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Films I Neglected To Review: Once Upon A Time. . . in the Dark
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Dora and the Lost City of Gold," "Honeyland," "Luce," "Ode to Joy," "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" and "Them That Follow."

Being well into my adult years and without any ready access to small children when it first made its debut in 2000, my exposure to the childrenís animated show "Dora the Explorer" has been theoretical at best--I am aware that the program, about a spunky little girl going off on low-key adventures designed to help kids develop both their problem-solving skills and their facility with the Spanish language, exists but otherwise have no practical working knowledge regarding the show or the character. Therefore, I come to the inevitable live-action screen version, "Dora and the Lost City of Gold," with no preconceived notions about what to expect. This time around, the jungle-dwelling Dora (Isabela Moner) has been bumped up in age into a teenager and, after the requisite adventure in the opening reel, is sent by her explorer parents (Michael Pena and Eva Longoria) to an environment far more confusing than she has ever experienced--Los Angeles--while they go in search of. . . well, you saw the title. After the requisite scenes of the chipper Dora trying to fit in among her new peers, she, along with cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) and classmates Sammy (Madeleine Madden) and Randy (Nicholas Coombe), is snatched by mercenaries and taken to the jungle in the hopes that she will lead them to her now-missing parents and, it is hoped, the lost city. Aiding in her journey is longtime monkey pal Boots (whose voice I will leave for you to discover) and family friend Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez) while the bad guys are assisted, albeit in a dubious manner, by the thieving fox Swiper (again, this characterís voice is best left a surprise as well).

Whether "Dora and the Lost City of Gold" will be of any use to you will inevitably depend almost entirely on how old you are. For little kids, it is perfectly acceptable fare--it is bright, colorful and exciting without going too far overboard, the humor, save for a couple of moments here and there, is relatively free of gross-out humor (and one of those, in which Dora tries to help Sammy relax enough to answer the call of nature in the jungle by making up a song about a "poo shovel" is admittedly amusing) and Moner is undeniably plucky and cheerful and winning as Dora. For older viewers, however, it will obviously be a little more of a chore as they will no doubt notice the fairly plodding nature of the story, the number of previous films that it "borrows" from (including an especially blatant steal from one of the key scenes in "Raiders of the Lost Ark") and the thudding attempts by screenwriters Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson to win them over though bits of meta-humor poking fun at Dora's cheerfully innocent approach to life. In the end, the film is not especially bad--there have been far worse family-oriented movies in recent months than this one--but unless you are under the age of nine or are in possession of someone who fits that description for a couple of hours, there is no burning reason to uncover this particular relic.

If I were to tell you that one of the most fascinating new movies out there right now was a documentary about a beekeeper who has spent her entire life living and working in the mountains of Macedonia, there is an excellent chance that some of you might be thinking that I was being willfully pretentious. And yet, that is exactly the case with "Honeyland," the beautifully filmed and strangely engrossing documentary from Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska that follows Hatidze Muratova, an enigmatic middle-aged woman who has dedicated her life--at least the portion not involving taking care of her elderly and half-blind mother--to tending to her honeycombs and selling the resulting product to the local market. Her approach to gathering honey is an ecologically sound and responsible one--when she collects it, she leaves about half of it behind for the bees themselves to consume as they continue to produce more--and while it results in her product costing a little more, just to look at it as it shimmers in the sun is enough to convince you that her approach is the correct one. Her routine is jarred with the arrival of a Turkish family who decide to set up shop on a nearby lot and raise bees for honey to sell for themselves. At first, Hatidze welcomes her new neighbors, whose seven kids immediately take to her friendly manner, and offers them advice on how to go about things in a responsible manner but it soon becomes apparent that they are going about it in a more slipshod and profit-driven manner that not only results in an inferior product but which threatens the ecosystem that she has devoted her life to maintaining and sustaining.

Going into "Honeyland," I was under the assumption that this would turn out to be one of those well-intentioned eco-documentaries that say and do all of the right things but which are so choked with their sense of self-righteous nobility that they become downright insufferable after a while. Happily, that is not the case at all with this film for a number of reasons. For starters, even the most confirmed urbanite will be struck by the beauty of both the land and the bounty that it produces as presented by the filmmakers and cinematographers Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma in footage shot over the course of three years. The film also makes the smart decision to not simply cast the interlopers as black-hat villains and nothing more--as it takes the time to get to know them as well, we can begin to understand the rationale behind the ultimately short-sighted approach that they have elected to employ as a means of survival. Most of all, the filmmakers had the great luck to find such a fascinating central character in Hatidze, who is presented here as a real person--not just some kind of pious symbol--and as we watch her interact with the land, her neighbors and her cantankerous mother (who at one point overhears their noisy neighbors and hilariously proclaims "May God burn their livers"), it is impossible not to admire her for her tenacity and the love of the land that she demonstrates in all of her actions. Again, I understand that this may not sound like everybody's particular cup of tea but despite the seemingly obscure nature of its subject, "Honeyland" is one of the most universal and fascinating documentaries to come along this year.

The title character of the new drama "Luce" is a war-zone orphan from Eritrea who, after seeing and doing things that no seven-year-old should have to go through, was adopted by affluent American couple Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, a combination that should raise red flags for anyone who saw the "Funny Games" remake) and given a chance to build a new life for himself. As the story opens, the now 17-year-old Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a polite, charming and hard-working overachiever who almost seems too good to be true. One person who hasnít quite boarded the Luce train, however, is his history teacher, Harriet (Octavia Spencer). After assigning her class to write an essay from the perspective of a historical figure, she is taken aback when Luce turns in a provocative essay in the voice of Frantz Fanon, a radical philosopher who spoke of the necessity for mass violence as a method to achieve progress. This inspires her to inspect his locker (don't ask), where she comes across a bag of illegal fireworks. After Amy is called in for a conference with Harriet regarding the essay and the fireworks, she and Peter are initially protective of their son (though they inexplicably do not come out and tell him what the problem is) but as things progress and new details about their son come to ligh--óall of which he is able to explain away in an instant and with a smile--both are forced to confront the notion that their prize child may have a dark and horrifying side despite all their nurturing.

A film that all but grabs you by the lapels and insists that you refer to it as "searing" and "powerful," "Luce" looks on the surface to be the kind of increasingly rare adult-oriented film that tackles serious and weighty themes in ways that will leave viewers arguing long into the night. Once you get beyond the initial flash, however, it becomes quickly and depressingly that while it is a film that seems to have a lot to say, it has not clear or concise idea of how to actually communicate any of its ideas. Screenwriters JC Lee (who also wrote the play it was based on) and Julius Onah (who also directed) are trying to tell a story as ambiguous as its title characters but while it raises any number of issue and deals with any number of hot-button topics, it doesn't really have anything much to say about any of them once they are introduced--lots of things are said but all you can hear are the grinding of the narrative gears required to keep the story moving along (including some truly bewildering behavior from many of the key characters.. To make matters worse, they have taken a premise that is already pretty loaded as is and further burdened it with unnecessary plot additions (including drug use, acquaintance rape, mental illness and such) that further drag down the proceedings. On stage, I can see how this narrative might have worked--if nothing else, the sheer intensity of the piece and the performances could have helped audiences overlook the major flaws--but from the distance created by the movie camera, not even the technically strong performances by the cast are able to help seal the increasingly ludicrous and unbelievable goods being offered up here.

I was about to describe "Ode to Joy" as being "the most insufferable romantic comedy to come along since. . . " but had to stop when I realized that I could not immediately think of one quite as painful and off-putting. In this painful stab at quirkiness, Martin Freeman stars as Charlie, a man who has suffered his entire life from cataplexy, an incurable form of narcolepsy that causes suffers to pass out whenever they feel any particularly strong emotions--especially joy. (When we first see him in inaction, he is collapsing wackily in front of the guests at his sister's wedding.) Obviously, love is a big no-no and this becomes a problem when he has a super Meet Cute with Francesca (Morena Baccarin)--she noisy breaks up with her lout boyfriend in the library where Charlie works and he calms things down--and is immediately attracted to her. When their first date inevitably goes sideways, he hits upon the genius idea of convincing her to go out with his goofball brother (Jake Lacey) instead. This way, he can spend time with her with the fact that she is actually dating his brother serving as enough of a depressant to keep him calm--the trick is that he now has to keep them from actually sleeping with each other and sending him overboard in the other direction.

Does any of this strike you as even remotely funny? Even if you are able to somehow work around the concept of basing a super-quirky romantic comedy around a real and serious disease, you are still left with the absolutely inane and painfully unfunny screenplay contrived by writer Max Werner that never finds the right tone for the material and which is filled with characters who are required to act like morons at every single moment in order to keep the plot moving. The film marks director Jason Winer's first feature since the misbegotten remake of "Arthur" (he has been working steadily in television since then) and he has somehow managed to show even less flair for the rom-com genre than he did with that one. The cast (which also includes Melissa Rauch as an oddball who winds up dating Charlie while he is pining for Francesca) is filled with good actors but they have been stranded with a screenplay that leaves them flailing about with nothing plausible or amusing to do, unless hearing Freeman say things like "Syria" or "Cosby" to bring his character down is inherently funny to you. Amazingly, this film was apparently inspired by a segment of "This American Life" and indeed, Ira Glass has a producing credit here. I have not heard the original radio presentation but I am fairly confident that it was far more intelligent, insightful and amusing than this film. It probably had better visuals as well.

The "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" books by Alvin Schwartz were collections of short stories, many inspired by American folklore, that told brief and evocative tales of terror designed to entertain young readers and, thanks in no small part to the grisly illustrations that accompanied them, horrified parents who had conveniently forgotten the time when they might have eaten such narratives up themselves. When it was announced that a film version was going to be made of them, many probably assumed that the resulting film would be an omnibus-type story featuring some of the best known tales, sort of a "Creepshow Jr." take. Instead, the resulting film, under the guiding hands of producer Guillermo del Toro and director Andre Ovredal (whose previous efforts have included such intriguing items as "The Autopsy of Jane Doe" and "Trollhunter"), is a lot more ambitious than that and is all the better because of it. Set in 1968 in a dying Pennsylvania mill town in the days between Halloween and Election Day, it focuses on a group of teens--led by loner Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and including outsider Ramon (Michael Garza), rationalist Auggie (Gabriel Rush), goofy Chuck (Austin Zajur) and Chuck's teen queen sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn)--who visit the local haunted house, where the mysterious Sarah Bellows spent her days reading spooky stories to kids through the walls before allegedly poisoning them. When they leave, Stella takes Sarah's old book of stories with her and discovers that a mysterious force is writing new tales of terror featuring her friends that seem to be coming to life and dispatching them in various icky (though safely PG-13) ways that include a malevolent scarecrow, an ogre searching for its missing big toe (don't ask where it turns up) and a spider bite on an otherwise flawless bit of skin that develops in ways that would give Dr. Pimple Popper cause to contemplate a change in careers.

Of course, for most genre fans, a horror movie aimed primarily at younger viewers might strike them as being way too watered-down for them to bother with and yet, "Scary Stories" proves to be a lot more effective than most of its adult-oriented competition. Although the scares take a little while to develop, I didnít mind that much because Ovredal, del Toro and screenwriters Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman do an effective job of establishing both the very specific time period they are evoking (although far less flashy, it is just as strong in this regard as "Once Upon a Time. . . in Hollywood") and the characters that it will be following. When the scares do begin to arrive in earnest, they come cloaked more in atmosphere than mindless gore and they are staged in ways that should inspire a delicious sort of tension in both younger audiences--the kind who are too old for "Goosebumps" but not quite old enough for the likes of "It" or "Stranger Things"--and longtime genre fans. Even better, the story devised to bring these tales together is one that is uncommonly smart, deals directly with the real-life tensions of the period when it is set and which is not kidding around when it comes to its more overtly horrific aspects. I could have lived without a final bit that seems more intent on setting up potential sequels than in fully dealing with the implications of what we have just seen. That said, "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark," despite its occasional hiccups, is so effective, both as an introduction to the genre for younger viewers and a nostalgic celebration of its pleasures for older one, that I am now eagerly awaiting a continuation.

Set in a remote town in the Appalachian mountains, "Them That Follow" focuses on a few of the members of a small but devoted congregation of Pentecostal snake handlers. Alice Englert plays Mara, the daughter of the charismatic Pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins), who has just set her up to be married to Garrett (Lewis Pullman), a whey-faced member of the congregation who clearly knows nothing about women but who puts an enormous amount of value on her purity. Little does he or her father know that in her case, that ship has sailed and she is now secretly pregnant with the child of Augie (Thomas Mann), who recently broke from the church to pursue a more secular life, much to the consternation of his intensely devout parents (played, in one of the weirder casting matchups of recent memory, by Jim Gaffigan and Olivia Colman). With a set-up like that, you would think that a film like this would be anything but boring but the writer/director team of Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage have somehow managed to accomplish that dubious task. Perhaps fearful of coming across as condescending, they have elected to eschew the kind of luridly melodramatic hysterics one might expect for a slow burn approach. Great but, as a wise man once said, you canít start a fire without a spark and that is what is sorely lacking here. For the first two-thirds of the running time, the film is an absolute drag that never demonstrates any particular interest in the subculture it is ostensibly exploring and offers its overqualified cast (the wonderful Kaitlyn Dever also pops up as Maraís lonely best friend) skimpy scraps instead of fully developed characters that might help viewers understand why some people would embrace the kind of lifestyle depicted here. Perhaps realizing just how lifeless the proceedings have been for most of the running time, the film takes a weird turn towards gory histrionics in the last 20 minutes that are sort of amusing in a tacky way but which jar uneasily with what has come before. "Them That Follow" has a potentially interesting premise and a more than capable cast but the whole thing is so tired and inert that it feels as if someone accidentally defanged the screenplay instead of certain member of the supporting cast.

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originally posted: 08/10/19 02:11:27
last updated: 08/10/19 02:35:58
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