Movie Review ~ The Djinn

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mute boy is trapped in his apartment with a sinister monster when he makes a wish to fulfill his heart’s greatest desire.

Stars: Ezra Dewey, Rob Brownstein, Tevy Poe, John Erickson, Donald Pitts, Jilbert Daniel

Director: David Charbonier & Justin Powell

Rated: R

Running Length: 82 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  I’ll level with you.  There have been nights when I’ve been woken up by a noise and I’m convinced there is some sort of supernatural creature in my house.  Forget excusing it away as a creaky board or a moaning pipe, and don’t even think of chalking it up to the dozens of scary films I’ve watched in the span of a few months.  No, it’s definitely something terrifying that’s come to prey upon me and like a good would-be victim I silently get out of bed, grab the nearest object I can use as a weapon (often a book to hurl) and start to slowly explore every nook and crook of my dwelling until I’m convinced everything is safe and secure.  After climbing back into bed and before drifting off to sleep there have been times I’ll think, “Oh man, I’m so glad no one was filming me foolishly sneaking around my own house.”

That’s the story that kept following me around during the 82 long minutes I spent trapped into the confines of The Djinn, a plodding horror film that features a young mute boy who does exactly what I just described.  Only in a much smaller space.  For a lot longer.  Don’t get me wrong, unlike my nighttime adventures that come up with nothing to report, the youngster that carries the entire film on his constantly terrified shoulders is rewarded for his efforts with several nasty scares that are alarming mostly for the screeching music or blaring sound effect that accompanies their appearance.  That might be enough to satiate viewers that feed off of these perfunctory jolts, though around the sixty-minute mark they began to simply serve as unappreciated wake-up alarms for me just as I was about to doze off.

Nighttime radio host Michael Jacobs (Rob Brownstein, Argo) and his silent son Dylan (Ezra Dewey) have moved into a new apartment not long after a tragedy took their wife and mother away.  Though he still sees his mother Michelle (Tevy Poe) in haunting flashbacks, without a voice to reach out in his dreams, Dylan can’t connect with her to obtain any sense of closure.  With dad working an overnight double, Dylan continues to unpack and discovers items left by the previous tenant, including a book with information on spells and, more specifically, the Wish of Desire.  Of course, there are warnings tied to the spell and caveats as to how the wish is actually granted, but the pre-teen can’t resist performing a ritual (in American Sign Language, a clever touch) to ask for his voice back. 

At first, it appears the rite has failed, and Dylan goes on with his evening dejected but lying in bed later he has one of those moments I mentioned in the beginning.  A strange noise rouses him and when he goes to seek out its source the book of spells reveals its true intentions, billowing out a black smoke that harbors The Djinn, a figure from Arabic folklore that acts a type of genie but not one that wants to see the person that rubbed the lamp get healthy, wealthy, and wise.  No, this is an evil power that Dylan is now trapped in the tiny apartment with and must outmaneuver for the next hour.  If he can avoid being caught by The Djinn and perform the end of the ritual, his wish will be granted.  As The Djinn attempts to trick him by taking on different forms and curtailing his escape plans, Dylan tries to outwit an unmatched foe and fight for his soul as the time ticks away.

Writer/directors David Charbonier & Justin Powell have set their film in 1989 for some odd reason, perhaps it was to remove the advances in technology or excuse some of the drab furnishings of the seriously grandmumsy apartment the Jacobs family now calls home.  Though it gives credence to a pulsating score of synths and original music from composter Matthew James, it becomes one of several details that feel like a retro grasp to achieve purpose instead of necessity.  Even with a handful of admittedly frightening visuals punctuated by skin-crawling creepies that are borrowed almost totally from other films (Insidious comes to mind), The Djinn works overtime to maintain its mood but it’s like trying to keep a balloon at bay with just your pinky. 

It takes a strong actor to hold our attention for a long while and while Dewey isn’t bad by any stretch, he runs into trouble with overcompensating for a lack of a speaking voice by turning up the volume on everything else.  The eyes get big, the facial expressions elongate wider, the silent scream goes on for longer than necessary. It’s all just a little over the top and spills into silly rather than scary.  There’s also a total lack of any kind of bond between father and son which becomes an important piece of the puzzle – hard to accomplish on these short shoots, I know, but the absence of any kind of warmth is off-putting.

Last summer, IFC Midnight kicked off a great run right around this time with their release of The Wretched, becoming one of the first studios to find their groove in the madness around the pandemic.  I can see where their acquisition of The Djinn was done with similar thoughts in mind for a tiered release, but it falls far below the high bar they’ve set over the past twelve months.  There have been numerous movies made about Djinns or Djinn-esque set-ups (let’s not forget the heinous Wish Upon) and few have found the path to popularity.  Don’t count on this lugubrious effort to change that.

Movie Review ~ The Vigil

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A man providing overnight watch to a deceased member of his former Orthodox Jewish community finds himself opposite a malevolent entity.

Stars: Dave Davis, Lynn Cohen, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman, Fred Melamed, Nati Rabinowitz, Moshe Lobel

Director: Keith Thomas

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If you’ve been following along these past few weeks, you know that I like to include a wide range of films for this website from the mainstream to the tiniest of indie films.  This not only helps make me more well rounded and exposed to a number of different genres and filmmakers, but I think it gives you a variety of titles to choose from when you don’t know exactly what you want to watch.  What I’ve now picked up on my own is that the Toronto International Film Fest (TIFF) truly is the “it” place to launch (or continue to launch) exciting buzz for a hefty number of titles.  In particular, the 2019 festival is starting to have a trickle-down effect on a bounty of films I’ll be reviewing shortly. While I wasn’t too crazy about Saint Maud a short time ago, other familiar titles that have gone on to greater notoriety since their premiers were Parasite, Sound of Metal, Corpus Christi, Les Misérables, Waves, Pain and Glory, Marriage Story, Judy, and Knives Out to name but just a few.

The horror genre tends to be a little slim at TIFF, only because there’s a kind of prestige level that comes with the territory.  Emerging from the 2019 fest were The Vast of Night, Color Out of Space, Sea Fever, and The Vigil, the latest release from IFC Midnight.  In keeping on brand with the indie distributor’s reputation for exploring a more complex side of the scary movie, The Vigil might be lacking in propulsive movement at times but makes up for it with a well-established creeping sense of fear.  Though we may begin the movie in a more relaxed state, it isn’t long before we’re as skittish as the main character thanks to an impressive sound design and cinematography that uses the light, not the darkness, against us.

Still recovering from a terrible tragedy that was the impetus for separating from his insular Orthodox upbringing, Yakov (Dave Davis) attends a support group with other Hasidic men and women that have left their faith.  All struggle with adjusting to new customs and finding their own way forward but Yakov is in pretty dire straits where money is concerned.  So the offer from his Rabbi cousin (Menashe Lustig) is appealing to him, but only because he needs the money, and his cousin is desperate enough to pay extra for his services.  Apparently, in his days as an active member of the Hasidic community, he excelled in serving as a shomer, watching over a dead body until it gets taken off for burial and guarding it from evil. Usually, a family member or friend of the family takes on this responsibility but in some cases this long-time customary observance of superstition can be a paid obligation.

A recently deceased man, Mr. Litvak, needs a shomer because his wife Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) is unwell and can’t do it herself.  Yakov would only need to stay for a few hours so she can rest in order to collect his money.  Arriving at the home, aside from Mrs. Litvak’s slightly odd state, which is to be expected in her time of grief, everything else seems to be in order so Yakov settles in for what should be an easy way to earn some cash to pay his rent.  Yet something seems to be out of order, there’s a sense of unease within the confines of the Litvak home.  Floorboards creak, walls moan, and shadows take shape.  The longer Yakov stays in the house the more he (and soon, we) come to see that evil has been present for some time, tethering itself to the family.  Now that’s it has been faced with eviction…it’s looking for a new home.

First time writer/director Keith Thomas keeps The Vigil running taut for most of the way through it’s economical running time.  Sure, it’s padded with an extra character or two that pop in and slow things down, but the movie is alarmingly frightening when Davis is by himself just letting the eerie atmosphere of the house sink in.  It’s enough to give you the shivers watching him, who has performed this task many times, get progressively more terrified as the night continues.  He shares a nice scene or two with the late, great Cohen as the Litvak widow who appears distraught and out of it at first but might be more on her game than we are led to believe.

If Thomas gets himself into a corner by the souped-up finale where there is no easy way out, it’s a forgivable misstep but not one that lacks in ambition.  If anything, it’s a case of showing more than implying and then not really answering the questions you posed in the first place.  That’s fine if you were always keeping your cards close to the vest but The Vigil is fairly straightforward most of the time. Even so, I watched this late at night and definitely had to keep the light on a little longer before comfortably being able to succumb to the pitch-black bedroom…so Thomas obviously achieved his goal.  Approach this one with confidence.

Movie Review ~ The Night

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A couple become trapped inside a hotel with their demons — real and imagined — until they can confront the secrets of their marriage.

Stars: Shahab Hosseini, Niousha Noor, George Maguire, Elester Latham, Michael Graham, Armin Mehr, Leah Oganyan, Golbarg Khavari

Director: Kourosh Ahari

Rated: NR

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Several years back I had some free time around Halloween and a lifelong curiosity to know what it was like to work behind the scenes of a haunted house.  So almost on a whim I went  and signed up to be one of the “creeps” at a popular local fright fest.  I’d long enjoyed the thrill of being scared in person, though as I grew older, I started recognizing I was more interested in the reactions of those around me than being shocked myself.  Turns out it can be hard work terrifying the general paying public and it takes a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and a hefty amount of throat spray to keep your voice healthy enough to surprise them with a shriek.  I wound up having it easier than other employees since I was in a “dark room” basically a space devoid of light where guests wound up scaring themselves more than anything I could do to make my ghostly presence known.  The darkness plays tricks on the mind and though your eyes may adjust over time, you can’t ever be sure that what you’re seeing is truly real.

It’s in a similar blackness a husband and wife find themselves trapped along with their infant daughter in Iranian American director Kourosh Ahari’s clever horror film The Night, which kicks of IFC Midnight’s 2021 slate of releases.  Coming off of a slam dunk 2020, IFC Midnight has set a high bar for itself so to come out of the gate with a movie shot in Los Angeles and filmed mostly in Farsi is a big gamble…but it’s paid off quite well.  What begins as one film eventually escalates into something all together different and unexpected, giving audiences a richer experience than they might have imagined.

A late-night dinner party at a friend’s house has left Iranian immigrant husband and wife Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and Neda (Niousha Noor) exhausted but wanting to make the journey home with their adorable daughter in the backseat to sleep in their own bed.  Babak has had a little too much to drink but it winds up being a faulty GPS that gets them lost in an unfamiliar part of inner city of Los Angeles.  Finally caving to his wife’s wishes, Babak pulls up to the imposing Hotel Normandie and books a room so they can get some shut eye and start fresh the next morning.  A front desk clerk (George Maguire) is accommodating but his behavior is admittedly peculiar.  Though the couple chalks it all up to the lateness of the evening, they’ll wish soon enough they trusted their first instinct and driven back to their friend’s house.

Entering the hotel has set Babak and Neda on a collision with a future that has as much to do with secrets of their past as it does with their present relationship struggles, enveloping them in a nightmare they can’t explain or escape from.  Who keeps knocking on their hotel door just as they are about to sleep, only to disappear when the door is opened?  What’s all the loud commotion above them?  Why does the front desk clerk speak of gruesome events in history he was present for with an air of sadness tinged with regret at missing out on more?  Just a few of the bizarre occurrences Babak and his family face throughout the night…and I haven’t even mentioned the other visitors.

Working in the actual Hotel Normandie, a key place of historical interest within Koreatown in Los Angeles gives the film an uneasy authenticity and I sure hope the hotel wasn’t hoping to use The Night to drum up more business.  The lobby is gorgeous, but the upper floors fit the horror motif of the final half of the picture quite nicely.  The small cast is given a lot of rich material to work through and both Hosseini and Noor are excellent in crafting characters forced to face their own worst fears and mistakes over the course of the evening. While it takes a little bit to get acclimated to Ahari’s style and to develop a comfort level with leads that are constantly bickering, once we’ve settled into the rhythm of their personalities it’s not as grating.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the enormous contribution Maguire makes to his supporting role as the hard-to-pin-down front desk clerk.  Is he there to help or to hinder?  We aren’t quite sure and a veteran character actor like Maguire knows better than to show his cards too soon.

If there’s a drawback to The Night, it’s that it suffers a bit from the limitations of the filmmaking process itself.  As I mentioned earlier the ornate hotel lobby is grand, but the rooms leave much to be desired.  I’m not sure if the hotel room was a set or filmed in an actual room of the hotel but it’s drabness was a bit on the nose for the developments that would happen later on.  There’s also, from what I can tell, a curious amount of re-dubbing going on…and I could be wrong but either one actor re-recorded all of their lines or a different actor entirely came in to perform the speaking role.  I briefly thought Ahari had done it on purpose (which would have been a neat little twist) but there’s no payoff to the voice discrepancy so I’m assuming it just must be a technical bit of business.   These may seem like little issues, but they begin to pile on when the production design plays a key role, almost serving as another character in a way, in the film you’re selling.

Obvious comparisons to The Shining aside, if The Night is any indication of where the indie distributor is headed throughout the year, audiences are in for a diverse line-up of films that challenge as much as they chill.  I already have The Vigil in the hopper for review in a few weeks and it’s another strong case for the face of horror looking different than it has in the past.  As forThe Night, it has made headlines recently for being the first U.S. production that has been approved for commercial exhibition in Iran since 1979 and the film is also a top-flight representation of the next generation in psychological horror.  Reserving its shocks for the most opportune moments of maximum impact and instead focusing on maintaining a consistent aura of atonal dread, Ahari gleefully toys with audiences as much as the spooky hotel at the center of the film appears to enjoy keeping the exhausted couple up for an all-nighter.

Movie Review ~ Hunter Hunter

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A family living in the remote wilderness believe they are being hunted by the return of a rogue wolf. Determined to catch the predator in the act, the father leaves his family behind to track the wolf. When a severely injured stranger shows up and the longer the father is away, the more the idea of a mysterious predator in the woods slowly becomes a threat much closer to home.

Stars: Camille Sullivan, Devon Sawa, Nick Stahl, Summer H. Howell, Gabriel Daniels, Lauren Cochrane, Blake Taylor, Karl Thordarson, Erik Athavale, Jade Michael

Director: Shawn Linden

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  There I was, just minding my own business, enjoying Hunter Hunter and thinking what a great year IFC Midnight has had in the realm of selecting superior horror/thrillers to release under their banner and that’s when it happened.  The ending.  The jaw-dropping, you can’t believe it, did that happen, yes it did, I am now an old man, I need a cookie, wow wow wowza of a finale.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself so let’s put on the brakes on circle back to the beginning.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live “off the grid” without the modern comforts I’ve grown so accustomed to…and then I watch movies like Hunter Hunter and realize I’m totally fine where I am and how that life is not for me.  No judgement on those that do and more mighty power to them, I just know that I’d be an insufferable person to live with in that situation, mostly just from lack of knowledge of the outside world.  That sense of being cut-off is the first thing that sets a mood in writer/director Shawn Linden’s horror mystery that is shrouded in shadow and is best to know as little as possible about before diving headfirst into.  Have no worries, I won’t spoil any more of it than what you’d already know had you read a synopsis and what I’ve already said about the ending isn’t a tip off either, any review you read is going to allude to what Linden has in store for viewers at the end of this entertaining trip into a dark wilderness.

A family of three reside in a remote cabin and make their living through the hunting and trapping of animals, selling their fur and using the rest for sustenance.  It’s a life that Joseph (Devon Sawa, Disturbing the Peace) and Anne (Camille Sullivan) have chosen for themselves but not one their daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell) had any kind of say in.  Though Renee has taken to the routine of their lives and enjoys learning the work from her father, Anne knows the world that is out there and wonders if she is keeping her home-schooled daughter away from a better opportunity than she can offer.  As another tough winter begins to draw near, she readies a plan to propose to Joseph that they consider buying a real home in town…but everything comes to a standstill when the presence of a returning rogue wolf puts the family on high alert.

Realizing the only way to catch the large animal is to track it on its own territory, Joseph sets off with no plans to return until he has cleared the forest of this particular danger once and for all.  Soon after he leaves, an injured man (Nick Stahl) appears seeking shelter and first aid, both of which Anne is able to offer him.  By opening her small home to this man and without Joseph around, it’s up to Anne to determine if the biggest trouble is coming from the woods nearby or is sleeping in the bedroom next to her.  There’s more that’s been revealed in the movie before this that I’ve deliberately left out (and thankfully, so have the trailers), all adding to an escalating game of cat and mouse that becomes more unpredictable the longer it plays out.  Surprises are in store for the viewer and the characters, all making for an edge-of-your-seat watch.

Linden has crafted a fine film with interesting characters and a unique setting that allows a believable sense of isolation without outside electronic interference.  He introduces images or sequences that may not make sense at first but wind-up fitting together in a puzzle that you eventually see was being put together from the get-go as part of a larger game and it’s all nicely filmed by Greg Nicod’s chilly cinematography.  Performances rank high as well, with former teen heartthrobs Sawa and Stahl roughing it up (Stahl in particular looks like he’s lived a life over the past decade) in roles well-suited for them.  Howell plays the naivete of her character with a sweet curiosity rather than coming off simple, no one in the movie ever is sketched as being “backwoods” in the least.  I also liked Lauren Cochrane and Gabriel Daniels as a set of rangers that enter the orbit of the cabin and the surrounding forest in surprising ways.

The VIP of Hunter Hunter is most surely Sullivan in a towering performance as a wife and mother pushed to a breaking point, first as a potential target of a vicious animal and then holding down the fort while her husband is away with a strange, injured man in her home.  Sullivan has an even keel to her acting and it works wonders for keeping the viewer engaged and going along for the ride with her, even when she’s not on screen.  She’s also a part of that aforementioned ending that is bound to leave you mouth agape with the audacity of the filmmakers in “going there”.  Again, it’s not a spoiler because I was told the same thing before I saw the movie and, even knowing it was coming, I still wasn’t prepared.  Bravo and kudos to Linden for pulling off what he envisioned and to Sullivan for going along with what must have sounded nuts on paper.

The bloody cherry on top of IFC Midnight’s absolutely stellar year of film, Hunter Hunter joins the ranks of The Wretched, Relic, Sputnik, Centigrade, Rent-A-Pal, & Kindred as some of the best offerings in the horror/thriller genre in 2020.  This is a studio that knows its audience and knows its brand and in a year where so many things were off the mark or in a strange new place of adjustment, IFC Midnight very much found smooth sailing in scary waters.

Movie Review ~ Kindred

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Plagued by mysterious hallucinations, a pregnant woman suspects that the family of her deceased boyfriend has intentions for her unborn child.

Stars: Tamara Lawrance, Fiona Show, Jack Lowden, Anton Lesser, Edward Holcroft, Chloe Pirrie

Director: Joe Marcantonio

Rated: NR

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: The best ways that horror can get at us is at the places we are the most vulnerable.  That’s why Psycho made showers so terrifying – you’re totally exposed and defenseless with just a thin sheet of plastic between you and a steamy room of shadows.  Your mind will play tricks on you if you are in the wrong head space.  Same thing goes for JAWS.  There’s a reason why beaches were suddenly a little quieter the summer of 1975 when Steven Spielberg’s big shark film snacked on swimmers and munched away at the box office.  If you’re out in the middle of the ocean, unable to get away from an unseen danger that lurks below…what can you do?  Stick with a pool, is my advice.  Even then…remember the 1980 movie Alligator?  On second thought, stick to bathtubs.  Wait, we’re back to Psycho again.

All this to say, a vulnerable state is a bad place to be if you’re in a horror film and that’s where Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance, On Chesil Beach) finds herself not too long after the start of Kindred, a new streaming film from the always dependable studio IFC Midnight (make sure to check out their other 2020 releases like Sputnik, The Wretched, Relic, and Centigrade).  Similar to Rosemary’s Baby, this revolves around a pregnant woman that starts to have visions of danger and suffers from paranoia dismissed by those she trusts as her due date approaches.  Unlike that classic Roman Polanski supernatural film (adapted from the bestselling Ira Levin book) however, there’s no apartment building with devil worshipping residents to wander around in, just a chilly English mansion that’s in need of a good restoration with two rather intense hosts never out of earshot.

Growing up with a mother that suffered terrible postpartum depression that spilled over into other mental health issues, Charlotte knew she never wanted to be a mother herself.  So when she finds out from the village doctor she’s pregnant just as she and her boyfriend Ben (Edward Holcroft, Vampire Academy) announced to his mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw, Enola Holmes) and stepbrother Thomas (Jack Lowden, Mary, Queen of Scots) they were moving to Australia, she knows the timing is bad.  Things go from bad to worse when Ben is tragically killed in a freak accident and she winds up homeless and living with Margaret in the family estate, isolated from the outside world.

At first, Charlotte begrudgingly accepts Margaret’s hospitality.  Though the two women never saw eye to eye (and a hospital quarrel after Ben’s death rose to a shocking climax), they’ve agreed to let bygones be bygones for the sake of the baby.  Suffering from dizzy spells and health issues that can’t be fully diagnosed, Charlotte will stay with Margaret and Thomas until she’s well enough to begin her new life outside of the insular cottage-town she shared with her late lover.  Meanwhile, Margaret appears to have taken a decidedly keen interest in the welfare of Charlotte’s baby (naturally, it’s her only grandchild) and soon Charlotte realizes that she’s become a de facto prisoner of her almost mother-in-law and her strangely enigmatic stepson.  If Charlotte had politely tolerated Margaret before, she’d barely taken the time to glance at Thomas but now she’s forced into getting to know him as a way to protect herself from Margaret and, eventually, him.

Writer/director Joe Marcantonio and his co-writer Jason McColgan have given Kindred the gentlest of burns and the boil is slow to bubble.  When the heat does eventually rise, it has its spooky moments and that it derives its suspense from realism instead of mysticism helps the film hold together better in some of its shakier stretches.  I had a hard time believing the strong-willed Charlotte would have let these shenanigans go on for as long as she does but there’s a politeness she’s trying to master, especially after her earlier run-in with Margaret, that I could eventually go with it.  Things start to careen wildly near the end, unfortunately, and while I’m not giving any spoilers away I will say that I’m not so sure the writers came up with the most efficient way to end the film.  I’m betting there’s one or two alternate endings that show up on an eventual home release of the movie.

What keeps the movie ever watchable are the trio of performances with all three actors holding their cards so close to their chest they might as well have them sewn to their undershirts.  I thought Lawrance was a dynamic lead, an inspired choice maybe because it looks like early on she could escape at any point but by the time she does realize she’s trapped she’s in no physical condition to get away.  You’re invested in the character even before she gets ensconced in the mansion and that’s saying something.  Also serving as producer, Lowden takes what could have been purely creepy character and given him a dangerous allure that encourages you to let your guard down.  Both Lowden and Shaw are at the center of the film’s two best moments, largely uninterrupted monologues that reveal certain character business about each…excellent stuff.  Pay special attention to Shaw’s lengthy monologue about her son and a dog, it’s always fascinating to watch Shaw build a character and here you get to see her do it right in front of you with the tiniest of brilliant brush strokes.

Without many of the “loud” elements that give films similar to Kindred more jolts, I can imagine how the film might come off as a little staid for some.  I watched this one late at night and was impressed at how well it kept my attention even well into the midnight hour.  It’s measured in its energy, to be sure, and it gets increasingly standard the longer it goes, disappointingly so considering how good the first 50 minutes or are.  However, those three lead performances coupled with a plot grounded in some type of reality that makes what happens all the more unsettling help to make Kindred worth the labor pains you may feel at times getting through the more familiar-feeling passages.

Movie Review ~ Rent-A-Pal


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Lonely bachelor David discovers a strange VHS tape called Rent-A-Pal. Hosted by the charming and charismatic Andy, the tape offers him much-needed company and compassion. However, Andy’s friendship comes at a cost, and David desperately struggles to afford the price of admission.

Stars: Brian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Kathleen Brady, Amy Rutledge

Director: Jon Stevenson

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  In my mind, one of the more positive things to come out of 2020 is an interesting resurgence of 80s and 90s nostalgia that’s been brewing for some time.  The reboots of television shows and films have been streaming in over the last several years and fashion trends have been steadily regressing back to the bold looks popularized two or three decades ago.  It was truly in 2020 when I felt the pinnacle of the reminiscence to those older days happened with music industry titans The Weeknd, Dua Lipa, and Miley Cyrus all individually releasing albums with a distinct sound that screams of 80s synth and flavor.  It’s wonderful and I for one have loved seeing how artists of today across all mediums have reinvented the cultural touchstones of the past.

I think that’s a reason why Rent-A-Pal has such appeal, at least initially, because it taps directly into the memory sweet spot of the audience that its playing directly to.  This strange hybrid of horror/thriller/black comedy will by its very nature speak to a particular demographic and writer/director Jon Stevenson knows good and well how to snag their attention with the kind of retro calling cards that keep you visually interested even when the story begins to deflate as it careens toward a messy conclusion.  For everyone else that happens upon the film, it’s surely a case of ‘your mileage may vary’ due to an insular feeling giving off an impression if you aren’t familiar with this era you’re missing out on the majority of the point.

It’s hard to imagine now, but before all the dating apps were available, video dating services helped make love connections across the country via recorded VHS interviews. Lonesome David is hoping 1990 is the year he’ll meet his mate, though living in his elderly mother’s basement isn’t helping things.  Caring for his mom (Kathleen Brady) who suffers from dementia that leaves her brittle physically and emotionally, David (Brian Landis Folkins) is soft-spoken and the kind of guy you’d imagine would be fast-forwarded by women on the hunt for someone exciting.  While picking up his latest batch of hopeful matches, David spots a clearance VHS called Rent-A-Pal and, on a whim, decides to try it out.  Hosted by the effervescent Andy (Wil Wheaton), the tape seems to ask the right questions at the right time, interacting with David on a level that few have.  Andy wants to know an awful lot about David it turns out; his secrets, his most embarrassing moments, and much more all become topics of increasingly intense conversations.  When David eventually makes a match with the sweet and shy Lisa (Amy Rutledge, strong and surprising in what could have been a disposable role), he finds that he doesn’t need his old pal Andy quite as much and stops playing the VHS.  That’s when things get weird…and deadly.

For the most part, Rent-A-Pal is a fun examination of loneliness (yes, I know how that sounds) and Stevenson doesn’t pass up an opportunity to put David in awkward positions…sometimes literally.  His interactions with the outside world are often wince-inducing and the way he begins to let what appears to be a pre-taped VHS order him around are amusing in a macabre sort of way.  Folkins and Wheaton have a good rapport in these scenes, never letting the audience get too far ahead of things so they figure out what’s happening or putting the large puzzle pieces together.  Wheaton’s role can seem a tad one-note but there’s more to what he’s doing than appears on the surface, the same can be said for Folkins who could have easily made David a Norman Bates-ish silent rage machine but instead lets what’s brewing rise to the kind of boil that explodes when you are least prepared.

The film’s biggest flaw is that Rent-A-Pal is an 80-minute movie living in the shell of a film that runs a half hour longer.  That extra thirty minutes drags the film down in its most crucial moments, slowing things to a crawl right when the screws should be turning to amp up the pressure.  It all leads somewhere, sure, and to its credit the film finds its way to a satisfying finale but the road leading up there is an oddly unsatisfying and ultimately disappointing trip, especially considering that up until then things were humming along nicely.  Clearly made on a small budget, the production design can’t go full out with the retro design so the look of the movie feels like 1990 by way of a garage sale instead of a curated prop department, but extra points go back to everyone just for seeing oodles of VHS tapes on display.

Even putting the budget aside (because plenty of movies can still be worthwhile even if made for $2.95), with a few cuts, Rent-A-Pal would have been an overall tighter movie and the trims would have helped every other element that goes slack leading up to the home stretch.  Wheaton’s character would have had more unnerving menace, Folkins wouldn’t have had to stretch out his descent into frenzy quite so long, and the poor women of the picture (both are quite good, especially Brady in a difficult to cast role) might not have had to wait for their turn to get something to do.  Stevenson is absolutely someone to watch and so is the movie, but see if you can spot when you can FF.

Movie Review ~ Centigrade


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A married couple find themselves trapped in their frozen vehicle after a blizzard and struggle to survive amid plunging temperatures and unforeseen obstacles.

Stars: Genesis Rodriguez, Vincent Piazza, Mavis Simpson-Ernst

Director: Brendan Walsh

Rated: NR

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Some people say that it’s never as fun to watch suspense movies alone as it is to turn off all the lights and hunker down with another person.  I could go both ways with that.  If you’re watching with someone that can handle the scares and will go along for the ride, sure, that’s fun but if you’re in the presence of an unwilling participant that’s going to make light of the frights as a way to relieve their own fears, then you’re in for a long 90 minutes.  Then there are the thrillers that sort of demand you have another viewer with you so you can commiserate on the people in the film and that’s where it’s always handy to know who you’re watching with.

I had intended to watch Centigrade all by my lonesome because it looked to be the kind of chilly thriller fare my partner just doesn’t go for but he stuck around for the first few minutes of this based-on-true-life events and was intrigued enough to put his feet up and hang out for a while.  This was a good thing for two reasons.  The first is I was glad he was around so I could vent my frustration at the situation the lone couple featured in the film find themselves in and the second was that this turned out to be one of those interesting relationship-building movies where you find yourself asking how you’d react if you were in the same situation with your significant other.

After stopping in the middle of the night on the side of a mountain road due to bad weather conditions, pregnant writer Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez, Man on a Ledge) and her husband Matt (Vincent Piazza, Jersey Boys) awake to find the blizzard they were in has covered their vehicle with ice and snow, fully trapping them in their rental car.  In Norway to promote her book, no one knows precisely where they were on this leg of their trip and with no cell phone reception, they aren’t even sure how far they were from their hotel when they pulled over.  Reasonably consoloed someone will be coming by their frozen fortress soon, they wait.  And wait.  The waiting turns to panic as they realize they are entombed in ice on a desolate stretch of road and with limited supplies may not be rescued for days.

At first, the couple is observant of the needs of their spouse and tries their best to accommodate the little things that might annoy them otherwise in consideration of the situation.  The space they have to move around in is small, though, and before long paranoia creeps in and begins to unravel husband and wife as the days stretch on and all hope seems lost.  When they disagree on how to move forward and with Naomi’s pregnancy coming to the forefront of their worry, bold choices have to be made that could end up being the difference between a cold death in the elements if they break free or a slow decline in the car if they choose to stay where they are.  Staying in the car has created an igloo effect which is keeping them relatively secure but would breaking a window and chancing the urge to dig their way out help their overall odds?

I’d imagine watching Centigrade with your loved one might inspire some debate over who is the in the right as the film progresses.  I definitely found myself talking back to the screen more than I had at other films lately and found that I alternated sides with Matt and Naomi throughout…the more they came to loggerheads the deeper I tended to dig my heels in for either party.  That should say something for both the performances of Rodriguez and Piazza and the writing of director Brendan Walsh and Daley Nixon.  While I could see this being written off as a one-note slog that begins to swallow itself into wallow territory around the 60 minute mark, I found it oddly compelling viewing…even when my thoughts drifted to thinking about where all the #2’s were being put.

Neither actor is any kind of household name but they both have the kind of movie-star looks that keep them from truly portraying “real” people.  Piazza tends to fly fairly under the radar and some attempts by Walsh and Nixon to flesh out his backstory don’t pan out as intended but he has a good chemistry with Rodriguez.  For her part, Rodriguez is saddled with a strangely half-explored medication issue but still manages to keep the fires of interest burning when things start to get cold in the final stretch.  I wish there were a few more of the heated exchanges we get early on in the film between the two but the need to conserve energy realistically sadly outweighs the desire for more dramatic tension and the liveliness peters out to a few random blips as Walsh moves the film toward its predictable conclusion.

While it could have tightened up a bit more heading into its last act, Centigrade makes for a mostly taut 90 minutes that could also double as a bit of easy couples shout therapy.  At several points, I was thankful that Walsh and Nixon’s script was so sparse because it gave us a chance to discuss what we’d do in the same situation…and then argue with one another as to why the other person’s plan wouldn’t work.  Lack of propulsive drive forward may knock it down a few degrees, but Centigrade is still good for a few chills.

Movie Review ~ Sputnik


The Facts:

Synopsis: The lone survivor of an enigmatic spaceship incident hasn’t returned back home alone-hiding inside his body is a dangerous creature.

Stars: Oksana Akinshina, Fyodor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anna Nazarova, Anton Vasilev, Aleksey Demidov, Vitaliya Korniyenko, Aleksandr Marushev, Albrecht Zander

Director: Egor Abramenko

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  It’s been surprising to me how much I’ve adjusted to seeing movies from the comfort of my own home these past several months.  For the most part, I’ve enjoyed moving from point A in my living room that serves as my office to point B in the same area which turns into my nightly space for screenings.  Sure, it’s taken just a tiny bit of the “event” feeling out of going to the movies but there hasn’t been anything I’ve seen so far that has truly cried out for the big screen experience.  Until now.

Watching the new Russian monster movie Sputnik, I felt the first honest pangs of nostalgia for being in a darkened movie theater staring up at a moving image.  This is the type of film that would have been a lot of fun to catch with an audience or even just flying solo as a weekday matinee to fill in some time between work and evening plans.  At the same time, what a thrill to find a movie so on the money when it comes to creative ideas and working wonders with overwrought plot mechanics; it’s arguably in the top tier of films I’ve seen in 2020 and easily a new genre favorite.

It’s 1983 and two Russian Cosmonauts are in orbit preparing to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, discussing plans for what they’ll do when they return home.  Kirill Averchenko (Aleksey Demidov) longs for a hot bath while Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov, The Darkest Hour) has more family-oriented matters to attend to.  All plans are put on hold, though, when their capsule has more than a close encounter with an…unplanned visitor.  Back on Earth, neurophysiologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina, The Bourne Supremacy) is facing sanctions for her unorthodox handling of a patient and the young doctors brash willingness to ignore authority catches the attention of Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) who has an interesting proposition for her.

If Semiradov can smooth out Tatyana’s present troubles, would she be willing to consult on a new patient at a top secret, heavily guarded government facility?  Intrigued and seeing this as a quick solve to a annoying problem, Tatyana agrees to meet with the man Semiradov has been tasked with guarding: Cosmonaut Konstantin. Returning to Earth with little memory of what happened to him and his comrade, Tatyana dismisses his symptoms at first as a case of traumatic PTSD leading to temporary amnesia.  That is, until she witnesses first hand his rather large problem that only comes out at night…

I think I’ve been trained for so long to be let down by movies that have a tantalizing opening act that I was particularly on edge with Sputnik.  When would the other shoe drop, and how would screenwriters Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev make some silly error that betrayed the three dimensional characters that were so carefully etched early on?  Would director Egor Abramenko give in to the pressure to show off instead of draw the viewer in closer, making the experience less about craftsmanship than pure gimmickry?  That the movie showed some of its cards at the outset made me nervous, but it turned out to all be part of the scary plan Sputnik’s creators had in store for audiences.

Bound to be compared to Alien and justly earning the same echoes of praise, this is one impressive discovery that continued to hold surprises well into its final stretch.  That should be especially good news to those that want a little plot to go with their slimy guts and gore (which the film has buckets of, by the way) and the performances match the finely tuned suspense sequences.  As the chilly young doctor plagued by a past that has ties to her present situation, Akinshina is as compellingly watchable a lead as I’ve seen in this genre.  Bringing a Cold War steeliness to her early scenes and, in getting to know more about Konstantin, finding small ways of slowly letting her guard down, Akinshina carefully navigates a complex strong female character to make her as important as whatever gooey creature might be right around the corner.  Fyodorov is nicely balanced too, playing a man expecting to return home to a hero’s welcome only to be imprisoned without any explanation why and kept from his family to be used as an experiment.  The more he comes to realize his part, the more his allegiances change…but how much does he actually know to begin with?  Also serving as a producer of the scare pic, Bondarchuk makes for a nice human villain when the well-designed beast isn’t onscreen.

Good performances and script can’t save a movie alone and there’s obviously been some money spent on Sputnik because it looks and sounds excellent.  The cinematography by Maxim Zhukov is never too intrusive on the action but also doesn’t shy away from clever positions and tricks.  I was particularly drawn in by Oleg Karpachev’s ominous and haunting score which helps to set the mood…and then some.  Use of night vision and an abundance of 80s security video can be a little distracting at times but it keeps the mood of the piece just right and helps with that whole “less is more” feeling when showing the creature at the center of it all.

Had this opened in movie theaters, I still doubt it would have gotten as much attention as one of the proposed summer blockbusters or even a glazed over second tier release but it might have generated the kind of buzz that would have gotten it to audiences in select cities.  That could have kept word of mouth going and will, I think, benefit its streaming debut because now the news of it being one to watch can spread quicker.  It’s also worth noting this is arriving in the US via IFC films (IFC Midnight to be exact) and this is the third film this summer (after The Wretched and Relic) that has been a bona fide winner in my book.  The folks at IFC clearly know how to pick ‘em and Sputnik is their latest bullseye.

Movie Review ~ The Rental (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two couples on an oceanside getaway grow suspicious that the host of their seemingly perfect rental house may be spying on them. Before long, what should have been a celebratory weekend trip turns into something far more sinister.

Stars: Alison Brie, Dan Stevens, Jeremy Allen White, Sheila Vand, Toby Huss

Director: Dave Franco

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I love to travel but I’m kinda weird about it.  Here’s the thing, when I go on vacation I want to feel like I’m away from home and want the place I stay to feel special and not like…well, my home.  That’s why I’ve always found the Airbnb craze to be a little whack-a-doo because who would want to stay in a person’s house (or even a place someone else decorated or, shudder, put their bare feet on the pillows?) when you could get pampered at a hotel for sometimes half the cost?  I know that for large parties it may work out better but there’s just something a little creepy to me about the entire set-up.  After watching The Rental, I’m even more convinced I’m right to be worried.

The first feature film directed by Dave Franco (The Disaster Artist), The Rental could have easily gone in another direction that was more cliché and expected and that would have been a gigantic and exasperating disappointment.  Thankfully, Dave seems to have learned from the strange misfires his older brother James made as both a director and star and kept his debut tight.  He also wisely hasn’t made it more difficult on himself by starring in the film as well but instead remains behind the camera as director and co-writer with indie favorite Joe Swanberg (You’re Next) who knows his way around these types of slow-dread genre films.  The result should have audiences ready to check-in and hunker down for a corker of a chiller.

Excited for a weekend away from their busy city lives, Charlie (Dan Stevens, Lucy in the Sky), his wife Michelle (Alison Brie, The Five-Year Engagement), his brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White, Viena and the Fantomes) and Josh’s girlfriend/Charlie’s business partner Mina (Sheila Vand, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) book a beach house in the woods that’s just secluded enough to help them unwind  and party without disruption.  Things get off to a jittery start when Mina, who is Middle Eastern, requests to book the house and is denied but Charlie, who is white, is accepted immediately.  Arriving to find the owner (Toby Huss, Halloween) affable at first but vague when questioned about the perceived racism in the booking snafu, the foursome shake off any lingering bad feelings and try to enjoy their first night at the spacious house.

The calm doesn’t last long though as a night of partying leads to the first of a number of secrets that are eventually exposed, along with a danger that none of them could have ever predicted.  Situations go from bad to worse when a split-second decision changes the course of their weekend plans from a fun retreat with family/friends to a downward spiral of mayhem.  As miscommunication, distrust, fear, and anger start to take hold of the group, what starts as a weekend to relax quickly devolves into a surprisingly effective fight for survival stemming from a mystery they are racing to unravel.  To reveal more would not be playing fair and Franco/Swanberg largely stick to realistic developments that rely on spur of the moment choices and their devastatingly quick consequences.

I was genuinely impressed with the acumen Franco shows for maneuvering his small troupe of actors around and the way he works with Swanberg to keep us on our toes throughout.  The twists and turns presented in The Rental are often unpredictable and you’ll lose valuable time the more you try to figure out what’s happening or where the action will go next.  Leaving little room for extra fat to weigh things down, the 80 or so minutes are free from the normal pitfalls of first time filmmaking, suggesting again that Franco has been paying attention when he’s been on sets these past years as an actor.

Frustrating though they all may be at times and not without blame for much of what happens during this weekend from hell, the characters are all appealing in some fashion.  I’m usually not a fan of Brie (Franco’s real life wife) but she’s quite fun here and despite a slow start where her character is a bit more passive than we’re used to seeing from Brie she revs up and gets a few good zingers in during the second half.  Every time Stevens pops up in a movie my partner notes that ever since he left Downton Abbey the actor seems totally averse to speaking in his native UK accent and here again he’s not wholly successful in showing off his elocution.  Stevens hasn’t quite found his footing, post-Downton and while he’s been well-reviewed in a number of films he continues to come up lacking for me…but in The Rental that cool from a distance feel actually works for his often compromised pseudo-nice guy.  As Charlie’s screw-up brother, White is fine in a role that gradually gets aggravating but it’s Vand’s commanding presence that is the real find here.  Taking the role as serious as it needs to be, Vand handles some character developments and choices that could be poison with an unusual amount of grace, keeping us oddly on her side.

Franco has said the idea for The Rental came from his caution about staying in an Airbnb property and his trepidation shows with an end product that’s drenched in paranoia.  Building to a sharp sting around the halfway mark before rising to a spine-tingling crescendo that’s sustained through the credits, The Rental is a four-star winner for the weary traveler wary of where they lay their head at night.

Movie Review ~ Relic

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman links her mother’s increasingly volatile behavior to an evil presence at their family’s decaying country home.

Stars: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote

Director: Natalie Erika James

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  If you look back over the history of the horror genre you see it developing with the time.  Early entries from the black and white era largely suggested danger without showing it, much like audiences were unsure what was really happening overseas in WWII.  As the counterculture was brought from the shadows to the mainstream in the late 60s and 70s, so too did the genre give way to boundary pushing fright cinema that stylishly developed a look all its own.  The 80s slasher craze and endless sequels/copycats went well with the mall obsessed teen moviegoers that loved to dress like their favorite celebrity.  When the hammer of reality came down in the 90s and 2000s, horror pivoted again with self-aware work that was as snarky as its target audience.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen another seismic shift in nightmare cinema, and it’s been a return to a desire for intelligent scares and less on quick terror.  Movie going isn’t cheap so audiences want to spend their money attending entertainment that is going to give them the best return on their investment…and they don’t want to be treated to another cookie cutter slasher film heavy on blood, guts, boobs, and butts.  Films like The Conjuring and Hereditary have left a lasting impression because they’ve scared the beejebus out of audiences but have more up their sleeves than just mere frights.

You can add the new Australian film Relic to that list of successful genre offerings too and even place it fairly high on the list.  With its small cast and confined setting, it works wonders with the limitations it places on itself and never lets the viewer get too far ahead of the characters experiencing some perplexing behavior of a loved one.  Working from her own script, Natalie Erika James directs the mostly three-person film with a sure hand and only rarely lets the standard tropes of horror films get in the way of the story she’s trying to tell.

Concerned for the well-being of her mother Edna who hasn’t been seen by her neighbors in several days, Kay (Emily Mortimer, Mary Poppins Returns) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote, The Neon Demon) drive up from Melbourne to Edna’s home in the woods.  Arriving to find Edna gone but evidence that she’s likely suffering from dementia, the two begin to search through the house for clues as to her whereabouts while joining with the locals to find their matriarch.  When Edna (Robyn Nevin) does eventually return in the middle of the night, something is off and while we get the impression she was never the warmest of maternal figures she has an especially sharp bite to her when provoked in the slightest.

Sticking around to ensure Edna is settled back in while also planning to move her into a facility that can care for her future needs, Kay begins to notice strange indicators around the house that something worse may have infiltrated the premises.  Edna’s increasingly detached behavior and wild mood swings wreak havoc on the relationship between her daughter and granddaughter, prompting both to dig further not just into Edna’s condition but into the house and surrounding woods which seems to hold more secrets the family will need to face together.  With Edna’s condition worsening rapidly and the unexplained incidents becoming more violent, the three women all face a challenging evening in a house that might have its own agenda.

It’s not hard to pick up the metaphor Relic is laying down but even if you do catch on what’s happening you’ll likely be thrown for a loop in the film’s final act which trades the quieter, slow burn moments of the previous 70 minutes for a genuinely worrisome finale.  It’s not just that James delivers some serious scary sequences and arresting visual imagery as the three women face some frightening happenings, but that all of it feels…personal.  Couple that with an unexpectedly moving (for a horror film) ending and you have a memorable and highly recommendable feature.

I can see why Relic wouldn’t quite land for everyone and it’s worth noting that much of the success of the film relies on our emotional connection to the characters and story.  If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t latch on like that, the movie may not hold the same lasting impact I felt.  It’s a tricky ending and it could have easily gone wrong, but I think it’s extraordinary.  For me, I thought about the movie and it’s bracing ending for days afterward and was impressed all over again at the delicacy with which James chose to end her film and the chutzpah it must have taken to do it herway.