Movie Review ~ Initiation

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Whiton University unravels the night a star-athlete is murdered, kicking off a spree of social media slayings that force students to uncover the truth behind the school’s hidden secrets and the horrifying meaning of an exclamation point.

Stars: Lindsay LaVanchy, Jon Huertas, Isabella Gomez, Froy Gutierrez, Gattlin Griffith, Patrick Walker, Bart Johnson, Shireen Lai, Kent Faulcon, Yancy Butler, Lochlyn Munro

Director: John Berado

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Not for lack of labored trying, but it seemed like the old-fashioned slasher film had truly kicked the bucket.  Sure, studios could gussy up a subpar effort with all the fancy marketing they wanted and produce a slick trailer to make their hokey low budget cash grab appear to be a terrifying classic in the making, but once the butts were in the seats it didn’t take audiences long to realize they’d been duped.  Having been burned one too many times, horror fans stopped taking the bait and when the money pool dried up, so did the clamor for more slice and dice copycats of far more prestigious films from the heyday of the genre. 

I’d certainly found myself five minutes into what I honestly believed would be at least a decent time waster only to discover I was watching yet another uninspired rehash of the same old schtick.  Of course, there have been exceptions over the last few years like the excellent Haunt which did frightening wonders with a small budget and the surprisingly scary The Rental from, of all people, Dave Franco.  Even an ultra-low budget entry like The Last Laugh managed to drum up creativity by harkening back to useful giallo tricks of the trade.  That being said, the slasher genre and their central task of uncovering the identity of a masked killer had largely been pushed to the side in favor of supernatural and creature features to elicit shrieks.

My initial instinct when Initiation arrived in my inbox was to resist the urge to get too excited.  Wasn’t I just setting myself up for another round of disappointment thinking this film shot in three weeks could possibly break a long streak of losers?  The whole “killer on a college campus” bit wasn’t anything revelatory (take Happy Birthday to Me, Urban Legend, Scream 2, The House on Sorority Row, and even the unrelated The Initiation from 1984 to name a few), the movie would need to have some heft to it in order to muscle its way past already established properties.

If puny dreck like March’s Dreamcatcher and last year’s Backwoods are noodle limbed attempts to put their stamp on the slasher genre, then Initiation is the Arnold Schwarzenegger, or better yet, the Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2.  What we have here is an intelligent, well-made, perfectly decently acted return to what makes these types of film so much fun in the first place…the mystery of it all.  Everyone’s a suspect up until they meet a gory demise, and even if you’ll likely be able to spot whodunit and unravel some motive long before they are uncovered, it won’t matter much on account of the other elements coalescing so nicely.  The most exciting part of it all is that it’s done without it seeming labored, like it was a joyless chore to imbue a modern slasher suspense with the structure of old-fashioned plot devices.

Take, for instance, the opening of the film which finds the fraternities and sororities at Whiton University getting ready for a big bash at the most popular frat house on campus.  Obviously, the frat guys and sorority girls are going to be a bunch of duuuuuudes and bimbos ready to be picked off, right?  Well, you’d be half right because the sorority sisters are more responsible than we’ve seen onscreen lately, actively watching out for one another, and steering clear of any drink they didn’t pour themselves.  They’re aware of a nasty bit of social media tagging going on within the fraternity which assigns crude ratings based on their intimate encounters. And they’re not having any of it tonight.

At the party, head sister Ellery (Lindsay LaVanchy) loses track of one of her newest recruits but finds her in a room with her brother Wes (Froy Gutierrez) and some of his friends.  The girl is out of it but seems ok otherwise.  Still, of all people Ellery thinks Wes, an Olympic swimming hopeful, should know better.  Apparently, someone else thinks that too because the fallout from the events of the night turn deadly quickly when one of the partygoers is murdered in a most heinous fashion by a masked killer.  Police and campus security try to intervene but a plot for revenge has already been set into motion and it’s up to Ellery to find out who is slashing through her friends and stop them before they get to her.

If you groan when I say Initiation is a slasher film with a strong feminist slant then a) OMG, it’s 2021, get over it and b) don’t write this off because it has a point of view and sticks to it.  It’s not agenda pushing in the least but does have some aim in subverting what we know about these types of films.  Men are put into just as much jeopardy as women and, gasp, shown in vulnerable states of undress as well.  There’s not a fixated effort into forcing the issue but you don’t have to look very hard to see that’s what the filmmakers were going for.  At the same time, that doesn’t have any major impact to the bloody old school slashings that continue on for a number of unlucky souls.

Director John Beardo co-wrote the script with Brian Frager and star LaVanchy, another way the film kept our lead performer walking a similar but somewhat different path than the same old scream queen that has come before.  An active participant in uncovering clues on her own time (she’s a lab assistant on campus that uses her job to do some sleuthin’), the character is not afraid to be seen as smart, unapologetically say what she means, and yet she still winds up running for her life from a psychopath like they all do in these films. The rest of the cast turn in solid work, with Gattlin Griffith (Labor Day) appropriately sleazy as the dirtiest dog in the frat and a Shireen Lai as Ellery’s best gal pal who proves to be a welcome presence in some of the film’s more harrowing moments.

Above all else, Initiation delivers the goods on a consistent basis.  The action doesn’t seem to drag and Beardo and crew maintain a nice tone that doesn’t demean its characters or devolve into silly voids of laziness.  It also looks pretty snazzy too, with cinematographer Jonathan Pope utilizing interesting camera angles to heighten the tension with just a slight imbalance or flooding our view with the colorful lights at the early party that kicks off all the madness.  It’s just an all-around well planned and executed (pardon the pun) horror film made by people that knew what they were doing – and this is the reward.

Movie Review ~ The Water Man

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A boy sets out on a quest to save his ill mother by searching for a mythic figure said to have magical healing powers.

Stars: David Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, Lonnie Chavis, Amiah Miller, Alfred Molina, Maria Bello

Director: David Oyelowo

Rated: PG

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It wasn’t that long ago I was talking about actors trying their hand at directing and how some take their time to move behind the scenes.  Robin Wright made her feature film debut with the small indie Land which was practically a one-woman show and now there’s David Oyelowo arriving with his own directorial unveiling.  While both have had formidable careers throughout the past four decades (Wright is actually entering her fifth), it’s interesting to see them both challenging themselves on their first time up to bat in the big leagues with material that mines detailed and emotionally taxing ground. 

Thankfully, the skill that has assisted the likes of Oyelowo in his impressive list of credits makes him an ideal match for The Water Man, a coming-of-age family drama with a bit of folklore magic thrown in for good measure.  Working from an original script by Emily A. Needell (also making her full-length debut after several shorts she wrote/directed received some attention), Oyelowo calls in a few favors to gather a cast with some credibility and lucks out in finding that all-important unicorn in films centered on children: young actors that can actually act without coming off cloying or who grow to be intolerable by the end.

Young Gunner (the warm and winning Lonnie Chavis) has found an outlet for his artistic energy and a retreat from a darkness looming in his home within the comic books he has been creating. Unprepared to accept his young mother (Rosario Dawson, Trance) is terminally ill with leukemia and unable to discuss his feelings with his retired military father (Oyelowo, Chaos Walking) recently back from a long stretch overseas, Gunner fixates on a legend in his small town that has piqued his curiosity.  The tale of The Water Man that supposedly lives in the forest has been passed down through generations but while some elements have changed, one has not: The Water Man can cure disease and stave off death. 

Convinced finding The Water Man will be the solution his mother desperately needs, Gunner teams up with Jo (Amiah Miller, War for the Planet of the Apes), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who he’s heard has firsthand knowledge of the mysterious figure.  At first reluctant to do anything to help this younger kind, teenage Jo strikes a bargain with Gunner to bring him to the man he seeks.  As Jo and Gunner head into the woods and begin an adventure that will put them in the way of various outdoor elements and challenges they couldn’t imagine, Gunner’s dad works with the local sheriff (Maria Bello, Prisoners) and an unkempt town historian (Alfred Molina, The Devil Has a Name) to find the children before they run into danger.

Though The Water Man is being billed as a film for families, I would caution parents to give this one a second thought before showing this to young and/or impressionable children until you’re able to have a discussion with them about its themes.  Needell’s script has a sweet and subtle way of going about talking on tough topics like impending grief and loss but those are ideas which could be hard to grasp for children too young.  For everyone else, Oyelowo’s film winds up to be a film with real spirit and an amiable charm that casts a warm glow over its brief run time. 

It would have been great to see the film’s final act match the strength of what had come before but the magic of Needell’s script can only cast a spell for so long.  When it breaks, it tends to create a vacuum that a number of other pieces of The Water Man begin to get sucked away into.  Suddenly, the performances feel a little wooden and everyone is trying too had to make their final emotions count and that doesn’t jive with the laid-back style that came naturally in the previous 75 minutes.  It should be said that Oyelowo ends the film right where he should and follows it with a well-done end credits sequence over which a song written and sung by his honey-voiced wife plays.

Not the type of film that lingers long in the memory, mostly because nearly everything about it feels like standard storytelling, just done better than most, The Water Man is short enough to fill your cup but not quite to overflowing.  If anything, it demonstrates that Oyelowo has taken much of what he’s learned as a respected craftsman in his field and applied that to his work as a freshman director.  It can come off at times like an artist up to bat for the first time, but this is a solid double for those playing at home.

Movie Review ~ Above Suspicion

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: A newly married FBI agent is assigned to an Appalachian mountain town in Kentucky and drawn into an illicit affair with an impoverished local woman who becomes his star informant. She sees in him her means of escape; instead, it’s a ticket to disaster for both of them.

Stars: Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston, Johnny Knoxville, Thora Birch, Sophie Lowe, Austin Hébert, Karl Glusman, Chris Mulkey, Omar Benson Miller, Kevin Dunn, Brian Lee Franklin 

Director: Phillip Noyce 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 104 minutes 

TMMM Score: (6/10) 

Review:  I’m the first to admit that it’s taken me a while to buy a ticket on the Emilia Clarke train.  I’m likely one of the last people to have avoided playing the Game of Thrones, I’ve yet to be completely won over by Clarke’s charms in films like Me Before You and Last Christmas, nor was I convinced she was destined to be an action heroine by Terminator: Genisys or Solo: A Star Wars Story.  I just wasn’t seeing a star there like most people did.  In the end, what I needed was a movie like Above Suspicion to turn my head and finally notice there was an actress with some depth there…and unfortunately this time she’s the best thing about the film. 

That’s partly due to strength of Clarke’s performance as Susan Smith which, through no fault of her own, winds up overshadowing everyone else in the film.  She sets a high bar for commitment: to the look, the accent, the demeanor, everything is considered and casts a believable picture of the local high-school dropout and sometime drug abuser.  Living in a cramped double wide with her drug dealing ex-husband (a bedraggled Johnny Knoxville, We Summon the Darkness) and a menagerie of rogue deplorables while raising their two children, Smith busies herself with small-time crimes like check fraud to help her stay afloat. Smith senses an opportunity for change when she hears new FBI agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston, The Longest Ride) is working with the town’s law enforcement (Austin Hébert, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) to ferret out who has been robbing rural banks. 

Armed with firsthand knowledge of the culprit and not unwilling to give up names in exchange for payment, Smith’s informant relationship with Putnam escalates quickly to a physical level, even as she befriends his new wife Kathy (Sophie Lowe) at the same time.  However, once Agent Putnam has what he needs from Smith she becomes more of a liability than an asset and as her usefulness wanes, so does his interest in her on an intimate level.  With Putnam moving on and leaving Smith to deal with the fallout from the town who now views her as a snitch, she becomes desperate to either get her man back or make sure his success is short lived.

Little more than a juiced up made for television movie about the real-life scandal that rattled a small Kentucky town in 1988, Above Suspicion should work on screen as well as it does on the page.  Based on Joe Sharkey’s 1993 non-fiction book of the same name and adapted by Chris Gerolmo, who penned Mississippi Burning, it’s hard to fathom this tale of an FBI agent’s affair with his informant that led to murder could ever be called lackluster but absent in overall polish it certainly is.  Surprisingly, it’s directed by Phillip Noyce who is no slouch when it comes to putting together a crackerjack thriller with films like Dead Calm, Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, or heck, even the severely compromised 1993 Sharon Stone film Sliver to his credit.

The whole film feels flat and even though cinematographer Elliot Davis (Love the Coopers) captures some beautiful Appalachian scenery, he has a curious obsession with filming Clarke on a diagonal tilt and it doesn’t make the rest of the movie have any more depth to it.  It just makes you cock your head to one side in all of her close-ups.  Clarke is also underserved by Huston as her co-star, with the two exhibiting zero of the chemistry necessary to create the kind of heat that would convince us of the passion that burned hot but cooled dramatically once Putnam, a clear opportunist, saw something shinier ahead of him.  Huston plays the endgame at the outset, leaving little room for his characterization to grow having one foot out Smith’s door from the beginning. 

If there’s one actor that feels like a match for Clarke, it’s Lowe as Putnam’s short-suffering wife.  Not being married that long, Kathy Putnam already seems to understand that her husband is a flawed man who will need constant attention throughout their union.  Lowe brings a brittleness to the role that doesn’t stem from being a jilted wife but from being resentful of having to do all the hard work with her husband while Smith gets him for the fun parts.  Together, Clarke and Lowe share some excellent scenes that spark with the kind of liveliness the rest of the film really needed.  Popping up in a brief role, so brief I have to believe more of it was left on the cutting room floor, Thora Birch (Hocus Pocus) is Clarke’s bouffant-coiffed beautician sister that I wanted additional time with.  Sadly, the script favors more scenes between Putnam and Smith that just rehash the same arguments over and over again on why they can’t be together. Point taken, point made.

Originally intended for release in 2019, Above Suspicion fell victim to the delays of the pandemic and is flying below the radar into theaters before joining the other generic-named titles in the Redbox machines at your local gas station.  The entertainment value is marginal, and it’s mostly due to Clarke and some high production values that keep the film buoyed for most of it’s average running time.  Is it a total wash? No, nothing about tips the scales so much that I would say to skip it but thinking about how a tweak in the casting or even adjustments in performances could have helped up the ante just makes me wish I’d seen that better movie instead.