10 Cloverfield Lane

(USA 2016)

I don’t see that many thrillers. This year, though, it seems I’ve somehow seen more in a short span of time than ever. Apparently, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a sort of sequel to Cloverfield, a low budget indie I never saw let alone heard of that sounds like Blair Witch Project. I had to find out what the buzz is about.

After breaking up with her boyfriend, Ben (the voice of Bradley Cooper), Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up chained to a bed in a spartan cellar. Erratic weirdo Howard (John Goodman) put her there, and he informs her that he rescued her from the car accident she had as well as the alien apocolypse that started while she was out cold. He stresses to her that she can’t leave the underground mini compound they share with Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), another basement refugee Howard saved.

Director Dan Trachtenberg builds the plot entirely on psychological tension, and his pace and intensity are great. Even Tommy James and the Shondells’ peppy “I Think We’re Alone Now” comes off as eldritch. Howard is creepy, and he gives Michelle—and the viewer—ample reason to doubt him. Goodman is brilliant and he steals every scene, but Winstead definitely stands on her own. We don’t know until the end whether Howard is a sincere albeit odd guy or a fucking maniac.

I enjoyed 10 Cloverfield Lane all the way to the finale, but it totally lost me there. The wrap up is too long, too Hollywood, and completely unnecessary. I would have found it more satisfying had the story ended at a specific point and left what happens next to my imagination; not knowing whether Howard is telling the truth holds all the dramatic power. Removing that doubt is a mistake. As is, it’s a disappointingly cheesy end to such a nailbiter.

Overall, 10 Cloverfield Lane kept my attention, but time will have to tell whether it made a big impression on me. I understand the buzz now. I hated the ending, though.

(AMC River East) B+


Mean Girls

(USA 2004)

“What’s so great about Caesar? Hmm? Brutus is just as cute as Caesar. Brutus is just as smart as Caesar. People totally like Brutus just as much as they like Caesar. And when did it become okay for one person to be the boss of everybody, huh? Because that’s not what Rome is about. We should totally just stab CAESAR!

—Gretchen Wieners


“How many of you have ever felt personally victimized by Regina George?”

—Ms. Norbury

I have no idea why Mean Girls played at a theater near me at this particular point in time, but I jumped at the chance to see it on the big screen. I’m a sucker for a good teen movie—the snarkier and more wicked, the better. Very much in the spirit of Heathers, Clueless, and Election—but with a little John Hughes heart thrown in—Mean Girls is snarky and wicked, but so much more: it’s got a knockout cast, exceptional characters, an entertaining story, smart plot twists, unforgettable quotes galore, and a message that any grownup can get behind. It’s fetch, it’s grool, and it’s loaded with awesomeness to sit around and soak up.

Cady Heron (Lindsey Lohan) relocates from Africa to Evanston, Illinois, where her academic parents (Ana Gasteyer and Neil Flynn) have taken teaching jobs at Northwestern University. They enroll her at North Shore High School. Having been home schooled for her whole life, Cady’s transition to public school in the States proves confusing and awkward to say the least—particularly the rules of “girl world.” Fringy classmates Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) and Damian (Daniel Franzese) take her on as something of a project and help her navigate high school society: “freshmen, ROTC guys, preps, J.V. jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, varsity jocks, unfriendly black hotties, girls who eat their feelings, girls who don’t eat anything, desperate wannabes, burnouts, sexually active band geeks, the greatest people you will ever meet, and the worst.” The worst, of course, are the Plastics, a pink posse headed by alpha female Regina George (Rachel McAdams) and her backup girls, insecure Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert) and rattlebrained Karen Smith (Amanda Seyfried).

Cady intrigues Regina, who invites her to sit with them at lunch. She’s a surprise hit. The Plastics let her into their world. They gripe about their physical flaws to each other in the mirror. They use the phone to set each other up. They have what they call “the burn book,” a journal where they scribble bitchy, mean comments about other girls. Janis sees an opportunity for revenge and convinces Cady to act as a double agent, exposing the secrets of the Plastics to bring them down. This is where things get interesting—and trouble starts.

Loosely based on Rosalind Wiseman’s lengthy-titled self-help book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence, Tina Fey’s brilliant screenplay is sharp, insightful, and full of accurate, detailed, universal observations. We’ve all known people like these characters. Gretchen’s meltdown is flawless. Regina’s passive-aggressiveness is impeccable, and her descent is actually kind of sad. Ms. Norbury (Fey) is the perfect voice of reason. The acting is great all-around—this is Lohan’s finest hour. Even minor characters like Kevin G. (Rajiv Surendra), Coach Carr (Dwayne Hill), Trang Pak (Ky Pham), Jason (Daniel Desanto), and the girl with the wide-set vagina (Stefanie Drummond).

Mean Girls transcends adolescence: I have seen it a number of times in my 30s and my 40s, and I totally relate to it. I probably will in my 50s and 60s, too. It doesn’t get old. The Donnas covering Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” is the perfect ending.

97 minutes
Rated PG

(ArcLight) A-



(UK 2015)

What would life be like in the 21st Century if humans never evolved beyond apes? How would our human qualities, good and bad, play out? Are humans any different from other animals? Director/screenwriter/actor Steve Oram illustrates his answer to these deep questions with Aaaaaaaah!, a project that sounds fascinating on paper but turns out to be anything but.

Following a group of modern primates (Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding, Lucy Honigman, Tom Meeten, Oram, Julian Rhind-Tutt, and Toyah Willcox), Aaaaaaaah! is an hour and a half of grunting, fighting over food and mates, flashing body parts, openly masturbating and having sex, peeing and pooping on stuff, and generally establishing dominance with gratuitous gore peppered throughout. The plot, flimsy and hard to follow, isn’t funny, witty, engaging, interesting, or thought provoking. It’s terrible, like a bad inside joke I’m not a part of or an even worse art film. I couldn’t wait for this to end.

Aaaaaaaah! very well may be the worst movie I’ve ever seen. EVER. It fails on every single level. Waiting to enter the theater, I overheard someone in line behind me compare Oram to early John Waters and Andy Warhol. Um, no—those guys both had a wit that Oram lacks, at least from what I can tell here. A better title would have been Uuuuuuuugh! 

(Tower City Cinemas) F

Cleveland International Film Festival



(USA 2015)

Kudos to screenwriter and codirector Brian O’Donnell for his first film, Akron. After a great setup, he throws in a crazy plot twist and completely changes the trajectory of the story: what starts out as a sweet, almost too cute romance turns into something weird, dark, and potentially calamitous. The drama here slowly simmers to a boil and starts to bubble over. O’Donnell treats a gay relationship as incidental and not something strange; it’s a given from the outset. Plus, he makes the city of Akron a major character without becoming a cheerleader.

Benny (Matthew Frias), a student at the University of Akron, meets another student, Christopher (Edmund Donovan), at a pick up football game. They start dating, and Christopher invites Benny on a road trip to Florida to meet his mother (Amy da Luz) over sping break. While waiting for him on the morning they head out, Benny’s mother (Andrea Burns) mentions to Christopher that Benny had an older brother who died when they were both kids. Christopher realizes that he and his mother are connected to the tragedy.

As much as I liked Akron—and there is quite a bit here to like—it has problems. The opening scene, which takes place a decade or more before the story, is confusing; no hints are given to tip us off that we are in the past. The scene is shot in a grocery store parking lot with current cars and license plates. It threw me off, and it took me awhile to realize that this scene occurred a long time ago. It’s a critical piece of the story, so it should have been done more carefully. For the most part, the acting is good; however, Benny’s mother is a Latina-lite Stepford wife who ultimately comes off as one-dimensional caricature rather than a fully developed character. Burns overdoes the doting mom thing. Particularly annoying is her peppering her speech with basic Spanish words that everyone knows; it doesn’t ring authentic because she’s whiter than Christopher. Sadly, the story fizzles in the end; the resolution is too fast and too neat, and some of the characters—especially Benny’s father (Joseph Melendez) and sister (Isabel Rose Machado)—get lost in the melodrama. I could have done without the sensitive folky score.

Akron isn’t a bad film. It could’ve been a lot more interesting, though—it certainly has the elements. It ultimately doesn’t meet is potential.

(Akron-Summit County Public Library) C+

Cleveland International Film Festival


Gala & Godfrey

(USA 2016)

Gala & Godfrey is a somewhat twisted and bitter romantic comedy—if you call it romantic or comedic. More accurately, it’s an examination of a relationship that probably never should have been, but the participants are stuck. Any child of divorce will relate to it. Sometimes, it’s interesting; other times, not so much. Either way, it’s surprisingly and refreshingly accurate.

Gala (Molly Pepper), a coat check girl at a Los Angeles rock club, crosses paths with Godfrey (Adam Green), the smarmy British front man of a third-rate wannabe “punk” band during the mid-’90s—think Third Eye Blind, Sublime, Blink 182, and Friends. A mildly intense love/hate thing develops between the two, and we see how neurotic both of them are. There’s a lot of material here, and much of it is amusing. Pepper and Green work their chemistry really well, creating an unlikely sweet and funny but dysfunctional bond that isn’t pitiable; the last part is key, because the believability of the whole thing rides on it. Gala & Godfrey easily could have flown off the rails—and it got unbearably close quite a few times. Fortunately, though, Pepper and Green pull it off. It certainly doesn’t hurt that director Kristin Ellingson recognizes the value of restraint and skillfully uses it at just the right moments.

I enjoyed Gala & Godfrey, but it feels like a work in progress. The “framework of a record album” concept sounds cool; executed here, though, it’s gimmicky and unnecessary, and ultimately ends up at best a momentary diversion and at worst a distraction that adds nothing to the story but cheesy graphics. The characters are strong enough to carry the film, so I’m not sure what Ellingson is worried about. She does an exceptionally awesome job incorporating Los Angeles into the story; the city itself is a principal character. Somehow, I don’t see the film working if it were set anywhere else.

Far from perfect, Gala & Godfrey is nonetheless warm, inviting, familiar, and slightly offbeat—much like an afternoon drinking in old Hollywood, a wonderful experience. Some minor tweaking that focuses more on idiosyncrasy and a few plot surprises would be good; then this would come off as not only more honest but far more interesting. It’s almost there.

(Tower City Cinemas) B-

Cleveland International Film Festival

Movie Home



(USA 2016)

I had the wrong idea walking into Mad; the synopsis in the festival guide painted a picture of a mean-spirited comedy about two fighting sisters and their mother who just had a nervous breakdown. I expected something along the lines of a loud, riotous snarkfest brimming with angry, deranged female humor that someone like Bette Midler might have done. Mad is not that at all—it’s far better.

First-time screenwriter and director Robert G. Putka drops us into the lives of three women: Mel (Maryann Plunkett), a lady starting her sunset years who just had a nervous breakdown following her divorce; her older daughter, Connie (Jennifer Lafleur), who has all the trappings of a yuppie life; and her younger daughter, Casey (Eilis Cahill), who is floundering as she quickly approaches her thirties. Mad explores the dynamics of the relationships between them without judgment or moralty, and gets into mental illness on the side.

The characters here are flawed, which makes the film not just believable but good. Very good. Mel may or may not be “crazy,” but she doesn’t step up to take control of her fate—which is exactly how she ends up committing herself to a psych ward. Connie is caustic—judgmental, condescending, insensitive, and extremely vocal, she can’t keep her malicious comments to herself. For some reason, her mother and her sister bring out her worst. A work situation involving a criminal investigation shows how far from perfect she really is. Casey is sweet but aimless, seemingly lacking any street smarts or ambition. She’s stuck—she tries to find herself in things like webcams, online hookups, and writing groups. It’s not working.

This all might sound heavy, but Mad has a sense of humor. An uncomfortable scene at Casey’s writing club is laugh-out-loud funny, but Putka generally doesn’t go for easy laughs. The humor here for the most part is subtle and has a basis in etiquette and social behavior. A fellow patient, Jerry (Mark Reeb), and the ward counselor, Todd (Conor Casey), both provide comic relief in different ways without becoming caricatures. The acting is quite good, and the whole thing is put together exceedingly well.

Putka doesn’t give much background on his characters, and that’s fine because it really isn’t necessary. He doesn’t treat mental illness like a Lifetime movie; he’s direct, objective, and not all that dramatic about it. He comes off a bit cynical, but I found his presentation refreshing; after all, therapy doesn’t work for everyone. I liked so much about Mad, which has many moments of brilliance. I hope to see more by Putka.

(Capitol Theatre) B+

Cleveland International Film Festival


Sing Street

(Ireland 2016)

The Eighties are back again as evidenced by CNN’s The Eighties series and recent films like Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! and John Carney’s Sing Street. This time around, the emphasis is squarely on nostalgia.

Dublin, 1985: hair, shoulder pads, and music videos are big. Very big. 15-year-old Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is having a tough go of it: his parents are broke and on the verge of divorce. His father (Aiden Gillen) is unemployed and drinking, while his mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy) is having an affair. They can’t afford his fancy Jesuit education anymore, so they transfer him to another all boys school in Dublin—Syngh Street Christian Brothers School, a haven for hooligans. His low-rent classmates call him “posh” and openly mess with him, getting personal and physical. Class bully Barry (Ian Kenny) corners Conor in a filthy restroom and proves to be an ongoing menace. Even schoolmaster Br. Baxter (Don Wycherley) gives Conor a hard time, starting with the color of his shoes. The whole thing is, to borrow from Duran Duran, about as easy as a nuclear war.

Enter Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a mysterious and cool beauty who lives in a home for girls near Syngh Street C.B.S. and claims to be a model. Conor gets her number by telling her that his band just so happens to need a model for its latest music video. She agrees to star in it. Now, Conor just needs a band.

Sing Street is a lot of fun, and no doubt will appeal most to those who came of age in the Eighties. I loved so much of it because of its references. The discussion between Conor and his older borther Brendan (Jack Reynor) about the artisitc merit of Duran Duran as they watch the video for “Rio” and their father’s response (“They’re certainly not the Beatles, are they?”) is perfect, mirroring many a conversation I’ve had. The impact of Head on the Door on the band, named Sing Street after the school (get it?), made me want to let out my own Robert Smith yelp. The band’s various incarnations clearly influenced by the music the members are into at the moment are funny and smart. The first video shoot is hilarious: who knew Sing Street is a bizarre bargain basement version of Prince and the Revolution complete with frilly bits and paisley underneath that Irish Catholic exterior? The many wry references to Depeche Mode, a-ha, Spandau Ballet, the Clash, M, Joe Jackson, Hall & Oates, and even Phil Collins made me giddy. The Back to the Future dream sequence finale is priceless. So yeah, I liked this film a lot for the warm memories it conjured up—it’s sheer nostalgia.

All that said, even if being into the Eighties helps, anyone can relate to Sing Street because its themes are simple and universal; indeed, the themes are practically Eighties pop songs: listen to your heart, don’t stop believing, things can only get better, everybody’s looking for something, be true to yourself and you can’t go wrong, give a wham give a bam but don’t give a damn, don’t forget that your family is gold. Music is redemptive: it serves as expression, escape, identity, a bond. Sing Street sounds tighter and better as Conor’s confidence grows and he gets closer to Raphina. Conor’s parents and even Brendan represent a sort of death of the soul that happens when one foregoes his dreams. Speaking of Brandon, there’s also a theme of passing the torch and sibling love, which is probably why the film is “dedicated to brothers everywhere.”

Sing Street has a few thin moments and some minor historical inaccuracies—for example, “Rio” was a hit in 1982 and Duran Duran was already huge by 1985, so the jury was not “still out” on them. Regardless, none of these shortcomings is enough to detract from its misty, dreamy, and perhaps pastel-colored charms. The wardrobe choices are nicley restrained, and as a result come off realistic and not as parody. The original compositions are hit or miss, but they all sound vaguely like U2 whether Bono and The Edge cowrote them or not—I read that they did, but I didn’t see them in the credits. Sing Street is totally disposable, but so were cassettes—and they were fun while they lasted.

(Landmark Century) B