South of Heaven

Written by Alexander Reams

79/100

Jason Sudeikis is primarily known for his comedy. From his tenure at SNL and countless comedies including, but not limited to, We’re the Millers, The Change-Up, and Horrible Bosses. However for a time now, Sudeikis has been doing smaller, indie films that show off his dramatic side (Colossal, where he plays a wonderfully dark metaphor on alcoholism’s hold on a person and a toxic, manipulative relationship, and Race). Now mixing the two with his truly breathtaking eponymous role in Ted Lasso. (aka the best thing to hit TV screens since we first heard “Woke Up This Morning” on a certain New Jersey-centered show). Now he culminates this run of indie films with a film with a lot of big names, but still small at heart. 

Following a 12-year prison sentence, Jason Sudeikis’ Jimmy Ray is released from prison and has one goal; spend the next year with his girlfriend/fiancee/sweetheart, Annie, played wonderfully by Evangeline Lily. This plan seemingly goes off without a hitch, sans the gorgeous Shea Wigham as a less-than morally sound parole officer, Schmidt, who hangs over Jimmy like his sins of the past. Eventually convinces the parolee to do a “favor” for Schmidt, which ends up spiraling Jimmy, and ends with him reverting to old habits. These old habits attract the attention from the mysterious and impeccably dressed Whit Price, portrayed serviceably by Mike Colter. 

These preceding actions are impeccably written, clearly understanding their lead actors, supporting, not as much. As much as I love Mike Colter, I’m not sure he was the best choice to play Whit, and Shea Whigham feels like he is playing the same character he has in countless other films. Sudeikis is given so much meat to work with, and he takes advantage of this, chewing up the scenery every chance he gets, with one standout being a scene with a kid over a turkey sandwich. This scene particularly is my personal favorite, giving a break between all the chaos that has been occurring, and allowing the audience to breathe. 

Standing with Sudeikis is a serivacably written Evangeline Lily and Mike Colter. While they do the best they can, the script just doesn’t hold up to muster. Which is unfortunate because the score, David Fleming channeling old school westerns in a modern world and the cinematography by Mike Mitchell, gorgeously captures the small town world that these characters occupy. I could not get past the writing that undercut Whigham, Lily, and Colter, a tragedy really, when you have such quality actors, but give them bare-bones to work with. Thankfully after all of this we are left with a truly world class turn by Sudeikis, who, by the end of this, has to answer the question “How far would you go for love?”

South of Heaven Trailer

South of Heaven is currently playing in limited theatrical release and is available to rent on VOD through limited providers.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

The Gateway

Written by Patrick Hao

28/100

Shea Whigham has the type of face that is able to give the whole backstory of his character. That’s why he has been a stalwart character actor in films like Silver Linings Playbook, Wolf of Wall Street, and Take Shelter. It’s a wonder why it took so long for Whigham to lead an indie crime film – hell, John Hawkes has led several at this point. The Gateway finally gives Whigham a chance to lead a film, although it does not match the sturdiness of Whigham’s performance.

The film, the second feature from commercial and music video director Michele Civetta, is stuck between a gritty sociopolitical character study and a pulp neo-noir destined to be a spontaneous movie choice by “that” uncle during the holidays. The Gateway, unfortunately, does neither especially well. On the character end, Whigham plays Parker Jode, an ex-fighter turn social worker, who takes an interest in helping a young girl, Ashley (Taegen Burns), and her troubled mother Dahlia (Olivia Munn) way beyond his duties as a social bureaucrat. Parker Jode is the classic reserved tough guy – one who feels more than he says. Civetta uses all of Whigham’s weathered wrinkles to his advantage in that regard.

On the crime end, Ashley’s father Mike (Zach Avery) is released from prison. He is a triple whammy of a drunk, cheat, and abuser who continues to commit robberies at the behest of local crime boss Duke (Frank Grillo). When an armed robbery turns violent, Mike decides to stash heroin into his unwitting daughter’s bag, setting the movie into action. Oh yeah, strong supporting characters playing their typecasts appear throughout from Taryn Manning (as a barfly of course), Mark Boone Junior (as a drug-dealing bartender of course), Keith David (as a Keith David type of course), and Bruce Dern (as a doddering cursing Vietnam vet, trying to atone for his sins as the father of Parker Jode of course).

The Gateway is exactly the type of movie you expect from the title, the poster, and the cast. None of it is especially convincing except for Wigham who is trying his darndest to make his world-weary character enough to carry the film. Civetta is not devoid of style. His influences are clear. The film starts out with neon hues like a second-rate Michael Mann and quickly devolves into straight to Redbox over lit tones.

It would have been better if the film decided to lean into its pulpier proclivities. Rather, Civetta and his screenplay written with Alex Felix Bendaña and Andrew Levitas leans into the hard times social message clichés. None of it is particularly convincing or inspiring. It doesn’t help that Olivia Munn and Zach Avery give stilted performances. It’s the chicken or the egg situation – was it the performances or the script that is wooden. The answer is probably a bit of both. Its hard to be too hard on a film like The Gateway. Its aspirations seem minimal, with its only ambitions being a calling card to whomever gets a break from this small film. It does not help the case of Shea Whigham, “Leading Man,” because even as the lead, the film is straining to focus on someone else.

The Gateway Trailer

The Gateway is available in select theaters and on VOD. Available on Blu-ray and DVD on September 7th.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Bad Times at the El Royale

Written by Michael Clawson

40/100

None of these characters elicited much feeling in me, nor did the atonal direction, which deprives the film of any noteworthy sense of anxiety, apprehension, or wry black humor that might have otherwise seeped outward from the performances. At the outset I was quite intrigued by Goddard’s willingness to move slowly, letting most of the first scene play out in a prolonged single take, but rhythmically the movie proceeds to be as monotonous as Darlene’s metronome. 

As played by Cynthia Erivo, Darlene did draw me in, as did Emily, Dakota Johnson’s character. Darlene’s singing voice is an emotional force, but it doesn’t register as deeply as it should because Goddard’s framing is so uninspired. Similarly, Johnson imbues every look at her character’s sister with believable affection and concern, but the script gives her little more than that to do; an attempt to complicate her character is made through hints at an abusive upbringing, but I would have preferred Johnson herself been given the opportunity to express the implications of that trauma. Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) is the film’s boldest attempt to simultaneously evoke dread and droll amusement, but I found myself neither amused nor uneasy in his presence. 

My excitement peaked at the sight of Xavier Dolan, who sadly was gone in no time. I could hardly even pay attention to what he was saying because I was too busy thinking about how The Death and Life of John F. Donovan just needs to come out already.

First Man

Written by Taylor Baker

96/100

Visual Jazz

Chazelle assembles a first-rate series of high high’s, high low’s, low high’s, and low low’s. I couldn’t agree more with everyone heaping praise upon the technical proficiency found aboundingly in this film. If one were to put it in a class of technical mastery based off of recent films you would lump it amongst Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk, and just ever so slightly beneath Mad Max: Fury Road. During this film I experienced shock, awe, jubilation, grief, anger, and solace. Chazelle tosses narrative norms to the side and brings you into an emotional ride loosely tied together by it’s handful of main characters and main goal.

Reach the Moon.

I’ve been trying to think about it’s narrative depths so as to express it’s wrinkles and omages and it keeps slipping through my fingers like that fine grain silt on the Moon’s surface. What I am absolutely certain of is that beauty and love are the two most apt words to describe what Chazelle packs into First Man’s omages to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The lights reflected to us off of Gosling’s helmet near the end, the docking sequence, the brief AI concern, the Moon as a monolith, and that last shot of Foy reflected off the glass within Gosling’s head. The love while not easy to see on the surface was always there, it was behind everything. Behind the sacrifices.

Gosling’s performance is amazing, and of the Fall fare as of yet Foy’s supporting role is peerless. The entire ensemble is almost sure to grab the best ensemble cast this year unless Vice or Widows really floor audiences. This is a bonafide blockbuster and a wonder to behold. See it in a premium format if you can, whether it’s IMAX or Dolby you won’t be let down.

Highly Recommended.

Taylor Baker originally posted this review on Letterboxd 10/12/18