Movie Review ~ The Passenger (La pasajera)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of strangers sharing a ride has their trip interrupted when the driver hits a woman hiking in the dark of night. They decide to help her but quickly learn that something is wrong and that they shouldn’t have let her in at all.
Stars: Ramiro Blas, Cecilia Suárez, Paula Gallego, Cristina Alcázar
Director: Raúl Cerezo & Fernando González Gómez
Rated: NR
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: When so many horror movies look like they aren’t even trying, it’s easy to feel like throwing a little affection toward a film (and filmmakers) with a point of view and affinity for the genre. That’s why an offering like The Passenger (La pasajera) is so welcome while presenting a bit of a problem when reviewing at the same time. Is The Passenger a cut above the rest, the lame straight-to-streaming trash fests with poor effects, terrible acting, and no creativity around the plot? Sure. There’s a slickness to Raúl Cerezo & Fernando González Gómez’s gooey creature feature that is fun to watch unfold…just not for a full 90 minutes.

As we come out the other side of pandemic filmmaking, with projects that were greenlit before/during the global lockdown, I find that there is a healthy supply of “good idea” genre movies that can’t totally justify their feature run time. What starts as a great concept, with tight pacing and overly decent thrills, begins to lose air around the 50–60-minute mark, and the directors can do little to gather that momentum back. The Passenger is an excellent example of a package with all the right elements (unique make-up, lively cast, creepy location, inspired direction), just overstuffed with plot to the point of exasperation.

Were it not for his ‘dead-eye’ and dated views on dynamics between the sexes, mature rideshare driver Blasco (Ramiro Blas) might be the ladies’ man he envisions. Sadly, the former frontman of a rock band is relegated to lame flirtations with any female he encounters during long treks between towns in his retro caravan. On this trip, he’s ferrying a woman purporting to be visiting a loved one (though her wig masking a bald head indicates otherwise) and a scarred daughter being hauled between towns by her mother to her father’s home after typical teen behavior has made her unmanageable. All four won’t have to worry much about the final destination because the opening moments have shown us a strange presence has landed in the remote woods they are traveling through, slimy sediments that love warm hosts to latch onto.

Encountering someone on the side of the road that has met up with some of this goopy gross-ness, the caravan unwisely takes them in, hoping to get them medical attention, but, as all of these stories go, they’ve only made things worse. As the creature overtakes the group and sends them all sprawling through the unfamiliar terrain, defeating the initial organism will soon be a secondary concern when there is doubt about who among them might be infected and waiting to strike. Much flesh flinging and bloody business abound while running for safety, forming surprising alliances, and avoiding a growing mass of nasty parasites.

I can’t stress enough the goodwill I feel overall toward The Passenger. Even with a scaled budget, the filmmakers have made it look far better than movies made and released here with triple the money. I wouldn’t doubt this directing team gets nabbed by Blumhouse or another group to helm a project soon. The cast, especially Blas, is terrific, and that first hour is a **pun incoming** joyride. Then we get to that final half-hour, and there are problems. Cerezo & González Gómez start to gild that lily when it was already just fine the way it was. Most viewers will welcome that extra dose of creature mayhem but never underestimate the power of holding back a bit more. That would have made The Passenger a proper thrill ride.   

Movie Review ~ PVT CHAT

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An internet gambler living in NYC becomes fixated on a cam girl from San Francisco. His obsession reaches a boiling point when fantasy materializes in reality on a rainy Chinatown street.

Stars: Peter Vack, Julia Fox, Buddy Duress, Keith Poulson, Buddy Duress, Nikki Belfiglio, Kevin Moccia, David White

Director: Ben Hozie

Rated: NR

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: When you hear the term “sad movie” you almost instantly think of the kind of film where someone is valiantly battling an incurable disease while their bereft family and friends look on with glistening eyes.  These predictable weepies have the desired effect (on you and me, let’s be clear) and tear-jerkers like Steel Magnolias or Terms of Endearment might wring the sobs from your lungs but even they manage to leave you with a bit of a smile.  All is not ever completely lost, even in the darkest of sad endings.  On the other side of the Kleenex box are the films that can send us into a kind of funk that can ruin a day.  These are movies like Requiem for a Dream, with so blistering in their outlook that all that will break their moody curse is the anti-venom of the sunniest comedy you can find or the sprightliest Disney film you can withstand.  You need your medicine, and you need it fast or else the blackness left by the filmmakers could overwhelm you.  It really can be that awful when the movie has hit the most sensitive of buttons on your psyche.

While I wouldn’t call PVT CHAT, a grungy bit of gack of a film, depressing, it’s definitely one of the saddest movies I’ve experienced in a long time.  The characters are sad, the look of the movie is sad, even the usually vibrant New York City streets look like they’re aching to go unnoticed in writer/director Ben Hozie’s uggo film that wants to be edgy but winds up feeling like an exercise in boundary pushing.  Aside from it being shot like a grotesque underground snuff film much of the time, it skates by with the thinnest of plots.  Undoubtedly aiming to lure audiences in with the promise of its explicit nudity, it achieves its goal of making you so uncomfortable that you want to look away but doesn’t have any worthy filler content in between the exposed genitals that make it compelling viewing.

You’ll know right away if PVT CHAT is for you as Hozie opens on Jack (Peter Vack) having a, uh, intimate moment with himself while conversing through his laptop with internet cam girl Scarlet (Julia Fox) who belittles him, wants to put a cigarette out on his tongue, and in general gives him the dominating treatment he is paying for. The scene is graphic and startling, but it quickly accomplishes an introduction of sorts to the characters that sit at the center of an increasingly banal screenplay involving losers, scams, artists, loser-artists, scam-artists, and losers that scam through cam…though not always in ways that are immediately clear.

About to be kicked out of his comfortable apartment after his roommate dies, Jack’s job apparently is playing poker online, but it obviously isn’t making him enough cash to pay his rent.  Or it could be he’s spending it all on sessions with Scarlet, a San Francisco-based dominatrix that becomes his obsession, mostly because she’s open to doing more than get down to business and talks to him like a person rather than a dollar sign.  Wanting to impress her, he lies about his profession and pretends to be a tech wiz creating a ludicrous new way of communicating (I won’t even say the name here, but it rivals the equally snort-inducing “Brain Box” from Bliss) and whether she truly buys it or not isn’t the point, she’s just that good at pretending she does.

The point is actually this.  He’s a loser but doesn’t know it and after seeing her paintings and getting a peek at her life when the cameras are turned off we get the impression she might be an actual winner…so the longer the two talk and after its revealed they really share the same zip code, you root for her to unplug her connection to Jack and find a new way to fund her dreams.  Yet Hozie keeps PVT CHAT going for longer than that, subjecting Scarlet (and Fox) to more lurid objectification and the audience to drab plot machinations and pointless scenes like an art show where bread is the main ingredient, and a voice keeps that repeating “Mic Check!” on a loop.  All meant to show that Jack is willing to push aside what little he does have in the way of friends and prospects for a woman he only thinks he knows.

Hozie floats some sort of business around a money scheme between Jack and a house painter hoping to send his kid to college but it’s all too much for a barely 90-minute movie to support and still give proper time to its leads.  Some credit has to go to Vack and Fox for really laying it all out there and not merely taking off their clothes but…going there.  To everyone complaining that only women are asked to do questionable things onscreen…Vack’s appearance in PVT CHAT seems to be a rebuttal to that.  He holds nothing back (while holding one important thing) and that he does it in front of Fox speaks to the level of trust the two actors must have had in each other but the director.  Making a big splash last year in Uncut Gems, Fox doesn’t quite score the same points again because she’s more of a pawn than a player, but you can absolutely see the potential for more if given a role that isn’t built around her appearance.  The best scenes in the movie are when the camera is on her face, catching a reaction shot to one of her “real life” interactions with people she knows.  It’s a tough break that these actors are pretty terrible, and the camera set-up often looks like the actors are holding it in their laps, but that her spark shines through all that is something to take serious note of.

Never one to be embarrassed by flesh on film or taboo subjects, I was still really put off PVT CHAT and I had to ask myself often if it was the explicit nature of the material/visuals that I was having such a problem with or if it was something else.  For me, it wound up being that the rest of the movie was so grimy, creaky and unresolved in several areas that these extremely graphic sequences felt undeserved and, therefore, made me as an audience member uncomfortable.  It truly feels sleazy, like something we shouldn’t be watching…and I don’t think you should even bother.

Movie Review ~ The Wall of Mexico


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A wealthy Mexican-American family decides to build a wall around their ranch to stop townspeople from stealing their well water, which is rumored to have unusual properties.

Stars: Esai Morales, Mariel Hemingway, Jackson Rathbone, Alex Meneses, Carmela Zumbado, Marisol Sacramento, Xander Berkeley, Moises Arias

Director: Zachary Cotler & Magdalena Zyzak

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’ve mentioned it here before but I think it’s worth repeating here: at film festivals, it pays to have good time management skills.  That’s really the only way you’re going to maximize your full potential of seeing as much as you can in the often short time frame that is allotted for screenings.  Apart from choosing your films carefully, you need to make sure you’re also selecting the right films at the correct time of day so your energy is matched with what you’re seeing.  It doesn’t always work as well as it should when you factor in availability and sheer unavoidable bouts of fatigue but when everything lines up you’re in for a gold star viewing experience.

At the 2019 Twin Cities Film Fest, I was having trouble making my schedule work and finding that I had a gap of time that went unaccounted for.  Then I realized that if I moved a few things around, I could start earlier in the day and add another film to my list, which is how The Wall of Mexico began as a simple gap filler but wound up being one of the more interesting and intriguing films I saw. Remember, this was back in October 2019 when all we had to worry about, pre-COVID, fiery protests, and the upcoming election were the harsh regulations being imposed against immigrations into the US.  So a movie with a title like The Wall of Mexico was bound to pique some interest at the outset and the good news is that writer/co-director Zachary Cotler rewards those who take the leap into the mysterious lives of the Arista family with a mostly unpredictable parable.

In an unnamed town running along the California border to Mexico, the Mexican-American Arista family lives an enviable life of privilege.  As the head of the family, Henry (Esai Morales) has provided well for his two daughters Tania (Marisol Sacramento) and Ximena (Carmela Zumbado, Need for Speed) who spend days lounging by the pool soaking up the sun and nights with a select group who party until they pass out.  Into this tranquil existence comes Tom (Jackson Rathbone, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), hired to work as a groundskeeper under the tutelage of Michael (Xander Berkeley, Candyman), the Aristas long-standing employee.  It isn’t long before Tom falls under the spell of the beautiful Tania and his crush on her doesn’t seem to surprise anyone, even when it strays into possibly dangerous territory.

If that were the crux of the story, Colter and his co-director Magdalena Zyzak might have had a fine if standard, film exploring the class differences between Tom and Tania but there’s something more on the agenda.  On the Arista property is a well, which seems to hold some sort of secret for the family in addition to serving as a frenzied curiosity for the townspeople that want to know what’s being kept hidden from them.  When the water level in the well begins to lower dramatically and it becomes evident someone is stealing the limited supply, Tom is assigned to help Michael build a wall around the Arista estate during the day and watch over the tank as an overnight watchman to catch the culprit.  As you can imagine, formally being walled out of something creates an even bigger uproar from the rabidly curious and increasingly irate townfolk, leading to a showdown with the town officials (led by Mariel Hemmingway in a brief cameo) and an eventual standoff.

With a run time of nearly two hours, Colter and Zyzak can’t quite sustain the energy or keep up the interest they’ve laid out for the entirety of the film but for a while there The Wall of Mexico gets a nice buzz going as you try to figure out, along with Tom, what’s truly going on.  Is the Arista well some sort of fountain of youth, aiding the Arista clan in their success, longevity, and glamorous looks? Or is it simply water and a valuable resource they choose to keep for themselves, which they have every right to do.  The questions are interesting and the answers feel resolved long before the movie wraps up

It’s good, then, that the cast is so worth watching and brings something more to the script than what was on the page, and that goes for everyone on screen from top to bottom.  Usually, the characters that enter a world foreign to them can be the dullest ones in the bunch but Rathbone finds some good moments throughout that feel special, giving the audience someone they can feel some kind of small relation to.  There’s also a bit of a kinship to Morales as the father just doing right for his family and protecting what he’s worked hard to cultivate.  A hard-working character actor for years, Berkeley is solid as always.  Playing the two wild daughters that take great joy in manipulating the men they love and loathe in their lives, Zumbado and Sacramento are of particular note because they seem to hold the greatest air of mystery for the longest amount of time.

While it’s not the politically timed piece it appears to be at first, there are so many underlying currents flowing through The Wall of Mexico and its left to the viewer to draw their own parallels between the events in the news and what transpires on the Arista estate.  Colter has crafted a neat little parable that reflects on our culture and today’s entitled society, it’s often right on the money and I’d imagine it’s a more uncomfortable watch now than it was when I first saw it nearly a year ago.