(Reviews of The Killing of Two Lovers; Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie's Dead Aunt); and Hero Mode)
Cinemas are open again, then. But not everyone is going to want to sit in the dark being distracted by the prospect of whether everyone else in the auditorium is following the social distancing guidelines as strictly as they are.
Consequently, the streaming platforms who have done rather well out of lockdown are going to keep up their good work for the time being at least. Therefore, in addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, stay safe.
THE KILLING OF TWO LOVERS.
Robert Machoian has been directing shorts since 2008 and has completed three features - Forty Years From Yesterday (2013), God Bless the Child (2015) and When She Runs (2018) - as co-director with Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck. Now, he makes his solo debut as writer, director and editor with The Killing of Two Lovers, an intense study of small-town marital breakdown that he has also scripted.
Everyone knows David (Clayne Crawford) in the small Utah town where he is struggling to cope with the fact wife Niki (Sepideh Moafi) has suggested a temporary separation. He's living with his ailing father (Bruce Graham), while Niki remains in the family home with their kids, teenager Jesse (Avery Pizzuto) and her three brothers, Alex, Theo and Mark (Arri, Ezra and Jonah Graham). Jesse wants her father to fight harder to bring them all together again, but he chides her for disrespecting her mother when she informs him that she is cheating on him with Derek (Chris Coy), who works at firm where Niki is a paralegal.
In fact, David already knows this, as the opening scene shows him standing over the sleeping lovers with a gun. But he can't bring himself to pull the trigger and is almost relieved when a flushing toilet prompts him to climb out of a ground floor window and run home along the snowy road. Having checked on his father, David sets out to stalk Derek and has to act nonchalantly when they come face to face at a store coffee machine. However, he has to abandon his vigil, as it's his turn to do the school run.
Having been sweethearts since high school, Niki assures David that she still loves him and hopes that they can work things out. However, she is already eyeing a new life, with the prospect of going to law school seeming very tempting after 15 years of being a mom.
Once a promising musician with a band, David is grateful for odd jobs from Mrs Staples (Barbara Whinnery), who jokes that she should hook up with his dad because they're used to being coupled. She thinks it's a shame that he's having a tough time and hopes for the best. But, despite having regular date nights, David is beginning to share Jesse's scepticism and he's wounded when Niki asks if they can stay close to home instead of going out and they watch from the car as Derek turns up on the doorstep with a bunch of flowers.
Having just treated Niki to an a cappella rendition of a self-penned song in which he accuses himself of being a `damn fool', David is forced to acknowledge that they have agreed to see other people during their break. However, he can't resist reminding Niki that they have a lot to loose when the boys bolt through the front door and trash the bouquet on the lawn. Despite being buoyed by their mischief, David still heads home and punches the dressmaking mannequin in the spare room.
Unable to sleep, he pops over to the house at 2am and knocks on the window of the boys' room. He tells them some jokes and feigns hurt when they declare them hopelessly unfunny. Niki isn't amused by the visit, however, and chews him out on the street as he is loading the mannequin into his truck. David drives out into the middle of nowhere and fires a dozen bullets into the doll, as though shooting at a stripped down version of his scruffily emasculated self, before leaving it in a field and driving home.
Eager to make his next play date go with a bang, David buys some rockets. The boys get excited and chatter happily about school as they drive to the park. But Jesse is sullenly silent and kicks her rocket when it fails to launch. When David tries to calm her down, she blames him for getting angry and storming out of the house and urges him to put things right before it's too late.
On arriving home, Jesse strops into the house and David accuses Niki of turning her against him by making her stay with him instead of hanging with her friends. Derek sidles out to mediate, but David refuses to let a stranger have any say in family matters. Embarrassed to be bickering in front of the neighbours, Niki goes inside. But, no sooner is her back turned, than Derek drops the nice guy act and punches and kicks David into a bloody mess.
Humiliated, he clambers into the driving seat and tries to retain consciousness, as he speeds away. However, he comes to a halt and grabs his gun when he thinks he sees Derek coming towards him. But it's Niki and she calls out to him to stop shooting. She sinks to her knees beside him and throws her arms around him. Some time later, the family considers buying a new washing machine during a trip to the hardware store. Everyone piles into the front of David's truck and heads home.
As David's song plays over the closing credits (this time with a guitar accompaniment), Machoian gives the picture one last tilt in his favour. By keeping the camera so close to Clayne Crawford that it's impossible to ignore his pain, the director predisposes the audience to empathise with his protagonist. Yet, we know nothing about the state of the marriage at the time that Niki decided to call a time-out and are never informed whether her request owed anything to the kind of emotional eruption to which her husband is prone throughout the film.
After all, David is first seen in Niki's bedroom pointing a gun to her head. Regardless of his distress levels, this is not the action of a rationale man and Machoian alludes to the raging turmoil he's experiencing through the clangs and grinds in Peter Albrechtsen's evocative sound design. But we never get to see how Niki is feeling or hear how she is coping with the chain of events that prefaces the gun-toting to which she's oblivious. Indeed, by giving her a scheming white-collar lover, Machoian is inviting us to judge her as a woman who put her career ambitions and bodily lusts before the needs of her children.
The boys are too young to understand what's going on and greet David with unquestioning enthusiasm, even when he shows up at their window in the middle of the night with some excruciating jokes. Jesse, on the other hand, has a firmer grasp of what's going on and tries to goad her father into giving the home-wrecking Derek the thrashing he deserves. But she's not allowed to spell things out, even though she drops the occasional hint that things weren't peachy before David through in the towel and left.
Although Crawford plays him as a decent guy who has the best interests of his children at heart, David seems to have lost his way since his band split up. He's keenly aware that Niki is more intelligent than he is and feels intimidated by the rise at the law firm that has not only brought her to Derek's attention, but which has also shown her how green the grass could be on the other side. Rather than doing anything to make himself a more enticing prospect, however, David has slouched around town doing odd jobs and telling anyone who will listen that Niki has done him wrong.
A deadening aura pervades the `happy ending', as Niki slips back into domestic subservience by hanging on to David's arm in the hardware store and letting him interrogate the sales clerk about the washing-machine. But one gets the impression that, unless David shapes himself, it's only a matter of time before another marital crisis arises
While some of Machoian's narrative choices and gender-political assumptions are dubious, his film-making intuition is much sounder. Shooting in the small berg of Kanosh, he and cinematographer Oscar Ignacio Jiménez make atmospheric use of the podunk locale and the white-streaked mountains looming over it. The decision to use the Academy Ratio reinforces the narrowness of David's horizons, but there's something a little arch about the switch from 4:3 to 1:66 for the street brawl sequence.
Otherwise, the tactic of keeping the camera at a distance during lengthy takes works well in establishing both the pace of life in the backwater and the sense that David's simmering emotions are about to come to the boil. Machoian's background as a photographer also comes into play, as there's a poignant stillness to many scenes. However, much of his visual symbolism is often laboured and blatant.
Despite the thinness of the characterisation, the performances are solid, although the perspective stacks the odds against Sepideh Moafi, who is often made to seem peevish and unreasonable. It would be interesting to know how much of the naturalistic dialogue was improvised, especially during Crawford's interactions with the lively Graham siblings and during the date night sequence. But one suspects the actors were asked to stick to the script, which shouldn't come as a surprise bearing in mind the controllingly patriarchal nature of the milieu that Machoian has created.
ELLIE & ABBIE (& ELLIE'S DEAD AUNT).
Seventeen year-old Sydneysider Ellie (Sophie Hawkshaw) is desperate to invite classmate Abbie (Zoe Terakes) to the school formal. But she can't quite summon the courage and her resolve is weakened when mother Erica (Marta Dusseldorp) reacts so badly to the news that she's gay. While Erica confides in best friend Patty (Rachel House), Ellie gets the unexpected support of Tara (Julia Billington), the aunt who died before she was born.
As a lesbian herself, Tara knows exactly what her niece is going through and insists she's less a ghost than a fairy godmother. But her insights are somewhat out of date and Ellie is given detention by Miss Trimble (Bridie Connell) for calling Abbie the C-word during a fight over the list of conversational gambits that Tara had given her to break the ice. Convinced that she's blown her chance, Ellie blames Tara, who urges her not to give up and to go easy on Erica, who blames Abbie for her daughter's erratic behaviour.
Tara is intrigued when Ellie mentions Patty and admits that she has no idea that she died in a car accident. However, Ellie discovers that she was deliberately run over by homophobes during a peaceful 1980s rally on Oxford Street when Abbie does a history report on Tara and describes her as an icon of the city's LGBTQIA+ community. They argue in front of the class and Ellie berates Erica for withholding the truth about her aunt's death and the fact that Patty had been her girlfriend.
Erica defends herself by claiming that she was emotionally exhausted by the campaign to bring the killers to justice and admits that her main concern about Ellie being gay is that she will be subjected to the same kind of prejudice. She reassures her mother that times have changed and that people are more accepting. But she is still distraught after Abbie rejects her attempt to apologise and she has no idea whether she will come to the dance, even though she finally got round to inviting her by attaching a note to an Aussie Rules football.
Naturally, Ellie and Abbie get to share a kiss while dancing alone under the stars. Moreover, Tara comes to terms with the nature of her demise and is finally able to rest in peace, safe in the knowledge that gay millennials recognise the sacrifices made by previous generations that enable them to come out and be themselves. Yet, for all the sweetness of the storyline and the positivity of its message, this is a rather conventional romcom whose complications are not only coyly contrived, but are also resolved with relative ease.
In bringing her indie stage play to the screen, however, debuting writer-director Monica Zanetti achieves several notable things. Firstly, she demonstrates that it's possible to make a film on one's own principled terms, as she opted to go the crowdfunding route after potential backers questioned her commitment to a predominantly queer cast. She also succeeds in resisting gay movie clichés and celebrates same-sex relationships without being reliant on heteronormative tropes. Moreover, the references to singers k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge neatly satirise the generational clashes, as do throwaway lines about sexual identification no longer being such divisive issue.
Coming to realise that there's more to being yourself than trusting upbeat aphorisms, Sophie Hawkshaw is engagingly gauche in her pursuit of Zoe Terakes, although her lack of curiosity about her aunt's passing feels more than a little unnatural, especially as she's being haunted by her. Furthermore, Zanetti might have spent more time reflecting on the painful experience that makes Abbie so guarded and so idiosyncratically deadpan.
But Hawkshaw and Terakes spark brightly, while Marta Dusseldorp and Rachel House do well to prevent the anxious mom and wise best friend from becoming too caricaturistic. The scene stealers, though, are Julia Billington, as the spirit caught between two worlds, and Bridie Connell, as the teacher who's not as prim as she seems.
Despite having lost his father when he was small and now having to deal with his mother's multiple sclerosis, teenager Troy Mayfield (Chris Carpenter) longs to work for Playfield Games, the design company founded by his parents, George (Bret Harrison) and Kate (Mira Sorvino). He gets his chance when he is suspended from school by Vice-Principal Goodson (Bobby Lee) for hacking into a government database so that the school could win some new computers. However, Kate only hires him because the company is in freefall and seems set to be taken over by rivals Xodus unless their new product scores big at the forthcoming Pixelcon event.
Designer Jimmy (Sean Astin), technical wizard Laura (Mary Lynn Rajskub), story editor Marie (Kimia Behpoornia) and bookkeeper Lyndon (Monte Markham) are angry with Troy for alienating a potential investor by pointing out the faults in Jimmy's latest game. But, with best bud Nick (Philip Solomon) and new classmate, Paige (Indiana Massara), he gets to work on ironing out the glitches. Unfortunately, he manages to alienate Jimmy, who quits in high dudgeon and is suspected of sending the spam email that wipes the company's entire computer system after Troy naively opens it.
In fact, the worm was sent by Xodus boss, Larry (Al Madrigal), and Troy's blushes are spared when Nick reveals that he had smuggled out a copy of the game codes to show computer teacher, Mr Diehl (Erik Griffin). As the days to Pixelcon count down, however, Troy knows that Jimmy's game isn't good enough and he invites his co-workers to help him develop an idea that he found in one of his father's folders. Returning to work after an MS flare-up, Kate is touched by this show of corporate-family spirit and her faith is repaid when Paige sings at Pixelcon (with the help of a stage fright app that Troy devised for her) to buy the team the time to upload the promo for `Brainstorm', which is promptly voted Best in Show in an online poll.
Cue wild celebrations (which include Troy and Paige's first kiss), which are followed in quick successesion by Jimmy's reunion with his judgemental estate agent dad (Creed Bratton) and the introduction of his whizzkid daughter, Emily (Willa Prawer). We even get to see the biter get bitten, as Larry falls for the old `take a quiz' scam. But the surfeit of wrap-up sequences can't disguise the fact that A.J. Tesler's first feature is a modest affair with much to be modest about.
It's apt that Jeff Carpenter's screenplay deals with coding, as it's a strictly by the numbers job that recycles so many formulaic ideas that his fee might be described as money for old trope. Tesler tries to jazz up the scenes of Chris Carpenter (who is the writer's son) tapping away at his keyboard by having cinematographer Jonathan Hall circle his desk, while visual effects supervisor Martin Hall fills in the backdrop with virtual paraphenalia. As visual niftiness goes, it's on a par with the game graphics (which hardly scream `Play me!') and the decision to tinker with the aspect ratio as Troy has bright ideas or learns something that broadens his horizon.
Carpenter, Jr. is solid enough in the lead, but his character is a resistible know-all who treats everyone shabbily, with the exception of his mother and his class crush. They are played engagingly enough by a limping Mira Sorvino and a pouting Indiana Massara, although Kate seems to have no idea how to run a games company and Paige's passive dreamgirl seems to have wandered in with Philip Solomon's black best mate from a third-rate 1980s teenpic. The other female characters are nothing more than ciphers, while Sean Astin's chip-shouldered designer reveals hidden depths, while milquetoast Monte Markham turns out to have been a bareknuckle boxer. Of course, he was.
Such jokey details merely reinforce the sense that Tesler is trying too hard to be down with the kids in his target audience. Yet, they might just prove to be more forgiving of a picture that sets out with laudable sincerity to entertain while extolling the virtues of family and teamwork.