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Films I Neglected To Review: "Dream On!"
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Adam," "After the Wedding," "Jacob's Ladder" and "Tone-Deaf."

Set in that long-ago period known as the summer of 2006, the already-controversial film "Adam" begins with its titular character (Nicholas Alexander), a awkward and naive 17-year-old high schooler, going off to spend the summer in Brooklyn with his sister Casey (Margaret Qualley), who has fully plunged herself into the local LGBTQ community even though she has not yet been able to come out to her parents. As Adam tags along on trips to gay bars and viewing parties for "The L Word" (where the other attendees catcall the various inaccuracies), Adam finds his horizons expanded when it comes to questions of sexual identity and seems more or less open and accepting of everything that he is seeing for the first time. One night at a party, he meets the slightly older Gillian (Bobbi Salvor Menuez) and is immediately smitten and it turns out that she seems to feel the same way towards him. One minor problem--Gillian is a lesbian--one who even became nationally famous when she sued her school over being refused prom tickets for her and her girlfriend a few years earlier. One major problem--Gillian thinks that Adam is actually trans and he decides to go along with that misapprehension in order to pursue a relationship with her.

And now you probably have a slight idea as to why this adaptation of Ariel Schrag's 2014 novel (she also penned the screenplay) has caused such agita among members of the trans community. While I can see how this basic premise alone might be enough to deeply offend members of that community--even though it is ultimately less exploitative in this regard than it might have been in clumsier hands--my primary objection is not so much with the very existence of such a premise as the fact that Adam is ultimately the least interesting character in the film, his actions do not engender much in the way of sympathy and the way that the storyline contrives to more or less let him off the hook in the end is more than a little irksome. If a story like this is to have even a chance of working, you have to believe that the characters involved have truly learned from and been changed by the experience and that is not the case here. Watching it, I got the feeling that director Rhys Ernst felt the same way because the film seems far more interested in the other characters in Adam’s orbit, not just Casey and Gillian (each of whom could have been the focus of their own narrative) but fellow roommates June (Chloe Levine), who has a not-so-secret crush on Casey, and Ethan (Leo Sheng), a Film Forum employee who doles out dating advice to Adam without being privy to the levels of deception being perpetrated. In the end, "Adam" is the kind of movie that, despite some good moments and reasonably noble intentions, ultimately does not quite work, though it could potentially inspire some viewer to one day make another movie along these lines that genuinely does.

As "After the Wedding" opens, American Isabel (Michelle Williams) is running a perpetually underfunded orphanage in a rural area of India when she is contacted out of the blue with news that an American media company is interested in providing $2 million in funding. The one catch is that Isabel, and only Isabel, is required to journey to New York to meet with Theresa (Julianne Moore), the company's founder and CEO. The prospect of returning to the States does not thrill Isabel at all but since the money could be put to valuable use, she decides to make the trip. Once she arrives, Isabel is immediately appalled by the ostentatious displays of wealth that are all around her--the minute she steps into the fancy hotel room provided for her, you can practically see her calculating what the amount spent on it could have been used for at the orphanage--and is even more annoyed to learn that it will be a few more days until Theresa, who is busy making final preparations for her daughter Grace's (Abby Quinn) imminent wedding, can make a final decision on the donation. Theresa invites Isabel to come to the wedding and when she does, she makes a shocking discovery regarding the identity of Theresa’s husband and Grace’s father, renowned artist Oscar (Billy Crudup), that shakes her to the core and inspires any number of additional startling revelations.

If this description sounds vaguely familiar to you, it could be that you saw the 2008 Danish version of the film that was written and directed by Susanne Bier and which reversed the genders of the three main characters. This iteration contains virtually all of the same flaws as the original, most of them born out of the fact that it is a narrative that seems convinced that it is saying something deep and meaningful about the human condition even though it never comes across as anything more than an increasingly implausible soap opera (one that has now been made slightly more ludicrous thanks to the gender inversion). And yet, this version is somehow even worse because director Bart Freundlich, who has yet to make a film that could be described as anything other than excruciating, has inexplicably made a movie that seems to present the conspicuous accumulation of wealth as something that is not only a good and just thing but the only possible cure--and certainly not the cause in any way--of the majority of problems in the third world, which inevitably pale in comparison to whether the caterer can provide enough lobster for the wedding dinner or not. Considering that I didn't care for the original version and have pretty much detested Freundlich’s oeuvre to date, I confess that the only reason I bothered to even watch this was because of the presence of the usually reliable Michelle Williams in the cast but even though she is the best thing about it, not even she can make much out of the material she is working with here. Pretentious, self-absorbed and mawkish, "After the Wedding" is a total waste and my guess is that at a certain point, most viewers will find themselves wishing that there could have been a way to combine it with "Ready or Not"--at least that way, they might have gotten a happy ending out of it.

When it came out in 1990, "Jacob's Ladder" was not a particularly successful film and those who saw it tended to come away from it more confused than anything else. However, the audacious combination of conspiracy thriller and spiritual contemplation eventually went on to develop a sizable cult following, one large enough to inspire its very own remake, albeit one so clumsily executed that it seems difficult to believe that anyone involved with its production actually ever saw the original, let alone appreciated what made it so special in the first place. Updated from the Vietnam era to today, the film stars Michael Ealy as Jacob Singer, a former Afghanistan combat veteran now working as a surgeon in an Atlanta VA hospital and living with wife Samantha (Nikki Beharie) and their infant son. He is still haunted by his combat experiences, especially the time when the dying soldier on his table turned out to be his estranged brother Issac (Jesse Williams), and is trying to come to terms with them with medication and regal visits to a therapist. However, his world is turned upside down when he encounters a guy who claims to have serves with Isaac who insists that he is not only still alive and living in Atlanta but is in danger due to a conspiracy involving a mysterious PTSD drug. Jacob is, of course, compelled to look into this, as crazy as it sounds, and finds himself plunged into an increasingly nightmarish scenario in which nothing may be as it seems.

Besides the change involving the time period, the big narrative difference between this iteration of "Jacob's Ladder" and the original is the addition of Issac and the long-running rivalry of sorts between the two siblings. Since "Jacob's Ladder" is not the type of film that would benefit from a beat-for-beat retelling, these changes are not a bad idea, at least in theory. The trouble is that once they are introduced, the film does not bother to really do anything of interest with them and at a certain point, you get the sense that the changes were made just because screenwriters Jeff Buhler and Sarah Thorpe felt that they had to make their version a little different and not because they had something new to say. At the same time, it also makes room for a number of moments taken almost verbatim from the original but even there, they feel more like gratuitous fan service than anything else. The worst is saved for last, where the original's genuinely audacious twist ending has been dropped and replaced with a different twist that one can spot coming a mile away and which doesn’t have a fraction of the emotional or dramatic power of what it has replaced. More useless than anything else, this version of "Jacob’s Ladder" is nothing more than a piss-poor remake of a fascinating original work that never justifies its existence for a second and which will no doubt be viewed in the future only by audiences who are tuning in with the expectation of seeing its predecessor.

As the horror-comedy hybrid "Tone-Deaf" opens, millennial Olive (Amanda Crew) is not having the best of times--in the space of just a few hours, she breaks up with her boyfriend and loses her job. (To be fair, she is not exactly shattered by the loss of either, though the latter did occasionally offer the benefit of free food.) Even though her financial picture is now cloudy at best, everyone from her equally self-absorbed friends to her spacey mother (Kim Delaney), who fled to a commune after her father (Ray Wise) committed suicide when she was a kid, suggests that she get away from the city for a weekend for some me time. She agrees and winds up renting a huge home in the middle of nowhere for the weekend from its owner, recent widower Harvey (Robert Patrick). As for Harvey, who may be suffering from the onset of dementia on top of his recent loss, he has been looking back on his life and has concluded that there is one thing that he was never able to do--feel what it is like to take a human life. With Olive barely able to recognize anything going on around her that is not on her phone, she seems to be the ideal target--especially since he has a particular distaste for millennials--but even though Harvey ends up getting plenty of practice by bumping off a number of people along the way, she proves to be somewhat more resilient than anticipated.

The film was written and directed by Ricky Bates, who caused some stir in genre circles with such controversial efforts as "Excision" and "Trash Fire," and like those films, he once again shows himself willing to mix gore and thrills with overt social commentary that is not even remotely subtle in its approach. (Even Oliver Stone might have dialed back on some of the excesses on display here depicting the gap between Boomers and Millennials.) The concept is interesting but Bates inexplicably shoots his creation in the foot by the baffling decision to stop the narrative at several points to have Harvey turn to the camera and directly address the audience about his loathing for these millennial snowflake types with their coddled lifestyles and confusing music and whatnot. I don't necessarily mind a certain lack of subtlety or nuance in this type of storytelling ("Ready or Not" is not particularly restrained in this regard but that didn't harm it too much in the end.) but when a film is literally having one of its main characters shouting out the underlying themes directly to viewers, it gets more than a little annoying. This is a shame because the performances by Patrick and Crew are good and committed and the combination of gore and humor (especially a running joke about how no one is willing to hurt Olve's feelings by telling her that she, contrary to her beliefs, is not a very good piano player) works reasonably well. In the end, "Tone-Deaf" proves to be a film that largely lives up to its title and which might have made a stronger impact if it had dialed things back considerably and assumed that viewers would still pick up on what Baes was trying to say.


link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4188
originally posted: 08/23/19 04:41:18
last updated: 08/23/19 05:09:14
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