‘The Rental’ Has Rented Some Space in My Brain

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The Rental (CREDIT: IFC Films)

Starring: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss

Director: Dave Franco

Running Time: 88 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: July 24, 2020 (On Demand and Select Theaters)

While watching The Rental (in which Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, and Jeremy Allen White play a couple of couples who rent a big ol’ house for a weekend getaway), I had a thought that I anticipate is going to stick around in my movie-watching approach for quite a while: at what point do I stop thinking of the cast members as the actors and start thinking of them as the characters they’re playing?

In this case, that question most saliently applies to Brie, whose career I’ve followed closely and who I’ve watched give countless interviews. As for the others, I’m not too familiar with Vand, I’ve only seen bits and pieces of White, and Stevens is always so twisted right off the bat that I don’t need to ask. So back to how I would answer that question in Ali Brie’s case, and it happens about forty minutes in, as she really starts to doubt the trustworthiness of  her husband (as played by Stevens), and I start to realize we’re not going to see her patented bubbliness anytime soon. (Not to mention she appears to be happily married in real life, and her husband even directed this movie!)

But then this question is much, much trickier as it applies to Toby Huss, who I tend to generally think of as a lovable, avuncular mentor-type. He plays the guy who coordinates the house rental, and there are implications that he might be racist or otherwise non-avuncular. But that could all be a misunderstanding! So, I’m left wondering, am I willing to give Toby the benefit of a doubt because he’s usually such a cool dude? Or does he actually deserve the benefit of the doubt? The freaky-deaky ending doesn’t give us enough time to sort that all out. How dare you make me doubt Toby Huss’ thoughtfulness, Dave Franco!

I give The Rental a Good Review on the High-End Pacific Coast Version of Yelp.

It’s Time to Watch ‘Horse Girl’

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CREDIT: Katrina Marcinowski/Netflix

With so many movie theaters closed for the foreseeable future, I decided to finally watch and review some straight-to-streaming flicks I haven’t had a chance to get around to yet. And in the spirit of things being not-so-normal, these reviews will maybe be a little more, uh, shall we say, offbeat, than usual.

First up on the docket is Horse Girl, a seemingly quirky indie comedy, but actually no, it’s a psychological study of emergent mental illness, but with some trappings of low-budg sci-fi. We can use the catchall term “drama.” It stars and is co-written by Alison Brie. The other person handling scripting duties is Jeff Baena, who also sat in the directing chair. I know and love Jeff from The Little Hours, in which he previously directed Alison. It played at Sundance in January 2020 and landed on Netflix on February 7, 2020. Thanks to Alison’s presence, I knew I was going to definitely watch it eventually, as I’ve been a superfan of hers since her days on Community (which I’m legally obligated to acknowledge is my favorite show of all time whenever I mention it).

Alison plays Sarah, an introverted lass who works at an arts and crafts store and enjoys horses. Also, her stepdad is played by Paul Reiser! (That’s got to be a good sign, right?) Things seem to be going okay for her, especially when she strikes up a potential new romantic relationship on her birthday. But then, as she begins to experience lost time and unexplained visions, it appears that the mental struggles that run in her family are finally making themselves at home in her brain. Or is she actually a clone who is also dealing with flippin’ alien abductions, jeez?

If you’re forcing me to say one or the other, Sarah probably actually is indeed experiencing mental illness. But Horse Girl makes me think: isn’t the idea of alien abduction intoxicating? What if it could be the basis of a religion? You could believe in them, though not literally, just have faith in them in some sort of way. That’s just a kernel of an idea, we’ll see if it becomes anything more. Anyway, Alison is terrific, but y’all knew that already! (Dint ya?)

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Destroyer’ is Worth Admiring for Nicole Kidman Inhabiting a Detective Whose Soul and Psyche Are Paralyzed by Undercover Work

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CREDIT: Sabrina Lantos/Annapurna Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Jade Pettyjohn, Bradley Whitford, Scoot McNairy, Toby Huss

Director: Karyn Kusama

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: R for The Nasty Violence, Sex, and Drugs of Police Work at Its Most Unmoored

Release Date: December 25, 2018 (Limited)

Destroyer plays a bit like Memento, with its irregular temporal structure and out-of-sorts lead character investigating some unsavory behavior in Los Angeles. But besides a few moments in which everything clicks into place, Destroyer‘s narrative approach is more maddening than brain-tickling. Where Memento‘s backwards arrangement was both revolutionary and strikingly purposeful, Destroyer‘s propensity towards flashbacks and withholding information just feels haphazard. Perhaps director Karyn Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi had a clear purpose in mind, but that does not really come across in the final product. But at least they have a typically riveting performance from Nicole Kidman to hold everyone’s attention.

Kidman plays LAPD detective Erin Bell, who is basically the epitome of someone whose life has been destroyed by working undercover. The events cut back and forth between her time infiltrating a criminal gang and nearly two decades later when the leader of that crew re-emerges. With perpetually puffy eyes, chapped skin and lips, and dusty hair, she is a walking husk of a person, and you get the sense that she has been that way every day for quite some time. The message seems to be that the lying and identity warping of undercover work cannot possibly be worth whatever good it accomplishes, to which I say: you didn’t have to make an entire grungy movie to convince me! There are a few pleasures to be had when you finally realize why certain memories are as traumatic as they are for Erin and why the opening scene is what it is. But it is a big ask to go down into the muck with Kidman for two hours, although she is at least decent company.

Destroyer is Recommended If You Like: Appreciating the full range of Nicole Kidman’s oeuvre, The dry skin-cracking Los Angeles sun

Grade: 3 out of 5 Spoiled Relationships

 

This Is a Movie Review: The Front Runner

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Sony Pictures

The Front Runner raises a lot of valid points about the propriety, or lack thereof, of prying into politicians’ personal lives, but it is liable to leave you more confused than ever, even if you have strong opinions about all the issues it raises. As the narrative goes, the coverage of Gary Hart’s supposed indiscretions during the 1988 Democratic primary completely derailed his campaign and led to the overall coarsening of the political media landscape that we have today. That may be an accurate narrative, but is it a bad thing that we know more about the personal lives of those who govern us? The fact that it all remained secret for so long is one reason why powerful people have gotten away with terrible behavior.

But as for how it affected Gary Hart specifically, did he deserve what happened to him? The way the movie presents it, it seems like he had been unfaithful in his marriage, but not necessarily in this case. And the Miami Herald, which originally reported on the story, did not appear to do their duest diligence to verify their implications. At least I can unequivocally say it is a good thing that Donna Rice, Hart’s alleged mistress, gets to have her side of the story presented. But otherwise, The Front Runner is a bit of a mess. Although, it could be a portrait of a mess.

I give The Front Runner 2.5 (Million) Accusations out of 5 (Possible) Indiscretions.

This Is a Movie Review: The Latest ‘Halloween’ Examines the Brutal Roles of Killer and Survivor

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CREDIT: Ryan Green/Universal Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Nick Castle, Toby Huss

Director: David Gordon Green

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Relentless Knife Piercings All Over the Body

Release Date: October 19, 2018

What if your purpose in life is to kill people? What if your purpose in life is to be in a decades-long struggle with that killer? Horror sequels that come many years after the original and feature the same main character unavoidably grapple with matters relating to the circular nature of fate. Halloween, the same-named sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 original, is especially committed to those questions in a way that deepens the meanings of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode without straying too ridiculously far from their initial incarnations.

As a direct sequel to the 40-years-earlier initially entry, this Halloween ignores everything that happened in all previous sequels and reboots. It is thus somewhat confusing that it opts for the identical title, but it is also thematically appropriate. Director David Gordon Green and his co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley are working under the presupposition that where evil struck once, it will strike again, in much the same manner that it did before. That is certainly what Laurie Strode believes, with Jamie Lee Curtis returning to her iconic role once again by jumping headlong into the disaster preparedness lifestyle. Michael has been locked away since the night of his rampage, but Laurie is convinced he will escape and kill again. Her relentless focus on readying herself for that probability has helped her survive, but it has also ruined her relationship with her daughter (Judy Greer) and anyone else she has ever been close with.

Green understands what made Carpenter’s approach so effective, as he similarly relies on tension-building instead of jump scares when showing Michael at work. We see more of the bloody brutality than we used to, which in one way is an indication that it is so hard to shock anymore but in another way is so frightening in its implication that rehabilitation may be impossible in some cases. For Michael, killing is practically a vocation. There are attempts by a few characters to explain his motivations, but he remains so terrifying mysterious, because the explanation ultimately never goes beyond the tautology of “he kills because he has to kill.” While Laurie is one of his favorite targets, there is a mythically eternal element to their struggle that suggests that he cannot ever actually kill her and also that she cannot ever kill him. Thus, at the moment that she gains the upper hand and we see his confused reaction, it is devastating. Not because we sympathize with the killer, but because the saga may very well have finally reached the point when it must end.

Halloween is Recommended If You Like: Halloween (1978), Disaster preparedness

Grade: 4 out of 5 Stabbings

Halt and Catch Fire Season 4 Review: An Under-the-Radar Gem Solidifies Itself as One of the Best Dramas of the Decade

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CREDIT: Tina Rowden/AMC

This post was originally published on News Cult in October 2017.

Network: AMC

Showrunners: Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers

Main Cast: Kerry Bishé, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy, Lee Pace, Toby Huss

Notable Guest Stars: Anna Chlumsky, Annabeth Gish, Kathryn Newton, Susanna Skaggs, Carol Kane

Episode Running Time: 42 Minutes

SPOILER ALERT: This review discusses significant plot details of all four seasons of Halt and Catch Fire. Read only if you have watched the entire series or don’t mind being spoiled.

I have heard the appeal of Halt and Catch Fire described by some of its viewers in a manner reminiscent of that of Lost. Like those who said that the latter was not really about the island and all its mysteries, there are those who would have it that HaCF is not really about the technology industry but rather the people who just happen to be employed by it. To which the correct response is: of course the characters are great, but the reason they are so compelling is because of their relationships with computers. All four of HaCF’s principals – Gordon the tinkerer (McNairy), Donna the explorer (Bishé), Cameron the restless (Davis), and Joe the visionary (Pace) – know that their destiny is inextricably bound by tech. But really, what they are all searching for is connections with other human beings. In the fourth and final season, the indelible impact they have made on their audience is proof of their success.

Each season has served as a fictionalized examination of the major developments in technology. Season 1 concerned the personal computing revolution, Season 2 brought to life the birth of online gaming, Season 3 detailed e-commerce and computer security, and now Season 4 brings it all together with the expansion of the World Wide Web. Gordon and Joe have reunited for a new venture as an internet service provider, but they ultimately convert to a focus on search, almost by accident, when Gordon’s teenage daughter Haley (Skaggs) tools around the office on her own personal website. Gordon and Joe fall in love with what she’s up to, and bring her onboard for the re-tooled company, now called Comet (as in Halley’s Comet), which is basically a highly curated predecessor to Google. But the thing about being a predecessor, as so often befalls this crew, is that your ideas end up ahead of your time while your implementation somehow ends up behind the times.

The driving momentum of this final season is the reunion of the core four. After years of manipulation, both real and imagined, Joe and Gordon are finally on fully equal terms, passionately working towards a shared goal. Elsewhere, Donna and Cameron make more halting efforts in being drawn back into each other’s orbit. Recently divorced from Gordon, Donna finds herself overseeing another search website, and accordingly struggles to attain personal success as a professional rival to her ex-husband and daughter. Cameron reunites romantically with Joe; their relationship at the beginning of the series was a tad abusive, but after years of healing and a pivot to total honesty, they confirm that they do indeed have real respect and love for each other. But any efforts for Donna and Cameron to reconcile with each other are much more halting, their wounds more recent and bitter.

About halfway through the season, the reunions are not complete, but everyone is closer to inner peace than we ever have seen them. This sense of contentment is on full display in “Who Needs a Guy,” which represents just about the perfect day for Gordon. But anyone who knows how writers effectively manipulate viewers’ emotions should view such an instance with concern. That hour of television ends with Gordon passing away, finally succumbing to the toxic encephalopathy he was diagnosed with in Season 2. The end of this episode, and the entirety of the following one (“Goodwill”), are incredible reflections on how it feels to lose someone so young who has just found inner peace. At this point, it does not matter at all that this is a tech show – the truth and bittersweet satisfaction it conveys are all just about being human.

I have on multiple occasions made the perhaps crazy claim that a great TV show can be enjoyed no matter what order you watch it in. I (inadvertently) tested that theory with Halt and Catch Fire, having watched the first half or so of Season 1 when it originally aired but then gave up on it, only to hear that it got significantly better in Seasons 2 and 3. So I jumped right into Season 4 for its initial airings while concurrently catching up on every episode I had missed, finishing Season 3 just before the series finale. So when I watched “Who Needs a Guy,” I had yet to see the episode with Gordon’s diagnosis, so his death surely hit me harder than it did most viewers. I enjoyed experiencing Season 1 and Season 4 sort of back-to-back, as they work as mirror versions of each other. Furthermore, with HaCF’s frequent time jumps (including one at the start of Season 4), it is designed to be easily jumped right into more than the average show.

Here now is where I make room to praise the supporting and guest characters. The Clark daughters, Joanie and Haley, were always adorable kiddos in earlier years, but in Season 4, they are now teenagers, with correspondingly beefed-up roles. Kathryn Newton and Haley Clark have the obsessive minds and deep wells of feeling necessary to fit in and thrive with these people. Anna Chlumsky comes onboard easily and delightfully as Comet’s chief ontologist and as a new, perfectly matched love interest for Gordon. Her quick departure after his death captures the ephemerality of some of the best things in life. And then of course there is Bos, who is some combination of mentor, therapist, father figure, and best friend to everybody. Toby Huss’ portrayal of him is and has always been the embodiment of the perfect dadgum Texas folksiness.

In an immensely satisfying finale, HaCF calls back to a credo expressed in Season 1: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets you to the thing.” The purpose of all the technological breakthroughs these people have been chasing has never been the point in and of themselves, but rather, the personal connections that they forge is the point. For a moment, it seems like everyone is about to go their separate ways and miss out on the opportunities to hold onto those connections. History is threatening to repeat itself, but then … that repetition is embraced. The patterns of the computer industry, and life, are unavoidable. We end where we begin, hopefully wiser and corresponding ready, and eager, to start all over again.

Best Episodes: “Signal to Noise,” “Miscellaneous,” “Who Needs a Guy,” “Goodwill,” “Ten of Swords”

How Does It Compare to Previous Seasons? Halt and Catch Fire is practically symphonic in how its conclusion wraps around to its beginning. It fulfills the promise that was always there, maybe even confirming that a brilliant plan was in place all along. Thus, Season 4 is the show’s most hopeful, most peaceful, and best.

Halt and Catch Fire is Recommended If You Like: Silicon Valley but want something less cynical, Mad Men but wish every character were the Peggy

Where to Watch: Seasons 1-3 are available on Netflix, and Season 4 is currently on AMC.com.

Grade: 4.7 out of 5 Things