Movie Review ~ Dog

The Facts:

Synopsis: An army ranger and his dog embark on a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway to attend a friend’s funeral.
Stars: Channing Tatum, Jane Adams, Kevin Nash, Q’orianka Kilcher, Ethan Suplee, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Nicole LaLiberté, Luke Forbes, Ronnie Gene Blevins
Director: Reid Carolin and Channing Tatum
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  The last time we saw Channing Tatum onscreen was in the much-hyped Kingsman: The Golden Circle back in 2017.  Meant to be a sort of testing ground for a potential American spin-off of the surprise hit original film, Tatum’s role turned out to be much smaller than anticipated. While it capped off a banner year for the actor, it was the last time we’d see him in a significant role for five very long years.  Voice appearances in 2019’s The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part count for something, but it’s not like seeing the dancer turned superstar on the big screen.  Poised to make a comeback in 2022, starting with Dog followed up quickly with The Lost City in March, Tatum has also kept busy wearing his producer’s cap.

That’s how he came to being involved as an executive producer with the 2017 HBO documentary War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend detailing the bond created between army veterans and the canines they work with during and after their service.  From that experience, Tatum and his frequent collaborator Reid Carolin (Magic Mike, Magic Mike XXL) have made Dog, based on a story from Carolin and Brett Rodriguez, another of War Dog’s producers.  Instead of finding a true story to base a more stalwart biopic on, fictionalizing a story that uses the lives of the real men and dogs featured in the documentary as inspiration was a wise route to go.  That way, co-directors Tatum and Carolin can have more freedom to horse around with lighter moments of their own creation, interspersed with the emotional beats the film apparently is required to hit like mile markers.

Returned veteran Sergeant Riley Rodriguez (Eric Urbiztondo) has been killed in an automobile accident in the Pacific Northwest and is to be buried by his family in Nogales, AZ.  Besides his family, Sgt. Rodriguez is survived by his military dog Lulu, a beautiful Belgian Malinois that has also struggled with reintegration as many military service animals do.  Lulu’s presence is requested at the burial, but due to her emotional issues, she cannot fly, and no one will get near her for fear of attack.  Desperate to be cleared for full-time service despite a severe head trauma that has kept him on the army’s restricted list, U.S. Army Ranger Jackson Briggs reluctantly accepts the assignment, on the condition his captain put in a good word for him.

Having served with Rodriguez, Briggs is familiar with Lulu, and she remembers him as well.  The reunion isn’t pleasant, and the trip doesn’t begin on the best foot/paw.  With two strong-willed personalities at odds with one another and both working through pain that needs to be talked out, being unable to communicate puts them at a disadvantage.  At least initially.  As the days go by and the often-soused Briggs learns through caring for Lulu how to care for Lulu, he starts to see in himself the possibility for a future that could be different he imagined.  In turn, Lulu’s disposition changes once she starts to feel a sense of stability.

Carolin’s script is nothing extraordinary, and there’s a whiff that Dog, filmed during the pandemic and bare-bones enough in its production that it shows it, exists more as a tribute to the military veterans and their families than anything else.  Something that will be shown on repeat in military bases around the world.  And why shouldn’t it?  Why shouldn’t there be something directly programmed for a captive audience craving emotional beats they can instantly relate to?  That must be why there’s a brief and totally unnecessary threesome scene for Tatum and two random women (Blacklight’s Emmy Raver-Lampman and Nicole LaLiberté), which goes just far enough to elicit wolf whistles but not too far that it couldn’t be explained away if there are children present.

There’s little that happens that isn’t easily predictable but darn it all, if that shot of the dog at the funeral nestled at the foot of the memorial to her fallen didn’t push that “misty-eye” button in me.  It’s almost a relief Dog plays out as simply and without complications, as it does.  If it were to get into the weeds too much or try for something more profound, it might not have achieved such a comfortable gait and left the viewer feeling as pleasant as it does.  Though no one seems to be working all that hard, you could still call this a labor of love because all involved clearly have great respect for the veterans and their companions and wanted to tell a story honoring that bond.

Movie Review ~ The Cursed

The Facts:

Synopsis: In the late 1800s, a man arrives in a remote country village to investigate an attack by a wild animal but discovers a much deeper and sinister force that has the manor and its townspeople in its grip.
Stars: Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly, Alistair Petrie, Roxane Duran, Áine Rose Daly
Director: Sean Ellis
Rated: NR
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  Never underestimate the power of a movie title.  While one might argue a great movie will always manage to shine through the worst marketing and release plan a studio can throw at it (hey, the tagline “Collide with Destiny” and cut and paste poster almost sank early materials for 1997’s Titanic!), a memorable title will always be favorable to something entirely insignificant.  Would 1992’s Basic Instinct have stirred up that same sharp edge if it went into theaters as Love Hurts?  Could Spaceman from Pluto break box office records as well as Back to the Future?  There’s no way $3,000 was staying as the title for the Julia Roberts and Richard Gere fairy tale romance Pretty Woman, but the fact that it went into production with it is a minor miracle.

The flip side to that coin is when the change is worse, like The Cursed, which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival as Eight for Silver.  Now, Eight for Silver is a great title and one that stuck in my mind, bolstered by positive notices and the promise of its werewolf tale having some modicum of pedigree.  I made a mental note to keep my ear to the ground for it when it popped up, but before I knew it, it had vanished into the ether of the post-festival haze.  It was only after I received information on a new film, The Cursed, and investigated it further that I discovered the title change.  Going from something unique to what can only be described as lackluster (even where werewolf movies are concerned) speaks to some of the issues with the film itself.

Written and directed by Sean Ellis (Anthropoid), The Cursed begins promisingly enough, dropping us onto the battlefields of World War I before jumping back even further to the 18th-century French estate where one of the soldiers grew up.  His family owns the massive manse but may not have a true claim to the Roma-occupied land surrounding it, a slight annoyance to Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie, Victor Frankenstein).  Banding together with the other estate owners in the area, Laurent has the Romas (often referred to in outdated terminology as gypsies) not just tossed off the land but violently murdered, so they can’t ever return for revenge…at least not in their current form.  Before being buried alive in a blood-soaked field and after seeing her husband executed horribly, a woman curses the land and takes with her a silver souvenir we’ve come to understand holds special significance.

Not long after this brutality, the children of the landowners are playing in the field and uncover a set of silver teeth that seem to possess all who encounter them.  When one of the boys puts the teeth to good use, a boy is bitten, setting off a chain reaction of events, including a physical transformation and violent attacks that tie back to the original curse.  A visiting pathologist (Boyd Holbrook, The Host) with exposure to these kinds of animalistic strikes is called on to track the beast and cure the land of the plague that has descended upon it.  As the body count rises, creating other creatures along the way, the pathologist and the mother (Kelly Reilly, Flight) of the bitten boy work in tandem to lure the monster out of its hiding place and into an arena where it can be trapped and dealt with swiftly.

The first hour of The Cursed is riveting stuff, with Ellis nicely setting up the tragic series of events that befall the people unfortunate enough to be living in the crosshairs of the hollow-souled Laurent and his cronies.  The attack on their camp is shot from a high vantage point in one long take, and it only makes you feel more helpless to what is happening in front of you instead of further removed from the violence being committed.  The torture scenes are tough to stomach, making the comeuppance all the more satisfying later on.  It does get rocky for a while, though.

The children of the film are where The Cursed starts to feel its namesake.  Devoid of much personality, the child actors are somewhat of a black hole of blank stares, yet they are tasked with some important business of narrative tension and plot furthering they aren’t fully equipped to handle.  The main pivot point rests in one of the supporting performances and the young dude is not up to the task.  It’s much better when “the adults are talking,” so it’s nice that Holbrook and Reilly have such an easy rapport, even if Reilly appears to be choosing each word out of a hat with how intentional each word is released.

The creature effects are decent, but the CGI isn’t stellar; I’ll always opt for the person in the rubber (or furry) suit where these types of films are concerned, and toward the end, too much of this felt like a video game knockoff.  The Cursed tends to work the best when there’s no creature at all, and Ellis, who also serves as cinematographer, lets the camera stand in for the stalking beast.  It’s hard to do another take on a werewolf film, and while a few new wrinkles are thrown in along the way, it’s often as generic and staid as the title is.

Movie Review ~ A Banquet

The Facts:

Synopsis: A widowed mother is radically tested when her teenage daughter experiences a profound enlightenment and insists that her body is no longer her own but in service to a higher power.
Stars: Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Ruby Stokes, Kaine Zajaz, Lindsay Duncan
Director: Ruth Paxton
Rated: NR
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  You have to be careful with high-wire movies like A Banquet because one false move has the power to set you off balance and send you flying off into the darkness. I spent much of this British-made film wondering if Justin Bull’s screenplay was going to stumble and make that error, going too far with its look into a family undergoing severe dysfunction after suffering a trauma. Working with director Ruth Paxton, Bull knows when to pull that tightrope taut, and Paxton guides her cast with skill along that line connecting one crucial plot point to another. A Banquet isn’t the movie you think it is, initially coming off as if it might be headed into traditional horror territory before revealing true intentions far more shattering.

Recently widowed after years caring for her terminally ill husband, chef Holly (Sienna Guillory, forever Colin Firth’s cheating girlfriend in Love, Actually) is still struggling to get life back on track with her two daughters. Older teen Betsey (Jessica Alexander, Glasshouse) seems to have bypassed her rebellious years, forced her to grow up fast in the shadow of a sick parent. At the same time, younger sister Isabelle (Ruby Stokes, Bridgerton) takes up the mantle as often overlooked in favor of a more accomplished child. Betsey wanders off to the edge of a nearby forest at a house party with friends and returns…different. Soon, she is avoiding food and claiming to have been gifted with the vision of what’s to come. Eating food doesn’t interest her, and it shouldn’t concern anyone else.

What’s happened to Betsey in the forest is initially the focus of Bull’s script, and of course, we want to know what has affected her to alter her mood so entirely. She is repulsed by the simple satiation made available to her, and she can’t stomach several small peas without choking them up. As Betsey begins to regress into a weaker state and Holly focuses her attention on another infirm member of the family, Isabelle explores a more expressive side she hasn’t been allowed to try out before and finds the experience a little frightening but invigorating as well. Prophetic claims by Betsey indicate something (sinister? beautiful? horrific?) is drawing near, and Holly must get a handle on both her daughters if she is to save even one.

Released through IFC, A Banquet is a tense example of efficient filmmaking. There’s little onscreen that doesn’t need to be there, and all of it is in service to Bull’s screenplay. This script has a good understanding of interpersonal family relationships and a solid grasp of eating disorders without ever claiming expertise. Performances throughout are strong, with Guillory’s veneer cracking at just the right times and Alexander applying the correct amount of pressure to chip away at the vulnerable spots to make it do so. Especially delightful is Linsday Duncan (Blackbird) as Holly’s mother and the girl’s grandmother, popping in for a few visits and laying down some opinions that only a woman of her stature and experience could.

Your enjoyment of A Banquet is dependent on your expectation. IFC continues to show good taste around its genre films that buck the usual tropes of the niche. Strong cinematography from David Liddell and a score from CJ Mirra give the film a mood to match its mysterious performances and central structure. Don’t compare this to the blood and guts horror films the label has released before but take it on its own successful merits, and you’ll be treated to a veritable feast of successes on numerous levels. 

Movie Review ~ King Knight

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Thorn and Willow appear to have it all as the revered high priest and priestess of a coven of new-age witches. But a secret from Thorn’s past throws their lives into turmoil and sends them on a trippy, hilarious journey.
Stars: Matthew Gray Gubler, Angela Sarafyan, Andy Milonakis, Kate Comer, Johnny Pemberton, Josh Fadem, Nelson Franklin, Emily Chang, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Swati Kapila, Shane Brady, AnnaLynne McCord, Alice Glass, Barbara Crampton, Ray Wise
Director: Richard Bates Jr.
Rated: NR
Running Length: 81 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review:  While the megaton blockbusters and budget-specific genre films have felt the pangs of the pandemic crunch these past two years, there has been one corner of the film industry that has continued to thrive: the indie feature. Already skilled in guerrilla filmmaking tasked with tiny budgets and small crews used to operating in isolation, independent producers kept right on working throughout much of the lockdown, or at least got right back to it quickly as restrictions lifted. Desperate for movies when the well dried up for major motion pictures, streaming services and mid-size studios now actively sought out modestly made but otherwise stellar flicks that likely would have been overlooked in favor of more commercially minded entertainment.

King Knight is an example of a film that might not have gotten the kind of warm festival reception it did at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival were it not for the shortage of options available mixing elements of comedy and the darker horror, which the Canadian festival is so excellent at cultivating. While he’s focused less on horror in favor of homing in on the black comedy of his screenplay, director Richard Bates Jr. creates a mostly entertaining expansion of a cocktail napkin elevator pitch. Trouble sets in, however, with a script that preaches relaxed freedom of self then counteracts it with problematic thinking around one’s ability to choose identity at random.

As former president of his high school class, Thorn (Matthew Gray Gubler, Endings, Beginnings) is expected at his upcoming reunion to give a ceremonial speech and perform a dance in front of his classmates. (What kind of Stepford high school is this?)  Worse, in returning to his hometown, he’d presumably have to see his estranged mother (B-movie horror legend Barbara Crampton, You’re Next). He’s been ignoring multiple requests from the planning committee, though, because he can’t bring himself to admit the embarrassing truth of his straight-arrow past to his twisted present.

You see, after high school, Thorn met Willow (Angela Sarafyan, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), and together they became the head of a coven of witches, a motley gang of misfits with various eccentricities which make them ideally suited for one another. As the High Priest of his coven, Thorn has a commanding influence over his followers, treating them all with kindness. When his secret is discovered, the coven has to decide if being true to their leader is more critical than overlooking his pure past, and Willow grapples with feelings of not knowing the man she married. For his part, Thorn goes on a wild journey back to his roots, and all experience great enlightenment.

For an 81-minute movie, there are many ideas crammed into short compact bursts of ingenuity within King Knight and then longer stretches where it feels like overworked sketch comedy. A tragically awful conversation about Juliette Binoche (I can’t bring myself to say what about) feels like an eternity. At the same time, Thorn’s dialogue with a pinecone and a rock manages to evoke the laughs the Binoche banter can’t. Then there’s the disappointing development of characters that are “gay,” defending their identity with graphic descriptions of why they are, only to admit they are “straight” later because they’ve ‘decided’ to be. Oof. This is 2022, right? Woke, Schmoke. I want intelligent writing that feels as if it’s met people who have a true sense of identity and know that it isn’t like a light switch. 

Focus instead on the performances of Gubler and Sarafyan, interesting enough actors to make us want to know more, with Sarafyan especially making us semi-hope there’s a Queen Knight sequel that could happen if Bates can refine his writing. I also liked Andy Milonakis as a mostly asexual coven member who feels destined to play either movie producer Alan Carr or Roseanne Barr…or maybe Roseanne playing Alan Carr. Either way, Milonakis is someone you keep watching even when they aren’t the center of attention. King Knight starts to lose significant steam right when it should be peaking, and it never gets the kind of energy back it had at the start, but there are enough good ideas here to crown it as worth your time.

Movie Review ~ Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The Facts:

Synopsis: After nearly 50 years of hiding, Leatherface returns to terrorize a group of idealistic young friends who accidentally disrupt his carefully shielded world in a remote Texas town.
Stars: Sarah Yarkin, Elsie Fisher, Mark Burnham, Moe Dunford, Nell Hudson, Jessica Allain, Olwen Fouéré, Jacob Latimore
Director: David Blue Garcia
Rated: R
Running Length: 81 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Of all the horror movies I’ve watched over time, 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre tends to stick out. It’s not the goriest, and it’s not the best made, the budget was small, and the production shows it. Acting seems secondary to many of those appearing in the film, giving it that realistic tinge director Tobe Hooper and his co-writer Kim Henkel were after. The reactions happening on the screen for the audience to view come off as authentic, making the grisly gristle of the Lonestar State-set terror sizzle. The film has a way of sticking around, haunting you long after final girl Sally Hardesty (the late Marilyn Burns) rides off into the sunset with that terrified, wild-eyed look and scream-laughing relief that her ordeal is over.

It’s been nearly fifty years since Hooper’s drive-in feature spooked audiences enough to inspire countless rip-offs and a total of eight sequels/prequels/remakes/etc., with the newest arriving on Netflix after a strained production. Having cycled through every variation of the title imaginable, writer Chris Thomas Devlin and six primary producers, including Fede Álvarez (Don’t Breathe), just hack off a The and call it a day. Following a surprisingly well-liked Texas Chainsaw 3D in 2013 and the barely seen (but rather fun) origin story Leatherface in 2017, Texas Chainsaw Massacre has some ground to make up. It all started with the early bad buzz around its original directors being replaced and their entire footage being reshot, not to mention being sold to Netflix by its production company after preview audiences hated it. A trailer released in late January seemed to seal the deal that revisiting Texas after all these years wasn’t advisable.

How nice it is to report, then, that Texas Chainsaw Massacre arrives on Netflix as an efficient and often terrifically effective direct follow-up to the original film. Following the recent trend of the “requel,” Deviln goes the 2018 Halloween route, ignoring everything that came after the 1974 film and positioning his screenplay as if the next half-century had gone by with nary a peep from Leatherface or his family. A familiar voice (for hardcore TCM fans) provides the opening narration with the briefest of backstory to the events of that fateful day. All this leads us directly into the present, and to sisters Melody (Sarah Yarkin, Happy Death Day 2U) and Lila (Elsie Fisher, The Addams Family) traveling with Melody’s business partner Dante (Jacob Latimore, Like a Boss) and his fiancé Ruth (Nell Hudson) to a ghost town they plan to redevelop into a new utopia seven hours outside of Austin that’s free from the hustle, bustle, and violence of big city life.

Encountering the requisite misogynist redneck that might also be a racist and cops that might be a little bit of both but will come in handy when a body is needed down the road, they arrive in the abandoned town of Harlow to find it almost as empty as they’d expect. One house, the orphanage, is still occupied, and its proprietress (Alice Krige, She Will, chapped-lipped and excellent) is pretty sure she has the deed around there somewhere. Before she can produce it and prove she and her hulk of a final charge can stay, she suffers a medical emergency brought on by the stress of the millennials pressuring her.

This event serves as a trigger for the massive and loyal protector (Mark Burnham) that doesn’t take this slight against his mother figure lying down or without a decent-sized chainsaw in his grubby hands. As more obnoxious youths arrive in town to purchase property and party, the man returns under the cloak of a rainstorm and begins to ensure this is the last investment any of them will make. Watching this all is Lila, the survivor of a school shooting often paralyzed with fear at being put in a position of fighting to stay alive. At the same time, Melody is also trapped by the humungous madman that seemingly can’t be stopped. Also thrown into the mix is a familiar name from franchise history, the Laurie Strode of the TCM mythology: Sally Hardesty herself. Like Strode, Hardesty (now played by Olwen Fouéré, Sea Fever) has been preparing for this day for years, and tonight she gets her chance to face her fears in physical form.

For all the overzealous fans that were sharpening their knives for this one, you can put them away. Aside from the tacky schlock of a gore-gy on a bus which gives Leatherface his most kills to date, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is mainly working on a level of horror that’s more entertaining than one might expect. Performances are generally solid, with Yarkin and especially Fisher making for an unusual dynamic duo and character actress Fouéré stepping in nicely for Burns. I seem always to have a little trouble with actresses taking on “tough women” roles who are filmed looking solid and robust only to be knocked around in their first face-to-face meeting with their opponent. There’s some of that here, but Fouéré doesn’t forget to keep the acting at a higher level with fewer words to support it. As ever, Krige shows she can play nearly anything, and even in a brief cameo, you spend most of the movie wondering if she’ll return. Always tasked with a bit of a thankless role, Burnham plays Leatherface with the brute force required and manages to convey some of the emotions tacked on.

Clocking in at a little over 75 minutes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes across as the right length, and there’s enough exposition for every character, so no one (of importance) feels cut off at the knees for nuance in what is otherwise a mostly standard arc for a horror film. There’s a blueprint to how to make a movie about a group of kids going into a supposedly abandoned location, finding they aren’t alone, and then working to survive. Texas Chainsaw Massacre falls on the victorious side of the argument that simple is better. Outside of the bus nonsense, it’s still gruesome and filled with broken bones and gushing veins, but on a more restrained level. No one is getting shortchanged here.

I take that back. Continuity is getting shortchanged because if Devlin wanted this to be an air-tight continuation of the original, we’d have to worry about more than just Leatherface. Fans will remember that Leatherface was always the figurehead for a highly dysfunctional family of freaks. Where did they all go? How did Leatherface wind up at the orphanage? Like Sally, he’s aged fifty years, so what’s happened all this time for him to remain dormant? That question may be answered if the power is in the chainsaw, but some of these informational gaps feel held back for future installments. You didn’t think Leatherface had been sent on his merry way, did you? Even if Texas Chainsaw Massacre feels like a contained film that wouldn’t need a sequel, anything is possible in this bizarre world that appears to thrive after all these years.