Movie Review ~ Nocebo

The Facts:

Synopsis: A fashion designer suffers from a mysterious illness that confounds her doctors and frustrates her husband – until help arrives in the form of a Filipino nanny who uses traditional folk healing to reveal a horrifying truth.
Stars: Eva Green, Mark Strong, Chai Fonacier, Billie Gadsdon
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Rated: NR
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  A lament I’ve plunked out here quite often is the downfall of the mid-range thrillers that were so easy to churn out in the late ‘80s through the mid-2000s.  Produced on a modest budget with dependable actors, these were popcorn-chomping date night fare that was good for a weekend or two in theaters before heating up the video store shelves months later.  With the advent of streaming services and more franchise-based entertainment, these one-shot efforts were pushed to the side when studios focused all their time and money on making their blockbusters break the bank.  It’s a bummer because we’ve seen in recent years filmmakers and screenwriters that know their damsel in distress from their woman fights back scenario and their nightmare stalkers from their killer nannies. 

The new Irish-Filipino psychological thriller Nocebo is just that kind of easy-to-digest thriller that you can imagine would play as well in 1997, starring Kim Basinger as it does in 2022 with Eva Green (Cracks) in the lead.  Directed by Lorcan Finnegan (Vivarium) from a script by Garret Shanley, it’s solid entertainment that may have shocks up its sleeve but has more on its mind than cheap tricks and sordid plot details.  Nocebo has a rather intriguing thread to follow along with, and it rewards those who stick close and will keep its secrets until the end.

Children’s fashion designer Christine (Green) has a good thing going with a busy life in Ireland.  Her home is desirable, her husband Felix (Mark Strong, The Imitation Game) is successful in his own business, and her daughter Roberta “Bobs” (Billie Gadson, Cruella) is at that pre-adolescent phase where she’s coming into her own.  On the eve of her latest launch at a tony shopping center, a mysterious phone call brings terrible news that we won’t know the full details until later.  At the same time, a ghostly mutt appears riddled with ticks in the pristine shop, and one winds up burrowing into Christine’s neck.  It’s the start of months of debilitating sickness and night terrors for Christine, leaving her incapacitated and unable to work.

When she does decide to muster all her strength and rise above the illness her doctors can’t pinpoint, she finds that she still doesn’t yet have the stamina.  A knock on the door reveals Diana (Chai Fonacier), sent from the agency at Christine’s request (she can’t remember calling, but…her memory has been spotty), who quickly takes control of the household and Christine’s well-being.  Tossing out the mountain of medications prescribed by her doctors in favor of remedies she’s brought from her homeland, Diana can help Christine into health.  Her husband isn’t convinced Diana is the saint she wants them to think she is, and the more they rely on her, the stronger her influence becomes. 

Finnegan and Shanley expertly keep Diana’s secrets hidden just out of sight for much of Nocebo’s swift running time, almost until the final scene when all is revealed.  It’s a satisfying response to the questions we’ve been jotting down throughout.  Helping to sell it is the terrific performance of Fonacier as a maybe villain with her side of the story to tell before the night is through.  It may become apparent what’s happening and why early on.  Still, try to keep the advanced puzzler in your mind at bay and enjoy how it all develops. I promise there’s something interesting happening that has some decent stakes for everyone involved.  When you’re working with a small cast like this, and they are giving it their dazzling all (Green, as usual, approaches Christine in an atypical fashion), it’s exciting to witness.

Movie Review ~ Old Man

The Facts:

Synopsis: When a lost hiker stumbles upon an erratic older man living in the woods, he could never have imagined the nightmare that awaits.
Stars: Stephen Lang, Marc Senter, Liana Wright-Mark, Patch Darragh
Director: Lucky McKee
Rated: NR
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  There was a time when my hometown was known for its thriving arts community and for having the most theater seats outside of NYC. With the recession, a pandemic, and a long-time coming cultural reckoning, the past decade has seen a shift in attention to the performing arts. With it, many of the theaters and theater companies have dwindled. While I understand and support the need for change to bring about equity and inclusion for all, I mourn the loss of the smaller theaters that produced tiny shows where you were often lucky enough to snag a seat. Now, you usually have to travel to other metropolitan locations like Chicago if you want that type of experience. Even there, it’s tough to find.

I mention that at the top of my review for director Lucky McKee’s Old Man because it’s essentially a two-person play filmed as a movie. Oh, it’s fully a movie with the expected production design and composition necessary to make dialogue and performances come to life for home viewing. Still, I’d be intrigued if writer Joel Veach originally intended his script for the stage instead of the screen. Either way, it has a plum role for an older character actor with a sneaky arc that provides fantastic opportunities to show off without going overboard. Find the right actor to complement, but not overshadow, the lead, and you’ve solved half your battle.

The good news is that Old Man is a more engaging and entertaining piece than it starts as. I was nervous I wasn’t going to be able to get through it at all because the opening ten minutes had the kind of hokey, sub-level acting you’d expect to see onstage in an amateur production but not a feature film. Set in the middle of the woods in freezing temperatures, it turns out everyone only needs a little time to warm up because once actor Stephen Lang (Don’t Breathe) settles in (and settles down), things start to take shape. 

Waking up alone and confused in a lonely cabin looking for his companion Rascal, the Old Man (Lang) bumbles his way around the compact area, talking to himself with reassurances his friend will return, and all will be well. He doesn’t see the small amounts of blood on his head and hands at first, and if he does, he shrugs them off quickly. He’s distracted anyway by an unexpected knock at the door. When he opens it, he finds mild-mannered Joe (Marc Senter, Starry Eyes), who speaks in a soft ‘indoor voice’ and tells the Old Man he has gotten turned around in the large forest and can’t find his way back out. 

Suspicious of the newcomer (his first guest in a long while, we gather), the Old Man lets Joe come in, but before he allows him to call for assistance, he grills him on why he was in the forest in the first place. Through these direct conversations, we discover that Joe may be hiding facts about his day from the Old Man, just as the Old Man withholds crucial information from Joe. Are they both sizing each other up as prey, keeping their secrets until the bitter end? Or will truths come to light faster than either intended, requiring a battle of wills in a slinky game of cat and mouse where neither is aware of what role the other is playing?

McKee is a director that’s had an interesting career path after gaining a cult following with his 2002 sophomore feature, May. Following that up with the spooky mystery The Woods in 2006, he’s been a bit all over the map in the years following, directing for TV and the occasional film. None have been as big of a calling card as May, and with good reason, not one of them had that same hunger and was fueled by indie spirit creativity. He gets some back with Old Man, but it takes a while. Once you figure out what’s happening in Veach’s script (and it doesn’t take long), you wonder how McKee will assemble the puzzle. It’s not exactly as you would think…which makes the watch much more enjoyable.

Senter supports his lead, giving a Crispin Glover-esque performance of carefully chosen words and deliberate movements. It’s all in service to the rug pull McKee/Veach have waiting in the wings, and thankfully neither Senter nor Lang tip their hat to a late-in-the-game reveal that starts to hang heavy over them. Thankfully, Lang is capable of shouldering some extra weight and carrying much of the film. Despite those rough first few scenes, he’s spot-on for the remainder, especially a pivotal final act. By chance, I caught Lang’s performance in Avatar several days later and was impressed by how much Lang (always a fine performer) has evolved as an actor over the past years. If possible, there’s even more of the grizzled grunt to him here.

A decision on Old Man ultimately comes down to a few things. Are you in the mood for a talky piece that might not meet the bar as the thriller it markets itself as but remains an interesting acting exercise for its two leads, or do you require more bang for your buck? I think there is a time and place for Old Man, but you have to be in the right mood and forgiving enough to stick out that opening stretch with my assurances there’s more to it than meets the eye. Speaking of which, a word to the wise. Keep your eyes open throughout the film on the background. I won’t say more than that, but McKee positions his camera and framing of the actors for a specific reason.

Movie Review ~ Last Looks

The Facts:

Synopsis: A disgraced ex-cop seeks solace by moving to the woods, but his quiet life comes to an end when a private eye recruits him to investigate a murder

Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Mel Gibson, Morena Baccarin, Rupert Friend, Lucy Fry, Clancy Brown, Dominic Monaghan, Cliff “Method Man” Smith

Director: Tim Kirkby

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:   Last Looks is a movie very much after its time.  Now, before you scroll past this review thinking this should be taken as a bad thing, let me explain.  Last Looks is the type of picture that would have played like gangbusters back in the mid to late ‘90s and will remind viewers of Hollywood insider crime romps like 1995’s Get Shorty.  True, even watching the original trailer for Last Looks (which I find to be quite bizarre, so…skip it) left me convinced it was another in the long line of adaptations of Elmore Leonard novels that explored organized crime infiltrating Tinsel Town.  Instead, this is based on the first of two books by television writer Howard Michael Gould, and he’s adapted his 2018 work as a star vehicle for Charlie Hunnam. 

As inferred above, a glance over the disjointed trailer didn’t inspire much hope for this one, and the opening moments might make you question if you’re even in the correct movie.  Hunnam (Pacific Rim) is former LAPD Charlie Waldo living a barebones lifestyle in Idlewild after leaving the force due to a botched investigation of a former case.  With a wild beard, un-showered appearance, and Zen attitude, he’s a man that appears content to be off the grid and solitary.  When former flame Lorena Nascimento (Morena Baccarin, Greenland) blazes in with her flashy car and proposition of an easy payday assignment back in Hollywood, which he politely declines, it invites a whole host of surly players into Waldo’s humble life who think he’s involved with either Lorena or the case.

All but forced to travel to Hollywood and clear up any confusion, it’s here that Last Looks catches its stride and sinks its hooks into viewers.  Famous actor Alastair Pinch (Mel Gibson, Boss Level) is the star of a popular television show and stands accused of murdering his wife. While it’s a boon in ratings the slimy studio executive (Rupert Friend, A Simple Favor) enjoys, no one wants to see the popular star thrown in jail for a crime he (maybe?) didn’t commit.  The trouble is, Pinch is a notorious temperamental boozer, and the live wire isn’t the easiest to warm to.  At first, Waldo is resolute against taking the case, but after meeting Pinch’s daughter and taking stock of the evidence against him, he’s inclined to stick around town and see what he can do to prove the innocence of his constantly inebriated client. 

Saying more about Waldo’s investigation or elaborating further on the various colorful people he encounters would muck up far too much of the enjoyment to be had in Last Looks.  Director Tim Kirkby is primarily a TV director, with episodes of Fleabag and Veep in his pocket, though he’s also credited with the 2018 Johnny Knoxville film Action Point.  That eclectic mix of style and mediums helps immeasurably in the timing of scenes (dialogue is fast, action sequences are swift but controlled) and keeping Last Looks light on its feet.  It’s often highly entertaining and connects the dots of its crisscrossing plot as it goes.  I’m always up for an insider-y look at Hollywood, and Gould inserts just enough gossipy talk into his efficient screenplay to satiate the cinephile needing a solid fix.

Even the best scripts and strong direction need a cast that can deliver, and Hunnam makes for a terrific leading man, and it’s a role he could parlay into an ongoing character (this is the first of two novels, after all) if he chooses.  I sure hope he’d be interested in continuing with Waldo because you can easily see a niche movie franchise or, better yet, a streaming TV series being crafted around the character.  The charisma factor is off the charts, and Hunnam is the kind of star who makes everyone around him look better, even the hard-to-write about Gibson.  It’s tough to know how to critique Gibson at this point because off-screen, he’s beating the same troublesome drum as ever, yet it’s impossible to deny how magnetic he is.  Like Hunnam, Gibson plays well with others (onscreen), and you crave more of him when he’s not there, and to be fair, his screen time in Last Looks is brief. 

Clever casting in the supporting roles gives Kirkby more room to score points with viewers.  Clancy Brown (Promising Young Woman) has a few nice scenes as Waldo’s former colleague, while Dominic Monaghan’s (Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker) tiny cameo is well-executed.  Playing one of the shady sort more interested in Waldo’s ex than the murder case, Jacob Scipio (Bad Boys for Life) steals several scenes from his more notable co-stars, while Friend channels studio mogul Robert Evans just by donning a pair of oversized specs and questionably fashionable suits.  My nostalgia meter pinged seeing Robin Givens as a high-powered attorney defending Gibson’s character, and although Baccarin displays some nice heat with Hunnam, I’m glad her character is sidelined so Waldo can focus on the case.  The only bit of slightly akimbo casting might be Lucy Fry (Night Teeth), a little off-center as a schoolteacher who may know more than she’s letting on.  Perhaps it’s the Australian accent she’s working hard to cover up.

Back to what I said at the start, about how Last Looks is after its time.  I was recently remarking in a previous review how sad I was that the typical mid-budget film of an era long ago has seemed to vanish into the ether, replaced by either the franchise tentpole or quick glorified television movie.  Along comes Last Looks and restores my faith that there are filmmakers and studios out there fighting the good fight and delivering entertaining yarns reminding us how each ticket we buy doesn’t have to be for an established package.  It’s tremendous fun, the kind of film that for once actually deserves a sequel, and I think it would do quite well via word-of-mouth if enough people spread the news.

Movie Review ~ Silent Night

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Nell, Simon, and their boy Art are ready to welcome friends and family for what promises to be a perfect Christmas gathering. Perfect except for one thing: everyone is going to die.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Roman Griffin Davis, Annabelle Wallis, Lily-Rose Depp, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Davida McKenzie, Rufus Jones, Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, Lucy Punch, Holly Aird, Trudie Styler, Dora Davis, Gilby Griffin Davis, Hardy Griffin Davis

Director: Camille Griffin

Rated: NR

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Every now and then I find that I run into a bit of a crisis as a reviewer.  Here’s the situation I face.  There’s a movie I’ve seen which I know is worth a look, yet I have trouble with an outright recommendation because there’s something about it which could turn the viewer against it and, by proxy, me.  I don’t want you to end up hating me and “ghosting” my webpage in the future.  Obviously, if this was my full-time job and I was getting paid for my thoughts I would have less trouble just churning these musings out without worry but I sort of, y’know, care about you and your trust in me so I’m going to be always upfront. 

In the spirt of that message (and the season) I need to tell you the new Christmas-set UK film Silent Night is one of the most unrepentantly bleak movies you’ll encounter this year or any year in recent memory.  Dealing with a family that gathers at a secluded country estate for a yuletide celebration on the eve of a population-ending event, one they all know is coming, there’s an invisible ticking clock hanging over the ninety-minute film which makes it feel both too short and never ending at the same time.  Timed for release on the second Christmas the world is spending in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a well-made but unsettling drama offering none of the easy-outs you may be expecting. 

For Christmas this year, everyone attending Nell and Simon’s gathering has been asked to bring one important item…their own suicide pills.  Due to an environmental catastrophe which has sent a cloud of toxic gas throughout the land, all humans will perish, and it’s set to hit British soil on Christmas.  This is known. There is no escape.  The most humane way to deal with it, and not suffer the horrific effects of dying by the gas, is to take the pills issued by the government with your loved one and die quickly rather than painfully.  First though, there’s a feast to be had and the guests are arriving.

In addition to Nell (Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method), Simon (Matthew Goode, Stoker), their eldest son Art (Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit) and their twin boys, the revelers include steely Sandra (Annabelle Wallis, Malignant) who is bringing her less than well-liked daughter, fun-loving lesbian Bella (Lucy Punch, Into the Woods) and her more button-downed wife (Alex Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Cruella), and reflective James (Sopé Dìrísù, His House) and his newly pregnant wife Sophie (Lily Rose-Depp, Wolf).  Not everyone is so sure about taking the pill, Sophie is about to bring new life into the world and maybe wants to wait to see if the gas is survivable, Art doesn’t want to have his parents decide his fate for him.  Various points throughout the night provoke stark questions about death, human rights, and who has the ultimate choice about existence.

Director Camille Griffin (mother of Roman who plays Art) makes a wonderful debut that’s as challenging to watch as it is interesting to debate. It’s meant to be a conversation starter and boy is it ever.  It’s certainly a well-made movie, just horribly sad and without much reprieve throughout.  I can’t lie and say it has the rosiest of endings but can offer a shred of light and say that in ending the way it does, there are lessons to be learned that we can all benefit from in some way.  Is Silent Night one to consider swapping out one of your Christmas favorites for?  Not a chance.  However, maybe you can wait until March or April to try this out one…unless you enjoy the sadness the holidays can bring.

Movie Review ~ South of Heaven

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After serving twelve years for armed robbery, Jimmy gets an early parole. Upon his release from prison, he vows to give Annie, his childhood love, now dying from cancer, the best year of her life. The best last year of her life. If only life were that simple.

Stars: Jason Sudeikis, Evangeline Lilly, Mike Colter, Shea Whigham

Director: Aharon Keshales

Rated: NR

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I don’t know about you, but it’s a little funny to me that the same weekend Jason Sudeikis closes out his second season playing the Emmy-winning title role of his multiple award lauded serio-comedy Ted Lasso, he’s also premiering a hard-nosed crime drama that at one point sees someone sliced in half.  That he pulls both off convincingly is a sure sign that Sudeikis is another SNL alum that was always meant for something more.  Up until now, Sudeikis has mostly thrived in comedic films but South of Heaven represents a gear shift that’s likely to feel jarring for many of his fans that have come to expect a lighthearted Sudeikis or, more recently, the Ted Lasso-y Sudeikis with a perennial good-nature we secretly all wish we could emulate more of.

The sunniness Sudeikis brings to that show on Apple TV+ is mostly cloudy in South of Heaven.  Right from the start when we see Jimmy Ray (Sudeikis, We’re the Millers) in front of a parole board being up front and honest that he should be released so he can spend as much time as he can with his terminally ill fiancé.  Yes, he committed a crime but it was a first offense and after 12 years, has his time been served?  He’s a middle-aged white guy so…of course he’s let out.  Waiting for him is Annie (Evangeline Lilly, Ant-Man and the Wasp) and with her pixie cut and glowing aura, she looks like she’s already practicing for her guardian angel gig she’s most certainly getting hired for.  The reunion between the two is sweet, bittersweet, and then ultimately tender as both realize how quickly they have to re-learn their old routines to maximize the time they have left with one another.

Not long after Jimmy Ray’s return, his rat-like parole officer (Shea Whigham, The Quarry, always on call when a weasely character is needed) makes sure Jimmy Ray knows that he’s under his thumb and even prompts him to get involved with under the table business on his behalf or risk being sent back to prison on trumped up charges he creates.  Unwilling to part from Annie again, Jimmy Ray agrees to retrieve a package for the parole officer and it’s on his way back that something happens which shifts the film from being one story to a different one in a similar vein.  It’s one of several adjustments director and co-screenwriter Aharon Keshales makes for the next 75 minutes which will keep the audiences on their toes, wondering where all of these tone shifts are going to lead.  Will they add up to beautiful music or is just all banging on a keyboard?

Working with fellow screenwriters Kai Mark and Navot Papushado, Keshales manages to make South of Heaven into that rare bird that refuses to stay in one place for too long but doesn’t feel too flighty at the same time.  The movie has about 5 endings as it nears its conclusion (and that was one too many for me) and with each progression to a new level the stakes are raised quite convincingly and, more importantly, with an entertainment value that works for nearly everyone involved. The only person it isn’t completely successful with is its leading man.

I’m not sure if it was Sudeikis now being so tied to the Ted Lasso of it all but it took a long time for me to lock into what he was doing here and go with it.  There was a dramatic side to him that he doesn’t wear totally convincingly in, oh, 78% of the movie and it’s only working with Lilly in some of the final scenes and in a climactic sequence near the end that it feels like the talented actor is working in a zone.  Yet you see the actor trying new things and new ideas as he journeys to get to that zone and you can’t fault someone that’s actively trying to make something work in what had to be a tight shooting schedule.  He’s got great support with, as mentioned, Lilly who is a real breath of fresh air here and Mike Colter (Girls Trip) as a soft-spoken crime boss that doesn’t like to have to ask for things twice.  I also got a kick out of seeing former C-movie action star Michael Paré as a mostly silent hired muscle for Colter, who isn’t too shabby in the bicep category himself.

If there’s one thing that might be problematic for viewers it’s that Keshales doesn’t seem to be able to settle on the mood of the film, shuffling the deck at random.  This tends to lessen the weight of heavier scenes and makes you wonder whether dialogue that is supposed to be dramatic is coming off just a tad phony.  In more than one scene, an actor is drawing from a deep well to convey emotion but the sincerity was so over emphasized that the effect is insincere.  Put all of these little moments in a line and it would result in an unconvincing watch but when they are peppered within the fabric of a film you can forgive it a little easier as a quirk the filmmaker is working through.

At this point, you have to be wondering what I’m even thinking about the film, right? It sounds like I’m down on it but I was way more into South of Heaven than I originally thought I would be, even when it overstays its welcome ambling toward one of its many endings.  For all its emotional ups and downs, I didn’t have a clear idea of where it was headed and that’s a refreshing feeling after sitting through countless tales that are sunk by predictability.  When it does get to its ending, it’s not what I expected (and probably not what I wanted) but I appreciated one final rug pull from a director that wasn’t afraid up until that point of shaking things up to keep the action interesting.

Movie Review ~ Prisoners of the Ghostland

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A notorious criminal must break an evil curse in order to rescue an abducted girl who has mysteriously disappeared.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Moseley, Nick Cassavetes, Yuzuka Nakaya, Lorena Kotô, Canon Nawata, Charles Glover, Cici Zhou, Louis Kurihara

Director: Sion Sono

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Here’s what we all need to realize about Nicolas Cage – he knows exactly what he’s doing.  Anytime a GIF or a meme is passed around with one of Cage’s signature crazy eye looks or classic freak out faces, it’s the result of a carefully calculated plan on the part of the actor to dig into whatever character he’s playing.  It gives the director something to work with, something to drive his fellow actors crazy, and it makes audiences nervously anticipate his next move/movie because you truly don’t know how he’ll pivot. 

Once a mainstay on the Hollywood A-List, after Cage won his Oscar in 1995 he toiled about in various blockbusters until his star waned after one too many fails at the box office.  That’s when Cage started thinking in volume, not quality, and the sheer number of films he was in rose dramatically.  While lazy actors like Bruce Willis have taken over the mantle of this business model, Cage was king of making these random films that were almost indistinguishable from one another.  I’m not sure exactly when or how it happened, but I noticed Cage began to stretch again in 2018 with the release of Mandy, a well-received horror film that was often a nightmare to watch which genre fans went ape over.  Coming back a year later with Color Out of Space, an even more impressive blend of Cage-iness mixed with a trippy H.P. Lovecraft vibe, it was obvious the actor was finding his groove with projects and directors that spoke to him.

Continuing to star in the occasional quickie, Cage set the film community ablaze already twice this year with two different projects, the bizarre Willy’s Wonderland and one of his best performances to date, Pig.  Now, I’m still willing to work for Cage’s team to help them mount a campaign for him to get in the Best Actor race for his work in that excellent film but I’m thinking he won’t need much help getting there on his own.  The end of the year may be getting crowded but what he did with that film is still so fresh in my mind that I can imagine voters that saw it will be feeling the same way.  Perhaps it’s best to keep certain voters away from Cage’s latest movie, though.  It might undo some of that goodwill Pig served up.

Let me state for the record before we gain entry to Prisoners of the Ghostland that I found the first English-language film from director Sion Sono to be almost operatic in nature and often just as frustrating to sit through.  It has moments that are wildly creative, sucking you into its energy field with an enticing mythology and fringe characters that have you craning your neck to see more.  On the other hand, Sono displays his typical taste for excess and winds up almost choking the life out of the picture before anyone has a chance to get much of anything done.  The extreme director is a good match for Cage, and both know it, so it’s just a question of who wants to go bigger before going home. 

Set in a world undone by a nuclear catastrophe where scattered cultures have created a mishmash of design and community, Prisoners of the Ghostland drops us into Samurai Town, a brothel run by the smarmy Governor (Bill Moseley, Texas Chainsaw) who has lost something near and dear to him.  His adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella, Climax) has vanished, and the Governor needs a professional to travel to the dangerous Ghostland to find her.  The man for the job is, naturally, named Hero (Cage, Valley Girl) and to incentivize him to keep his cool in all matters he’s wired with explosives at particular points of his body. Think about hitting a woman?  Bye-bye arm.  The bombs on his nether regions are self-explanatory…there will be no unauthorized breeding in Ghostland.  Fail to find her, and that bomb around his neck will efficiently end his life.

With only a few short days to find Bernice and bring her back, he’ll have to work fast because while finding Bernice turns out to be easy, returning her isn’t a walk in the park.  As Hero learns more about the horrific conditions in Ghostland and its inhabitants, he plans a revenge plot to secure his freedom and the liberty of others.  Yet a memory from the past still plagues him, a memory that turns out to have a major impact on his current mission, throwing a significant wrench in the outcome of the plot to overthrow the powerful Governor and those that follow him. 

The screenplay from Aaron Hendry & Reza Sixo Safai is surprisingly original and not based off any previous work and both writers have given the dynamics of Ghostland some intriguing wrinkles.  In Sono’s visionary hand, the world creation is complete and so you have something that is marvelous to look at, if just a tad vacant overall.  It’s like those walls of a community theater production that look so impressive from the 12th row but once you get up close you see that it’s just a two-inch flimsy piece of painted plywood…but for a while, you were fooled.  This ruse is helped along by, no surprise here, Cage’s fully immersed performance that never comprises or belies any doubt in the material.  That’s the special sauce which keeps Cage operating so reliably at 120% from film to film.  Like him or loathe him, he believes in what he’s doing and that in turn creates an atmosphere where everything is possible, and anything can happen. 

In previous films, not everyone has been as game as Cage but Sono has surrounded his star with a roster of like-minded actors that go for broke and don’t care who’s watching.  Boutella is, in many ways, an actress after Cage’s heart that’s more than willing to go toe-to-toe for control of scenes.  Lithe in body and able to tap into relatable and raw emotions, she’s an interesting counterpart to Cage’s deep well of regret…both are individuals in pain that need saving and perhaps this journey will wind up benefitting both.  Moseley and a scary Nick Cassavetes (The Other Woman) as Cage’s former partner now mysterious rival, pop off the screen with appropriate villainy but watch out for Tak Sakaguchi silently stealing the movie as a cunning assassin who gets some ferociously fun fight sequences.  While the film is filled with several memorable performances for the right reasons, there’s a central character that’s so atrociously annoying it begins to cast the rest of the actors in a bad light.  I’m going to refrain from passing that name along but once you see the movie, you’ll know who she is.

Along with Mandy and Color of Space, Prisoner of the Ghostland feels like it’s completing a trilogy of interesting reaches by Cage into foreign territory.  Not only are they gambles that have by and large paid off for him creatively, but critically and commercially they’ve done well for his credibility…far more than his direct to video feed-trough junk he had been making.  Couple that with a quieter and more reflective role in Pig and you begin to see an actor coming into another stage of their career where box office isn’t key, but fulfillment of mind, body, and soul is.  Lucky for us, that desire also comes with an entertainment value as well.

Movie Review ~ Great White (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A blissful tourist trip turns into a nightmare when five seaplane passengers are stranded miles from shore. In a desperate bid for survival, the group try to make it to land before they either run out of supplies or are taken by a menacing terror lurking just beneath the surface.

Stars: Katrina Bowden, Aaron Jakubenko, Kimie Tsukakoshi, Tim Kano, Te Kohe Tuhaka

Director: Martin Wilson

Rated: NR

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It’s honestly a miracle, when you think about it.  Considering how far technical achievements in film have come since the release of JAWS over 45 years ago, you would think that by now someone would have figured out how to create a decent shark to terrorize nubile women and beefed-up men that dare enter the ocean.  Sadly, instead of putting the elbow grease in and attempting to get back to the type of haunting magic that was created from the depths in Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster masterpiece, studios and filmmakers seem determined to go cheap and low-tech and the results are resoundingly heinous.  If you’re dealing with another cheesy direct to streaming piece that is meant to be silly (House SharkGhost Shark? Ouija Shark?) then some allowance must be made for quality, but when you’re settling in with a release clearly aspiring to be taken as serious as the 1975 granddaddy of them all, you expect far more.

Every so often, we’re graced with a well-calibrated entry that understands the game and arrives ready to play.  The Shallows, The Reef, and Bait 3D were all superior examples of directors getting it right.  I also found The Meg to be a fun, if PG-13 sanitized, take on a scary novel that should have been adapted two decades earlier when studios would have let it be released with all the violence intact.  While Deep Blue Sea from 1999 is maybe the shiny diamond of shark movies in recent memory in my book, it’s straight to video sequel in 2018 sits near the bottom of the overall list.  Shockingly, Deep Blue Sea 3 from 2020 bounced back nicely and earned a reprieve for the franchise.  With a sequel to The Meg about to shoot and the constant threat of a JAWS remake hanging over out heads (I put this into the universe: please do NOT do this, just do a 2018 Halloween-style sequel that picks up 50 years later), audiences that don’t mind sticking to swimming pools are left with the occasional scraps of underwater thrillers.

Scraps is a good way to classify Great White because it’s compiled of a lot of different pieces, never fully finding its own identity.  With slack pacing, poor CGI, and a main attraction that remains frustratingly below the surface for much of the trim run time, it definitely doesn’t have the goods to be considered among the better entries in the genre, though it is considerably better made than most.  Mostly known as a producer, screenwriter Michael Broughen’s lack of experience shows with a threadbare plot that finds a tour guide/pilot, his medic/girlfriend, a cook, and the couple that hired them all for the day to take them to a secluded island fending off a marauding shark when their sea plane sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Director Martin Wilson makes his feature film debut with Great White, and he certainly captures the beauty of the Brisbane coast beautifully, albeit it with characters touting how infested the waters are with man-eating sharks.  Yay, tourism!  Things actually start off sort of well for Great White, with a young couple finding themselves a bit too far from their boat when confronted with a deadly foe, but then Broughton’s issue-filled script kicks in and we have to wade through a lot of personal business before we can get back to shark business.  Most of this involves pilot Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko) and Kaz (Katrina Bowden, Piranha 3DD) who are working through a bump in taking the next step of their relationship.  When they are joined by Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi) and Joji (Tim Kano) for a brief moment you get the feeling Broughton is going to spice things up by creating a few characters with a darker depth but, small spoiler, it’s shallow wading for all.

Looking at the cast, anyone that’s ever watched one of these movies could likely go through and number off the order in which they’ll become fish food and if the film has anything going for it, it’s that there comes a time when you aren’t quite sure the usual suspects will make it to the end.  Wilson manages to get quite a lot of mileage out of the viewer watching Bowden’s legs kicking furiously in the dark blackness and it would wrong of me to lie and say my heart wasn’t beating a little faster when one character enters the water in a totally misguided moment.  You’ll be screaming at the screen the entire time at their lunacy…I was.

While all of this is happening, audiences are going to be waiting for a look at what’s hungrily chomping at the cast members and every time the shark appears it looks like stock footage that’s been blown up to look like a far more fearsome creature.  The rapid shift to clear nature documentary shots only confirms a severe lack of actual CGI created…or at least until the end which is where the significant amount is used.  Still, by then it’s too late to have the same kind of impact that would have been nice to have had all along.  At least Spielberg (and subsequent sequel directors) gave us an animatronic scare every now and then that at least looked believable. 

Acting their way around an enemy that isn’t there is difficult, and the cast does a fine job in selling what they are supposedly seeing.  Bowden was always a bit of a blank spot during her tenure on NBC’s 30 Rock and hasn’t made an impression in the years since, but she’s a believable heroine here and easily outpaces the bland Jakubenko and his character who suffers from PTSD after surviving a shark attack years before (do you think he’ll have to face his fears at some point?).  Tsukakoshi is around for the screams and Kano is there to give you someone above the water to loathe when the shark isn’t around.  While his character makes a few spectacularly stupid decisions, Te Kohe Tuhaka’s cook is the most agreeable in the bunch.

One of these days we’ll get a director and studio that wants to spend the money and time creating a creature that looks like the real thing and moves like the real thing.  Maybe it’s created on a computer, maybe it’s something tangible the actors can react to in the moment.  Whatever it is, it has got to be better than the downward slide that is going on now.  If we can create free apps for our phones that can make it appear our friends are singing “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee” with Julie Andrews, we simply must be able to get a shark to swim through the water and eat an unfortunate swimmer…right?  Until that time, watch Great White and think about what could have been.

Movie Review ~ Séance

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Camille Meadows is the new girl at the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls. Soon after her arrival, six girls invite her to join them in a late-night ritual, calling forth the spirit of a dead former student who reportedly haunts their halls. But before morning, one of the girls is dead, leaving the others wondering what they may have awakened.

Stars: Suki Waterhouse, Inanna Sarkis, Madisen Beaty, Ella-Rae Smith, Seamus Patterson, Marina Stephenson Kerr, Megan Best, Stephanie Sy, Jade Michael

Director: Simon Barrett

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  What terrific fortune is this?  Two respectably good female-led slasher films released within weeks of each other?  Can it be?  After a long dry spell with a pile of duds and clunkers, an eerie wind of change is blowing and bringing with it revitalized energy to a genre that was barely standing.  Early May’s Initiation was a clever subversion of the typical college-set slice and dice thrillers that populated many cinemas throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, giving tired tropes an entertaining dust off.  Now along comes Séance with its spooky boarding school setting and Craft-ian vibes to send some chills through your screen. What both films may lack in overall budget and the benefit of a release via a larger platform, they more than make-up for in playful deference to their treasured inspirations.

I could understand some dubious feelings about Séance at first glance, because I had them too.  The original poster with pouty girls in school uniforms in front of a foreboding dormitory made it look like one of those generically terrible Redbox cheapie titles that come out of nowhere and offer little return for your overnight fee.  A closer inspection (and a better poster) unveils some pedigree behind the scenes and that was enough to get me signed up for writer/director Simon Barrett’s feature debut.  A screenwriter on respectable genre outings like You’re Next and The Guest, Barrett also penned the attempted reboot of Blair Witch in 2016 that was better than many gave it credit for.  Teaming up with Dark Castle Entertainment (the production label responsible for remakes of House of Wax, House on Haunted Hill, and original titles The Apparition, Ghost Ship, Gothika, and Orphan) and streaming service Shudder, Barrett was able to get this one made during the pandemic without sacrificing any of its effectiveness in the scare department. 

The exclusive Edelvine Academy for Girls is supposedly haunted by the spectre of a former student that died under mysterious circumstances.  At least that’s what the group of girls attempting to call her spirit forth late one night in a dark bathroom mirror are hoping for.  Saying her name into their reflections several times doesn’t produce the result they are expecting, but it does leave one skeptic so frightened that she winds up dead later that night.  Was it an accident, was it the spirit, or was it someone else with a razor-sharp axe to grind?  The tragedy leaves an opening for a new student, though, and Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse, Pokémon Detective Pikachu) is the next name on the list. 

Failing to make a great first impression to the headmistress (Marina Stephenson Kerr, The Grudge, a sort of B-list Michelle Pfeiffer) after getting into a nasty fight with HBIC Alice (Inanna Sarkis) before she can even unpack her bags, Camille doesn’t fit the new girl mold in kowtowing to existing hierarchies or ways of doing business.  Instead, she asserts her dominance from the get-go and isn’t above landing or taking a punch from Alice or any of the other girls that run in her gang. (Side note: when did girl fights get so crazy? Camille refuses to move from Alice’s table and in response Alice punches her several times right in the face for her ‘crime’. Yeow!)

Camille does manage to find some people she likes; shy Helina (Ella-Rae Smith, The Commuter) was friends with the girl who recently died and Trevor (Seamus Patterson, Books of Blood) is the son of the headmistress and a handyman/boy around campus.  Through them, Camille learns more about the “accident” and other strange goings-on around the school, just in time for her detention to begin with the other girls for their opening day fight.  While they’re cleaning out and organizing a musty section of the school, they decided to press their luck and try out another séance, but this time their ceremony definitely brings something into reality…a slinky killer that begins to swiftly chop away at the girls. 

As he has with his previous scripts, Barrett makes efficient use out of his dialogue and doesn’t waste a lot of time with extraneous tangents.  It’s not Pulitzer Prize winning stuff, nor is it intended to be.  However, there is a mystery at the heart of Séance the audience is meant to figure out and clues are dropped along the way to help those paying close attention unravel in advance of the Big Reveal (one of several, I might add) near the end.  Barrett also excels at creating strong female characters that fight back, not just those that have a surge of energy when they most need it, either.  These are women that are prepared and not helpless and I like that he seems to have that in mind as he develops the story.  The idea of victimhood isn’t at the forefront of his mind and none of the women in the movie are portrayed as feeble or lacking…only in terms of perhaps coming up short in the conscience department.

There is a nice overall tone achieved and more than a few sly frights along the way. With the scary comes the silly and a dance sequence with some questionable skill level is one you’ll just have to bite your tongue through.  It’s also worth noting that it took my partner and I a full forty-five minutes to decide if this was a prep school or a college because the ages of the actresses are so varied you can’t quite tell the academic institution they are attending.  If you’re looking at Waterhouse, it should be a college.  Then you look at Madisen Beaty (To the Stars) and you’d believe it could be a boarding school for children of rich parents. 

Nitpicks and a few plot holes aside, Séance is one I think horror fans can join hands and get their arms around with ease.  It’s well made and at brisk 92 minutes moves at a nice clip, dotting it’s time with the appropriate amount of momentum so that it doesn’t experience that middle sag which can drag a lesser film down.  It joins recent feminist slasher films in skewering expectations without beating audiences over the head with any agenda to do so.  Would be a great Saturday night choice or could even be enjoyed as a late afternoon watch if the clouds grow dark and the rain falls.

Movie Review ~ Jakob’s Wife

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a chance encounter with “The Master,” the wife of a small-town minister discovers a new sense of power and an appetite to live bigger and bolder than before…even as the body count around her grows.

Stars: Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden, Bonnie Aarons, Sarah Lind, Phillip Jack Brooks, Robert Rusler, Mark Kelly

Director: Travis Stevens

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Growing up, movie length was a big deal to me for some reason.  I think it was because I enjoyed going to the movies (and film in general, let’s be real) so much that the longer the movies were, the more time I could be lost in that experience.  When a movie I was waiting forever for, like Batman Returns, clocked in over two hours, I rejoiced.  If the umpteenth horror sequel in a long running franchise along the lines of Halloween H20: 20 Years Later only made it to 86 minutes (with credits) it filled me with honest to goodness grief.  Eventually, I started to realize that 86 minutes might equal less character development in favor of pure audience pleasing thrills and over two hours could mean an overstuffed narrative that was unnecessary to the overall plot. It all depended on the movie. 

Now, reviewing movies as much as I do, you better believe I pay attention to time because it’s more precious than ever when you have multiple films to watch.  Did that Australian revenge drama I watched a month ago really need to be two and a half hours?  Could a documentary about the ‘90s been a bit longer?  Mostly, I fall on the side of everything needing some trimming; I like a well-paced film but not one that breathlessly needs to finish the race at lighting speed.  Horror films are typically the trickiest to get the timing right and lately I’ve noticed a trend away from the shorter, rock ‘em, sock ‘em thrills in favor of the more auteur-driven pieces, handsomely made efforts that milk all they can out of extra time that winds up counteracting their good intentions. 

Lonely Anne (Barbara Crampton, You’re Next) dreamed of traveling the world but instead has spent her formidable years as the wife of a minister in a tiny town on the outskirts of Nowheresville.  Her stoic husband (Larry Fessenden, The Dead Don’t Die) is a fuddy-duddy bore that appears to notice the unhappiness present in his congregants more than in her.  You understand why she jumps at the chance to meet up with a former flame (Robert Rusler, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street) who even in his current middle-aged state reminds her of the chances she didn’t take.  It turns out to be too little too late for both, because they wind up touring an abandoned warehouse where things heat up but blood runs cold as they come across the temporary resting spot of a new monster in town. 

That’s not the end of Anne’s story however, because she emerges from the warehouse a changed woman.  She’s stronger and more confident, able to speak up when once before she was less inclined to say what she wanted.  More importantly, she finds a nice big cup of blood makes all of her new senses amplified tenfold…the fresher, the better.  Her husband doesn’t understand what’s happening to his newly sexualized wife but gets an idea quickly after a run-in with a missing parishioner that also had a nighttime meet-up with The Master (Bonnie Aarons, The Nun), a Nosferatu-ish rat-like beast that likes to whisper names and rip open necks that explode with blood for feasting.  With Anne transitioning into a ghastly beast and Jakob waking up and realizing her value, it’s time to exterminate The Master once and for all. 

Nothing would have made me happier than to report that Jakob’s Wife is worthy of your time and, more importantly, of a horror icon like Barbara Crampton’s.  Sadly, it’s a gore snore that appears to have spent more time and energy on devising ways to get blood the color and consistency of Hawaiian Punch to gush like a geyser out of necks than it did on any other production value.  Aarons make-up as The Master is ghoulish to be sure but it also feels like vampire-rodent 101. As an actress, Aarons is quite good at selling these freaky creations but even she can’t get this fiend to frighten. 

If Crampton had been afforded more of the true spotlight with interesting moments we haven’t seen before, the film may have cut some new territory as well.  Instead, the revitalized Anne trades her gray sweats and mousy hair for the vamp tramp look which is about as cliché as you can get.  Crampton didn’t get to her legendary status in horror for her acting, let’s be honest, but she brings a certain aura of sophistication to her roles. Even she looks uncomfortably out of sorts for the majority of the film, a rare occurrence. It’s likely because Anne may change outwardly but screenwriters Kathy Charles, & Mark Steensland (who I discovered was a production intern on 1987’s Mannequin…a trivia fact I had to include) haven’t done much to show the true changes she feels within…and that can’t be left to Crampton to do on her own.  In a similar vein (heh heh) Fessenden has a certain genre following that I don’t quite understand, and he doesn’t fit this material in the least.  Dead or undead, Anne needs to pack it in and leave Jakob in the dust and we don’t need to wait 90 minutes to understand this.  As for the rest of the supporting cast, let’s leave them with their anonymity as they deserve. 

What a curiously bad film like Jakob’s Wife serves to remind us of is that no matter what, horror will live on in interesting forms.  I just don’t think it needed to be a feature film that’s quite so long.  At over 90 minutes, it doesn’t have the plot (or, frankly, the budget) to make its case and that becomes brutally clear with each passing frame.  Instead, I wish a director like Travis Stevens, who has begun to make a name for himself in horror with a buzzy calling card flick like Girl on the Third Floor, would gather his contemporaries and get back to the anthology days of the fight film.  A number of genre directors right now have interesting ideas, can attract decent names, know how to stretch a buck, but often feel the need to make everything feature length.  I’d be willing to bet a nickel or two that if Stevens, who also co-wrote, presented Jakob’s Wife as a thirty-minute chapter in a longer anthology the reaction to the film would be far different.  In its current state, it doesn’t do anyone, apart from the special effects folk, any favors. 

Indie horror is where the creative juices can flow and that’s why Jakob’s Wife should have found some more skilled ways to subvert the vampire genre considering its limitations.  Instead, it feels like the filmmakers embraced these shortcomings too much and tossed their money behind the wrong horse.  We’ve seen excessive blood flow and gore before…what we really want are the stories and characters to back-it all up.  Without that, it’s all rat droppings. 

Available in Select Theaters, On Demand, and Digital on April 16th

Movie Review ~ Son (2021)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: When a young boy contracts a mysterious illness, his mother must decide how far she will go to protect him from terrifying forces in her past.

Stars: Emile Hirsch, Andi Matichak, Luke David Blumm, Kristine Nielsen, Rocco Sisto, Erin Bradley Dangar, Cranston Johnson

Director: Ivan Kavanaugh

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When it comes to writing reviews, I find that I’m not one of those people that is good with the ‘instant reactions’ that like to be gathered up the moment the lights pop on and we’re left wincing like newborn moles.  I need some time to think over the film I just saw and while my opinion might not shift too far in either direction there are a number of times when the longer I sit with a movie I’m middling on, the more I’ll find myself thinking of reasons why I liked it.  It’s the films I know are turkeys you don’t want me to stew over; that will only lead to me getting more creative with my takedowns.

The new horror film Son is a solid example of one that moved up a couple of notches in my book in the weeks after I saw it.  Originally, when it finished, my first reaction was that I found it to be a little too perfunctory and not where I wanted it to have settled itself.  Though I had enjoyed most of what writer/director Ivan Kavanaugh had presented over the preceding 90-ish minutes, I wasn’t sure the ending provided me with the wrap-up that made the most sense.  Then, since I rarely book it to the computer and do my write-up, I had a good three weeks to give the movie more consideration and it led to a greater appreciation as an above average effort.  Though it still has some weak spots that no amount of time were going to patch, it juggles competing narratives well and manages to keep the audience in the dark concerning what exactly is happening longer than expected.

It’s best that you keep yourself free from distractions during Son because there’s a lot of clues dropped throughout by Kavanaugh that may help you solve the mystery of why a young pregnant girl is fleeing in the middle of the night from shadowy figures that are pursing her.  Eventually giving birth in the back of a car as she makes her way to freedom, the timeline jumps ahead several years after Laura (Andi Matichak, Halloween) has moved on from her past and made a life for herself and her young son David (Luke David Blumm, The King of Staten Island) within the tranquility of a quiet town.  As the young schoolteacher grades papers one evening while David sleeps, she thinks she hears a noise and goes to investigate, her body naturally on high alert thinking someone from long ago has returned for her.  She’s mistaken though.  It’s not an intruder.  It’s many.

It’s a great scene to propel the film into its second act, giving Laura reason to fear for David’s safety after he is stricken with a terrible disease that puts his life in jeopardy.  As she cares for her son and gets closer to a detective assigned to her case (Emile Hirsch, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), we still never can quite figure out where she came from or why the target on her back might have shifted over to her son.   Determined to protect her child against an evil she can’t see outright, Laura eventually takes matters into her own hands, drawing on her dark past and the horrors that come with it.  The further Laura and David run, the more bodies pile up in their wake until the police and Laura’s love interest begin to question if they are chasing a vicious killer or being sent on a wild good chase.

For a film that hinges on a twist that is revealed early on, I was a bit surprised at how Kavanagh manages to keep us questioning the solution almost until the very end.  He’s gone ahead and very nearly told us what’s going on but then continues to shuffle his puzzle pieces around, forcing us to second guess ourselves.  That makes for a fun experience and likely why the ho-hum ending felt so flat in comparison. It felt like we traveled a long road with these characters only to run out of gas five miles outside of town.  So it mostly falls to Matichak to round off some of these rough edges and she’s excellent (though a tad young) as the harried mother trying to do right.  Hirsch seems too young as well but he’s the kind of pro that can sell an age disparity to us with ease.  I must admit it was tough to warm up to Blumm at first and it takes a while to see what Laura sees in David, but it’s in the latter half of the film when the action takes a brutally bloody turn that the young actor earns his stripes quite assuredly.

What keeps me coming back to movies like Son are the promise of a new idea in the horror genre or scary storytelling that I haven’t seen before.  Or, maybe not even as restrictive as that.  Let’s say a variation to an existing way to frighten that has bothered to take the time to really think about the kind of work that’s out there and actively tries to take a different approach.  Even if it isn’t 100% successful, critics (and fans of this variety of film) often applaud that reach and eventually want to see more from those involved. Son isn’t a perfect film, but it’s closer to hitting the mark than you might originally think after sitting with it for a time.  Thanks to some spine-tingly imagery and committed performances that add to the realistic tone Kavanaugh achieves, it’s a laudable effort that’s well worth your time to check out.