Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

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Sundance Review: Influence

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The late Lord Timothy Bell changed politics in the 1980s with his scorched earth approach to public relations. There was seemingly no client too shady for his public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, which propped up many despotic regimes around the world. Featuring extensive interviews with Lord Bell himself, Influence takes a hard look at the legacy he left behind.

Directors Diane Neille and Richard Poplak cover practically the entirety of Bell’s career, from his early days in PR working with Saatchi & Saatchi to his departure from his namesake firm in 2016. A special emphasis is given to Bell’s work with Margaret Thatcher. The “Labour Isn’t Working” campaign was particularly devastating, helping the Conservative Party gain immense steam heading into the election that lead to Thatcher becoming prime minister.

Bell is a fascinating subject. Neille and Poplak strike at the core of his amorality, willing to do anything for anyone with a checkbook. Lord Bell is keen to play the villain, taking great delight in his life’s work. His only regrets seem to lie with the demise of Bell Pottinger after the scandal in South Africa.

The film struggles to grapple with an overstuffed narrative that loses steam as it tries to pack too much into its bloated runtime, sacrificing depth for breadth. Bell Pottinger’s reach stretched all across the globe, aiding many shady tyrants. Neille and Poplak struggle to explain the political climates of many of the situations in a way that a general audience could understand.

Influence dissects the relationship between Bell Pottinger and the Gupta family in South Africa, who hired the firm to help prop up the Zuma regime. Bell Pottinger stoked a lot of racial animosity in the country, which was exposed after whistleblowers came forward with a treasure trove of documents. The material is hard to follow, especially since it’s not really even the primary focus of the film.

Neille and Poplak can’t really decide if Lord Bell is their focus or Bell Pottinger as a whole, a dynamic that becomes quite unwieldy as the narrative rolls along. Though the runtime of 105 minutes allows for quite a bit of globetrotting, it’s much harder to piece the findings into something resembling a cohesive conclusion.

The film also falls a bit flat when it tries to tie Bell Pottinger to the current state of disinformation running rampant in politics across the globe. The 2016 Trump campaign and Cambridge Analytica are obvious successors to the antics that Lord Bell deployed, but Nellie and Poplak draw lines between them that don’t feel all that necessary or insightful. It’s hardly as if Lord Bell invented political theatre, even if he was a master at it.

Influence is a fascinating documentary in many ways. The film presents a damning portrait of a charming yet detestable man. As a narrative, it starts to fall flat after a while, sinking under the weight of the massive amount of information it tries to convey. The film tries to do too much in a short period of time, becoming way too hard to follow for a general audience. Fans of global politics may find much to enjoy, but the film is in desperate need of additional editing to bring clarity to its findings. 

 

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Sundance Review: Run Sweetheart Run

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To a large extent, it feels a bit reductive to talk about toxic masculinity in the horror genre. Slasher killers are typically men, monsters who brutalize their victims in unseemly matters. That’s not to say that there’s not plenty of sexism displayed in the manner with which women are victimized compared to men, but this territory is messy quite literally by design. Toxic is kind of the point.

Run Sweetheart Run centers its narrative of the agency of women in the horror genre. Shari (Ella Balinska) is a single mother who just wants to enjoy a night out on a blind date set up by her boss. Ethan (Pilou Asbæk) is a wealthy, mildly charming guy looking for a bit of fun. A supernatural figure, Ethan’s idea of a good time involves chasing woman through the night by tracking their scent.

Much of the film plays out like a standard survive-the-night horror thriller. Writer and director Shana Feste plays with power dynamics quite a bit, particularly with Ethan’s ability to control the police, but the narrative is pretty straight-forward. While the dramatic turns feel a bit predictable, the film does a good job staking out its own territory in a well-trodden genre.

Feste flips the script on femininity in horror, unabashedly wielding the female body to her protagonist’s advantage. By Ethan’s design, Shari is bleeding from her wounds but she’s also on her period. Women have been too often guided to feel shame for exposing such realities publicly. Feste sets out to change that conversation.

Balinska does a great job with the material. The genre has a natural trajectory for Shari to follow, but Balinska makes it her own. She doesn’t just want to survive, but to thrive in a world that has tried to force its terms for far too long.

Asbæk has a certain charm that works well as a villain. Ethan is cute, with a weirdly innocent quality about him that’s so obviously fake and yet still alluring. His place in the narrative could be largely perfunctory, but Asbæk makes sure the audience never forgets his smiling face.

 Run Sweetheart Run is a little clunky with its transitions. Some of that lies with the predictable nature of suspense building within the genre. Villain and hero must cross paths a few times to keep the tension alive, but Feste struggles with the obligatory nature of this dynamic. She skirts the line of one-trick pony a bit too much, though the trick doesn’t really hinder the narrative. 

Backed by an excellent cast and a strong sense of pacing, Run Sweetheart Run is a fresh take on a genre that’s seen it all. Feste offers a lot of commentary on the present age without letting weighty issues bring down the narrative. Shari isn’t the first strong woman we’ve seen in horror, but she’s refreshing in her unabashed celebration of her femininity, blood and all.

 

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January 2020

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Sundance Review: Miss Juneteenth

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Part of growing up is to understand the relationship between parental expectations and the reality of needing to live one’s own life. Miss Juneteenth understands the need for nuance in portraying this challenging dynamic. Not everyone was born to be a pageant queen, but those truths don’t necessarily need to be accepted by parents who want their children to follow in their footsteps.

Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) is a hard-working single mom. She picks up extra shifts at Wayman’s BBQ & Lounge to help pay the bills, singularly focused on providing a better life for her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). A former winner of the Miss Juneteenth pageant, which honors the day that Texas slaves learned of their emancipation, Turquoise hopes that the scholarship money awarded to the winner can give Kai an opportunity that she wasn’t able to have for herself.

For Kai, the etiquette training and fancy dresses associated with Miss Juneteenth represent a world she wants nothing to do with. Kai wants to dance. But dance team doesn’t offer the same chances at a scholarship, putting her in a difficult position of trying to appease her mother at the cost of her own passions.

 In her feature debut, writer and director Channing Godfrey Peoples presents an intimate family narrative. Miss Juneteenth is a heartwarming film about the nuances of mother/daughter relationships. Kai and Turquoise don’t always see eye to eye, but Peoples constantly keeps the audience guessing with the way she lets the story unfold.

Beharie and Chikaeze are a great mother/daughter pair. The two possess an organic relationship that responds to the needs of the plot without existing in a reactionary capacity. There’s no unnecessary conflict packed in. Peoples uses great restraint in her approach to conflict with excellent sense of pacing.

The script is a little underdeveloped, with numerous subplots that barely get any attention after they’re introduced. There’s a lot of backstory to Turquoise that we don’t get answers to, a puzzling dynamic for the film’s lead character. Peoples keeps the romance to a minimum, which is refreshing, but the events of Turquoise’s own Miss Juneteenth remain unresolved. Peoples does include a fair number of satisfying story arcs. Turquoise’s mother, a God-fearing alcoholic, receives an arc that brings depth to her daughter’s own trajectory.

Peoples keeps expectations for the story fairly measured. Miss Juneteenth isn’t full of surprises, but Peoples is well-versed in the nuances of interpersonal conflict. A beauty pageant shouldn’t be the defining moment in anyone’s life. Of course it is for some, but Peoples ensures that her narrative doesn’t hinge on an arbitrary outcome.

Miss Juneteenth finds meaning in the simple interactions of its characters. Their lives are full of hardships and struggles that would exist no matter what happened in a pageant. A yellow dress may not change the world, but Peoples presents a meaningful slice of life. An excellent debut. 

 

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Sundance Spotlight: Danny’s Girl

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Recorded from the Sundance Film Festival! Join host Ian Thomas Malone as she interviews Emily Wilson and Danny Dikel, the director and star of the new short Danny’s Girl, an eclectic provoking commentary on internet. Emily & Danny share some insights from the film and explain the decisions behind the unique narrative that shies away from technology in this iPhone-obsessed era. A spoiler-free interview, this episode works great for fans of the film looking to learn more and those interested in checking it out (which you totally should).

 

To learn more about Danny’s Girl, check out the film’s website dannysgirl.com.

 

For more of Emily & Danny, check out their Instagram pages @emilyannewilson & @dannydikelart

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Sundance Review: Palm Springs

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In the realm of time-looping comedies, Palm Springs finds itself in the company of one of the genre’s defining films. Groundhog Day is a classic, a philosophical narrative that delivers its laughs with a heavy dose of introspection. Backed by a terrific cast and produced by The Lonely Island, director Max Barbakow has crafted a film that blends science with nihilistic humor to create an unforgettable experience.

Nyles (Andy Samberg) is stuck in Palm Springs for a wedding that he doesn’t care about. His girlfriend, a bridesmaid in the wedding, cheats on him regularly, but he doesn’t care about that either. Nyles doesn’t care much about anything at it. Nyles is quite literally, a nihilist.

Sarah (Cristin Milioti) similarly finds herself trapped in the desert as the reluctant maid of honor. The black sheep of the family, she’s the kind of girl who would rather sulk in the corner than dance at a wedding. In Nyles she finds a confident, someone to share cold hard truths about the vapid nature of her surroudings.

Sarah quickly learns that Nyles is caught in a time-loop, finding herself trapped in the desert purgatory. Embracing the meaningless nature of infinite realities, the two embrace chaos, repeatedly ruining the wedding and living life in the process. Their biggest concern lies with Roy (J.K. Simmons), a guest hell-bent on killing Nyles.

Samberg, Milioti, and Simmons all give superb performances, looking like they’re having a lot of fun with the material. Samberg in particular looks absolutely giddy to be playing around with time, especially the weeds of quantum mechanics. The film makes a convincing case for its governing rules, poking fun at any potential holes the audience might find in its science.

The chemistry between Samberg and Milioti is palpable. Palm Springs subverts the romcom genre by lowering the stakes of the leads’ relationship. Nyles and Sarah need each other in a literal sense, to get out of the time-loop or stay sane in its web. They’re highly compatible as romantic partners, but Barbakow understands that this dynamic doesn’t need to be forced.

Nihilism isn’t often taking seriously in film, but Nyles is a fitting post-modern millennial. His outlook on the world is pretty dark, but that never stops him from having a good time. Samberg possesses a bleak brand of sarcastic optimism that gives Palm Springs plenty of laughs laced with a tinge of unease. It is the perfect vessel for his humor.

Barbakow has a remarkable knack for pacing. Palm Springs covers a lot of ground in ninety minutes, each scene finely tuned to accomplish a specific objective. The film flies by, the kind of story you wish could get stuck in a time loop to keep the fun going a little longer.

Palm Springs is a terrific commentary on finding companionship in a millennial era that’s given up the search for meaning. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel crafted by Groundhog Day, but manages to offer a fresh take on the concept. For a film with an excellent cast and plenty of laughs, Palm Springs doesn’t have to surpass an all-time great to make a worthwhile experience.

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30

January 2020

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Sundance: The Last Shift

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Millions of people work low-paying jobs across the country. The proletariat sees its labor exploited by the bourgeoisie, who offer peanuts for a lifetime of service. The Last Shift takes a look at a fast-food worker looking to retire after thirty-eight years working nights at a chicken & fish joint. Unfortunately, the film never really knows what to say about its lead.

Stanley (Richard Jenkins) is a proud man and a hard worker. Looking for a life after the graveyard shift at Oscar’s Chicken & Fish, he hands in his notice with the intentions of moving to Florida to care for his elderly mother. His life in Michigan has been a sad one with only a few friends and no clear sense of direction.

Much of the narrative centers around Stanley training his successor Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie), a gifted writer struggling to get back on his feet after getting out of prison. Unlike Stanley, Jevon sees Oscar’s for what it is, a miserable place to work. He challenges Stanley to consider his legacy after thirty-eight years, an uncomfortable position for a man who doesn’t particularly enjoy challenging the status quo.

Jenkins and McGhie work well opposite each other, conveying a meaningful connection between their characters. Stanley and Jevon are polar opposites, but they develop an organic friendship as they battle the loneliness of the night shift. The Last Shift is more Stanley’s story than Jevon’s, but both see substantial character arcs.

Jevon offers a lot of social commentary that feels forced and superfluous to the film. The script also does a terrible job handling Jevon’s writing aspirations, giving him writer’s block that is tonally inconsistent with the rest of his story arc. For all that he’s got going on, choosing to have the character stricken with such an inconsequential dilemma feels absolutely bizarre.

The narrative is a muddled mess. The Last Shift never really establishes a cohesive story, riding a wave of various subplots for the course of its runtime. The film wades into race relations in a flippant manner, hinting at broader themes that it doesn’t care to pursue.

The third act feels completely arbitrary, like the film randomly decided which of its subplots to elevate as the concluding arc. Writer and director Andrew Cohn doesn’t force a neatly wrapped-up conclusion on the audience, but the end result is hardly satisfying. There are far too many unresolved strands by the end, quite ridiculous for a story that spends so much time meandering through its ninety-minute runtime.

Cohen lacks confidence as a director. The script is pretty terrible, full of clunky transitions and cliched twists. The strength of Jenkins and McGhie keeps the film from ever becoming unwatchable, but it’s a sad waste of talent.

The Last Shift takes an interesting premise and does everything it can to step on itself. Stanley and Jevon have a lot of depth as characters, two men with vastly different views on working minimum wage jobs. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really care to explore this dynamic. It simply doesn’t make any sense why this film has so much filler. The pieces are all there, but Cohen doesn’t know how to put them together. 

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January 2020

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Sundance Review: Nine Days

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Art is the thing that sets humanity apart from all other forms of life. To feel is to be human, or so they say. There’s a reason most films avoid mundane boring stuff, like spending an hour at the grocery store or filing one’s taxes. Film exists to make us feel.

Nine Days is a film about life itself, set in a remote house in a plane of existence that’s not quite heaven but sure isn’t earth either. The setting is sort of like a purgatory for spirits who haven’t been born. Will (Winston Duke) sits in his house watching a collection of old TVs displaying various people living their lives. The aesthetics are firmly rooted in the 20th century, with VHS tapes being the most modern form of technology.

Will is tasked with interviewing several candidates for the position of being born. These entities are essential pre-humans, though it’s hard to call them souls as they don’t know what it’s like to be alive. Will was once alive, now tasked with judging who would be best suited to follow him over the course of nine days.

Director Edson Oda presents a quiet, contemplative narrative. There’s plenty of humor, mostly coming from Kyo (Benedict Wong), Will’s caretaker/spirit/friend. Kyo has never been born, but Wong plays him with such a compassionate sense of curiosity that he certainly feels like someone who could pass for human. As one of the candidates named Alexander, Tony Hale provides a lot of comic relief, often serving as a conduit for the audience in asking questions of Will’s methodology that are bound to be on everyone’s mind.

Duke is absolutely fabulous in the lead role. Will is a reserved man who’s clearly been through a lot that he doesn’t want to talk about. He’s well-suited for his job because he understands the brutal nature of life and what he takes to make it in the world. Duke plays Will with a quiet intensity, understanding the value of restraint with his character’s emotions.

Will’s relationship with Emma (Zazie Beetz) anchors the narrative. Emma isn’t like the other candidates. She’s free-willed, hungry for something more than just sitting around watching screens of other people’s lives. Beetz brings a childlike sense of wonder to the character, a maturity well-beyond the few days that Emma has been alive.

Oda keeps his cards close to his hands with regard to the mechanics of this strange place. We learn very little about how Will’s world works, where Kyo came from, or the powers-that-be that created this place. It’s a mystery that’s always present, but not one that ever feels like it needs to be answered. The triumph of the film lies in the simplicity of Oda’s approach. The premise doesn’t need a whole lot of exposition to make sense.

The pacing works very well. It’s a quiet narrative with a single setting, but the two hour runtime flies by. There are a bunch of candidates, but Oda juggles the pieces in a way that makes picks favorites without making the rest feel like filler. The narrative tackles the preciousness of life with grace, with several tear-jerking moments that demonstrate beauty in relatively mundane events. For a film as quiet and relaxed as Nine Days, there’s never any point where the narrative drags.

Nine Days is one of the most moving films of the twenty-first century. Few narratives so confidently capture the feeling of being alive. It is very hard to believe that this is Oda’s first film.

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January 2020

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Sundance Review: Omniboat

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The difficulty of explaining what exactly Omniboat: A Fast Boat Fantasia is about makes perfect sense when you consider how many directors and screenwriters played a part in crafting the narrative. Fifteen filmmakers joined forces to make this strange commentary about Miami, which can sort of be described as a love letter to this city, albeit one filled with practically every emotion imaginable. The film’s desire to overload largely implodes over a bloated runtime.

The film functions mostly as an anthology, with two primary plotlines. Jim Cummings (Mel Rodriguez) is trying to attract investors for his phallic luxury apartment building. The end of the world proves to be a bit of an issue, but Cummings plows ahead, beaming with pride for his city.

The other major plotline follows the lives of a few sentient speedboats. Lay’N Pipe falls in love with a monster truck, leading to baby Lay’N Pipe 2. The film owns its absurdist premise, delivering a lot of laughs as the audience follows the courtship of tacky machines.

Omniboat tries to be everything, an exhausting narrative that’s really fun for about twenty minutes. The rest is borderline unwatchable. The novelty of the film’s unique approach to storytelling results in a few truly hilarious moments, but the high is unsustainable.

Fittingly, Omniboat as a narrative has two speeds, full throttle and completely asleep. The pacing is terrible, particularly in the second act. The energy can’t be sustained, leaving a feeling of sheer exhaustion in its wake.

The film wastes a pretty good ensemble, including comedic actors Adam Pally, Casey Wilson, and Adam Devine. The three are in the film so early that it’s easy to forget they were even there at all by the end, which itself possesses an exciting cameo.

The film is too long by at least forty minutes. Two hours is a ridiculous amount of time for a narrative thinner than a g-string bikini. Worst of all, the flow is so disjointed that you could simply just chop a huge chunk off and no one would notice. To say it meanders would almost be inaccurate because there’s no clear sense of direction established.

Omniboat is a singular kind of film, one without any obvious comparison. At times the energy is quite palpable, the obvious glee of the filmmakers radiating through the screen. Unfortunately it just doesn’t translate into anything an audience can enjoy.

Miami does come alive in the film, perhaps its crowning achievement. Locals may find something redeemable in the way the filmmakers frame the narrative, but even that is kind of a stretch. Omniboat plays like its courting the midnight movie circuit, but the middle is too sleep-inducing for any substantive cult following to develop.

Omniboat can’t buoy anything resembling a cohesive experience. There’s a sense of wonder in the idea that it even exists, but it’s a sad shipwreck of a film. To have started off so strong and sunk so quickly is a real shame. It’s hard to believe that so many talented people came together to deliver such an awful experience. 

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January 2020

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Slamdance Review: 1986

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The tragedy of Chernobyl has been depicted many times in film. 1986 takes a bit of a different
approach, a modern day drama featuring characters with bigger problems than the aftermath
of the disaster. For them, what happened is just another fact of life, something of intrigue and
occasionally, opportunity.

Elena (Daria Mureeva) is a student living in Belarus, juggling a few unfortunate predicaments.
Her shady father is suddenly arrested, leaving her to carry out his illegal businesses that take
her through Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. To make matters worse, she’s in a complicated
relationship with her boyfriend Victor.

Director Lothar Herzog keeps most of the film’s focus on Elena. She is the film’s sole compelling
character, a young woman who has to put up with the disrespect of a male-dominated criminal
underground. She’s strong-willed and proud, intending to show her father’s associates that
she’s more than up to the task of carrying on his business.

Mureeva is a compelling lead, showcasing her range quite a bit through the film’s short
runtime. Elena is constantly thrown into vulnerable scenarios, full of conflicting emotions in the
realms of pride and passion. 1986 does a good job of keeping the audience guessing with how
Elena will react to each scenario.

Where the film is less effective is in presenting a complete story. Herzog throws the audience
right into the thick of things, a refreshing approach light on exposition. We don’t really need to
know the full backstory of her father to relate to Elena. The film runs into trouble with the
progression of its own story.

1986 is effective at presenting scenes in Elena’s life, but the film struggles to tie them together
as a complete narrative. The story feels rushed, hindered by a half-baked love story that
doesn’t do much for Elena as a character. It’s not a crime thriller or a romance narrative, but
the emphasis on those two strands comes at a cost to the development of Elena.

The film’s relationship to Chernobyl is also kind of puzzling. Herzog doesn’t use the tragedy as a
plot device, but Elena’s connection to the disaster-zone doesn’t feel entirely earned either. It’s
as if 1986 had nowhere else to turn but the serenity of a quiet forest, albeit one brimming with
radiation.

1986 is a complicated film to digest, one that stumbles a bit too much down the stretch. At only
seventy-six minutes, much of this can be blamed on the runtime. Herzog’s film has a lot going
for it, but it’s easier to admire its individual pieces than to love its collective whole.

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January 2020

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Sundance Review: The Nest

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The tale of the capitalist Icarus, who pursued a wealthy status to the heart of the bankruptcy sun, has been told many times before. These men are often insufferable, but the audience is generally given some semblance of a reason to care. The Nest isn’t a big fan of excuses for its detestable leading man, himself full of nonsense. Unfortunately, the film has little interesting to say about him.

Rory (Jude Law) is a British brazen commodities broker perpetually in search of the next big deal. Smaller tasks, like actually doing his job, are of no concern. Rory doesn’t care about getting on base. He only wants to hit home runs.

This dynamic is exhausting for his wife Allison (Carrie Coon), a horse-loving American who’s reluctant to move their family across the pond to a place with bridges that Rory hasn’t burned yet. Times are tough, but it’s not because the economy isn’t good. The Reaganomics of the 80s worked wonders for the elites, but Rory has a habit of spending well beyond his means. He buys a big, rundown country estate for their family of four to live in, failing to understand the pitfalls of endless extravagance.

Writer and director Sean Durkin frames The Nest as an intimate family drama. There are sprinkles of finance jargon here and there in Rory’s office scenes, but the real action takes place at the mansion, where Allison struggles to keep things together as their bank accounts widdle down to nothing.

Jude Law is one of the most charming actors on the planet. To some extent, Rory is meant to be played as an over-the-hill salesman with a once-dynamic sense of charisma. Problem is, Rory is absolutely insufferable. The stink of his nonsense wafts through the screen to the audience, an obvious grifter. The characters understand this, but the film doesn’t really want to do anything interesting with its lead.

Coon is the film’s entire emotional core. Allison is the most aware of Rory’s negative traits, doing her best to reign him in. While Rory doesn’t change all that much, we see Allison slowly deteriorate, experiencing the inevitable that she saw coming a mile away and yet was powerless to stop. The Nest works best when it grapples with the idea of how much control one partner has when completely shut out from the other.

The film has a couple subplots that don’t really go anywhere. There’s a weird, gross fascination with horses that doesn’t really add anything to the narrative. The children’s plotlines are also half-baked, coming across as filler. As Samantha, Oona Roche shines in a subplot full of teen angst, but the film is never really all that interested in her as a character. Its attention seems more directed at her radio, constantly belting out 80s New Wave.

The script is okay. The dialogue is pretty good, but Durkin has no sense of pacing. The film meanders for about 100 minutes before deciding it needed to arrive at something resembling a conclusion. It just doesn’t work very well.

The Nest is a pretty watchable family drama. It’s a major letdown considering the talent involved. Rory may have thought he was able to charm his way out of any scenario, but the film has an unfortunate way of mirroring his failures. There’s no charm here, only a self-important narrative that doesn’t feel the need to grow.

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