Movie Review ~ The Pale Door

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Available in theaters, on Demand and Digital August 21, 2020

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a train robbery goes bad, two brothers leading a gang of cowboys must survive the night in a ghost town inhabited by a coven of witches.

Stars: Devin Druid, Zachary Knighton, Melora Walters, Bill Sage, Pat Healy, Stan Shaw, Natasha Bassett, Noah Segan, Tina Parker

Director: Aaron B. Koontz

Rated: NR

Running Length:

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When I was young, the phrase “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” always kind of creeped me out and definitely made me think twice anytime I got near a pig or a handbag.  What’s more, it never totally made sense to me until I had some real world uses for it that it would apply to.  Once, I had a birthday cake made and when I went to pick it up I found that it was decorated wrong.  When I pointed it out, the baker said they’d be happy to scrape off the decoration and put something new on top – but “ you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”  The cake was a bust but a friend came through in a pinch with a replacement.

In movies, every now and then you get a silk purse of a synopsis but a sow’s ear of a film.  Such is the case with the indie horror Western The Pale Door.  Here was one that had me all in based solely on the tagline that mentioned witches and cowboys…um, sold!  The poster looked ominously freaky, it had some interesting character actors involved and I was reasonably comforted that based on the previous credits of some of the filmmakers there was serious potential.  All signs pointed to the kind of selection that would have me clamoring into a theater had it been available at a film festival as a midnight selection.

Nope.  Sow’s ear.

The story goes like this.  Years ago two brothers were orphaned on a dark night but eventually went in different directions, taking separate paths forward in life.  One brother, Duncan (Zachary Knighton), becomes an outlaw, a member of a gang of ne’er-do-wells that get by thieving from town to town.  His kid brother Jacob (Devin Druid) opts for a more respectable life working for a local saloon and keeping his money safe and sound, planning for the day when he can secure his future.  When Duncan reappears and announces his intent to rob a train filled with gold, Jacob suddenly takes an interest in his older brother’s business and joins him and his crew for a fateful heist that doesn’t bring them to quite the bounty they had anticipated.

Instead of the train carrying money, they find it’s transporting a woman (Natasha Bassett, Hail, Caesar!) in a locked and guarded box who, when eventually freed, wants to repay their kindness by inviting them back to the brothel run by her friends that’s nearby and overseen by the mysterious Maria (Melora Walters, The Master).  Starved for food, drink, and something more carnal, the posse is all too happy to accept the company of the lovely ladies of the evening…who have a nasty habit of turning into ghastly beasts when the doors are locked for the night.  The rough and rowdy robbers must survive the darkness and protect Jacob, who the blood-hungry creates have their sights set on thanks to his pure and innocent spirit.

Giving the credit where it’s certainly the most due, the screenplay from Keith Lansdale, Cameron Burns, and director Aaron B. Koontz is quite clever at times and ranks high in the imagination factor.  It’s not going into the Smithsonian for it’s witty dialogue or complex construct but there’s been thought put in on how to get from Point A to Point B and that’s enough to keep the lights on for at least the first half of the movie.  Though it’s clearly cherry-picking the good stuff off of earlier adjacent movies like From Dusk Till Dawn and Near Dark, on paper at least it has the ring of a feature that would have worked quite well.

So…what’s the sow’s ear part you’re referring to, you say?  Well…it’s one of the cheapest looking movies I’ve seen in all of 2020 and maybe in the last several years.  A fine script is one thing but it can’t save filmmaking that is bargain basement throughout.  Costumes look like they were plucked directly (or stolen outright) from an Old Time Western Photo Shop, sets are straight-up in some touristy Wild West town that was shuttered for filming, and the hysterical props that are used are filled with jarring displays like Wanted posters you’d see printed on booths at an amusement park.  On top of all of that, the actual look of the movie gives the impression of a training video for a horseback riding camp.  The old TV show Hey Dude created a more convincing Western vibe.

Performances certainly don’t help things along either.  While Druid is a respectable, if mealy-mouthed, lead, he tends to disappear as the movie progresses…vanishing almost completely behind bigger performances just as he’s supposed to come to the forefront.  That’s partly Koontz’s fault for allowing some of the supporting players (which from the looks of past credits appear to be friends) to overact to an astonishing degree.  As the lone female bandit, Tina Parker does an amusing about-face from her tightly wound role in the excellent To the Stars released earlier this summer but Pat Healy (The Innkeepers) and especially Noah Segan (Knives Out) have the munchies for the scenery throughout.  Only Walters seems to gather what she’s gotten herself into and decides to go all out…and more’s the better for it.

A disappointment through and through, this is one door that need not be opened or even gazed upon with curiosity.  What a bummer this one was, mostly because I had some true high hopes for it.  It just goes to show that a tagline alone cannot (and should not) be the only thing that entices you into a film.  The script for this one might not be quite the silk purse that we discussed earlier but it’s at least a high-density cotton that stands up to inspection if you squint a bit.  The Pale Door itself needs a padlock, though.

Movie Review ~ Chemical Hearts


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A high school transfer student finds a new passion when she begins to work on the school’s newspaper.

Stars: Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Sarah Jones, Adhir Kalyan, Kara Young, Coral Peña

Director:  Richard Tanne

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The other day I was revisiting an old chestnut romance that has become a favorite for many.  By “old” I mean 1992 and the movie was The Cutting Edge, that sleepover-ready PG lovey dovey figure skating film that did decent box office when first released but caught on like wildfire when it arrived on home video.  Aside from having major nostalgia pangs for non-stadium general admission theaters and remembering finding the show times for it on MovieFone, what struck me about the film was how it never would have worked the way it does, or held up the way it has, if it weren’t for the undeniable chemistry between the two leads.  It fueled the movie and gave credence to everything their characters said and how they acted – we believed them because we believed the actors.  It’s a rarity in film, especially in ones meant to appeal to young adults which often are targeted for something lower than the heart.

So it’s nice when a movie like Chemical Hearts arrives and you can witness that same chemistry on display for a whole new generation of viewers, albeit in a movie far more complicated than one about Olympic dreams.  An adaption of Krystal Sutherland’s 2016 novel “Our Chemical Hearts”, an added emotional element the filmmakers couldn’t have planned for is that the high-school set film is arriving on Amazon’s streaming service at the tail end of a summer when the future is uncertain about what the upcoming school year will bring.  This gives the film a palpable immediacy on top of several issues it attempts to tackle during its short run time.

Henry Page (Austin Abrams, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) is a high school senior that’s living your typical teenage experience.  He gets average grades but aspires to do better, holds his parents as a model for a healthy relationship though he hasn’t had one of his own, and simply aims to please everyone by being what they need when they need it, regardless if it pleases him in the process.  His life takes a swift turn when Grace Down (Lili Reinhart, Hustlers) transfers into the school and becomes not just his co-editor of the newspaper but also the object of his interest and, eventually, affection.  That love hits him so hard seems to both excite and scare him a bit, compounded by Grace harboring her own guarded emotions and heavy baggage.  During a tumultuous senior year, Henry and Grace will each have their own moments of growth and shared lessons in the strength found in working together.

We’ve seen countless movies about the boy/girl that likes another boy/girl who has an air of mystery to them and know that whatever love blooms will surely be tested by secrets that are revealed and Chemical Hearts is no exception.  That adapter/director Richard Tanne handles it all with such a fine hand is a breath of fresh air and I found myself growing closer to the couple the more the film progressed rather than keeping them at arm’s length in preparation for the other shoe to drop.  That’s partly due to that whole chemistry bit we discussed earlier but also because the characters have genuine interest and depth not often found in the YA genre.  Separately, Henry and Grace feel like people we can relate to and together they are a couple we want to root for, further illustrating how well-rounded Tanne, Abrams, and the quite mesmerizing Reinhart have made these leading players.

What doesn’t quite work, though, are the supporting group of friends and relatives that seem to interfere with the action more than they help propel it forward.  Truly stellar films have side characters that marry themselves nicely into plot points throughout but in Chemical Hearts almost anytime Abrams and Reinhart aren’t onscreen the movie feels like it slumps its shoulders.  That’s especially tangential plots regarding Henry’s friend pursuing a lesbian relationship and his weepy sister going through a traumatic break-up that doles out sage wisdom when the movie needs it.  With a bit more finesse, Tanne could have made this work but I wasn’t buying into it because while Tanne goes to the finish line for Henry and Grace, everything else becomes distracting footnotes.  Plus, I hate it when movies show long-time friends totally dumping one of their own the first time they don’t come through in a pinch for them.  That happens here and the pure forgiveness that comes lets the group off too easy, in my opinion.

Without much in the way of films that have spoken to this age group over the past several months, this is one of two movies released in the same weekend giving young adults mature entertainment that doesn’t speak down to them.  Along with Words on Bathroom Walls, Chemical Hearts doesn’t go for the obvious sentiments about how being young is hard and that school is difficult but aims for something deeper that yields more fruit in the end.  There’s honesty throughout (again it should be stated that Reinhart and Abrams are terrific) and a sweet sincerity in its final moments that should please more than just its target audience.

Movie Review ~ Hard Kill

Available On Demand and Digital August 25, 2020


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A team of mercenaries find themselves tricked into a deadly showdown with an old enemy —and racing the clock to stop a world-changing computer program from being triggered.

Stars: Bruce Willis, Jesse Metcalfe, Natalie Eva Marie, Lala Kent, Sergio Rizzuto, Tyler Jon Olson, Texas Battle, Swen Temmel

Director: Matt Eskandari

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  Over the past year, I seem to have found myself with a lot of Bruce Willis in my life.  Reading Demi Moore’s insightful autobiography, I learned a bit more about their marriage and got a glimpse into life outside of the spotlight.  I also happened to watch several episodes of Moonlighting, the mid ‘80s TV show that paired him with Cybill Shepherd and made him an overnight star.  His move from television to move stardom was swift and, for my money, well-earned with a series of interesting films that showed some range – even if they weren’t always totally within his grasp.  What came through more than anything was that he was willing to try and that effort was delivered with a defined, unmissable twinkle in the eye and loads of charisma.

Sadly, that sparkle Willis used to get him over the finish line for many years is gone and he’s now to be found in quickie action thrillers that feel far beneath him.  Looking over his recent credits on IMDb reads like a list of titles considered but thrown out for the latest Call of Duty video game.  Precious Cargo, First Kill, Air Strike, Acts of Violence, Extraction…all blandly blend together so you can’t tell one from the other; it doesn’t help Willis looks the same in each so he appears to be playing the same character.  Reteaming with director Matt Eskandari for the third time in two years (their Trauma Center was released in 2019 and Survive the Night arrived in early 2020), Willis is in full-on glide mode which might be marginally OK if he was surround by a decent script, creative direction, and a supporting cast that picked up the slack.  Instead, every element of Hard Kill takes the easy route to Dullsville and sputters out before it can even get that far.

Former combat soldier Derek Miller (Jesse Metcalfe) now works as a mercenary gun for hire, which is how tech magnate Donovan Chalmers (Willis, Split) finds him and enlists his protection.  Apparently, Chalmers, with the assistance of his daughter Ava (Lala Kent, Spree), have created technology that is of vested interest to a terrorist called The Pardoner.  The vaguely European-y villain is evidently someone Miller and his team are familiar with from past encounters and Chalmers doesn’t want it falling into his hands which is why he wants their expertise to take the extremist down.  If Miller and his group of rugged professionals can fend off the radical and his goons from gaining access to a much-discussed security code that would activate the next-gen software meant to infiltrate precious security systems, it could mean the difference between peace and war.

In its journey to the screen, what sounds like a relatively straightforward actioner was, surprisingly, scripted by no less than four writers.  There are some attempts to add personal hang-ups and dramatic complexities to give the characters some shading but the script isn’t sophisticated enough nor are the actors prepared to tackle the necessary ups and downs.  It’s a remarkably poorly acted film from the top down, Willis often can’t even be bothered open his eyelids all the way, let alone to stand up, for many of his scenes.  The main bad guy is played by Sergio Rizzuto and a quick Google search returns results that for a time he was best known for being on a 2017 episode of Love Connection as a “Secret Billionaire” – which should tell you all you need to know about his acting as the lame-o The Pardoner.  Forgettable is the kindest way to describe the rest of the cast.  Most look like they spent more time in the gym than doing anything acting-related that could have spruced up the dreary proceedings.

Cheaply made with most of the action taking place in a large warehouse that hosts an endless series of low impact, poorly staged gunfights as well as a number of melodramatic scenes to balance out the action, Hard Kill should be an easy hard pass for you.  Even if you’re a fan of Willis I wouldn’t get too choked up about the actor and his selection of roles as of late, if you skip this one I’m sure you’ll have another similarly titled/themed one available in six months or so.  Hopefully that one will have a little more style and energy.

Movie Review ~ Words on Bathroom Walls


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A teenager coping with paranoid schizophrenia hopes his new experimental drug treatment will help him navigate high school and the outside world.

Stars: Charlie Plummer, Taylor Russell, Molly Parker, Walton Goggins, AnnaSophia Robb, Beth Grant,  Andy García,

Director: Thor Freudenthal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  History has not been kind to mental illness or those that have struggled with it and that’s largely due to a lack of information.  We are often scared of what we don’t know or don’t understand.  So many of the disorders that are now easily diagnosed were previously unidentifiable to those outside of a certain circle of doctors and researchers.  Many suffered and were shut away in asylums when they could have received treatment and its with the advancement of science, medications, and plain old discussion that have helped to bring some normalcy to what is often not perceived as typical normal behavior.

There’s a certain trepidation I have when I hear a movie dealing with teen mental illness is coming out because I don’t want it to be given a glossy veneer nor do I want it to be a doom and gloom scare affair.  There needs to be a nice balance that encourages those who may be dealing with a condition to speak to someone without fear of being mocked or made to feel less-than.  I wasn’t familiar with Julia Walton’s 2017 novel Words on Bathroom Walls that screenwriter Nick Naveda has adapted into the new feature film but went in knowing it was going to be tackling a big issue in the area of mental health: schizophrenia.  A number of movies have played the “voices in my head” episodes of psychosis for laughs or as plot devices that further elements of a larger idea but here was a film whose main character spends nearly the entire film finding ways to cope with competing personalities that only he can hear and see.

High school is already a hormone-laced, emotionally confusing time for the average teenager but senior Adam Petrazelli (Charlie Plummer, All the Money in the World) is also dealing with the presence of three distinct personalities that began as voices in his head and now pop up regularly.  Hippie Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb, The Way, Way Back) appeals to Adam’s more serene side while horndog Joaquin (Devon Bostick, Tuscaloosa) hangs around waiting for the excitement to begin.  It’s when The Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian, The Mule) gets riled up that things go south though because that signals an episode Adam won’t be able to control is about to take over.  Manifesting in the filmworld as black tendrils of smoke or another CGI effect of questionable quality that interferes with Adam’s ability to go about his day, these episodes make an already demanding schedule that much more difficult.

After losing it and injuring a student at his last school, Adam transfers to a parochial academy for his final year in the hopes of getting his diploma and staring culinary school and starting his dream career as a chef.  His single mom Beth (Molly Parker, The 9th Life of Louis Drax) wants that for him too, but has her reservations after numerous medical trials have failed to stop his manic episodes from happening.  It’s during this time he meets the clever Maya (Taylor Russell, Waves, Escape Room), a fellow senior who, in addition to a nice side business of selling papers and other assorted contraband to her wealthy classmates, is the valedictorian of their class.  Initially resistant to her efforts to peel off his guarded layers for fear she’d uncover his secret, it’s when he finds out certain truths about her own life that he changes direction and opens his heart to her in the process.  With a new man (Walton Goggins, Them That Follow) in his mom’s life and a stern nun (Beth Grant, Flatliners) keeping an eye on him at school, Adam starts a final trial of an experimental drug which silences the voices but may have other consequences that could make the trade-off not worth it in the end.

Director Thor Freudenthal’s feature film representation has largely been in movies aimed at younger audiences (though his television work is definitely more on the violent/dramatic adult side) so he clearly has an established comfort level working with young actors but this represents a real step up in the maturity level.  It did take a bit for the movie to hook me, though, but I attribute that to an ungainly first act that had trouble finding it’s focus and staying in one place for too long.  It’s all exposition to get us to that first meeting between Maya and Adam and that’s when Freudenthal strikes some serious gold.  If Plummer is a convincing, if a bit overly earnest lead, when sharing scenes with Parker and Goggins, he’s made exponentially better when paired with Russell’s sensitive and intuitive classmate and potential love interest.  As she’s done with her galvanizing performance in Waves and even in cheesy schlock like Escape Room, Russell makes bold choices that are often unexpected, never uninteresting.  I also quite liked Parker, an actress that seems to have continued to work steadily in well-reviewed but easy to forget roles…she just needs that one key movie to get her to that next level.  I can’t forget to mention Andy Garcia (Jennifer 8) as a priest Adam has a convivial relationship with where matters of faith don’t enter in.  Garcia’s brief supporting performance is, ahem, spirited and memorable.

Running far too long and clocking in at nearly two hours, I’m still not sure I came out the other side more well-educated to the chronic illness but I found myself watching in appreciation for the frankness in the way the movie handles the final act.  It’s definitely following a long-standing formula set by the high-school movie gods in which normal societal rules don’t apply if you just have to stand up and make a speech, but Words on Bathroom Walls winds up translating from the walls of literature to the screen with a comfort and a qualified quality.  Like another emotional YA film releasing today, Chemical Hearts, it stands in solidarity with those that might need extra support for reasons we may not totally understand.

Movie Review ~ Unhinged


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After a confrontation with an unstable man at an intersection, a woman becomes the target of his rage.

Stars: Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Gabriel Bateman, Jimmi Simpson, Austin P. McKenzie

Director: Derrick Borte

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  They tried, bless their money grubbing hearts, but they tried.  Studios that had big summer plans with franchise films set to open since the beginning of April have desperately adjusted their schedules to see if their movies could possibly debut and bring in some dough.  Disney kept pushing their live-action Mulan back before finally announcing it would debut in most countries on their streaming service for a $30 rental fee, Universal moved both their newest Fast and Furious flick and October’s Halloween sequel to 2021, and hard-nosed Warner Brothers continues to deny science and nudged Christopher Nolan’s Tenet back a week at a time before picking a date in September and (as of now) sticking with it.

Who could have ever predicted that the first new film arriving in theaters to welcome back brave audiences would be Unhinged from Solstice Studios, a fledgling company soldiering forward with its initial release in a country still taking stock of a massive virus crisis?  And what a welcome back it is.  Movie-goers that have been busying themselves on repeated viewings of nostalgic classics, binging on television shows, and trying out the latest offering from the well-stocked on demand sector are in for a rude howdy-do courtesy of Russell Crowe’s garish road-rage thriller.  It’s tense as all get-out and slick as can be but it’s also so nasty and mean-spirited you’ll wish you had watched it home so you can shower after to wash its palpable grime off after.

A grim prologue finds Crowe’s Tom Cooper already hopping over the line of bad judgment, leading into a current events credits sequence that might just send you hunting for your last Xanax.  Before we see Tom again, we’re introduced to Rachel Hunter (Caren Pistorius, Mortal Engines) a young mother going through a divorce and teetering on the edge of barely getting by.  Her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman, 2019’s Child’s Play) and live-in brother Fred (Austin P. McKenzie) are all too happy to point out her shortcomings but not so into helping out with solutions to her crumbling business or relationship.  Only her lawyer friend Andy (Jimmi Simpson, White House Down) seems to be actively looking out for her best interest.  Everyone else wants something from her or needs her to make good on promises she can’t always keep.

She’s near the end of a short fuse when she finds herself behind a truck at an intersection while already running late to drop her son off at school.  When the truck doesn’t move at the green light she lays on her horn once…then twice…then swerves around only to find herself in bumper to bumper traffic going the other direction, more than enough opportunity for the truck (and the man within) to catch up with her.  Re-enter, you guessed it, Tom Cooper who demands an apology which Rachel isn’t eager to give.  When strained niceties turn to aggressive threats, Rachel finds herself and her loved ones at the epicenter of Cooper’s dangerous psychotic rage.

What’s good about a film like Unhinged is that it perks up someone like me who has been missing those fun B-movie thrillers of the 90s.  After all, it wouldn’t be very sporting of me to drone on in my reviews about the death knell of those mid-budgeted suspense yarns and then kick to the curb the literal first one out of the gate when theaters have reopened.  All the same, there’s such an inherent meanness to Carl Ellsworth’s original screenplay that I have to say what started off as a nail-biting tale fueled by impending dread gives way to something far less well-intentioned.  When Cooper becomes an unstoppable monster hell bent on destroying Rachel’s life with his bare bloody hands in the most grievous ways possible, Unhinged becomes an upsetting and increasingly uncomfortable watch.  Is this supposed to be the kind of entertainment we have been clamoring for?

It would be easy to argue that the violence Cooper inflicts is no less gratuitous than your standard Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers sequel but there’s a clear distinction between those fantasy world characters and this film that’s set squarely in our realistic modern times.  It’s as if Ellsworth’s created a cypher for some kind of anger he feels toward society and uses it as a battering ram against anything that gets in the way.  Countless innocent lives are lost in the film, some for no other reason than they may be annoying in a way our judgmental culture has deemed them to be.  You also can’t skirt the fact that while Cooper is indeed a psychopath, Rachel is given multiple opportunities at the outset to put a pin in their traffic scuffle but refuses to do so…which propels Cooper to pounce on his murder quest.

It almost feels too easy to say Crowe (The Water Diviner) is perfectly cast in the role of an off-his-rocker nutjob but…he is.  Wearing a faux fat belly so fake looking I swear I saw the square edges when he turned from side to side, Crowe plays the role like a white privileged slob of an American.  I’m shocked he didn’t throw a Trump/Pence bumper sticker on the truck to complete the picture, but you can’t alienate your audience in the south or date yourself too much, ya know?  Anyway, Crowe is menacing enough and blusters his way through the 90-minute movie with an apt presence but little in the way of any character coloring.  Some blanks are filled in, but Cooper is mostly a mystery…which is probably the point.  As the object of his abject hate, Pistorius makes the most out of a role written to be a train wreck at the beginning and a full-on ten-car pile-up by the end.  At some point, you start to think her character must not know how to dial 911 because it takes her forever to make that call.  The rest of the cast is barely worth mentioning, though I’d like to state for the record Bateman looks and acts like another younger brother to Pistorius rather than her son.

I’ll be quite interested to see how audiences respond to Unhinged in this first weekend of screenings back and also how theaters in turn deal with new crowds at their theaters.  If there’s one thing to be thankful for, it’s that Unhinged is being marketed in a way that should keep families staying home and avoiding the temptation to haul young children out to see this terror-filled picture.  With this pandemic still an active concern, it’s not worth the risk of venturing into the theaters yet and Unhinged is absolutely not the one to take the chance on it with.