Movie Review ~ Boys State


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas join together to build a representative government from the ground up.

Director: Amanda McBaine & Jesse Moss

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Show of hands.  How many of you out there reading this have been watching your favorite news network and watched the politicians of our great nation squabbling over some pithy thing while a huge issue goes unresolved and thought to yourself “Geez, they’re acting like children!” You’re raising your hand right now, aren’t you?  Ok.  You can put your hand down and continue on.  Yes, it’s true that more often than not, politicians are no longer looked at as the distinguished men and women that are elected to serve for the people but more as misbehaving children and petulant teens.  Actually, having watched Boys State I think that comparison isn’t fair to teens because this insightful and surprisingly agile documentary shows that maybe the young leaders of tomorrow already have something on their elder statesmen and women: decorum.

Let’s back up a bit.  When I first saw the preview for Boys State I was expecting something far more wince-inducing to get through.  I fully thought I’d be grimacing during this look inside the yearly event sponsored by The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary and held in every state.  Began in 1935 by a Loyola law professor and an American Legion chairman, the program has expanded throughout the country and is a massive event for high school juniors that gives them a crash course in the day to day operations of local, county and state government.  Throughout their weeklong stay, the students will elect their own officials and debate issues that are of importance to them, all in service of understanding their roles in government and politics.  Being elected to office looks mighty good on a college admission application, too.

Though every state offers programs for boys and girls, directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss choose to focus solely on the 1,000+ strong Boys State event that was held in Texas several years ago and what they’ve captured is pretty eye-opening.  Instead of the staunch conservative red-blooded American indoctrinated teenagers I thought we’d be spending two hours with, we’re instead greeted with a diverse cast of interesting personalities that come from different backgrounds and perspectives.  Make no mistake, all of the boys McBaine and Moss follow have been painstakingly chosen to play a role in a certain unspoken narrative but it’s not as manipulative as it might seem on the surface.  There is good representation of all sides for the most part and gun control seems to be the lynchpin much of the action hinges on, but even though viewers may disagree on the politics of the subjects the kids themselves are kind of great in their own way.

As anyone who has ever been to summer camp without their close friends accompanying them can attest, your first moments off the bus in a new group of people your own age is scary.  Though students mostly stay with their cities so they at least know a few familiar people, I’d have to imagine a sea of largely white faces must be intimidating for the few minority members that are in attendance.  Even so, it isn’t hard for socially conscious René Otero to find his place in the crowd or for the popular and gregarious Robert Macdougal to ingratiate himself with anyone he decides to charm.  Then there are those that have to work a little harder, double amputee Ben Feinstein has a game plan going into the week that could prove to make him a hero or villain at the end of it all.  Finally, the quiet Steven Garza wants to get to know people on an individual basis and treats even the brief responsibilities of mock government with respect.

How these four and others will work together within two opposing parties is the stuff of good documentary filmmaking – you’ll be highly engaged and maybe alternatively enraged at some of the tactics that go on.  Cheering on small victories leads to laughter at deserved losses for those unprepared to go toe to toe with more qualified candidates…much like the enjoyment we may get in seeing our current government officials challenged.  Don’t be surprised to find yourself holding your breath when votes are tallied and decisions announced and keep a tissue handy because a tear or two might fall – not for any reason other than seeing some goodness in the next generation that many leaders are sorely lacking in.

Available on Apple+ and arriving just after the first batch of primary elections have wrapped up, I imagine Boys State will generate some more buzz as the November elections get underway.  My hope is that the way these young men conduct themselves is used as an example of how decorum and acceptance can be a good fit in politics and that inclusion, not exclusion benefits everyone in the end.

Movie Review ~ The Silencing

Available In Theaters, On Demand and On Digital August 14, 2020


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A reformed hunter living in isolation on a wildlife sanctuary becomes involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse when he and the local Sheriff set out to track a vicious killer who may have kidnapped his daughter years ago.

Stars: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Annabelle Wallis, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Josh Cruddas, Zahn McClarnon, Melanie Scrofano, Shaun Smyth

Director: Robin Pront

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: When talking about The Silencing I think it’s important to focus first and foremost on the good news of the situation.  While the new serial killer flick didn’t manage to make its debut at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin Texas this past March as intended, it is getting a nice release on demand and might stand a chance to do well for viewers in need of a quick thrill.  It also can’t be stressed enough that these middle of the road films harken back to a simpler time of B-movie filmmaking (we’re talking the late 70s through the mid-90s) when you could get one of these genre films every few weeks at your local cineplex.  In that respect, I say bring on more films of its kind and start making them soon – they fill a kind of Wednesday evening void that I need in my life.

Then there’s the other side of the coin where you have to step back and admit that a lot of The Silencing isn’t very good and aside from a strong lead performance from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and a secondary character that might just be more interesting than the supposed star, it’s mostly forgettable.  Though it starts with some promise it will deliver on its premise of a fine mystery solved by ordinary people that act like human beings, it oddly shifts gears several times so that eventually you don’t know what direction the action is headed…and not in a good way.  So maybe I’d like to amend my earlier statement and say that I’d appreciate more movies like The Silencing…just not like The Silencing.

Haunted by the disappearance of his daughter five years ago, Rayburn Swanson (Coster-Waldau, Headhunters) has turned his large area of land into a wildlife sanctuary in her honor.  Though he continues to search for her by putting up fliers and combing local towns asking on her whereabouts, most of his small Minnesota town has accepted the hard reality of the situation.  Turning to his sanctuary and thoughts of preservation, he keeps an eye on video cameras set up within to ward off game hunters that come onto his property.  That’s how he spots a young girl being pursued by a figure in camouflage hunting her down with a Comanche weapon known for its deadly precision.

Intervening with the attack puts him in the middle of a murder investigation already in progress headed by Sheriff Alice Gustafson (Annabelle Wallis, Annabelle).  Bodies of girls have been found and in an election year, Gustafson is intent on catching the killer and restoring a reputation that has turned sour thanks to her troublemaking brother Brooks (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) who is always running afoul of the law and getting off with a slap on the wrist.  That doesn’t sit well with Blackhawk (Zahn McClarnon, Doctor Sleep) who represents the police for the Native American tribe of the area and has had to hand over Brooks one too many times.  Competing storylines are always tricky until they intersect because you know they’re going to overlap at somepoint…it’s just a matter of when.

How Rayburn and Alice eventually cross paths is where the film skips from developing nicely as a run of the mill standard suspense thriller to something much less pleasing and it’s a misstep screenwriter Micah Ranum never recovers from.  I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you but it’s such a achingly dumb error that you have to wonder if everyone involved thought what they were doing was an inspired bit of rug-pulling.  Not stopping there, Ranum upends some floorboards underneath the rug he pulls out from under audiences a little later on with another twist that makes no real sense which leads to a dénouement that mystery fans will have solved long before.  Try an experiment for me.  Watch the first twenty minutes of the movie.  Stop.  Think about everyone you’ve met.  Write down who you think “did it” and then continue on.  I’ll bet you get it right when the unmasking occurs shortly before the credits run.

Not for nothing but Coster-Waldau and even Wallis try to do what they can with these roles, with only Coster-Waldau having much luck convincing us he’s this broken shell of a man.  Wallis never sold me on her tough sheriff persona (or her American accent) and that robbed the character of some authority that was desperately needed.  Though he’s grown popular from the surprise hit After, Fiennes Tiffin is just a bundle of nerves and cuticle biting that grew tiresome.  The one to pay attention to is McClarnon as a wise deputy (and, coincidentally, Rayburn’s ex-wife’s new husband) who figures out something strange is going on and actually does something about it.  I’d be interested in seeing McClarnon get a starring vehicle in a similar vein as The Silencing and credit should be given to director Robin Pront for, if nothing else, this bit of solid casting.

That’s not to say The Silencing signifies nothing.  I applaud the effort to instill some Native American lore and information on primitive weaponry as well, it’s not often these details are included.  There are some well shot sequences and while any Minnesotan like me knows the scenery on display is in no way found in our state, the Canadian locales captured by cinematographer Manuel Dacosse are impressive.  Those in the mood for an easy thriller that doesn’t demand a lot of your attention and are OK with some sag in the middle (it’s about 12 minutes too long in my book) will likely find what they need out of The Silencing.  Me?  I needed a little more noise for it to strike the right chord.

Movie Review ~ Spree

Available In select theaters, drive-ins, on demand, and digital August 14, 2020

The Facts:

Synopsis: Thirsty for a following, Kurt Kunkle is a rideshare driver who has figured out a deadly plan to go viral.

Stars: Joe Keery, Sasheer Zamata, David Arquette, Kyle Mooney, Mischa Barton

Director: Eugene Kotlyarenko

Rated: NR

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Being famous for doing nothing used to be seen as something trivial, what you’d snicker at silently and roll your eyes over while reading about it in a wrinkled magazine at your optometrist’s office while you waited for your pupils to slowly dilate.  As your vision became blurrier and the words became harder to read, all you could focus on were the pictures and in the end that’s all that mattered because it was the visuals of the do-nothing-for-fames that managed to get them where they were.  Now, after years of watching people ascend to the rank of celebrity on their skills as an “influencer”, it’s no longer something to laugh about.  It almost makes you want to cry.

That’s why a movie like Spree will likely be interpreted in a number of different ways by anyone who views it.  It all depends on what you personally think about the current culture of social media and how it has the power to affect the actions of others.  Whether it’s deciding what to buy or where to go, more and more there is a reliance on these internet influencers to call the shots and it’s crazy to think it’s a money-making business for some.  It’s definitely not making money for the likes of people like Spree‘s Kurt Kunkle, the twenty-something wannabe star who takes his desire for fame too far over the course of one bloody night.

Though it’s framed like a “found footage” sort of package, don’t let that scare you off right away (there may be other things that do that, so beware) because Spree gets off to an entertaining start taking us through our introduction to Kurt (Joe Keery, Stranger Things, Molly’s Game) and his YouTube show “Kurt’s World”.  Attracting minimal viewers and netting next to no followers on his various social media accounts, Kurt’s hopes of becoming famous seem to be fading fast and he knows he needs to do something big to get noticed.  Maybe he can use his connection as former babysitter to internet sensation @bobbybasecamp (Josh Ovalle) to drum up some new followers but how to get the attention of the world?

The answer shows up in what Kurt dubs #TheLesson.

Working as a driver for a rideshare service, Kurt tricks out his car with video cameras and livestreams his fares…who he begins to kill, first with poisoned water and then with the clock ticking and his follower count not rising fast enough, via other methods that get progressively more gruesome and desperate as the night goes on.  Throughout the day, Kurt encounters a number of faces that will be familiar to viewers and it’s not a spoiler to say that some of them make it out of the car alive.  Some of them die out of the car, too.  No, really, there are interesting cameos from Kyle Mooney (Hello, My Name Is Doris) as a hapless jokester, David Arquette (star of the equally meta documentary You Can’t Kill David Arquette arriving soon) as his Dad, a loser DJ that bribes his son for a ride by promising him an Instagram mention from a visiting DJ playing at the same (strip) club.  Mischa Barton (Notting Hill), Frankie Grande, and Lala Kent (Hard Kill) all show up at one point or another, too…a random mix of the very influencer-celebrities the film is taking aim at.

The most important fare is comedian Jessie Adams (from SNL player Sasheer Zamata, excellent in a honest to goodness breakout role) because she’s exactly the kind of social media star he isn’t.  Easy-going, self-aware, honest, edgy, and maybe a little meaner than she has to be, she’s also worked her way to get to the comedy show she’s performing in that evening and an early encounter with Kyle doesn’t end well for him.  Quickly becoming fascinated with Jessie, Kurt turns his attention from wondering why his star struggles to rise to fixating on how hers manages to ascend with little trouble.  That’s when the real madness of Spree truly takes over.

Spree is a move that is all fun and games…until it isn’t and then you suddenly realize you’ve been playing along with something very dark and dangerous.  It’s exactly the kind of response the movie wants you to have and I admit I fell head first into its well-designed snap trap.  Writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko doesn’t have any observances that are hugely revelatory but it’s the way he goes the extra mile in depicting the lengths to which Kurt will go for fame and the alarming coldness in his dispatching of human life that gives Spree those extra jolts to make you shudder.  Along with Keery, Kotlyarenko and cinematographer Jeff Leeds Cohn have amassed a tremendous amount of footage to establish Kurt’s online presence – I can’t even imagine how many hours/days it took to film all of it, yet alone for editor Benjamin Moses Smith to cut it together into the cohesive narrative it is.  That is isn’t just a 90-minute exercise in eye-ball gouging obnoxiousness is a miracle unto itself.

Still…it’s hard to get over the truth the movie is made up of bits and pieces of other films that have done this whole 15 minutes of fame nonsense in better (though more subtle) ways.  You don’t have to squint too hard watching Spree to see the elements of Taxi Driver, Maps to the Stars, American Psycho, Joker, Nightcrawler, or even Chicago that have been brought into the mix.  Yes, Spree may deliver the same message with the volume turned up a little louder and is far more in your face than Travis Bickle ever was…but those understated characters were often more unnerving because of their stillness.  Spree’s Kurt Kunkle is a ball of energy wanting to be noticed and it’s hard not to see him in front of you.  Same goes for the movie.

 

Movie Review ~ Sputnik


The Facts:

Synopsis: The lone survivor of an enigmatic spaceship incident hasn’t returned back home alone-hiding inside his body is a dangerous creature.

Stars: Oksana Akinshina, Fyodor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anna Nazarova, Anton Vasilev, Aleksey Demidov, Vitaliya Korniyenko, Aleksandr Marushev, Albrecht Zander

Director: Egor Abramenko

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  It’s been surprising to me how much I’ve adjusted to seeing movies from the comfort of my own home these past several months.  For the most part, I’ve enjoyed moving from point A in my living room that serves as my office to point B in the same area which turns into my nightly space for screenings.  Sure, it’s taken just a tiny bit of the “event” feeling out of going to the movies but there hasn’t been anything I’ve seen so far that has truly cried out for the big screen experience.  Until now.

Watching the new Russian monster movie Sputnik, I felt the first honest pangs of nostalgia for being in a darkened movie theater staring up at a moving image.  This is the type of film that would have been a lot of fun to catch with an audience or even just flying solo as a weekday matinee to fill in some time between work and evening plans.  At the same time, what a thrill to find a movie so on the money when it comes to creative ideas and working wonders with overwrought plot mechanics; it’s arguably in the top tier of films I’ve seen in 2020 and easily a new genre favorite.

It’s 1983 and two Russian Cosmonauts are in orbit preparing to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, discussing plans for what they’ll do when they return home.  Kirill Averchenko (Aleksey Demidov) longs for a hot bath while Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov, The Darkest Hour) has more family-oriented matters to attend to.  All plans are put on hold, though, when their capsule has more than a close encounter with an…unplanned visitor.  Back on Earth, neurophysiologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina, The Bourne Supremacy) is facing sanctions for her unorthodox handling of a patient and the young doctors brash willingness to ignore authority catches the attention of Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) who has an interesting proposition for her.

If Semiradov can smooth out Tatyana’s present troubles, would she be willing to consult on a new patient at a top secret, heavily guarded government facility?  Intrigued and seeing this as a quick solve to a annoying problem, Tatyana agrees to meet with the man Semiradov has been tasked with guarding: Cosmonaut Konstantin. Returning to Earth with little memory of what happened to him and his comrade, Tatyana dismisses his symptoms at first as a case of traumatic PTSD leading to temporary amnesia.  That is, until she witnesses first hand his rather large problem that only comes out at night…

I think I’ve been trained for so long to be let down by movies that have a tantalizing opening act that I was particularly on edge with Sputnik.  When would the other shoe drop, and how would screenwriters Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev make some silly error that betrayed the three dimensional characters that were so carefully etched early on?  Would director Egor Abramenko give in to the pressure to show off instead of draw the viewer in closer, making the experience less about craftsmanship than pure gimmickry?  That the movie showed some of its cards at the outset made me nervous, but it turned out to all be part of the scary plan Sputnik’s creators had in store for audiences.

Bound to be compared to Alien and justly earning the same echoes of praise, this is one impressive discovery that continued to hold surprises well into its final stretch.  That should be especially good news to those that want a little plot to go with their slimy guts and gore (which the film has buckets of, by the way) and the performances match the finely tuned suspense sequences.  As the chilly young doctor plagued by a past that has ties to her present situation, Akinshina is as compellingly watchable a lead as I’ve seen in this genre.  Bringing a Cold War steeliness to her early scenes and, in getting to know more about Konstantin, finding small ways of slowly letting her guard down, Akinshina carefully navigates a complex strong female character to make her as important as whatever gooey creature might be right around the corner.  Fyodorov is nicely balanced too, playing a man expecting to return home to a hero’s welcome only to be imprisoned without any explanation why and kept from his family to be used as an experiment.  The more he comes to realize his part, the more his allegiances change…but how much does he actually know to begin with?  Also serving as a producer of the scare pic, Bondarchuk makes for a nice human villain when the well-designed beast isn’t onscreen.

Good performances and script can’t save a movie alone and there’s obviously been some money spent on Sputnik because it looks and sounds excellent.  The cinematography by Maxim Zhukov is never too intrusive on the action but also doesn’t shy away from clever positions and tricks.  I was particularly drawn in by Oleg Karpachev’s ominous and haunting score which helps to set the mood…and then some.  Use of night vision and an abundance of 80s security video can be a little distracting at times but it keeps the mood of the piece just right and helps with that whole “less is more” feeling when showing the creature at the center of it all.

Had this opened in movie theaters, I still doubt it would have gotten as much attention as one of the proposed summer blockbusters or even a glazed over second tier release but it might have generated the kind of buzz that would have gotten it to audiences in select cities.  That could have kept word of mouth going and will, I think, benefit its streaming debut because now the news of it being one to watch can spread quicker.  It’s also worth noting this is arriving in the US via IFC films (IFC Midnight to be exact) and this is the third film this summer (after The Wretched and Relic) that has been a bona fide winner in my book.  The folks at IFC clearly know how to pick ‘em and Sputnik is their latest bullseye.

Movie Review ~ The Tax Collector


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A “tax collector” for a crime lord finds his family’s safety compromised when his boss’s old rival shows up in LA and upends his business.

Stars: Bobby Soto, Cinthya Carmona, Shia LaBeouf, Jose Conejo Martin, Cheyenne Rae Hernandez, Lana Parrilla, Elpidia Carrillo, George Lopez, Jimmy Smits

Director: David Ayer

Rated: R

Running Length:

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  For a while there, it seemed like David Ayer was going to make a nice name for himself as the go-to guy for macho man filmmaking that had a rare crossover appeal to a larger audience.  Beginning as the screenwriter of U-571 and the original The Fast and The Furious before hitting the A-list scripting Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning Training Day, Ayer directed two under the radar features before scoring big in 2012.  That’s the year End of Watch debuted and it gave Ayer the chance to marry his hard-nosed storylines with a superior ability for creating high tension sequences.   His follow-ups, both released in 2014, were was the lesser but still strong Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer Sabotage and Fury, the Brad Pitt tank film that should have garnered more acclaim than it did.

So you’d understand why it was with more than a modicum of excitement that I began to look forward to Ayer taking the reins of the newest DC Comics adaptation, Suicide Squad in 2018.  A darker version of The Avengers (another comic book team I had no real knowledge of before their big screen debut), this was a star-studded film set to be a franchise starting blockbuster.  Understanding what little I did about the Suicide Squad, it seemed like a perfect fit for Ayer’s grimier aesthetics which led to genuine interest that soon turned to fear when it was announced the film would be rated PG-13 instead of the assumed R.  When it was released, it was, as feared, a neutered piece of gaudy garbage that didn’t resemble anything Ayer had done before and what I’d hope he never do again.  Aside from 2017’s Bright, another critically lambasted film released on Netflix that still managed to get the service to sign Ayer to a sequel that’s in development (Suicide Squad was so bad Warner Brothers is already rebooting it as The Suicide Squad in 2021), the director has been largely silent since his Squad goals were squandered away.

I was hesitant at first to get my hopes up that Ayer’s latest feature would be the kind of true return to form the writer/director sorely needed to get himself back into the game.  After all, The Tax Collector sort of snuck up on everyone and is arriving in the middle of this pandemic crisis which hasn’t afforded it much in the way of publicity aside.  In fact, aside from a few mentions in the gossip blogs about co-star Shia LaBeouf getting a rather large tattoo on his chest in preparation for the film, I didn’t even know this movie existed before the link came my way to watch.  While it’s nice to report that his new film returns Ayer to a space that he feels more comfort in and characters that could almost in habit the same universe as those in his previous features, it’s ultimately a too-familiar retread that wallows in its gratuitous violence.

The urban streets of L.A. are the main stage of Ayer’s action in The Tax Collector, which focuses on David Cuevas (Bobby Soto, The Quarry) and his extended family and associates who are caught up in the violent sprawl of a criminal organization teetering on the brink of upheaval.   David and his partner Creeper (Le Beouf, The Peanut Butter Falcon) are responsible for making sure the streets gangs in their neighborhood are staying up to date on their “taxes” which are owed to Wizard, the jailed crime lord that keeps them safe.  Those that fail to pay or are delinquent have to answer to Creeper, a cauliflower-eared, easily-angered powder keg of a live wire that contrasts nicely with David’s more serene yet still serious de facto leader.

When Conejo, (Jose Conejo Martin) an enemy from Wizard’s past, returns and tests David’s allegiance, it sets off a series of bloody events which play out with frightening clarity under the cinematography of Salvatore Totino.  As Conejo continues to apply pressure to David and Creeper via various horrific methods, it forces the men into a corner where they’ll have to either join him or fight him and there can only be one survivor in the end.  No one is ever safe in Ayer’s films and The Tax Collector is no different; characters are brutally dispatched, many of whom would normally survive in typically Hollywood-happy style films.  For that, you have to admire Ayer’s willingness to buck trends but the film is so grotesquely violent that the longer the movie runs the less you want to watch because it becomes so unpleasant.

Part of me wonders if that’s sort of the point Ayer is trying to make.  Maybe that we care when certain characters die is a good thing because either he’s done his job or the actor has done their job…or both.  If you felt nothing toward the person and their part of the story, you would have little reaction to their fateful demise and while that may be letting Ayer’s bloodlust off with a slight tap on the wrist it’s an angle to at least be examined.  On the other hand, a movie that spirals into something as troubling as this does begins to work against itself by alienating its audience away, possibly inspiring them to stop watching all together.  No bones about it, this is a hard one to get through and you’ll have to gird your loins to maneuver through Ayer’s hellish final reel that pulls all the disgusting stops out and takes no prisoners.

Though LeBeouf is featured heavily in the trailer and marketing materials, he’s predominately a supporting character with the lead role tipping in favor of Soto.  Soto is cast well and while it takes him a bit to get going (same goes for the movie) by the time he’s educating a new gang leader on the procedure of what he does and what his expectations are, you’re bound to be paying attention.  His descent from provider/family man to man on a hell-bent mission is a believable journey and he draws energy from LeBeouf who also is largely on target as a right-hand man that’s OK with getting his hands dirty.  Though the role could be seen as problematic as the only white person in a cast of Latino/Latinx actors, he hasn’t been cast against race so that issue is moot.  (It should be noted that the infamous tattoo is seen for a split second…was it really worth it, Shia?) Newcomer Conejo Martin is totally terrifying as the demonic psychopath after David and his organization, as is Cheyenne Rae Hernandez as a female version of LeBeaouf’s character that works for the enemy.  The only actor that struggles to convince is Cinthya Carmona as David’s wife which is too bad because she’s such a pivotal role as the movie progresses.

Bound to be seen as another minor entry in Ayer’s directorial career, The Tax Collector at least earns him back some street cred that he lost when he made Suicide Squad.  I know much of the failure of that film was the result of the studio meddling with the final cut but you can’t completely excuse Ayer for how that turned out.  While this isn’t a great film or even a really good one if I’m being completely honest, there are enough intriguing pieces one can gather to make the viewing experience not a complete waste of time if you have the nerves to get through it.

Movie Review ~ Host (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Six friends hire a medium to hold a seance via Zoom during lock down – but they get far more than they bargained for as things quickly go wrong.

Stars: Emma Louise Webb, Caroline Ward, Haley Bishop, Radina Drandova, Jemma Moore, Seylan Baxter, Edward Linard

Director: Rob Savage

Rated: NR

Running Length: 56 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:   Only the lucky 1% of critics can call watching and writing about movies their only job, the rest of us have to pay our bills and mortgages with a full time gig somewhere else and over the past few months I’ve been working from home at my corporate job that I happen to enjoy quite a lot.  I count myself lucky because it’s rare to truly like both things that keep you busy throughout the week…so…a major win for me!  At my Mon-Fri job, we’ve been meeting on a regular basis through a video conference service my home camera just won’t connect with, no matter how much I try.  Though I’ve been attempting to fix it for a while now it was great at first because no one needs to see the bags under my eyes grow bigger throughout the week.  Eventually, though, I started to regret not being able to be “seen” by my co-workers.

Within the last two weeks, we’ve been told we’re moving to Zoom which has better connectivity for the type of services we provide and also works with my webcam.  I was excited to finally get camera ready and, more importantly, explore the wonderful world of fun backgrounds Zoom has to offer…then I made a silly decision to check out the new Shudder horror film Host.  Filmed over twelve weeks during the recent quarantine by a locked-down crew, this is one freaky flick that gave me serious Zoom Doom.  Proving that you’re not safe even in an innocuous web browser, the filmmakers have taken the current situation and turned a limitation into an advantage.  In doing so, they’ve created a nifty scare treat that will have you praying you don’t see anything similar in your next conference with executive leadership.

Following in similar style to the also-effective Unfriended and Searching, Host nicely brings you directly into the action by having the events play out in real time on the screen in front of you.  Essentially, what’s on the screen is everything everyone else is seeing, hearing, and experiencing so the reactions are immediate, and the tension is able to be cranked up quite quickly with every mysterious noise or moving shadow.  Running a scant 56 minutes, Host manages to fit in more honest-to-goodness scares (and at least two truly grand ones that likely shaved a year off my life) than other ghostly tales that run twice its length.  True, some are of the jump variety but a number are the sort of creeping dread that grows and grows until you almost can’t stand it.

A group of twenty-somethings, bored with their pandemic confinement after being separated from their daily routine for weeks, agree to an admittedly out-there proposition by one of their own.  Haley has organized a séance and while she claims the medium is the real deal and was successful in the past, her friends are mostly made up of skeptics and outright naysayers like the wisecracking Jemma. The only male in the group is ginger goofball Teddy but he’s quickly pulled away by his clingy girlfriend.  With only the girls remaining, an attempt is made to connect with the spirits through Seylan the medium though they are often stopped by interruptions familiar to anyone that’s dealt with web conferencing over the last several months.  Things turn scary, though, when a simple joke by Jemma conjures up a different kind of spirit than they had intended…one that isn’t friendly and doesn’t take kindly to those that don’t believe.

I’d encourage you to approach Host with as little knowledge of how it came to be as possible.  I went into the experience knowing only the basic premise and that it came recommended and that was good enough for me.  Learning more about how director Rob Savage put the film together with the cast might take away some of its well-earned magic because its learning about the process after the fact, not before, that enhances the film.  From start to finish, this is a sterling example of how to make the most out of a bad situation and produce something smart and, if not wholly original, the kind of film that speaks to audiences here and now.

Performances are good too.  The young cast more than capably handles the changing emotions that begin with the hopes for a fun evening before quickly devolving into disbelief at the events transpiring in front of their eyes.  If there’s one nitpick I could point out it’s that the editing is perhaps a bit too convenient to the narrative and often breaks the structure of the Zoom format that has been established.  I get why the filmmakers had to make these small allowances but sticking to a recognized structure is important in capping off that extra dose of reality.  Even so, you’ll find your eyes begin to desperately start to search for the scares before they happen but trust me…it won’t do you any good.  Savage and his crew get you when you least expect it and often have things happen so briefly that you question if what you saw even really happened.

Available on the subscription service Shudder, Host is reason alone to investigate the 7-day free trial they often offer.  While their selections rotate monthly, they usually have a nice selection of standard horror titles as well as international genre pictures that could be of interest if you are looking for something different.  I typically like to sign up for their service around September or October as that is when they begin to load their site with a plethora of tantalizing tales of terror but they seem to be getting out the good stuff early by rolling out Host now.  Log on, sign up, and sit back…this Host is dialed in and ready to scare.

Movie Review ~ Paydirt


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A parolee teams up with his old crew determined to find a buried bag of cash stolen five years ago from a DEA bust gone bad, while being tracked by a retired Sheriff.

Stars: Luke Goss, Val Kilmer, Mike Hatton, Mercedes Kilmer, Paul Sloan, Mirtha Michelle, Veronika Bozeman, Murielle Telio, Nick Vallelonga

Director: Christian Sesma

Rated: R

Running Length: 81 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When is a movie not a movie?  I found myself asking that question quite a lot throughout the 80 l-o-n-g minutes that constituted the running length of the new crime thriller Paydirt because there’s so little there there that I almost wondered what anyone thought they were doing while filming was going on.  I mean, it’s clear the actors were enjoying the sun-drenched location shooting throughout California in those pre-COVID days and I’ll admit to some Midwestern landlocked jealousy at the lovely sights captured.  In that respect, writer/director Christian Sesma earns a small dose of horn toots for making the film visually pleasing even though nearly everything else about it is uniformly terrible.

When I say uniformly terrible, I mean it literally because in the opening shot we see supposed police officers in hilariously ill-fitting attire that look straight up from Costume Rentals-R-Us.  They’re there to make a bust initiated by Sheriff Tucker (Val Kilmer, The Snowman) acting on a tip in hopes of making a large drug bust and taking down Damien Brooks aka The Brit (Luke Goss, Blade II) at the same time.  When the strike goes awry and cops end up dead, Tucker is disgraced and Brooks heads to jail for five years.  Jumping forward in time to Brooks getting released, he is watched over by a pretty parole officer (Mirtha Michelle, Fast & Furious) while simultaneously trying to gather members of his gang back together and find a stash of cash that belonged to a drug kingpin…who’s also interested in finding it now that Brooks is a free man.

All of this has the makings of your standard crime caper and that’s totally fine, I’d definitely watch a movie like that.  The trouble with Paydirt is that Sesma’s script is so devoid of any interesting characters or fresh developments on the traditional formula that it winds up being an hour and a half you’ll spend wondering why you didn’t just give Oceans 11 another watch.  It wastes potentially cleverly arranged criss-crosses in favor of being so straight-forward they might as well show the final scene at the beginning and spare you the trouble.  If that wasn’t bad enough, audiences have to sit through several awkward scenes between Kilmer and his real-life daughter Mercedes (who earns an “introducing” credit via nepotism and nepotism alone) that have zero bearing on anything else in the film.  Coming off more like rehearsal exercises that would have been included as DVD extras back in the day, these father-daughter scenes are really something to behold.

You want more about the plot?  Well, it’s so convoluted that I don’t think I could tell you what the movie ultimately was about or who wound up being the good guys and gals.  The winding roads Sesma sends us on are handled with such ham-fisted contrivances that at a certain point I’d imagine viewers will either give up or, if you’re like me and required to finish what you started, simply hunker down and get through it.  If you stick with it, you’ll have to soldier through Sesma’s insistence on pushing forward with aggravating characters like Mike Hatton’s The Brain, a nebbish schmuck that’s always the source of trouble for the gang, Paul Sloan as The Brawn who seems to only be around to give The Brain someone to play off of, and Nick Vallelonga playing The Don, a casino manager that gives Brooks a job that makes his parole officer happy.  Strangely, all three men were involved with Green Book in one way or another, with Vallelonga taking home two Oscars – one for screenplay and the other for producing the film!

The only characters I was the least bit interested in were The Babe (Murielle Telio, The Nice Guys) and The Badass (Veronika Bozeman) because not only did the actresses exhibit chemistry with each other and anyone they came in contact with but I found myself imagining how much better a movie centered on them would have been.  They definitely seem to have more of a commanding presence than leading man Goss who appears at times to have just been woken up to say his few lines before dozing back off to dreamland.  He looks like the audience feels: bored.  It’s hard to say anything negative about Kilmer at this stage, the actor filmed his role while recovering from throat cancer which led to his dialogue being dubbed in post-production…and not very well.  To know the kind of movies/roles Kilmer came from and now seeing him in dreck like this is sad indeed.

Paydirt is the movie equivalent of a speedbump you hit going 90 on a deserted highway, quickly runover and quickly forgotten.  Aside from the two performances mentioned and a rather funky on brand end credits song by local Coachella band Giselle Woo & The Night Owls, this is as skippable a film as I’ve seen in a long time.  Everyone here has been in a better movie and will (hopefully, fingers crossed) be in a better one down the line.

Movie Review ~ Deep Blue Sea 3


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Studying the effects of climate change off the coast of Mozambique, a marine biologist and her team confront three genetically enhanced bull sharks.

Stars: Tania Raymonde, Nathaniel Buzolic, Emerson Brooks, Bren Foster, Reina Aoi, Alex Bhat

Director: John Pogue

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  For many, the summer of 1999 will be remembered for films like The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, Runaway Bride, and The Thomas Crown Affair.  Or maybe you heard of that reboot of The Mummy that gave Brendan Fraser a brief shot at true A-List stardom or that big-budget remake of The Haunting that sent audiences laughing instead of shrieking into the night?  It’s good to also remember that Deep Blue Sea was another strong performer that summer, surpassing expectations and mixed reviews to provide a solid return on investment and going on to have a healthy life on video.  I know I saw it five times in theaters that summer, twice in one day even!

I was surprised that it took so long for a sequel to surface and even more shocked that it was a direct to video release but was willing to give Deep Blue Sea 2 a try when it premiered back in 2018.  Yuck.  It was so bad I actually fast-forwarded through most of it and tried to get some joy out of the badly rendered shark effects which at times fared better than the live performances of the terrible actors.  All in all, it was a disaster and actually did some damage to the source property and that can be a pretty bad occurrence in the world of a franchise.  To my further amazement, a third film rose from the depths and brought with it a nice looking poster and a preview that appeared to show promise.  Yet I’ve been burned by good marketing before.  Still, you know I love a good shark movie, so even though DBS2 was a complete and utter piece of stinky chum it was a given that I’d find my way to Deep Blue Sea 3.

It’s nice to report that your critical lifeguard on duty has given the all-clear for you to take a dive into the Deep Blue Sea threequel waters because this is the kind of follow-up that feels more in line with what the original was going for.  It’s still no where near as entertaining or professionally put together as that effort with its bigger budget and larger production crew but new director John Pogue (The Quiet Ones) brings a renewed creative energy to the series that rinses out the bad taste the previous one had left.

Marine biologist Dr. Emma Collins (Tania Raymonde, Texas Chainsaw 3D) and her skeleton crew are studying the effects of climate change in an abandoned fishing village island off the coast of Africa.  The island, Little Happy, is sinking slowly back into the sea and has but two residents left who continue their lives while Emma and her team use their advances in technology to pinpoint why Great White shark numbers are dwindling.  Directly below the island, Emma has found a shark nursery that attracts various species including the Great White.  Emma films these encounters for her blog and followers back on the mainland, much the worry of new arrival Eugene Shaw (Emerson Brooks, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), an old friend of her late father’s that’s arrived to lend underwater skill to the study.  She’s even gone so far as to make nice with Sally, a Great White shark that returns regularly but prefers fish to humans…for now.

Seemingly out of the blue, her former flame Richard (Nathaniel Buzolic, Hacksaw Ridge) arrives at the island with his own set of toys to play with.  This isn’t a random visit though because we’ve already met Richard earlier in the film.  We know he’s there to track down three rogue genetically enhanced bull sharks that went missing at the end of DBS2 and whose mother he recently caught.  Flanked by muscle man Lucas (Bren Foster), Richard hopes to use Emma’s tracking system and staff to locate the sharks before their valuable property swim too far out of range and get close enough to civilization that the public starts asking questions.  The small island soon becomes a death trap once Richard and Lucas reveal their end game to Emma as the sharks close in on a signal designed to attract them.

While a marked improvement over the last film, I still moan over the lack of creativity ultimately in all of these creature features through past decades.  At some point, a decision seems to have been made that there had to be a secondary human villain in all of these movies and that’s what winds up sinking most efforts faster than anything else.  Hammy acting and unbelievable plot mechanics make these land lubbers a real drag and you just want the action to get back to whatever nasty monster is snacking on the nubile teens and old widows around town.  The same schlocky villains exist in DBS3 but thankfully screenwriter Dirk Blackman (a name I swore was a pseudonym until I verified it was real) keeps them on the periphery as much as possible and devotes a good chunk of the film to shark action.  It does take a decent amount of time for the pace to really pick up but when it does, in the final 45 minutes or so, the tension is kept on high for the duration.  It all culminates in one of the most satisfying finales I’ve seen in one of these movies in quite some time…effects and cinematography are stellar in delivering an ending everyone should be quite proud of.

Performances are really beside the point but after the debacle of DBS2 at least the cast of DBS3 are able to string phrases together and make them sound like human beings are speaking.  Raymonde takes her shark talk very very seriously and doesn’t leave a lot of room for humor…but then again so did Saffron Burrows in the first movie and look how well that turned out for her.  It’s an approach that works and, chilly though it might be, is a choice that is at least committed to and stuck with.  I only wish the other two females in the film, a tech wiz and the wife of a fisherman weren’t reduced to shrieking bystanders when the going gets tough.  Buzolic and Foster could honestly have been interchangeable, though Foster seems to enjoy playing the extra mean scenes a little more and has a nice fight scene with Brooks that’s well executed.

I found this to be a perfectly fun, respectably decent third entry in the Deep Blue Sea franchise and a sign that Warner Brothers is invested in moving the series in a better direction. For once, maybe a studio listened to the fans that were so disappointed in the sequel to a popular favorite and course-corrected on their next attempt.  If this is the creative depths to where Deep Blue Sea could go, I say let’s go for four and see what other smart sharks are swimming around out there.

Movie Review ~ Chameleon


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A struggling ex-con and his unpredictable accomplice scam superficial trophy wives and their rich older husbands in self-obsessed Los Angeles.

Stars: Joel Hogan, Donald Prabatah, Alicia Leigh Willis, Jeff Prater, Acelina Kuchukova, Daniel Tolbert, Fernanda Hay

Director: Marcus Mizelle

Rated: NR

Running Length: 80 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Over the past few weeks, I’ve been on a run of watching a lot of movies from the early ‘90s and not only reclaiming some of my young movie-going memories I thought I had lost but revisiting my sadness that many of the films made during this time are a thing of the past.  It used to be that each week for every blockbuster that came out there’d be two or three smaller titles that could fill the other screens at the multiplex – after all, back then there were less options for at-home viewing but still a healthy number of feature films released week-to-week, depending on your market.  I’ve said it here before but the genre I greatly miss above all else are those crime-drama-mystery-thrillers that wouldn’t open huge at the box office but would stick around for weeks gathering weeknight crowds.

For everyone out there that has been shuffling through your various streaming sites and bemoaning that they don’t make neo-noir ‘90s movies like they used to, the slithery Chameleon might be one to check out.  Writer/director Marcus Mizelle’s (very) indie film checks off many of the requisite boxes: sex, murder, double-crosses, triple-crosses, and an added layer of a fractured narrative to keep you on your toes throughout.  Now, I’m going to forewarn you and say that Chameleon isn’t going to fill your cup if you are desperate for a Basic Instinct type experience but if you get a warm feeling when you see the Hollywood Pictures logo and think a film as bland as 1990’s Guilty as Sin merits some measure of discourse, add this to your queue, post-haste.

Parolee Patrick (Joel Hogan) isn’t out long before his prison pal Dolph (Donald Prabatah) comes knocking on his door with a proposal.  Would Patrick want to continue to wash dishes making chump change or enter into a scheme with Dolph to swindle wealthy couples out of a nice chunk of money?  Assessing his options, Patrick opts for Dolph’s offer and the two begin to locate well-off Los Angels men and their bored wives.  Patrick sweeps in and seduces the wives before Dolph kidnaps them and holds them for ransom.  Patrick gets the husbands to pay, mostly for the return of their wives but perhaps to protect their pride a bit as well.  The scam proves lucrative for the two ex-cons, which can only mean that greed will eventually enter into the equation and when new target Rebecca (Alicia Leigh Willis) becomes something more to Patrick, it changes the loyalties of all involved.

Mizelle has made a smart (read: tricky) move by bifurcating the timeline pretty early on so the audience is thrown off-kilter as to what is happening and when.  It doesn’t so much confuse as to simply delay putting the final puzzle together and even then there always seems to be at least one more mystery to solve.  Viewers with a good eye will be able to keep track of how time plays out by watching Patrick’s hair length throughout.  What keeps the film from truly taking off, though, is some unavoidable issues that plague low-budget productions.  Performances range from shallow to serviceable and the dialogue could use a punch up to remove a number of too clever “no one talks like this” phrases that zap the viewer out of the movie.  That being said, much of it is quite lovely to look at and at 80 minutes (well, let’s say 72 with a s-l-o-w credits roll) it keeps moving at a good pace.  If the audience winds up far ahead of the characters before the end, it’s only because the plot contrivances can only divert for so long.  Eventually, you see where this is heading and start to patiently wait for it to get there.

I saw Chameleon on my first day at the 2019 Twin Cities Film Fest in October and it was the only one of its kind genre film I was able to see this go-around.  For that, I was glad to see something that attempted a clever angle and achieved most of what it set out for.  Thinking about it months later, I wonder what this would look like down the road for Mizelle if he remade this after some script revisions with a bigger budget and a few casting shifts.  There’s some strong potential here and Chameleon is worth a look in its current form…but I think with some reshaping the possibility of something better is strong.

Movie Review ~ The Shadow of Violence


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In rural Ireland, ex-boxer Douglas `Arm’ Armstrong has become the feared enforcer for the drug-dealing Devers family, while also trying to be a good father to his autistic five-year-old son, Jack.

Stars: Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, Kiljan Moroney, Anthony Welsh, David Wilmot

Director: Nick Rowland

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Even though we’re in the midst of a national health crisis, household chores still need to be done just like movies need to be watched and reviewed.  So the other night, I knew I had The Shadow of Violence coming up in my queue to screen and thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and do a little cleaning while I watched the film.  Now, when a movie is involved I’m not the kind of multi-tasker than can truly do two or three things at the same time…I’m more of a one and a half tasker-type so anything I pair with a movie has to be something that’s truly mindless.

Reading the description of The Shadow of Violence (previously titled and released in some international territories as the more interesting Calm with Horses, which is taken from the short story the movie is based on) I thought I’d be safe going about my movie and a half task.  After all, you’ve seen one quiet thug working for a dangerous family who turns out to be not so bad crime drama before, you’ve seen them all.  Right?  Well, in the case of this hard-nosed and surprisingly intriguing film from Ireland it shows there’s still room for effective storytelling within a genre that’s seemingly been played out.  It wasn’t too long into things that I found myself absorbed into the action, leaving all thoughts of my other work behind and intently watching director Nick Rowland’s unpredictable corker.

You’d be forgiven if you watched the first ten minutes of The Shadow of Violence and thought you’d found your way into yet another cliché-ridden film about small-time gangsters in an even smaller town.  Beefy brawler Arm (Cosmo Jarvis, Annihilation) is the muscle the notorious Devers family uses when they want to send a message.  Haunted by a past he can’t change and living in a present he can’t fix, Arm goes through the motions as a means to an end in order to provide for his  developmentally challenged son and estranged girlfriend (Niamh Algar).  Struggling to be a good father that shows up for his son but lacking the maturity to deal with a child that needs his full attention, Arm takes his guilt out on whatever sad soul the Devers send him to rough up.

In service more as a henchman to Dympna Devers (Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer)  than to any one of his more fearsome elder relatives, we first meet Arm doing menial bloody knuckle work on those that have run afoul of the Devers good will.  Things turn dark though as Arm is drawn into a web of betrayals when he becomes part of a family dispute that sours quickly.  Forced into a life or death situation that winds up putting him in a moral dilemma, Arm makes a choice that has a ripple effect throughout the Devers family, the town, and his own home.  Now, having to navigate through a system of deceit while ensuring the safety of his family, Arm brings those he fears closer while trying (perhaps in vain) to shield everyone around him from a wrath waiting to be unleashed once he is discovered.

It’s nice to find movies like The Shadow of Violence which, despite their dime-a-dozen title, and less than inspiring tagline turn out to amount to far more than what you see on the surface.  Working from screenwriter Joseph Murtagh’s adaptation of Colin Barrett’s short story, Rowland lets the film’s first act develop at a leisurely pace…almost too leisurely at times because with so many characters introduced you start to lose track of who is related to whom.  He snaps things back nice and taut, though, for the final half and delivers an unexpectedly rich examination of a bruised soul that sought redemption in the worst place possible who winds up finding some semblance of hope where it had been all along.

I had no trouble buying Keoghan as the unhinged enfant terrible of an already nasty family.  The actor’s tendency to oversell his intentions winds up working for him here and Dympna makes for an interesting quasi-villain you kinda can’t stop wanting to see more of.  Speaking of seeing more of, Algar’s performance as Arm’s fed-up significant other is gutsy and boldly memorable, a not easy task when sharing the screen with the likes of the scene-chewing Keoghan and the quiet magnitude of Jarvis.  It’s Jarvis that makes the movie work when all is said and done – you have to buy this thuggish bloke would have a brain and heart to go with his muscles and in scene after scene Jarvis keeps us rapt.

There’s a bleakness to the film that will be off-putting for some and I can understand not wanting to go to that place right now.  However, if you’re up for something that feels familiar but is handled with a fresh and feisty spirit, you’re going to want to find your way to The Shadow of Violence to meet the Devers familyIt’s a gritty visit to the Irish countryside that packs a nice punch.