Movie Review ~ The Dark and the Wicked

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: When adult siblings Louise and Michael return to the farm where they grew up to say goodbye to their dying father and comfort their distressed mother, they soon find themselves overwhelmed by waking nightmares and an unstoppable evil that threatens to consume them all.

Stars: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Xander Berkeley, Lynn Andrews, Julie Oliver-Touchstone

Director: Brian Bertino

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Now that we’re in November and I’ve made it through October’s 31 Days to Scare, where I bombarded myself with numerous scare titles throughout the course of the month (numbering more than 31 I should add), I had a realization.  There’s a simplicity in the best scary movies that no loud music stings, gory displays of bloodletting, or cats thrown in front of the camera to make you leap back in your seat can match.  Not every filmmaker has that kind of restraint to resist the urge to go for that easy out.  So whether it be an antsy studio worried their target audience won’t be satisfied or a director that gives into their commercial side of the brain, I started to notice how many films wind up on this path…especially the thrown cats.

It’s been twelve years, but I think my nerves still haven’t quite recovered from seeing The Strangers, director Brian Bertino’s 2008 debut feature, so I was prepared for the same kind of spine-jangling experience with his fourth film, The Dark and the Wicked.  Bertino is a filmmaker that takes his time between films and doesn’t seem to be driven or tempted by the financial side of the business.  In all honesty, I haven’t seen the two films he’s made since The Strangers but get the impression they follow the same efficient tactics he employed in his first film.  Watching his new offering as part of The 56th Chicago International Film Festival, I tried to recreate that experience from home by checking it out late at night with all the lights off.  While it has the requisite scares that admirably often emanate not from something leaping out but just quietly appearing in the frame, if you sweep all that away there’s not a whole lot left for the film to offer viewers seeking more than a quick thrill.

Not that Bertino and his cast don’t give it a helluva good college try.  I almost instantly regretted starting it so late and considered turning a small light on thanks to a prologue that opens in a workroom adjacent to an isolated farmhouse where a woman (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) works mending clothes late at night.  What’s scary about that, you may ask?  Well, all the mannequins, of course.  A disturbance among her farm animals is the first sign to us of imminent danger but is gradually revealed as an evil presence that has set up residence on the property, preying on her and her invalid husband.

The arrival of the couple’s two grown children should alleviate some of this burden but both bring their own baggage along.  Louise (Marin Ireland, The Irishman) is single and without much in her life, a never-worn wedding dress still sitting half-completed in her mother’s workshop.  Leaving his wife and two young daughters at their home a far distance away, Michael (Michael Abbott Jr., The Death of Dick Long) has returned after a long absence to confront some guilt he’s pushed down for not being there to help in the care of his sick parent.  These emotions play a part in the overall horrors that unfold over the time the family spends together, with late night happenings turning from frightening to tragic.

Bertino keeps up a good sense of dread, at least for a while.  Yet it becomes repetitive and stagnant quicker than I had hoped.  Despite a rather unsettling visit from a preacher man (Xander Berkeley, The Wall of Mexico) their agnostic mother had supposedly found comfort in, the cycle of nightly spooky sights runs out of steam.  In films like this that depend on engagement, once the mind starts to wonder what the point of all this intense terror is for, you know something is amiss.  Also, the whole fractured family trope with grown children returning home to find one or more of their parents “not quite right” feels stale and the cracks show in Bertino’s script, though the performances try to keep it fresh.

I tried to like The Dark and the Wicked, actively tried, but the longer it kept establishing and re-establishing the broken relationships and continued in its bleak journey toward nowhere, the less I was interested in the destination.  In his past films, Bertino has been more comfortable in a certain inevitability with his characters but here he doesn’t seem totally able to decide if he wants to relinquish their fates with as much of a clear cut message. That leaves them and the viewer in a strange, uncomfortable place…and not in a good way.

**Note: A shorter version of this review appeared in my coverage of The 56th Chicago International Film Festival**

Movie Review ~ The Opening Act

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Will O’Brien is given the opportunity to emcee a comedy show for his hero and has to decide if he wants to continue the life he has set up or to pursue his dream as a stand-up comedian.

Stars: Jimmy O. Yang, Alex Moffat, Cedric the Entertainer, Neal Brennan, Bill Burr, Whitney Cummings, Jermaine Fowler, Ken Jeong, Russell Peters, Debby Ryan

Director: Steve Byrne

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: There have been good movies starring stand-up comedians.  There have been good movies filmed of stand-up specials.  Has there ever been a good movie about stand-up comedians, though?  The few I can think of off the top of my head, 1988’s Punchline and 2009 Funny People didn’t exactly set my world on fire and that I couldn’t come up with any others surely wasn’t a great sign.  I was thinking about that before I started to watch The Opening Act because looking over the cast list and seeing a lot of familiar names I thought I had some reason to be a little concerned.  Here was a movie written/directed by first-timer who was also a stand-up comedian starring a stand-up comedian and featuring a supporting cast that was nearly all from their same colleague pool.  It was a crapshoot which way it would go, either Steve Byrne was going to kill his first time out or he’d bomb.  Remarkably, The Opening Act is a winner and while it shows the tell-tale signs of a novice director, it also does more than hint at a great potential for Byrne on the horizon.  I expected a film that was crass and far more juvenile but was pleased to find a touching story with a sweet soul that wasn’t afraid to hide it.

As far back as he can remember, Will O’Brien (Jimmy O. Yang, Patriots Day) has had comedy in his life.  It was something his parents shared with him growing up and it became a source of comfort between him and his dad after his mother died when he was still a child.  The laughs they shared carried over to adulthood and with his father now gone, he keeps those memories close and uses them to fuel his drive forward.  Stuck in a job he hates working for an annoying boss (Bill Burr, Daddy’s Home) while dreaming of becoming a headlining stand-up comedian, he is having trouble even getting onstage at his local comedy club because he can’t get enough people to come see him.  The thing is, Will is kinda good and when he is onstage tends to do well…something no one seems to really acknowledge since everyone is trying to get to that next level.

When his friend at the club, Quinn (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians) books a gig and can’t show up to host an out of town comedy event, he suggests Will for the job and it’s his first big opportunity to be seen by a reputable promoter.  If he does well, this could lead to more jobs — all he has to do is make it through the weekend without getting into trouble and be funny.  Oh, and the performer he’s introducing is his all-time favorite comedian, Billy G (Cedric the Entertainer), so it’s a chance to meet his comic hero and he’ll be rooming with a hard-partying comic (Alex Moffat, Ralph Breaks the Internet) who is determined to show Will a good time while he’s in town.  What could go wrong?

Byrne devises three days of chaos for Will, some of it predictable and some of it not.  It’s all delivered with an easy-going performance from Yang who never oversells some of the more bizarre circumstances he finds himself in nor does he underplay the dramatic moments afforded to his character throughout.  These are important days for Will and Byrne knows it so there’s some respect given when it’s appropriate.  That’s not to say the movie isn’t above some low-brow humor or off-color jokes, but these aren’t defense mechanisms it returns to when it gets stuck in a rut…Byrne seems to be more creative than going for gross out comedy and instead finds something important to say by putting Will in uncomfortable situations where he has to pick himself up and face consequences.

Most of the comedians are good as well, to varying degrees.  Moffat is a riot as the ribald comic that could have been a terror but winds up being kind of a sweet Artful Dodger to Yang’s Oliver.  I kept waiting for him to do something nasty that would change his trajectory but he’s exactly who he presents himself to be and that’s refreshing.  I have said it before and will say it again, I am totally completely 100% over Jeong.  Talk about someone who has milked his schtick to death.  He’s the worst part of the movie by far and is agonizingly awful every second he’s on screen.  As Yang’s love interest, Debby Ryan (Life of the Party) doesn’t have much to do but it’s more of a screenwriting problem than anything.  She’s so non essential to the story it feels like it was a character Byrne was compelled to create or include just to establish something about Yang or to use as a plot device for one of Will’s comedic escapades in the film’s midsection.

A worthwhile effort that has heart to go along with the laughs, The Opening Act could also apply to Steve Byrne’s career as a writer/director.  There are some fixes to be made and technique to be learned, especially in the establishing first twenty minutes that feel a bit awkward.  However once the film hits its stride it keeps up a healthy dose of energy and good will towards, uh, Will until the very end.  If his sophomore feature narrative film is as winning, sunny, and confident as this, he’s one to keep your eyes on.  Ditto for Yang who makes an assured jump from stand-up comedian and sorta actor to unconventional leading guy with ease.  This will surprise you.

Movie Review ~ 2067

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: By the year 2067, Earth has been ravaged by climate change and humanity is forced to live on artificial oxygen. An illness caused by the synthetic O2 is killing the worlds’ population and the only hope for a cure comes in the form of a message from the future.

Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ryan Kwanten, Leeanna Walsman, Deborah Mailman, Matt Testro, Damian Walshe-Howling, Aaron Glenane

Director: Seth Larney

Rated: NR

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  I wasn’t too far into the new sci-fi flick 2067 when it struck me how much effort was put into a movie that far too few people will actually see.  Sure, nowadays films are shot on an iPhone and released on YouTube but this Australian funded and produced film looks to have had not a small amount of money spent on it yet it’s arriving within the VOD space during a very busy release week.  With nothing to set it apart from the flock, it needed to have some hook to attract the attention of viewers that would want to put other anticipated titles aside and choose this one instead.  If the film had been better, I might shed a tear or two but this is such a rote, run-of-the-mill time-travelling to the past to save the future (but with a TWIST!) endeavor that the entire affair hardly seems worth the two hours you could have spent on a more original idea.

Like last week’s similarly-themed LX 2048 which brought us to a future where the sun’s rays had become lethal, in 2067 we’re almost a half century onward and now the Earth’s air has grown toxic.  The population treats pure oxygen as a hot commodity with the clean stuff going for a pretty penny after its discovered living too long on artificial oxygen is even more deadly.  Underground worker Ethan Whyte (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman) toils long hours in dangerous conditions in order to make enough money to keep his ill wife (Sana’a Shaik) healthy for as long as possible.  Working alongside his quasi big-brother who has been looking out for him for years (Ryan Kwanten), he’s surprised when the company he works for that also dabbles in tests to find a cure for the plague requests his presence at their headquarters and offers up a striking proposal.

Seems that Ethan’s late scientist father (Aaron Glenane) had been experimenting in time-travel and had nearly made it work before he mysteriously died.  The work has continued with his colleagues continuing to send messages through a portal and they’ve only now just received a message back…and it points to Ethan as a possible solution to Earth’s impending doom.  Offered a chance by the company’s head officer (Deborah Mailman, The Sapphires) to take a leap of faith and find the answers that will save the Earth, Ethan will also come face to face with dark truths from his past that continue to haunt his present….even as he explores a future world that he may never make it back from.

If there’s one thing to say about writer/director Seth Larney’s futuristic film, it’s that it looks pretty good for an independently produced sci-fi spectacle.  Though obviously working with a smaller budget than your typical blockbuster, there are some very nice effects at times in 2067 but on the other hand quite a lot of the movie takes place in one of two specific sets that are just redressed to different time periods.  The truth of the matter is that this is, frankly, boring and doesn’t justify it’s incredibly long run time.  What might have had the makings of a short episode of the revamped The Twilight Zone has been stretched to a punishing feature length that can’t support it’s very meager plot littered with questionable twists and performances that are surprisingly shoddy for some and outright poor for others.

Between this and LX 2048, it’s obvious that there’s a 20 year period in our future that’s looking pretty bleak…a bad sign when things in 2020 aren’t feeling so hot either.  It’s disappointingly acted and while Australian films are often produced to handsome results, aside from a few nice visuals it’s by and large a cheap looking show that doesn’t earn any points for originality.  There’s far better options for you in the VOD world right now and 2067 is an easily skippable one.

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.