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Movie reviews: 'You Should Have Left' is heavy on atmosphere, light on scares
Avery Essex, left, and Kevin Bacon appear in a scene from 'You Should Have Left.' (Nick Wall / Universal Pictures via AP)
YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT: 3 STARS
What should have been a distraction-free vacation at a remote house in Wales for husband and wife Theo (Kevin Bacon) and Susanna Conroy (Amanda Seyfried) and daughter Ella (Avery Tiiu Essex), turns out to be anything but when their "simple sanctuary" morphs into something sinister in "You Should Have Left," now on VOD.
Susanna is a busy actor; Theo is a rich banker starting a new life and family after his first wife died under mysterious circumstances. Feeling the need for quality time, they jet off to Wales to spend a week in the country. The rental house is even more beautiful than the pictures online. "It's bigger on the inside than outside," Theo marvels as they walk into the majestic foyer. There's no cellular service and the place is stark, stripped of all the owner's personal touches, but Ella's bedroom has a bed "the size of Connecticut" and all seems well.
Soon, doors open by themselves and Theo discovers a hallway that appears to be a place where time stands still. Then, the strange dreams begin. Before long, Theo's nightmares spill over into his waking hours as reality and dreamland become harder and harder to differentiate. Tensions flare, and after a fight Susanna leaves to cool off, leaving Theo and Ella in the house alone overnight.
It's then that things get really weird. The house seems to adhere to the wonky laws of physics as written by M.C. Escher. One room is five feet longer in the inside than the outside and the home's long hallways are interconnected in ways designed to entrap and confound anyone unfortunate to find themselves stuck in their seemingly endless maze.
As Theo tries to keep Ella safe, he finds an ominous note scrawled in his diary. "You should have left," it says in large, sloppy letters. "Now it's too late." What's going on? Is he trapped in a haunted multiverse? Is the house the cause of his torment or are these phenomena a product of an unhealthy mind?
"You Should Have Left" is heavy on atmosphere but light on actual raise-the-hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck scares. There is the odd jump scare moment but the movie is mainly geared toward psychological drama, the primal fear for the safety of a child or losing one's sanity. Theo spends a great deal of time wandering the house, opening the doors that sometimes lead somewhere unexpected, sometimes lead him right back to where he started. It's a clever way to represent the various parts of his personality and the psychological journey he is on. "The right ones always find the house," says a townsperson. "Or is it the reverse? does the house find them?"
Director David Koepp keeps the special effects to a minimum, relying instead on the weight of Theo's psychological crisis to carry the story. It's like "The Shining" without a showstopping "Here's Johnny" scene. The weird and wild stuff is mostly done with camera tricks and inventive direction, giving the haunted house scenes an organic, slightly more realistic feel.
"You Should Have Left" is part psychological thriller, part morality tale. At just ninety minutes it feels a hair long and a late-stage dramatic point between Susanna and Theo feels forced, but Bacon keeps the portrait of a man trying to understand what is happening around him intriguing.
THE REST OF US: 3 ½ STARS
Blended families can be complicated, messy ecosystems particularly when tragedy is involved. There are a ton of movies about divided loyalties in the face of divorce or death but "The Rest of Us," the new Heather Graham film now on VOD, is different. Rather than milking the relationship between first and second wives for heightened drama, it focuses on empathy and compassion.
Graham plays illustrator and author Cami, mother to Aster (Sophie Nelisse) and ex-spouse to Craig. Ten years previously he cheated on her with Rachel (Jodi Balfour), leaving his first family behind to start again with the younger woman. "She's almost young enough to be your daughter," says Aster. When he dies in the tub, the two women have a chilly reunion at the funeral reception, which happens to be in the house Cami shared with Craig.
Days later, the two women meet again and some shocking truths about Craig's financial state arise. "He hasn't paid the mortgage for six months," Rachel tells Cami. "It'll all go up for auction. The furniture, the house, everything. We can keep a few clothes and things." Moved, Cami offers Rachel and daughter Talulah (Abigail Pniowsky) a temporary place to stay while she waits for the insurance money to come in. Rachel declines, but when the house is foreclosed on, her hand is forced.
With the four living on Cami's property secrets are revealed, tensions vented and grief and anger over the passing of the man who connects them is shared.
"The Rest of Us" has plenty of reveals. Truths are uncovered at an astounding rate, but there are never fireworks, just well calibrated moments that expose the complicated dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Director Aisling Chin-Lee never overplays or rushes those moments even though the film has a scant eighty-minute running time. Instead she allows the strong performances from each of the players — particularly from Nelisse — to do the heavy emotional lifting.
Sharp writing keeps the unusual premise of "The Rest of Us'" from becoming too pat, even if one of the big reveals is telegraphed early on. Still, it's a lovely testament to the power of empathy and forgiveness.
MR. JONES: 3 STARS
"Mr. Jones," a new drama starring James Norton and Vanessa Kirby that comes to VOD this week, is a period piece set in the years leading up to the Second World war, but the themes it explores: fake news and media corruption, are just as timely today as they were in the 1930s.
The action in "Mr. Jones" begins in 1933 after idealistic Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) used his connections as foreign advisor to prime minister David Lloyd George to score a sit-down with Adolph Hitler. The resulting story, warning of Hitler's ambitions, costs him his government job, leaving him free to explore his next story, a proposed interview with Joseph Stalin to discuss the truth of the Communist Party's five-year plans for the development of the national economy of the USSR. "The Soviets have built more in five years than our government can manage in a hundred." He's determined to find out how the poor country is funding such large scale technical and military achievements. What is being sacrificed in return?
Upon arrival in Moscow, Jones is stymied at every turn. With no access to the leader, the journalist, although a teetotaler, dips his toe into Moscow's hedonistic nightlife scene where he meets the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Walter Duranty (Peter Saarsgard), a man as blind to the truth as Jones is open to it.
His search leads him to a train, with a Communist minder, bound for Ukraine. Slipping away, he escapes into Stalino (now Donetsk) to uncover the unimaginable horrors of the Holodomor, a famine that killed at least 7.5 million people between 1932 and 1933. "They are killing us. Millions, gone," says one townswoman. "Men thought they could come and replace the natural laws."
What had been portrayed in the press as "the breadbasket of the world" — "Grain is Stalin's gold," says Duranty. "The 5-Year Plan has doubled the output." — is in fact a hellscape of death where bodies are stacked on horse carts, abandoned houses dot the landscape and families eat tree bark and resort to cannibalism to survive.
Upon his capture he makes a deal with the devil to ensure the safety of six engineers arrested by the Russian state. As long as he promises to return to England and "tell the truth about what he saw;" to tell stories about the "happy and proud farmers and the remarkable efficiency of our collective farms," and ensure the world that any rumors of a famine are just that. Rumours.
Back in England, Jones says, "I do have a story but if I tell it six innocent men will die. But if I write the story millions of lives may be saved."
"Mr. Jones" is an unevenly paced but haunting account of one man's search for truth. At the centre of it is Norton who effectively portrays Jones' steeliness and his frustration at not being able to do his job, but it is his time in Stalino that resonates. The long section, shot in desaturated black and white with very little dialogue, allows the actor to portray the true horror of his surroundings. For the most part he keeps his revulsion internal, there are no hysterics here, just the soul crushing realization of the savagery of the surroundings.
Director Agnieszka Holland is no stranger to this subject matter or time frame. "Europa Europa" and "In Darkness" are compelling examples of her documentation of the worst events of the 20th century. She brings a similar gravitas to "Mr. Jones" and her unwavering sense of outrage at the atrocities is undiminished. It makes for forceful filmmaking but there are other choices that siphon some of the film's power.
The opening moments, as Jones warns about Hitler's threat, feel like something out of Masterpiece Theatre but quickly lead to more captivating material. It's the inclusion of passages from George Orwell's 1945 political satire "Animal Farm" that help bog down the film's final forty minutes. Orwell was influenced by Jones' reporting but didn't write the book for a decade after the events portrayed in the film and his inclusion feels wedged in.
Despite some slack pacing "Mr. Jones" is an absorbing history lesson with a timely message for today. It's a rejection of fake news and those who belittle the life-saving value of journalism.
YOU DON'T NOMI: 3 ½ STARS
The title "You Don't Nomi" is a pun based on the name of the character played by Elizabeth Berkley in the notorious movie "Showgirls." A new documentary by Jeffrey McHale, now on VOD, digs deep into a movie "New York Times" critic Janet Maslin called a "bare-butted bore" in 1995 but has since been given a critical reassessment. "I don't think we're done with it," says writer Haley Mlotek, "because I don't think we know what it means as a film."
For the initiated "Showgirls" is a big-budget "erotic drama" — one writer called it a "$40 million stag party" — penned by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Paul Verhoeven, the team behind "Basic Instinct." It's the tawdry tale of Polly Ann Costello, a.k.a. Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), a young drifter who will do almost anything (or anyone) to become a star as a Las Vegas showgirl.
It was meant to be Berkley's move to adult roles after finding fame on the squeaky-clean kiddie sitcom "Saved by the Bell." Instead, the over-the-top film was savaged by critics, dismissed as misogynistic by audiences, protested by LGBTQ groups as it became an albatross around Berkley's boa clad neck.
Using clips aplenty from Verhoeven's film and the disembodied voices of film critics and academics, "You Don't Nomi" aims to reexamine the perceived wisdom about the film. Is it a terrible joke, a campy "All About Eve" or is it a misunderstood masterpiece?
The truth is that it is probably somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. "Showgirls" superfan and critic Adam Nayman offers up a compelling breakdown of Verhoeven's visual style dispelling early criticism of the film as a poorly made exploitation flick. It may be exploitive, but it is not poorly made. Other voices chime in, some dissenting but most leaning toward the film as an exercise in maximal cinema. One critic suggests that if we brush aside any expectation of realism or naturalism and the movie takes on a new life as a hyper-stylized kind of filmmaking.
"It's completely singular," says another. "Like nothing else."
Poet Jeffrey Conway likens the film to camp classics like "Valley of the Dolls" and "Mommie Dearest," movies that are "impossibly bad and impossibly thrilling at the same time."
As a clever assemblage of clips and opinion "You Don't Nomi" is entertaining and may make you want to revisit the film's sleazy milieu, but it feels more like a DVD extra for a new, deluxe "Showgirls" release than a feature doc.