Movie Review ~ Wrong Turn (2021)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Despite warnings to stick to the Appalachian Trail, hikers stray off course and cross into land inhabited by a hidden community of mountain dwellers who use deadly means to protect their way of life.

Stars: Charlotte Vega, Matthew Modine, Emma Dumont, Bill Sage, Daisy Head, Adain Bradley, Tim DeZarn, Dylan McTee

Director: Mike P. Nelson

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Like them or not, you have to give a certain amount of credit to anyone attempting to reboot a popular film franchise for their sheer chutzpah.  Going beyond the mere land of the sequel where you are tasked with continuing on the thread of characters and staying as true as you can to what has been established in previous installments, to reboot means to really start from scratch and that can be scarier than any madman in a mask chasing after a nubile teen with a knife.  Now, you have the fate of the future essentially in your hands so you better know what you’re doing or else the fans will come to get you and let me tell you a truth universally known by many doomed directors hoping to kickstart their own bloodline using a beloved series: a loyal fan is a hard gnat to swat.

What’s always energizing to find is a situation like we have with this reboot of the 2003 minor hit Wrong Turn.  While the original was a decently conceived and executed bloody cut ‘em up that did well enough to spawn five sequels (including one attempt at a reboot already) that went direct to video, it wasn’t exactly a classic destined for historical preservation.  The intriguing bit of trivia here, and what should catch the attention of devotees to the Wrong Turn lineage, is that the story and screenplay come from Alan B. McElroy who wrote the initial film.  How often does an individual responsible for the creation of a series that hasn’t been heard from in a while come back and willingly start again, jettisoning nearly everything that’s been built over the past two decades and offer a fresh idea?

Now, I can’t say for sure if McElroy (who also wrote Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, one of my favorite sequels in that franchise) had always planned this new Wrong Turn or if he hadn’t already worked out this plotline for another potential movie all together that just happened to be similar to his first hit.  Whatever the case, I’m glad the folks that owned the rights to the title came knocking because McElroy has found a clever way to begin again without doing any harm to the memory of the six films already containing a whole world created from his spare plot elements.  If anything, it allows both those films and this new take to co-exist independently from one another and I think fans of the original are going to find a lot has gone right for this new Wrong Turn.

Scott Shaw (Matthew Modine, Pacific Heights) has come to Wrenwood, Virginia for answers.  Over six weeks ago, his daughter Jen (Charlotte Vega) and five of her friends came through the sleepy town on their way to the Appalachian Trail for an innocuous hike as part of a longer road trip.  They haven’t been heard from since.  The town police offer no help nor do they seem to be interested in upsetting the ‘look the other way vibe’ Scott keeps picking up from the locals.  Only an otherwise tight-lipped owner of the tiny inn has an inkling of what might have happened to his daughter and her companions…and the prospects aren’t good.  As the film flashes back six weeks, we’ll see how right she is.

Largely an easy-going sextet of travelers not out to stir up trouble, Charlotte, her boyfriend Darius (Adain Bradley), loud-mouth Adam (Dylan McTee), medical student Milla (Emma Dumont, Inherent Vice) and boyfriends Gary (Vardaan Arora) and Luis (Adrian Favela) just want to get out into nature and explore the beauty of the land.  Looking for any final tips from the locals, their host at their lodging (who becomes an ally to Scott six weeks later) just advises them to “Stay on the trail.”  Of course, once they get too far to turn back Darius tells them about an abandoned Civil War fort that’s not too far off the well-marked trail and like clockwork it isn’t long before they’ve ventured into a part of the forest that’s already well occupied.

Instead of the greasy backwoods hicks the doomed youngins met up with in the first film, Charlotte and the gang wander into something far more sophisticated and long-standing and that’s something that deftly sets this Wrong Turn apart from the others.  Protecting their space and the privacy of their way of life is key and this “foundation” have the macabre traps to show they mean business.  As the numbers of the hikers dwindle, director Mike P. Nelson and McElroy capably change the gears of the film several times into different levels of suspense, nearly all to good effect.  There’s enough carnage to satisfy the gore hounds with some ingeniously nasty deaths and well-done make-up effects as well as a balanced amount of suspense leading up to these shocks.  For the most part, the movie lets you get to know everyone before it finds a way to send them to their maker.  While it clocks in at a lengthy 111 minutes (even the credits are worth sitting through for a bit), it doesn’t feel like it overstays its welcome or has the kind of filler that stretches out an already thin idea.  More often than not, McElroy and Nelson find ways to keep us engaged.

The performances are also in line with the strength of this new direction.  With Modine the only true mainstream vet in the mix, it’s left to the rising stars and a few seasoned character actors to carry the weight of plot and they do it admirably.  Making for a confident lead that proves to be no damsel in distress, Vega has some interesting developments in the final act and an intriguing coda that I wanted to know more about.  Long time journeyman actor Bill Sage (The Pale Door) heads up the band of terrorizers that dole out justice as they see fit, with death not always the answer even if the accused will wind up wishing that was their sentence.  Then there’s Modine who never makes it seem like he’s slumming it in a C-grade horror film.  Having worked with some of the top directors in Hollywood, he treats the role with consideration and that goes a long way in our taking everything as seriously as he is.

Far less problematic in the way it categorizes the people of Appalachia than all of its predecessors, I have a feeling this Wrong Turn will go over nicely with its intended audience.  Will it win over any new fans?  Possibly, and that’s thanks to a leveled measure of restraint in the usual over-the-top spewing of viscera and a stronger focus on the build-up of suspense.  A new route has definitely been charted for the Wrong Turn franchise and I’d be on board for another trip should McElroy want to map it out for us.

Movie Review ~ Rage (2021)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After a violent home invasion leaves him in a coma and his wife deeply traumatized, a mild-mannered husband awakens to find out that one of the attackers is still on the loose. As they try to move on with their lives, one day his nearly-despondent wife spots the attacker, opening up a twisted tale of brutal revenge where all isn’t as it seems.

Stars: Matt Theo, Hayley Beveridge, Richard Norton, Tottie Goldsmith, Natasha Maymon, Melissa Barlas, Tony Kotsopoulos, Jasper Bagg, Nic Stevens, Stephen Degenaro, Marcus Merkoski

Director: John Balazs

Rated: NR

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Often when offered a movie to screen I’ll do a small amount of research before agreeing to take it up for coverage and the new Australian-made thriller Rage seemed to be a title that spoke for itself based on the plot description.  So I didn’t dig deep enough to notice that its run time was well over two hours and by the time I learned that, when preparing my pre-notes before settling in to watch the sprawling film, it was too late to turn back.  I actually thought I had read it wrong at first and perhaps instead of 143 minutes it actually was 1 hour and 43 minutes.  In actuality, upon further reflection now that I’ve completed the watch, I think 103 minutes of material is likely the most Rage could conceivably argue it possessed.

Over the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve decided that I can take the brunt of any bad movie as long as it knows when to pack it in and wrap things up.  There’s nothing worse than having to sit through a film that’s so blind to it’s own excess that it continues to obliterate itself, ringing its own death knell long before the credits have mercifully run.   Rage is one such film and it’s extra disappointing to say that because there are parts of the movie that I enjoyed for a brief moment in time.  It was only after the pace has been dragged to a halt yet again and the energy sucked from the screen that I felt my temperature rise as my interest waned.

Opening on a shot that appears to give away the ending of the film (I will neither confirm nor deny this), Rage starts off decent enough, asking us to lean forward into the lives of Noah (Matt Theo) and Madeline (Hayley Beveridge) Tate, a young attractive couple from Melbourne that have seemed to hit a lull in their marriage.  She’s pulling away from physical intimacy without giving him any indication as to what’s wrong, leaving him perplexed and eventually falling into the arms of Sophia (Natasha Maymon) a young co-worker he shares a connection with.  He’s with Sophia later that evening when two masked men we’ve seen watching the Tate home earlier in the morning break in and commit a heinous set of crimes against Madeline and her sister.  Feeling guilty and wanting to try again with his wife, Noah returns early, interrupting the assailants and suffering injuries that put him in a coma for the next month.

Though the film jumps ahead at this point to our seeing Noah awake and desperately searching for his wife, director John Balazs rather quickly cuts back to the night of the attack and lets us follow what Madeline goes through during the month her husband is incapacitated and one of her attackers is still on the loose.  Beginning the healing process alone, she meets with a psychiatrist (Tottie Goldsmith) who happens to be the wife of the lead detective working her case (Richard Norton).  When Noah does wake up, a fissure has occurred between he and his wife that can’t be undone immediately.  It’s only when Madeline believes she has seen her assailant that Noah feels he has a chance to make up for lost time, but are both of them strong enough to do what they feel should be done to make things right between them and help Madeline in her healing process?

I couldn’t help but wonder how much of Michael J. Kospiah’s screenplay was filmed as-is or how much of it was altered as it made it way to the screen.  The scope of the film seems to be quite epic in nature, with a great number of characters linking in throughout but not having much to say or do.  At certain times, it feels like Balzas wants to steer his film into the revenge category and early scenes of gruesome violence apparently were fake outs seeing that Rage gets progressively soapier.  Yes, strangely enough, it begins to morph into a relationship drama showing us the inner workings of the marriage between Noah and Madeline and it didn’t feel like the events leading up to this sea change supported the shift.  Nor does it feel like the target audience of Rage would want numerous scenes of Noah tearfully pleading (more like nasally whining) for his wife to speak to him.  Additionally, it’s not as if the scenes are acted that well either.  Though Theo and Beveridge do their best to rise above this, the lack of chemistry is instantly recognizable and so the majority of the film is spent agreeing that maybe this is a marriage that shouldn’t last.

The person to blame here is Balzas because not only was he the director of Rage but, as I found out at the end, he was also the editor.  Ah!  There!  It makes sense!  That’s the problem.  At 143 minutes, Rage feels like the first cut that was offered to the studio.  In other words, it’s the one the studio offers notes on and is eventually trimmed to a more palatable length supported by the scenes that work and the scenes that don’t.  There are a number of passages included that are completely unnecessary, from small shots of wordless car rides, to full sequences of the same argument between the married couple being repeated over again.  The most egregious of all is Norton’s first appearance as the police detective.  Walking in sloooooooooow mooooooootion down the street leading up to the Tate’s home and then, when he blessedly arrives, speaking out loud what he thinks were the events of the night (which are accurate) for the other officers.  Why is this scene in there?  The audience just saw the crime being committed so we don’t need to see this lengthy recap, nor do we need to be assured the other police representatives will be told about it either.  We sort of just assume that will happen.  There are too many of these nonsense scenes to point out but it’s almost worth watching the film to see how precious Balzas was with the footage he shot.  There’s no way on Earth this movie should be hour and forty minutes, let alone fifty minutes longer than that.

I’m allotting four stars (out of 10) to the movie because while they struggle with the amount of material (seriously, it’s a mountain to go through), the actors carry off their roles with an individual strong style that’s easy to acquit.  Looking like an Aussie John Krasinski, Theo overdoes it with the dramatics in the scenes with his costars but is much better when he has nothing to say at all and can just brood in silence.  While she’s playing a role that has some seriously difficult notes to play, I wish Beveridge wasn’t such an easy victim when it gets down to brass tacks and continues to be victimized for the duration – there are hints that Madeline might have some ulterior motives for her actions (again, not saying if that’s true or not) but Beveridge has a hard time selling us on, well, anything…good or bad.  Looking like he’s had a few too many surgeries to keep his eye area looking young, Norton has the proper demeanor for the figure of authority but his relationship with a former partner turned private eye feels less well conceived than the director and writer think.

I could get behind an American remake of this, but only if a new writer could shore up the script a bit more while also adding a hair more intrigue around the mystery at the core of the story.  I think there is potential in Rage but also that no one involved went far enough into the subject or character to truly sweep us away into the story.  That leaves us with an average report of surface level performances and pedestrian direction that is further unsupported by the director’s own shoddy editing.  Now there’s something to rage over.