Category: film reviews

The Strange Ones: A Nuanced Reality

I’m still not entirely sure I understand the ending of The Strange Ones, the new psychological drama from directors Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff. There are so many layers and points-of-view of what-is-real and what isn’t, that it can take some time for your mind to unpack what it just saw. One thing is for sure though; you will remember the performance of James Freedson-Jackson, the film’s lead.

Freedson-Jackson gives a hauntingly nuanced performance as Sam, the younger brother to Alex Pettyfer’s Nick. The Strange Ones sees Nick taking Sam on a camping and hunting trip after the death of their father. However, as one might surmise, not all is as it seems. We don’t really know anything about either character, which only further elevates the film’s overall theme and structure: what is reality really?

While at times, Radcliff and Wolkstein try and do too much, the opposite can be said of Freedson-Jackson. In one of those less-is-more type performances, he brings a level a nuance to a 14 year old character, that many – if not most – adult actors still find difficult to access. In the days of blockbusters and big acting styles, it is refreshing to come across an actor who can portray such layered subtlety. (Side note: would love to see Freedson-Jackson star opposite Canadian indie darling and noted silence queen Julia Sarah Stone) We are sure to see more of James Freedson-Jackson in the future.

The Strange Ones co-stars Gene Jones and Orange Is The New Black’s Emily Althaus and hits theatres January 5th.

Jackals Has Potential, Little Execution

Horror movies are funny animals. The majority of them are either deliciously original and unique or monstrously and inescapably bad. There are a few are bland and fall flat as well. With Jackals, occasionally I felt as if I watching two different films. What starts of as more of a psychological thriller, quickly delved into a much more traditional blood-fest. Although both styles of film-making have their merits, I feel Jackals could have been more successful if it stuck to the former method for longer.

The plot sounds like it could be intriguing: A cult de-programmer is hired to return a teenage son to his family’s cabin – in the woods obviously – only for them to stalked and attacked by the cultists upon their return. The opening scene, while intriguing and filmed from the perspective of a killer, does not really fit in with the rest of the story and could be eliminated, though the film is an already brisk 78 minutes.

Like any good horror flick, the cast is filled with C-list stars and lower-tier celebrities who are competent actors, even if much of their screen time is devoted to melodramatic over acting. The standout among that group was the subtle and wise Johnathon Schaech, who played the often-stoic father. Plus, an appearance by the always-menacing Stephen Dorff as the cult de-programmer was a joy to watch. Additionally, the film is directed by the Saw Franchise’s Kevin Greutert, who is a capable director is nothing else.

Where the film didn’t do justice is with its two female characters. At several points throughout the film, they were actively prevented from helping in the same way as the men and were told to stay back. The character of Samantha – the girlfriend of the teenage cult victim, and mother to his child – had whiffs of being the heroine, but ended up a weeping willow towards the end. Her character’s fate was more due to luck than anything else. Jackals has its moments for sure, but could done so much more.

In addition to Dorff and Schaech, Jackals stars Deborah Kara Unger, Chelsea Ricketts, Ben Sullivan and Nick Roux. It was just released on DVD.

LUCKY: Harry Dean Stanton’s Spiritual, Existential Final Chapter

There were few men like Harry Dean Stanton. A legend whose career spanned 60+ years, with very few bad films. His first role came all he way back in 1954 on the horror anthology television series Inner Sanctum. He made his film debut a few years later in what else but a Western in 1957’s Tomahawk Trail. For the next six decades, he existed – with a few notable exceptions – as a man who always seemed to be on the periphery of our collective consciousness, an actor whom who always knew, but didn’t necessarily “know”.

Which brings us to Lucky, an existential and philosophical journey of a ninety year-old atheist from John Carroll Lynch, making his directorial debut after years performing in front of the camera. The plot is incredibly subtle to the point of non-existence, instead focusing on its nonagenarian hero who spends his days drinking coffee with way too much cream and sugar, sipping bloody marys, and phoning up friends whenever he has trouble with his crossword, which he does daily. The latter activity leads him to the discovery that “realism is a thing”, in one of the most starkly wriest bits of text I have come across in recent memory.

His quest for truth at the bar is interrupted by David Lynch who laments that President Roosevelt has gone missing. Yes, the David Lynch. In a hilariously expert bit of casting, the famed surrealist director is cast as Stanton’s best friend Howard, a man whose meeting with a lawyer -and subsequent drawing of a will, in which he leaves everything to his pet tortoise, the aforementioned Roosevelt – starts Lucky on his journey.

Stanton as Lucky/Films We Like

Lucky only runs 82 minutes, although its appropriate slow place makes it feel many minutes longer. In addition to Stanton and Lynch the film stars a veritable who’s-who of Old Hollywood – Tom Skerritt, Ed Begley Jr, Beth Grant, and James Darren in a brilliant performance, as well as the always pleasant Ron Livingston. For me however, the real standout is the film’s composer Elvis Kuehn. Much of the film’s score is a breathtakingly rebellious harmonica played to its bluesy perfection during establishing shots and Stanton walking scenes. It gravitates to on-camera in its final appearance, as we see Lucky playing away to pass the time. That coupled with the blues and folk tunes expertly compiled by music supervisors by Mikki Itzigsohn and Lauren Mikus make it a hauntingly spiritual catharsis.

It is a beautiful tribute that one of Stanton’s last works should feature music so heavily; in addition to his harmonica playing, he himself contributes two songs to the soundtrack, including one in Spanish – the popular Volver, Volver – which he sings on camera towards the end of the film. It is a terrific send-off.

In the film Lucky comments that “memory is a funny thing” and how “nothing is permanent”. Sometimes the most powerful statements are the most subtle. Paulie, the character so beautifully portrayed by Darren explains to Lucky how “friendship is essential to the soul”. Whether or not one believes in the soul as an entity is subjective and somewhat irrelevant as for me friendship can be heartbreakingly healing, I would imagine more so towards the end of one’s life.

At its core, Lucky is wonderfully emotional film about coming to terms with our lives and who better to lead us on that journey than a man who certainly lived it to the fullest. Harry Dean Stanton, thank you. We salute you.

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