friends. Smitty’s broken foot and arrest have put the three friends’ crime spree on hold. But when they find out that a wealthy elderly recluse has died and has left behind an unoccupied house, it’s a temptation they find hard to resist.

With Smitty out of commission, Alan enlists his younger, well-behaved brother Peter (played by Jaeden Martell), who reluctantly agrees to replace Smitty as their lookout during the burglary. After breaking into the house, Peter and Alan find a bag of rare gold coins. This time, the police catch them in the act of the burglary—Alan is arrested, but Peter and Red narrowly escape from the scene of the crime in separate ways. Unbeknownst to Red, Peter has kept the bag of coins and has hidden the loot in a secluded, wooded area near the beach.

After Alan is released on bail, Peter shares his secret about the coins with Alan. The two brothers decide to lie and tell Red and Smitty that they didn’t take any valuables found at the house because they had been interrupted by the police. Alan and Peter then take a few of the coins to get appraised at a local pawn shop, and they discover (based on the estimates) that the coins are worth a total of about $100,000.

Alan is eager to sell the coins, but Peter cautions that they can’t do too much too soon with the coins, or else it will raise suspicions. They bitterly argue over how to cash in on their stolen haul and how much money should be spent. The conflict leads Peter to doubt if he can trust Alan.

Meanwhile, the police are building a case against this group of teenage thieves (in this relatively small beach city, it’s easy to know who hangs out with each other), and it isn’t long before the cops and other members of the community find out that the dead man had some valuable coins that have gone missing from his house. The rest of the movie is filled with tension over secrets, lies and betrayal, as Red and Smitty begin to wonder if Peter really has the stolen coins, and if anyone in the group will snitch about the burglaries. Red, who has a history of being a violent thug, is also seething with anger when he notices that Alan and Mary have gotten closer.

“Low Tide” isn’t a groundbreaking film—the movie’s screenplay and production use a lot of familiar tropes—but the story is elevated by the believable performances of the cast. Martell (who played Losers Club member Bill Denbrough in the 2017 horror blockbuster film “It”) is a particular standout, since he brings an intelligent sensitivity to the role. Peter is younger than the teenage boys who’ve lured him into their criminal mess, but he’s wiser and has more inner strength than they do. In that sense, “Low Tide” is also an authentic portrait of coming-of-age masculinity in a pre-Internet/pre-smartphone era when teenagers didn’t need social media to validate themselves. “Low Tide” is a crime thriller, but the movie is also a compelling look at how these boys make decisions that will have a profound effect on the type the men that they will become.

UPDATE: A24 Films will release “Low Tide” in select U.S. theaters on October 4, 2019.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Lost Transmissions’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Juno Temple and Simon Pegg in "Lost Transmissions"
Juno Temple and Simon Pegg in “Lost Transmissions” (Photo by Elizabeth Kitchens)

“Lost Transmissions”

Directed by Katharine O’Brien

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

It’s not easy to do a romantic drama about two people with mental-health issues. The story has to handle the issues in a respectful and believable manner in order not to be too offensive. But the romance in the story has to be appealing too—and that’s where “Lost Transmissions” falls short. Unfortunately, the two lead actors in the movie—Juno Temple and Simon Pegg—are frustratingly mismatched in portraying a couple who have a tumultuous relationship while they navigate their careers in the Los Angeles music industry. Temple and Pegg are very talented in other movies, but watching them trying to create chemistry together that doesn’t exist in “Lost Transmissions” is almost painful to watch.

When we first meet aspiring singer/songwriter Hannah (played by Temple) and music producer Theo Ross (played by Pegg), it’s at a house party where he’s the jolly center of attention, playing the piano, and she’s a little bit on the shy side. Theo is able to bring Hannah out of her shell a little bit by encouraging her to sing while he plays. They exchange phone numbers, and the next day, Theo calls her and invites Hannah over to his home studio, where she’s very impressed by his unique collection of musical instruments.

During their date, Hannah confides in Theo and tells him that she’s on anti-depressants, and she once tried to commit suicide by driving into a tree. Most people don’t share this kind of information on a first date, so it’s the first sign that Hannah is one of those people who’s addicted to personal chaos. Hannah says, “Sometimes I feel stuck in glue, and I feel like I might never move again.” Theo has a sympathetic ear, and he hints that he also has a troubled past, but he doesn’t go into too many details.

Theo offers to help Hannah with her music career, so he puts her in touch with a music executive named Darron (played by Robert Schwartzman), who hires Hannah to write songs for a young pop star named Dana Lee (played in a hilarious cameo by Alexandra Daddario). Dana is a social-media-conscious nymphette with multicolored hair (think Ariana Grande meets Billie Eilish at Coachella) who has more natural chemistry with Hannah than Theo does. Hannah and Dana’s budding friendship, which is so entertaining to watch, unfortunately has very little screen time in this movie. It makes you wish that a movie was made about Hannah and Dana instead of Hannah and Theo.

British actress Temple has made a career out of playing pouty, American women who find it difficult to be happy, so she’s definitely in her comfort zone here as an actress. The problem is that she’s paired with the wrong actor—and it’s not just because Pegg is known for playing mostly comedic characters. Together, Pegg  and Temple are just not convincing as a couple in love. At times, watching this movie feels like watching awkward rehearsals of a play.

Theo and Hannah continue to date, and they think that they’re in love, even though it’s obvious that they’re wrong for each other. It turns out that Theo has even darker problems than Hannah’s depression issues. On the surface, he seems to have it all together—he’s a respected musician who makes a comfortable living as a producer of indie rock acts. But in reality, Theo is actually schizophrenic—and it doesn’t help that around the time that he’s met Hannah, he’s stopped taking his medication. Theo’s mental illness is also exacerbated because he’s had a long history of taking psychedelic drugs such as LSD or mushrooms—a habit that he goes back to during his relationship with Hannah.

When he’s off his medication, there’s nothing to like about Theo. He has angry outbursts, he’s selfish, he’s unreliable, and (this is where the title of the movie comes into play) when he plays static very loud on the radio, he thinks he can hear messages in the transmissions. It’s clear that Theo is headed for a major nervous breakdown, but Hannah—like so many of the type of co-dependent women who go on TV shows like “Dr. Phil” to talk about their toxic relationships—thinks she can “fix” Theo, or at least help nurse him back to health. According to “Lost Transmissions” writer/director Katharine O’Brien, the movie is inspired by real-life experiences that she went through with a male friend who was schizophrenic. Let’s hope that she handled it better than Hannah does in this movie.

When Theo’s mental deterioration leads him to be evicted from his home, none of his longtime, close friends want to take him in, because they say that they’re too busy with other commitments. (Red flags right there.) Hannah, who hasn’t been dating Theo for very long, ignores these warning signs and agrees to let Theo move in with her instead of immediately getting him professional help. Making that kind of bad decision in the name of love might be understandable if Theo treated Hannah better, but the sweet-natured Theo that Hannah met at the party is long gone.

Hannah doesn’t deserve much sympathy here because she makes excuses for Theo’s horrific behavior. There’s a scene in the movie that is an example of this destructive enabling: Theo, Hannah and one of Theo’s pregnant friends are passengers in a car when Theo, in a fit of rage, lunges at the driver and tries to get the driver to run off the road, which could have caused a serious accident. Eventually, the driver takes control of the car, and they pull over on the side of the road. The pregnant woman is understandably furious, and tells Theo that he’s “dangerous.” Hannah protests and says that Theo is just “scared.”

When Theo’s behavior gets worse, and Hannah finally decides that he needs to be in a professional facility, Theo inevitably ends up in a psych ward. But Hannah (who’s obviously not qualified to give medical advice to Theo) continues to be part of the problem when she tells Theo that he can “outsmart” his schizophrenia. Then the movie veers into a subplot where Hannah tries to get Theo to go back to his native London and make amends with his estranged father. At this point in the story, you’ve stopped caring about this badly mismatched couple, and you can’t wait for the movie to be over so that you don’t have to ever see them again. If the person who inspired the Theo character had this kind of relationship in real life, let’s hope that they’ve broken up and stayed away from each other, for the sake of everyone’s sanity.

UPDATE: Gravitas Ventures will release “Lost Transmissions” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on March 13, 2020. 

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Dreamland’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Margot Robbie and Finn Cole in "Dreamland"
Margot Robbie and Finn Cole in “Dreamland” (Photo by Ursula Coyote)

 

“Dreamland”

Directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The first thing that you might notice about the dramatic film “Dreamland” is that Margot Robbie plays a character that’s similar to bank robber Bonnie Parker of Bonnie & Clyde fame. The movie takes place in Texas in the 1930s, during the Dust Bowl drought era and when the Great Depression wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy. It’s also when the real-life Bonnie & Clyde became famous outlaws for their bank robberies and murders. But even though Robbie’s Allison Wells character in “Dreamland” is clearly inspired by the real-life Bonnie Parker, this movie isn’t really about Allison’s crime spree. It’s more about the effect that she has on a naïve young man in his late teens named Eugene Evans (played by Finn Cole), after she convinces him to let her hide out on his family farm.

“Dreamland,” which takes place in 1935, is narrated by Eugene’s younger sister Phoebe (played by Darby Camp), who tells the story in voiceover as an adult 20 years later. (Lola Kirke is the voice of the adult Phoebe.) The family has gone through some hard times, even before the Great Depression. Eugene’s biological father, Don Baker, mysteriously disappeared when Eugene was still a very young child, and Don is presumed dead. Eugene’s mother, Olivia (played by Kerry Condon), doesn’t really like to talk about Don. As a child, Eugene is haunted by the idea that his father isn’t really dead but is really still alive and living in Mexico. Eugene dreams of eventually finding Don and reuniting with him. But the sad look in Olivia’s eyes tells viewers that Eugene’s father has abandoned them, and if he’s still alive, he’s not coming back into their lives.

Olivia eventually remarries. Her second husband is a police officer named George “Buck” Evans (played by Travis Fimmel), who adopts Eugene. The couple’s daughter is Phoebe, who’s about 10 years younger than Eugene. She’s a curious and intelligent child who admires her older brother for his kindness but worries that people will take advantage of his gullible nature. Buck rises through the ranks of the police force, and he’s a deputy sheriff at the time that Allison commits the Guthrie Plains bank robbery that has resulted in the deaths of multiple people, including her lover/partner in crime Perry Montroy, a Clyde Barrow-like character. Perry (played by Garrett Hedlund) and the deadly bank robbery are seen in brief flashbacks.

When Eugene first encounters Allison, he’s found her hiding in a barn on the Evans family property. She’s wounded from a gunshot in her leg, and Eugene helps her remove the bullet. Her fugitive status is all over the news, and there’s a $10,000 reward to anyone who captures her. But Eugene is instantly smitten by Allison’s beauty and seductive charm.

Eugene doesn’t think Allison is as bad as the police say she is because Allison has told him that although she was involved in the bank robbery, she wasn’t involved in the death of the young girl who was an innocent bystander killed during the robbery. Allison tells Eugene that the police have inaccurately described the death as a murder, but Allison says the death happened accidentally when a stray bullet hit the girl.

Allison also offers Eugene $20,000 to hide her and to help her escape after she’s had some time to heal from her bullet wound. It’s a proposition that Eugene accepts with not much hesitation because he and his stepfather Buck don’t really get along—and more importantly to Eugene, he starts to think that he and Allison can run away together to Mexico, where he can reunite with his father, and they can all live happily ever after.

Eugene, who’s in charge of taking care of the family farm, knows it won’t be that hard to hide Allison since Buck is a workaholic who doesn’t spend much time at home anyway. And besides, no one would suspect that Allison would be hiding out at the home of one of the law-enforcement officers tasked with finding her. It isn’t long before Eugene takes another big risk for Allison—he breaks into the police station at night, steals evidence about the robbery, and burns it. When a police officer at the station sees Eugene in the office where the evidence is, Eugene hurriedly makes up a lie and says that he’s there to get police files for Buck.

There’s a close call when inquisitive Phoebe almost finds Allison in the barn, but Eugene is able to steer her away just in time. But that tactic can only work for so long. Phoebe finds out about Eugene’s secret, but he convinces her not to tell anyone. Buck’s suspicions about Eugene are also raised when Buck gets blamed for the missing evidence, and he finds out about Eugene’s late-night visit to the police station.

Amid all of this family tension, a terrible dust storm hits the area, causing destruction on what became known as Black Sunday. The cinematography of “Dreamland” (from cinematographer Lyle Vincent) is one of the best things about the movie, and the visuals during this storm are especially stunning.

“Dreamland” director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte skillfully uses techniques that show the subtle artistry of someone who can tell a story with what you don’t see on camera as much as what you do see. For example, a pivotal seduction scene with Allison and the virginal Eugene shows that Allison and Eugene are talking in an intimate moment where Eugene is doubting that he made the right decision to help Allison, and he’s almost afraid to touch her. She can be heard but not seen for much of the scene, as the camera lingers on Eugene to show the effect that she is having on him. Some directors would have made the obvious choice to focus the camera on Robbie’s beauty, but the scene demonstrates how dialogue can be more powerful in seduction than someone’s physical appearance.

Robbie, who is one of the producers of “Dreamland,” does a very good job of playing the morally ambiguous Allison, but she doesn’t have as much screen time in the movie as people might think she does. Allison and Eugene don’t spend a lot of time together on screen. It’s a testament to the power of Allison’s manipulation, because Eugene takes a lot of risks for Allison without the reward of being with her in a normal, happy romance that he wants them to have. Eugene is the heart and soul of the movie, and Cole convincingly plays him not as a fool but as someone who thinks doing anything for true love will justify whatever it takes to get it.

The pacing in “Dreamland” is a little slow in some areas, but the third act of the movie makes up for it, as the hunt for Allison takes an intense turn where hard choices are made and people’s true characters are put to the test. But just to be clear: Most of “Dreamland” isn’t about chase scenes between cops and robbers. It’s about what can happen when people steal things more valuable than money—hearts and trust.

UPDATE: Paramount Pictures will release “Dreamland” in select U.S. cinemas on November 13, 2020, and on digital and VOD on November 17, 2020. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is January 19, 2021.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Burning Cane’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Wendell Pierce  in "Burning Cane"
Wendell Pierce  in “Burning Cane” (Photo by Phillip Youmans)

“Burning Cane”

Directed by Phillip Youmans

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

Stepping into the emotionally intense world of “Burning Cane” is like being stuck in blistering heat in rural Laurel Valley, Louisiana, where the movie takes place. Things move a little slower, modern conveniences are a little harder to get, and people’s dreams have become a little more tarnished by poverty and hopelessness. In other words, be prepared feel to a lot of discomfort in the atmosphere of people trying to hold on to some dignity as they slog through life’s miseries and cruelties.

The movie opens with Helen Wayne (played by Karen Kaia Liver), a middle-aged mother, listing all the home remedies that she’s tried to get rid of the rashes that her beloved dog JoJo has, but none of the remedies has worked so far. (One of the remedies is sugar cane; hence, the title of the movie.) Helen walks with the kind of world-weary limp that shows she’s carrying a lot of emotional baggage that goes beyond her physical challenges. In a conversation between Helen and her son Daniel (played by Dominique McClellan), we find out that Daniel’s father died of AIDS, but it’s a secret that Daniel finds hard to accept.

It’s not long before we see that Daniel is causing a lot of Helen’s emotional pain. He’s a chronically unemployed alcoholic, and she worries about his well-being and how he’s going to take care of his pre-teen son Jeremiah (played by Braelyn Kelly). Helen isn’t the only one disappointed in Daniel—his wife Sherry Bland (played by E’myri Crutchfield) is becoming increasingly fed-up with him and his inability to financially provide for their family. It’s implied but not shown that when Daniel and Sherry get into arguments, it’s not uncommon for him to hit her.

For many people in the town, the local Baptist church is a symbol of hope and salvation. It’s no wonder that the town’s residents look to the church’s Rev. Pastor Joseph Tillman (played by Wendell Pierce) as their personal savior. His rousing sermons with copious quotes from the Bible serve as beacons of faith in a world that’s often clouded by the murky uncertainties of life.

Pastor Tillman says all the right words to his poverty-stricken congregation. In one sermon, he aims harsh criticism at a famous Malcom Forbes quote: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Pastor Tillman counters that belief by telling his parishioners: “We must invest in love … God is the most important relationship in your life.”

These are words that Helen takes to heart, and it’s clear that she—like many others in the church—have placed Pastor Tillman on a pedestal. Pastor Tillman, who is a lonely widower, is also considered somewhat of a catch to the single ladies in town.

“Burning Cane” writer/director Phillip Youmans (who also the movie’s cinematographer and editor) effectively uses moody cinematography to convey these two worlds: the church is brightly lit and welcoming, while the homes of Helen and Daniel are dark and depressing. (“Burning Cane” is set sometime in the late 1990s/early 2000s, before the proliferation of smartphones, and when people could still reasonably use rotary phones, as the Waynes do in this story.)

Pastor Tillman has a secret that’s become increasingly difficult to hide: He’s an alcoholic with a history of domestic violence. In one scene, he drunkenly confesses that he beat his wife during an argument. In another scene, he pushes a parishioner away when she tries to stop him from driving drunk. When he’s found passed out in his car in a drunken stupor, the only person whom he tells police to call is Helen.

After Helen finds out about Pastor Tillman’s personal demons, she’s somewhat in denial and conflicted over how to handle it. But once Helen sees the cracks of Pastor Tillman’s façade, it triggers a feeling of disillusionment that influences her actions for the rest of the story. By using hand-held cameras and not having a musical score for most of the film, director Youmans infuses a sense of realism, while keeping a fever-dream-like quality to the pacing of the film, where the dialogue sometimes wanders like a rambling poet.

The main criticism that people might have about “Burning Cane,” whose entire cast is African American, is that all the men in the movie are written as disturbed individuals and/or disappointments. Meanwhile, the women are the “responsible” ones who have to clean up the men’s messes. (Even Helen’s late husband, who’s not shown in the movie, was someone who committed domestic violence against her, according to what Helen says in one scene. The only things we hear about her dead husband are negative.) “Burning Cane” would have benefited from having a little more variety in how the men and women were written instead of relying on somewhat offensive clichés of African American men.

However, “Burning Cane” overall is a well-crafted movie when it comes to cinematography and editing—indications that Youmans has a knack for how a story should look on screen. “Burning Cane” is his first feature film, so it will be interesting to see what he does in the future.

UPDATE: Array Releasing will release “Burning Cane” in New York City on October 25, 2019, and in Los Angeles on November 8, 2019. Netflix will release the movie on November 6, 2019.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘The Short History of the Long Road’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Sabrina Carpenter in “The Short History of the Long Road” (Photo by Cailin Yatsko)

“The Short History of the Long Road

Directed by Ani Simon-Kennedy

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

There comes a point in any career of a Disney Channel or Nickelodeon star who wants to transition from “teen idol” to “serious artist” that he or she takes on a gritty role so that people will change their perception of them as just another pretty face. Sabrina Carpenter, a singer/actress who has done several Disney Channel projects, has chosen her first such transitional role in the emotional drama “The Short History of the Long Road.” In the movie, she plays a homeless teen named Nola Frankel, who is searching for her long-lost mother, who abandoned Nola as a baby.

In the beginning of the story, Nola is living out of a motorhome van with her father Clint (played by Steven Ogg), an over-protective, paranoid vagrant who thinks that settling down in one place and living among society are dangerous for the soul. Although Clint and Nola don’t live completely off the grid (he makes money by doing odd jobs, such as repairs), he has some quirky habits that have affected Nola’s outlook on life. One of those habits is whenever he and Nola see a movie in a theater or on TV, he won’t let her watch the movie’s ending. We find out early on in this story that Nola’s mother leaving the family has a lot to do with why Clint is raising Nola in a nomadic existence. Nola doesn’t know any other life, since she was raised that way since she was a toddler, and Clint is very reluctant to tell her details about her mother.

Although some people might think this movie is similar to the 2018 film “Leave No Trace” (another grim story about a homeless, paranoid father raising his teenage daughter outside of the norms of society), “The Short History of the Long Road” is not the same kind of movie because it’s not as depressing as “Leave No Trace.” For starters, Clint is the kind of parent who has a sense of adventure, and he doesn’t want to hide his daughter from the world, whereas the father in “Leave No Trace” wants to live in such extreme seclusion in the woods to the point where people can’t find him and his daughter. Although Clint doesn’t trust the school system, he’s educated Nola and passed on a love of books to his daughter—they often go to libraries in their travels—and he has no problems interacting with people in a friendly manner when he needs to make money. Clint also doesn’t keep Nola isolated, since they go to restaurants, stores and movie theaters.

Still, the mystery over what happened to Nola’s mother is starting to weigh on Nola, and Clint’s vague answers (“she zigged while we zagged”) aren’t going to satisfy her any longer. The only thing that Clint will tell her is that when he and Nola’s mother were a couple, they used to own a bar together, and she left Clint and Nola shortly after Nola was born. Clint promises he’ll tell Nola more about her mother when they get to New Orleans (Nola was named after the city’s nickname), but before they get there, something happens to Clint in the first third of the movie that leaves Nola on her own.

Nola is self-sufficient enough to know how to drive a car (even though she doesn’t have a license) and she can make basic repairs, but as a teenage girl, it’s harder for her than it was for her father to get people to hire her for odd jobs. In addition to dealing with the stress of being homeless, alone, and trying to get money legally, Nola has to dodge anyone who might turn her in to child welfare authorities if they find out she’s under 18. She also still has the goal to find her mother.

Although Carpenter is fairly convincing as a distressed teen and brings a certain plucky spirit to the role, what isn’t entirely convincing is how the movie’s screenplay (which was written by director Ani Simon-Kennedy) glosses over some very serious issues of what life would really be like for a teenage girl in Nola’s situation. Nola has to be the luckiest homeless teenage girl in the U.S., because not once does she have anyone try to take advantage of her.

Yes, Nola gets into some uncomfortable situations where she has to contemplate whether or not she’s going to steal in order to eat, but somehow she gets enough money for gas to travel from state to state. Not once is she ever robbed, conned or enticed into criminal activities by people who see that she’s desperate for cash. We don’t know if Clint ever taught Nola any physical self-defense skills because she doesn’t need to defend herself from that kind of harm in this story. Even with the protection of living in a van, she gets into some dicey situations where, if this were the real world, it would be very unlikely that she would walk away unscathed.

For example, in one part of the movie, Nola ends up crashing at an empty house that appears to be unoccupied because the house is in foreclosure. When a rowdy bunch of young male skateboarders enter the house to skate in the empty swimming pool, there’s some initial tension between the skateboarders and Nola, but then the skateboarders invite Nola to party with them in the house. Here’s a young, attractive female in a group of intoxicated, rebellious guys who know she’s homeless and on her own, so it’s kind of unbelievable that none of them would try to make any moves on her.

And her luck continues throughout the story: When Nola (who looks underage and doesn’t have a fake ID) gets caught sleeping in her van late at night in a parking lot, a security guard just shoos her away, even though she’s obviously an underage child out past curfew time. When she tries to steal gas from a recreational vehicle camper owned by a senior citizen, he catches her in the act, but goes easy on her by sending her off with just a warning instead of calling the police. The entire time that she’s traveling, when it’s obvious she’s on her own, she doesn’t have creepy guys offering to “help her out,” even though in real life we all know this would happen to her.

At a convenience store, a female customer named Marcie (played by Rusty Schwimmer) figures out that Nola is homeless, and invites her to eat at a church’s soup kitchen where Marcie happens to be a volunteer. When Marcie gains Nola’s trust, she later invites Nola to live with her, her husband and the other foster kids they are raising. Nola doesn’t stay for long—Marcie is a little too strict and a little too religious for Nola—because Nola is really on a mission to find her mother.

At another point in the story, Nola’s van (which is nicknamed The Hulk) breaks down, and needs repairs that Nola can’t afford to pay. So, she convinces the owner of an auto body shop, a tough-but-tender taskmaster named Miguel (played by Danny Trejo), to let her work for him in order to pay off the cost of the repairs. It isn’t long before Miguel lets Nola live rent-free at the body shop. While she lives and works at Miguel’s body shop, Nola notices a Navajo Indian teenage girl close to her age named Blue (played by Jashaun St. John), who keeps hanging around. Nola and Blue strike up a tentative friendship, and Blue reveals that she doesn’t like to be at home because her widowed father is abusing her. Blue dreams of escaping from her father by moving in with an aunt, who has invited Blue to live with her on a reservation.

It would be too much of a spoiler to reveal if Nola ever finds her mother. Getting the answer to that mystery is one of the main reasons why “The Short History of the Long Road” is more engaging than it should be, considering the movie’s sanitized portrayal of being a homeless teenage girl. Carpenter does as good of a job as she can with the script that she’s been given. This movie didn’t need to have any big, histrionic moments or non-stop mayhem. In fact, Carpenter’s adept portrayal of Nola’s quiet desperation is one of the best things about the film. However, a little more realism about the dangers of being a homeless teenage girl traveling alone across the country would have gone a long way in improving this story.

UPDATE: FilmRise will release “The Short History of the Long Road” in select U.S. theaters on June 12, 2020, and on digital and VOD on June 16, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Two/One’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Two/One
Boyd Holbrook in “Two/One”

“Two/One”

Directed by Juan Cabral

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

Two strangers share an unknown connection until they have a chance meeting that reveals how they are linked. It’s not a new concept for a movie, but the drama “Two/One” attempts to bring a unique twist to the concept: Someone’s life is another person’s dream. Unfortunately, this first feature film from writer/director Juan Cabral has a premise that is so deeply flawed that it goes beyond a logical suspension of belief that you sometimes have to have for a fictional story.

The first three-quarters of the movie alternate between two men who don’t know each other: Kaden (played by Boyd Holbrook) is a professional ski jumper who lives in Canada. Khai (played by Song Yang) is a business executive who lives in China. Both men are so consumed by their work that their love lives have taken a back seat to their careers. Kaden’s family has also become fractured, as his adulterous father Alfred (played by Beau Bridges) has announced that he’s left his longtime wife, Kaden’s mother Olina (played by Marilyn Norry), because he’s become tired of the marriage. Even though Kaden’s father is selfish and insensitive, Kaden still seeks his father’s approval, which is an issue that Khai has with his own father.

Both Khai and Kaden are emotionally closed off, but love unexpectedly enters their lives. With Kaden, he has a chance encounter with a long-lost love named Martha (played by Dominique McElligott), who is now married and has a child with another man. Khai’s love interest is Jia (played by Zhu Zhu), a young woman he first saw in nude videos posted on the Internet, and she unexpectedly becomes his co-worker at the office. Khai and Jia have a whirlwind romance, and not long after they begin dating, she moves into his apartment. But their relationship hits a major speed bump when Khai finds out that Jia is a victim of revenge porn, and he has difficulty coping with it. It’s easy to see that Khai and Kaden have control issues when it comes to their romantic partners, whom they view somewhat as damsels in distress who need rescuing.

People watching this film who don’t know that it’s supposed to reveal the connection between Kaden and Khai will be left wondering during most of the movie, “Where exactly is this going?” When the big reveal happens, people in the movie have suffered serious injuries because of the connection that Kaden and Khai have. “Two/One” is so ambitious in its concept that it overlooks the major plot holes that ensue when the two characters finally meet. If the idea had been written more skillfully, then the issue of narcolepsy and other sleep disorders would have had more of a wide-reaching effect on the characters in the movie. Because “Two/One” takes such a slow-paced, long-winded approach to get to the big reveal, it wouldn’t be surprising if some people watching this movie will fall asleep out of sheer boredom.

UPDATE: Gravitas Ventures will release “2/1” (previously spelled “Two/One”) in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on February 7, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘The Kill Team’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgård in "The Kill Team"
Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgård in “The Kill Team” (Photo by Manolo Pavon/A24)

“The Kill Team”

Directed by Dan Krauss

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

In 2013, “The Kill Team” (directed by Dan Krauss) won the Tribeca Film Festival jury prize for Best Documentary Feature for its chilling chronicle of the Maywand District murders scandal, in which members of the U.S. Army were arrested in 2010 for murdering unarmed, innocent civilians during the war in Afghanistan. Krauss has revisited the story—this time, by writing and directing the dramatic, scripted film also titled “The Kill Team,” which is based on real-life events but using fictional names of the real people involved. Whereas the documentary (which was released by The Orchard in 2014) spends a lot of time explaining why this tragedy happened, the scripted feature film does something even more disturbing: It shows how it happened in the first place.

“The Kill Team” documentary, which includes interviews with several of the soldiers involved, takes place entirely after the arrests of the soldiers. The documentary is set not in a combat zone, but in the type of conference rooms and offices where defense attorneys or therapists meet with their clients, as the defendants prepare for their cases to be resolved. The “Kill Team” scripted feature film takes place almost entirely before the arrests, and brings the viewers directly into the environment that created the horrific “Kill Team” mentality to murder people for thrills.

The main protagonist in both films is the young specialist who enters the Army as a wide-eyed, eager-to-please rookie and leaves the Army as a disillusioned, broken man wracked with guilt over his participation in the murders. In real life, that man is Adam Winfield, whose name has been changed to Andrew Briggman in “The Kill Team” scripted film. In the beginning of the movie, Andrew (played by Nat Wolff) is excited and proud to join the Army, since his father is an Army vet who served honorably.

Andrew has a close relationship with his loving parents, William and Laura (played by Rob Morrow and Anna Francolini)—and it’s a relationship that plays a pivotal part later on in the story. However, Andrew is in for a rude awakening when he leaves the supportive cocoon of his middle-class family and goes off to war in Afghanistan. Early on, Andrew experiences the brutality of war when he and other squad members witness their squad leader being killed by an improvised explosive device (IED). In addition, several of the other soldiers in his squad initially give Andrew a hard time—they think because of his scrawny physique that he’s a nerdy wimp who’s not cut out for combat.

Andrew and his college-age peers essentially have a fraternity-like existence, with each member jockeying for position and testing boundaries when it comes to egos, power and respect. They argue, but they also party together (smoking hashish is one of their preferred leisure activities), and they have varying degrees of expectations on how much violence they’ll commit while they’re on active duty.

The stakes in the team’s power plays get higher when the squad gets a new staff sergeant named Sergeant Deeks (played by Alexander Skarsgård), who is charismatic but extremely manipulative. He does what most toxic leaders do: He pits his subordinates against each other so that they can prove who is the most loyal to him, and those who “win,” get the most rewards and benefits from him. Deeks (who is based on the real-life Calvin Gibbs) makes it known to his squad that he’s looking for a trusted right-hand man, which sets off a competition to see who’s the toughest of the bunch to get that position. Andrew is eager to prove himself worthy of being Deeks’ second-in-command, and he surpasses Deeks’ expectations by fulfilling increasingly violent tasks that Deeks orders him to do.

The other members of the squad—including Rayburn (played by Adam Long), Coombs (played by Jonathan Whitsell), Marquez (played by Brian Marc), Weppler (played by Osy Ikhile) and Cappy (played by Oliver Ritchie)—join in on the mayhem, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and reluctance. Coombs in particular has an almost joyful zest in the violence that he causes, because he thinks war should be about “kicking ass,” and he thinks it’s boring for soldiers to have duties such as patrolling areas and protecting civilians.

On the surface, Deeks appears to be an accomplished and upstanding military man—he lovingly checks in on his wife and young son back home via Skype chats—but it’s a façade that masks a sadistic criminal who likes to kill for fun, and he has a total disregard for the law and U.S. military policies. The first sign of Deeks’ corruption is when he catches his subordinates smoking hash, but instead of reporting this punishable offense, he tells them that what they’re doing is wrong because he knows where they can get better-quality hash.

It isn’t long before Deeks lets his young subordinates in on some of his secrets: He’s gotten away with an untold number of murders in Iraq and Afghanistan, simply by lying and saying that the people attacked first and were killed because of self-defense. In many of the cases, Deeks admitted to planting weapons on the victims (which is called a “drop weapon” technique) to further perpetuate the lie that the killings were justified. Deeks has also kept body parts (such as fingers) of many of his victims, and he likes to pose for pictures next to their dead bodies, much like a hunter poses for photos with dead prey.

Some of Deeks’ subordinates are all too eager to join him on his murder sprees, if it means that they can rise through the military ranks with Deeks as their mentor. They call themselves “The Kill Team,” and become a twisted fraternity of soldiers looking for unarmed victims to murder, under the guise of being good military men who are eliminating the enemy at war. When some of the squad members show signs of guilt, they’re threatened by Deeks to keep silent, or else he’ll make sure they’ll be beaten up or killed. After all, Deeks has shown that he’s capable of not only committing these crimes but also covering them up and making the victims look like the aggressors. Deeks’ subordinates are isolated, far from home, and under the command of a dangerous and powerful leader, so it’s easy to see why they went along with his heinous actions in order to protect themselves.

We’ve seen villains in many war movies before—the Oscar-winning classics “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” for example, each features a corrupt leader who fits the mold of the gruff, scowling bully instilling fear in his subordinates. What makes “The Kill Team” villain Deeks even more insidious is that his dominance isn’t all by brute force—he barks commands, but he also presents himself as a smiling, older brother to be admired and whose approval is a reward that his subordinates are desperate to get, even if it means that their morality gets stifled or snuffed out in the process.

Deeks’ physical presence—tall, blue-eyed good looks, as embodied by Skarsgård—also has a lot to do with his powerful influence, because he fits many people’s image of an American military hero. Skarsgård brings complexity to the role by portraying Deeks as loathsome but also with a self-righteous magnetism that makes it convincing that he could manipulate other people into thinking what he wants them to think. The merits of this film are largely centered on authentically explaining how someone like Deeks could get away with so much horrific destruction—and Skarsgård successfully rises to the challenge. The Andrew Briggman character is less complex and more transparent than Deeks, but Wolff effectively portrays the morality crisis and emotional turmoil of a soldier whose world is turned upside down by the horrors of war and corrupted values.

Krauss and his team did a terrific job of recreating not only the Afghanistan war zones (the movie was actually filmed in Spain) but also the military weapons and automobiles (which were actually digital effects) that were shown in the movie. Although many people already know the real-life outcomes of the Maywand District scandal, Krauss builds a level of suspense and emotional tension that will leave an impact on viewers and serve as a painful reminder that serial killing in the context of war is an issue that will never be fully erased.

UPDATE: A24 Films will release “The Kill Team” in select U.S. theaters and on VOD on October 25, 2019.

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