Fantasia 2021 – Part 2

Well, we made it through Fantasia and I am so grateful to have made the (virtual journey) with our neighbors to the North. It was a welcoming event that kept me busy for a solid twenty days, but during this time I saw a boatload of exciting movies and only the occasional stinker…and even that one wasn’t a total write-off. Check out Part 1 here and then read below for my final reviews of a number of new movies that were shown at Fantasia 2021 — and might just be coming soon to a theater (or OnDemand platform) near you!

Yakuza Princess

The fun thing about these film fests is that often you decide on a movie without having time to do much recon work before it arrives in your field of vision.  Allowing you to screen without expectation, I’ve often found the best surprises in these situations.  That’s how I felt with YAKUZA PRINCESS, an action crime samurai drama based on a graphic novel set in Brazil. If I’m being honest, it takes a while for director Vicente Amorim to bring together some of the disparate storylines, but it’s all critical set-up for the unexpected second half that introduces twists (and oh boy, would I not spoil one big one for you!) that are genuine thrills.  An amnesiac (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), bloodied and bruised, flees from his hospital room on the hunt to reclaim his memory.  This puts him on a crash course with Akemi (the mononymous Masumi) an apparently ordinary woman that harbors an extraordinary backstory.  Some elements scream straight-to-Netflix cheapie and the dialogue (or is the acting?) is a bit of an eye-roll, but the drive to push the narrative into less than oft-traveled territory keeps this one rushing at you full speed ahead.  Look for this one to be a title that nets a healthy audience response (and maybe even a sequel) when it is released.

Don’t Say Its Name

Those who want it to remain summer forever should steer clear of the winter-set DON’T SAY ITS NAME, a chilly endeavor with few thrills unlikely to inspire much in the way of heat beyond the niche festival circuit. That’s disappointing to report because with its Native American crew and cast, with a more cohesive storyline and better performances it could have stood as a lightning rod example of the furthering of representational voices in film.  It’s just not strong enough to do much but keep the door open for the next storyteller that has a more cohesive yarn to spin.  After a woman is killed in a small indigenous community, tensions mount as it leads to more bloodshed by an unseen entity that is targeting members of a mining company attempting to overtake the land.  The good news is that I did enjoy leads Madison Walsh and Sera-Lys McArthur as two women hunting down an unknown evil using different methods. The bad news is that it’s not hard to connect the dots in Rueben Martell’s film and despite a doozy of a finale where things really start to get hoppin’, much of DON’T SAY ITS NAME trades on cliches and goopy acting to pass the time. 

Broadcast Signal Intrusion

Having seen so many horror films over the years, I’m a bit desensitized to the masked killers and creatures that like to gobble people up, so it takes a lot for me to get truly unnerved by any movie for a significant length of time.  Boy, oh, boy did Jacob Gentry’s BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSTION have me reaching for the light switch, though.  The ‘90s-set creep-out follows a man (an excellent Harry Shum, Jr.) grieving the loss of his girlfriend who becomes obsessed with a series of random television ‘interruptions’ (hacks, we might call them today) on local channels years earlier.  As he begins to piece together a mystery far deeper (and bloodier) than merely who bypassed a broadcast signal for fun, he finds himself in grave danger when a killer’s hidden tracks are unearthed.  There’s a phenomenal sense of atmosphere throughout this one, buoyed by Shum’s blurred reality performance and an enigmatic turn from Kelley Mack as a stranger he picks up along the way.  One of the strongest films overall I’ve yet to see at the festival…and legitimately unnerving at times.

Bull

It took me a while, but I finally worked out in my head where I knew lead actor Neil Maskell from, and it was Ben Wheatley’s 2011 pulverizing Kill List.  While BULL isn’t quite as much of a hell ride as that earlier (also worthwhile) film was, it’s still a dynamite revenge thriller that is drenched in dread throughout.  Telling a story with two different timelines can sometimes be confusing for an audience that doesn’t always track how/when they will intersect but director and writer Paul Andrew Williams juggles both without ever making them compete with each other.  That winds up working in the favor for the actors as well, giving Maskell and others free range to go a bit wild with making broad choices and, surprisingly, it works in wicked ways.  When the head of a local crime family (David Hayman) begins to see those closest to him murdered in most violent ways, all signs point to his former son-in-law and hired muscle, Bull (Maskell).  There’s just one problem, he had him killed and buried years earlier per the wishes of his strung-out daughter (Lois Brabin-Platt) who wanted her husband and father of her child out of their lives forever.  So if Bull is really back, who did they bury?  And if Bull is actually dead, who is this new man?  The violence is extreme but so is the payoff and I can see BULL being the kind of slow-burn indie that gets far on word-of-mouth business. 

Hellbender

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!

The Righteous

Here’s one of those well-made films with recognizable actors that has set out on a noble mission but can’t exactly justify its feature length status.  The point of THE RIGHTEOUS makes itself obvious before the movie is half over and I couldn’t help but imagine how much more effective writer/director/co-star Mark O’Brien’s project would have been had it been slimmed down to the length of a short film. It definitely would have cut out some of the lengthier passages that don’t serve to move the small stable of characters forward, though every actor including O’Brien and long-time character actors Henry Czerny and Mimi Kuzyk do exemplary work.  Films about faith and those experiencing a crisis in their belief are often obvious fodder for horror because that’s when evil can sneak in and take hold of the vulnerable.  O’Brien doesn’t necessarily go for the path that you think he will, but as a stranger that shows up on the doorstep of a couple despondent over the loss of a child, you keep wanting something with a little more resonance to occur.  The more the stranger reveals to the man (Czerny), a former priest, the more we see he didn’t arrive there by chance and that he harbors a darkness within only the couple can make right.  Kudos for the beautiful back and white cinematography and lovely production design, but THE RIGHTEOUS didn’t sit completely right with me. 

Stanleyville

It honestly took me until STANLEYVILLE was nearly over before I realized the film was intended more as a dark satirical comedy than a subversive horror with nightmarish qualities.  Even then, it didn’t much improve my mood on the film from Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, a Canadian production that sets us up with the promise of something we can engage with, only to find that it’s a nearly impenetrable slice of unflavored gelatin served up as some sought-after dessert.  Five wacky strangers are gathered in a locked room to vie for the chance to win…wait for it, a compact SUV.  They have to compete in a series of increasingly inane and violent tasks to “win” and the market for SUV’s must be big in Canada because the five go to nutso lengths to get their vehicle.  Look, I’m all for the strange and askew and would have welcomed seeing a stage production of STANLEYVILLE, which is how most of the performances are pitched – for an onstage audience.  Acting so hard I thought my TV was going to explode, the cast is working in such a frenzy to play along with the game that eventually you’ll need to actively resist the urge to mute the volume. Definitely on the lesser enjoyable side of the festival offerings.

The Last Thing Mary Saw

Here’s another one of those entries that has the benefit of a great cast, location, and atmosphere but not the story to bring it to a full-length feature.  Let’s not shortchange writer/director Edoardo Vitaletti too much, though, because when the film is in the zone it’s got some major shivers to send.  Set in 1843 where a young girl has been blinded and stands accused of a horrific crime she recounts for an interrogator (and us), there’s a skittishness to everything on display and at first that works to the advantage Vitaletti and his respectable assembled cast.  Eventually, you begin to get the feeling that you’ve been on this road before and indeed the beats become familiar even if they are handled with a superlative amount of economy considering the small-scale production values.  Performances push this one into the recommend column, led by Stefanie Scott and Isabelle Fuhrman (on a roll this year after her might-be-breakout work in the Tribeca hit The Novice) as two young women punished by an uptight society that doesn’t take disobedience lightly.  As the sinister matriarch presiding over a family whipped into a religious fervor, Judith Roberts tingles the spine without saying a word…or moving a finger. 

When I Consume You

What films like WHEN I CONSUME YOU best illustrate is how to go the distance with a one sentence plot synopsis.  “A woman and her brother seek revenge against a mysterious stalker.” is how the film from writer/director Perry Blackshear is described and that’s the best way I’d suggest reporting it out to people and then leave it at that.  To say more might give away the tangles Blackshear introduces early on, ensnaring the viewer into wanting to know more and then actually providing resolution that satisfies.  Daphne Shaw (Libby Ewing) is a former addict putting her life back together again but troubled by a shadow that has found her after years lying dormant.  At the same time, her younger brother Wilson (Evan Dumouchel) trails behind her in the fixing what’s broken arena, struggling to find a job and facing serious co-dependency issues with his sibling.  A fissure event sets the two on a search for a violent man who, turns out, very much wants to be found.  Depending on one’s mood, you’re either going to go along with what Blackshear is very obviously doing or reject it outright as little more than illustrative theater…but it’s got a few moments that sent me soaring out of my seat in fright and both leads make for compelling viewing even when its solely focused on drama instead of horror. 

Martyrs Lane

This UK film from writer/director Ruth Platt lives in two worlds, one is a stark reality of grief and loss and the other is an almost playful fairytale with a ghostly edge.  Welcome to MARTYRS LANE, a rather decent tale that boasts a real rarity…two child performers that don’t make you want to claw at the screen.  Kiera Thompson is Leah, the youngest child of a popular vicar in a small village and his piano teacher wife (Denise Gough).  Picked on by her older sister, Leah acts out as a way to make her presence known, but her curiosity to the contents of her mother’s treasured locket opens the door to a new friend that begins visiting her at night.  Giving her clues which point to a family tragedy that no one speaks of, the girl (Sienna Sayer) visits Leah nighty and becomes her special confidant. However, the closer Leah gets to assembling the clues, the more insistent the other little girl becomes on having things her way…or else.  What helps to keep MARTYRS LANE in check is Platt’s balance of the scary with the somber, ably going from one emotion to the other without leaving the viewer in a whiplash state.  The details are all laid out for you throughout the picture to decipher the mystery…but never what happens at the end. 

Agnes

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 the made it.

All the Moons

This is my first year covering film festivals to this degree, but I imagine veteran festivalgoers and critics hope to find something like ALL THE MOONS with each event they attend.  An absolutely gorgeous spin on the vampire tale coming out of Spain, this is destined to be mentioned in the same breath as modern classics like Let the Right One In.  Scary when required but more interested in, ahem, fleshing out its characters, writer/director Igor Legarreta sets the film late in the 1800’s when an orphan is saved from a bombing by a stranger that chooses her to receive an eternal gift.  Soon, she is on her own and eventually learns to adapt to daylight…but not her craving for blood.  Befriending a man still mourning the death of his daughter, the two forge a familial bond just as her hunger is reaching a fever pitch.  Led by a stunningly composed performance from Haizea Carneros, ALL THE MOONS is by far the best film I saw at Fantasia and one to keep your eye out for.  This is classy, sophisticated genre filmmaking that doesn’t skimp on developing its players, nor does it hold back on the gore that comes with its fear field either. See this one immediately so you can be ahead of the curve after it becomes a low-key hit.

Ida Red

Even though Fantasia isn’t expressly a horror-specific festival, the presence of a marginal crime drama like IDA RED is still a bit of a surprise.  In some ways, I get it.  I mean, in a sea of indie films with less than familiar faces it’s a nifty get to have a flick with an Oscar-winner and other recognizable stars populating the scenery but when they’re awash in hokey pokey hokum like this the viewer is much better served going for the non-household name.  Still running her crime operation from inside a federal prison, Melissa Leo plays the mama bear of a family of no-goods including Josh Hartnett and Frank Grillo. With the mom about to expire due to terminal cancer, her relatives conspire to bribe a parole officer to get her out, even as they plan their biggest score yet.  It takes a long time for these simple events to come together, so we’re left with writer/director John Swab’s tin ear dialogue and Grillo’s out of character, off-the-mark, scenery guzzling performance.  Only Hartnett hints at where the gold in the film could have been found, but the poor actor is stuck yet again playing the least awful member of a clan of degenerates and ultimately has nothing of true substance to work with.  A delirious ending is confusing but in line with a film that never finds its footing.

#BLUE_WHALE

For producer Timur Bekmambetov, it’s obvious that when you find something that works, you stick with it.  Excelling in recent years with screenlife films like Profile, Searching, and the Unfriended films, the producer reaches over to Mother Russia for #BLUE_WHALE, and repurposes it for English-speaking countries. As with his other film, Bekmambetov knows how to pick ‘em and even if it’s not nearly as well made as others (you can tell it’s been fiddled with a lot to get it to translate correctly) it has its fair share of freaky frames.  Trading less on supernatural elements and relying on good ‘ole detective work, #BLUE_WHALE follows Dana (Anna Potebnya) as she joins an online game, the same one her sister was involved with when she stepped in front of a train.  Presided over by a terrifying masked figure that has strict rules to follow with punishments for those that step out of line, the game has a series of levels, each requiring more sacrifice/commitment than the last.  To find out the truth about her sister, Dana will have to see it through to the end…but will she survive long enough to uncover the identity of the gamemaster?  Director Anna Zaytseva could trim a solid 10 minutes out of this and still come in with a strong mystery for us to follow and Potebnya is no slouch of a lead, either.  As with most of these films, I find it best to watch them as close to the screen as possible with all the lights off…immersing yourself in the world but also readying yourself for the frights!

The Last Matinee

This beautiful looking gore fest from Uruguay is 88 minutes but should honestly have clocked in around 50.  Even fans of the film would have to admit that director Maximiliano Contenti gets a little overindulgent almost from the start with his retro-feeling horror film set in a rundown theater where a madman has locked the doors and starts picking off the customers.  Hey, a little overindulgence is fine don’t get me wrong, and when you have the kind of giallo-adjacent killings that go on within THE LAST MATINEE you have to sort of admire the assured-hand that has created these wonders of blood and guts.  However, there’s something to be said for pace as well and before the film is half over the admiration of effects has worn off and you start to desire things to tighten up and take off.  Sadly, that just never happens and while the killings are excellent, the story is nonexistent.  That leaves THE LAST MATINEE feeling like a good-looking demo reel for a talented special effects make-up artist instead of a new cult classic you should be clamoring to get your digital hands on.

Tin Can

Woman wakes up in a tight-fit chamber with no idea how she got there.  Hmm…that sounded like something I’ve already seen this year and indeed Oxygen premiered on Netflix in May to good reviews and positive word of mouth.  It took a concept and ran with it for nearly all of its 100 minutes, finding clever ways to think “out of the box.”  I wasn’t exactly expecting TIN CAN be the same film, but I was hoping for one that made good on its intriguing premise like that previous movie did.  Sadly, it barely justifies a mention as the final movie I’m reviewing for Fantasia 2021.  After a parasitic organism begins to take over the bodies of the human race, doctors attempt to find a way to fight it and just as a brilliant female scientist discovers a possible cure, she is knocked unconscious and wakes up in this holding chamber for the infected.   To the credit of the film, Anna Hopkins is a dynamite lead and carries the film as long as she can…but director Seth A. Smith has other plans for the second half of his frustrating feature that kind of defy easy explanation.  How about we just say that everything starts to rust pretty fast and that by the time it has reached its conclusion there’s little remaining of what started off as an interesting premise.  It does contain the single most uncomfortable shot (for men) in any film I saw at the festival…so there’s that.

Movie Review ~ Vacation Friends

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A couple meets up with another couple while on vacation in Mexico, but their friendship takes an awkward turn when they get back home.

Stars: John Cena, Lil Rel Howery, Meredith Hagner, Yvonne Orji, Robert Wisdom, Andrew Bachelor, Lynn Whitfield

Director: Clay Tarver

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I’ve a sneaking suspicion that had Vacation Friends arrived on schedule before production was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that I might not have been as keen to it as I wound up being.  Let’s be clear, this is one of those Jumbo Margarita drinks of a film. The kind with sugar on the rim instead of salt.  It’s meant to melt your troubles away as a carefully designed frothy concoction of the easiest parts of a comedy (slapstick, foul language, embarrassing situations) that’s served up in a sweet package to go down easier than it ever really should.  Toss in a game quartet of leads and a director smart enough to let his actors do most of the work in helping move the dial toward success and you have a perfect blend for a sunny summer comedy that aims to please.

Marcus (Lil Rel Howery, Tag) and his girlfriend Emily (Yvonne Orji, Night School) have arrived at their luxury Mexican resort to a less than amazing reception.  Their room is flooded thanks to the couple above them leaving the water running in their massive jacuzzi. This not only leaves Marcus and Emily without a place to stay but it seriously messes up the planned proposal Marcus had organized for Emily.  Just as Marcus is about to lose his cool, the other couple shows up and hearing about the newly engaged arrivals insists that the room-less duo stay with them…at least for the evening.  Ron (John Cena, Dolittle) and Kyla (Meredith Hagner, Brightburn) like to party and after loosening up their new guests with a little adult beverage and perhaps an illegal substance or two, the four spend the next days on adventures before their final night when things get a little too out of control.

Seven months later it’s time for wedding bells to ring for Emily and Marcus, but at their Atlanta welcome reception who should show up but their friends from Mexico, shocked to not receive an invite to the nuptials.  Now it’s Marcus and Emily’s turn to host Ron and Kyla for the week, during which time they’ll learn more about the brazen pair they barely knew for a few days in Mexico and also find out how Kyla got pregnant…even though Ron had previously told them he couldn’t have children.  Could something have happened that last night in Mexico that no one can remember?  As the wedding date draws near and tensions rise between Marcus and Emily’s father (Robert Wisdom, The Dark Knight Rises), revelations come to light that might alter the “I Do’s” to “I Don’ts”.

What’s nice to see is that the trailer for Vacation Friends leaves out a large chunk of the movie that takes place in Mexico…and that’s a decent amount of laughs audiences have yet to discover.  Though written by five screenwriters (oy, five?), the script doesn’t seem as choppy as the writing staff would suggest, not even when the film gets to a third act that could quite easily have gotten messy with a number of plot points to juggle.  Director Clay Tarver mostly turns the film over to the likes of Howery and Cena and gives them mostly free reign to have fun with both their roles and the script – smart move.  While we know Howery could make magic out of mice droppings, Cena’s timing is spot-on throughout and in his third movie of the summer (F9: The Fast Saga in June, The Suicide Squad in early August) he finally strikes at the golden role he’s been working toward.  The tightly wound Howery’s immeasurable charm certainly helps keep things movie as well.  Let’s not forget the contributions of Orji or Hagner either, both women hold their own alongside their partners and often outshine them in their own individual scenes. And hey, it was nice to see them being given these scenes in the first place when all the screenwriters are men!

I’d dock Vacation Friends a few points for failing to utilize a talented supporting cast of veteran actors like Chuck Cooper, Lynn Whitfield, and Anna Maria Horsford more thoroughly and also because it tends to lose all of its steam in several big huffs along the way to the altar, which starts to tire you out near the end.  It has to work with some efficiency to get back into its groove, and it eventually does, but moments like a strange drug trip in the forest come off like a bad idea that no one had the nerve to shoot down.  Not for nothing, but I was never less than completely amused and engaged for the entire length of the feature. Perhaps it was just the right movie for my mood at that particular moment, or maybe Vacation Friends is just a solid chunk of entertainment that isn’t (and doesn’t have to) unseat anything at the box office.

Movie Review ~ Together

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A husband and wife are forced to re-evaluate themselves and their relationship through the reality of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Stars: James McAvoy, Sharon Horgan, Samuel Logan

Director: Stephen Daldry & Justin Martin

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  With the delta variant nipping at our heels just as much of the world was starting to get back to, maybe not a sense of true normalcy, but at least some semblance of what that mask-less reality could be, it might be difficult to encourage audiences to invest 90 minutes in Together.  We all have our own version of what this past year was like; how it felt to go months without seeing friends and family, to watch as the number of people that died as the result of poor government planning and communal adherence to mandates rose exponentially, and how we started to fear the things we used to cherish like social gatherings, hugs, and face-to-face interactions.  Knowing that, did we need to watch the couple at the center of this heavy dramedy over the course of a year rehash that same journey?

Beginning in March of 2020 during the first days of the COVD-19 lockdown in the U.K., we meet “he” (James McAvoy, Glass) and “she” (Sharon Horgan, Game Night) a couple with a kid (always roaming around the background somewhere) who aren’t on the best of terms when the film starts. They’re not exactly thrilled to be sheltering in place together, but with limited time to plan and few options in which to continue to co-parent, they talk directly to the camera and explain the current state of affairs.  They also bicker…a lot.  If you’re averse to rapid-fire dialogue between arguing couples that has bite to it, best to steer clear of this acidic pair. 

As the months go by and the death toll rises, the two experience the lows of the darkest days when information was slim and slow to come as well as the highs of being forced to get to know one another again in a pressure-cooker situation.  It’s often two steps forward, one step back, though, because inevitably any goodwill built is dashed when either the man or the woman says something that makes the other bristle.  Real life tragedy enters the picture and the movie becomes a gripping glimpse at grief and the stages that follow the process and the processor of that emotion.  It’s all handled with a surprisingly light touch and what could have been a painful exposure of re-opening old wounds instead becomes a visit to the recent past through a wiser lens of knowing better.

I suppose you could skip Together if you really are at the end of your rope with pandemic talk, but I’d encourage you to bookmark this for a viewing later because there’s some wonderful work on display both in front of and behind the camera.  Directed by Stephen Daldry (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) who shares a co-directing credit with Justin Martin and written by Dennis Kelly (Black Sea), Together premiered in the UK as a television movie back in June, just a scant month after it’s 10-day shooting scheduled concluded.  Relying hard on monologues and fourth wall breaking to heighten the theatricality of the piece, it might also be tempting to write this off as a stage-y work better suited for a live audience, yet I never felt as if this was presented via the wrong medium.

What McAvoy and Horgan lack in physical chemistry they more than make up for in a sort of old-school “sparks flying”, anything you can do I can do better, one-upmanship and that comes across nicely throughout.  Just when you think McAvoy is getting the rosier side of a thorny subject, along comes Horgan with her own staggering monologue that puts her light years away from the razor-sharp comedy she’s known for.  Apart or together, the actors are riveting to watch and Daldry works with cinematographer Iain Struthers (Florence Foster Jenkins) to keep the movement of the camera smooth and minimal, unobtrusive in not breaking the flow of the words.

It’s a hard watch, I’m not going to lie, for a number of reasons, but none should preclude you from gathering to catch the film.  Though planned and broadcast as a television movie in the U.K., Together doesn’t have that waxy feel of British TV as it makes its way over to U.S. shores/audiences.  The performances alone make it worth a recommendation and that the actors have tackled a hot button topic and kept the flames stoked only makes it a more solid thumbs up in my book.

Movie Review ~ Candyman (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: For as long as the residents can remember, the housing projects of Chicago’s Cabrini Green neighborhood were terrorized by the word-of-mouth ghost story about a supernatural killer known as Candyman, easily summoned by those daring to repeat his name five times into a mirror. A decade after the last of the Cabrini towers were torn down, a visual artist’s chance encounter with a Cabrini Green old-timer exposes him to the tragically horrific nature of the true story behind the Candyman, unleashing a terrifyingly viral wave of violence that puts him on a collision course with his destiny

Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Tony Todd, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo, Vanessa Williams, Rebecca Spence, Kyle Kaminsky, Christiana Clark

Director: Nia DaCosta

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Even as the Delta Variant rages through the U.S. and hints of another shutdown begin to loom large, films that were delayed from a year ago are sliding into theaters and making their rescheduled dates and for that I’m grateful.  Of all the movies that were bumped around the calendar due to the original pandemic lockdown in 2020, I was most disappointed that producer Jordan Peele’s ‘spiritual sequel’ to 1992’s Candyman was affected because as a huge fan of the original I was looking forward to what Peele and director Nia DaCosta could do with this property.  More than that, I was intrigued to see what it was going to be in the first place.  We knew it wasn’t a remake, but was it a direct sequel, a stand-alone film, a re-imagining of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” that inspired the first movie?  We had to wait a whole year to find out but Peele (Us) and DaCosta kept us engaged along the way with creative trailers and morsels of hints that showed more of the movie yet still didn’t reveal all of their cards.

As it turns out, this is one of those films that was well worth the wait.  A rare delight that pays service to fans of the original while addressing a new generation of devotees that have come onboard over the years (and maybe during this last year alone), DaCosta’s Candyman picks at the fabric lining the jewel box the 1991 movie was placed in and uses it to craft a horrific new garment all its own.  There’s a distinct voice present throughout that isn’t just Peele’s with its direct or indirect societal symbolism but a generational one that lives, works, fears, and loves in the environment DaCosta and her crew probe to terrific results.  That it manages to cover a lot of ground in such a short time frame without ever feeling rushed is a testament to efficiency on all levels.

The original Cabrini Green towers have long since been torn down but their dark history remains nightmare material only spoken about in hushed whispers or, better yet, not at all.  Now, new housing has been built on the same site and after a brief prologue set in the late ‘70s we meet two new tenants of the gentrified Cabrini.  Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq) and her artist boyfriend Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Aquaman) are settling into their new digs when Brianna’s brother (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, The Kid Who Would Be King) tells them the story of Helen Lyle, a grad student that went crazy after visiting Cabrini looking for an urban legend known as Candyman.  With a hook for a hand, the killer was said to haunt the projects and called Cabrini his home, but Helen took the investigation too far, becoming obsessed with her own research, killing numerous people, and abducting a small child that almost died at her hands before she was finally burnt alive.  Scary stuff that Brianna doesn’t want to know about. (But viewers of the original know the story isn’t quite accurate…)

Once stunted artistically, the terrifying tale inspires Anthony in surprising ways.  Researching Candyman by visiting the old part of the neighborhood and meeting a long-time resident (Colman Domingo, Without Remorse), he comes away with a new zeal for expression, just in time for an art show at the gallery Brianna works at.  The piece he creates is a mirror and he provides instructions on how to ‘call forth’ the Candyman by saying his name five times to your reflection.  One unfortunate soul does it, then another, and before you know it, bloody death is everyone around Anthony…but is he to blame for all the carnage or is he simply fulfilling a destiny that started long ago and was never truly finished?  Perhaps a visit to his mother Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) will explain it all…

Originally written as a short story set in London’s tenement neighborhoods, the director of the 1992 film wisely moved the action to Chicago’s projects and it gave the film some credibility as a statement on how communities create their own legends.  Sometimes it is to protect themselves from the evil that lurks within but often it can be to keep the more wicked outsiders from entering.  Peele, DaCosta, and co-screenwriter Win Rosenfeld latch onto that notion and run with it, exploring how the tale of Candyman has evolved overtime and why it’s possible that a society might need a Candyman just as much as he needs them to believe in him.  It’s surprisingly not as tangled or heady as it could have been and the script isn’t interested in making more out of it than that. 

I also appreciated that while this new Candyman is brutal in its violence, much of it is restrained and either shown at a distance or just offscreen.  After the last year, many of us have seen death firsthand and so anything we see portrayed on film could never been as disgusting or horrific as what we’ve witnessed real people, not actors, doing to each other.  When it’s appropriate, DaCosta lets the audience have it but there’s ample build up to get to those moments of bloodshed.  Accompanied by stellar production design from Cara Brower (Our Friend), unique cinematography by John Guleserian (Love, Simon), and a nerve-jangling score courtesy of Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, all of the elements are there to keep you on the edge of your seat, breathless, waiting for the next shock to arrive.

There was a time when remakes of these old titles felt like betrayals of trust but when they’re handled with such intelligence and care like Candyman has been, I find that I can relax a little bit when the next one is announced and hope that future filmmakers learn a thing or two from it.  This is how you take a fan-favorite property and do something of your own with it, while at the same time allowing that previous film to live on (and thrive) because your film is equally as terrifying and well-crafted.  Sweets to the sweet is a famous bit of graffiti seen on the walls of Cabrini Green in the original film and that goes double for DaCosta and her crew.

2021 Bentonville Film Fest

This year has afforded me an excellent opportunity to “attend” a number of film festivals without ever leaving my hometown and how fun it was to get a chance to participate in a forward-thinking one such as the Bentonville Film Festival, now in its 7th year. Chaired by Oscar-winner Geena Davis and held in Bentonville, Arkansas and other areas of the Northwest part of the start, the week-long event aims to champion the underrepresented voices in media and they’ve routinely been heralded for making good on their commitment. One of the Top 10 film festivals reaching over 85,000 attendees each year, content includes Movies, TV, Digital Content, Books, Music, Games and Technology. With a limited time frame, I was able to screen five films available in the line-up, though as my preview piece indicated…I could have see a number more!

Coast 

A Spotlight Presentation to kick-off the 2021 Bentonville Film Festival, COAST is the first feature film for a lot of important people behind the scenes. Directors Jessica Hester and Derek Schweickart are helming their first full length movie off of screenwriter Cindy Kitagawa’s California coastal-set piece that has ample amounts of opportunity to explore coming of age-dom from new angles.  That it gets tangled up in too many side plots and secondary characters is unfortunate because when it does clear the playing field and just focus on one idea at a time it finds some remarkable truth in its storytelling.  I didn’t find enough of those moments here, despite a cast that feels tremendously ready to move in whatever direction Hester/Schweickart pointed.  Fatima Ptacek makes for a dynamic lead as a teen trying to find herself amidst family problems, friend issues, and navigating the rocky waters of adult love.  The scenes between her mom, played by Cristela Alonzo, and Oscar-winner Melissa Leo feel like they are from another script/movie entirely.  I think it has a good soundtrack…I’m not sure though because it all begins to blend together after a while.  It doesn’t feel as ‘cool curated’ as other indie productions with a similar aura.

Workhorse Queen

The second documentary I’ve seen this year that follows a former contestant of RuPaul’s Drag Race, WORKHORSE QUEEN winds up being the fresher of the two only because of its rather somber acknowledgement of the reality in reality television.  Mrs. Kasha Davis may not have won the show but watching her valiantly try to get on, stay on, then keep herself in the public eye after is a real lesson in gumption. Director Angela Washko has put together a doc with a good flow, perhaps just a hair longer than it has to be, that highlights the contributions of its star without resorting to self-serving promotion.  True, there’s a bit of ‘woe-is-me’ attitude at times that may grate on viewers but who doesn’t wish they were on the other side where the grass was greener.  For me it only served to humanize Davis more, along with stories of growing up and sorting out a complicated relationship with parents that both inspired and rejected who he was.       

The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu

Having recently rewatched The Joy Luck Club (and choking on my sobs through the last ten minutes) I was excited to see Lisa Lu starring in a movie at the Bentonville Film Festival.  As one of the mothers in that film and an esteemed actress in her own right, I knew I had to make time for THE DISAPPEARANCE OF MRS. WU in my schedule.  I should have let it disappear.  Look, I hate having to give a bad review in a short space for a movie that has good intentions, but this is a flimsy dud that doesn’t serve anyone involved at all well.  Director Anna Chi assembled several familiar faces of character actors for her film, but no one seems to be acting in the same movie…mostly because Chi throws in too many cliché plot mechanics to count on one hand.  The acting is down in the dumps too, some of it hopelessly amateur from newbies and painfully bad from seasoned veterans.  Don’t even get me started on the accent imposed on us by the half-sister of a late actress known for her work in a famous galactic franchise.  Though there is some semblance of beauty in the film’s resolution, that too is spoiled by Chi’s inability to end the film properly, extending a final image far too long and robbing whatever emotional impact was there from its purpose.

The Daphne Project

Even if THE DAPHNE PROJECT hadn’t turned out so well, you would have had to give co-writers/directors Zora Iman Crews and Alec Tibaldi some major credit for having the chutzpah to attempt a mockumentary that even strayed near the brilliance of 1996’s Waiting for Guffman.  There’s some parallels between Christopher Guest’s classic bit of hilarity and this gem which hints of a star in the making in Crews but the actress has something a bit more subversive up her sleeve that speaks to this generation of the self-obsessed only interested in self-promoting.  As a NYC actress that insinuates herself into a super off-Broadway production of “The Bacchae”, Crews is rip-roaringly funny but can turn on a dime to show expressive vulnerability…or is it all just a smart act Daphne puts on for the cameras?  The supporting cast can be shaky, with some struggling to keep up with Crews who is often sprinting far ahead of them but by and large this 67-minute indie maintains its solid state of comedic affairs.

I Was A Stranger

Actress Reiko Aylesworth moves behind the camera to direct her second short I WAS A STRANGER from a screenplay by April E. Brassard and the 17-minute piece benefits from its directors experience on serialized television.  Episodic in nature, the story of a woman fleeing her abusive husband plays like the final segment cut from an hour-long episode of primetime drama.  The little we know from the set-up actually works to the film’s advantage, giving star Elizabeth Rodriguez the opportunity to fill in these blanks for us with just her eyes and reactions to one-sided telephone conversations.  Pulled over near an RV community that regularly see outsiders stop by needing to escape their own lives, they welcome her and offer the kind of kinship she needs and protection she hasn’t felt in a while.  It’s a simple, slice of life story with good acting from its diverse cast.  I’d be interested in seeing this expanded to something more substantive, especially with the cast Aylesworth has assembled.   You can watch the film for free via Vimeo here.

Movie Review ~ The Night House

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Reeling from the unexpected death of her husband, a widow is left alone in the lakeside home he built for her and begins to uncover his disturbing secrets.

Stars: Rebecca Hall, Sarah Goldberg, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Evan Jonigkeit, Stacy Martin

Director: David Bruckner

Rated: R

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  When it came time to review The Night House, I did something I rarely, if ever, do.  I watched it again.  We don’t always get this luxury as critics to just fire up a film once more on our own schedule but for this particular film I had it at my disposal and was interested enough after the first watch to give it another look.  This was partly due to my love for all things spooky, set in upstate New York, at/on a lake, and, like the titular dwelling, has more to it than you think at first glance.  And it shouldn’t have come as a great surprise anyway, because it stars Rebecca Hall from The Awakening, one of the best ghost stories of the last decade and it’s directed by David Bruckner who took audiences to The Ritual, a creepy forest-set nightmare that viewers continue to discover on Netflix.

We meet the house before we meet Beth.  It’s a modern designed feast for the eyes, not overly flashy but not exactly modest either.  Hand built and designed by her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit, Together Together) and overlooking a serene lake, it was meant to be their dream home…and was until he committed suicide shortly before the film begins.  A teacher, Beth (Hall, Holmes & Watson) is adjusting to her new normal, but not easily.  It doesn’t help that she is awoken at night by strange noises and has picked up Owen’s old habit for sleepwalking, either.  Her best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg, The Dark Knight Rises) is encouraging and tries to be hands-off in Beth’s healing process but isn’t above saying the wrong thing by mistake and feeling guilty about it after. 

Muddy footprints leading from a moored boat on their dock to the house are the first physical sign to Beth that something supernatural may be visiting her and the previous hardcore skeptic begins to doubt herself the more the signs point to a realized presence.  A chance glance through Owen’s phone lands on a picture of herself that she doesn’t recognize…because it’s not her.  This discovery opens Beth up to finding out more about Owen, and herself, than she could have ever imagined…increasing the intensity of the night terrors she is encountering and ramping up the danger closing in on her.

This is a well-constructed film built from solid material and I think the second watch of mine only confirmed that.  While getting nitpicky could have you asking where Beth’s relatives or extended family are during this significant life crisis or if she has any other friends that would be stopping by aside from Claire, the intimacy of the small cast make the action that happens within the running time that much more tense.  “Everyone’s got secrets.” says Claire to Beth after she shows her the picture of the woman (Stacy Martin, Archive) on Owen’s phone and often during the film you aren’t sure who is holding something back…making it hard to trust anyone.

The entirety of The Night House hinges on Hall’s ability to carry a woman already teetering on the brink of darkness through this trial of faith in her lost loved one.  It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Hall’s rounded performance is spot-on and, while often making the less-obvious choice, is consistently giving some kind of energy back out into the space she inhabits.  The same goes for Goldberg who takes the best friend role to a more complex place than I’ve ever seen it.  We’ve all been in a place where we struggle to express our true feelings to a friend and often that wears on us, coming out in strange ways.  Goldberg harnesses this range so believably and with such naturalism that I think I would have been as interested in a movie just about the two women taking a road trip together. Completing a triumvirate of strong female performances is Martin’s skittish other woman. I’m not all together sure that Martin is destined for lasting greatness in this biz but she’s wonderfully cast her, especially against Hall’s disbelieving wife with shell-shocked eyes.  

What makes The Night House so ultimately rewarding is the resolution and what kind of message its sending, but to go into those details I’d have to drop a spoiler or two, so we’ll hold back for now.  Just know that while the finale starts to descend into your typical scare fest (and the movie is often quite scary throughout), the true meaning of it all is contained in a picture that’s far bigger than you think.  When it’s revealed, for once it isn’t a letdown but a surprisingly touching bit of harmony between mind and spirit – and how often does that occur in genre films such as this?

Movie Review ~ Respect

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The rise of Aretha Franklin’s career from a child singing in her father’s church’s choir to her international superstardom.

Stars: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Mary J. Blige, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Saycon Sengbloh, Hailey Kilgore, Tate Donovan, Skye Dakota Turner, Heather Headley, Leroy McClain

Director: Liesl Tommy

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 145 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  The heat in St. Louis, MO brought me into the theater to see Respect and the hurricane-level rain and winds nearly sent me right back to the streets when the power went out during a preview for the new James Bond film No Time to Die.  Having missed the press screening for this during my vacation, I was determined to see this much-hyped Aretha Franklin film in theaters as soon as possible because I had a notion this wouldn’t be just another standard biopic which recounted the same story.  So, when the power went out and the theater ushers said we could either wait fifteen minutes or get our money back, I thought: “Hmm…wait a bit or leave in the torrential rain?”  Take a guess what we did.

I’m not going to lie to you, Respect is largely your formulaic story of the rise of a legendary singer from humble beginnings to superstardom and all the bumps and tumbles along the way.  Then again, isn’t that how it all happened in the first place?  How else is this story supposed to be told?  People are always out to complain about these types of films but there are some entities and life stories that just have to be told in a particular way and you just have to sit there for over two hours and listen to it…and if you don’t like it, you’re clearly not a fan of the artist in the first place.  The movie wasn’t made for you to begin with – so why are you reviewing the film? 

I happen to be a huge fan of Aretha Franklin and trusted that when the Queen of Soul hand picked Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson to play her, she knew what she was doing.  Even though a TV biography of her life starring Cynthia Erivo played earlier this year (to no audience or critical notice), it wasn’t approved by the Franklin estate so Respect is the one “true” story that should be considered from the point of view of the woman herself.  While Franklin, who died in 2018, didn’t live to see the movie released, her presence hangs greatly over the film and there’s ample reverence paid to her during the credits. 

Frankly, I was glad we didn’t have the messiness of the obtrusive bookends to open the film that awkwardly take us back in time to Aretha’s childhood.  Instead, screenwriters Tracy Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri just start at the very beginning (a very good, oh you know..) and show little Aretha (powerhouse Skye Dakota Turner) being woken up by Rev. C. L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey) to sing for his friends at one of his famous Saturday night parties. Asked how old she was, family friend Clara Ward (Broadway’s Heather Headley) says “She’s 10, but her voice is going on 30.” and then she proves it loud and clear.  It’s a sign that the monumental vocal instrument we all knew was always present.  Estranged from Aretha’s father, her musical mother (Audra McDonald, Beauty and the Beast) encouraged her daughter to always demand to be treated with dignity and to say “no” when she doesn’t want to do something.  It will come in handy down the road.

As Aretha grows into adulthood (the film largely skips over the children she has at 12 and 14, a sensitive subject Franklin herself was always reluctant to discuss) and begins to have a mind of her own, the larger-than-life voice starts to reflect in her attitude.  Signing with Columbia records but producing no hits, she eventually has to leave the comforts of home and the care of her father in order to record the kind of music she needs in order to have a hit record.  By this time, Aretha (Hudson, Cats) is with Ted White (Marlon Wayans, On the Rocks), a relationship that will provide most of the rocky slips and skids onscreen.  The higher Aretha climbs and the more famous people she meets, the more she tries to keep the peace with the men in her life that jostle for position as alpha in their relationship…even though she is always the Queen.

While it may seem exhausting to consider watching another story of a woman demurring to men that don’t have her best interest in mind and who often stays in relationships that cause her physical and emotional pain, it’s important to understand the context of the time and the woman living through it.  That’s what Respect and the script does better than the other films telling similar stories.  There’s far more attention paid in the direction and performances into pitching these characters just right, so that they don’t become just another battered wife, unloving parent, or ego-centric man.  That’s what keeps it from droning on as it passes the two-hour mark.

Speaking of which, the film makes it to its long length because it takes its time with the music and gives audiences full throttle versions of Franklin’s greatest hits.  What’s better, on more than one occasion we are taken step by step through the creation of the songs from a songwriting perspective as well.  Want to know where the earworm chorus for “Respect” comes from?  You’ll find out here.  Even Franklin’s historic performance of “Amazing Grace” at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles is recreated to perfection by Hudson who does new wonders with her voice as she reigns in her tendency to oversing for this most important of roles.

I guess now is as good a time as any to talk about Hudson and the incredible work that’s going on in Respect.  Going into the movie, I felt like I had a good read on how Hudson would play the role but I wasn’t quite prepared for the transformation she made into Franklin.  The way she carries herself, the way she sings, the way she speaks, it’s a head-to-toe creation by the actress that is modeled after her idol and it’s less of an impression and more of a recreation of greatness.  Those disputing the performance need to go back and watch the film again, particularly Hudson’s gut-wrenching bottoming-out scenes when Franklin was at her lowest point in relation to substance abuse.  It should be more than enough to earn her an Oscar nomination…deservedly so. 

The rest of the cast largely rises to Hudson’s level as well, even Wayans who I was initially skeptical of.  While he didn’t make it over the finish like in my good graces due to his tendency to use a strange hollow voice of speech to suggest, age?, maybe? but for the most part he’s better here than he’s been in his last twelve films combined.  Whitaker feels like he’s working himself toward another Oscar nomination in something…not in this, but something.  I’ve gone on record not loving Blige’s (Rock of Ages) acting and I still think it’s iffy but her cameo role as Dinah Washington was perfection.  I’m not totally understanding where the fanaticism for Marc Maron (Joker) is for his contributions to the movie – I like Maron’s podcast but the acting here just seems like an extension of the man instead of a stretch of the man’s talent.

Having suffered through a number of these types of films (onstage as well!), Respect could easily have found its way to a Broadway theater or, shudder, a bus and truck tour.  I’m glad those in power took the time to craft a well-tailored movie for its Oscar-winning star and even if it presents a somewhat sanitized view of the singer – it also shows the darker times as well.  Even the areas the film glosses over are at least introduced.  It may not stay there long but they are indicated…other films coughcoughBohemianRhapsodycoughcough completely skip over major happenings in order for their (still living) talent to look good.  Show some respect for the Queen of Soul and the filmmakers of Respect and catch this one in theaters.

Fantasia 2021 – Part 1

Christmas has come early to http://www.TheMNMovieMan.com. Or rather, October has arrived ahead of schedule, if the slate of films that I have lined up to see at the 25th Fantasia International Film Festival is any indication.

Welcoming genre films from all over the globe, the nearly three week festival is mainly made up of foreign horror, martial arts, and crime movies that might wind up through no fault of their own getting totally passed over for major distribution here in the United States. Naturally, a gathering of something this good has to originate in Canada and I’m ever so grateful to my friends in the North for extending me an invite to virtually attend the festivities. From shorts to full-length features and even a few documentaries thrown in for good measure, there’s something for every kind of fan of the genre and subgenres found in this area of the movie aisle.

Check out Fantasia’s website for all the details on how you can purchase individual screenings and a whole lot more. Here’s Part 1 of my adventure in Fantasia — and stay tuned for more!

On the Third Day

My first film out of the gate and initiation into the Fantasia International Film Festival was this Argentinian horror-fantasy that leans heavy on style and arresting visuals but can often fall a tad short on substantive value where the story is concerned.  A young mother and her son are traveling down a road one dark night, the same night a man has been contacted about transporting an important package via the same road.  An accident occurs and after the dust settles, only the man is found.  The woman, her child, a stranded motorist, and the contents of the package have all vanished…but three days later the woman returns and it’s up to her to put back the pieces of her memory to figure out what happened and where her son is.  Star Mariana Anghileri gives a heroic performance as the mother trapped by a sense that she knows deep down she won’t like the answers she seeks but has to keep pressing on anyway, even as more bodies pile up around her.  As the film progresses, it begins to get clearer where this is headed and that’s when it starts to slow its roll…but director Daniel de la Vega doesn’t let up on a persistent use of mirrors and camera tricks to both scare and wow the viewer.  Even as it goes slack, it’s never not worth putting your eyeballs on.

Alien on Stage

As a lifelong fan of Alien, you better believe that I already was quite familiar with the live stage show in the UK that created a sensation when it played for one night in a small West End theater.  Making return engagements and becoming one of the theater’s most popular events, this is the little community theater show that could and now the documentary ALIEN ON STAGE is available to show those that didn’t have the chance to see it what all the fuss was about.  Put on largely by a cast of bus drivers in Dorset as part of a charity fundraiser, the show only attracted 20 audience members on its first night but eventually came to the attention of super show fan Danielle Kummer who helped raise money through crowdfunding to bring the show (and its gobsmacked mostly middle-aged amateur cast members) to the West End.  Kummer then teamed up with Lucy Harvey to document the rehearsals up through opening night.  Getting to know the cast is a joy and is almost like a real life Waiting for Guffman, only with less barbed intent at making fun of its subjects.  Harvey and Kummer can obviously see the amateur nature of the cast but also recognize the way it brings people together.  The payoff is certainly watching clips of the opening night performance when all the hard work is finally seen and, let me tell you, I was absolutely screaming with laughter.  It’s great if you know the movie inside and out like I do but even if you don’t know the film you’re bound to enjoy this one.

Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break

This was a total blind watch for me, pressured into doing so because as soon as I signed in for my first day of the festival, I already saw this was expiring in a day.  Something with such a quick turnaround must be worth a look, yeah?  Yes, actually, it is.  This is a special kind of film that doesn’t always work the way that it should, but PAUL DOOD’S DEADLY LUNCH BREAK is a wickedly funny satire that takes its time to earn the right to go off the rails at the proper time.  Had it just dove off the deep end too early, without first letting us know these eccentric characters beyond their gangly exteriors, we may not have felt the impact of the fissure that sends #TomMeeten’s lovable loser with big dreams into a tailspin.  More than once, director Nick Gillespie coaxes the film back from the edge of being too dark by injecting his movie with a brilliant bit of casting in an over-the-top supporting role that complements Meeten’s mild-mannered one quite nicely.  There are some very funny passages in this one – you can easily imagine it becoming a word-of-mouth hit with genre fans.

Coming Home in the Dark

Dark.  Dark dark dark.  That’s definitely what this tense title from New Zealand is through and through and I wasn’t quite prepared for just how pitch black its soul was.  Well-acted and frequently a riveting ride, COMING HOME IN THE DARK is a mobile home invasion thriller which finds a family being held hostage by two dangerous men and forced to go along with them on a highway to hell.  It’s mostly a four-person show, with brooding Daniel Gillies behind the wheel as his silent partner Matthias Luafutu keeps an eye on things in the backseat.  Husband and wife Erik Thomson and Miriama McDowell go through the wringer with your expected escape attempts and frequent near-misses but that doesn’t mean you should let your guard down thinking you know what the expect next.  Director James Ashcroft isn’t above flipping the table on your when you are least expecting it (I had to rewind a few scenes because I missed key happenings, they come so fast) and that helps the movie maintain its tension for most of the drive.  The themes and some of the violence might be too much for some but those that enjoy the grit and pointy edges of prickly genre films like this will be fueled up and ready to go.

Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It

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.

Glasshouse

If you’d never seen 1971’s The Beguiled or its inferior remake from 2017 you might find GLASSHOUSE quite the concept: A small group of mostly young women rule the roost on a patch of green oasis in the middle of a wasteland.  With the rest of the surrounding area decimated by a amnesia-inducing plague known as The Shred, the air quality within the glasshouse the women live in keep them from losing their memory…at least for a time.  Keeping trespassers out by becoming a good shot with a rifle, they use the bodies as compost and only procreate when necessary.  Into this mix comes an injured man who quickly drives a wedge between one of the women and the rest of her family, resulting in chaos, deceit, and death.  Even with its familiarity to those previous movies, director Kelsey Egan gives this South African offering a nice shine and her script with Emma Lungiswa De Wet is rife with detail about time and place that help create this world we’re supposed to be immersed in.  Several clever twists near the end could have been beefed up more for a greater impact but there’s no need to throw major stones at this this Glasshouse.    

Night of the Living Dicks

You want style?  Watch the first five or six minutes of this short film from Finland, a horror-comedy involving a woman that is fed up with getting unsolicited X-rated pictures on her phone from nasty boys and goes on a TV show to talk about it.  As she’s leaving, she grabs the wrong coat and finds a pair of glasses in the pocket that allows her to see men as, well, dicks.  Like…actual…dicks.  Up until we get our first look at a peckerhead, director Ilja Rautsi has positively showered us with black and white noir style that will astound you.  It’s gorgeous to look at and capably apes not just those ‘40s crime thrillers but the George A. Romero zombie flicks from fifty years ago.  Unfortunately, once the dicks make their appearance the film takes a gonzo turn that is more statement piece than stylistic showcase.  Visuals get ugly and the storytelling takes a muddy left turn.  A sad ending to a great beginning.

Tomb of the Blind Dead

Spanish-Portuguese horror film TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD from 1971 was a special screening at Fantasia in honor of its 50th anniversary and was presented in its uncut version that was fully restored by Synapse Films.  While director Amando De Ossorio’s film looks excellent in this new restoration, it takes positively forever to get going and then when it does it goes nowhere interesting.  The first of several films starring some undead Knights Templar who track their victims by their heartbeats, this features a lot of walking around ruins, talking about walking around ruins, and women talking with other women about men they don’t want to have sex with.  Oh, and there’s a really ugly rape scene in it…so thanks for restoring that.  Some of the visuals of the undead rising from their grave and riding on horseback may give you goosebumps but fans of these foreign horror films will be needing a bit more to get their blood flowing.

Movie Review ~ Annette

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of Henry, a stand-up comedian with a fierce sense of humor and Ann, a singer of international renown. In the spotlight, they are the perfect couple, healthy, happy, and glamourous. The birth of their first child, Annette, a mysterious girl with an exceptional destiny, will change their lives.

Stars: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Rila Fukushima, Devyn McDowell, Angèle, Rebecca Dyson-Smith, Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Natalie Mendoza

Director: Leos Carax

Rated: R

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Well now here’s a film for all of you out there that have been wondering where all the art-house oddities went over the past year.  I’m as big a fan as the rest of you indie darlings of the avant-garde go-for-broke attitudes of daring directors and usually am up for the challenge of an askew film that tests narrative boundaries so there’s very little reason why a movie like Annette wouldn’t have been appealing to me.  To top it all off, it’s a musical for heaven’s sake. And not the kind of musical you think of when you hear ‘musical’ but more of a modern take on a rock opera that’s clearly been well conceived and is undeniably executed to the max and then some.

So why the low score for Annette, the English language debut of notoriously wild and crazy French director Leos Carax, a filmmaker that I have heard so much about but had managed to never encounter until now?  Why the overall thumbs down to the movie with a score by Sparks (the cult band comprised of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who also wrote the script and are fresh off of a Edgar Wright-directed documentary of their own) who contribute a dizzying array of eclectic tones and tunes for over 90% of the nearly two and a half hour run time?  Well, sometimes you just have to know when to say when with a concept/idea and Annette never knows when to stop, nor does it seem to understand its created a central character so remote they almost manage to escape from the film entirely by the end.

Bad boy comedian Henry (Adam Driver, Marriage Story) and rising star opera singer Ann (Marion Cotillard, Assassin’s Creed) are the fresh-faced power couple that sell magazines and net viewers when featured on television gossip shows but at the start of the film the din of the outside world barely makes a rumble in their hemisphere of passion.  Her serenity calms his darker nature while he stokes her romantic desire, making her a better performer.  As her star rises, his eventually declines but not before Ann gives birth to their daughter, Annette.  Born, as we’ll come to learn, with a special gift that manifests itself later in her life, the child will be their greatest success as a couple as well as their ultimate downfall.

There is of course more to the plot…but not much and I’m only leaving out pieces that will spoil the events occurring in the second half (second act?) of the mostly sung through film.  A point of clarity, when I say sung-through I mean that the actors and background players use music to enhance their dialogue.  So, it’s not all songs, per se, but that talk-sing with music underneath that gives the movie a definite gas pedal it can lean on or ease off at will.  This has the effect of some rather chilling moments that Sparks creates with their music and which Carax uses to sometimes thrilling effect when it seemingly jumps in out of nowhere.  From the very beginning of the movie which has the actors as themselves gathering together before going their separate ways, apparently to “start” the music from Sparks sets the mood and it’s the strongest element to be found within Annette.

Yet the music alone can’t save a tired retread of a plot concerning the ego-maniacal male overshadowed (through no fault of her own) by a woman that winds up paying for this perceived sleight against his pride.  Casting Driver in this part (and Driver taking it) seems like too easy of a slam-dunk and the film suffers from Driver’s heavyweight approach to an already lumbering character.  It’s no secret that I struggle with seeing the overarching appeal of Driver but even I can see a fine actor from ten paces and Driver has what it takes to create interesting characters – but not this time. The character has so many coarse turns that he’s a hot potato you can’t get anywhere near, nor by the end do you want to. Cotillard fares slightly better, only in a role that isn’t as challenging and frustratingly simplistic in its creation by the writers.  The only other actor to play a major role is Simon Helberg (Florence Foster Jenkins) as Ann’s accompanist and former lover and Helberg at least feels like he understood the assignment. 

Then we get to Annette herself.  There’s no easy way to say this and it’s not that huge of a spoiler so we’ll just get it out there.  Carax has cast Annette as…a doll.  A red-haired doll that looks like a felt marionette with the strings digitally removed.  I’m not saying Annette looks like Chucky from the Child’s Play movies but…she definitely looks like a distant relative.  The doll is just flat out creepy and it’s not something you can easily get over and look past, especially when Driver and Cotillard are cooing over it as if it were the real thing.  The idea of the doll begins to make sense the more the film plays and especially as it reaches its ending scene which is actually, finally, incredibly satisfying. The struggle to get there…it’s rough.

This is one of those films that the studio will want to get people into theaters to see because there you’ve made the effort to get out of your home, paid money for a ticket, likely gotten some concessions, and have made a commitment to seeing the endeavor through.  Basically, you’re less likely to give up on it once Annette starts to feed on its weird fruits of the forest.  Once this becomes available on Amazon Prime near the end of August, though, I’d love to see how long viewers watch the film before changing the channel because the impulse will definitely be there.  I can’t outright recommend this one, despite some rather lovely visuals and that occasional trill up the spine when a song hits just right.  Like Driver and Cotillard who often sing slightly off-key (Cotillard’s opera solos were dubbed, though), the film never stays on the right note for too long.

Movie Review ~ The Suicide Squad

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Supervillains Harley Quinn, Bloodsport, Peacemaker and a collection of nutty cons at Belle Reve prison join the super-secret, super-shady Task Force X as they are dropped off at the remote, enemy-infused island of Corto Maltese.

Stars: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Michael Rooker, Alice Braga, Pete Davidson, Joaquín Cosío, Juan Diego Botto, Storm Reid, Nathan Fillion, Taika Waititi, Steve Agee, Flula Borg

Director: James Gunn

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Oh, sweet swampland did I hate 2016’s Suicide Squad.  A real trash heap of a film from a talented director with a stellar line-up of A+ leads, a B+ supporting cast, and a B- set of comic-book characters to work with.  No, the Suicide Squad wasn’t an area of DC Comics that I was familiar with before I saw the film, but you can see the attraction fans had for these oddballs – it’s the same reason why the similarly jokey (but far better) Deadpool went over so well with audiences.  People like to root for the underdog, even if, and maybe even sometimes especially if, they are the villain. 

While that PG-13 rated film failed to capitalize on the red-carpet Wonder Woman had rolled out just months earlier, Warner Brothers wasn’t quite ready to throw the towel in and they made a bold move by following-up the first film with a sequel that also serves as a semi-reboot in the process.  Nabbing director James Gunn after he was briefly axed by Disney from Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, the studio gained a legion of fans from the Marvel franchise who rejoiced that someone had plucked one of their favorite directors up after he had been (apparently) done wrong.

The resulting effort is The Suicide Squad and after five years it looks like Warner Brothers and DC Comics are nearly back in business, but not quite yet.  With the success of an R-rated cut of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the studio is more comfortable letting their films carry that restricted rating because it has proven to be what fans want.  (It also doesn’t deter children from seeing the film.  At my press screening, I can’t tell you how “overjoyed” I was to see so many parents bring their little children to this hard-R film.  Congrats, all!)  With an abundance of grisly gore and language that would make the Squad from sanitized feeling 2016 blush, this crew is way more amped up and ready to play than the previous iteration and that admittedly makes for a more entertaining ride. 

Audiences are in for a surprise at the beginning of the film because nothing is quite what it seems…or how the movie has been marketed up until now.  I’ll leave it at that, and you can read between the lines in my review if you want to know more about what that means in terms of who is in the film and for how long.  Returning from the original film is Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop), leading a group of skilled supervillains including Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, Jack Reacher) to an island nation on the orders of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom).  The leader of the country with friendly relations to the United States has been murdered, along with his family and now a top-secret weapon is at risk of falling into the hands of revolutionaries who don’t know what kind of power they could wield.

New to the team are Peacemaker (John Cena, in his second franchise film of the summer after F9: The Fast Saga) and Bloodsport (Idris Elba, Concrete Cowboy), two alpha males forced to work together who each try to outdo one another when it comes to killing the most bad guys.  Add in King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone, Creed), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian, Prisoners) and your rag-tag team of the strange and unusual but highly deadly is mostly complete.  They’ll find they need to rely on each other and their individual strengths (some they were born with, some thrust upon them) when faced with an enemy that’s truly out of this world. 

It’s easy to draw a line from the misfit crew in Guardians of the Galaxy all the way over to the denizens of the maximum-security prisons where The Suicide Squad does its recruiting, so Gunn makes a natural fit for these proceedings.  What doesn’t quite work all the time is the film’s overcompensation for having an elevated rating this time around.  Brandishing it’s more adult rating instead of doling it out with some style, it’s often sloppy and slappy instead of sharp like it should be.  The first fifteen minutes of the movie are legitimately terrible, and I was honestly dreading what was to come next, but then Gunn makes a move I didn’t see coming and suddenly I was interested again.  From that point on I felt like more engaging characters were brought in with increasingly raised stakes. 

By now, it’s official that Elba is a bona-fide star and this only hammers that point home.  How they missed the window of opportunity to have him take over as James Bond is simply beyond me (or is it not too late?).  He can do action, drama, comedy, you name it and he gets the chance to flex all those muscles here and then some.  In her third outing as the demented former flame of the Joker, Robbie continues to fine tune the role and even if 2020’s Birds of Prey was a better showcase, she’s no second banana here either.  I was left a little cold by Cena earlier this summer in F9: The Fast Saga but he’s a lot of fun here as an all-business killer for hire that does it all in the name of peace.  Gunn’s casting of Stallone as the Great White Shark looking for “num-num” is inspired and he easily steals the show with the least number of (full and coherent) sentences spoken out of anyone.  Kudos also to Davis for truly going for it this time out.  Davis rarely gets the chance to play these kinds of women and as morally challenged as Amanda Waller was in the 2016 film, she’s far more in the muck of it all in this one.

I guess my biggest stumbling block with both this film and its predecessor is that I just haven’t yet warmed to this branch of the DC Universe.  While I found this team to be much easier to get along with than the last one, I still don’t like the vibe that has permeated both movies.  A little of that same vibe was even present in the Guardians films so maybe it’s just a case of preferring my superheroes/villains more on the traditional side of things and less on the outskirts of society.  The Suicide Squad can hold its head high because it rights many of the wrongs that were done back in 2016, but it also needs to reconcile the fact that this team can’t even hold a candle to the likes of Batman and Superman in my book.