31 Days to Scare ~ Death of Me

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Available In Theatres, On Demand and Digital on 10/2

The Facts:

Synopsis: A vacationing couple must unravel the mystery behind a strange video that shows one of them killing the other.

Stars: Maggie Q, Luke Hemsworth, Alex Essoe, Kat Ingkarat, Kelly B. Jones

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review: My goodness, doesn’t the poster for Death of Me promise something just absolutely terrifying?  It’s one of those arresting images that instantly catches your eye and, like a juicy steak cooking on a grill that has made many a cartoon dog float across a yard in ecstasy once he gets a whiff, it’s meant to attract horror hounds who happily chow down on tasty treats such as this.  The trouble is, the poster is by far the best thing about this new frightener which squanders a perfect locale and good-looking cast in favor of a recycled plot, substandard scares, and a general lack of energy that does more to kill the mood than anything supernatural.

The last morning of a vacation is always rough but for married couple Neil and Christine it’s particularly head spinning.  Their room is a tangled mess, Christine (Maggie Q, Allegiant) is covered with some strange substance and Neil is disoriented to the point where he’s no help at all.  Scrambling to meet their ferry, they are unable to board without their passports which have gone missing.  Back at their vacation rental and backtracking their steps to find their missing documents, they begin to put the pieces back together and remember the night before.  Both eventually recall a strange encounter with a waitress at a local watering hole who gave Christine a drink and a charm she now wears around her neck.  That’s pretty much all they remember…so it’s a good thing Neil (Luke Hemsworth, Thor: Ragnarok, no, not that Hemsworth.  No, not that one…yes, that’s the one) has a lengthy video on his phone they can watch.

What they see on his phone can’t be true because it ends with Christine dead and buried six feet under the ground.  Yet, come to think of it, that might explain a lot about the state both were in when they woke up earlier that morning.  Shrugging off this impossibility quite quickly (not to mention the distressing suggestion Luke, y’know, murdered his wife and buried her and now doesn’t remember it) the make contact with their host (Alex Essoe, Homewrecker) who is friendly enough (or IS she?) and lets them stay on another day or so while they figure out what’s happening and why Christine can’t seem to take off her new necklace without looking….well, dead.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s transpiring and the script, credited to a whopping THREE screenwriters, eventually doesn’t bother with coherence as characters change motivations and nightmares become reality which are really dreams but wait are they real?  Everything seems to be made up as it goes along, which makes the whole thing feel flimsy.

Director Darren Lynn Bousman was behind the camera for three of the Saw films and also directed the twisted musical Repo! The Genetic Opera as well as one of the segments of the fun anthology Tales of Halloween but something is missing the execution here.  Much of it has to be attributed to the script which just isn’t that special and therefore creaks through the motions toward an ending that you’re likely able to suss out before the film is half over.  I also wish the leads had a bit more of an edge to them.  The least known Hemsworth brother, Luke is mostly cardboard and forgettable as is, regrettably, Maggie Q doing most of the heavy lifting as Christine.  Maggie Q is always someone I’m rooting for to be better than the material she’s given, to find a way to rise above it…but it just doesn’t stick.

I can see this one being a small diversion for folks looking for a well-produced horror film this Halloween season.  The Thailand setting is nice, even if it doesn’t paint the island or the locals in any kind of positive light, and when it does manage to drum up some suspense by instilling some gross-out gore, it’s handled with some measure of sick charm.  Still, we’re at the point where audiences know you can do a lot with a little if you have the right elements and Death of Me is lacking in several key areas to make it come alive.

Movie Review ~ The Devil to Pay

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After the disappearance of her husband, a struggling farmer in an isolated Appalachian community fights to save her son when the cold-hearted matriarch of the oldest family on the mountain demands payment of a debt that could destroy a decade’s old truce.

Stars: Danielle Deadwyler, Catherine Dyer, Jayson Warner Smith, Brad Carter, Luce Rains, Adam Boyer, Charles Black, Parisa Johnston, Tim Habeger, Ezra Haslam

Director: Ruckus Skye & Lane Skye

Rated: NR

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When you watch a lot of movies like I do, it sometimes becomes a problem when films start to blend together and you forget what you’ve seen.  I often will look back through my list of movies I’ve watched over a year and draw a complete bank just going off the title alone but reading the description is what finally jogs the memory.  It’s not that the movies themselves aren’t special or stand-outs on their own merits, it’s only that from week to week there will always be another new one to screen and review before moving on.  The thrill of it all is not gone, don’t worry, but I’ve been recognizing that more and trying to make sure I’m actually seeing a movie…not just watching it.

I say this to illustrate that when a movie comes along that sticks in my brain and stays there for weeks after I’ve seen it, that’s how I know it’s something just a tad more unique than the others. The Devil to Pay is one of those films that has planted its flag and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. This small, micro-budgeted gem is a throwback to those taut ‘70s thrillers popular at drive-ins or midnight features that pitted working-class people against similar simple folk that just happened to be up a few more rungs in the ladder of life.  With its mysterious Appalachian mountain society that isn’t often on display, writer/directors Lane Skye & Ruckus Skye make excellent use of our unfamiliarity with this setting to keep us on our toes, throwing in surprises aplenty in a concise package.

For those that live in the Appalachian hills, there is a code that must be followed and a truce between two rival families that has stretched on for years.  Anyone that lives past a sign that divides the town governed by local police from the homegrown law and order of the hills knows they have to keep in line or pay dearly.  Lemon Cassidy (Danielle Deadwyler) knows the way to stay out of trouble and has made a life for herself with her husband Tarlee and son, Coy.  Tarlee has vanished, though, gone on another one of his benders…or so she thinks.  Left to tend their small farm, Lemon has continued on with the hope that her husband will eventually return but the longer he’s gone the more worried she has become.

A knock on her door in the early morning is a summons from the icy matriarch (Catherine Dyer, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) of one of the families involved in the truce who also oversees the property Lemon and her family live on.  Seems that Tarlee was sent on a mission as a way to repay a debt and hasn’t returned and she wants to know if Lemon has heard from him…now it’s up to Lemon to find her husband or finish the job herself.  Which puts Lemon in a no-win situation.  Deliver her spouse and he’ll certainly be killed for running afoul of the unforgiving clan.  Failure to deliver on her own and it means she’ll be killed alongside her son.  With no one on the mountain to turn to for fear of retaliation themselves, Lemon becomes a one-woman search-and-rescue….and eventually survival when she crosses a line from which there is no going back.

Earlier this summer, both Skyes were credited writers on the popular Home Alone-ish horror film Becky, a film I found putrid and disgusting.  The violence in that one was delivered with simple bloodlust and without any redemptive value, mostly because it was against children and animals.  Though they provided the screenplay and weren’t ultimately responsible for the visuals in that film, just knowing The Devil to Pay was from some of the same team involved with that mess had me worried we’d be in for more stomach-turning nonsense but this is a charged, suspenseful winner.  Clearly, directing their own material shows they have a more restrained way of portraying violence onscreen that achieves the same results.  While it does slip into some cuckoo-bird territory when Lemon encounters a tribe of cultists encamped nearby, it’s slips by easily with points for originality.  The violence is not as extreme but it is memorable and delivered without much remorse.  This is a brutal environment and the actions taken by the people that live there reflects the place they come from.

The news here, the big big news , is Deadwyler’s star making turn in the lead role.  Yes, I said star making even though this is such a small movie I’m not sure enough people will see it to garner that kind of attention…but it’s such a damn fine performance, really note-perfect in every way, that it should get her piles of accolades.  The Skyes even afford her a rather long monologue right at the beginning of the film, something that could threaten to slow down any momentum that’s been building…but Deadwyler is so captivating that you’re totally taken with everything she’s saying.  She’s well paired with Dyer’s frightening dragon lady who uses words like “ignoramus” and bakes pastries while she talks about murdering Lemon’s child.  It’s slips ever so slightly into more KKK Grand Wizard than Big Boss Lady at times (anytime you have a white character saying awful things to a black one though a gigantic white-toothed smile it’s hard to get around that) but Dyer doesn’t let it get too far out of her grip.

Rough around the edges though it may be, it’s smooth sailing nearly the entire way.  From it’s ominous opening crawl to the way it manages to continue to surprise us even after an hour of unpredictable turns, The Devil to Pay is that rare blend of originality with true grit.  Even if the film were half as good as it is, it would still be worth it to see what will surely be the true starting point Deadwyler’s ascent – as of this writing she’s already been cast in The Harder They Fall for Netflix.  This is one of the strongest films I’ve seen in 2020 and very much worth your effort to search it out.

Movie Review ~ A Call to Spy

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the beginning of WWII, with Britain becoming desperate, Churchill orders his new spy agency to recruit and train women as spies. Their daunting mission: conduct sabotage and build a resistance.

Stars: Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache

Director: Lydia Dean Pilcher

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  As a critic, the absolute worst feeling is coming across some film that you desperately wanted to like and find that it just doesn’t like you back.  You’ve read about it and think it sounds like a perfect subject to base a movie off of and wonder why it hasn’t been told before, or if it had why you hadn’t seen it yet.  Then you see it’s a largely female production behind the scenes as well and it only makes you more convinced you’re on the right track and you’re bound to be in for a project done right.  Only then you get that opportunity to see the film and wonder where things went wrong and why you didn’t warm to it like you thought you would, why it felt so phony, and why you now have to write the next sentence.  I did not like A Call to Spy.

Yes, it’s unfortunate to admit it but I was severely disappointed in the new WWII historical drama that revolves around the recruitment of females to be sent behind enemy lines as spies and radio transmitters, risking their lives just as much as their male counterparts.  We’ve been treated to countless stories of men doing the same thing and even ones that spied and transmitted without ever having to leave the UK, but A Call to Spy suggested it was going to provide more of the backstory about this program and its participants.  The trouble is that it’s such a thinly written piece with a narrow focus, it doesn’t allow for a broader view of the initiative beyond it’s limited scope.  It’s general topic may be interesting but the movie is a fairly solid snoozefest.

Recognizing that women were less likely to be perceived as a threat or wouldn’t be thought to have the capacity to spy for their country by the Nazis, Churchill instructed his recently formed spy agency to move forward with a proposal raised by Vera Atkins (Stana Katic, Quantum of Solace) that would allow women the opportunity to receive formal training.  If they were cleared and a mission presented itself, they would be prepared to go where the need was.  This is how the agency came to recruit Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte) a quiet but brilliant radio operative and Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) an American stationed in Britain continually denied her request to be a diplomat on account of her wooden leg.   Both are unlikely choices…which, in a way, makes them perfect choices.

Director Lydia Dean Pilcher stages early scenes of training in a strangely haphazard way, which begins a pattern of confusion over location and timeline that continues through the remainder of the film.  It’s never truly clear where or when the action is taking place because the Pilcher switches often between Noor and Virginia in their separate missions and Vera back home keeping an eye on the program and trying to plan for her own survival should the Nazis get closer.  The main men in the film, Linus Roache (Non-Stop) as Vera’s superior and Rossif Sutherland (Possessor Uncut) as a contact Virginia befriends are around for emotional sounding boards, no more, no less.

What is meant to elicit suspense barely raises the pulse and in these espionage films there should be a little tension here and there.  Though I was paying attention to the film and following along with the women on their assignments, it got muddy to who was aligned with whom and where everyone was heading — making moments meant to be shocking just confusing.  Perhaps that’s due to the leading performance of Thomas.  Serving also as the writer, Thomas has given the role some meat that is likely meant to be a stretch but doesn’t seem to sit well on her.  I didn’t buy her transformation into the covert emissary she becomes and it’s from that weak point other lacking areas are exposed.  The dialogue is trite, the scenes staged without much precision, and, again, the editing doesn’t help keep the narrative in check.

This one bummed me out.  I had high hopes for it and wanted to like it far more than I did.  I’m a sucker for movies set at this point in history and anything to do with untold stories of ordinary people called in to do extraordinary things is grand in my book.  It just hit none of the marks for me that I expected.  On the other hand, I can’t stress enough how vital the story being told by all involved is and on that basis, I would absolutely recommend the film as a jumping off place for viewers wanting to know more about this part of history.  As a film, though, A Call to Spy is one I wouldn’t venture to answer a second time.

Movie Review ~ The Great American Lie

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Examines how a US value system built on the extreme masculine ideals of money, power and control has glorified individualism, institutionalized inequality, and undermined the ability of most Americans to achieve the American Dream.

Stars: Linda Darling-Hammond, Nicholas Kristof, Libby Schaaf, Ruby De Tie

Director: Jen Siebel Newsom

Rated: NR

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I don’t want to assume anything about you, dear reader, but I’m getting to the point where I have to brace myself before I turn on the news or pull up social media because it seems like every day there’s something to argue about.  I suppose it’s fitting that in a year filled with pretty much every kind of setback that can possibly occur for the population of this country, a movie like The Great American Lie can be released and hold up a striking mirror to it all.  Though it can’t explain away the natural disasters that are ravaging the coastal areas or the virus keeping us all locked away inside our homes these past seven months, director Jen Siebel Newsom’s documentary does examine how years of disregard for social reform and a focus on individual advancement has left huge sections of the American people behind.

In her previous films, including the excellent MissRepresentation, Siebel Newsom took an in depth look at the way gender plays an influential role in the media and stereotypes and she approaches uncovering the truths in The Great American Lie from a similar vantage point.  Treating the principals of wealth and influence as the inherently masculine models of success they’ve become over time, she moves through this exploration by leveraging a hearty supply of interviews with noted historians, culturists, and business analysts.  Interwoven into these bullet-pointed presentations of the decline of the community in favor of personal gain are Siebel Newsom’s following of real-life working class citizens who are representative of the points she is trying to illustrate.

It’s always going to be more invigorating to watch people function in their daily lives over a bunch of talking heads and that’s definitely the case in The Great American Lie.  The sheer volume of people the director has gathered becomes overwhelming and for a film that runs a little over 90 minutes, did we honestly need someone to appear onscreen once to state a fact and then disappear?  It’s as if the director didn’t know how to edit down everything she wanted to get in or couldn’t find a way to illustrate the information in another way; by the end you’ve had so many names, faces, and facts tossed at you that it tends to become a blur.  While the details never drill down so far as to feel like you’re back in school and the stats are likely nothing you aren’t aware of already, it’s never a bad thing to be reminded that it hasn’t been all that long since America was segregated and had laws that were even more discriminatory to the poor and working-class.

The good news is that between these interviews are intriguing subjects, chief among them Ruby De Tie, a principal working in the Oakland district at an underfunded school with mostly minority students.  Growing up knowing the impact that education and teachers had on her, she recognizes the opportunity she has to make the lives of her students better just by showing up every day and keeping the lights on.  The entire documentary could have been about her and I would have been just fine with that; her sections of the film are so engaging and lively, bringing a different energy than the other stories involving a laid-off family man working in a dying steel town (who mysteriously still wants to vote for Donald Trump even though he can give no real reason why), and a church-going suburban mom learning that she benefits from privilege in the most 2020 way imaginable.

Interesting to note that Siebel Newsom is the wife of California Governor Gavin Newsom – he does make a brief appearance (one of those that pop in and pop out quickly) and the film obviously keels more the left.  As it rounds the corner toward summation it can’t help but look to the future and what has been set into motion with the current administration.  Yes, the film has an agenda and isn’t shy about it but at the same time it’s not accusatory or judgmental to the citizens out there in society that pay their taxes, work 12-hour shifts, expect their elected officials to make laws that improve their way of living, and love their families just as much as the next person.  That’s the biggest truth told in The Great American Lie….we’re all in this together.

Movie Review ~ 2067

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: By the year 2067, Earth has been ravaged by climate change and humanity is forced to live on artificial oxygen. An illness caused by the synthetic O2 is killing the worlds’ population and the only hope for a cure comes in the form of a message from the future.

Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ryan Kwanten, Leeanna Walsman, Deborah Mailman, Matt Testro, Damian Walshe-Howling, Aaron Glenane

Director: Seth Larney

Rated: NR

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  I wasn’t too far into the new sci-fi flick 2067 when it struck me how much effort was put into a movie that far too few people will actually see.  Sure, nowadays films are shot on an iPhone and released on YouTube but this Australian funded and produced film looks to have had not a small amount of money spent on it yet it’s arriving within the VOD space during a very busy release week.  With nothing to set it apart from the flock, it needed to have some hook to attract the attention of viewers that would want to put other anticipated titles aside and choose this one instead.  If the film had been better, I might shed a tear or two but this is such a rote, run-of-the-mill time-travelling to the past to save the future (but with a TWIST!) endeavor that the entire affair hardly seems worth the two hours you could have spent on a more original idea.

Like last week’s similarly-themed LX 2048 which brought us to a future where the sun’s rays had become lethal, in 2067 we’re almost a half century onward and now the Earth’s air has grown toxic.  The population treats pure oxygen as a hot commodity with the clean stuff going for a pretty penny after its discovered living too long on artificial oxygen is even more deadly.  Underground worker Ethan Whyte (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman) toils long hours in dangerous conditions in order to make enough money to keep his ill wife (Sana’a Shaik) healthy for as long as possible.  Working alongside his quasi big-brother who has been looking out for him for years (Ryan Kwanten), he’s surprised when the company he works for that also dabbles in tests to find a cure for the plague requests his presence at their headquarters and offers up a striking proposal.

Seems that Ethan’s late scientist father (Aaron Glenane) had been experimenting in time-travel and had nearly made it work before he mysteriously died.  The work has continued with his colleagues continuing to send messages through a portal and they’ve only now just received a message back…and it points to Ethan as a possible solution to Earth’s impending doom.  Offered a chance by the company’s head officer (Deborah Mailman, The Sapphires) to take a leap of faith and find the answers that will save the Earth, Ethan will also come face to face with dark truths from his past that continue to haunt his present….even as he explores a future world that he may never make it back from.

If there’s one thing to say about writer/director Seth Larney’s futuristic film, it’s that it looks pretty good for an independently produced sci-fi spectacle.  Though obviously working with a smaller budget than your typical blockbuster, there are some very nice effects at times in 2067 but on the other hand quite a lot of the movie takes place in one of two specific sets that are just redressed to different time periods.  The truth of the matter is that this is, frankly, boring and doesn’t justify it’s incredibly long run time.  What might have had the makings of a short episode of the revamped The Twilight Zone has been stretched to a punishing feature length that can’t support it’s very meager plot littered with questionable twists and performances that are surprisingly shoddy for some and outright poor for others.

Between this and LX 2048, it’s obvious that there’s a 20 year period in our future that’s looking pretty bleak…a bad sign when things in 2020 aren’t feeling so hot either.  It’s disappointingly acted and while Australian films are often produced to handsome results, aside from a few nice visuals it’s by and large a cheap looking show that doesn’t earn any points for originality.  There’s far better options for you in the VOD world right now and 2067 is an easily skippable one.