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            • Lee Morrison
                Entertainer
                • 4/5 (1 votes)
                Blog by Entertainer

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                This year’s Narrative Feature Competition included numerous directorial debuts, including that of Irish writer/director Stacey Gregg. Her thriller “Here Before” shows a great deal of visual confidence, especially in telling a disorienting story in a domestic setting. And she gets an anxious, melancholic performance from Andrea Riseborough, who continues to be an excellent actor to embed deep into such an emotional nightmare. 

                Like Riseborough’s earlier movie “Nancy” (written and directed by Christina Choe), “Here Before” deals with a parent’s grief of a lost child, and how they can be further vulnerable to a later sensation when maybe that child has returned. In this case, Riseborough’s Laura is mourning the loss of her daughter Josie, with her husband and teenage son in their home at the top of a hill in Belfast. Laura’s life is progressively thrown out of whack when a young girl named Megan (Niamh Dornan), the daughter of her new neighbors, starts resembling Josie in a lot of ways. And even worse, Megan starts to act like Josie and make it seem like it’s natural for her to want to be around Laura and her family. Laura initially resists the interactions, and tries to set boundaries, but each time that Megan’s mother fails to pick her up at school, Laura feels more pain and jealous. Laura eventually goes all-in on it—she thinks Josie was reincarnated, and it creates a destructive tension between the two neighbors who are progressively offended by Laura’s inappropriate behavior. 

                The ultimate reveals that come from this type of emotional terrorism turn out to be a mighty stretch of human behavior, especially for a movie that wants to be so grounded and perceptive. However, the twisty script is not what most resonates with this movie, as it’s the cinematic storytelling (the cinematography by Chloë Thomson especially) that creates such unease with its full use of the frame and established sense of space. The interactions between Laura and Megan’s mother Marie (Eileen O’Higgins) become progressively uncomfortable, especially with the visual tension that Gregg imbues in the scenes, like a scene at a grocery store. The camera slowly creeps on another moment in which Laura starts to act like a mother to Megan, even though it’s entirely inappropriate. Grief is richly ominous in "Here Before," and so is the sense that something is very, very wrong. Gregg's film presents its unfathomable mystery with memorable style. 

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                Our Father,” the directorial debut of Bradley Grant Smith, is the story of Beta (Baize Buzan) and Zelda (Allison Torem)—two twenty-something sisters in the Chicagoland area who are in their own isolated worlds of sadness, in need of a type of connection. Beta has been sleeping in her car, we learn later because of a toxic relationship, and her younger sister Zelda has been living in a boarding home with elderly women, while building a relationship with a set designer named Henry. Both of them need the other, as no one should have to go it alone, and there’s a good deal of sadness in the past that they aren’t facing. 

                They come together when their father dies by suicide, and it turns out to be the two sisters up against their stepmother Jane and her older, sometimes leering sons. They learn during the process of everyone splitting up the dad’s possessions (one of numerous sequences that go for dual quirky/moody valor without leaving much of a mark) that they have an estranged Uncle Jerry, and seek to find him. What follows is not a road trip but a low-key investigation to locate Jerry, a set of plot devices after another in which characters remember information conveniently, and it’s all too staid to leave a mark. The sisters are interesting to follow through this story, especially as their quest takes a type of grief without Smith’s script making too much of a big deal of it. 

                But the plotting and characters feel more sketched out than written in full, making the script's indulgences with them all that more obvious. It’s particularly tedious when the script quotes itself, with characters remarking about a piece of dialogue that was just said, like when Zelda says Beta’s remark of “I’m not as sad as I want to be” is a good line. Then there's the film's tiresome depiction of how misogynists interact with Beta and Zelda, in which it becomes clear the director wants to show his awareness of telling a story about women. It's a transparent effort that proves to have little purpose than a writer/director desperately proclaiming they know what women experience even casually. (It's baffling when a massive emotional scene between a strange man and one of the sisters then takes place up at his apartment, alone, in near darkness. You do not believe the sister would actually ever feel comfortable with it.)  

                But it’s also the dialogue that can also be the most standout part of the movie, especially as it feels honest to come from Zelda (“Well, we’ll always have that weekend when dad died” is effectively sharp) or later some other, wiser characters. There are bits of compelling elements in all of these people, but they hardly feel grounded, and in turn their journey is less emotional. 




                Original: https://www.rogerebert.com/festivals/sxsw-2021-here-before-our-father
                By: Nick Allen
                Posted: March 22, 2021, 2:00 pm

                • Lee Morrison
                  Lee Morrison rated A Week Away's Rating with 5 stars
                    Entertainer
                    • 5/5 (1 votes)
                    Blog by Entertainer

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                    The teen musical "A Week Away," about a juvenile delinquent who finds faith, friendship, and love during a one-week stint at a Christian youth camp, is Netflix's bid to grab a piece of the so-called "Christian film market," one of the few genres of feature to have experienced growth in the last couple of decades. That "so-called" in the preceding sentence isn't a swipe at the sincerity of anyone's religious beliefs—I'm sure that everyone involved with this project is either devout or respectful of those who are—but a debate prompt, aimed at anybody who cares about faith, cinema, or both. 

                    The story begins with orphaned teen Will Hawkins (Kevin Quinn, who looks like he could be Zac Efron's nephew) fleeing a police officer on foot, guitar in hand. We later learn that he's a delinquent minor with a long rap sheet that includes such funny-rebellious offenses as stealing a cop car and putting his high school up for sale on Craigslist. (There were offers.) Will is given a one-week stint at a Christian youth summer camp in lieu of criminal charges, which is how you know that the hypothetical audience for this movie is middle-class, suburban, and white. Will was arrested without bodily harm, but a Black kid from anywhere in the United States who stole a cop car likely wouldn't be, and it's hard to imagine that The System would go out of its way to find reasons not to prosecute him. The film tries to inoculate itself against charges of racial cluelessness by placing Will in the care of a Black foster mother (Sherri Shepherd's Kristin) who works at the aforementioned camp and has an earnest, nerdy teenaged son named George (Jahbril Cook). 

                    Will bunks with George at Camp Aweegaway (a week away, get it?), and each falls for a delightful girl and woos her when they aren't trying to win assorted competitions. Will is smitten with Avery (Bailee Madison), the adorable daughter of the camp's director (David Koechner, the perfect actor for a role like this; he looks like half the beer-bellied, motivational cliche-shouting high school gym coaches in America). George makes a play for Avery's cute but socially awkward pal (Kat Conner Sterling), and slowly overcomes his poor-self image with the support of the much cooler Will. There's a fun, short fantasy musical number, reminiscent of a Super Bowl halftime show or a grand finale musical number on "American Idol," set right after Will does a "makeover" on him, and a few other moderately engaging numbers set on arrival day, in the camp's cafeteria, and in and around the swimming hole. There's almost nothing in the way of dramatic stakes, though, save for a very brief third-act interlude where Will faces the consequences of lying to Avery about his criminal past. This, of course, is a false sort of "conflict" because we know Avery would never cut the handsome, considerate, sensitive Will loose over such a minor transgression. The "villain" in the movie, a lanky redhead played by Iain Tucker, isn't all that threatening or menacing. His main sins are competitive pride, jealousy, and an overweening smugness. 

                    As written by Alan Powell and Gabe Vasquez, and directed by veteran music video director Roman White (who has multiple credits with Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, and Taylor Swift), "A Week Away" feels like an evangelical Christianity-infused Disney Channel movie, if that's not a redundant phrase: there's always been a fair bit of crossover between the cable outlet's cute but bland teen (actually preteen-targeted) sitcoms and musicals, and the American "if it's not rated G, it's not Christian" entertainment marketplace. The film excels at fast-paced verbal comedy, expertly channeling that post-1970s screwball comedy thing where the actors talk around and over each other while delivering exposition, even carrying on sardonic side discussions while another character is engrossed in their monologue. Powell and Vasquez squeeze in a few self-mocking or nearly satirical exchanges that poke fun at evangelical Christian youth organization cliches, like how teens who've been on missions lord that over teens who haven't. 

                    In comparison, the musical numbers are merely adequate. Like all but a handful of the numbers in Disney Channel musicals and broadcast network series like "Glee" and "Smash," they have no discernible personality. It's more tedious "coverage" filmmaking: shooting everything with multiple cameras, some of them moving dynamically, and cutting between the various angles with occasional speed-shifts until the performance is done. 

                    This isn't an unwatchable movie, just an underachieving and forgettable one, and somehow that's more irritating than a disastrous swing for the fences would've been. Innocuous and nearly conflict-free films like this are not, in fact, more Christian than a theology and/or morality-infused feature like "The Tree of Life," "A Hidden Life," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "The Passion of the Christ," "Bad Lieutenant," "Silence," "Resurrection," "Diary of a Country Priest," "Jungle Fever" or "The Apostle," to name but a few landmarks; they're just more slick, orderly, and safe. They're long ads reassuring people that the product they already own is perfect in every way. 

                    Judging from the obedient, well-adjusted, sexually neutered, almost rebellion-free teens in "A Week Away," the brand loyalists are musical theater-loving middle schoolers from devout households who can sing every number in "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" and maybe "High School Musical" or "Camp Rock" from memory, but haven't been allowed to watch "Cabaret" or "The Book of Mormon" or even "Oklahoma!" yet because their parents are worried it would spark discussions they don't want to have. (Oddly, Netflix has already proved that it can produce smart, quirky, real world-adjacent teen pix with bite, like "The Half of It" and "Moxie.") That the screenplay keeps name-checking the teen dramas of John Hughes only highlights the comparative lack of nerve on display here. 

                    The movie's lack of ambition is a shame, because the youth drama and/or musical and/or romantic comedy is fertile ground for faith-centered narratives that treat struggles over faith, doubt, suffering, unfairness, and willingness to trust authority with the seriousness they deserve. Imagine a Christian youth version of a movie like "The Young Girls of Rochefort" or "La Bamba" or "8 Mile" or "Purple Rain" (which is pretty close to being a Christian youth movie anyway, though not one pastors would show in Sunday school). Or, for that matter, a Christian youth musical modeled on a movie with art in its eyes and poetry in its soul, like "Rebel Without a Cause," "The Outsiders," or "The Spectacular Now." Do we need divine intervention to make this happen? Keep cinema in your prayers tonight.

                    On Netflix today.




                    Original: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/a-week-away-movie-review-2021
                    By: Matt Zoller Seitz
                    Posted: March 26, 2021, 1:37 pm

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