Movie Review ~ The Owners


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A group of friends think they find an easy score at an empty house with a safe full of cash. But when the owners, an elderly couple, come home early, the tables are suddenly turned.

Stars: Maisie Williams,  Sylvester McCoy,  Jake Curran, Ian Kenny,  Andrew Ellis, Rita Tushingham

Director: Julius Berg

Rated: NR

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  As the summer days dwindle and the fall weather approaches, I’ve started to see less of those super hot pool days and more of the chilly temps that signal a time when we’ll be indoors even more than we are now.  The last few months most of the world has been relegated indoors, hopefully staving off the further spread of a pandemic.  Some, like myself, don’t mind the excuse to be a homebody for a little while and not have to leave the confines of home so often while others get the cabin-fever itch to roam.  These are the people you may need to worry about, especially if you live in areas where snow may trap them inside for a lengthy period through the beginning of next year.

Luckily, we have a wealth of movies to get us through our time but strangely there have been a number of films that might exacerbate your feelings of claustrophobia.  Last week’s release Centigrade found a couple frozen inside their rental car, desperately trying to free themselves before they starve or freeze to death.  Then there was Relic, the awesome Australian drama-horror which preyed upon fears not just of the physical but of the mental as well, where even your house turns against you and can’t be trusted.  Homewrecker was a cautionary tale of never accepting the kindness of strangers, especially those that invite you into their home right away and June’s You Should Have Left takes the haunted house genre to skewed new levels.  Finally, The Rental was a dark, twisty reminder that the vacation home that’s too good to be true often is.

Now comes The Owners and it’s likely the nastiest one of them all and while you’d expect that statement to be followed with “and that’s a good thing”,  I sadly can’t say that about this adaptation of a 2017 French graphic novel.  Though it has all the makings of a grim good time and feels as if it possesses a slick swath of tricks up its sleeves with a solid opening introduction, it bungles its pivotal reveal which sends the remaining hour into a downward spiral.  Moving from suspense to laughs is never a good thing and that’s where The Owners finds itself when it hands over the keys and the credits roll.

Feeling an awful lot like 2016’s far superior and infinitely more surprising Don’t Breathe, The Owners opens with mates Nathan (Ian Kenny, Solo: A Star Wars Story) and Terry (Andrew Ellis) scoping out the remote home of the local doctor with their new acquaintance Gaz (Jake Curran, Fury).  It’s clear from the start that there’s a problem with the power dynamic in the group, with Nathan appearing to be the leader but the more brutal and soulless Gaz often goading the weaker man on to make decisions while seemingly naïve Terry watches it all unfold.  Nathan’s girlfriend Mary (Maisie Williams, The New Mutants) eventually joins the group and goes along, only because she’s promised the burglary of a safe the doctor keeps hidden will be an easy in and out job.

Of course, nothing goes as planned because after they enter the house the movie makes the first of several right turns meant to keep the audience off balance.  The first few times, writer/director Julius Berg and co-writer Mathieu Gompel accomplish their mission in creating some intrigue for viewers in wanting to know more.  Against our better judgement, we want the gang to go further into the house and uncover more of what’s behind the closed doors.  They’ve got one whopper of a shocker ready to pounce but unfortunately, that’s where the creative juices start to dry up and turn sticky.

It should come as no surprise that the doctor (Sylvester McCoy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, doing his best Ian Holm impression and succeeding) and his dotty wife (Rita Tushingham, Doctor Zhivago) return and become a part of the night’s events.  Continuing its icky descent, Berg heaps on the violence and gore and instead of focusing on finding plot points to make the characters interesting it feels as if the filmmakers were just out to make a catch and kill chase flick with diminishing logic the longer everyone is alive.  Characters take forever to realize the imminent danger they’re in and by that point you’ve already written them off, if you haven’t already wondered why they’ve suddenly changed their personalities entirely.  One character morphs into such a different person with new motivations that I half thought they were the evil twin of the original.

With films like Don’t Breathe or another nifty entry, 2015’s Intruders, home invasion thrillers have shown they can take a simple fear and maximize the suspense with some creative energy put forth.  The Owners has a game cast and every material needed to join the ranks as a successful entry in the genre but can’t make a flame out of the sparks it attempts to generate.

Movie Review ~ The Pale Door

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Available in theaters, on Demand and Digital August 21, 2020

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a train robbery goes bad, two brothers leading a gang of cowboys must survive the night in a ghost town inhabited by a coven of witches.

Stars: Devin Druid, Zachary Knighton, Melora Walters, Bill Sage, Pat Healy, Stan Shaw, Natasha Bassett, Noah Segan, Tina Parker

Director: Aaron B. Koontz

Rated: NR

Running Length:

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When I was young, the phrase “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” always kind of creeped me out and definitely made me think twice anytime I got near a pig or a handbag.  What’s more, it never totally made sense to me until I had some real world uses for it that it would apply to.  Once, I had a birthday cake made and when I went to pick it up I found that it was decorated wrong.  When I pointed it out, the baker said they’d be happy to scrape off the decoration and put something new on top – but “ you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”  The cake was a bust but a friend came through in a pinch with a replacement.

In movies, every now and then you get a silk purse of a synopsis but a sow’s ear of a film.  Such is the case with the indie horror Western The Pale Door.  Here was one that had me all in based solely on the tagline that mentioned witches and cowboys…um, sold!  The poster looked ominously freaky, it had some interesting character actors involved and I was reasonably comforted that based on the previous credits of some of the filmmakers there was serious potential.  All signs pointed to the kind of selection that would have me clamoring into a theater had it been available at a film festival as a midnight selection.

Nope.  Sow’s ear.

The story goes like this.  Years ago two brothers were orphaned on a dark night but eventually went in different directions, taking separate paths forward in life.  One brother, Duncan (Zachary Knighton), becomes an outlaw, a member of a gang of ne’er-do-wells that get by thieving from town to town.  His kid brother Jacob (Devin Druid) opts for a more respectable life working for a local saloon and keeping his money safe and sound, planning for the day when he can secure his future.  When Duncan reappears and announces his intent to rob a train filled with gold, Jacob suddenly takes an interest in his older brother’s business and joins him and his crew for a fateful heist that doesn’t bring them to quite the bounty they had anticipated.

Instead of the train carrying money, they find it’s transporting a woman (Natasha Bassett, Hail, Caesar!) in a locked and guarded box who, when eventually freed, wants to repay their kindness by inviting them back to the brothel run by her friends that’s nearby and overseen by the mysterious Maria (Melora Walters, The Master).  Starved for food, drink, and something more carnal, the posse is all too happy to accept the company of the lovely ladies of the evening…who have a nasty habit of turning into ghastly beasts when the doors are locked for the night.  The rough and rowdy robbers must survive the darkness and protect Jacob, who the blood-hungry creates have their sights set on thanks to his pure and innocent spirit.

Giving the credit where it’s certainly the most due, the screenplay from Keith Lansdale, Cameron Burns, and director Aaron B. Koontz is quite clever at times and ranks high in the imagination factor.  It’s not going into the Smithsonian for it’s witty dialogue or complex construct but there’s been thought put in on how to get from Point A to Point B and that’s enough to keep the lights on for at least the first half of the movie.  Though it’s clearly cherry-picking the good stuff off of earlier adjacent movies like From Dusk Till Dawn and Near Dark, on paper at least it has the ring of a feature that would have worked quite well.

So…what’s the sow’s ear part you’re referring to, you say?  Well…it’s one of the cheapest looking movies I’ve seen in all of 2020 and maybe in the last several years.  A fine script is one thing but it can’t save filmmaking that is bargain basement throughout.  Costumes look like they were plucked directly (or stolen outright) from an Old Time Western Photo Shop, sets are straight-up in some touristy Wild West town that was shuttered for filming, and the hysterical props that are used are filled with jarring displays like Wanted posters you’d see printed on booths at an amusement park.  On top of all of that, the actual look of the movie gives the impression of a training video for a horseback riding camp.  The old TV show Hey Dude created a more convincing Western vibe.

Performances certainly don’t help things along either.  While Druid is a respectable, if mealy-mouthed, lead, he tends to disappear as the movie progresses…vanishing almost completely behind bigger performances just as he’s supposed to come to the forefront.  That’s partly Koontz’s fault for allowing some of the supporting players (which from the looks of past credits appear to be friends) to overact to an astonishing degree.  As the lone female bandit, Tina Parker does an amusing about-face from her tightly wound role in the excellent To the Stars released earlier this summer but Pat Healy (The Innkeepers) and especially Noah Segan (Knives Out) have the munchies for the scenery throughout.  Only Walters seems to gather what she’s gotten herself into and decides to go all out…and more’s the better for it.

A disappointment through and through, this is one door that need not be opened or even gazed upon with curiosity.  What a bummer this one was, mostly because I had some true high hopes for it.  It just goes to show that a tagline alone cannot (and should not) be the only thing that entices you into a film.  The script for this one might not be quite the silk purse that we discussed earlier but it’s at least a high-density cotton that stands up to inspection if you squint a bit.  The Pale Door itself needs a padlock, though.

Movie Review ~ Spree

Available In select theaters, drive-ins, on demand, and digital August 14, 2020

The Facts:

Synopsis: Thirsty for a following, Kurt Kunkle is a rideshare driver who has figured out a deadly plan to go viral.

Stars: Joe Keery, Sasheer Zamata, David Arquette, Kyle Mooney, Mischa Barton

Director: Eugene Kotlyarenko

Rated: NR

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Being famous for doing nothing used to be seen as something trivial, what you’d snicker at silently and roll your eyes over while reading about it in a wrinkled magazine at your optometrist’s office while you waited for your pupils to slowly dilate.  As your vision became blurrier and the words became harder to read, all you could focus on were the pictures and in the end that’s all that mattered because it was the visuals of the do-nothing-for-fames that managed to get them where they were.  Now, after years of watching people ascend to the rank of celebrity on their skills as an “influencer”, it’s no longer something to laugh about.  It almost makes you want to cry.

That’s why a movie like Spree will likely be interpreted in a number of different ways by anyone who views it.  It all depends on what you personally think about the current culture of social media and how it has the power to affect the actions of others.  Whether it’s deciding what to buy or where to go, more and more there is a reliance on these internet influencers to call the shots and it’s crazy to think it’s a money-making business for some.  It’s definitely not making money for the likes of people like Spree‘s Kurt Kunkle, the twenty-something wannabe star who takes his desire for fame too far over the course of one bloody night.

Though it’s framed like a “found footage” sort of package, don’t let that scare you off right away (there may be other things that do that, so beware) because Spree gets off to an entertaining start taking us through our introduction to Kurt (Joe Keery, Stranger Things, Molly’s Game) and his YouTube show “Kurt’s World”.  Attracting minimal viewers and netting next to no followers on his various social media accounts, Kurt’s hopes of becoming famous seem to be fading fast and he knows he needs to do something big to get noticed.  Maybe he can use his connection as former babysitter to internet sensation @bobbybasecamp (Josh Ovalle) to drum up some new followers but how to get the attention of the world?

The answer shows up in what Kurt dubs #TheLesson.

Working as a driver for a rideshare service, Kurt tricks out his car with video cameras and livestreams his fares…who he begins to kill, first with poisoned water and then with the clock ticking and his follower count not rising fast enough, via other methods that get progressively more gruesome and desperate as the night goes on.  Throughout the day, Kurt encounters a number of faces that will be familiar to viewers and it’s not a spoiler to say that some of them make it out of the car alive.  Some of them die out of the car, too.  No, really, there are interesting cameos from Kyle Mooney (Hello, My Name Is Doris) as a hapless jokester, David Arquette (star of the equally meta documentary You Can’t Kill David Arquette arriving soon) as his Dad, a loser DJ that bribes his son for a ride by promising him an Instagram mention from a visiting DJ playing at the same (strip) club.  Mischa Barton (Notting Hill), Frankie Grande, and Lala Kent (Hard Kill) all show up at one point or another, too…a random mix of the very influencer-celebrities the film is taking aim at.

The most important fare is comedian Jessie Adams (from SNL player Sasheer Zamata, excellent in a honest to goodness breakout role) because she’s exactly the kind of social media star he isn’t.  Easy-going, self-aware, honest, edgy, and maybe a little meaner than she has to be, she’s also worked her way to get to the comedy show she’s performing in that evening and an early encounter with Kyle doesn’t end well for him.  Quickly becoming fascinated with Jessie, Kurt turns his attention from wondering why his star struggles to rise to fixating on how hers manages to ascend with little trouble.  That’s when the real madness of Spree truly takes over.

Spree is a move that is all fun and games…until it isn’t and then you suddenly realize you’ve been playing along with something very dark and dangerous.  It’s exactly the kind of response the movie wants you to have and I admit I fell head first into its well-designed snap trap.  Writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko doesn’t have any observances that are hugely revelatory but it’s the way he goes the extra mile in depicting the lengths to which Kurt will go for fame and the alarming coldness in his dispatching of human life that gives Spree those extra jolts to make you shudder.  Along with Keery, Kotlyarenko and cinematographer Jeff Leeds Cohn have amassed a tremendous amount of footage to establish Kurt’s online presence – I can’t even imagine how many hours/days it took to film all of it, yet alone for editor Benjamin Moses Smith to cut it together into the cohesive narrative it is.  That is isn’t just a 90-minute exercise in eye-ball gouging obnoxiousness is a miracle unto itself.

Still…it’s hard to get over the truth the movie is made up of bits and pieces of other films that have done this whole 15 minutes of fame nonsense in better (though more subtle) ways.  You don’t have to squint too hard watching Spree to see the elements of Taxi Driver, Maps to the Stars, American Psycho, Joker, Nightcrawler, or even Chicago that have been brought into the mix.  Yes, Spree may deliver the same message with the volume turned up a little louder and is far more in your face than Travis Bickle ever was…but those understated characters were often more unnerving because of their stillness.  Spree’s Kurt Kunkle is a ball of energy wanting to be noticed and it’s hard not to see him in front of you.  Same goes for the movie.

 

Movie Review ~ Color Out of Space

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After a meteorite lands in the front yard of their farm, Nathan Gardner and his family find themselves battling a mutant extraterrestrial organism that infects their minds and bodies, transforming their quiet rural life into a technicolor nightmare.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, Elliot Knight, Q’orianka Kilcher, Tommy Chong

Director: Richard Stanley

Rated: Unrated

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It may seem like a distant memory now, but there was a time when Nicolas Cage was a bona fide movie star that had clout at the box office and with the notoriously picky voters in several guilds/associations that handed out major awards. Winning an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas in 1995, Cage was always a bit of an odd duck in his approach to his craft and his habit for driving his co-stars nuts (the female ones in particular) has been well documented as more than just idle Hollywood lore. Recently, Cage has seemed to revel in leaning in to the public perception of him and it feels like he pops up in some random movie every other month. I’m not sure when the man has time to sleep or get his well cared for hair system spiffed up but he’s an old school acting workhorse.

Though most of the films Cage stars in are indecipherable from the other, every now and then he finds himself in one that gets people talking. Back in 2018 that film was Mandy, a grim head trip of a horror movie that became a bit of an underground hit – inspiring late night showings and putting Cage back in the good graces of fans that hadn’t seen a movie of his in theaters for years. That movie was very nearly an art project, a true experience into hell that had an impressive style and some bold moves but ultimately didn’t thrill me as much as it did others that were welcoming Cage back into the fold. Now, just a little over a year later comes Color Out of Space, another strange foray into the unknown with Cage in the drivers seat but this time he’s in a vehicle that’s going someplace interesting.

Adapted from H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space”, this isn’t the first time Lovecraft’s supernatural sci-fi has gotten the big screen treatment. Audiences first saw a version of it via the 1965 Boris Karloff schlocker Die, Monster, Die! and the one I remember fondly, The Curse from 1987 but for some reason within the last ten years it has become a hot property with two other versions floating around. For this retelling, the screenplay comes courtesy of Scarlett Amaris and director Richard Stanley and they’ve done a rather remarkable job updating Lovecraft’s story while maintaining much of his original set-up.  Though modernized, it’s quite reverential to Lovecraft and the nightmare he dreamt up.

The Gardner family has come to the tiny town of Arkham, Massachusetts for a change of pace. Raising llamas while trying to get his gardening business off the ground, Nathan (Cage, Valley Girl) is making the best out of a recent rough patch of setbacks. His wife Theresa (Joely Richardson, Endless Love) may have followed her husband from the city to the country but she hasn’t quite unplugged from her corporate life in doing so. Their children Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur, Big Eyes), Benny (Brendan Meyer), and Jack (Julian Hilliard, The Haunting of Hill House) are all adjusting in their own way with Lavinia opting to fully embrace her Wiccan ways and rituals now that she’s fully ensconced in nature’s beauty.

When Ward (Elliot Knight) a visiting water-surveyor enters the picture, he finds more than just a contaminated stream after a meteor crash lands on the Gardner’s property and begins to have a strange effect first on the flora and then on the family. At first, the changes are barely noticeable. New plants sprout up, unexplained phenomena increase in their occurrences. Then, those that drink from the water in the well begin to exhibit increasingly bizarre behavior until the extraterrestrial force that was contained within the meteor is fully unleashed, bringing with it an otherworldly terror. As the force gains power and begins to spread, the survivors have to evade a deceptive intelligence that aims to trick them into following it into darkness.

I was surprised at how effective Color Out of Space was for the majority of its run time. Largely, it’s a tense bit of entertainment with a heavy dose of the paranoid thriller and credit should be given to Aramis and Stanley for keeping things at a nice simmer for as long as they do. That’s quite a feat considering they have Cage in a role that is ostensibly the lead but who remains a bit in the background until the latter half of the film. You can see Stanley did his best to restrain Cage’s performance and I think editing had something to do with the finished product because Cage comes off quite well here. Sure, near the end he starts to whirl out of control but the film kinda calls for it and no one can swerve off a cliff quite like Nic Cage can. (I do wonder, however, if he was trying to emulate a certain impeached official when his character was having violent mood swings…I mean, it had to have been intentional, right?)

Along with Cage there’s a strong supporting cast with Arthur a real star in the making. There’s a worldly curiosity to her performance that makes for an intriguing character and a snappy rapport between all of the family members made me believe they all liked each other enough to withstand a good teasing. While his contributions are limited, Tommy Chong (Zootopia) is quite funny as a local off-the-grid stoner. It isn’t a stretch for Chong but he sells it with some flair. I continue to find Richardson a very underrated actress who has lived a bit in the shadow of her late sister (Natasha) and famous mother (Vanessa) throughout the years. She’s pretty great, especially when you consider just how far Stanley asks her to go in one scene.  Other actresses might have flinched but Richardson dives right in.

It’s interesting to note this is Stanley’s first feature film since he was famously fired from 1996’s remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. The legendary tale of Stanley’s ouster from that movie has been recounted a number of times (including the fantastic documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, which is available on Amazon Prime) and judging by Stanley’s ferocious comeback he’s more than ready to get back to moviemaking without a lot of studio interference. Working with a budget around $12 million, Stanley and his visual effects crew have created an impressive looking world that is both a wonder to behold and frightening, often at the same time. There’s a particularly grotesque effect near the end of the film that should recharge the battery of any horror fan running low on gore fumes.

Though the film begins to lose some energy the further down the rabbit hole it goes and the characters start to make increasingly bad decisions, it’s absolutely one you should see if given the chance. I can see this one following a Mandy trajectory (though I found this far less intimidating and grimy) and finding an audience that responds to its mind-bending visuals, dynamic color palate, and shocking sequences of terror and violence. Even if it doesn’t all make sense all of the time, it’s more entertaining than I ever thought going in.

31 Days to Scare ~ Mary (2019)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family looking to start a charter-boat business buys a ship that holds terrifying secrets once out on isolated waters.

Stars: Gary Oldman, Emily Mortimer, Jennifer Esposito, Stefanie Scott, Owen Teague, Michael Landes

Director: Michael Goi

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: There’s a myth in Hollywood that winning a Best Actress Oscar puts a kind of curse on your career for a period of time after you take home the statue.  Most of those who hold some sort of stock in this cite Halle Berry as the prime example of the jinx with the actress starring in a seemingly endless series of flops and non-starters.  After all, her two headlining movies out of the gate after winning her award were Gothika and the notoriously reviled update on Catwoman.  I mention this because we may want to expand this dark cloud watch to the Best Actor Oscar as well because of recent Best Actor winner Gary Oldman setting sail on the high seas with this well-intentioned but ultimately listless horror film.

Unfulfilled with his days working on a tourist fishing boat for a company he doesn’t own, David (Oldman, Darkest Hour) seeks out a cruiser he can invest in to start an excursion business he can manage the way he chooses.  His wife Lisa (Emily Mortimer, Mary Poppins Returns) wants him to be practical with the little savings they do have, so she’s wary when he’s drawn to a ship in bad shape.  As the audience, we know David and Lisa should steer clear of the ship, having been treated to an earlier introduction to the vessel where we get an bloody idea of how her last crew wound up.  David remains resolute and soon, along with their daughters Lindsey (Stefanie Scott, Insidious: Chapter 3) and Mary (Chloe Perrin, Jurassic World) the family has restored the ship and are taking it for a maiden voyage.

Of course, this is when strange things start to happen on board and this is one reason you’ll be glad the movie clocks in at a scant 84 minutes, including credits.  See, the ship might just be under a witch’s curse, having been a Puritan vessel that carted women accused of witchcraft to their watery graves.  Now, a spirit seeks to inhabit the soul of a family member…maybe young Mary.  The family and two crew members aren’t too far out to sea when they experience visions of death and burned corpses, are possessed by an evil host, and just generally go a bit nuts, all culminating in a life or death battle during a particularly nasty storm. The close quarters provide little wiggle room for changes of scenery and the vast ocean horizons give the sense of solitude and just how alone they truly are.

There’s a framework set up in the script from Anthony Jaswinski (who wrote the far more enjoyable Kristy and The Shallows) that takes the air of surprise out of things from moment one.  Opening with one of the characters being interviewed by an officer (Jennifer Espositio, Don’t Say a Word) about the events that happened on the ship, you know the ending already and start to work backward from there.  That unfortunately robs any suspense from the rest of the film and even a last minute, um, Hail Mary, can’t save the awkward plot device.  I never understand why a movie will take this approach without turning it into something more interesting and upending our expectations.  I kept expecting Jaswinski to treat this musty old contrivance with a little more flair – instead I was left feeling this was an early script he dusted off and sold without tinkering with it before turning it in.

Looking at Mary from a 1,000 feet level, one has to wonder how it attracted Oldman in the first place.  Though featured prominently on the poster and billed first (obviously), there’s precious little for Oldman to do for much of the movie, relegating co-star Mortimer to do a fair amount of the heavy lifting which she does admirably.  I kept feeling that wherever the action was taking place, Oldman was on a different deck of the ship, oblivious (or off filming another movie?) to what was going on.  It’s certainly a well-made film that has a clear atmosphere established; television director Michael Goi also served as cinematographer, which I’m guessing added to the film feeling efficiently produced.  The only scares are of the jump variety and Goi at least keeps the movie interesting to look at – I just wish the port of call was a bit more alluring.