Fantastic Fest – Part 2

Today marks the conclusion of the on the ground event…but WAIT! There’s more!

A week of films for the in-person portion of Fantastic Fest held in Austin, TX wraps up tonight . Of course, yours truly attended virtually (bummer to miss a number of screenings only shown at the TX theater) and will continue the entertainment and reviews with Fantastic Fest @ Home (check HERE for more information) but here is a second batch of reviews to tide you over for now. Stay tuned for an update or two before everything is said and done!

Name Above Title

Oh what an easy target I am for films like NAME ABOVE TITLE.  This is a gorgeously shot film clocking in at just under an hour that has such a delicious little set-up it’s a shame most everything is pretty bland.  I wanted to be taken in much more by Portuguese director Carlos Conceição and his dialogue-free look at a serial killer being unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight after being the last to embrace a dying woman that has just lept off a building.  However, the more it twists under its own boorishness the less it tantalizes, so that by the time Conceição gets to making a gaudy crucifixion parallel it has fallen completely into audience tedium.  That’s a shame, too, because with a small cast playing multiple roles (took me a second or too to catch on completely) and the interesting way of telling a story without using words, Conceição shows a theatrical flair that’s hard to capture on camera…but it’s the narrative that needs a great deal of work if they are to get to that next level.  On the plus side, no dialogue is necessary to appreciate Matthieu Charneau’s goo-goo-ga-ga good looks as a sick man driven to kill that, for a brief moment, may have found a heart he’d lost long ago.  I actually liked constantly doomed starlet Joana Ribeiro the best though, chameleon-like in the way she disappears into several roles.  At 59 minutes, this isn’t a huge investment, but it gets long after a half hour.

The Found Footage Phenomenon

Here we go with another documentary, and I’m so thrilled to see the inclusion of more of these at festivals, providing a respite from straightforward narrative filmmaking and more of a look inside the different subgenres for the films we may be seeing or considering buying a ticket to.  As with Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON takes a cross section of the horror genre and goes deep into its lore, finding a creative inroad to its origin story that could even be traced back to epistolatory novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  While this feels less outwardly scholarly and more in the way of documentary as entertainment, that doesn’t mean directors Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott have merely skimmed the surface of their subject.  There is a hefty amount of information gathered and reported on during the 101 minutes and you’re bound to come away with a title or two you’ll want to research further.  The closer we get to modern day the more familiar the films will be, so keep your eyes and ears peeled during the middle section when a whole host of rare finds will appear. 

Barbarians

Toxic masculinity and alpha males on parade seem to be the latest go-to topics used as a jumping off point for films that aren’t quite horror and just past the edge of straight drama.  At Tribeca, All My Friends Hate Me was a fun (?) little bauble that saw a straight white male experience a really horrible weekend (poor thing) when his overly aggressive friends decide to play a mean joke on him that goes too far.  Now, in BARBARIANS, another meek cis white guy (Iwan Rheon) is about to co-host a dinner party with his eclectic artist girlfriend (Catalina Sandino Moreno) for his blowhard friend (Tom Cullen) who is always getting on his nerves. Writer/director Charles Dorfman takes time to cleverly set-up BARBARIANS to be going in one direction, only to jerk the wheel and change course in the final act to something quite different.  It’s a well-made effort and the small cast of actors (filmed during the pandemic) carry it all off nicely, covering up secrets until they are ready to be shared and even then maybe not being totally truthful.  A big negative is that the lighting near the end is atrocious.  I’ve been in underground caves with a single match and been able to see better.  I’m not sure if this has been acquired for North American distribution yet but it’s a perfect one for IFC to add to their stable of films. 

The Beta Test

(reprinted from my Tribeca coverage) It’s hard to talk at all about the newest film from writer/director Jim Cummings without giving too much away so let me just say this: THE BETA TEST serves as both a cautionary tale of manhood run amok & a cinematic facial peel for wheelers and dealers in Hollywood. While the previous films from Cummings have enjoyed some under the radar cult status and grown in popularity with some grassroots word-of-mouth PR, I’d expect IFC to get this one out in front of people in a unique way. It’s a thriller for those that like something more intelligent and satirical than lowbrow and ordinary. Cummings is excellent as is the other players assembled, especially Virginia Newcomb as his hapless fiancée that has her eyes opened just a fraction of a second too late.

Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It

(reprinted from my Fantasia coverage) Hailing from Russia, SWEETIE, YOU WON’T BELIEVE IT has a lot going on, with several oversized storylines happening at the same time before finally converging and even at a scant 84 minutes it feels like it takes a long time to get to that important crossing.  Three friends head out of town for a weekend of fishing, mostly an excuse for one of them to get away from his shrew of a pregnant wife (in his defense, she’s presented as pretty horrible) and happen upon a mob hit in a remote area.  With the bungling gangsters now in pursuit of the fleeing trio, all of them are about to feel the wrath of a one-eyed killer out for revenge.  Director Ernar Nurgaliev stages a lot of scenes of mayhem and gruesome gore that will send midnight audiences through the roof with cheers, but the goodwill wears off through repetition and it all grows tiresome before the killing has run its course.  Add in another wrinkle of crazy that I won’t reveal, and it’s just overstuffed to the brim.  I could see this getting a remake in the U.S. and I’d hope it gets pared down, removing some of that manic energy which robs the more sinister moments from their maximum impact.

Fantastic Fest – Part 1

Hello there! Fantastic Fest has been buzzing along so very nicely — what an impressive line-up of interesting films that show filmmakers evolving tastes and talent. The in-person event is wrapping up tomorrow in Austin, TX but have no fear, FF@HOME is beginning on the same day and runs through October 11 — so you have even longer to enjoy a number of these films, many on the list below and in another group I’ll be posting tomorrow. Here is a link to more info: Fantastic Fest @ Home

Homebound

While we’ve already seen a number of examples of resourceful filmmaking during the pandemic era on the indie drama side of things, I’m more than a little interested to see what fun horror directors have come up with over the past year.  Take HOMEBOUND, for example.  Here’s a simple enough plot.  Estranged father is using the birthday of his youngest child at a secluded estate in the English countryside as a way to introduce his new wife to his ex and all three of his children.  The bride isn’t that much older than the eldest daughter and right from the start it’s clear something is…off, about things around the house.  The man’s ex-wife has up and left without saying goodbye and the children have perfected a whispering glower they level at the outsider to their ranks.  At first, director Sebastian Godwin appears to have big plans for the weekend but after a shifty first half you start to wonder when the threat of danger will lead to something of substance.  I appreciate the subtle approach but there’s restraint and then there’s ‘in need of resuscitation’ and that’s unfortunately where HOMEBOUND finds itself by the end.  Don’t snooze on Godwin though…there’s a director to watch right here.

Slumber Party Massacre (2021)

Growing up haunting the horror section of my local video store and waiting to be old enough to watch the films labeled with that red circle sticker with “R” emblazoned on it, 1982’s The Slumber Party Massacre was always one that fascinated me.  The infamous cover with nubile ladies cowering in fear in front of a man holding a drill was classic VHS heyday memories for many.  Directed by Amy Holden Jones, the movie is surprisingly agile and smarter than you’d think, ranking high on an entertainment and replay scale.  So reading that a ‘reimagined’ version simply called SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE from director Danishka Esterhazy (set to premiere on SyFy October 16) was showing at Fantastic Fest I went after the chance to review it.

Look, I appreciate that there’s a fondness for these older titles and rising directors want to take a crack at putting their spin on them.  I’m not one to think that there are a lot of films that are overly precious (this from the person that was incensed they are remaking The Bodyguard, but, I digress) but if you are going to “reimagine” a film and still slap the original title on it, I at least want there to be some thread that ties it to the original or a nod to what has come before.  Despite some interesting kills (a number of which feel sanitized for the TV broadcast along with some oddly digitized covering up of male nudity) there’s little to suggest this SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE has anything to do with the 1982 one save for a killer with a drill.  That leaves Esterhazy with a cast that is mediocre at best slogging through a script that, wait for it, has a post-feminist spin on the women-as-victims in horror films tropes.  It just all seems so tired in 2021 – if this was made in 1991 it could be forgiven.  I will say this – while the first hour of the film is fairly ooky, the last half hour starts to redeem the whole affair with some bloody fun and actors that finally wake up and realize what type of movie they’re in.  If only the rest of it had that same energy to it.

V/H/S/94

I felt a little old watching V/H/S/94, and not just because I watched it way past my bedtime.  I can remember seeing the first film on my gigantic iPad (the original) back in 2012 just after it was released, and I did much of my correspondence regarding this fourth entry in the series working off of an iPhone 12 mini.  (This ends my product placement for Apple, clearly.)  I vividly recall being bowled over by the mechanics of the anthology original, with contributions from six directors that would all go on to have lucrative careers in bigger films.  While two sequels followed with their own “before they were stars” behind the cameras, neither matched the creative energy that went into that first outing.

After seven years, the franchise starts up again with V/H/S/94 and before you start dead-horsing this out of your consciousness I’d encourage you to give it a try because while not every tape is a winner, there are a few that remind you why short-form storytelling can have such a big impact.  Releasing as a Shudder original film on October 6, the bookends and interstitials around the four main stories involves a SWAT team invading a warehouse straight out of a site-specific haunted attraction. Inside, the team members find, among a host of other nastiness, TVs playing the found-footage tapes that form our stories.  There’s the journalist hungry for her big story that gets more than she bargained for when she researches an urban legend known as Ratman inside the city’s sewer system; a woman working a late-night wake at a funeral home during a thunderstorm thinks she’s hearing sounds from inside the coffin; a man experiments on human bodies to meld machines and flesh into dangerous tools of death; and a radical group set on making a political statement has found a supernatural way to speak out. 
I’ve a feeling there will be two camps for V/H/S/94.  Those who feel it gets better as it goes or the other way around.  I was in that first group, finding the first story with the reporter the strongest from a tension building perspective and feeling that last chapter hit its mark too early and then kept whomping on it until it was pulp.  The centerpiece is clearly meant to be the third chapter but that one is just insane, stomach-churning stuff.  Not for lack of artistic expression but it was exhausting to get through.  If you’ve got the iron will for Tape 3 and can weather that toxic storm of Tape 4…prepare to check out V/H/S/94 because overall it’s a worthy watch.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

Until now, I’ve been avoiding this 3-hour documentary about the history of folk horror but only because I never could fit it into my schedule.  I love a good doc that traces the lineage of a subgenre and film expert Kier-La Janisse appears to be the perfect storyteller to tackle the subject from its origins in England to its spread around the world.  Divided into a number of easily digestible chapters that may be seen as a refresher to some or primer to most, Janisse and a well curated team of experts go deeper than the usual talking heads go and get downright scholarly about the influences folk horror has had on people and culture over time.  My one piece of advice to you is that you have a notebook and pencil handy because you’ll be scribbling down a bunch of titles for films to investigate further.  I found so many I’d never heard of while watching this well-made, fast-moving piece – truly fascinating material for even a casually curious horror film fan.  The only thing is that if you aren’t into spoilers there are a number of clips shown that give away the endings or twists in plot so proceed with caution.  Janisse and company appear to expect most to come prepared but a little compassion for those who are approaching this as newbies would be nice too.  Still, WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED: A HISTORY OF FOLK HORROR is unmissable.  Make the time.

Hellbender

(reprinted from my Fantasia coverage) Every time I do one of those “Best Streaming Horror” searches, a title that comes up is The Deeper You Dig, a well-reviewed horror film made by an entire collective family of filmmakers.  The Adams Family (dad John, daughter Zelda, mother Toby Poser, and more) contribute as writer, directors, actors, and other jobs to get the movies made and they had a new title, HELLBENDER, at Fantasia.  I’ve yet to see that earlier film but you better believe I will after catching their latest, an extremely satisfying bit of occult fun that has a distinctly female voice and perspective.  A mother (Poser) and her daughter (Zelda Adams) live a quiet existence isolated in the woods.  Eating meals consisting of pinecones and other fallen foods, the daughter knows nothing much of the outside world.  When she meets a man in the woods who tells her about his niece that lives nearby, it’s the first step toward the daughter experiencing people her own age…and all the problems that come with it.  Eventually awakening something inside her the mother has long attempted to contain, it pits the two women in a power struggle for dominance in which only one can rule the roost.  For what could be deemed a “family project” this is creative, exciting filmmaking and the acting is top-notch as well.  Poser, especially, is a force to be reckoned with and gives the tale not just its surprising amount of heart but its solid backbone as well.  A strong recommendation!

Agnes

(reprinted from my Fantasia coverage) This is a film I had wanted to catch at Tribeca but slipped through my fingers at the last minute, so I was glad to have a second chance here at Fantasia.  I’d also cheated a bit and peeked at the reviews out of Tribeca so was prepared for the tone and timbre of director Mickey Reece’s oddball mix of religious horror with fish-out-of-water humor. Still, I had a hard time with this one and not just because it’s advertising itself as one movie when it has its foot halfway out the door most of the time in a different universe.  The exorcism of a nun brings a priest and a young man waiting to take his vows to a convent where a lot of hullabaloo and shenanigans go on for about 40 minutes.  There’s some dreadfully arch acting from actors I won’t name and the whole thing plays like a big prank is being pulled on…someone (the audience?).  Thankfully (for me, at least), Reece pivots dramatically about halfway through and that’s when AGNES becomes less of what it was and more of what it maybe should be – a focused character study.  Reece can’t help adding some crazed touches but as much as you want to compare AGNES to Saint Maud for once there are too many people IN on the joke to create much of an emotional response anywhere else.   This ends up amusing only the people that made it.

Movie Review ~ Dear Evan Hansen

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Evan Hansen, a high schooler with social anxiety, unintentionally gets caught up in a lie after the family of a classmate who committed suicide mistakes one of Hansen’s letters for their son’s suicide note.

Stars: Ben Platt, Amy Adams, Kaitlyn Dever, Julianne Moore, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan, Danny Pino

Director: Stephen Chbosky

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 137 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  I suppose there was a certain inevitability to the failure of Dear Evan Hansen’s screen adaptation the moment Ben Platt was cast to reprise his Tony Award winning stage performance.  Platt’s work in the Broadway version (a piece he’d been with since its inception all the way back to 2014) was heralded to high heaven and there was even a glossy New York Times piece in 2017 that walked us through his daily rituals, showing us just how emotionally taxing it was to play Evan Hansen eight times a week.  This was a performer that put his all into the role, physically and emotionally.  He won all the accolades for it and has gone on to become a popular presence among fans in his age group.

So, when the time came to make the movie of Dear Evan Hansen, unlike other film adaptations where the award-winning star of the Broadway show was overlooked, the producers chose instead to go back to Platt who was more than happy to resurrect his Evan Hansen that he had since given over to a series of respectable replacements.  Now, I’m not saying with Platt’s dad (uber-producer Marc Platt) ranking high in the film’s producer list that the younger Platt had an advantage but…let’s not fool ourselves.  Platt himself has even acknowledged the film likely wouldn’t have been made without his involvement (really?) so how about we just go with Platt being the only person in consideration for the role. 

I’m not going to get into a debate about the age thing that has haunted so many a chat board ever since the first trailer was released.  There are enough hysterical memes and terrific GIFs that have been made of an aged Platt standing amongst the younger classmates but in reality, once you see the film you realize that it’s not the age difference that makes a difference.  Despite a truly tragic hair style which calls into question the creative decisions of the hair and make-up designers more than anything, Platt actually doesn’t look all that older than Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), Nik Dodani (Escape Room), Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games), and Colton Ryan (Uncle Frank), who are all supposed to be his classmates.  He may look a tad ganglier than the rest but certainly not the creepy adult-looking man-child early hot takes would have had you think.

The real trouble for Platt and the film version of Dear Evan Hansen is Platt’s inability to stop performing and start acting, really acting.  The actor is so tied into his stage performance and what made that work that he forgets that he’s working for the camera on a small scale and needs to dial everything back about twenty clicks.  What might have worked onstage simply doesn’t work for film and even after making a number of movies and TV series, it’s surprising Platt regresses so dramatically here.  That he’s cast alongside experienced pros only calls this out on a grander scale. 

Evan Hansen (Platt, Broken Diamonds), laced with anxiety and pent-up emotion, has been given a task by his therapist.  He’s been asked to write letters to himself as a way of encouragement to fend off the negative thoughts and feelings he has about starting another school year with no friends except for “family friend” Jared (Dodani).  Pining for Zoe Murphy (Dever) from afar, he can barely work up the courage to speak with her and after a particularly rough day he writes a letter to himself in the school library that is read by Zoe’s brother Connor (Ryan) who thinks Evan has written it to make fun of him.  Terrified Connor will use the letter against him, Evan spends the next several days in fear of retaliation until he’s called into the principal’s office to meet with Connor’s parents.  That’s where he learns Connor had taken his own life and Evan’s letter has been (incorrectly) assumed to be his suicide note.  His parents want to know if, as his only friend, Evan had any insight to offer about Connor.

Right here is where the story of Dear Evan Hansen takes a turn that loses a number of viewers because of its horrible deception, me included.  Instead of correcting them, Evan goes along with that wrong assumption that Connor and he were friends and becomes a false sense of comfort to the Murphy’s…mostly to get closer to Zoe.  He says the right things to make Cynthia (Amy Adams, The Woman in the Window) feel as if she didn’t let her son down quite so much and tells stepfather Larry (Danny Pino) how Connor appreciated their time together.  He goes one lie bigger with Zoe, creating fictious conversations between him and Connor about her that suggests whatever fracture was present in their relationship was something he wanted to fix.  Basically, he tells them what they want to hear so they feel better, and they keep him around.  It’s an advantageous situation for everyone…but it’s a lie.  As the lie gets bigger and goes inexplicably global and with the more people get involved with memorializing Connor (Stenberg’s role as a fellow student, while the best acted and sung out of all bar-none, feels as tacked on here as it does in the show), the harder it is for Evan to keep reality and fiction separate.

Interspersed throughout is the Tony Award winning score from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, tunes that are hummable but not as memorable as the ones they created for The Greatest Showman (sorry, not sorry).    A new song they wrote with Stenberg for her character goes over nicely but they’ve also cut several songs and that’s an unfortunate loss because it leaves the film feeling only half like the musical it very much is.  You almost wonder if the movie would have been more successful without music all together because the entire story seems like a film we’d see released in the fall as an awards hopeful.  Something about it all doesn’t gel and you can’t blame it all on Platt or even the ho-hum direction by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

When a film is just getting by on fumes to begin with, you hope that the performances will save it.  We’ve already discussed Platt’s inability to get out of his own way, resulting in some seriously unimpressive (and often embarrassing) scenes of him over singing that you think he’s going to hurl from the force of it all.  Compare that to the work that Adams, Dever, and Pino do in the haunting “Requiem” sequence – which is just as emotional as Platt’s most harrowing songs but is restrained enough to convey just the right tone without going overboard.  Adams has had a rough go these past few years and I was sad to see one of her songs cut, but it’s a duet with Evan’s mom played by Julianne Moore (The Glorias) who, from what I gather, is a bit of a non-singer.  While Moore does have a grand 11 o’clock number that she sells up and down, left and right…I wish for Adams’s sake they could have kept the earlier song to give Adams vocally more to do.

Problematic with or without its hokey star, Dear Evan Hansen always faced an uphill battle on its way to the big screen and it’s unfortunate it was dealt so many tough blows on its way to release.  The early buzz based on images alone was negative, the first reviews from screenings wasn’t promising, and even the reaction by Platt and his team was disappointing in its “So what”-ness.  And you know what, the film isn’t even all that bad.  You can see a decently made film in there somewhere but without a central figure to truly root for and then sans an actor in that role you believe in, where’s the fun in going to the theater and finding a reason to applaud?

Previewing Fantastic Fest 2021

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Seriously, what good fortune lucky charm did I pick up this year? Gearing up to attend another film festival and Fantastic Fest, held yearly in Austin, TX is one that’s always coming up in conversations on almost everything I read and listen to. Named one of the “25 film festivals worth the entry fee” and on numerous “best of” festival list rankings, this festival has grown by leaps and bounds every year and has hosted a number of World Premieres and special screenings annually. Directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, André Øvredal, Ben Wheatley, Mel Gibson, Pedro Almodóvar, Tim Burton, The Wachowskis, Eli Roth, Alfonso Cuarón, and more have shown their new films in various forms of completion to enthusiastic audiences. The in-person event is held at an Alamo Drafthouse and in 2021 the festival is reformatting its structure to comply with the ongoing health crisis. If you can’t attend in person, the virtual portion of Fantastic Fest, FF@HOME, will take place on Alamo On Demand after the on the ground event has completed its run.

That means I’ve been getting ready for a few days now and will be dropping in occasionally at the main Fantastic Fest page over the first seven days of the festival starting on Thursday after the premieres to let you know the titles you’ll want to check out if you are attending the event in person as well as the offerings with virtual availability you can fire up from the comfort of your own home. Not every film is available in both programs but thankfully quite a lot of them are — a big win for all that attend Fantastic Fest in any form. More information is available here so get your tickets now and make some time — these programmers have been working hard to make this festival truly fantastic!

First things first, because some festival programming has overlap there are several movies playing at Fantastic Fest that I’ve already had the opportunity to see at an earlier date. While you can do your own sleuthin’ on this site and find my thoughts, I’m still going to hold off re-publishing anything formal for two of the movies that I see are playing again here. However, let me strongly suggest you get your tickets for THE BETA TEST and HELLBENDER. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Let’s start our look at the fest with some of the films that I think look like absolute treats but might be a little easier to get at after the festival due to either their stars/filmmakers, their commercial prospects, their country of origin, or a combination of all of the above. High on my list is THE BLACK PHONE, a Blumhouse production about a teenager abducted by a killer that looks good and scary. It’s not available virtually so you’ll have to see it in-person but miss it and my guess is you won’t have to wait long to catch it in wide release. This might wind up being for bragging rights only. Same for SILENT NIGHT, a Keira Knightley holiday entry that could be a nice antidote for those that can’t stand Love, Actually. Knightley’s a multiple Oscar nominee so this one will see the light of day in some shape or form. A good alternative might be BARBARIANS, another UK production about two brothers and their significant others whose pleasant dinner turns ugly. Personally, I can’t wait to see THERE’S SOMEONE IN YOUR HOUSE, a Netflix film based on Stephanie’s Hawkins fairly freaky YA novel. It’s available to stream on October 6 so if you have a subscription, why spend the time here when you could be seeing the intriguing South African remake of ‘80s slasher classic SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE?

If you are a hardcore film aficionado, you’ve likely already heard about Julia Ducournau’s shocking and disturbing TITANE, which won the Palme d’Or, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Only the second female director to ever win this top prize, Ducournau’s film isn’t going anywhere as the road to the Oscars heats up so we’ll have time to take this one in. That’s why I’ll likely lean toward something like KING CAR, a Brazilian political sci-fi thriller with a man who can “be one” with cars as our central hero. Directed by Renata Pinheiro, I missed this one at Fantasia and was kicking myself ever since.

COP SECRET, an Icelandic action drama following a reckless male police officer in Reykjavik who is paired up with his equal in another department. When the two men fall in love, all bets are of. Directed by a professional Icelandic football player, this one is described like a Michael Bay produced gay comedic version of Lethal Weapon. Um…sold. I’m also on the watch for BLACK FRIDAY which is about, you guessed it, the famous day after Thanksgiving when employees at a toy store have to face down bargain-hunting shoppers that have turned into bloodthirsty monsters.

Foreign entries are robust this year and I couldn’t be happier since a number of these European contributions often take big risks leading to satisfying payoffs. THE EXECUTION is a serial killer thriller from Russia that has a recently promoted cop having to go back and re-investigate an old case that might not be as closed as he thought. I happened to catch the trailer for THE INNOCENTS the other day and was already adding it to my list for the future but seeing this creepy looking Norwegian film that appears to be about a group of children with psychic powers show up at Fantastic Fest could mean I see it a little earlier than I had hoped. Two exorcism films stand out in the line-up, one out of Iran (ZALAVA) and the other from Mexico/Venezuela (THE EXORCISM OF GOD) and both look to be nice and nerve-jangling. Then there’s KNOCKING, from Sweden, and this is one I’ve heard good things about in previous festival runs. A woman is tormented by a strange knocking sound inside her apartment? Is she going insane or is something far more sinister happening to her?

I’ve already mentioned a few serial killer films but the theme seems to be a popular one this year, as evidenced by titles such as LIMBO (from Hong Kong), MIDNIGHT (South Korea), and NAME ABOVE TITLE (PORTUGAL). While this subgenre can become a bit rote, these actually look like moody riffs on a well-worn premise. I’ll be doing my best to catch all three.

There is some fun to be had at the festival too…how about two documentaries on popular bands that have cult followings? THE UNITED STATES OF INSANITY documents the rise of the Insane Clown Posse while THIS IS GWAR shows how a group of artists from Virginia collaborated on a rock ‘n roll band that consistently surprises its audiences. I also get the feeling that SOME LIKE IT RARE may have some comedic, uh, chops to it, what with the tale of a butcher that kills a vegan activist and then uses the body for profit. Sounds very tongue and cheek to me. I’m also interested in what tone AFTER BLUE (DIRTY PARADISE) finds. The French film takes place on a planet populated entirely by women, two of whom go after a dangerous villain.

Rounding out the crop of films I’m excited for Fantastic Fest to feature, there’s a 4K restoration of the much-loved but rarely available folk horror film EYES OF FIRE (which was a VHS that was always either checked out or missing at my local video store) and a rare chance to view the infamous 1981 film POSSESSION starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill. I don’t think I’ll be able to see it, but A24’s LAMB is screening at the fest and that movie looks all kind of messed up. A fourth chapter of the longstanding V/H/S series appears with V/H/S/94 and there’s a thriller from Senegal, SALOUM, that looks mighty impressive.

I’m intrigued to see THE TIMEKEEPERS OF ETERNITY. An experimental film in which the 1995 TV miniseries The Langoliers is transformed into a different movie entirely, this wild endeavor could either be a major hit or an exercise in boredom. Norway’s THE TRIP sounds familiar, with a husband using a planned weekend getaway to murder his wife, but the unexpected developments could keep it edge-of-your-seat fun. LET THE WRONG ONE IN is an Irish vampire sibling drama if you’re into that sort of thing and HOMEBOUND is a small film from the UK featuring a newly married couple paying a visit to his children during a doomed weekend at an isolated country home. The Austrian offering LUZIFER could be a good choice as well, with a man and his mother being threatened with expulsion from their home and the deadly consequences that arise because of it. Finally, ALONE WITH YOU’s description as a lesbian ethereal drama could come off as stuffy but I’m hoping it has more haunt to its horror aspects.

So there you have it — enough selections as a jumping off point and I’ll be back with reviews of many after they have premiered between now and October 11 (and even after!) Make sure to head over to Fantastic Fest and grab your tickets for in-person events as well as the at-home portion — both have exciting options for you!

Movie Review ~ The Nowhere Inn  

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When St. Vincent sets out to make a documentary about her music, the goal is to both reveal and revel in the unadorned truth behind her on-stage persona. But when she hires a close friend to direct, notions of reality, identity, and authenticity grow increasingly distorted and bizarre.

Stars: St. Vincent, Carrie Brownstein, Dakota Johnson, Ezra Buzzington, Toko Yasuda, Chris Aquilino, Drew Connick

Director: Bill Benz

Rated: NR

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  It’s always an interesting exercise to approach a project featuring a performer with a devoted following that I’m not all-too familiar with.  In the case of The Nowhere Inn, there’s two of them, starting with Carrie Brownstein, who appeared for seven seasons in the cult hit comedy series Portlandia.  Disclosure time: I’ve never seen the show (one can only take on so much) but have heard tell of its brilliance and of Brownstein’s ability in particular to shift, chameleon-like, between characters, genders, styles, etc. Also a talented musician, Brownstein’s feature-film work has been limited with roles in films like 2015’s Carol and 2018’s Tag being small but memorable.  

Am I a dyed-in-the-wool fan of St. Vincent (the stage name of multi-hyphenate artist Annie Clark)? Not exactly.  However, anytime I’d seen her perform on television or heard her music there was something undeniably captivating about the way she was able to draw an audience in with her enigmatic presence.  A bit of an all-around mystery and perfectly willing to change up her look so completely that if you hadn’t seen her in a few years, you may think you’ve bought a ticket to the wrong show, St. Vincent has amassed a legion of fans waiting to see what happens next.  They’re in for a treat as the musician moves into film (after appearing as her off-stage alter-ego in Brownstein’s television show) and works with Brownstein to write a most unusual, but ultimately mesmerizing, bit of meta moviemaking.

A stretch limo speeds through a desert carrying St. Vincent to her next gig.  The limo driver doesn’t know who she is, has never heard of her. He calls his son. He’s never heard of her either.  They ask if she’d sing one of her songs.  She does.  It doesn’t have the memory-jogging effect any of them hoped.  So begins The Nowhere Inn (“Where nothing and no one wins.” according to the lyrics of the haunting title track), a documentary (sort of) crossed with a mockumentary (kinda) alternately filtered through a experimental horror lens…with concert footage interspersed throughout.  It’s a lot more accessible and interested in the way people tick than the trailer or I have made it seem, so you just have to trust me that where the movie begins is quite different than the way it ends.  And when I say ends, I mean you have to stay until the last note of the film has been struck even after the credits have completed.

As she embarks on a concert tour, St. Vincent hires her friend Carrie Brownstein to make a documentary of life on the road.  Ready to capture the good, the bad, and the ugly of the tour route, Brownstein signs up, even with reservations about leaving her sick father and wondering in the back of her mind how this will test the close personal relationship she has with her friend, now employer.  While the shoot progresses and Brownstein realizes she’s not getting the footage she needs, she encourages in her subject opportunities to come off less like the easy-going off-stage persona (Annie) and more like the adopted identity she formed as St. Vincent. As the line between the performer and the person blur, it throws an increasingly biting wrench into not just the success of the film but in the future of the long-standing friendship.

Using St. Vincent’s music, at one point a family of homestead musicians do a rollicking rendition of 2011’s “Year of the Tiger”, director Bill Benz keeps the action propelling forward and it all stays on track right up until the end when it can’t help but fall into David Lynch territory.  That’s a bummer and though Lynch himself would I think love the movie, even he’d likely admit there were better ways to check out of The Nowhere Inn.  Until then, Brownstein and St. Vincent (as aggressively impressive in the film acting department as she is onstage performing) have kept upping the stakes with one another, seeming to dare the other to take different risks with each passing scene.  Even a few random appearances by Dakota Johnson (Our Friend) can’t derail the tense and increasingly perilous kinship between the musician and the friend she’s hired to document the reality she now actively is rebelling against.

Movies such as The Nowhere Inn with their clever wink-wink to the audience can only work if the filmmakers are willing to embrace the audience and involve them in the cleverness they construct.  That’s why so many similar genre fare fails, because little attention is paid to the people out there in the dark that will be watching and digesting what’s being put on their plate.  What Brownstein and St. Vincent have whipped up is a soufflé that’s light as air but richly filling the deeper you dig in.  At the center is the breakdown of a friendship and unveiling that even when something is shown to be real you can’t always trust that reality.  That’s nothing we haven’t seen harvested before, right?  It’s the way the screenwriters have added their own voice and vocabulary to the set-up that you find yourself tethered to their emotions almost as much as they are, eventually getting to the point where you are hanging on each word and every visual framed by Benz and cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl. To conclude my fancy Yelp review: checking in and checking out The Nowhere Inn is a must-do when you have the chance.

Movie Review ~ The Starling

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman adjusting to life after a loss contends with a feisty bird that’s taken over her garden — and a husband who’s struggling to find a way forward.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Kevin Kline, Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs, Skyler Gisondo, Loretta Devine, Laura Harrier, Rosalind Chao, Kimberly Quinn

Director: Theodore Melfi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  After settling into watching the new Netflix dramedy The Starling the other day, I had a pretty good idea why the initial buzz I had heard after it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival was fairly lukewarm.  This is one of those movies that film snobs hungry to feast on spoiled leftovers just hate with a red-hot passion because it doesn’t wind up tasting all that bad.  It’s SpaghettiOs® in a season where fine Italian pasta in a rich, velvety sauce is sought and before you say that I’m knocking that canned bit of gold, I consider it a fine meal any day of the week.  Without a carcass to gnaw on, it could be easy to simply dismiss the emotions brought forth as overly sentimental TV-movie of the week junk, but in doing so you’d miss the bittersweet lead performances playing grieving parents still processing a profound loss.

Lilly Maynard (Melissa McCarthy, Thunder Force) and her husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd, The Sapphires) have big plans for their newborn, plans they discuss in the film’s opening moments as they paint her nursery with an elaborate mural of a tree with inviting branches.  Flash forward to a time in the future after their daughter has died when Lilly is a zoned-out worker at a small-town grocery superstore and Jack is spending time at a mental health facility an hour away.  She makes the trip once a week for a visit that doesn’t seem to help either one of them deal with a pain they can’t share with each other.  Resentment from both parties is strong; she doesn’t understand why he has to work through this life altering event alone and away from her, he believes she’s moving on too quickly and can’t forgive himself for the loss of their child.

On the suggestion of Jack’s group leader, Lilly seeks out the town vet, Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline, Beauty and the Beast).  A former respected therapist, he gave up working with people and devotes his time to animals because they talk back less.  Resisting the unorthodox set-up, it’s the appearance of a persistently territorial starling in her garden that brings her back to Dr. Larry after the bird dive bombs her and draws blood.  As Lilly begins to open up, she exposes a wound she’d done a good job of bandaging up and in doing so it makes her more emotionally available to her husband as well as her new avian neighbor.  As Jack’s depression worsens, Lilly faces her anguish head on.  The stages of grief are accelerated after being pent up for so long and eventually the relationship between the husband and wife is put to a huge test.

Reteaming with her St. Vincent director Theodore Melfi, McCarthy demonstrates again why it’s so important for her to make films apart from her husband.  The married duo have made a string of movies together that they have collaborated on and produced and while they occasionally find a winner (The Boss actually improves with age) they also have their share of stinkers (remember Tammy?  Better yet, don’t.).  It’s clearly demonstrated that when she’s working with other directors and screenwriters, see Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Spy if you don’t believe me, she really has a chance to shine. 

The lack of chemistry between McCarthy and O’Dowd is mostly attributed to the separation of their characters for a large part of the movie.  I never totally bought them as a couple so deep in love that they were being completely tested by this tragedy, but it’s not for McCarthy’s lack of try to instill some warmth O’Dowd’s way.  I liked O’Dowd as well, but he seemed to get too lost in the sadness and/or anger of his character and the shifts were jarring instead of understandable.  The real head scratcher is why Melfi cast so many familiar faces and then gave them nothing to do.  Timothy Olyphant (Mother’s Day) has two or three scenes total and they’re so insignificant it could have been played by anyone.  Same for Daveed Diggs (Soul), Loretta Devine (wasted even more here than in Queen Bees earlier this year), and Laura Harrier (Spider-Man: Homecoming), who gets a high billing but may not even have any lines in the film if I’m remembering correctly.

A few years back I was in NYC and saw Kevin Kline’s soon-to-be Tony Award winning performance onstage in Present Laughter.  It was then I remembered how much I enjoyed watching him watching other actors.  He’s always listening and providing the kind of reaction that helps create a full character without having to say much.  It’s often wonderful to see him and he’s impressive here as a guy that resists getting too attached to his new patient, even though he has a hunch he can find a way to unlock what’s been holding her back.

Speaking of that, what’s difficult about the movie is what it holds back and that’s a lot of key details.  It’s never expressly stated how Lilly and Jack’s daughter died or how old she was.  I suppose it’s doesn’t really matter in the long run because the loss is the loss but it’s these finer points that help to round out the character arcs being put forth.  The starling also is a bit of a red herring because it doesn’t come into play much until the end of the film after making several stealth appearances (with some iffy CGI) in earlier scenes.  I understand that writer Matt Harris is trying to fast-track the narrative, but it can’t come at the cost of the finer points.

It’s interesting to see Netflix rolling out The Starling for a week in theaters before it arrives on the streaming service for the majority of its customers.  I don’t find the film strong enough for an awards run (though if the Golden Globes were a thing McCarthy would probably be a likely nominee for Best Actress) but perhaps they’re going for Kline…they’ll certainly want to push for any number of songs that were contributed by Brandi Carlile , The Lumineers, Judah & the Lion, and Nate Ruess.  I think it’s best to just keep The Starling handy for a day/night when you require a little comfort food film, some warmth from the overstuffed and stodgy succession of movies that are coming down the pike.

Movie Review ~ Lady of the Manor

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An aimless ne’er-do-well becomes a tour guide in a historic estate and winds up befriending the manor’s resident ghost.

Stars: Melanie Lynskey, Judy Greer, Justin Long, Luis Guzmán, Ryan Phillippe, Patrick Duffy

Director: Justin Long and Christian Long

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (2.5/10)

Review:  This last month has been awfully good for ghosts…and it’s not even October yet.  You may recall that just a few short posts ago I gave a marginal thumbs up to the rather decent Afterlife of the Party, a Netflix film starring Victoria Justice that was pleasant in a goopy, Clorox-wiped clean sort of way.  I also broke the news that I’m a closet fan of these types of films where a ghost haunts a living human and either works with them or against them to right a wrong so they can rest in peace.  I’m sticking by that statement, even after being truly haunted by the presence of Lady of the Manor, another movie with some similar themes.  If you asked me two weeks ago which of these ghost movies I’d be less impressed with, I’d surely have said Afterlife of the Party based on who was involved with Lady of the Manor…sadly, this one is a D.O.A. P.O.S.

Remember when Justin Long dated Drew Barrymore and it was weird?  And weird only in the sense that Barrymore has always seemed like such an adult and Long has felt like a forever teenager so the pairing felt like a May-December romance that even though it was more like a May 12 and June 18 one?  Long clearly remembers it too because he’s cast the talented Melanie Lynskey in a role I have a hunch Barrymore would have played if they were still together (and possibly written with her in mind) and then asked her to emulate the kewpie doll mannerisms of the star so easy to imitate to seal the deal.  Even at a subconscious level, it’s impossible not to watch the movie without having Barrymore firmly in your mind and, not to take anything away from Lynskey, wonder if she’d have brought a tad more sparkle to the role.

Lynskey (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) plays Hannah, described in the press notes as a “ne’er-do-well” which is fancy talk for the lay about freeloader she is, occasionally delivering drugs via bike but too dim to even do that right.  When she’s mistaken for a sexual predator (cue an uncomfortable sequence involving pedophile jokes) she’s hauled off to prison where she’s dumped by her boyfriend and kicked to the curb.  As she drowns her sorrow at the local watering hole, she attracts the attention of spoiled lothario Tanner Wadsworth (an extremely puffy in the face Ryan Phillippe, Wish Upon) heir to the Wadsworth estate and recently tasked with its operations.  He’s in need of a new tour guide to dress like the former, you got it, lady of the manor and decides Hannah is the best one for the job.  Mostly, he just wants to sleep with her.

Before she knows it, Hannah has a new job that comes with a free place to live.  The only trouble is that the estate already has a permanent live-in guest (Judy Greer, Halloween) and she isn’t happy with the new arrival that’s loud, obnoxious, and brings with her a large supply of rubber bedroom toys named after famous movie stars.  Dead for a number of years, Lady Wadsworth still holds some values close to her heart and is horrified to see Hannah exhibit the type of extreme unladylike behavior that can only be found in a movie written and directed by men.  Where else can you see a childless female ghost murder victim from colonial times and a rudderless loser men use as little more than a sexual object discuss breaking wind and the best way to excuse yourself from the room when you have to let one rip?

When the validity of Lady Wadsworth’s will is questioned, Hannah will have to step up and help out her phantom friend (spoiler alert?  I mean, c’mon…you have to know they start to get along eventually) prove what her original intentions for her estate were before it falls into the wrong hands for good.  At the same time, Hannah balances a physical relationship with Tanner and something a bit sweeter with a local historian (Long, Tusk) who initially went on one of her disastrous tours.  I feel like I should at least mention Luis Guzmán (Guilty as Sin) seeing that he appears so high up in the credits but has little to do as a nameless bartender other than dry a few glasses and wipe down a counter or two while the main actors get sloppy drunk in front of him.  Surely there was more to this role…or was Guzmán visiting his friends on the set and they needed a last minute replacement?

There’s been a lot of fingers pointing lately toward movies that are deemed “more like TV movies” and the plot for Lady of the Manor is torn directly from the listings on Hallmark or Lifetime.  At its heart, it’s your typical ghost meets girl story and uncovering a not that interesting mystery is a way to spend the time while you reorganize your sock drawer.  Long not only stars in this but wrote and directed it with his brother Christian and it’s as if they took that vanilla plot and wiped their noses with it.  It’s such a snotty booger of a movie and takes every chance to go low with the cheapest possible jokes always seemingly the first choice.  Even blessed with someone comedically talented like Greer, the script favors gross-out humor and dialogue laced with trash talk – there’s little trust shown in the actors or the audience to find the comedy.

What’s most disappointing is that Long has been at this for so long now that you’d think for this first time up to bat he’d have something a bit more to offer, something better to represent him (and his family) on his debut.  Even if Barrymore had taken the lead from Lynskey (and, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with what Lynskey is doing, she deserves some sort of medal for surviving this train wreck) it wouldn’t have saved things because Lady of the Manor is just rotten, a few laughs along the way notwithstanding.

Movie Review ~ Prisoners of the Ghostland

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A notorious criminal must break an evil curse in order to rescue an abducted girl who has mysteriously disappeared.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Moseley, Nick Cassavetes, Yuzuka Nakaya, Lorena Kotô, Canon Nawata, Charles Glover, Cici Zhou, Louis Kurihara

Director: Sion Sono

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Here’s what we all need to realize about Nicolas Cage – he knows exactly what he’s doing.  Anytime a GIF or a meme is passed around with one of Cage’s signature crazy eye looks or classic freak out faces, it’s the result of a carefully calculated plan on the part of the actor to dig into whatever character he’s playing.  It gives the director something to work with, something to drive his fellow actors crazy, and it makes audiences nervously anticipate his next move/movie because you truly don’t know how he’ll pivot. 

Once a mainstay on the Hollywood A-List, after Cage won his Oscar in 1995 he toiled about in various blockbusters until his star waned after one too many fails at the box office.  That’s when Cage started thinking in volume, not quality, and the sheer number of films he was in rose dramatically.  While lazy actors like Bruce Willis have taken over the mantle of this business model, Cage was king of making these random films that were almost indistinguishable from one another.  I’m not sure exactly when or how it happened, but I noticed Cage began to stretch again in 2018 with the release of Mandy, a well-received horror film that was often a nightmare to watch which genre fans went ape over.  Coming back a year later with Color Out of Space, an even more impressive blend of Cage-iness mixed with a trippy H.P. Lovecraft vibe, it was obvious the actor was finding his groove with projects and directors that spoke to him.

Continuing to star in the occasional quickie, Cage set the film community ablaze already twice this year with two different projects, the bizarre Willy’s Wonderland and one of his best performances to date, Pig.  Now, I’m still willing to work for Cage’s team to help them mount a campaign for him to get in the Best Actor race for his work in that excellent film but I’m thinking he won’t need much help getting there on his own.  The end of the year may be getting crowded but what he did with that film is still so fresh in my mind that I can imagine voters that saw it will be feeling the same way.  Perhaps it’s best to keep certain voters away from Cage’s latest movie, though.  It might undo some of that goodwill Pig served up.

Let me state for the record before we gain entry to Prisoners of the Ghostland that I found the first English-language film from director Sion Sono to be almost operatic in nature and often just as frustrating to sit through.  It has moments that are wildly creative, sucking you into its energy field with an enticing mythology and fringe characters that have you craning your neck to see more.  On the other hand, Sono displays his typical taste for excess and winds up almost choking the life out of the picture before anyone has a chance to get much of anything done.  The extreme director is a good match for Cage, and both know it, so it’s just a question of who wants to go bigger before going home. 

Set in a world undone by a nuclear catastrophe where scattered cultures have created a mishmash of design and community, Prisoners of the Ghostland drops us into Samurai Town, a brothel run by the smarmy Governor (Bill Moseley, Texas Chainsaw) who has lost something near and dear to him.  His adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella, Climax) has vanished, and the Governor needs a professional to travel to the dangerous Ghostland to find her.  The man for the job is, naturally, named Hero (Cage, Valley Girl) and to incentivize him to keep his cool in all matters he’s wired with explosives at particular points of his body. Think about hitting a woman?  Bye-bye arm.  The bombs on his nether regions are self-explanatory…there will be no unauthorized breeding in Ghostland.  Fail to find her, and that bomb around his neck will efficiently end his life.

With only a few short days to find Bernice and bring her back, he’ll have to work fast because while finding Bernice turns out to be easy, returning her isn’t a walk in the park.  As Hero learns more about the horrific conditions in Ghostland and its inhabitants, he plans a revenge plot to secure his freedom and the liberty of others.  Yet a memory from the past still plagues him, a memory that turns out to have a major impact on his current mission, throwing a significant wrench in the outcome of the plot to overthrow the powerful Governor and those that follow him. 

The screenplay from Aaron Hendry & Reza Sixo Safai is surprisingly original and not based off any previous work and both writers have given the dynamics of Ghostland some intriguing wrinkles.  In Sono’s visionary hand, the world creation is complete and so you have something that is marvelous to look at, if just a tad vacant overall.  It’s like those walls of a community theater production that look so impressive from the 12th row but once you get up close you see that it’s just a two-inch flimsy piece of painted plywood…but for a while, you were fooled.  This ruse is helped along by, no surprise here, Cage’s fully immersed performance that never comprises or belies any doubt in the material.  That’s the special sauce which keeps Cage operating so reliably at 120% from film to film.  Like him or loathe him, he believes in what he’s doing and that in turn creates an atmosphere where everything is possible, and anything can happen. 

In previous films, not everyone has been as game as Cage but Sono has surrounded his star with a roster of like-minded actors that go for broke and don’t care who’s watching.  Boutella is, in many ways, an actress after Cage’s heart that’s more than willing to go toe-to-toe for control of scenes.  Lithe in body and able to tap into relatable and raw emotions, she’s an interesting counterpart to Cage’s deep well of regret…both are individuals in pain that need saving and perhaps this journey will wind up benefitting both.  Moseley and a scary Nick Cassavetes (The Other Woman) as Cage’s former partner now mysterious rival, pop off the screen with appropriate villainy but watch out for Tak Sakaguchi silently stealing the movie as a cunning assassin who gets some ferociously fun fight sequences.  While the film is filled with several memorable performances for the right reasons, there’s a central character that’s so atrociously annoying it begins to cast the rest of the actors in a bad light.  I’m going to refrain from passing that name along but once you see the movie, you’ll know who she is.

Along with Mandy and Color of Space, Prisoner of the Ghostland feels like it’s completing a trilogy of interesting reaches by Cage into foreign territory.  Not only are they gambles that have by and large paid off for him creatively, but critically and commercially they’ve done well for his credibility…far more than his direct to video feed-trough junk he had been making.  Couple that with a quieter and more reflective role in Pig and you begin to see an actor coming into another stage of their career where box office isn’t key, but fulfillment of mind, body, and soul is.  Lucky for us, that desire also comes with an entertainment value as well.

Movie Review ~ Shelter in Place

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A honeymooning couple gets stranded at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and learns that there is more to fear than just cabin fever.

Stars: Brendan Hines, Tatjana Marjanovic, Kevin Daniels, Ola Kaminska, Jey Reynolds

Director: Chris Beyrooty and Connor Martin

Rated: NR

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  While it’s likely a bit too soon to look for any polished silver lining in the dark rain cloud that has been the ongoing pandemic hanging over the globe for over a year and a half, there have been a few glints of good fortune where indie filmmaking is concerned.  Previously, movies made on a small scale with a handful of actors and a tiny budget were either celebrated for their economy in production or shunned for lack of higher-end techniques.  Now, it’s that very sparse nature that is becoming a significant benefit to a number of genre films from the wanderlust drama (Ride the Eagle) to horror films such as Shelter in Place, a haunted hotel new release coming to your at-home VOD this week.

Occasionally, I’ll take a bird’s eye view of a movie like Shelter in Place and wonder if I’d have reviewed it any differently if the climate we were in had been different.  If this were a regular early fall time for movies, could an above average bit of terror like Shelter in Place rise over the noise to gain any traction over louder titles with deeper pockets for marketing?  Probably not…however that’s not to say the movie written and directed by Chris Beyrooty and Connor Martin is one to lose track of entirely.  As October is drawing near and the potential for more isolation of the winter months approaches, you may find yourself looking for exactly the kind of nerve-jangling frights Beyrooty and Martin have concocted.

With shelter in place orders being passed just as newly married couple John and Sara Burke arrived in the famous Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, there isn’t much for the honeymooners to do but wait it out until they can get home.  Thankfully, aside from a front desk clerk/concierge (Kevin Daniels, managing to never reveal all his cards at the same time – keeping you on your toes as to whose side he’s on) and a housekeeper/cook (Ola Kaminska, riding a nice wave of benevolent and malevolent) they appear to have the place all to themselves. As long as they are in their room by the time the mandatory lights out in the early evening, they can roam as they please.  So while influencer Sara (the adroit Tatjana Marjanovic, Great White, who gets more chance to impress here) works on her social media game, currently unemployed John (Brendan Hines, who walks, talks, looks, and acts like a schmuck but is relatable all the same, go figure) wiles away the day doing a whole lot of nothing hoping his new bride will strike it big and make enough for both of them to live off of.

Are they really alone though?  Poking around the front desk register one day, Sara finds their check-in information as well as that of another guest…even though they were led to believe no one else was staying there.  Convinced it was a misunderstanding by the concierge, Sara writes it off as an error of the pandemic but when the maid begins to display odd behavior and she starts seeing ghostly figures hiding in the shadows, she starts to believe rumors of the hotel’s hauntings might be less fictional than she originally imagined.  The more Sara learns, the further John pulls away right when they should be working together to find out who (or what) might be lurking within the not-quite-empty rooms of the hotel.

There’s a lot of standard-issue developments that happen in Shelter in Place, yet the film winds up quite entertaining due to the strength of the performances and the restraint shown by the writers/directors.  While we’re often tipped off to what’s happening and are able to piece things together long before Sara or John do, it strangely doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of watching the couple get put through the psychological wringer as distorted visions blur the lines of reality in such a way that they can’t tell what is authentic and what is fake.  It’s not perfect, far from it, but considering the resources and how bargain basement it could have gone, it’s worth making time for an evening to Shelter in Place.

The horror film SHELTER IN PLACE will be available on VOD and Digital September 14, 2021.

Pre-order Link: https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/shelter-in-place/id1580216980

 

Movie Review ~ What She Said

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Sam decides to drop the charges against her rapist, her friends and siblings gather to stage a Thanksgiving intervention.

Stars: Jenny Lester, Juliana Jurenas, Britt Michael Gordon, Peter Evangelista, Paige Berkovitz, Jarielle Whitney, Christopher Mychael Watson, Lucas Calzada, Vaishnavi Sharma

Director: Amy Northup

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Being inundated with procedural television and slickly written courtroom dramas, we’re used to seeing someone traumatized by violence have their day in court.  They meet their victimizer face to face, say the right thing, feel empowered, and march out of the courtroom just like they came in: with their head held high and their dignity intact.  That’s one way to portray this journey for audiences that demand resolution and happy endings…but it’s almost always never entirely accurate.  The process of prosecuting a person accused of a crime against another is a scary proposition, made even more terrifying when you have to relive a moment of trauma over and over again.  It’s one of the central themes of the new film What She Said, available on streaming and VOD.

It’s understandable why Sam (Jenny Lester) is having second thoughts about testifying against the man that raped her and is considering dropping the charges against him.  That way, she would avoid having to face him in court and be subject to the ridicule and questioning that usually comes with rape victims by defense attorneys and those unwilling to believe someone could commit that kind of heinous crime against another.  With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, she’s decided to drop out of the family gatherings and Friendsgiving plans, opting instead for a weekend alone with her thoughts at a remote cabin.

That’s where Sam’s brother Eli (Britt Michael Gordon) shows up unannounced at the beginning of What She Said, confronting her about the decision and asking her to reconsider.  Why not take the weekend to think it over because if she doesn’t do something about it, what about the next person it happens to?  The next day, Sam is surprised to see Eli has invited a few more of their friends and their significant others up to celebrate the holiday and offer additional support.  This pseudo-intervention doesn’t go well at first, giving Sam more of a reason to withdraw, but she’s eventually coaxed into spending time with her friends and brother over the next few days, time that’s spent discovering and rediscovering bonds that have held strong over time.  As could be expected, newcomers to the group find it hard to relate to the old friends, and Sam’s contentious relationship with her sister-in-law Harper, (Juliana Jurenas), reaches a boiling point before the wishbone on the turkey has time to dry completely. 

Written by star Lester and directed by Amy Northup, the film feels like it’s broken up into three acts.  The first two acts take place over the weekend at the cabin and the shorter third act plays almost like an epilogue.  For spoilers’ sake I won’t reveal what it is but it has some powerful, unsentimental, examples of speechifying that actually, for once, work without coming across as preachy.  As a writer, Lester shows a talent for creating realistic dialogue that pushes narrative forward and as an actress she convincingly conveys the emotions of her words without letting it get too melodramatic.  The film is dotted with a handful of fine supporting performances as well.  Jurenas and Gordon are standouts as Sam’s main foe and brother, two people that think they are supporting her more than they actually are.  Both are tricky roles to achieve in their goals without coming off as antagonists…but Lester takes care of them at the outset with dialogue, and they fill in the rest with considerate acting.

It’s become a bit of a mission of mine to round up holiday movies that aren’t totally “holiday movies” and I have to say that over time I’ve found Thanksgiving is a tough nut to crack.  Being so close to Christmas, the films often share a number of themes so the crossover potential is high – that’s why finding a title like What She Said can be a pleasant surprise and for reasons that far exceed it’s thematic nature.  It may delve into an overly talky middle section that starts to feel like scenes from an uninspired ‘90s indie feature (and thankfully pulls back from an ill-advised romantic coupling that feels out of place), but it quickly shakes off those dreary exchanges for some enlightening back and forth about right and wrong, should and shouldn’ts, men and women, and why we need to listen more when people are telling us what they are feeling.