https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4302

Films I Neglected To Review: Fall Out

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/02/21 03:36:51

Please enjoy short reviews of "Every Breath You Take," "French Exit," "Shiva Baby," "The Unholy" and "Voices."

At the center of "Every Breath You Take" is the Clark family, a seemingly ideal unit who are all working through a shared tragedy in different ways--psychiatrist dad Philip (Casey Affleck) throws himself further into his work, grieving mom Grace (Michelle Monaghan) swims a lot of laps in the pool of their fabulously appointed home and troubled teen daughter Lucy (India Eisley) has just been booted out of boarding school for hoovering a line of coke in science class. When Philip is faced with an especially troubled and despondent patient, Daphne (Emily Alyn Lind), who is not responding to the usual approaches, he makes the radical move of sharing his own traumas with her as a way of showing her that she is not alone. For a while, it seems to be working great for her but things eventually go sideways and end tragically. This leads to the arrival of Daphne's British-educated brother James (Sam Clafin), who arrives at the Clark home and soon insinuates himself into their lives. In news that I suspect will not come as much of a shock to many of you, it turns out that James has some secrets of his own and is planning on taking advantage of the Clarks' already fractured bonds to destroy them completely.

Essentially a throwback to all those thrillers from the early 90s in which some Yuppies have their ostensibly complacent lives threatened by a mysterious outsider that forces them to confront their own lies before a round of cathartic violence in the final act--so much so that the only thing it is really missing is the Hollywood Pictures logo up front--"Every Breath You Take" is evidently hoping that viewers either haven't seen or have forgotten such films entirely (especially the Martin Scorsese take on "Cape Fear") because it is content to merely rehash their cliches without bringing anything new to the table. The screenplay by David K. Murray flirts with a couple of ideas about the ways in which people process grief but it quickly devolves into a series of allegedly startling twist developments that most viewers will be able to spot a mile away. A decent cast has been assembled here but, with the sole exception of Monaghan, none of them are able to make much of the cliches that they have been dealt. (I will just politely say that if I were to make a list of actors that could convincingly represent the notion of a bold and brilliant psychiatrist, Casey Affleck's name would not be at the top of it.) "Every Breath You Take" is hardly the worst film of its type but it is so by-the-numbers in every imaginable way that anyone who actually makes it to the end will find themselves wondering why they bothered with it in the first place.

Michelle Pfeiffer is one of the best American actresses around but not even her efforts can help to redeem "French Exit," a curdled farce that yearns to achieve some kind of crackpot whimsy but misses the mark by a mile. She plays Frances Price, a New York socialite and widow who scandalized her moneyed set years earlier when she supposedly discovered her husbandís dead body and then went on a weekend trip before reporting it to the police. As the story opens, she is informed that after years of high living, she has finally run through all of her money. This annoys her--then again, everything annoys heróbut it is not as if she is going to have to work or anything. Instead, she arranges to sell her luxury apartment and other real estate holdings and, with her dutiful son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and Small Frank, their cat who Frances believes is the reincarnation of her late husband, books passage on a ship to Europe and ends up crashing rent-free in the spare empty Paris apartment owned by one of her few friends (Susan Coyne). Once they settle in, Frances and Malcolm return to their usual positions--Frances being tart and hostile to virtually anyone who crosses her path (except for the moments when she reveals an unexpected heart of gold when no one else is around) and Malcolm quietly dealing with her weirdness while trying to muster up the courage to mention that he is actually engaged to Susan (Imogen Poots). Along the way, they acquire a new set of eccentrics to orbit around them including Madeline (Danielle Macdonald), a crackpot medium with an unfortunate habit of telling her aging clientele exactly when they will die, Mme Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), an odd woman with a connection to Frances's husband and Susan, who has broken up with Malcolm and found someone new but inexplicably shows up, with the new boyfriend in tow, to make sure that she has no lingering feelings for her former fiancee.

On the surface, "French Exit" appears to be going for a combination of the quirkiness found in the films of Wes Anderson and the kind of wild farce that Preston Sturges used to specialize in at the apex of his career. It quickly becomes apparent that neither screenwriter Patrick DeWitt (adapting his own novel) nor director Azazel Jacobs, whose previous efforts have included such oddball comedies as "Terri" and "The Lovers," are working on the level of either Anderson or Sturges. Not only does this film not work, as they say, it fails so completely in that regard that I was pretty much dumbfounded by the whole thing. The problem is not that the characters are unsympathetic--there are plenty of great comedies centered around awful people--but that they are uninteresting as well. Frances's IDGAF attitude is funny for a little while but the screenplay never manages to find a second note for her and the attempts to humanize her (we see several scenes involving her giving money to homeless people) feel like clunky afterthoughts. Meanwhile, Malcolm is such a twerpy little milquetoast that he engenders even less sympathy--the only genuinely surprising moment in the film comes when Susan turns up in Paris because logic would dictate that she should be relieved to be free of such a drip. In an effort to goose things up, all the supporting players have their own wild quirks (yes, the cat does turn out to house the dead husband's spirit and even speaks with the voice of Tracey Letts) that are more enervating than amusing. The best part of the film, of course, is Pfeiffer, who tears into the character with so much zeal that it oftentimes feels as if she is trying to carry the entire enterprise on her back. In the end, her performance is pretty much the only thing that works in "French Exit" but in the end, all it does is make you wonder what might have been accomplished if she had been able to deliver it in a film that was far more deserving of it than this one.

"Shiva Baby" begins as Danielle (Rachel Sennott), an aimless liberal arts major on the verge of graduation who is secretly serving as a sex worker as an easy way of making money, leaves the apartment of regular client Max (Danny Deferrari) after an assignation in order to meet up with her parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) and attend the shiva marking the passing of a distant relative--distant enough that she finds herself asking her mother who it was that died as they enter. The occasion quickly becomes a nightmare for her as she is constantly being buttonholed by people who all inquire about her weight, the status of her love life and what she plans to do with herself after graduation. Things get more excruciating for her with the arrival of Maya (Molly Gordon), a childhood friend and ex-lover whose life is clearly far more put together than hers. If that weren't enough, Max ends up making an appearance as well, along with his gorgeous and successful shiksa wife (Dianna Agron) and newborn child in tow. Unable to simply escape the proceedings, Danielle tries to negotiate everything from the tempting spread of food to the increasingly overbearing guests to her increasingly complicated feelings towards both Max and Maya, all without saying or doing anything that could spill the beans or cause embarrassment. You can probably guess how well that goes.

With its explicitly Jewish overtones, the underlying tensions that are at play throughout (further highlighted by the fact that the film unfolds almost entirely in real time) and lean towards dark and oftentimes uncomfortable comedy, "Shiva Baby" may remind some viewers of "Uncut Gems" in odd ways, though I for one would take this one over that oddly overrated work in a heartbeat. Expanding from her short film of the same name writer-director Emma Seligman demonstrates a fresh and funny voice with a take on the coming-of-age film that demonstrates a flair for cutting wit and keen social observation that makes it feel at time like a Nichols & May routine come to cringeworthy life. Also returning from the short film is Sennott, who is pretty spectacular here as Danielle as she figures out how to make her come across as sympathetic without letting her off the hook for her own contributions to her current woes. Also quite good is Gordon as Maya--she has been stealing scenes fairly reliably over the last few years in films like "Booksmart" and "Good Boys" and, on the basis of her work here, deserves to get her own vehicle as soon as possible. Short and snappy and very funny, "Shiva Baby" is a very funny and incisive comedy that will have even the most goyish of viewers laughing and wincing in equal measure.

Borrowing a page--and thankfully nothing else--from the Harvey Weinstein playbook, Screen Gems has elected to release the religious-themed horror film "The Unholy" on Good Friday--even going so far as to highlight that fact in the marketing campaign--in the presumed hopes stirring some controversy and lure in viewers who have already watched "Godzilla vs. Kong." As the film begins, disgraced former journalist Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is visiting a small Massachusetts town to investigate a report of cattle mutilations for a chintzy website. The report leads to nothing but Gerry stumbles upon a much bigger story when he comes across Alice (Cricket Brown), a local deaf-mute teenager who claims to have been visited by the spirit of the Virgin Mary, who not only restores her hearing and voice but also grants her the power to heal the sick to boot. Once word gets out about her, people begin to flock to the small town and even the Bishop of Boston (Cary Elwes) takes note. However, both Gerry and Alice's adoptive uncle, local minister Father Hagan (William Sadler), are not so sure and begin to investigate whether Alice is really channelling the Virgin Mary or a different and far more malevolent spirit.

Not to spoil things but if Alice wasn't channelling a malevolent spirt, "The Unholy" would be an entirely different movie and quite possibly a better one than this. Although ostensibly based on a novel by British horror novelist James Herbert, this adaptation from writer-director Evan Spiliotopoulos is little more than by-the-numbers hackwork that shamelessly borrows from everything from Mario Bava's "Black Sunday" to Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole" in addition to the usual array of demonic-based horror titles. None of it is particularly scary (for all the edginess it wants to demonstrate by coming out on Easter weekend, the film is resolutely PG-13 throughout) or creepy--the only thing remotely hair-raising about it is the wicked hardcore Boston accent employed by Elwes that tends to undercut the tenuous tension whenever he opens his mouth. The film has good actors like Morgan and Sadler and the wonderfully named Cricket Brown has a nice energy (and looks almost disconcertingly like Imogen Poots at times) but they are all let down by a script that offers them little more than genre leftovers that have been reheated and reserved past the point of viability. Dull and dumb in equal measure, "The Unholy" certainly lives up to its title, though perhaps not in the way that its producers intended.

For about the first two-thirds of its running time, "Voices" is a film that wears its inspirations so boldly on its sleeve that you see exactly where it is going before making a left turn in the final reels that, while unexpected, is so baffling that it almost makes you wish director/co-writer Nathaniel Nuon had just stayed on the tried-and-true path. As a young girl, Lily was involved in a terrible car crash that left her orphaned, blinded and hearing voices that she has been led to believe are only in her head but which actually belong to the spirits of dead people who have not fully passed over. Now an adult and working as a therapist, Lily (Valerie Jane Parker) learns that she and her husband are going to have a baby and is informed by a new patient, a medium who has recently lost her own son, that her unborn child is a vessel that will allow the soul of one of those limboed spirits to be reborn and that she has until the baby's first heartbeat to decide who will be the lucky spirit. Needless to say, there are plenty of souls out there looking for a second chance and their voices begin tormenting Lily and naturally, everyone else thinks that she is just suffering from the strain of being pregnant.

For most of its running time, "Voices" is a long, dull and mostly dour conglomeration of elements that suggests a bizarre mashup of "Carnival of Souls," "The Sixth Sense" and a paranormal take on the college admissions scandal. As it follows these lines, it isn't especially inspired or interesting--the fact that it is utterly devoid of anything resembling a sense of humor does not help matters at all--but at worst, it can be written off as a forgettable genre programmer making time before eventually landing in semi-permanent rotation during non-peak hours on the SyFy Channel. However, there is a weird subplot involving a non-supernatural form of horror that pops up here and there to discomfiting effect (and not in a good way) in the early going, only to wind up dominating the proceedings during the final stretch in a shift that, while bold, does not work at all. (To get a sense of this, imagine if the last third of "The Sixth Sense" was focused almost entirely on that supposedly sick little girl.) Granted, this move will most certainly shift feelings towards "Voices" from "meh" to "WTF?" but while I suppose it deserves points for sheer audacity, the finale is nether dramatically satisfying nor crazy enough to justify watching the rest of the film to get to it.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.