Movie Review ~ The Black Phone

The Facts:

Synopsis: After being abducted by a child killer and locked in a soundproof basement, a 13-year-old boy starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer’s previous victims.
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone
Director: Scott Derrickson
Rated: R
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  In much the same way I implored you a few weeks back to see Top Gun: Maverick in theaters because I felt it was vital to watch it on the biggest screen possible to get the full effect, I’m going to strongly suggest another trip to your local venue for The Black Phone. Before my screening this past balmy summer night, I had forgotten how nice it was to be at a scare-packed movie with an attentive, engaged audience. Over 100 minutes, seats were jumped out of, popcorn tubs spilled in fright, & shrieks of all tones & timbre were heard. You can’t get that same experience at home, and some of the enjoyment derived from this adaptation of a short story comes directly from that audience energy.

Not that the film doesn’t stand up quite well on its own. It’s a sophisticated scare that director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) has in store for you, far removed from the cruddy slice and dice fare rushed to the screen or the lower-budget releases from the same producer, Blumhouse. No, The Black Phone has been treated with great care, and you can see how that level of attention yields a much better result in the end. Now, you have a movie that has you inching ever forward in your seat as you nibble at your nails, only to be jolted back with one good fright after another.

Set in 1978, it opens on a baseball game on a bright day in April. Young Finney (Mason Thames, quite impressive) desperately wants to strike out the player at bat, mostly to impress a classmate on the sidelines. The game’s fate is inconsequential because not everyone makes it home that day, the result of The Grabber, the name the children give to the individual abducting young boys in the area over the following months. Flashing forward to October, a handful of other adolescent boys have vanished into thin air. The police have little to go on, save for a new tip: Finney’s sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw, American Sniper) dreams about the crimes with details she can’t possibly know.  

Living with their alcoholic and abusive father (Jeremy Davies, Twister) after the death of their mother, the siblings hold onto each other for sanity. Still, when Finney is taken suddenly by a masked madman, Gwen is left on her own to probe her visions for clues that will lead her to her brother. Meanwhile, Finney is trapped inside the basement of a psychotic (Ethan Hawke, Boyhood) whose calm demeanor gives way to violent rages that echo his terrifying shrouded face. His hopes of escape seem futile…until an assumed broken black phone on the wall starts to ring with someone on the other line that has an important message for the trapped lad.

The previews and marketing for The Black Phone have given away some of what happens next, but not quite all, so let’s leave the rest of the movie for you to discover. Based on Joe Hill’s short story, it shouldn’t surprise you that Hill is the son of Stephen King because The Black Phone feels like it could have been featured in one of King’s short story collections through the years. Its period setting with a lack of technology recalls a slower time for information to travel but a more viscerally violent one in the way people deal with problem-solving. Numerous scenes of kids being beaten (by adults or each other) are disturbing to watch, as are the implications you derive from the dominating games Hawke’s twisted character wants to play with the young boy.

It starts to get a little disjointed and messy as it approaches the finale, and once it gets where it’s going, it doesn’t feel like the payoff was worth it, but that realization only comes far later when you’re home, and the adrenaline rush has worn off. Before then, The Black Phone was an easy film to fall into and get scared over. It’s genuinely creepy, primarily due to Derrickson’s classy direction of the material and Hawke’s unnerving and against-type performance. Get to this one in the theaters and check beforehand to see that it’s nearly full – I think you’ll enjoy it more the greater the number of bodies in seats. All the better to scream along with.

Movie Review ~ Gatlopp: Hell of a Game

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of old friends reunites for a nostalgic evening of fun and games after a decade apart. After one too many, they decide to play a drinking game, but it’s quickly revealed that this game comes with supernatural stakes.
Stars: Jim Mahoney, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Jon Bass, Sarunas J. Jackson, Shelley Hennig
Director: Alberto Belli
Rated: NR
Running Length: 80 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Blessed are the films that are sold on name recognition alone. If you are arriving in theaters boasting a recognizable title that audiences are not just familiar with but anticipating, most of the work has already been done for you. All others need to labor at snagging the eyes of the crowd over their way by coming up with something creative, and it’s oh so very hard for movies like Gatlopp: Hell of a Game. I think the filmmakers will face a severe uphill battle with getting people to give this comedic twist on the supernatural gameboard movie based solely on that title. The pleasant news is that if they get enough viewers to give it a shot, good word of mouth could propel this nicely done, short/smart/sweet flick forward into greater notoriety.

At 80 minutes (including a lengthy credit sequence with a slow crawl and lots of backers to thank), there isn’t much time to spend with set-up, so we go almost directly into those handsome titles leading into the introduction of four friends toiling through their lives in California, none of them meeting their potential. Actor Troy (Sarunas J. Jackson, Chi-Raq) hasn’t found that big break, and entertainment executive Samantha (Emmy Raver-Lampman, Blacklight) hasn’t done much to help her friend. They join their stoner friend Cliff (Jon Bass, Molly’s Game) to console Paul (writer Jim Mahoney, Klaus, yes the animated charmer on Netflix), still reeling from a divorce.

Finding the kitschy board game Gatlopp in an acquired piece of furniture, Cliff convinces his friends to play it, but with one roll of the dice, they learn this is no ordinary game. With questions designed to reveal deep secrets oddly specific to them and tasks leading to quirky consequences that only get more tenuous as the night goes on, the four friends realize they are playing for their lives. The more they reveal and are honest with each other, the further into the game they go…but how far will their friendship last before it breaks apart?

For a movie curated within a pandemic production schedule, Gatlopp: Hell of a Game makes the most of its four leads, all of whom could easily have drifted into the obnoxious territory. Usually, the stoner character is the first one I’d like to see exit stage left, but Bass makes Cliff an endearing soul, and he works with the other three to convincingly bring their friendship to life. The lone female, Raver-Lampman, has seemed right on the verge of stardom for some time and her showing here only demonstrates again that it will be any day now that she breaks big. As the writer, Mahoney is a bit more invested in the character development of Paul. While the character gets adequate time to grow, it would have been nice to see more energy put into fleshing out Troy as better than just another wannabe actor. Not that Jackson doesn’t give it a go.

Director Alberto Belli keeps the action moving at a good pace (remember, we’re dealing with a movie that has roughly 70 minutes of material) and takes the pauses at the right time. It’s never going to be in the big leagues due to budget constraints, but in a way, Gatlopp: Hell of a Game benefits from the smaller production under which it was filmed. I could easily see future installments of the movie as the game travels around to different groups, but for its initial outing in Gatlopp: Hell of a Game, it’s an enjoyable bit of gameplay.

Movie Review ~ Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

The Facts:

Synopsis: Nancy Stokes, a 55-year-old widow, is yearning for adventure, human connection, and some sex–some good sex.
Stars: Emma Thompson, Daryl McCormack, Isabella Laughland
Director: Sophie Hyde
Rated: R
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  We talk a lot about a particular multiple Oscar-winning actress being the best of her generation and rave over every role she shows up in, but if only we could talk about someone equally lauded as Emma Thompson in the same breath as Meryl Streep. Thompson herself has two Oscars (one for Acting in 1992’s Howards End and another for adapting 1995’s Sense & Sensibility) and has taken many of the same eyebrow-raising risks Streep has had throughout her career. Thompson perhaps even has stepped further out of her comfort zone on occasion, never appearing to turn her nose up regarding genre or role. She definitely one-ups Streep for bravura in onscreen vulnerability in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande…but we’ll get to that later.

Now 63, Thompson (Cruella) collaborated with director Sophie Hyde for Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, a frank (and funny) exploration of sex and maturity with a definitive lean toward the mature, now streaming on Hulu after premiering at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Filmed almost entirely on one set with just Thompson and her costar Daryl McCormack (Pixie), with the two-handed nature of the dialogue and insular feeling of the mood, you’d swear this originated as a stage play. And who knows, it could be adapted as one in the future.

Nancy Stokes has rented an upscale hotel room for the afternoon so she can meet Leo Grande, a male escort. She’s never done anything like this before, and we can tell she’s nervous. Awkwardly chatting away, often saying the wrong thing (at least to our ears), Nancy is a widow that has only been with one man her entire life. With her two adult children out of the house, she is looking to explore her own sexuality now that she has the freedom to do so. She found Leo in her search, booked him, and now isn’t sure she can go through with it.

On the other hand, Leo is the epitome of cool, calm, and collected. He’s an experienced escort who is good at listening to his clients and lets Nancy feel her feelings, never judging. She’s paying, after all. Throughout four encounters, Nancy and Leo discuss various topics related to sexuality, with Nancy’s being the primary focus. Leo is more of an enigma by design, and their relationship changes when Nancy pushes for more

What’s so refreshing about Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, is how it makes good on its promise to treat its subject matter with responsible intelligence. This is an adult movie because it speaks frankly about sexual situations but doesn’t trivialize them or use them (generally) as a punchline. Nancy comes to Leo with severe issues with her body and being comfortable with herself. More than any doors Leo opens up on the physical front, he helps her adjust her understanding of what it means to love yourself unconditionally at any age. 

The film wouldn’t work if the actors weren’t fully interactive with the material, and that’s where Thompson and McCormack’s chemistry comes into the spotlight. The actors work so well together, and I’m not sure how much was filmed in sequence, but you can see Thompson get more comfortable with McCormack as the film progresses. There’s only one scene outside of the hotel room (the most comedic one, featuring Isabella Laughland as a memorably funny hotel lounge waitress), and so we have to believe the two characters would want to be spending all of that time together in a room and with Thompson and McCormack, we do.

You’ve likely heard the most prominent news about Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is Thompson’s fully nude scene, and I almost didn’t even want to mention it. First, it’s such a beautifully shot and crucial moment in the movie that I’m glad Thompson went for it…though I know it’s what she’ll be asked most about when promoting it and for years to come. The movie is so much more than that one moment, and to want to see it because of it (or avoid it for the same reason) would be to miss a rare honest take on promoting a healthy embrace of the message of self-love at any age.   

Movie Review ~ Lightyear

The Facts:

Synopsis: While spending years attempting to return home, marooned Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear encounters an army of ruthless robots commanded by Zurg, who is trying to steal his fuel source.
Stars: Chris Evans, Uzo Aduba, James Brolin, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Keke Palmer, Efren Ramirez, Peter Sohn, Dale Soules, Taika Waititi, Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Director: Angus MacLane
Rated: PG
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  Strangely, in this age of audiences clamoring for the next installment of the big franchise film, the one studio that gets slapped on the hand for sequel-izing their big projects the most is PIXAR.  I don’t know why it happens, but I consistently see upturned noses at the landmark computer animation studio taking their established work and branching them off in different directions.  Heads were really spinning when Disney announced that PIXAR would be releasing Lightyear, a prequel (of sorts) to their first mega-hit Toy Story, which celebrates its 27th birthday in 2022.  Perhaps it was the still fresh bruise of the arrival of Toy Story 4 in 2019 after many fans thought Toy Story 3 ended the series so well, but the advance anticipation of a new chapter in this universe was grim.

With the full disclaimer broadcasting to you that I’m over the age limit for being able to honestly grade these movies (if the screenings weren’t so late at night, I could bring a few younger critics that would really give their opinions), I’m pleased to report that Lightyear is a zippy ride into pre-Toy Story lore and one that shouldn’t ruffle too many feathers in the fandom.  As the title card that preceded the film explains, Andy received his Buzz Lightyear action figure in the original Toy Story after he saw him in a movie.  Lightyear is that movie.  Wrap your head around that for a moment, adjust your bearings, and let’s move forward.

Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans, Knives Out) is a headstrong Space Ranger on a mission with his fellow ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba, Miss Virginia) and a new rookie recruit (Bill Hader, IT: Chapter Two).  They’ve landed on a mysterious planet, but fall under attack before they can accomplish their task.  Buzz being Buzz, he tries to save the day but winds up stranding the three of them (as well as an entire crew back at the ship) on the desolate planet.  Working to find a way off the planet takes time, and when Buzz and Alisha finally figure out how to return home, it comes with time-altering consequences.  The more Buzz attempts the mission in space, the faster time moves back on the planet.  Everyone ages except for Buzz. 

As the years/missions pass, Buzz continues his trials, accompanied by SOX, a robot cat meant to stave off any psychological trauma of the time he’s losing but who winds up a valuable asset (to Buzz and the movie).  Just as he figures out a way home, the evil Zurg appears and threatens to destroy the colony that has been built to sustain life for the crew while they await their home trek.  Banding together with a multi-generational bunch of misfits, none of whom initially measure up to Space Ranger standard in the eyes of Buzz, the veteran ranger will need to trust his new team to have his back as he learns to let go and truly lead.  Yet there are still secrets to be revealed about the origin of Zurg and once unveiled, will it change the mission goal or push Buzz and his team to go beyond the limits of their strength?

Director Angus MacLane keeps the action fast and, more importantly, fun for audiences that were kids when the original film came out and are probably taking their children to this new adventure.  If I’m honest, the overall look of Lightyear comes off like a Disney+ film that tested well enough to get a theatrical run.  I can’t say why a more earnest effort like Turning Red would get shuffled off to the streaming service…but it shouldn’t deter you from giving this one a go.  It has a sizable amount of creative inspiration and inclusion (the mismatched gang Buzz has to lead is of varying ages and sizes), not to mention a fully formed same-sex relationship that isn’t the focus but isn’t pushed to the side as tokenism either.    

Movie Review ~ Brian and Charles

The Facts:

Synopsis:  After a particularly harsh winter, Brian goes into a deep depression; wholly isolated and with no one to talk to, Brian does what any sane person would do when faced with such a melancholic situation. He builds a robot.
Stars: David Earl, Chris Hayward, Louise Brealey, James Michie, Nina Sosanya
Director: Jim Archer
Rated: PG
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  Watching a film like Brian and Charles gave me a serious nostalgia trip back to the days in the early 2000’s when I frequented our local art-house cinema. It didn’t matter what was playing (or what you wanted to see); you just showed up and hoped your movie hadn’t sold out. If it did, something often played around at the same time, and you could shift gears and see that instead. I’m not sure Brian and Charles is the movie I would have come to see at the Lagoon Theater in Uptown, MN, but it wouldn’t have been a title I would have been disappointed with being my second choice either.

Expanded from a 2019 short film, also directed and co-written by Jim Archer and the film’s stars David Earl (Brian) and Chris Hayward (Charles Petrescu), this is a seemingly simple story filled with apparently simple characters who gradually reveal themselves to be more than the sum of their parts. While it’s not filled with any tremendous moral you haven’t heard a million times over or ends up traveling in a direction you couldn’t have bought a ticket for 90 minutes earlier, there’s a rough-hewn grace to it all that makes the entire experience resolutely charming. 

A rural inventor lives a solitary life in North Wales and spends his lonely days tinkering away at creations that seldom do what they’re intended. Framed as a documentary of sorts, Brian speaks directly to the camera. He walks the audience around his farm, proudly showing off the gadgets with no actual use that have otherwise sprung from his wild imagination. Yet Brian’s growing need for a friend is starting to nibble away at him. While a local lass (Louise Brealey, Victor Frankenstein) shows interest in the eccentric inventor, he seems oblivious to her long-held admiration. It’s from his creativity (and a number of spare parts he gathers from ditches, dumps, etc.) that Charles is born. A robot that springs to life almost by accident, Charles may be Brian’s invention but soon becomes his own person. 

Watching the relationship between Brian and Charles develop provided a sweeter fulfillment than I had expected. Quickly, Brian realizes that he has to be more of a parent to Charles than a chum, which comes with a set of complications he didn’t anticipate. Charles may speak with the monotone synth voice of a robot, but his petulant attitude suggests a teen going through typical pubescent growing pains. Fixated on traveling to Hawaii and with a devoted love of cabbage (?), Charles gives Brian a run for his money. When the head of a local family of bullies sets his sights on obtaining Charles for his own, Brian will need to come out of his shell to stand up for his loved one.

There’s a quaint charm to the droll Brian and Charles that I appreciated, but I’ll admit it’s not for everyone. The humor is of a particular bent, and if you aren’t on board with it and can’t give yourself over to what it is selling, it’s best to move on. For all others willing to devote a short sit with some unfamiliar faces in a far-off side of the world, check out what this creative team has crafted. Oh, and do stay through the end credits for a closing song from Charles himself.

 

Movie Review ~ Jurassic World Dominion

The Facts:

Synopsis: Dinosaurs now live—and hunt—alongside humans all over the world. This fragile balance will reshape the future and determine, once and for all, whether human beings are to remain the apex predators on a planet they now share with history’s most fearsome creatures.
Stars: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill, DeWanda Wise, Isabella Sermon,  Mamoudou Athie, Campbell Scott, BD Wong, Omar Sy, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, Scott Haze, Dichen Lachman
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 146 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  Recently, I was asked to list a handful of my most memorable summer movie experiences. Seeing Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park in June of 1993 easily came in at #1. There was something so special about that time, a pre-internet era where all you had to go on before a movie was released were clips shown on entertainment news programs or movie magazines tailored to your interests. For this movie in particular, so much was kept under wraps beforehand that audiences truly had no little idea about what was in store for them. I miss having those unspoiled viewing pleasures, and in the decades since Jurassic Park opened its doors, the odds of walking blindly into a film have decreased every time society introduced a new social media platform.

When Universal Studios revitalized the Jurassic franchise in 2015 with the super-blockbuster Jurassic World, many of those same early feelings of excitement came back to me. New director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed), personally selected by Spielberg, took the reins with that same sense of fun and adventure. Even if nothing would match the spirit of the original visit to the park (including The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997 and Jurassic Park III in 2001), I was thrilled with what the creative team had worked up. Trevorrow wasn’t on hand for 2018’s Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, which suffered as previous sequels did with being set in a climate that didn’t feel contained enough to create appropriate tension. I liked it better than my colleagues, but it didn’t move the dial like it should (or could) have. 

For the supposed final film (at least in this trilogy), Trevorrow has returned and brought back the trio of original co-stars from Spielberg’s first outing. That alone is worth booking passage to Jurassic World Dominion, but audiences will have to wade through a fair share of thorny underbrush in this 146-minute finale ultimo. Boasting surprisingly less than cutting edge special effects, some downright silly contrivances, and performances from dinosaurs that often best the humans they are acting alongside, you’ll want to see it with a packed audience to get your maximum enjoyment. They’ll help smooth out the rocky ride between the star attractions if they’re anything like my enthusiastic crowd.

In the four years following the events of Fallen Kingdom, when the dinosaurs escaped their island and integrated into the ecosystem around the world, most of the population has grown accustomed to seeing these bio-engineered creatures roaming the globe. Exploited to varying degrees for their exotic appeal, they’ve gone beyond park attractions to curiosities you can own as a status symbol or wield as a tool against an enemy. That’s what a growing horde of pre-historic locusts is doing, decimating crops not planted with a synthetic seed from seemingly benign company Biosyn Genetics led by a character that will be familiar to trivia buffs of the first film. While Campbell Scott (The Amazing Spider-Man) didn’t play this part back then, it’s a wise choice to have an actor of his stature (and oddity) take over.

Researching the raging locusts is Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern, Little Women), who has been tipped off by old friend Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, The Grand Budapest Hotel) that Biosyn is behind the revived insects and gets her access to their private labs in the Dolomite Mountains. She needs an experienced witness to vouch for her findings and turns to former flame Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill, Dead Calm) to fly with her and provide a second set of trained eyes. Little do they know it, but Biosyn is also a sanctuary for many of the dinosaurs that have been rounded up from around the world, and they’re about to welcome another set of visitors to the facility under very different circumstances.

After escaping with the first human clone, Maisie (Isabella Sermon), Clare (Bryce Dallas Howard, Rocketman), and Owen (Chris Pratt, The Tomorrow War) are trying to keep her hidden in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Not only did she release the dinos into the wild to begin with, but her very existence is valuable to scientists seeking to do good and evil. Staying close by is Velociraptor Blue, still ornery but keeping an eye on a new baby raptor Maisie nicknamed Beta. When both Maisie and Blue are captured by Biosyn cronies, Clare and Owen team up with a non-nonsense former Air Force Pilot (DeWanda Wise, The Harder They Fall) to break into Biosyn and retrieve both precious assets.

Much of Jurassic World Dominion is spent with the two stories working separately from one another, and only one holds much interest. That would be the thread that follows Dern and Neill (and sometimes Goldblum) as they travel to Biosyn and get a lay of the mysterious lab/land. Meeting up with Scott and his team (including franchise stalwart B.D. Wong, The Space Between Us, still causing nefarious trouble and then feeling guilty after), one can’t help but be reminded of their trip to Jurassic Park…and Treverrow doesn’t let you forget it thanks to several Easter Egg callbacks to the original. These are fun, audience-pleasing moments that land with welcome warmth. 

On the other side, Howard and Pratt are heading up the more action-heavy side of things, globe-trotting from the Sierra Nevadas to Malta before heading to Biosyn.  All of this added movement does little to stir up much in the way of tension, despite some decent attempts from Howard to get into the action and shockingly little effort from Pratt to do anything more than the minimum required to move from one scene to the next. It’s like Pratt forgot what he liked about being in movies in the first place. He’s never been close to a movie star, but now he’s not even working to prove it anymore. His process is starting to show, never changing up his look or approach, and it’s never more evident here. Wise can get a few good moments out of him, but even her material is so weak that you can sometimes feel her wanting to roll her eyes and the tired dialogue she has to say. 

Frustratingly non-committal in certain areas (count how many people get snacked on in comparison to how many dinosaurs get finished off) and tossing whatever light science was present early on right out the door (T-Rex suddenly loses all sense of smell here), Jurassic World Dominion has a handful of thrill-park esque sequences that are effective but double the number of slogs that could have been so much more. It feels like two partial movies that never got finished smashed into one…I wish more time were spent fleshing out the revisit with our old friends rather than trying to make time for the newbies. Then you’d have a movie worth waiting in line all day for.

Movie Review ~ Unhuman

The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven misfit students must unite against a growing gang of unhuman savages.
Stars: Brianne Tju, Benjamin Wadsworth, Uriah Shelton, Ali Gallo, Drew Scheid, Lo Graham, Peter Giles
Director: Marcus Dunstan
Rated: NR
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: Two short weeks ago, we talked about Torn Hearts, a Blumhouse Television and EPIX production that hit a dandy of a sweet spot melding horror and the country music scene.  A low-budget effort that still had the flair and, most importantly, the ambition of a project with double its budget, that movie was an easy to recommend a bit of entertainment from the streaming service as well as the television branch of Jason Blum’s film production company.  Never short on product, EPIX and Blumhouse Television are back with Unhuman, another offering drawing blood from the same ghoulish vein as Torn Hearts, albeit in an entirely different realm of the horror genre.

Cheekily positing itself as a twisted After-School Special, writers Patrick Melton (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) and Marcus Dunstan (Piranha 3DD, who also directs) get the film off to a rollicking start via an introduction of the stock characters.  Nice girl Ever (Brianne Tju, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged) and not quite as nice best friend Tamra (Ali Gallo) join their classmates for a 4H field trip into the backwoods.  You’ve got your jock (Uriah Shelton, Freaky) and his trophy girlfriend (Lo Graham, This Is the End) as well as the token minority friend (C.J. LeBlanc, Just Mercy), not to mention two teens ripe for bullying (Drew Scheid, Halloween and Lucy Burvant) and the brooding object of multiple affections (Benjamin Wadsworth).  Chaperoning them is a wise-cracking teacher (Owen Wilson impersonator Peter Giles) and a grumpy bus driver.

We’ve barely met this troupe before an accident sends their bus careening off the road and puts them face to face with an outside danger no amount of extracurricular credit could have prepared them.  Radio broadcasts drop few clues, but it’s clear they’re on their own for the immediate future, so staying on the bus to be picked off one by one isn’t an option.  Not that the vicious creature circling the bus is giving them much of choice in that matter, either.  As the class separates and begins to learn more about themselves and the events leading up to the day, they’ll see that while they have been fending off a multiplying horde of ghouls, the cause of it all might be one of their own.

For a good chunk of Unhuman, Dunstan has a good thing going, and it’s primarily attributed to a game cast who takes the material only as seriously as it will allow.  Possessing several nicely placed twists along the way, I found it easy to stay engaged with the group. While all are playing specific archetypes of the teen genre, none entirely settle into comfortable ways of approaching these familiar characters.  I especially liked Tju (so good in the upcoming Winona Ryder movie The Cow), who leads Unhuman with grit that carries it through the back half when its low-budget skeleton starts to show. 

It’s disappointing that the filmmakers couldn’t land the ending, and if I’m being honest, it gets messy as it moves toward the finale.  Almost feeling like there was a rush to complete the movie, there’s a mish-mash quality to those last moments, which are incongruent with the pleasant surprises presented up until that point.  Unhuman is strong enough for me to offer it as a worthy suggestion as a 90-minute diversion, but you’ll need to level-set your expectations near the finish line.

Movie Review ~ Dashcam

The Facts:

Synopsis:  Two friends live stream the most terrifying night of their lives on a horror-fueled road trip.
Stars: Annie Hardy, Angela Enahoro, Amar Chandha-Patel
Director: Rob Savage
Rated: R
Running Length: 77 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  When the pandemic was in full swing, independent filmmakers had to get creative if they wanted to continue to work without major studios’ backing and enhanced COVID measures. One of the best success stories to come out of this time was Host. This barely sixty-minute feature showed up on Shudder and quickly generated excellent word of mouth within its target genre audience and in the greater community. Savage made the story of a haunted Zoom séance look like it was all taking place on a computer screen (known as a ScreenLife film)…because that’s how actors shot it. With a small cast in charge of filming themselves and instructed on how to create many of their in-camera visual effects, director Rob Savage made one of the most genuinely scary films in quite a while. I watched the movie several times, and it retained its effective shrieks with each viewing. 

It was a bit surprising to me how quickly Savage has turned his next project in, and while Dashcam isn’t Savage’s second feature in a literal sense, it does have your typical sophomore stumbling blocks as a follow-up ScreenLife film. Released under the Blumhouse Productions banner, Savage has attracted interest from essential names in the business. However, his movie doesn’t have as commercial a feel as you might expect from this label. Right off the bat, there’s a challenge you’re going to face, and that’s with the leading lady. 

Going into the movie, I had no idea who Annie Hardy was. A California-born musician from the rock band Giant Drag, the 40-year-old was infamous for her quick (and profane) wit onstage and never pulling punches in interviews or online postings. While she’s playing a version of herself in Dashcam, viewers will have to decide whether they will be able to sit through sixty minutes with a character that can be severely grating most of the time. Little can be done to turn this version of Hardy off, not her friends and certainly not an unknown contagion turning ordinary people into raving monsters.

Let’s back up a moment.

In the film, Annie Hardy runs a popular online show from her car that viewers tune into to see her create a song from suggestions appearing in a chat box. While driving around the city, Hardy will draft foul-mouthed ditties that mostly have to do with body parts and fluids that amuse herself more than anyone. However, it’s rough right now as COVID rages through America. As an anti-vaxxer (supposedly like the real Hardy), she’s had enough of the government politics and decides a trip overseas to visit her old bandmate will clear her mind. Hardy isn’t in London long before Stretch (Amar Chandha-Patel) tires of her, and she takes off in his car for a UK version of her show. 

As she’s out, she makes a stop that proves to be unwise, picking up an elderly passenger (Angela Enahoro) to transport across town. Hardy’s wild shenanigans with her new friend take a turn, and before she knows it, she finds herself in the middle of an outbreak she desperately needs to avoid. Involving Stretch and a believable host of others along the way, Hardy crashes through the city and countryside (even an abandoned amusement park) to escape a deadly predator and a cadre of vigilantes who seek not only to eliminate a deadly threat but her as well for unleashing it. 

The entirety of Dashcam is filmed on multiple “screens,” which makes it quite the experience, and one must commend Savage and the cast for capturing it all so effectively. I mean, were I in that situation, holding a camera to film what was going on would be the least of my worries (I would have thrown my phone at the first thing that jumped out at me), but somehow it all gets documented in an easy to track way. The special effects used are sparse but spooky, and the make-up effects yield appropriately disgusting yucks from viewers. It’s not an easy film to watch for multiple reasons, but it’s energizing, nonetheless.

While Dashcam runs 77 minutes, the actual film is just a hair over an hour. The remaining time is taken up by Hardy doing her song-composing schtick…using the names of the cast and crew for inspiration. I’m not sure if some of these people would take being featured here as a tribute or takedown, but none of them should let their moms hear what Hardy has to say. It’s a strange ending to an oddly constructed film, but I did enjoy it all the same. I can see why Hardy would be a lot to take, and she is, but despite her views, I found her raw shock jock humor to be often quite funny. One thing I’m sure of is that had the lead character been a male, no one would come down as hard on the issue of likability.

Movie Review ~ The Passenger (La pasajera)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of strangers sharing a ride has their trip interrupted when the driver hits a woman hiking in the dark of night. They decide to help her but quickly learn that something is wrong and that they shouldn’t have let her in at all.
Stars: Ramiro Blas, Cecilia Suárez, Paula Gallego, Cristina Alcázar
Director: Raúl Cerezo & Fernando González Gómez
Rated: NR
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: When so many horror movies look like they aren’t even trying, it’s easy to feel like throwing a little affection toward a film (and filmmakers) with a point of view and affinity for the genre. That’s why an offering like The Passenger (La pasajera) is so welcome while presenting a bit of a problem when reviewing at the same time. Is The Passenger a cut above the rest, the lame straight-to-streaming trash fests with poor effects, terrible acting, and no creativity around the plot? Sure. There’s a slickness to Raúl Cerezo & Fernando González Gómez’s gooey creature feature that is fun to watch unfold…just not for a full 90 minutes.

As we come out the other side of pandemic filmmaking, with projects that were greenlit before/during the global lockdown, I find that there is a healthy supply of “good idea” genre movies that can’t totally justify their feature run time. What starts as a great concept, with tight pacing and overly decent thrills, begins to lose air around the 50–60-minute mark, and the directors can do little to gather that momentum back. The Passenger is an excellent example of a package with all the right elements (unique make-up, lively cast, creepy location, inspired direction), just overstuffed with plot to the point of exasperation.

Were it not for his ‘dead-eye’ and dated views on dynamics between the sexes, mature rideshare driver Blasco (Ramiro Blas) might be the ladies’ man he envisions. Sadly, the former frontman of a rock band is relegated to lame flirtations with any female he encounters during long treks between towns in his retro caravan. On this trip, he’s ferrying a woman purporting to be visiting a loved one (though her wig masking a bald head indicates otherwise) and a scarred daughter being hauled between towns by her mother to her father’s home after typical teen behavior has made her unmanageable. All four won’t have to worry much about the final destination because the opening moments have shown us a strange presence has landed in the remote woods they are traveling through, slimy sediments that love warm hosts to latch onto.

Encountering someone on the side of the road that has met up with some of this goopy gross-ness, the caravan unwisely takes them in, hoping to get them medical attention, but, as all of these stories go, they’ve only made things worse. As the creature overtakes the group and sends them all sprawling through the unfamiliar terrain, defeating the initial organism will soon be a secondary concern when there is doubt about who among them might be infected and waiting to strike. Much flesh flinging and bloody business abound while running for safety, forming surprising alliances, and avoiding a growing mass of nasty parasites.

I can’t stress enough the goodwill I feel overall toward The Passenger. Even with a scaled budget, the filmmakers have made it look far better than movies made and released here with triple the money. I wouldn’t doubt this directing team gets nabbed by Blumhouse or another group to helm a project soon. The cast, especially Blas, is terrific, and that first hour is a **pun incoming** joyride. Then we get to that final half-hour, and there are problems. Cerezo & González Gómez start to gild that lily when it was already just fine the way it was. Most viewers will welcome that extra dose of creature mayhem but never underestimate the power of holding back a bit more. That would have made The Passenger a proper thrill ride.   

Movie Review ~ Montana Story

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two estranged siblings return home to the sprawling ranch they once knew and loved, confronting a deep and bitter family legacy against a mythic American backdrop.
Stars: Haley Lu Richardson, Owen Teague, Gilbert Owuor, Kimberly Guerrero, Asivak Koostachin, Eugene Brave Rock, Rob Story, John Ludin, Kate Britton
Director: Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Rated: R
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  Pre-pandemic, theaters would have been able to dedicate room for a small movie like Montana Story.  It might not have played in the theater with the most seats or drawn as many viewers on opening weekend as the big studio film that occupied the other screens down the hall, but the target audience would eventually have found their way.  In today’s climate, the movie-goer that is right for this quiet picture will have trouble locating a showing in their area…if it’s even playing at all.  That’s a shame, too, because as promising as the box office returns have been for old-fashioned fare like Top Gun: Maverick and Downton Abbey: A New Era, the age of the tiny indie has all but vanished.

In that same breath, I’ll also admit that perhaps Montana Story is a bit too quiet for its own good.  The story of siblings reuniting at their family ranch as their divisive father lay dying in the next room is not easy to warm to.  It’s a chilly film for early summer that’s beautifully captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Enola Holmes) but only sporadically possesses the kind of forward momentum to keep the bitter winds from blistering your skin. 

On the outskirts of Montana, Cal (Owen Teague, Mary) arrives at his father’s sparse ranch after the patriarch suffers a debilitating stroke that has left him all but brain dead.  As his father is tended to by a nurse (Gilbert Owuor, No Man of God) and a long-time family friend/worker (Kimberly Guerrero, The Glorias), Cal has several significant decisions to make about the future of the farm and finances.  Erin (Haley Lu Richardson, Split) comes into the mix, Cal’s older half-sister, who hasn’t been heard from in nearly a decade, ever since she argued with her father and then disappeared overnight.

Wounded by her past, Erin finds a means of repressed salvation she can control after learning of Cal’s plans to put down a horse he can no longer care for.  Deciding she’ll take ownership and bring the horse back with her out East, Erin uses this new distraction to distance herself from the conflict she’ll never fully resolve with her father.  As the siblings reconnect and discover where life has taken them both, they’ll find new understanding in the power of letting go of the past so they can be free to carve out a future of their own design.

Writer/directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel have gathered a solid cast together for their tale that gets off to a good start but spins its wheels after about an hour.  I enjoyed the early scenes between Teague and Owuor, easy-going conversations that revealed small details of each that didn’t feel like the clear exposition they were.  Richardson comes in red hot, wound up with angst and trepidation at the situation she will find, which creates an exciting amount of energy.  Sadly, Richardson can’t easily maintain that level of performance, and pretty soon, every performance has flattened out like the prairie that stretches out before them.  It’s never quite a secret where the film is headed, but I thought it would get there in a less mundane way.

Marketing for Montana Story encourages audiences to “See it on the largest screen you can find,” and with the movie arriving right at the start of the summer movie season, you can still catch this one in theaters if you’re quick about it.  It’s worth a look on that scale if you can make it happen, but it’s not one I’d move mountains to get to either.  There’s a splendid simplicity to the vistas captured on camera, but the actual film slips into a gray dullness that could send you snoozing if you aren’t careful.