Preview, Young Love in the “Sugar Baby” era — “The New Romantic”

Jessica Barden writes a “sex column with no sex,” a hopeless romantic nostalgic for “romantic comedies of the ’90s” (Seriously?), picky, about to be unemployed.

Then she discovers the Sugardaddy/Sugarbaby phenomenon — a re-branding for the #MeToo era of young woman who let themselves be “kept” by well-off older men.

Eww. And yeah, it happens. Read what’s left of the classifieds of any surviving alt-weekly.

Carly Stone, a writer for TV’s “Kim’s Convenience,” co-wrote and directed this comedy about love in an age of “practicality.” “The New Romantic” is finishing it s circuit of film festivals and headed our way soon.

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Preview, Tiffany Haddish’s “The Oath” looks even darker in its third trailer

A politically charged comedy from producers who have “Get Out” in their credits, families divided by politics and the holidays, that’s “The Oath.” 

Tiffany’s character is married to Ike Barinholtz, Nora Dunn’s his mom and John Cho is a friend caught up in the mayhem of American families divided by Trumpis.

Damn.

Yeah they’re rolling this out, pre-Election Day (Oct. 12).

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Movie Review: “The Song of Sway Lake”

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“It’s the crackle I love,” the record collector narrates to his son, who shares his passion. “We can disappear into it.”

That’s where “The Song of Sway Lake” lives — an elegiac, playful wallow in the crackle of pre-vinyl shellac nostalgia, summer romance and lost glory.

Bit actor and sometime director Ari Gold and his co-writer/collaborator Elizabeth Bull conjure up a warm, wistful movie about nostalgia itself — its traps, and its rewards.

Sway Lake once belonged to the Sway family. Wife Charlie and piano playing war hero Hal kept it as an exclusive resort for the famous and well-heeled. It even spawned a Swing Era pop hit.

But Hal died and the land around the lake slipped away. By 1992, development and Jetskis were pushing in on Crane Point Lodge, and depressed heir Tim Sway (Jason Brill) drowned himself in the lake that winter.

By the time summer arrives, all that’s left to do is sell the place. Tim’s record-hoarding son Oliver (Rory Culkin) and his fellow “vagabond” Nikolai (Robert Sheehan of “Geostorm”) drift in so that Ollie can find that crisp, unopened one-off pressing of the original 78 rpm record of “Sway Lake,” sung by its composer. He plans to steal it and keep this “record that cannot be sold at any price.”

“Both believe that stealing is moral when it’s in the name of love,” or so we’re told.

The guys rummage through a record-hoarder’s paradise, and cheerfully ransack the place as they do (plenty of alcohol is on hand). But as they search, in vain, for the valuable 78, they feud with the develop-or-die locals, Ollie is smitten by Isadora (Isabelle McNally), “the girl with the purple hair,” and his widowed grandmother (Mary Beth Peil of “Dawson’s Creek” and “The Good Wife”) and her long-suffering housekeeper (Elizabeth Peña) show up.

That complicates the hunt for the record they want to steal and sends Nikolai into a swooning reverie for all things Sway.

Nikolai is what we call “A Screenwriter’s Russian” — all poetic impulsiveness, pranks and free-spirited nudity and manly pursuits — fist fighting, motors and “qvality vomen!”

“He’s excitable,” Ollie explains. “There’s a lot of freedom here.”

“Americans would rather organize music than hear it,” Nikolai philosophizes. “In Russia, we dance!”

Lost in Hal’s World War II letters, Nikolai plots Ollie’s approach to a party like a military campaign.

“You take right flank. I come in from left.”

This really isn’t a war

That’s where you’re wrong.”

Culkin’s Ollie is a greasy-haired drifter with acne. I suppose he has his charm, and his thing for old music can be catnip to the ladies. But you do wonder what the lovely “I was named for the dancer Isadora Duncan” would see in him other than his legendarily rich surname.

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“Song of Sway Lake” paddles along on vintage recordings by The Mills Brothers, and songs like “Yellow Bird” and “Begin the Beguine” covered by more recent artists. Director Gold is taking his own script’s advice — “When words fail, music. When music fails, silence.”

Romantic images of the Sways, back in their heydays, skinny dipping in the lake that bears their name are woven in, along with poetic love letters they exchanged during the war (Brian Dennehy voices Hal’s letters).

A prologue cut together from old vacation promotion films engagingly delivers the history of the place, and the omnipresent old 78s — Ollie’s last connection to his father (whom he talks to) — casts a spell, in ways it hasn’t in recent decades of similarly scored Woody Allen comedies.

“Hey dad. I met a girl. What song should I play her?”

“What do ugly guys like us know about love?”

Way back when, then and now, knowing the right song to play could give an “ugly” guy the ticket to the stars.

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MPAA Rating: R for language, graphic nudity and some sexual content

Cast: Rory Culkin, Robert Sheehan, Isabelle McNally, Mary Beth Piel, Elizabeth Peña, Brian Dennehy

Credits:Directed by Ari Gold, script by Elizabeth Bull, Ari Gold. An Orchard release.

Running time: 1:35

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Preview, Coogan & Reilly, “Stan & Ollie”

Good casting. Not perfect, but good. A David Hyde Pierce/Oliver Platt (or John Goodman) pairing 20 years ago might have been more on the nose.

Does the world remember Laurel and Hardy? Aside from film buffs?’

Because this one looks sweet, conventional and funny. Made me tear up a little.

“Stan and Ollie” opens in Britain in Jan.

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Netflixable? “Stephanie” can’t keep her secret

 

 

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“Stephanie” begins as a supernatural mystery, flirts with “Quiet Ones” thrills and fizzles into the sentimental, enervated horror that is exactly what we expected — only more boring — in those opening scenes.

The fact that it barely saw theatrical release could drive a stake in the heart of the directing ambitions of Oscar winning screenwriter (“A Beautiful Mind”), producer and aspiring director Akiva Goldsman (“Winter’s Tale”). The fact that it barely deserved release just shows the studio was paying attention.

We meet Stephanie as a little girl  (Shree Crooks) alone, — latchkey or abandoned, she’s all by herself in a big suburban two-story. She chatters to her constant companion, Frances, a stuffed turtle — redecorates at will, with crayons, feeds her pet bunny tomato sauce, practices her profanity because there’s nobody around to correct it — and copes.

Is anybody coming for her? We’re getting a child’s eye view of terror and trauma, coping by denial, by getting used to whatever is “out in trees” that is sure to “get” her.

Life is a cascading parade of accidents waiting to happen, drawing its suspense from “What will this little dickens get into next?” Climbing on shelves, dropping jars on the floor, jamming up a plugged-in blender which she, being 7 or so, attempts to free by sticking her hand in the thing.

And there are growls from outside and the walls ripple with life.

“Go’way, please go away!”

Something about this child isn’t right, and it’s not just that she’s the only kid her age on Planet Earth watching and re-watching “The Tale of Despereaux” on TV. Something happened “out there,” which we see glimpsed on other TV channels. There’s still power and cable, but words like “Quarantine” flash on the screen.

And there’s something upstairs that only deepens the mystery, a corpse. In the night, when she’s not hiding from whatever is outside by crawling into the tub or under the bed, she talks to the dead body.

Then, miracle of miracles, Mom and Dad (Anna Torv and grizzled Frank Grillo) return. She’s saved, back in their loving arms but still oddly detached as she halfhearted readjusts to life with adult supervision.

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“You used to say ‘There’s no such thing as monsters,” she complains to Mom.

“I know. I’m sorry.”

They do that a lot — apologize.

Goldsman does his best to disguise what’s happening and what’s coming, looking for suspense in the dark of night, seeking tension in a heaping helping of extreme closeups, relying on the title character to engender sympathy, for us to fear for her, and for the audience to have forgotten the famous “Twilight Zone” episode that this, like so many other horror tales, is cribbed from.

Our Miss Crooks may look angelic, but something about her suggests a creepy confidence about the dangerous world she inhabits. That undercuts any suspense we’d feel or fear we have for her future.

Well, that and the film’s title.

Grillo and Torv give fair value, playing parents ruled by responsibility and loyalty, but also fear and dread. Can they cope with whatever is after them or whatever the untroubled Stephanie has become in their absence?

So much here depends on twists that are no twists at all that Goldsman is hamstrung by a screenplay even he should have seen was unfilmmable, or needed doctoring.

Only stunning luck in casting the kid might have saved him, and finding the next Jodie Foster or Haley Joel Osment only happens once a generation. Casting a kid who can manage shades of creepy, even in her sweetest moments, doesn’t disguise anything.

“Stephanie” simply toddles along, intriguing for 20 minutes, exciting for three or four, and dull the remaining 60 minutes of its tedious, been-there/saw-that-coming running time.

1half-star

Rating: R for some horror violence

Cast: Frank Grillo, Shree Crooks, Anna Torv

Credits:Directed by Akiva Goldsman, script by Ben CollinsLuke Piotrowski . A Universal release.

Running time: 1:26

 

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Movie Review: Not even a life without pain is “Painless”

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“Painless” is a thoughtful, lightly-affecting drama about a lonely man’s search for feeling in a life without pain. It has an affecting gimmick, but lives on its engaging performances, good actors playing lived-in, flawed and realistic characters.

It’s a breakthrough film from writer-director Jordan Horowitz, a sensitive, spare story told mostly in elegant, simple strokes.

Henry is introduced in the opening credits, snippets of home movies that capture an accident-prone, awkward childhood characterized by a lack of crying. His mother knew before the doctors did. Henry can’t feel pain.

The adult Henry, played by Joey Klein of TV’s “This Life,” has been obsessed with his condition since he was diagnosed. He drops ice cubes into coffee, and into home delivered Chinese noodles. When you can tell something is too hot, you can’t take chances.

He doesn’t make eye contact, bundles up against weather when he cannot tell if the cold will weaken him or the sun might burn him.

Henry is now a scientist and a loner, testing away with his chemicals and his lab rats in a loft he’s turned into a laboratory/apartment in Red Bank, Brooklyn.  He’s always bursting in on his specialist, Dr. Parks (Kip Gilman), demanding this or suggesting that.

“I need TREBAINE!” “I need STEM CELLS!”

And he narrates this lonely life, the way characters do in movies whose filmmakers cannot give up their Voice Over Training Wheels.

“Aristotle said, “You cannot learn without pain..,Every once in a while, nature makes a mistake.”

But Henry HAS learned — to support his research by synthesizing pain drugs for a low-level drug dealer (Tommie Sox). And he’s learned to see pain in others, the “tells,” signs of other people’s aches, the obvious winces and more subtle give-aways.

Everybody has them and the guy who cannot feel them sees them all around him, even in the pretty redhead (Evalena Marie) who spills hot coffee on him on the subway.

Eddie the drug dealer would like to expand operations. Shani the redheaded waitress might want to get to know him. Dr. Parks would love for him to visit a clinic which treats kids who face some of the same medical problems Henry does, out of support and concern.

“I don’t have time for distractions,” is what he tells them all. Even Dr. Andrews (Pascal Yen-Pfister), a researcher who would love Henry’s help in a study that will take the inevitable shortcuts that might lead to a breakthrough, gets that brush-off.

“Painless” is thus set up as a battle for Henry’s soul, conscience and future, a man trapped inside himself, insulated from the world, who might have to poke his head through the bubble to develop empathy, affection, to realize “life’s too short” and maybe living it would be more productive than manically striving for a cure.

Will he open up to Shani, whose attraction has more to do with curiosity than pity? Will he stick to the rigid regimen of The Scientific Method or gamble on his own theories about instant cures?

Klein makes Henry just charismatic enough to warrant Shani’s attention, just clueless enough to not “get” why she only uses marginally effective “organic” bug repellents in her swath of the Red Hook Community Greenhouse. He’d just zap the plants with pesticides.

“That’s the point of science. Find the flaws in nature and fix them.”

Yen-Pfister’s Dr. Andrews is like every French-accented “scientist” since “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — ambitious, egotistical, an ethically shady risk-taker who doesn’t play by the rules.

“I can give you what you want, Henry.” “Oh yeah? What’s that?”

“Pain.”

Horowitz gives his debut feature the foreboding of horror, or at least melodrama. But he keeps everything close to the vest, not giving away the picture’s secrets too easily, not giving in to cant situations and plot twists.

The voice-over gets old, and he’ll look back on this one someday and see it for the anti-cinematic crutch it is. But arch as that device is, Henry and “Painless” pull us in, creates suspense in Henry’s pursuit of a cure and let us feel his pain when he opens himself up to another heart for the first time in his closed-off life.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Joey KleinEvalena MarieKip Gilman

Credits:Written and directed by  Jordan Horowitz. An Indican release.

Running time: 1:21

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Preview, space mining gets Old West ornery in “Prospect”

Space is lived-in, worn, not polished and pristine in “Prospect” — more “Outland” and “Alien” and “The Martian” than the Apple Store design showpieces in shades of white that are Hollywood’s preferred way of transporting humans through the void.

And the work? Looking for buried treasure, of a sorts, has always drawn and always will draw the more ruthless and desperate among us.

A fine vehicle for Pedro Pascal and Sophie Thatcher, “Prospect” goes into limited release Nov. 2.

 

 

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Preview, “The Super” takes over a haunted apartment building from Val Kilmer

I just reviewed this movie on Netflix, right? “Nightworld” it was called — ex cop takes job as night watchman in a haunted apartment building.

Oh, right. In “The Super” the guy (Patrick John Flueger) is…a SUPER.

The frights appear to be more plentiful, the threats (including Val Kilmer, great to see him working again) more palpable.

“The Super” finally sees the light of day Oct. 18.“The Super” finally sees the light of day Oct. 18.

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Movie Review: “Where Hands Touch”

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Yes, there were black people in Nazi Germany. So “Where Hands Touch” is a World War II drama on solid ground, historically.

And the film does not trivialize or otherwise dilute The Holocaust in remembering that along with six million Jews, hundreds of thousands of Romani (Gypsies), Slavs and Afro-Germans and “Mischling” (mixed blood) and members of other ethnic minorities were rounded up and herded into camps to “purify” the Master Race.

But get past the “You learn something every day” aspect of writer-director Amma Asante’s follow-up to “Belle” and “A United Kingdom,” and the picture grates and annoys and falls to pieces, and not quietly.

It’s so wrong. And there’s so much of it.

Amandla Stenberg (“Everything, Everything”) plays another dewy-eyed romantic as Leyna, one of Germany’s so-called “Rhineland Bastards,” born to a German mother (Abbie Cornish) and an Afro-French father she never knew, part of the occupation force in the contested Rhineland in the years after World War I.

She is forever talking about how “German” she is, how proud of that. But Germany, even in the middle of a war, doesn’t want her or millions of its other citizens.

Her mother’s solution? Hide in plain sight. Move from the Rhineland to Berlin. Send her to school, where she’s held up by racist teachers as a national embarrassment.

Leyna is 16 in the spring of 1944, and as much as she and her mother want her to “be like everyone else,” she isn’t. And the endless demands for “Your PAPERS” should warn her and her mother about keeping a low profile.

The Russians are pushing towards Der Vaterland from the East and the other Allies are about to mount D-Day in the West. But those officious Germans have their priorities. Berlin’s last Jews are being rounded up. Leyna sees a friendly baker boy murdered, right in front of her.

Lutz (George MacKay of “Captain Fantastic”) is a loyal member of the Hitler Youth eager to do his part in the military, “to fight, to stand up for Germany like my father did.”  His officer/father (one-time Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston) isn’t having it.

Eccleston gets a nice World War I veteran’s speech about learning the futility of war, and how Lutz’s main task in this war is to make sure he survives it. Father knows best.

But then Lutz sees Leyna, standing out in the crowd. And all of Dad’s Billie Holiday records flash before his eyes. He is smitten and all bets on “surviving the war” are off as they begin a forbidden romance, not unlike the one Leyna’s mother embraced 16 years earlier.

Leyna may hear that she’s “the best of everything,” being of mixed race. That’s not what her culture and her country tell her. And even though there’s little sign of the war — intact factories and neighborhoods (Isle of Man locations), spotless newish clothes, no war wounded walking the streets — the clock is ticking on her life and liberty, such as they are. If only she and her mother could read the obvious clues.

Assante aimed to strike another blow for love that crosses artificial barriers here. But turning Lutz into a romantic Nazi is a stretch. Suggesting his widowed father values him above all else is muddled, too. And Stenberg’s girl’s-first-crush take on Leyna is shockingly myopic, romance novel mush, and utterly tone-deaf.

The couple’s every scene together makes eyes roll as they tapdance around the biggest issues to talk about jazz and follow their hormones. Yeah, teens are like this, no matter what is going on around them (Read “The Diary of Anne Frank”). But Assante’s antiseptic, romanticized view of war through the lens of love doesn’t work as drama or romance.

The accents are Community Theater-“Sound of Music” amateurish, the dialogue varying shades of drivel.

Stenberg is wise to seek films that take her away from these objectified, moony romances where boys pine for her on first sight. The films are insipid and some of that falls on her callow, gooey way of playing these innocent objects of desire. The upcoming “The Hate You Give” is her big chance to escape this genre.

But the adult in the room, Assante, takes the big hit here. She can put Lenya in peril and stick her in a concentration camp as the film goes on and on, struggling to gain gravitas. The longer it lasts, the more insipid “Where Hands Touch” gets.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, violence/disturbing images, sexuality and language

Cast: Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eccleston

Credits: Written and directed by Amma Assante. A Vertical release.

Running time: 2:02

 

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Movie Review: Roth never figures out “The House with a Clock in Its Walls”

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Some myths die harder than others.

But the self-sustaining hype of horror mogul Eli Roth was never much more than smoke and torture porn mirrors. Removed from that hype and outside of his narrow genre, as “Death Wish” made clear and “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” emphatically underlines, Eli Roth is mendacious mediocrity in movie director form.

A stillborn kiddie fright-fest that sucks the through the residual goodwill of Jack Black and Oscar winner Cate Blanchett in about 30 increasingly airless minutes, Roth’s adaptation of  John Bellairs novel (script by that titan of cinematic letters, Eric Kripke) is an essay in “I don’t know how to make this work.”

It’s deathly slow, deadly-dull and makes one long for the days when it looked like he was shifting, full-time, into producing. As a director, Roth is Brett Ratner without #MeToo problems. And Brett Ratner, at least, knows that comedies and comic thrillers have to have pace.

In 1955, ten year-old Lewis (Owen Vacarro of “Daddy’s Home”) is packed off to New Zebedee, Michigan with a set of bow-ties, a pair of Captain Midnight goggles, two silver dollars and a bus ticket. His uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) has brought him there after the death of the kid’s parents.

And Lewis, in mourning still, trying to communicate with his mom (Jonathan’s sister) and dad through his Magic 8-Ball, doesn’t know what he’s in for.

Jonathan picks him up in colorfully bizarre attire.

“Is that a robe?”

“It’s a KIMONO.”

The house is this Queen Anne revival relic that the local kids call “The Slaughter House.” And everything about it is weird, from the self-playing organ and animated stained glass windows to the whimpering, puppy of a chair and the sphinx topiary that’s always pooping in the garden.

“Use the LITTER box!”

Jonathan’s neighbor Florence (Blanchett) is, like him, strange. Turns out he’s a warlock and she’s a witch. And their lovably-testy banter (“Tired old hag!”) promises a movie with the American whimsy and democratic meritocracy that the insufferable “Chosen One” Harry Potter movies lacked.

Lewis will learn the dark arts and earn his way into the profession, picking up life lessons about when to use magic and when not, the morality of unfair advantages and how it can help you realize who your true friends are.

Alas, no.

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Roth and his screenwriter make an utter hash of things, leaning almost entirely on special effects and overly baroque production design for entertainment value. There’s a lot of gawking at this monstrous Jack’O Lantern or that galaxy contained in a reflecting pool, glimpses of this critter and lessons on that spell.

Just like the worst of the Potter pictures.

The sweet spot here would have parked this somewhere between “Goosebumps” and “Goonies,” with Roth providing genuine frights for the little dears. He never finds that sweet spot.

The driving force of the story, that there’s this evil wizard’s clock hidden inside the walls, is never more than an afterthought. Kyle MacLachlan, playing that dead-spell-tosser in flashbacks and in moments of post-necromancy menace, has nothing funny or threatening to do.

The odd laugh interrupts the tedium, a classmate running for class president (Sunny Suljic of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer’) warning Lewis about the ax murder potential in that uncle — “I’m just trying to help us both out. You can’t VOTE for me if you done have arms.”

Roth gives himself a cameo as Captain Midnight. Perhaps acting’s where his real interest lies. Or he could have skipped that and concentrated on making the colorless kid a little more interesting and animated.

One hears from actors and filmmakers how little they watch movies outside of the ones they’re working on. And this tone-deaf blunder makes one wish Roth had watched Black’s scary and comical “Goosebumps” turn.

Perhaps Black should have watched that himself. He turned down the “Goosebumps” sequel for the chance to spar with Blanchett (not really) and tilt at the windmill that is Eli Roth and finds his comedy stylings frittered away into the ether instead of finding grounded laughs here.

In this case, the windmill simply unhorses the funnyman, and in the least funny way imaginable. And the windmill could have used a stiff breeze, or at least the breath of life.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Jack Black,Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Colleen Camp

Credits:Directed by Eli Roth, script by  Eric Kripke, based on the John Bellairs novel. A Universal/Dreamworks release.

Running time: 1:44

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