Movie Review ~ Summoning Sylvia

The Facts:

Synopsis: A gay bachelor party turns spooky when sinister spirits are suddenly summoned.
Stars: Travis Coles, Michael Urie, Frankie Grande, Nicholas Logan, Troy Iwata, Noah Ricketts, Sean Grandillo, Camden Garcia, Veanne Cox
Director: Wesley Taylor, Alex Wyse
Rated: R
Running Length: 74 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Do you want to know what I did after finishing Summoning Sylvia?  I ate a big ‘ole slice of humble pie with a side serving of my words.  Yep, it was a dish I deserved too, because I had committed a foolish sin that all critics must always strive to avoid.  I looked at the poster and thought I knew precisely what kind of movie was about to stream my way.  Not that there was anything disastrous about the poster, mind you, but a film about a gay bachelor party that goes off the rails thanks to an unwelcome haunting felt like it needed something better than what I could cook up quickly on a layout app. 

To be fair, Summoning Sylvia is thin on originality and low on budget, but writer/directors Wesley Taylor and Alex Wyse have managed to fill in whatever gaps are present by finding the right cast to keep viewers more than sufficiently entertained.  Add in a script that is quick with quips and rapid-fire inside (Broadway/drag) baseball dialogue used to amp up your standard ghost story mystery, and you have a surprisingly effective comedy that works far better than it should.   

Before Larry (Travis Coles, Together Together) ties the knot with Jamie (Michael Urie, Single All the Way), his friends have surprised him with a weekend away at a stately house with a spooky past.  According to Reggie (Troy Iwata, Dash & Lily), the original owner was Syliva (Veanne Cox, Miss Firecracker), a woman executed for murdering her son, supposedly doing the deed and hiding his body in the house.  Always up for tricks, Nico (Frankie Grande, Spree) decides to get a rise out of his friends by holding a séance to see if Sylvia is up for a conversation.  Of course, this dark ceremony doesn’t go as planned, and soon, all sorts of unexplained events are happening.

Around the same time, Jamie’s older (straight) brother Harrison (Nicholas Logan, I Care A Lot) arrives on Larry’s invite.  A veteran and recovering alcoholic, he’s unprepared for the wave of LGBTQ+ energy that greets him, the offer of a variety of cocktails, or the possibility that a ghost has been let loose in the house and may be trying to trim the wedding party.  As the boys attempt to make it through the night, some get closer while inevitable tea is spilled involving loyalties.  There’s also that pesky Scooby-Doo-ish mystery to be solved.

Taylor and Wyse have a good ear for comedy (a running joke is Noah J. Ricketts’ Kevin still pining over an ex-texting-boyfriend that turned out to be an algorithm) and have cast the film well with actors that have an undeniable aura of watchablity.  At 74 minutes, the movie is over in a flash, and despite a bit of sag in the middle when Harrison gets added into the mix, and there’s a natural adjustment period, it moves at an amicable pace. 

These fun finds are rare, sadly, often because their limited marketing budgets make them so easy to pass up.  This is one not to let slip by. The performances are solid, led by Coles and nearly stolen by Grande’s well-timed line readings.  I also enjoyed Iwata as the tightly wound, organized one of the bunch.  Always just at his breaking point, Iwata laid it on thick but not heavy.  Summoning Sylvia may not be destined to be a cult classic, but it’s going to be one that will (and should) succeed on word-of-mouth buzz.  What’s more, I think there’s room for more films with this cast and crew if Taylor and Wyse can develop another scenario that would fit. 

Movie Review ~ In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis

The Facts:

Synopsis: A chronicle of the first nine years of Pope Francis’ pontificate, including trips to 53 countries, focusing on his most important issues – poverty, migration, environment, solidarity, and war – while giving rare access to the public life of the pontifical.
Stars: Pope Francis
Director: Gianfranco Rosi
Rated: NR
Running Length: 80 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: While the box office has been known to be set ablaze by dramatized faith-based feature films (see Jesus Revolution for the most recent example), there is a curious lack of opportunity in the documentary realm to get closer to a religion without having to take a side. Indeed there are areas within the church and religious orders that need to be brought out into the open after years in secrecy and darkness. Still, at the same time, I see an equal benefit in the unbiased approach that can shed a different kind of light. 

A strong case for this is In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis, director Gianfranco Rosi’s cinema verite-esqe examination of the head of the Catholic Church. Using primarily archival footage, Rosi trims down a wealth of material concerning the papal leader and his travels abroad, painting a picture bound to surprise audiences expecting something completely different. While it could kindly be called languid at the outset, it ultimately is rewarding for those that understand the importance of its subtle shifts and deliberate pace.

Without a narration to guide the viewer, we depend on dates and locations that appear onscreen throughout. Most are in sequential order, but when the timeline diverges, there doesn’t seem to be a huge explanation as to why, save for more significant cinematic impact. As Pope Francis globe trots from one nation to another, those that come to see him embrace him with the respect the position calls for, but the man himself appears to understand the great responsibility this requires. Rosi (Oscar-nominated in 2017 for the short film Fire at Sea) presents moments of deep spiritual reverence in tandem with random errors in speaking (whether it be due to language barriers or differences of belief) and then how the pontificate deals with the correction.

I wouldn’t like to claim I know much about the Catholic Church or its history of authority, but I know that Pope Francis has been heralded as a leader with an eye on a hopeful future. That comes across clearly in In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis, and it’s not because Rosi has molded his film to come to that conclusion. The footage reveals a leader that prefers to be out among people and not stowed away in the confines of Vatican City. For that reason alone, it’s easy to recommend this revealing look at his worldwide journeys.

Movie Review ~ Malum

The Facts:

Synopsis: A rookie police officer willingly takes the last shift at a newly decommissioned police station to uncover the mysterious connection between her father’s death and a vicious cult.
Stars: Jessica Sula, Candice Coke, Chaney Morrow, Clarke Wolfe, Morgan Lennon, Valerie Loo, Monroe Cline, Eric Olson, Sam Brooks, Kevin Wayne, Danielle Coyne, Natalie Victoria, Christopher Matthew Spencer, Britt George
Director: Anthony DiBlasi
Rated: NR
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review:  If you’ve done your fair share of scrolling around a streaming service over the past five years, chances are you’ve come across writer/director Anthony DiBlasi’s The Last Shift. Check out this link for the cover if you need your memory refreshed, but it’s a memorable image. I had breezed right past it several times until I had seen it pop up on so many “Best Steaming Horror” lists that I finally took the dive late one weekend evening. While I may not classify the film as the “Best” of anything, I will say that if its execution wasn’t always as strong as its concept, at least it took big swings throughout.

Movie history is filled with directors remaking their earlier works. Alfred Hitchcock made The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 and 1956, Cecil B. DeMille filmed The Ten Commandments in 1923 and 1956, and Michael Mann directed a television movie called L.A. Takedown in 1989, and its feature film version Heat in 1995.   The Last Shift director DiBlasi can be added to that list because he’s reworked his 2014 film with original writer Scott Poiley and created Malum. Call it a remake or a reboot, or even classify it as a reimagining if you want to. Just don’t call it a vast improvement.

The story remains essentially the same. A year after her police officer father went on a suicidal rampage through his station shortly after apprehending members of a cruel cult, his daughter Jessica (Jessica Sula, Split) has joined the police force and is heading into her first shift. While the city braces itself for more violent protests against the police, she’s requested assignment to the station where her father worked. Due to budget cuts, it’s the last night of operation, and the job is to watch the building until the morning. She’s there seeking answers, though, and it isn’t long before ghosts from the past and lingering evil in the present converge to make her first shift one she’ll never forget.

In DiBlasi’s original, this initial set-up found the movie firing on all cylinders. When it came time to get to the crazier aspects of the tale and where Jessica’s investigation leads her, DiBlasi didn’t have the budget to bring The Last Shift to any satisfying conclusion. You’d think that with the benefit of time and advances in the filmmaking process, Malum would be several notches up, but right out of the gate, any viewer can see significant problems in both performance in presentation. The acting is abysmal, and the production quality is even worse. 

As Malum progresses and the final act approaches, an interesting development starts to take place. When the scares get greater, the focus turns sharper, and the viewer gets sucked deeper into the depths DiBlasi and Poiley always had intended us to explore. Some genuinely frightening images are conjured up, not just in the gruesome make-up designs but in the scares (both jump and skin prickly kind) timed to a razor’s edge of shock. The acting is a problem throughout, but thankfully Sula is a commanding center that brings stability to true chaos. 

While it might be intriguing to hold both films up and explore their differences (or similarities), I might take it a step further and wonder what the first act of the 2014 film and the last act of Malum might be like spliced together. This would be Frankenstein-ing the best of both movies to create the most skilled cut of the nightmare DiBlasi and Poiley are going for. Who knows, maybe they’ll remake the film again in another ten years and finally perfect it. Malum might be worth it for fans of The Last Shift, curious to see what DiBlasi could do with a bigger budget, but newcomers should exercise caution.