Movie Review ~ Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business


The Facts:  

Synopsis: Following five years in the life and career of an independent filmmaker, supported by dozens of interviews, posing one question: how does an indie filmmaker survive in the current film business? 

Stars:  Justin McConnell, Tim League, Guillermo del Toro, Michael Biehn, Jovanka Vuckovic, Sid Haig, Paul Schrader, Tom Savini, George A. Romero, Larry Fessenden, Lloyd Kaufman, Heather Buckley, Uwe Boll, Todd Brown, Jennifer Blanc, Zack Bernbaum, Justin Benson, Yazid Benfeghoul, Charles Band, Patricia Chica, Jessica Cameron, Larry Cohen, Dean Cundey, Elijah Drenner, John Fantasia, Avi Federgreen, Mitch Davis 

Director: Justin McConnell 

Rated: NR 

Running Length: 98 minutes 

TMMM Score: (5/10) 

Review:  Pulling back the curtain on the perils of the movie business isn’t anything new.  It’s been done in feature films such as The Player from 1992, Robert Altman’s scathing analysis of Hollywood wheeling and dealing and in real life tales of the struggle to get a production off the ground like 1999’s classic American Movie.  While most making-of docs included in the extras on your DVD/BluRay will detail how the film you’re watching was made, there’s still more to the whole process before the cameras roll that remains a fascinating (for the viewer) and frustrating (for the filmmaker) journey.  If you have the right subject, taking this trip is a no-brainer because you have someone to root for and would want to see get their golden ticket to success at the end.  Get saddled up on the wrong horse and you’ll become aware pretty quickly why they may be an undiscovered talent. 

For a filmmaker like Canadian Justin McConnell, there’s a bit of a dilemma. He’s both the director and subject of Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business.  His IMDb credits read like a padded self-curated list of anytime his name has appeared associated with a film (two of this Thanks credits are for Indiegogo contributions) and most of his work has been as a cinematographer of unseen/little-seen short films and packaged interviews included as special features on home media releases.  The films he has spearheaded have made little waves, with the online reviews suggesting it’s more than the low budget that has sunk these small ships.  Self-producing a number of titles and always with an array of irons in the fire, McConnell, like many fledgling filmmakers, has ambitions of being in a higher class of directors and thinks opportunity is the only thing keeping him from getting there. 

What a viewer watching Clapboard Jungle gathers after watching the film which follows McConnell over five years is that while opportunity might play a factor some of the time, it’s McConnell’s projects themselves that are holding him back.  That and the impression given off from clips we’re shown that his work isn’t polished enough to inspire a producer to take a chance on him.  Listening in on several pitch meetings from McConnell, even as a dedicated horror fan I strained not only to follow his concept but muster much enthusiasm for seeing the finished product.  If an ordinary viewer was getting that vibe, what must a financier with deep (or even half full) pockets think?   

There’s something to be said for gumption though, and for all the apparent lack of self-reflection McConnell shows at times, you have to give it to the guy for pressing on even when thrown countless roadblocks on the way to securing the monies to make his movie.  Just when he thinks he’s got the green light, the tide changes and he’s back to square one.  Attending numerous networking events and festivals, attempting different approaches, McConnell is up for most anything to get himself in front of the right people.  This works up to a point, but you have to wonder if McConnell’s bullish attitude toward criticism doesn’t play a factor in some of this lack of forward momentum.  It’s more than hinted by his parents of all people that he takes feedback quite badly and instead of exploring that area further to dissect his limitations we’re plunged right back into the same rinse and repeat cycle of the festival networking circuit. 

Where the film finds a wealth of value are the numerous interviews McConnell has conducted with other indie filmmakers, producers, actors, and distributors that are either one step removed from where he is or far advanced in their career and willing to sit down with an up and comer.  At times, the advice given in the interviews seems to contradict with how McConnell is trying to get ahead and it’s never clear if this is meant show some dark irony or not.  If the documentary was helmed by an outsider that could be objective, I would say yes but with McConnell as director he never makes a definitive stance if he’s trying to find humor in the situation or not.  Several of the subjects even boil McConnell’s main problem down perfectly without him even knowing it.  Legendary low-budget schlock-meister Charles Band points out that anyone can point and shoot a film, copy it onto hundreds of discs, design a great cover, and have it distributed it to the masses.  People still need to see the film and like it, though.  That’s where McConnell still hasn’t found the right path yet – creating a high-quality product. 

Including a section that discusses critics and how much or little their opinions should be valued is a tricky wire to walk, especially as you prepare to release your film to a wider audience.  It’s just another way that McConnell doesn’t wind up being that compelling of a subject to watch during Clapboard Jungle’s span of time.  At one point near the conclusion, he says “You may hate everything I do but it doesn’t really matter, because I’m doing it.”  I get what he’s saying because we all know you can’t please everyone but on the other hand you don’t instantly earn the credit just by picking up a camera and doing the work.  That’s why the business is hard, why films take forever to develop, why certain people rise to the top, and others flounder. It is indeed a jungle out there so it’s best to come prepared for whatever is thrown your way and be ready to adapt.    

 

Clapboard Jungle is available to rent On Demand or you can purchase a copy of the BluRay at ArrowVideo.

The BluRay is packed with a wealth of extras, including numerous short films from McConnell, commentary tracks, and FIVE HOURS of extended interviews with the various artists McConnell met with, a number of whom didn’t appear in the final film.

Movie Review ~ In the Earth

 

The Facts:  

Synopsis: As the world searches for a cure to a disastrous virus, a scientist and park scout venture deep in the forest for a routine equipment run. Through the night, their journey becomes a terrifying voyage through the heart of darkness, the forest coming to life around them. 

Stars: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires, Reece Shearsmith, John Hollingworth, Mark Monero 

Director: Ben Wheatley 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 107 minutes 

TMMM Score: (5/10) 

Review:  We’re officially over a year into this pandemic and while we’re marking a number of milestones in our own lives, we also look outside our own bubble for the lasting effects this global crisis has had on our previous normalcy.  If you’re reading this (and this review in particular), odds are you’re a movie fan that has felt the sting of not being able to go to the theater as much to see film and likely consumed a great deal of releases that were completed long before the lockdown began.  While we’ve already seen several movies filmed when the restrictions on the wide shut-downs were eased (Songbird, Malcolm & Marie), over the next few months we can expect to see a new crop of titles that were conceived, filmed, and released during the COVID-19 epidemic.  Some will have nothing to do with the virus or make mention of it at all while others, like writer/director Ben Wheatley’s new horror film In the Earth, will make it integral to their plot. 

I’ve definitely had my ups and downs with Wheatley over the years, with the early high points (2011’s unforgettably cruel Kill List) giving way to harder to take lower points (2015’s cuckoo High-Rise), which led to 2020’s par-baked remake of Rebecca on Netflix that I sort of liked but was mostly dismissed by everyone else.  Before he jumps into his first big blockbuster film (a sequel to The Meg for Warner Brothers), Wheatley took the time during lockdown to write In the Earth and then went ahead and gathered the crew and made the thing.  The result is another uneven effort from the always off-balance director who demonstrates again that he knows how to start a film that sinks its hooks into you with a fierce force but can’t maintain his grip on the plot, allowing the narrative to go totally slack by the end.    

During a fierce plague that continues to throttle England, research scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry, Yesterday) arrives at a deserted forest lodge serving as the gateway to a larger area of woodland that has been made available for scientific study.  Intending to bring new equipment to a colleague, he needs the assistance of a guide to help him navigate the trails and terrain he is unable to cross himself.  Setting out with Alma (Ellora Torchia, Midsommar), an observant ranger who gets the feeling there’s more to Martin’s story than he’s letting on, the two don’t make it too far into thick before they are attacked during the night by an unseen presence.  

Without supplies (or shoes), they continue on, eventually meeting up with Zach (Reece Shearsmith, The World’s End) who has entered the park illegally but offers to help them in exchange for their silence.  Forgetting what their mothers always told them about going anywhere with a stranger, Martin and Alma agree to go back to Zach’s camp and it’s about then that Wheatley’s promising beginning starts to unravel, slowly at first and then quickly as time wears on.  There’s more to Zach than meets the eye and the same goes for the forest, which Wheatley has filled with Celtic lore and rumors about Parnag Fegg, a spirit of the forest said conjure all sorts of spooky what-have-yous and no-thank-you-whatnots.  These Blair Witch-y elements are all fine and dandy, it just depends on how you use them and how Wheatley chooses to weave them into the back half of the movie makes for a dizzying experience. 

Fair warning for anyone with light sensitivities, the final third of In the Earth features lengthy sequences of strobe lights and other visually intense moments.  It’s a stylistic choice that works in some respects (there’s a dandy shiver-inducing shot involving Zach and an axe) but fails in most others because it feels like a punishment to watch.  Even I had to look down or look away for a few seconds just to give my eyes a rest.  The arrival of a fourth character, Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires, In Fabric), initially steers the film back to its mysterious origins with a lot of strangely welcome exposition (often a sign of script weakness but here actually a boon after an onslaught of obtuseness) but it isn’t long before we’ve drifted back to the not as engrossing side of Wheatley’s tale where it’s all shock and awe showmanship.  That kind of filmmaking seems a bit beneath the director at this point. 

This being a Wheatley film, you knew the violence isn’t going to shy away from gaping gashes, flayed flesh, or other various injuries incurred in this trek into terror.  Though he tries to temper some of the more extreme acts with some humor, it doesn’t necessarily break the tension of the moment because we always know that Wheately will see it through to the end anyway, somehow.  In that respect, the production design and special effects make-up is well done as is Clint Mansell’s (Noah) unsettling score that could almost be considered a fifth character lost in the woods.  While the camera work also helps in setting the mood, cinematographer Nick Gillespie (Stan & Ollie) allows it to get increasingly frenzied instead of the jarring which would be a more sophisticated approach and still in line with the attitude of the piece. Performances are generally solid, with Shearsmith achieving a tough to maintain balance of menace tempered with a fair dose of dark humor and Torchia proving a compelling lead. Only Squires feels out of place in the quartet, but she appears so late that her presence is meant to upset the balance so perhaps it’s all intentional. 

Horror speaks to people on many different levels so for you, In the Earth might be that nice mix of pandemic panic leading to horrors we never could have imagined.  Or, if you’re like me, you want more follow-through with your features and wish obviously talented people like Wheatley, who proves over and over again he can gather the right people and conceptualize an idea, would get out of their own way. While it has brief moments of flight at the outset, In the Earth mostly never leaves the ground to achieve something bigger. 

Movie Review ~ Gunda


The Facts:  

Synopsis: Experiential cinema in its purest form chronicling the unfiltered lives of a mother pig, a flock of chickens, and a herd of cows with masterful intimacy. 

Stars: Gunda 

Director: Viktor Kosakovskiy 

Rated: G 

Running Length: 93 minutes 

TMMM Score: (4.5/10) 

Review: I couldn’t have known it at the time but I’m sort of miffed at myself for busting out my whole argument about how you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear back in August for my review of the dreadful horror movie The Pale Door.  I thought (correctly) that it applied in that situation but oh, do I wish it was fresh so it could truly make its debut here and now for Viktor Kosakovskiy’s languid documentary Gunda.  It’s literally about a sow and one could argue the filmmaker has made a 93-minute dialogue-free, scoreless attempt at a silk’s purse that winds up awfully rough for those going in with the wrong expectations.  Set your expectations correctly and Gunda may sizzle your bacon just right.  Fail to know what you are undertaking, and you best gird your loins for a long sit. 

I actually thought I would be able to take Gunda and not just because I’m kind to animals, read Charlotte’s Web at least once a year as a child, and am not so sure Babe didn’t deserve the Oscar for Best Picture.  I can take non-narrative documentary features just fine and honestly, who needs a score when you have the pleasant sounds of nature to make beautiful harmony throughout?  The use of black and white cinematography is always an intriguing choice and to be perfectly frank, after a series of loud and obnoxious movies lately I was looking forward to a step back from all that noise, feeling good and ready for a down on the farm kind of evening.  There was just one small thing about the film I failed to notice.  That I should have noticed.  That I regretted not noticing. 

You see, Gunda was directed by Viktor Kosakovskiy, the same Russian filmmaker who unleashed Aquarela back in 2018.  In case you missed that bore wonder, it’s another documentary without any spoken dialogue that explores water and ice around the world…and that’s about it. Just endless shots of water and ice and water and ice and water and ice.  You’d think from a production standpoint a movie like that would be impressive to look at, but it wasn’t even interesting enough to be distracting accidentally.  Amazingly, it has a high aggregator score which goes to show you pretentiousness wins out over everything else, including entertainment.   

I figured out Kosakovskiy was behind Gunda mere moments before it started and was prepared for a similar experience, wondering if I’d have to save Gunda a spot on my worst of the year list just like I had for Aquarela.  Happily enough, Gunda is more focused than its predecessor, with Kosakovskiy appearing more attuned to the subjects which have shape and some order to them.  Mostly about our titular sow and her new littler of piglets but occasionally drifting to other members of the farm like a one-legged chicken and some free-wheeling cows, all things that pass in front of the camera are presented at face value, nothing more and nothing less.  A shocking moment within the first five minutes feels like it needs some kind of visual coda, but Kosakovskiy frustratingly denies it to his audience for no real reason. 

Plenty has been made about the camera work being something to behold, but to me it didn’t feel any different than our highest level of nature photography.  Have any of these people even seen a program on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel in their lives?  I don’t need to see five minutes straight of piglets nursing, nor do I need a similar sequence repeated in random locations around the barn and acres of land they call home over the course of the picture.  One moment the young pigs are exploring their new surroundings stretching their legs and the next they are hungry and poor Gunda is on her side again.  If this were a film for young children, I could see some of the importance in guiding them through the growing process of baby animals as an educational tool. If Kosakovskiy had really considered his adult audience that would probably be undertaking his work, he’d understand most of us don’t need to see the same event over and over again to understand its significance. 

Everything in Gunda just takes time.  Lots of it.  Chickens walk s-l-o-w-l-y through a field, and you’ll feel each and every step they make as the camera follows practically each blade of grass they disturb along the way.  Again, in short bursts these are dazzling sights but nearly every sequence goes on twenty times longer than it must and that winds up robbing the original impressive awe of some of its magic.  The only passage that makes sense is Gunda’s effective conclusion which is stretched to an eternity…this time with real purpose.  It’s one of the main reasons why the movie is worth sitting through and will stick with you for a while after, bouncing around in your brain, unable to shake off its meaning and the part many of us play in it. Had the rest of the film justified itself likewise, Gunda could have been a valuable piece of art for all instead of a narrow-focused experiment for some.

Movie Review ~ Jakob’s Wife

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a chance encounter with “The Master,” the wife of a small-town minister discovers a new sense of power and an appetite to live bigger and bolder than before…even as the body count around her grows.

Stars: Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden, Bonnie Aarons, Sarah Lind, Phillip Jack Brooks, Robert Rusler, Mark Kelly

Director: Travis Stevens

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Growing up, movie length was a big deal to me for some reason.  I think it was because I enjoyed going to the movies (and film in general, let’s be real) so much that the longer the movies were, the more time I could be lost in that experience.  When a movie I was waiting forever for, like Batman Returns, clocked in over two hours, I rejoiced.  If the umpteenth horror sequel in a long running franchise along the lines of Halloween H20: 20 Years Later only made it to 86 minutes (with credits) it filled me with honest to goodness grief.  Eventually, I started to realize that 86 minutes might equal less character development in favor of pure audience pleasing thrills and over two hours could mean an overstuffed narrative that was unnecessary to the overall plot. It all depended on the movie. 

Now, reviewing movies as much as I do, you better believe I pay attention to time because it’s more precious than ever when you have multiple films to watch.  Did that Australian revenge drama I watched a month ago really need to be two and a half hours?  Could a documentary about the ‘90s been a bit longer?  Mostly, I fall on the side of everything needing some trimming; I like a well-paced film but not one that breathlessly needs to finish the race at lighting speed.  Horror films are typically the trickiest to get the timing right and lately I’ve noticed a trend away from the shorter, rock ‘em, sock ‘em thrills in favor of the more auteur-driven pieces, handsomely made efforts that milk all they can out of extra time that winds up counteracting their good intentions. 

Lonely Anne (Barbara Crampton, You’re Next) dreamed of traveling the world but instead has spent her formidable years as the wife of a minister in a tiny town on the outskirts of Nowheresville.  Her stoic husband (Larry Fessenden, The Dead Don’t Die) is a fuddy-duddy bore that appears to notice the unhappiness present in his congregants more than in her.  You understand why she jumps at the chance to meet up with a former flame (Robert Rusler, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street) who even in his current middle-aged state reminds her of the chances she didn’t take.  It turns out to be too little too late for both, because they wind up touring an abandoned warehouse where things heat up but blood runs cold as they come across the temporary resting spot of a new monster in town. 

That’s not the end of Anne’s story however, because she emerges from the warehouse a changed woman.  She’s stronger and more confident, able to speak up when once before she was less inclined to say what she wanted.  More importantly, she finds a nice big cup of blood makes all of her new senses amplified tenfold…the fresher, the better.  Her husband doesn’t understand what’s happening to his newly sexualized wife but gets an idea quickly after a run-in with a missing parishioner that also had a nighttime meet-up with The Master (Bonnie Aarons, The Nun), a Nosferatu-ish rat-like beast that likes to whisper names and rip open necks that explode with blood for feasting.  With Anne transitioning into a ghastly beast and Jakob waking up and realizing her value, it’s time to exterminate The Master once and for all. 

Nothing would have made me happier than to report that Jakob’s Wife is worthy of your time and, more importantly, of a horror icon like Barbara Crampton’s.  Sadly, it’s a gore snore that appears to have spent more time and energy on devising ways to get blood the color and consistency of Hawaiian Punch to gush like a geyser out of necks than it did on any other production value.  Aarons make-up as The Master is ghoulish to be sure but it also feels like vampire-rodent 101. As an actress, Aarons is quite good at selling these freaky creations but even she can’t get this fiend to frighten. 

If Crampton had been afforded more of the true spotlight with interesting moments we haven’t seen before, the film may have cut some new territory as well.  Instead, the revitalized Anne trades her gray sweats and mousy hair for the vamp tramp look which is about as cliché as you can get.  Crampton didn’t get to her legendary status in horror for her acting, let’s be honest, but she brings a certain aura of sophistication to her roles. Even she looks uncomfortably out of sorts for the majority of the film, a rare occurrence. It’s likely because Anne may change outwardly but screenwriters Kathy Charles, & Mark Steensland (who I discovered was a production intern on 1987’s Mannequin…a trivia fact I had to include) haven’t done much to show the true changes she feels within…and that can’t be left to Crampton to do on her own.  In a similar vein (heh heh) Fessenden has a certain genre following that I don’t quite understand, and he doesn’t fit this material in the least.  Dead or undead, Anne needs to pack it in and leave Jakob in the dust and we don’t need to wait 90 minutes to understand this.  As for the rest of the supporting cast, let’s leave them with their anonymity as they deserve. 

What a curiously bad film like Jakob’s Wife serves to remind us of is that no matter what, horror will live on in interesting forms.  I just don’t think it needed to be a feature film that’s quite so long.  At over 90 minutes, it doesn’t have the plot (or, frankly, the budget) to make its case and that becomes brutally clear with each passing frame.  Instead, I wish a director like Travis Stevens, who has begun to make a name for himself in horror with a buzzy calling card flick like Girl on the Third Floor, would gather his contemporaries and get back to the anthology days of the fight film.  A number of genre directors right now have interesting ideas, can attract decent names, know how to stretch a buck, but often feel the need to make everything feature length.  I’d be willing to bet a nickel or two that if Stevens, who also co-wrote, presented Jakob’s Wife as a thirty-minute chapter in a longer anthology the reaction to the film would be far different.  In its current state, it doesn’t do anyone, apart from the special effects folk, any favors. 

Indie horror is where the creative juices can flow and that’s why Jakob’s Wife should have found some more skilled ways to subvert the vampire genre considering its limitations.  Instead, it feels like the filmmakers embraced these shortcomings too much and tossed their money behind the wrong horse.  We’ve seen excessive blood flow and gore before…what we really want are the stories and characters to back-it all up.  Without that, it’s all rat droppings. 

Available in Select Theaters, On Demand, and Digital on April 16th

Movie Review ~ Vanquish


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mother is trying to put her dark past as a Russian drug courier behind her, but a retired cop forces her to do his bidding by holding her daughter hostage.  Now, she’ll use guns, guts, and a motorcycle to take out a series of violent gangsters — or she may never see her child again

Stars: Morgan Freeman, Ruby Rose, Patrick Muldoon, Julie Lott, Ekaterina Baker, Nick Vallelonga, Joel Michaely, Miles Doleac

Director: George Gallo

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (0/10)

Review:  It’s a good thing screeners for Vanquish were sent out so far in advance of its mid-April release because I’ve legitimately needed a solid three weeks to process just how bad the movie is.  Honestly, that may sound extreme, but you obviously haven’t seen this sorry excuse for an action thriller yet.  I’m hoping to turn you toward something more entertaining, like lying on a bed of discarded dentures watching an army of ants carry away a breadcrumb soaked in root beer.  Movies (and Oscar-winning acting careers) don’t get much more crud-tastic than this and if you aren’t popping your third Aleve after the headache inducing lighting and camera work by the time this is all over, there should be some ice cream coupon digital reward for your efforts. 

Once upon a time, seeing Academy Award winner and everyone’s favorite disembodied voice Morgan Freeman’s name attached to a film meant something.  If it wasn’t exactly clout, then it was that the production had something interesting going for it that attracted Freeman to sign on.  Other than the fact that he gets to sit for the entire film, I’m not sure why Freeman is co-starring as a retired cop playing mind games with a former drug runner who happens to be his housekeeper (or cook? It’s never clear but cleaning and cooking are mentioned, though lead Ruby Rose doesn’t show up to his unfurnished house dressed to do either.)  Instead, Freeman (Lucy) literally cools his heels for 96 minutes and totally tanks his reputation in writer/director George Gallo’s insanely gaudy and lurid female John Wick-ish wannabe flopparoo.   

The phrase “you know you’re in trouble from the start” is used often but it’s right on the money in the case of Vanquish because the credits alone tell you everything you need to know on the quality of the film about to unfold.  Clocking it at a zombifying six minutes and featuring some of the poorest photoshopping of old Freeman photos into fake newspaper stories that look like a fourth-grade book report only less literate, I stopped counting the number of times they used the same press photo from a previous Freeman film.  If you want to add some extra hilarity to your night, pause and read some of the headline gems. All sound like they were lifted directly out of Babelfish translator from one foreign language into English.  None of them read quite right.

This jumps into Gallo’s tacky, neon-colored fantasy version of (I think) Los Angeles, though I’m not sure it’s ever explicitly stated, where ex-cop Freeman sets up his personal care attendant (Rose, The Meg) to gather a wealth of cash from a series of rogue criminals, and not very nicely holding her daughter (cast with a young actress that appears incredibly tired the entire film) as collateral.  Obtain all the money for him and his goomba associates (played by the most offensively stereotypical and dumb character actors that obviously called in a favor to maintain their Screen Actors Guild benefits) and she and her daughter will go free.  Ah…but never get between a woman with a buzzcut and her child, especially one that decided to get out of the business, has successfully stayed clean, and doesn’t like to be pushed around. 

Described in the press notes as “glossy and stylized”, I’d describe Gallo’s vision as “syrupy and trite”, offering nothing of value either in the directing or writing categories.  Whatever mileage could have been gained from the very playable set-up of mother fighting back against all odds and punishing the vile men that put her in this position is lost among the noise of terrible filmmaking and worse acting.  This includes Freeman who doesn’t look like he doesn’t know what’s going on – he knows exactly what movie he’s in and decided to do it anyway.  He rightly blows every scene partner he has out of the water (poor Rose is practically mush when he’s through with her) but it’s such a surreally weird performance for Freeman to have taken that you spend most of the film wondering if Freeman simply saw the paycheck and signed on to the script sight unseen. 

Consider that Rose was once supposed to be the next thing and then take a look at the work being done here.  Strange line readings and emotions that are, misplaced would be putting it nicely.  As in the recent S.A.S. Red Notice, she’s decent when it comes to the non-dialogue action scenes but strap yourself in anytime she starts to act as that’s when the big trouble begins.  Thinking of how many strong female stars Freeman had shared the screen with and then watching him try to work his way through a scene with Rose and it’s almost laughable.  For an even more depressing thought, consider there is a double Oscar-winner Nick Vallelonga (producer and writer of 2018’s Green Book) playing a hammy supporting character (also terribly) present and realize that Freeman’s Oscar status is still likely the only one that will be discussed in the bad reviews for the film.  Then again, when the performance of Freeman ranks significantly lower than the one he gave several months earlier in a cameo as an animatronic crab in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, there’s clearly a big problem to solve. 

I cannot overstate what a flaming piece of garbage Vanquish is.  Every piece of the production is terrible.  Direction, writing, production, acting, music, cinematography…all awful.  Even the costume design looks like it was done via a straw poll between the actors.  What a pity as well because this one could have had some decent traction with better stars and a new director.  Alas, no, it is what it is and it is heinous. Vanquish is it named and vanquished from your must-see list it should be. 

Available in Select Theaters on April 16th and on Apple TV, and Everywhere You Rent Movies on April 20th
Available on Blu-ray and DVD on April 27th

Movie Review ~ The Map of Tiny Perfect Things


The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenager contentedly living the same day in an endless loop gets his world turned upside-down when he meets a girl who’s also stuck in the time warp.

Stars: Kathryn Newton, Kyle Allen, Jermaine Harris, Anna Mikami, Josh Hamilton, Cleo Fraser

Director: Ian Samuels

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: It must be soul crushing to be involved in a movie waiting to be released and then seeing one with similar plot elements show up to rapturous fanfare not too long before you are set to arrive on the scene.  It’s no one’s fault here, just a case of bad timing, but one movie is bound to be compared to the other and it’s likely not going to be the one that is sitting with a high critical and audience score on the aggregator websites.  There’s no way of bypassing that comparison, however, so the best that second arrival can do is to focus on what makes their project unique and sell that over anything else.  It’s going to be an uphill battle, but it’s absolutely worth the effort seeing that it’s possible both films can wind up winning in the end.  Then consider what would happen if yet another like-plotted movie found its way into the mix after yours was released…now you’re the pickle in the middle and in a, well, pickle.   

I’m not totally sure The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is running victory laps two months after it was released by Amazon Studios.  While I saw it back in February, I sadly am only getting to this review now as I wrestle with a backlog that was unavoidable.  I didn’t want to ignore this one, though, seeing that it fits into a worthy place in a discussion on similar time loop films released over the past year.  First with Palm Springs in July 2020 and then in March’s Boss Level.  All three are different styles of film with their own pros and cons but if Palm Springs is aimed at the frat crowd, then The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is meant for that audience’s tween brothers and sisters.   

Based on the short story by Lev Grossman who also wrote the film’s screenplay, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things thankfully starts up after Mark (Kyle Allen, the upcoming remake of West Side Story) has already found himself caught in an endless loop for thousands of days where he relieves the same mundane day repeatedly.  As in every other film that has a similar set-up, the rules are the same.  The moment Mark sleeps, everything resets, and he wakes the next day with knowledge of what he learned the day before but no one else retains the same information.  The opening moments show how he’s made some good use out of this time by finding ways to help/assist his family and others in town as they go about their daily life. What he’s mostly trying to perfect now is getting a pretty girl at the town’s pool to notice him but no matter how suave, humble, polite, or impressive he comes off, he isn’t getting anywhere. 

On his latest attempt, out of the blue something changes when Margaret (Kathryn Newton, Ben is Back) intervenes, shocking Mark who thought up until now he was stuck alone in this crazy cycle.  Turns out Margaret has also been in her own loop for some time, watching Mark from the sidelines and only got his attention because of her own boredom.  That doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to buddy up with Mark because Margaret has her own reasons for wanting to stay in this circle of time that are as strong as the ones Mark has for finding a way out.   His family life is stuck in a rut and can’t change until he can get to the next day and her family life is…complicated. Together, they decide that until something changes, as a way to pass the time and perhaps a way to break the repeating day they should take the time to step back and look at all the “perfect” things/moments that happen throughout the day and map them out so they know where to find them.   

Ok, so perhaps it doesn’t mine a well that is super deep for ideas or emotional nuance but there is some nice message in Grossman’s script that reminds us to stop periodically and remember to recognize the importance in small victories and what others might deem insignificant.  Bolstering those up might help change your attitude, leading to greater happiness.  It’s rather perfect for the YA crowd and I can see the film being a dark horse suggestion at slumber parties by those in the know of good films that aren’t just about kissing, boys, prom, or a terminal illness given to one of the leads.  The light touch of director Ian Samuels also gives the film a bounce and I almost wonder if The Map of Tiny Perfect Things was pushed out for public consumption too early in the year.  It has such a summer spring in its step that an April or early May date might have made more sense. 

Another fine piece of this puzzle is the casting throughout, starting with Allen and Newton as the incredibly appealing leads.  We already know that Newton is a star on the cusp of something big and its earthy roles like this that she makes seem effortless that will continue to make casting directors put her at the top of their lists.  It’s also a nice showcase of Allen who has the looks of a football quarterback but the sensitivities of the tortured poet when you get right down to it.  Rounding out the cast are Jermaine Harris as Mark’s video game obsessed friend who might always be glued to a game but still can dish out expert advice when called upon, and Cleo Fraser as Mark’s sister.  Fraser and Allen have a nice sibling arc throughout that takes a nice, believable turn and both mesh well with John Hamilton (Frances Ha) as their dad who might appear to be aimless but, like Margaret, has secrets he keeps bottled up. 

Lacking the creative zing that made Palm Springs such a riot and missing the more audacious go-for-broke attitude which gave Boss Level extra bonus points, The Map of Perfect Things finds itself in third place but don’t look at that bronze medal as a sign of a lack of confidence.  Like the recent slate of YA films put out by Amazon Studios (Selah and the SpadesWords on Bathroom Walls, Chemical Hearts), the film fulfills on what it promises by sending out appealing leads jumping through multiple loops to get their day right.  What it might lack in originality it more than makes up for with a casual air of unpretentious self-confidence. 

Movie Review ~ Silk Road


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The true story of Ross Ulbricht, the charismatic young tech-mastermind who unleashed the darknet website Silk Road, and the corrupt DEA agent determined to bring down his billion-dollar empire.

Stars: Jason Clarke, Nick Robinson, Daniel David Stewart, Alexandra Shipp, Paul Walter Hauser, Jimmi Simpson, Lexi Rabe, Katie Aselton, Will Ropp, Jennifer Yun, Paul Blott

Director: Tiller Russell

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: A handful of movies every year feel like some kind of oddball homework assignment you would have been given in school and been grateful for at the time but serves no purpose outside of a classroom teaching modern history.  You go into the movie knowing what the meaning of it all is and at least hoping to get some entertainment value out of it for the time you’re putting in.  Usually, there’s one of two performances to draw some memorable moments from or genuine unknown knowledge that can be pocketed as takeaway trivia for your next night with intellectuals as a way to impress them.  The wish and hope always is that it’s not just a bland rehash of the facts you could have quickly skimmed a magazine article about that’s been dramatized for effect.  

Released in February but totally blown down by review queue by accident, Silk Road is sadly one of those films that is never written into your memory at any point and therefore winds up being an eternal “Did I See That?” title you’ll likely watch the first ten minutes of repeatedly before realizing you’ve seen it before and turn it off.  Even writing a review some three months after seeing it I’m straining to remember some basic details so in a way it’s lucky writer/director Tiller Russell’s film isn’t creative in its storytelling and largely sticks to the order of events.  Adapting Rolling Stone columnist David Kushner 2014 article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall”, Russell’s only gutsy instinct is to give the film a bookended framework meant to create some suspense, though if you’ve ever watched a weekly procedural television show you know where it’s all headed.  And those are works of fiction. 

The film follows the rise of Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson, Shadow in the Cloud), a Texas native that initially started a book selling business online but eventually moved into the trafficking of illegal narcotics once his first endeavor failed.  Realizing he needed a stronger network to move his product, protect his customers, and safeguard his money, Ulbricht was a largely self-taught internet whiz that would up creating a piece of the dark web that traded in cryptocurrencies known as Silk Road.  Starting out small potatoes and winding up owning the whole crop, Ulbricht was the target of numerous government investigations both overt and behind the scenes as they searched for ways to prove his participation in Silk Road which began to attract all sorts of sordid business dealings. 

One person that became obsessed with tracking him down is DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke, Pet Sematary), or, more to the point, Bowden serves as an amalgam of two different agents that tracked Ulbricht over the years.  Watching Clarke’s twitchy performance, it often feels like he’s playing two characters as well, with the actor never truly settling into the role and instead overcompensating for his discomfort by going big with everything he does.  Clarke is better than this and I honestly don’t know what he’s going for. Bowden comes across not just merely out of the loop on current tech matters but computer illiterate to the point of not knowing how to turn one on. The way Clarke pitches Bowden as on hair-trigger edge makes him feel like more of the villain of the piece than Ulbricht could ever be. 

Of course, Ulbricht is the villain and while Robinson has often been quite likable in previous roles he’s neither likable nor gives reason to root against him either.  We’re just indifferent to seeing another privileged white male float up the ranks in a origin story that feels similar in many ways to Mark Zuckerberg’s rise as portrayed in The Social Network.  Like that Oscar winning film, Ulbricht loses all of his friends and personal romantic relationships on his ascent but then realizes he likes it better being successful because he can replace people with more agreeable cronies.  The character is so aggravating that it goes beyond us not liking Ulbricht, the smarminess in Ulbricht and within Bowden makes the entire watch just drag on endlessly. 

If the low spot of the film is Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) as an early Ulbricht recruit (can I just ask something? What in the world is Hauser doing with his career that was only going up?  Performances like this, which feature him once again playing a slovenly male, support a stereotype he needs to avoid) then the bright spot is Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Dark Phoenix). Playing Ulbricht’s girlfriend, she sticks around as long as she can until she becomes excess baggage that needs to be jettisoned along with other non-essential items.  Shipp understands how to make an impression with limited screen time and I wished we had more time with her. 

A trip down the Silk Road is not a journey you’d have to make.  Instead, why not read the well-researched Kushner article right here and get the facts yourself.  It’s just like watching the movie anyway.  I had honestly expected something better from Russell having just come off of watching his fantastic (and fantastically creepy) Netflix miniseries Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer.  While it does have some nice touches visually, dramatically this one doesn’t even make it out of the driveway. 

Movie Review ~ Come True


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A teenage runaway takes part in a sleep study that becomes a nightmarish descent into the depths of her mind and a frightening examination of the power of dreams.

Stars: Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron, Tedra Rogers, Chantal Perron, Caroline Buzanko, Orin McCusker, Elena Porter, Brandon DeWyn, Karen Johnson-Diamond, Christopher Heatherington, Carlee Ryski, Austin Baker

Director: Anthony Scott Burns

Rated: NR

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I think I was born with a raging case of FOMO because I’ve always been a terrible sleeper.  Naps were nonexistent as a child and I was never one of those high schoolers that slept through their alarm like in some cliché teen comedy.  I stayed up late in college and preferred early morning classes so I could keep my afternoons free for, what else?, catching an early movie matinee if I felt like it.  I’m sure it has wound up taking a toll on my health in some way, but I’ve just had this aversion to sleep and perhaps that’s why movies about beddy-bye time have continued to intrigue me.   

Aside from the obvious Freddy franchise that kicked off with the landmark A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, plenty of films have explored the endless possibilities of dreams and the dark side of nightmares, not to mention a slew of documentaries following sleep studies and what we can learn from why and how we sleep.  The entire process is fascinating if you delve deep into dreamland and I’m always on the lookout for a new film coming down the pike that wants to dip into these waters. Taking stock of what has come before and then seeing what they can stir up can be fun, especially if it’s being released by an independent horror studio that has a solid track record for picking winners. 

At the outset, director Anthony Scott Burns Come True, being released by IFC Midnight, has the makings of giving you a fine little thrill that doesn’t give one inch in the way of hinting at what’s going to happen from scene to scene.  Viewers are dropped into one story that’s reached its climax just as another is about to begin. So we’re asked to keep track of where we’re going while piecing together how we got here in the first place.  Gradually, it becomes obvious Burns has gone and gathered so many ideas that it overwhelms the central core of his narrative and things outright collapse, only to be blown to smithereens by a sure to be controversial ending. 

For some reason, Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) doesn’t want to go home, preferring to sleep in a nearby playground and only briefly sneak back to grab some food and a change of clothes before heading off to school.  Looking weary and wary, she asks to stay at a friend’s house for a time but that isn’t going to solve her long-standing problem at home or do away with the haunting dreams she’s been having where she’s being pursued by a malevolent figure.  Coming across an ad for a sleep study that would pay her to sleep in a bed every night, she can’t believe her good luck and applies for the opportunity. 

Joining a small group of test subjects, Sarah’s dreams become more vivid and eventually cross the line into reality with deadly results.  With occasional answers being provided by a research assistant (Landon Liboiron) who falls for Sarah quickly as he watches her sleep (um, weird) and the other subjects either dropping out, getting injured, or worse, Sarah becomes convinced there’s more to the overall study that meets the eye.  The longer she participates, the closer the monster in her dreams gets to catching up with her until it’s too late for anyone to stop what’s coming forth. 

For only his second feature film, Burns definitely went all in and made sure the movie was his singular vision.  Serving as the director, writer, cinematographer, and composer (with Electric Youth) of the synth heavy but all together perfect score, it never feels like he didn’t know when to self-edit. Consider that remarkable when you think how often directors can barely do two things without it seeming like too much for them to make tough decisions on.  The visuals alone are enough to recommend the movie in some fashion.  It’s rare to see dreams put on screen with such clarity or cleverness but Burns has done it and they’re both distinctive and disturbing at the same time.   

Where Burns does suffer some is in the newbie-ness that comes with being a junior member of the indie directors coming up right now.  The first thing he has to do is find someone to show him how to direct a sex scene because there’s one in Come True that is so uncomfortably awkward I had to put my hands over my face until it was over.  I can’t explain it, you’ll just have to witness it for yourself.  Then there’s that ending which is just a love it or hate it kind of deal and I just c-o-u-l-d-n’t go with it…sorry, but I couldn’t.  Not when applied to what came before in the previous 100 minutes.  If you’re going to throw a wrench in your already twisted plot, make sure it’s at least part of the same family of tools. 

While IFC Midnight isn’t having quite the rock ‘em, sock ‘em year they had in 2020, their titles so far in 2021 (The Night, The Vigil) have been more cerebral than anything else and there’s room for those in the horror genre as well.  Come True follows suit which I supposed keeps it on brand. While it may leave viewers scratching their heads when the credits roll, up until then the stuff the dreams are made of are a pretty psychologically scarred picture indeed. 

Movie Review ~ The Vault (2021)


The Facts:

Synopsis: When an engineer learns of a mysterious, impenetrable fortress hidden under the Bank of Spain, he joins a crew of master thieves who plan to steal the legendary lost treasure while the whole country watches the World Cup.

Stars: Freddie Highmore, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Liam Cunningham, Sam Riley, Famke Janssen, Luis Tosar, José Coronado

Director: Jaume Balagueró

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Though I’ve been reviewing movies on this site for years by this point, I continue to be flabbergasted when I see otherwise rather decent movies shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to seriously poor marketing.  Pandemic or not, each film that makes its way for public consumption should have some kind of advance marketing, be it a teaser poster or short trailer that premiers before the final advertising that gives a more well-rounded look at what the film is about for audiences.  Ideally, audiences could read a short synopsis (like the one provided above) and let that be their gut guide if the film is for them but, as we are well aware, most of the casual movie-going public does need a bit of handholding to get them to their seat. 

That’s why I was so surprised after seeing The Vault just what a real tough nut to crack it was when it came to finding even a legit poster to use for the header of my review or even a decent production photo.  It’s like the studio releasing the movie decided to show their confidence in it by not devoting any substantial effort to give publicists or marketing teams adequate material for press to feature.  Even if the movie apparently changed titles in the US (from the more bland Way Down which it goes by in European territories) late in the game, there’s little excuse for the questionably designed work you see above that makes an old-fashioned heist film with high tech touches look like a soupy amped up spy actioner.  It’s even more of a pity considering this sometimes creaky but mostly well-oiled machine isn’t half bad and actually is quite well made.  

Beginning with a promising opening that includes a brief introduction concerning a grizzled treasure boat captain Walter Moreland (Liam Cunningham, War Horse) finding the remains of a shipwreck in the Atlantic that went down in 1645, it’s likely you’ll be like me and wonder why the film wasn’t snapped up by a major studio.  He’s after a particular item from this fabled ship but just as he thinks he has it in his possession, Spanish customs agents arrive and confiscate his plunder that was discovered off their coast.  Though he pleads his case in front of the judges in the Hague, Moreland is denied access to the item and it’s soon locked away in a Madrid bank vault notoriously impossible to break into.  Not even his connection with a British operative (Famke Janssen, GoldenEye) who, based on their past interactions likely has an agenda of her own, can get him what he wants.   

At the same time, brilliant but socially awkward engineer Thom (Freddie Highmore, August Rush) is being courted by a number of companies that are offering him big paychecks but not for the kind of work he feels drawn to.  His expertise has attracted Moreland and he presents Thom a way to, if not make a difference on the world, at least have an adventure and shake up his staid existence.  Weighing a future tied to a corporate behemoth or risking it all for a man he barely knows that won’t tell him exactly what he’s walking into, Thom makes the choice that best suits his immediate needs…and that’s joining Moreland’s crew to steal back the key to a fortune that’s been hidden for over three hundred years. 

Joined by former spy and second in command James (Sam Riley, Maleficent), brawny Simon (Luis Tosar), tech geek Klaus (Axel Stein), and chameleon-like Lorraine (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), Thom has little time to get up to speed on Moreland’s plan to penetrate the impenetrable bank.  There’s a mystery to be solved as to what exactly protects the vault and that’s why they need Thom, first to help them figure out what the security is and second how to get around it.  As with any good heist films, director Jaume Balagueró (Muse) inserts a breathless early break-in designed as recon for the main event and it’s this sequence when the heat in The Vault really starts to boil over.  There are the expected double crosses, near misses, and somewhat implausible turn of events but it’s all handled with a light touch by Balagueró and feels in line with the Oceans 11 franchise, which Thom even references at one point. 

A team is only as strong as its weakest link so having that essential chemistry between Moreland’s group is critical.  I got a kick out of Tosar’s rough tough guy with a soft center and he more than makes up for the personality that Riley lacks.  Stein is perhaps a bit too conventional in the traditional tech guy role as is Bergès-Frisbey whenever the filmmakers are trying to force a romance subplot between her and Highmore.  When they just let her be a good at her job and not grudgingly falling for the smarty pants new addition to their group, she shines.  Janssen is kind of getting unrecognizable and her looks seems to change from scene to scene…I’ll just leave it at that.  That brings us to Highmore and Cunningham who make for a nice leading duo, though for some reason Cunningham gets billed quite far down the line.  Highmore may be an obvious choice for a highly intelligent engineer but he’s an off the wall candidate to lead a burglary thriller, yet he does it quite nicely. 

With a total of five screenwriters (!) it’s amazing The Vault didn’t feel more patchy in places, but it has a relatively nice flow to it.  At 118 minutes it could lose at least ten and ratchet up some tension for its audience a bit more, losing some unnecessary lovey dovey-ness that doesn’t need to be there.  It works nicely to fill a gap to those that miss the mid-level budget thrillers that would often pop up every few weeks in theaters during the ‘90s.  It would do as a rainy-day option or a weekend watch if the mood struck you just right. 

Movie Review ~ kid 90


The Facts
:

Synopsis: As a teenager in the ‘90s, Soleil Moon Frye carried a video camera everywhere she went. She documented hundreds of hours of footage and then locked it away for over 20 years.

Stars: Soleil Moon Frye, David Arquette, Stephen Dorff, Balthazar Getty, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Brian Austin Green, Tori Leonard, Heather McComb

Director: Soleil Moon Frye

Rated: NR

Running Length: 71 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Although I know now there was a lot going on the world I wasn’t aware of when I was a young child in the early ‘80s, it holds so many warm memories of growing up that I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t want to go back and relive that time of my life.  Yes, the fashion was “truly outrageous”, the hairstyles were ghastly (or was that just mine?), and taste in general leaned toward gaudy excess but…what fun it all was!  Moving into the ‘90s is when reality started to set in for my sphere of consciousness and more self-awareness led to less freedom of expression.  You can see the shift in movies, television, and music as well, especially as the early part of the decade gave way to the mid ‘90s. When I tell you that I love the ‘80s it’s only because my current relationship with the ‘90s is…complicated.

A documentary like Hulu’s Kid 90 is both a blessing and a curse for someone like me who devoured pop culture throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s because it allows me to marvel at the stars I used to think were the “cool kids” but also feel the sting seeing the flip side to what all that adoration can do to someone so young.  While we’ve read many a cautionary tale of brilliant artists that have been taken too soon, either by accident, by their own purposeful hand, or through the overindulgence in substances that led to their eventual demise, it was always different when it was an actor your own age because it was often your first reality check with mortality.

Directed by and largely framed within the context of the life and career of child star Soleil Moon Frye who broke big early on with her starring role on Punky Brewster, it begins with Frye recounting her trajectory to fame and interspersing interviews she conducted with her old Hollywood friends throughout.  While it may have been obnoxious to her friends and family back then, Frye carried her video camera with her everywhere and has hundreds of hours of footage of the people she hung out with, and many of them happen to be stars we were used to seeing on hit television shows and blockbuster movies.  Seen at their unfiltered best and most at-ease worst, Frye isn’t out to shame anyone for their actions from years ago (mostly, more on that later) but more to just document what life was like off set when the professional cameras weren’t rolling.

What struck me most was the lack of female friends Frye has throughout the years.  While we see several during the course of the movie, Frye mostly hung around with guys and a number of the films divergent themes cover her romances that either soured or faded.  In the final act, she bravely recounts for the first time on camera an act of sexual violence toward her at an early age and the impact that had on her relationships for the ensuing years.  There’s also closure to be found in brief passages with some exes and hoped for loves that doesn’t feel stagey or forced in any way. More often than not, it feels as if everyone is happy to be walking down memory lane with a friendly companion, one that knows the pitfalls and won’t let them be hurt or led onto dangerous ground.

Once Frye gets to the segment showing just how many of these teen and young adults she knew and captured in her video memories didn’t live to see their thirtieth birthday, the sweetness of the nostalgia turns to sadness. What a shame that for whatever reason they didn’t make it and it’s no good now relitigating who is to blame because decades have passed.  That seems to be Frye’s take on the situation as well and where she finds herself as Punky Brewster begins a revival on television.  In the end, Kid 90 feels like a brisk, tightly edited way to put a few of the demons that have been circling her to rest, giving her control of the narrative as is her right, while at the same time honoring a generation that grew up in the public eye.